Mar 022015

‘Ok, I get it (sort of). But what I really mean is: Who cares?

Which of course is a curt rendering of the second solution to thaumazein. In Baloo‘s immortal words: Forget about your worries and your strife.

This is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. After evolving into the only animal species able to ask Why, humans have been adopting thousand versions of the first solution to Leibniz’s question as the only obvious, unquestionable possibility. Over time, we have grown ever more curious – from Latin cura, meaning care, concern, trouble – and eager to know: we want to remove our cares and be se-cure, free from the trouble of the unknown. But even as our why-chains unfolded into more satisfactory local explanations, the ultimate answer remained a foregone conclusion, varying wildly in form according to location and upbringing, but not much in substance.

Questioning the obviousness of the first solution has always been, and still is, an unpopular concern. Leibniz’s question is better known in one of its woolly, anthropocentric versions: What on Earth Am I Here For? What is the purpose of life? Where do we come from and where are we going? Leibniz’s own answer continues to be, as it has always been, widely shared. At the same time, however, longer why-chains have been steadily pushing it away from the foreground of everyday life. As we keep deferring the ultimate answer, the need to have one has become, over time, less and less compelling. As Laplace – according to a famous but apparently apocryphal tale – told Napoleon, who had asked him why his Mécanique Céleste never mentioned God: Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. Local explanations are all we need to know the world and lead in it a fruitful and meaningful life. So much for the ultimate answer: after all, who cares?

The second solution is not an alternative to the first. Most people share both. Dumb fringes aside, there is no longer a place in our lives for supernatural explanations. This is indeed mankind’s greatest conquest: the emancipation of evidence from the shackles of dogma. But the second solution does not really solve thaumazein: it just dissolves it. It doesn’t even say there is no solution – only that we don’t need one. As Baloo eloquently put it:

Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found
When you find out you can live without it and go along not thinkin’ about it
I’ll tell you something true – the bare necessities of life will come to you.

Not long ago in the span of human history, Baloo would have been proscribed as a treacherous infidel. Today, to a greater or lesser degree, we are all Baloos. This doesn’t mean we no longer believe in Leibniz’s ultimate answer. In fact, most people profess a more or less authentic faith in a supernatural entity. But, knowingly or not, it is a highly personal faith, founded on Wittgenstein’s ‘mystical feeling’, rather than a certainty based on evidence.

Mankind’s progress rests on our comfort with uncertainty. We are curious, we do want to know, we dislike uncertainty. But we have learned to live with it – and to do so irrespective of our views on Leibniz’s question. If we agree with Leibniz, we already know the ultimate answer. If, like me, we don’t, we have no idea. In fact, we don’t even have an idea of what an ultimate answer may look like, or of whether there is one at all. We just don’t know: there is no evidence either way. That’s why my belief that there is an ultimate answer is a faith. Unlike Leibniz’s, it is not based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason, but on two different priors: a sense that explanations cannot go on forever and my perhaps irrational trust in the power of Why.

Leibniz’s answer makes no sense to me, but his question – even its woolly versions – resonate in me with a force that I can dampen but not extinguish. It is part of being human: no one, in his right mind, is impassive to thaumazein. Everyone cares.

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