Although reality is very complex and the human brain prefers simplicity, reality is far more wonderful than simple stories can ever be.
When Isaac Newton explained the optics behind the phenomenon of the rainbow, the poet John Keats was troubled by the habit of science to walk in and show how things worked instead of being content to gawp uncomprehendingly or being satisfied with banal fairytales.
Keats wrote his poem Lamia to express his discomfort and within it are the lines:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine —
Unweave a rainbow
(For Keats the word “philosophy” did not carry its current sense of an isolated and overly-abstract discipline but rather it meant what we today call “science.”)
Bottom line: for Keats, understanding something was to rob it of its magic.
Yet it is difficult to agree with this viewpoint. Certainly a rainbow is a beautiful thing, but is it not even more beautiful when we understand how it arises from the prismatic effect of millions of tiny water droplets falling between our eye and photons escaping from the surface of our sun some twelve minutes ago, after having spent one hundred thousand years laboriously climbing from their original point of creation deep within the hydrogen-burning core?
In all the various human myths of gods and goblins there is nothing so beautiful as the understanding we’ve gained since the scientific revolution. In the last two hundred years our intellectual world has changed and expanded beyond all recognition. It turns out that reality is far more complex and subtle than we could ever have imagined; conversely all the myths we’ve invented over the millennia have a tedious and rather claustrophobic similarity. Which is not surprising because they were all products of ignorance.
Trite tales of mummy and daddy gods stand no comparison to the indifferent majesty of the ever-expanding cosmos. We now understand how the stars shine. We know we’re in one galaxy among hundreds of billions. We are very close now to understanding how life gets started and why it may in fact be inevitable in this type of universe. We understand a great deal about the fundamental nature of the things we consist of.
There is a great beauty in physics, in mathematics, and in cosmology. Understanding a phenomenon increases our aesthetic appreciation of it even as it makes us want to understand yet more.
By way of analogy, we can listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and enjoy it, but we enjoy it infinitely more when we know it was originally intended to be his Fourth Symphony and is built upon a “game of fours.” Knowing the game, we listen more intently and we hear more nuance. We get closer to the mind and the intention of the composer.
Knowledge, understanding, and a willingness to engage with complexity yields rewards far beyond any we can get from standing uncomprehendingly as life unfolds itself before us.
Unfortunately our ape-brains are hardwired by evolution to prefer simplicity. This is because for nearly all of our evolutionary history, calories were scarce and uncertain. Our chances of survival were far greater if we did as little thinking as possible and thereby saved precious calories for running away from predators and going off to look for food. We learned to accept assertions from nominal authority figures rather than try to reason things out for ourselves. We learned by copying, not by experimenting.
That’s why, for nearly 200,000 years, very little changed. A human born 150,000 years ago and magically transported forward 75,000 years would notice very little difference. Today we are accustomed to rapid technological development but for 98% of human history stasis was the norm. Our brains are hardwired for stasis. And that leads us into many sorts of problems.
Our hardwired desire for simplicity means we are easy prey for those feeding us sound-bites and simple-minded memes. Very few people have the requisite curiosity to dig a little deeper and check to see whether the sound-bite has any validity. Indeed, the most successful sound-bites and memes are so simple as to be devoid of substance. Thus they can float effortlessly into people’s minds and thereafter be immune to removal.
When the moronic orange creature Trump blusters about “making America great again,” what does that mean? Anything and therefore nothing. When cynical Brexiteers bluster about “getting our sovereignty back” what does that mean? Anything and nothing. The slogans are infantile, meaningless, pathetic in their total lack of substance — and therefore so easily adopted that tens of millions uncritically embrace them.
On a less catastrophic scale, how many people have been persuaded that vaccines cause autism merely because they read it in a glossy magazine or on an Internet blog? How many are pursuing diets that are metabolically harmful merely because these diets are transiently fashionable, having been promoted in a trash book and repeated in glossy magazines and Internet blogs? The list is endless.
And down at the low-IQ end of our species, how many people prefer to cling to infantile ideas like “intelligent design” because this is so much easier than attempting to understand even the basics of evolution? How many people become obsessed with childish conspiracy theories about condensation trails and 9/11 because these ideas are so much easier to embrace than trying to grapple with facts?
Even intelligent people who like to keep up-to-date with scientific discoveries are often trounced by the brain’s desire for a simple story. We talk about the planets orbiting the sun but in fact the sun and the planets all orbit around the center of mass for the solar system as a whole. Sure, the sun’s orbit is small in comparison to the orbits of the planets, but it’s an important albeit subtle difference to the “static sun” model.
Recently CERN’s validation of the Higgs boson led to countless articles about how this is what gives all particles (except gauge bosons like the photon) their mass. Except it doesn’t. Most of the mass of particles is accounted for by the non-rest energy of the quarks and gluons inside the protons and neutrons that comprise nearly all of what we call matter. But your typical headline says otherwise and most people lack both the curiosity and the specialist knowledge to discover that this so-called “fact” is 99% spurious.
At this point it’s reasonable to ask: “So what?”
So what if most people believe things that aren’t accurate? So what if people prefer simple over complex? So what if parroting empty phrases like “fake news” or “OK boomer” comprises the intellectual substance of many people’s lives?
Well, I think it matters for two reasons. The first is pragmatic: if we don’t understand reality, our choices and our actions are unlikely to result in the desired outcomes. By way of analogy, if we’re driving an automobile and are convinced that the right-most pedal is the one we press when we want to stop, we’re probably going to have a quite a surprise. Trump voters, Brexit voters, anti-vaxxers, and intelligent designers all have big shocks coming to them sooner or later.
The second reason is more personal: reality is infinitely more beautiful and interesting than simplistic fairytales. No myth ever created by humans has even a tiny fraction of the power and beauty of what we’ve discovered as we’ve delved into the nature of reality.
Who would have imagined that a drop of water could contain thousands of tiny living creatures? Who would have imagined that we live in an expanding universe filled with billions of galaxies? Who could have conceived of the fact that although our senses tell us we’re solid, we and all other things made of matter are in fact almost entirely empty space?
There has been such a wealth of knowledge amassed over the last two hundred years that it constitutes an extraordinary “symphony for the mind.”
Doesn’t it seem a bit sad to be given the astonishing but oh-so-brief gift of life and then squander it by gawping uncomprehendingly, being content with third-rate ideas, and missing out on the hard-won discoveries that transform us from being dumb beasts into being the first species on this planet that has looked around itself and begun to truly comprehend?
So let’s all take time away from our canned entertainments and misleading headlines and soundbites and Internet memes. Let’s use the time instead to learn in more depth about something that interests us. Let’s read widely rather than depending on a single source. Let’s acquire the intellectual skills necessary to sift assertion from empirically demonstrated fact.
Let’s enjoy the feast of knowledge that others have prepared for us. Because perhaps then we can not only arrive at slightly better decisions about things that matter to us, but we can also have a huge amount of fun and intellectual satisfaction.