Where's Your Sense of Mystery?

by Scott Alexander 5 min read26th Apr 200955 comments


Related to: Joy in the Merely Real, How An Algorithm Feels From Inside, "Science" As Curiosity-Stopper

Your friend tells you that a certain rock formation on Mars looks a lot like a pyramid, and that maybe it was built by aliens in the distant past. You scoff, and respond that a lot of geological processes can produce regular-looking rocks, and in all the other cases like this closer investigation has revealed the rocks to be completely natural. You think this whole conversation is silly and don't want to waste your time on such nonsense. Your friend scoffs and asks:

"Where's your sense of mystery?"

You respond, as you have been taught to do, that your sense of mystery is exactly where it should be, among all of the real non-flimflam mysteries of science. How exactly does photosynthesis happen, what is the relationship between gravity and quantum theory, what is the source of the perturbations in Neptune's orbit? These are the real mysteries, not some bunkum about aliens. And if we cannot learn to take joy in the merely real, our life will be empty indeed.

But do you really believe it?

I loved the Joy in the Merely Real sequence. But it spoke to me because it's one of the things I have the most trouble with. I am the kind of person who would have much more fun reading about the Martian pyramid than about photosynthesis.

And the one shortcoming of Joy in the Merely Real was that it was entirely normative, and not descriptive. It tells me I should reserve my sense of mystery for real science, but doesn't explain why it's so hard to do so, or why most people never even try.

So what is this sense of mystery thing anyway?

I think the sense of mystery (sense of wonder, curiosity, call it what you want) is how the mind's algorithm for determining what problems to work on feels from the inside. Compare this to lust, how the mind's algorithm for determining what potential mates to pursue feels from the inside. In both cases, the mind makes a decision based on criteria of its own, which is then presented to the consciousness in the form of an emotion. And in both cases, the mind's decision is very often contrary to our best interest - as anyone who's ever fallen for a woman based entirely on her looks can tell you.

What sort of stuff makes us curious? I don't have anything better than introspection to go on, but here are some thoughts:

1. We feel more curious about things that could potentially alter many different beliefs.
2. We feel more curious about things that we feel like we can solve.
3. We feel more curious about things that might give us knowledge other people want but don't have.
4. We feel more curious about things that use the native architecture; that is, the sorts of human-level events and personal interactions our minds evolved to deal with.

So let's go back and consider how the original example - a pyramid on Mars versus photosynthesis - fits each of these criteria:

The pyramid on Mars could alter our worldview completely1. We'd have to rework all of our theories about ancient history, astronomy, the origin of civilization, maybe even religion. Learning exactly how photosynthesis works, on the other hand, probably won't make too big a difference. I assume it probably involves some sort of chemistry that sounds a lot like the other chemistry I know. I anticipate that learning more about photosynthesis wouldn't alter any of my beliefs except those directly involving photosynthesis and maybe some obscure biochemical reactions.

Pseudoscience and pseudohistory feel solveable. When you're reading a good pseudoscience book, it feels like you have all the clues and you just have to put them together. If you don't believe me, Google some pseudoscience. You'll find hundreds of webpages by people who think they've discovered the 'secret'. One person who says the pyramid on Mars was made by Atlanteans, another who says it was made by the Babylonian gods, another who says it was made by God to test our faith. On the other hand, I know I can't figure out photosynthesis without already being an expert in chemistry and biology. There's not that tantalizing sense of "I could be the one to figure this out!"

Knowing about a pyramid on Mars means you know more than other people. Most of humankind doesn't think there are any structures on Mars - the fools! And if you were to figure it out, you'd be...one of the greatest scientists ever. The one who proved the existence of intelligent life on other planets. It'd be great! In comparison, knowing about photosynthesis makes you one of a few thousand boring chemist types who also know about photosynthesis. Even if you're the first person to discover something new about it, the only people likely to care are...a few thousand boring chemist types.

And the pyramid deals in human-level problems: civilizations, monuments, collapse. Photosynthesis is a matter of equations and chemical reactions; much harder for most people.

Evolutionarily, all these criteria make sense. Of course you should spend more time on a problem if you're likely to solve it and the solution will be very important. And when you're a hunter-gatherer, all your problems are going to be on the human level, so you might as well direct your sense of mystery there. But the algorithm is unsuited to modern day science, when interesting discoveries are usually several inferential distances away in highly specialized domains and don't directly relate to the human level at all.

Again, compare this to lust. In the evolutionary era, mating with a woman with wide hips was quite adaptive for a male. Nowadays, with the advent of the Caesarian section, not so much. Nowadays it's probably most important for him to choose a mate whom he can tolerate for more than a few years so he doesn't end up divorced. But the mental algorithms whose result outputs as lust don't know that, so they end up making him weak-kneed for some wide-hipped woman with a terrible personality. This isn't something to feel guilty about. It's just something he needs to be wary of and devote some of his willpower resources toward fighting.

The practical take home advice, for me at least, is to treat curiosity in the same way. For a while, I felt genuinely guilty about my attraction to pseudohistory, as if it was some kind of moral flaw. It's not, no more than feeling lust towards someone you don't like is a moral flaw. They're both just misplaced drives, and all you can do is ignore, sublimate, or redirect them2.

The great thing about lust is that satisfying your unconscious and conscious feelings don't have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes somebody comes around who's both beautiful and the sort of person you want to spend the rest of your life with. Problem solved. Other times, once your conscious mind commits to someone, your unconscious mind eventually starts coming around. These are the only two solutions I've found for the curiosity problem too.

The other practical take home advice here is for anyone whose job is educating others about science. Their job is going to be a lot easier if they can take advantage of this sense of mystery. The best science teachers I know do this. They emphasize the places where science produces counterintuitive, worldview-changing results. They present their information in the form of puzzles just difficult enough for their students to solve with a bit of effort. They try to pique their students interest with tales of the unusual or impressive. And they try to use metaphors to use the native architecture of human minds: talking about search algorithms in terms of water flowing downhill, for example.

I hope that any work that gets done on Less Wrong involving synchronizing conscious and unconscious feelings and fighting akrasia can be applied to this issue too.



1: The brain seems generally bad at dealing with tiny probabilities of huge payoffs. It may be that the payoff measured in size of paradigm shift from any paranormal belief being true is just so high that people aren't very good at discounting for the very small percent chance of it being true.

2: One big question I'm still uncertain about: why do some people, despite it all, find science really interesting? How come this is sometimes true of one science and not others? I have a friend who loves physics and desperately wants to solve its open questions, but whose eyes glaze over every time she hears about biology - what's up with that?