The Strange and The Wondrous

The recent On Being podcast with astrophysicist Martin Reese Cosmic Origami and What We Don't Know had me reflecting on certainty.

Certainty plays an integral role in science, in the arts, in religion (I'm going to ignore politics). To make a sweeping over-generalization (would you expect less from me?), we frail, feeble and fantastic human beings seek certainty with our various modes of inquiry. We want answers to our questions. And yet once we have those answers (or believe we do), we rebel against those answers with everything we've got.

As attractive as certainty is, as much as I'd like to believe that I have the answers to whatever questions you've got, certainty is a fool's errand. Nothing kills creativity, nothing depletes the imagination and nothing extinguishes passion faster than certainty. Think on those folks you've run across, those people who profess to know why this and how that, and note how your attraction to those people first sparked and then sputtered. 

I am no scientist but I'm intoxicated by the scientist who is chasing the high of not knowing; she seeks that plummeting thrill of the evidence not supporting the hypothesis. Or there's the religious person who marvels at the horrors and beauties of the world and tries to rectify his or her faith with an existence that never supports those beliefs in the way she expects. Or there's the artist who never knows what is going to come out the end of his brush no matter how clear the vision is in his head.

I'm intoxicated by the seekers who thrill in what they can't ultimately know. 

For those unfamiliar, the Wyeth family is a family of painters. NC Wyeth was the patriarch who instilled in his children a love for illustration. (NC studied under the great Howard Pyle, and if I'm betraying my Philistine tastes in art so be it - you can take the geek away from his comic books but those comic books leave an indelible impression about what art should be on the geek.) When evaluating each other's work, the best compliment the Wyeth children could pay each other was to say of a painting,

"That is wondrous strange."

The endeavor that fills us with wonder--that state of not knowing--the endeavor that is beguiling, that is mysterious. The endeavor that inspires the questions and propels us to answer those questions--without actually answering them--these are the endeavors we're addicted to. These are the endeavors we need. This is when we're alive. This is when we shine.

How you deal with uncertainty, how you cope with the strange and the wondrous, this is what defines you.