Joy in the Merely Real

…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.
—John Keats, Lamia

“Noth­ing is ‘mere’.”
—Richard Feyn­man

You’ve got to ad­mire that phrase, “dull cat­a­logue of com­mon things”. What is it, ex­actly, that goes in this cat­a­logue? Be­sides rain­bows, that is?

Why, things that are mun­dane, of course. Things that are nor­mal; things that are un­mag­i­cal; things that are known, or know­able; things that play by the rules (or that play by any rules, which makes them bor­ing); things that are part of the or­di­nary uni­verse; things that are, in a word, real.

Now that’s what I call set­ting your­self up for a fall.

At that rate, sooner or later you’re go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed in ev­ery­thing—ei­ther it will turn out not to ex­ist, or even worse, it will turn out to be real.

If we can­not take joy in things that are merely real, our lives will always be empty.

For what sin are rain­bows de­moted to the dull cat­a­logue of com­mon things? For the sin of hav­ing a sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion. “We know her woof, her tex­ture”, says Keats—an in­ter­est­ing use of the word “we”, be­cause I sus­pect that Keats didn’t know the ex­pla­na­tion him­self. I sus­pect that just be­ing told that some­one else knew was too much for him to take. I sus­pect that just the no­tion of rain­bows be­ing sci­en­tifi­cally ex­pli­ca­ble in prin­ci­ple would have been too much to take. And if Keats didn’t think like that, well, I know plenty of peo­ple who do.

I have already re­marked that noth­ing is in­her­ently mys­te­ri­ous—noth­ing that ac­tu­ally ex­ists, that is. If I am ig­no­rant about a phe­nomenon, that is a fact about my state of mind, not a fact about the phe­nomenon; to wor­ship a phe­nomenon be­cause it seems so won­der­fully mys­te­ri­ous, is to wor­ship your own ig­no­rance; a blank map does not cor­re­spond to a blank ter­ri­tory, it is just some­where we haven’t vis­ited yet, etc. etc...

Which is to say that ev­ery­thing—ev­ery­thing that ac­tu­ally ex­ists—is li­able to end up in “the dull cat­a­logue of com­mon things”, sooner or later.

Your choice is ei­ther:

  • De­cide that things are al­lowed to be un­mag­i­cal, know­able, sci­en­tifi­cally ex­pli­ca­ble, in a word, real, and yet still worth car­ing about;

  • Or go about the rest of your life suffer­ing from ex­is­ten­tial en­nui that is un­re­solv­able.

(Self-de­cep­tion might be an op­tion for oth­ers, but not for you.)

This puts quite a differ­ent com­plex­ion on the bizarre habit in­dulged by those strange folk called sci­en­tists, wherein they sud­denly be­come fas­ci­nated by pocket lint or bird drop­pings or rain­bows, or some other or­di­nary thing which world-weary and so­phis­ti­cated folk would never give a sec­ond glance.

You might say that sci­en­tists—at least some sci­en­tists—are those folk who are in prin­ci­ple ca­pa­ble of en­joy­ing life in the real uni­verse.