Saturday, December 30, 2006

Life's Little Mysteries

Mysteries usually aren't that mysterious. The history of science and technology proves that every marvel of nature we examine has a natural explanation. From why we experience alternating days and nights (obviously at this time of year, the lack of sunlight is an important part of living in the north country, as is seasonal affective disorder) to why some people experience debilitating bouts of depression, we find that application of ingenuity, study, and engineering know-how usually results in better understanding of phenomena that originally appear to be totally mysterious.

At the dawn of human civilization, night and day became more than just part of our existence. They became targets of applied reasoning. Unlike most animals (as far as we know), the human brain is structured and has evolved so that the most mundane aspects of experience eventually elicit a question of "how does that work?" Why is daytime followed by nighttime? The question is usually then followed by a sense of awe. "This really is amazing. Something which we take for granted is actually totally mysterious!"

But eventually that sense of awe prompts a more investigative frame of mind. "I wonder how that really works?" Then the hypotheses and guesses start accumulating wildly. Maybe the sun and daylight are actually a great god riding a chariot.

Then, slightly more naturalistic explanations start creeping in, although gods and goddesses usually linger in the imagination as evidence of the human need for mystery and awe. Perhaps the sun is just a ball of fire created in the firmament and rotates around the earth (the assumption of most biblical accounts). Eventually, as the impulse to understand continues and human observation is enhanced by mathematics and technology, the need to refer to divine intervention disappears. Daylight is merely exposure to the sun which occurs because the earth rotates every twenty-four hours. The seasons are merely aspects of the earth's orbit around the sun and the tilt of the earth's axis. No need to bring god into the equation.

One thing that has struck me recently, though, is that the lingering of the mysterious doesn't always involve gods and goddesses. It is sometimes found merely by invoking the human mind. Depression, for instance, is often still considered a problem of fortitude and incorrect thinking - in other words, a failure on the part of an individual to think right thoughts. The implicit judgement is often that if one would just adjust one's thinking, the depression would disappear.

The assumption appears to be that if a great god is not needed for a satisfactory explanation, perhaps all we need to do is assert the activity of the little god - ourselves. We are responsible for our moods and feelings, for creating them ex nihilo, and should therefore merely be admonished when overwhelmed by feelings of depression. After all, as little deities, we merely have to change our minds and the symptoms will vanish.

But then science and technology appear again and beat back life's little mysteries and the little gods who are responsible for them. Seasonal affective disorder indicates that sunlight can have a direct causal relationship with our moods. Or deep brain stimulation indicates that some forms of depression are caused by some kind of electrical misfiring of neurons in the brain.

Does this mean I have no use for mysteries or for human responsibility? Not at all. Merely that a sense of awe, no matter how valuable the emotional experience, is just one step in the process of human reasoning. So, too, it appears that facile attributions of human responsibility should not interfere with exploration for more natural causes in the physical world.

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