Behind The Mask ~ THE DAWN OF WONDER

Ignorance is good, if we know it, because it then provides the basis, the material, to learn from, and discovering something that we have not known before is usually exciting and accompanied by joy. Not to know that we are ignorant—and we are ignorant, so damned ignorant!—deprives us of the possibility of learning or discovering the things that we are ignorant of or don’t know. What we already know we can’t learn; we can learn only things that we don’t know, and as there is so much that we don’t know, the field of learning is inconceivably vast, and consequently, the joy of discovery awaits us all in incalculable amounts.

While recently re-reading Fritjof Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics, (I last read it in 1978 and it must surely be expected that my mind has opened a bit more since then), I came upon a passage about the space in an atom, how atoms are composed more of space—that is, what is not there—than what is there: the nucleus and the electrons that whirl around it. I would like to quote the passage here so that I won’t get it wrong by putting it into my own words:

"Far from being the hard and solid particles they were believed to be since antiquity, atoms turned out to consist of vast regions of space in which extremely-small particles—the electrons—moved around the nucleus, bound to it by electrical forces. It is not easy to get a feeling for the order of magnitude of atoms, so far is it removed from our macroscopic scale. The diameter of an atom is about one hundred-millionth of a centimeter. In order to visualize this diminutive size, imagine an orange blown up to the size of the Earth. The atoms of the orange would then be the size of cherries; myriads of cherries, tightly packed into a globe the size of the Earth—that’s a magnified picture of the atoms in an orange.

"An atom, therefore, is extremely small compared to macroscopic objects, but it is huge compared to the nucleus in its center. In our picture of cherry-sized atoms, the nucleus of an atom will be so small that we will not be able to see it. If we blew up the atom to the size of a football, or even to room-size, the nucleus would still be too small to be seen by the naked eye. To see the nucleus, we would have to blow up the atom to the size of the biggest dome in the world, the dome of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. In an atom of that size, the nucleus would have the size of a grain of salt! A grain of salt in the middle of the dome of St Peter’s, and specks of dust whirling around it in the vast space of the dome—this is how we can picture the nucleus and electrons of an atom".

So, why have I written about atoms here when I started out talking about ignorance? What have atoms got to do with our spiritual lives? Quite a lot, actually; in fact, everything being interconnected, there is nothing that does not touch and affect us in some way or another. Apart from us being made up, physically, of atoms, the illustration above serves to show how much we do and do not know, how great is our ignorance. What we know might be compared to the atom’s nucleus or the grain of salt, while our ignorance, or what we don’t know, might be compared to the atom’s space or the dome of St Peter’s. Terrifying, isn’t it? But it is also very exciting, as it means there is so much ahead of us to discover. Thus, ignorance, in one way, might be regarded as an asset, or undeveloped resources, something like iron-ore in the ground: if there is a lot of ore, much steel might be made from it! Of course, we cannot measure ignorance in the same way we can measure atoms and their components; moreover, there are different degrees of ignorance. But a little bit of hyperbole can sometimes be useful in striking us and causing us to think; it is often used in the Buddhist (and other) scriptures.

I discovered the following passage among my notes, taken from The Tangled Wing, by Melvin Konner. It says what I feel, and I am going to reproduce it here, with this comment:

We seem to have largely lost our sense of wonder—that is, our ability to marvel at things—if we ever had it or were aware of it to begin with. This applies especially to children today, who have a superabundance—a gross superfluity—of means of entertainment in the form of electronic gadgetry, which robs them of the ability and need to entertain themselves, and inculcates in them a drug-like dependence; ever more and more stimulation is required to maintain the ‘high’. It is, in my opinion, a loss rather than a gain, though having known nothing else, many young people probably would not agree with me.

"The dinosaurs ruled this planet for over a hundred million years, at least a hundred times longer than the brief, awkward tenure of human creatures, and they are gone almost without a trace, leaving nothing but crushed bone as a memento. We can do the same more easily and in an ecological sense, we would be missed even less. What’s the difference? seems an inevitable question, and the best answer I can think of is that we know, we are capable of seeing what is happening. We are the only creatures that understand evolution, that, conceivably, can alter its very course. It would be too base of us to simply relinquish this possibility through pride, or ignorance, or laziness.

"It seems to me that we are losing the sense of wonder, the hallmark of our species and the central feature of the human spirit. Perhaps this is due to the depredations of science and technology against the arts and the humanities, but I doubt it—although this is certainly something to be concerned about. I suspect it is simply that the human spirit is insufficiently developed at this moment in evolution, much like the wing of archaeopteryx. Whether we can free it for further development will depend, I think, on the full reinstatement of the sense of wonder. It must be reinstated in relation not only to the natural world but to the human world as well. At the conclusion of all our studies we must try once again to experience the human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bio-electricity; the human will as will, and not just as a surge of hormones; the human heart not just as a fibrous, sticky pump, but as the metaphoric organ of understanding. We need not believe in them as metaphysical entities—they are as real as the flesh and blood they are made of. But we must believe in them as entities; not as analyzed fragments but as wholes made real by our contemplation of them, by the words we use to talk of them, by the way we have transmuted them to speech. We must stand in awe of them as unassailable, even though they are dissected before our eyes.

"As for the natural world, we must try to restore wonder there too. We could start with the photograph of the Earth; it may be our last chance. Even now it is being used in geography lessons, taken for granted by small children. We are the first generation to have seen it, the last generation not to take it for granted. Will we remember what it meant to us? How fine the Earth looked, dangling in Space? How pretty against the endless black? How round? How very breakable? How small? It is up to us to try to experience a sense of wonder about it that will save it before it’s too late. If we cannot, we may do the final damage in our lifetimes. If we can, we may change the course of history and, consequently, the course of evolution, setting the human lineage firmly on a path towards a new evolutionary plateau.

"We must choose, and choose soon, either for or against the further evolution of the human spirit. It is for us, in the generation that turns the corner of the millennium, to apply whatever knowledge we have, in all humility but with all due speed, and try to learn more as quickly as possible. It is for us, much more than for any previous generation, to become serious about the human future, and to make choices that will be weighed not in a decade or a century but in the balances of geological time. It is for us, with all our stumbling, and in the midst of our dreadful confusion, to try to disengage the tangled wing".

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