05 August 2008

The uselessness of everything

"...the table rose into the air and headed south with pancakes, jam, fruit and flowers, punch and sweets, and also the Muskrat's book which he had left on the corner.
“Hi!” said the Muskrat. “Now I should like my book spirited back again please.”
“Right!” said the Hobgoblin. “Here you are, sir!”
“On the Usefulness of Everything,” read the Muskrat. “But this is the wrong book. The one I had was about the Use
lessness of Everything.”
But the Hobgoblin only laughed.

— Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll.


At dusk Jupiter hangs bright and still in the eastern sky, his reflection shining long and rippled in the lagoon. Beyond the sandbank, surf booms; the evening fills with the fading hiss of foam rushing up the beach. Then the boom and roar again; the rush and sizzle. Where the stream slips from its raupo lined edges into the lagoon, water laps with a sound like a cat drinking. The sky darkens, stars appear everywhere and the bright immense cloud of the Milky Way stretches overhead. Memories of the sky at night over the coast of Ghana: the fireball that arced across the star-stippled black in a shriek of green and red; the storms out at sea, green-black, vast, fractured by lightning; the heat and humidity, so utterly different to the bitter midwinter cold here, now. But the same sound of surf; the universal music that reminds us of the same sea in us all [1].

Amelie points out Scorpio: the line of stars forming his head; his red heart, Antares; the huge curl of his tail.
“He's the wrong way up, here in the Southern Hemisphere,” she says.
Her ability to identify the planets and stars and constellations astonishes me, but I disagree with her statement.
“No,” I reply, “he's just clinging to the underside of a rock.”

He's the only scorpion I can ever recall seeing — in all that time overseas I never encountered one. With luck, maybe next time. So many astonishing things to see. Hummingbirds, for example — perhaps I'll at last watch hummingbirds when I get to South America, the place that's fascinated me since I was a small boy; a fascination that prompted my parents to gift me the Time-Life book of South America. I spent hours poring over it, wanting to explore those countries, to see those remarkable animals, those birds brilliant and weird, those mountains that seem to have erupted from the earth all in an instant,Evening cloud over Hawke Bay piercing the sky. I wanted to walk alone on wild coasts, to search for jaguars and hoatzins and have my provisions eaten by coatis, which I developed a particular fondness for because they had long, thin faces like me; I wanted to watch glaciers calving into the sea while parakeets flashed through beech forests; I wanted to see condors circling around the Torres del Paine.

I still do.

Now, here at Flounder Bay [2] I look up at the sky, at those uncountable stars, and try to imagine all those other planets out there, and I wonder how many are lifeless lumps of rock or super-heated balls of gas, and how many — or whether any — might be alive the way ours is: colourful, incomprehensibly diverse, seething with life — and some of it aware of its own aliveness. Surely we all wonder like this when we look up at a night sky? I've heard accusations that science destroys wonder by removing mystery, but when I look up at the Milky Way, the knowledge, gifted by science, of what's out there makes it seem not in the slightest diminished but, on the contrary, even more extraordinarily magnificent and mysterious.

In any case, we're so far from being able to explain everything that I can't believe science really threatens mystery, at least in the foreseeable future. And, in my experience, science seems much better at throwing up questions than providing answers. Every time we got a result, it would inevitably be accompanied by not just a further question, but a further set of questions. Now, if that's generally true of scientific investigations, then the conclusion seems almost (but not actually) paradoxical — the more we know, the more we know we don't know. That hardly seems like a sound basis on which to criticise science for diminishing wonder.

But, let's suppose we really did manage to understand everything reasonably worth knowing. What if no questions remained; nothing about which we could wonder?

