In the title of this post I have summarized the path of humanity to our final extinction as a species on planet Earth. It won’t be for a lack of convictions that our self-destruction comes, but rather due to an incapacity for wonder.
I might also have titled this post “An Apology for Wonder,” where apology is not a confession of guilt with an implied petition for forgiveness, but a reasoned argument in defense of something. But then again, what I would be attempting to defend is my belief in the important place of wonder in the mind’s engagement with reality – which in a sense commits the fatal mistake I’m hoping to expose here.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand what I’m getting at is to look at your own life and take it as recapitulating the longer course of human history, in the progress and setbacks you’ve had along the way.
The embodied mind of human intelligence evolved for the purpose of facilitating your engagement with reality – with what’s really there and really real, translated as quickly as necessary into behavior that is relevant to what’s going on and adaptive in helping you manage the situations of life. This engagement is processed through a series of steps, or modes, from initial sense perceptions, through a web of mental associations, and finally to the conclusion that motivates (and to you as actor, justifies) a behavioral – or at least a physiological – response.
Considered as a process, even as an algorithm or linear sequence of steps, your mind’s engagement with reality can be understood as open to reality at the beginning and gradually closing upon its constructed beliefs about what’s going on, what it means, and what’s coming next.
When you think about it, a belief about anything is really a conclusion held by your mind, on its own or in agreement with other minds.
It’s important to know that you didn’t begin your life with beliefs about reality already fully formed in your mind. They would come with time and experience, under the tutelage of your tribe, but also only as you acquired the codes, symbols, and logical operations of language. As a construct of language, a belief is a propositional conclusion whose articulation in thought requires and depends on the tools of language.
Before language, then, your mind’s primary engagement with reality was that of wonder – an “open-minded” orientation to what is really there and really real. Such openness to reality has been vitally important to our survival and adaptation as a species, ensuring that our responses in behavior and physiology were “successful” in meeting the challenges, threats, and opportunities life brought our way.
Your mind’s attitude of wonder should not be dismissed as a gaze of baffled enchantment at things whose meaning is beyond you or “over your head.” As the Jewish mystical philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel insisted, wonder is a legitimate category of epistemology. It is your mind’s primary mode of engagement with reality, both in the sense of coming first chronologically and in the way it continues to play a key role in your construction of meaning.
The Greek philosopher Plato also claimed that wisdom begins in wonder – and must never abandon it.
But here’s the problem: We do abandon wonder and its open-minded engagement with reality. The reasons for this are legion, but the main thread can be traced in the mind’s gradual – and we must acknowledge, culturally instructed – withdrawal from a spontaneous and imaginative fascination with what’s going on, into an ever-stronger emotional commitment to our conclusions.
In one sense, this progression (or recession from the position of wonder) toward a set of beliefs that serves to orient us in society, secure our membership, identify us to one another, and make our lives meaningful is a sign of intellectual maturity. When it entails (or requires) an abandonment of wonder, however, the consequence is that our beliefs degenerate into convictions – by which I don’t merely mean stronger beliefs, but beliefs so strong, so fixed and rigid, so absolute in their certainty, that contact with reality is not only no longer necessary but passionately resisted.
Removing your mind from reality and enclosing it inside essentially windowless boxes of belief, where simply confessing them over and over again makes them feel more certain and true, does indeed convey some therapeutic relief from having to engage with what’s really going on around you.
As you were growing up, the world became increasingly complicated and confusing in its diversity. To help you manage, your family and society – with your full if not fully conscious agreement, it must be said – got to work contructing these boxes of belief. Whatever didn’t fit into a box was left out as not important, or else modified and resized so it would fit. And anything in reality that didn’t have a corresponding box was simply ignored and eventually forgotten.
If the anxiety over what you couldn’t control, contain, comprehend, or keep at a distance was severe enough, you hid inside your box and pulled down the lid. Beliefs that would normally provide a perspective on reality ended up as convictions separating you from it. And just like a convict in his cell, your mind became a prisoner of its convictions.
From then on, your attitudes and behavior would be determined by conclusions that lacked a reality orientation, which is to say they were neither very realistic nor relevant. And depending on how early in your emotional development they got set, your present convictions are neither rational, reasonable, nor responsible – by way of taking responsibility – for the behavior they produce.
Just look at all the damage and death that convicted believers in one thing or another have caused throughout human history and around the world. It’s still going on, as the population grows and our perceived (better, imagined) threats multiply around us.
Now, I need to say that in using you as a scale model for diagnosing our current predicament as a species, I do not assume that you are in fact a hostage of your convictions. Nevertheless, you do have some convictions, and so do I. Some of our beliefs – about ourselves, about others, about the world around us, about god and government – keep us out of touch with reality. More to the point, they were fashioned precisely for this purpose.
And to that extent, our convictions are a dangerous force – I would argue the most dangerous force on planet Earth, in the way they shut down wonder, separate us from what’s really real, estrange us from one another, and asphyxiate our souls.