Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Learning and yearning
This photograph of the Eagle Nebula made by a rather modest telescope -- the 0.9 meter instrument at Kitt Peak, Arizona -- appeared on APOD yesterday (click to enlarge). I sat in front of the computer screen for ten minutes, breathless. One tiny corner of the Milky Way Galaxy, one of tens of billions of galaxies that we can potentially see with our telescopes! At the center are the so-called "Pillars of Creation" from a famous Hubble photograph.
I recall when the Hubble photograph appeared in the media hundreds of viewers claimed to see the face of Jesus in the billowing clouds. Which prompted these observations from Skeptics and True Believers:
In an article on the psychological basis of belief, the psychologist James Alcock proposed that two aspects of the human brain might be called the "yearning unit" and the "learning unit." He probably didn't mean these terms to be taken literally, as referring to separate compartments of the brain, but yearning and learning are certainly central to the way we interact with the world. It is hard to imagine how we can be fully human without a little of each. Finding the proper balance between the two is a task that can keep us occupied for most of our lives.
We yearn when we dream of fulfillment, of greater happiness, of knowing more. We yearn when we love, when we laugh, when we cry, when we pray. Yearning is wondering what is around the next bend, over the rainbow, beyond the horizon. Yearning is curiosity. Yearning is the driving force of science, philosophy, and religion.
Learning is listening to parents, wise men, shamans. Learning is reading, going to school, traveling, doing experiments, being skeptical. Learning is looking behind the curtain for the Wizard of Oz, touching the stove to see if it's hot, not taking anyone's word for it. In science, learning means trying as hard to prove that something is wrong as to prove it right, even if that something is a cherished belief.
Yearning without learning is seeing Elvis in a crowd, the fossilized footprints of humans and dinosaurs together in ancient rocks, weeping statues. Yearning without learning is buying tabloid newspapers with headlines announcing "Newborn baby talks of Heaven" and the like. Yearning without learning is looking for UFOs in the sky and the meaning of life in horoscopes.
Learning without yearning is pedantry, scientism, dogmatic belief. Learning without yearning is believing that we know it all, that what we see is what we get, that nothing exists except what can be presently weighed and measured. Learning without yearning is science without a heart, without a dream, without a hope of beauty.
Yearning without learning is seeing the face of Jesus in a gassy nebula. Learning without yearning is seeing only the gas.