I was talking to a friend during dinner and the conversation drifted over to what I’m guessing is a very busy intersection: how an exact explanation seems to subtract from the beauty of a thing. In short, I disagree. An explanation actually enhances your experience of a thing. There was much that we talked about, but I want to use this post to think about the opposite point and wrestle with it.
Imagine you’re just about to watch the finale of a TV show that you absolutely love. You have the drinks and snacks and friends ready when you get a text from someone who spoils this last episode for you. That is royally aggravating, isn’t it? After reading the text, you watch the episode anyway, hoping that the text was a joke. But unfortunately, it’s accurate.
I hate spoilers and I imagine many others do too. An explanation of what is about to happen is something you definitely don’t want to just read in a text. You want to experience that episode for yourself.
Perhaps this is similar to the experience of hearing an explanation for a mysterious question that you savor. What-if scenarios and wondering about possible plot twists can be quite fun. I imagine hearing a reasonable explanation that clarifies your mystery can feel dissatisfying. “I was having fun imagining all of the fantastic possibilities! Why did you have to go ruin it with that explanation?!”
Here’s another example of this experience. Imagine that you once read about how finklestones are these incredibly mysterious and rare phenomena that have all kinds of ancient folklore about them. They’re known to have an ethereal glow about them, they are said to bring good luck, and they are even known to be an amazing source of alternative medicines. You think that perhaps some of the claims are just myth, but there must be something to these stones. This ancient culture used them all the time so surely they found them to be useful somehow. Maybe the alternative medicine claims are also true… we discover things all the time, and I mean, why couldn’t that also be true? The thing about good luck seems too convenient, but maybe, I don’t know, it enhances your cognition somehow? Maybe the glow that they generate somehow… soothes your thoughts, or makes them quicker? Oh man, just imagine what mysteries these finklestones are hiding…
Hey, it’s fun to fantasize and daydream. It’s also deeply fun to recognize patterns in seemingly random noise… connecting the dots, completing the crossword puzzle, fitting together the last few cards in a house of cards.
The set of things that you can imagine and fantasize about is going to be greater than the set of things that are actually possible, I think. Natural language doesn’t really restrict us from making wild and fantastical assertions. “My chair can turn into a pink giraffe on Tuesdays”. But there is a filter that only lets certain kinds of explanations be true: reality. If you say ‘finklestones are an amazing source of alternative medicines’, and if you then sit down make a list of 10 specific medicinal uses of finklestones that are said to exist, and if you then actually conduct a randomized control trial of finklestones with enough of a sample size and find only one of those uses to actually seem to exist, then reality has filtered down your list of 10 to a list of 1.
Of course, there are degrees of certainty, but you can still make good judgements while living with uncertainty. The length of days is not certain, the distance of the moon from the earth is not certain, the energy-output of the Sun is not certain, but we can still tell time, grow crops, and make extremely good predictions about cosmological events like eclipses.
Perhaps the existence of such a filter on possible ideas is a source of woe. I don’t buy it, though. There are so many fantastical possibilities that are actually real! You can very cheaply talk to anyone regardless of location, you can see basically any movie in your pajamas, and you can go drive an hour in the evening and find a secluded spot and look up and see the starry light of trillions of stars and galaxies.
And getting back to my original claim: an explanation actually enhances your experience of a thing. Imagine hearing a great song for the first time. You are instantly grabbed by the melody. You start listening to it repeatedly, humming along. You’re now looking up the music video and you’re loving the video too. You talk to a friend about it and she tells you about her favorite part of the song, and you share a great conversation about the band. You look up the full lyrics and discover you actually had a word or two wrong and you chuckle at the mistaken meaning. You hear that the band is touring and coming to your city next week! You go to the concert with a friend, keeping an ear out for that song you love. The openers are great, the band shows off some new material and you’re happy, but wait… near the end of their set, everything converges on that song! You’re over the moon. A week later, you hear of this podcast that breaks down songs into their component parts and analyzes them. Wow, you notice so many new things when it’s broken down like that!
This is what reductionism feels like from the inside. You hear the song, but you also experience all of the intricate details that go into the song. You connect the song to the universe of other songs and even to other media like podcasts, music videos, concerts, anything. Seeing these intricate details doesn’t take away from the awesomeness of the song. Instead, it refines your experience and elevates it.