Descartes said that the purpose of wonderment is “to enable us to learn and retain in our memory things of which we were formerly unaware.
Wonder is, no pun intended, a wonderful emotion, and it's one we can feel toward a wide variety of phenomena, from the stars above us to the beauty of nature all around us, not to mention the artistic feats that humans are capable of. And it’s not just big things: watching a hummingbird in your garden, hearing a beautiful guitar solo, or feeling sand under your feet at the beach—those things can fill you with wonder too.
Of course, not all experiences of awe are cheerful. "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me," said Blaise Pascal. Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by all the things we don’t understand. But in many cases, such experiences are often inspiring, and even comforting: according to Rachel Carson, "if you have a sense of wonder, you’re never really alone." And they motivate us to get curious about the world. As Plato’s Socrates famously puts it in the Theaetetus, “Wonder is the origin of philosophy.”
It's true that curiosity can lead us astray. When one of the hosts was 14, they had a friend with a ouija board. It seemed pretty mysterious and filled them both with wonder, prompting them to read a whole bunch of books about ghosts and spirits—not exactly a study in truth and knowledge. Still, maybe we could defend even the ouija board experience by saying it kept the two friends' minds open to new possibilities.
Not all strange things turn out to be true—but some do, and it’s good to be on the lookout for when that happens. Black holes are pretty weird. So is dark matter. So is quantum entanglement. And don't get us started on the fact that the universe had a beginning—or didn’t have a beginning! The universe is a wild and wacky place, and wonder can fill us with respect for that wildness and wackiness.
But does that make it sound as though wonder has to have a point? Whether or not it fills us with respect, keeps us open to new possibilities, or sets us on the path to knowledge—can't we just enjoy the ride?
Perhaps we'd want to say we can do both. Think about disappearing into an experience of wonder, letting the time drift away while staring at a Rothko painting... then, once you're done staring, heading over to the library to check out some art history books. But there's still a real worry here. Proust's narrator describes the experience of falling madly in love with a piece of music, then playing it over and over until its workings become clear: "often," he says, "there was for me one piece of music the less in the world, perhaps, but one truth the more." Yikes. Do we really want to trade in all of our aesthetic awe for mere knowledge?
Hopefully our guest will be able to set our minds at ease. It’s Helen De Cruz, author of the forthcomig book, Wonderstruck: How Wonder and Awe Shape the Way We Think.