Stung by a Stingray

Part 2 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote most of his reflections – deep, penetrating thoughts, always pushing the limits with his questions, always seeking for an additional degree of precision in his answers – in the form of dialogues; like plays in which the main character would be his beloved teacher, Socrates.

socrates_and_the_socratic_method_by_hotcheeto89-d4hzal6

Socrates and the Socratic Method  — Drawing by hotcheeto89

In one such dialogue, Theaetetus, Socrates is having a discussion with a youth, the very own Theaetetus (my students won’t even try to pronounce his name, so let’s call him Tee). They’re trying to find what is the nature of knowledge, no less. Tee is kind of the ideal student: clever, respectful, curious, and possessing a good sense of himself and his capacities. He’s not afraid to bring forth his own opinions, be contradicted, if it happens, and learn from the whole thing. And he is not interested in what impression he is making on the teachers, whether he’ll look clever or dumb. He is interested in learning about things that, well, have caught his interest.

In his impish manner, Socrates has shown to Tee that it is possible to become taller or shorter, bigger or smaller, without changing in size at all. Compare yourself with someone who has grown a lot. You’re the same size than you were, but you are also shorter!

Quote1

“These puzzles are not new to you, I guess,” Socrates asks.

“No,” Tee replies, “but indeed, it is extraordinary how they set me wondering whatever they can mean. Sometimes I get quite dizzy with thinking of them.”

This reaction, I should here mention, is very telling. You can see young Tee (who is a student of math), trying to solve a problem, realizing he’s missed something, looking at it from a different angle, finding it doesn’t add up, starting yet again, until the whole thing gets mixed up in his head. Yet we don’t get from Tee’s reply the impression that he is frustrated by that. Rather, there is something pleasant and fun about getting dizzy and completely baffled!

* * *

Maybe I can introduce here a first definition for “Wonder.” I would call it an onomatopoeic definition.

“Wonder” is what makes us say: “WHAAAT???”

This is not an angry “What?” It’s a baffled, dumbfounded “What?” Socrates compares it with being stung by a stingray. You feel numb, disoriented.

And this is what Socrates makes of Tee’s reply: “That shows that Theodorus (Tee’s own teacher) was not wrong in his estimate of your nature. This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

These are big words. Up until very recently, at least (until, perhaps, the 1800’s), you could say that this remark by Plato was basically unchallenged. Meaning that everyone who was doing philosophy agreed with this: Philosophy has its origin in this sense of wonder. Let’s look at it in more detail.

There are questions that we ask out of a survival (or more broadly, “practical”) interest: “Where should I go if a tornado struck?” “How can I increase the yield in my crops?”” Does this model come with airbags?” “Do you have homework?”

There are questions that we ask because they help us orient ourselves in the here and now, learn where everyone else is at: “Where’s everybody gone?” “What did you have for dinner?” “What was Hawaii like?” “Who won the game?”

And then there are questions that we ask for no practical reason at all; just because they are baffling, or puzzling, or intriguing.

What is winning

Epic Rap Battles of History got it right. It’s not about who wins!

Sometimes they are kind of silly, but the process of thinking through them is a lot of fun.

And sometimes, they are really BIG questions; questions that make us feel that our grasp on reality is no thicker than a light fabric of theories we’ve spun around our minds. Let’s take gravity, for example.

A: “Isn’t it curious that we seem to be stuck to the ground, when nothing is actually grabbing us?”

B: “Duh! That’s gravity!”

A: “But what is gravity?”

B: “It is… the reason why things are attracted towards the earth.”

A: “So… You’re basically saying that the reason things are attracted towards the earth is that there is something that makes things be attracted towards the earth.”

B: “…”

A: “But how does it work…?”

Now A has punched a hole through the fabric, realizing that gravity is for them no more than a word, put in place of—a placeholder, perhaps, for a real explanation. Now B has two options:

Option 1: Retreat!

“Well, I don’t know myself, but I’m sure scientists know.”

(Which is perhaps not true now, and was certainly not true before Einstein.)

Option 2: Allow  oneself to be baffled.

“Dude, I have no idea…!

Again, it’s both uncomfortable – deeply unsettling, some would say – and exciting. Here is this world we’ve taken for granted, and there’s actually so little we know about it!

This is, according to Plato, and Aristotle, and the bulk of classical philosophers, what originated not just philosophy, but all the sciences (which in the beginning, if you want to know, were all jumbled up under the name “Philosophy”).

Newton

Yep, that’s what Newton’s brilliant work on the laws of motion (and, yes, gravity!) was called: not ‘Physics,’ or ‘Astronomy,’ but the ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’!

And that’s where it all began, philosophy and science: with people that got carried away by these immense questions, and decided to be methodical about it.

<Coming next: Wonder is not just “Whaaat?”, but also “WOW!”>

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