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.