–by Paul Fleischman (Aug 17, 2017)
I decided to write this book after asking myself two questions: What is the most valuable contribution that I can make to the fraught world? And, what do I want to spend my last years, months, days or hours thinking about, feeling, and doing? To both of these the answer was wonder.
The topic that I find most urgent and interesting is the relationship between myself and the world, between the visions of cosmology, molecular biology, the evolution of life, and my mind. Some people search for their identity in ethnicity or gender. I wanted to locate myself as I am, in the context of M3l, the “nearby” spiral galaxy pinwheeling fifteen quintillion miles away; and in the context of the short arm of chromosome 15, which silently formats me from within on the basis of its four billion-year-old chemical memory.
This exploration of wonder has four sources.
First. there is literature, poets like Whitman, Neruda, Keats, Dylan Thomas, and many others, who can evoke our wonder by describing theirs. We are not alone in our wonder, and have many friends and advisors, as well as some challenging mentors. […]
Second, there are the discoveries of science, which describe the world with the depth of genius compounded over centuries. Science is particularly revealing when it sweeps across disciplines to describe the whole. The movement of thought from our tiny interior cells out to cosmological origins and edges becomes numinous. Inside our cells are particles whose numbers and transformations echo galaxies and reveal something cosmological in miniature. The nature of life that molecular and cell biology can reveal to us (when these subjects are freed from memorizations and exams) is a glorious tapestry of our deep identity.
Third, there are the ideas of science, not its facts but its great concepts of cause, mutual influence, how the world is connected and held together. Our wonder at the world springs up from every bee and flower, the panorama of life, and also from its interconnections, which we now have a science to reveal as never before. We are embedded within creative creation. We ourselves are new forms of emergence. Our home among the stars is lawful yet not predictable, impersonal but not guided. Just as good citizens delight in benign laws, we are struck with wonder by the format of the Cosmos.
The fourth source for this exploration of wonder is meditation on the arising and passing of the particles in my own body. This book partly derives from my lifelong, practiced awareness that every thing is an original impermanent compound of disappearingly smaller parts. Everything is built and dissolves instantaneously in continuity. For the pervasiveness of this recognition, I am indebted to meditation as taught by the Buddha, but this book is neither about meditation nor Buddhism, nor am I a Buddhist, any more than the fact that I count on gravity to keep my feet on Earth makes me a “Newtonist”. Meditation is cultivated awareness within oneself of change according to cause, and it has prepared me to witness the wonder of the working of the world. Yet this book is not limited to the legacy of meditation, and could not have been written Without the scientists and writers whose work has formed the basis for the text to leap from internal experience into language and concepts.
To write about wonder, I have used sources from literature, science and meditation, but I have also been lucky. Wonder is more accessible to people who have been freed from superstition and coercion. Th¢ open-mindedness and partly-off-balance stance of wonder can feel intolerable to good but frightened people. Wonder emerges from a certain degree of confidence coupled to a kind of unknowing, and it is blackened out of existence by anxious entrenchment or conviction. I have been lucky to be granted intellectual opportunity in a relatively secure time.
By dwelling on wonder for so long, I hope I have added to the world and to myself a touch of liberation. Wonder is, among other things, a wand to dispel ignorance and appropriation. I remain inspired by the hope that truth will make us free.
Finally, it should be clear that I am not proposing wonder as vapid gapping. A wonder-drenched life is not denial of war, poverty or the stampede of collective human ignorance. The ability to feel wonder is a blessing received by someone whose ancestors and contemporaries struggled to throw off penury, ideology and the pressure of the herd. I feel not only indebted and lucky, but grateful to the great phalanx of sheroes and heroes, known and unknown, who pried open the door for me: writers, scientists, politicians, soldiers, immigrants, lawyers, protestors, contemplatives and lovers.
If I contribute to a wider attunement to wonder, I hope this will also facilitate in its own way the reduction of violence directed at people and other lives. Who would destroy a breathing source of one’s own wonder? I hope to bring into words a recognition that every white pine is a semaphore waving from the origin of time. Inside its tall trunk are atoms and laws much older than the Earth. Wonder and reverence are the royal marriage.
Just before I go to sleep and when I wake up at 5:00 AM, I try to catch a glimpse, through my well-positioned bedroom window, of stars which are unimaginably distant lights among which we sail without anchoring reference. An absurd and dismaying logic locates us within a universe of galaxies, black holes, and quasars, billions of trillions of miles wide.
Out of the immeasurable cosmic vaults of the universe, matter, energy, and information have converged to orchestrate us.
All of the massive evidence of the great twentieth century points towards nothing that resembles a person guiding the universe, and reveals equally forcefully that somewhere in its deep pulsations the world has directive. There are rules that act like barriers, currents, and channels that say “yes,” “no,” “maybe, “sometimes,” “never,” or “later” to the flow of events. There are signals by which everything to some degree has had limits set on what it must or cannot do. Something has touched and placed each one of the octillions of atoms that currently reside in me, and that have been guided there during a long cosmic dream. Order, loose patterns, and varied melodies have put in place the pieces out of whose coherence each one of us arises.
Weaving among the governors of the world like gravity, electromagnetism, or informatic constraint, among the stitches holding the seams of the universe, I believe, are threads of mind and wonder.
More than any idea, it is the irreducible complexity and incomprehensible presence of our long-woven awakening on our green Earth among cobalt galaxies, that impregnates us with wonder.
–Paul Fleischman from the preface of his book Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. [Photograph from the Astronomy Picture Of the Day (APOD)]