The thought fills me with horror. Perhaps I'm wrong, but knowing everything seems to imply the death of possibility — I could no longer enjoy Caravan at Earthquake Bayimagining what might live in that quiet, swampy little patch of raupo and small shrubs on the far side of the slow, eel-cruised stream; I'd know all the rails [3] had gone, that the galaxiids were only just surviving — and I'd know they'd be gone completely ten years from now; that it would be inevitable that the hillsides would be subdivided and landscaped and the saltmarsh turned into a marina for rich people's playboats and Private Property signs would confront the jobless poor.

On the other hand, perhaps I'd know rails still survived; that after the 'quake the road would reopen only as a pot-holed track, the ruined subdivisions with their collapsed holiday homes would be abandoned; that the new saltmarsh raised by Ruaumoko [4] would sustain larger, more diverse populations of small animals, of fish and birds and complex interrelationships.

But it wouldn't be hope. It would be certainty. Which is better? Which is to be preferred? It depends, I suppose, on what you want; given certain knowledge of an unwanted outcome, most of us would be happier hoping, provided we didn't know the hope was gifted because the outcome was unwanted. Perhaps that's what underlies the objection to science — the thought that what it tells us, we might not want. Put that way, the objection seems dishonest. It's a denial of truth, an act of cowardice.


The beach is still in shadow but the sea beyond, grey-green from the reflection of the mostly-overcast sky, shines with a dull gleam like satin-polished metal. Whitecaps, lit by the low morning sun angling from beyond the bluffs, Beach at Flounder Bayspeckle the plane of the ocean; gannets circle and plunge, straight and fast as rain, sending up plumes of white spray that burst and hang momentarily in the air before vanishing.


Why do questions so much bigger than us matter so much to us? I've met people who claim no interest in big metaphysical questions — freedom and determinism, mind-body, the nature of reality, and so on — and some who even have no interest in the more arcane areas of science. Blank stares, incomprehension, responses like, “Yes, but how's that going to feed the world?” Although, you know many have no interest in feeding the world, only themselves, and it's guaranteed access to Antarctic toothfish steaks and out-of-season exotic fruits they're interested in, not rice. Others do have more compassionate concerns but still think it a waste of time to wonder about these questions, accepting value in them only in so far as they might make me, as a friend, happy wondering about them.
“But what use are they?” they say.

Well, what use is raincloud on the ocean's horizon, streaked with rainbow colours? What use is the iridescence inside a paua shell? What use is a lightning flash that turns the night sky over the coast of Ghana into a net of light? To say the rainbow cloud could be photographed and sold, the paua turned into jewelry, or that lightning fixes nitrogen, is so wide of the mark it's off the planet. Questions like those are meaningless. I'm even tempted to say they're useless.

Furthermore, knowledge sometimes, perhaps often, becomes useful only after a long period during which its only utility is that someone Only part of the largest flock of kereru I've ever seenenjoys the knowing of it. History abounds with apparently useless discoveries that eventually proved valuable (although right now I can't think of any — I only know my assertion's true. I'm sure you can think of your own examples easily enough, though). But, I'm a little uneasy about that defence because it implies knowledge only becomes worthwhile when someone discovers a use for it. It's a dangerous defence if we wish to defend the search for knowledge , because, if it's accepted, support will be forthcoming only (or largely) for investigations that promise a high likelihood of eventual usefulness — knowledge we believe unlikely ever to be “useful” stands little or no chance of receiving support.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much how science is supported now.


The sun comes and goes, and a cold wind with it. A woman carrying a surfboard returns from the beach, wringing water from her hair with one hand, the board clutched under the other arm. She slides it into her BMW and drives off, leaving the winter beach empty except for the roar of the surf, the scurrying wind, the arcs and jinks of swallows. Something splashes in the creek, down among the dry dead raupo, and a duck calls. Then the rain arrives, drizzle at first then heavier, then the sun follows, shining through the haze of rain and out at sea a rainbow forms. Tell me what this is useful for.


Two things strike me about that criticism of science. First, the claim that it diminishes mystery and wonder by explaining the nature of things, how things work, and so on, is a claim that confuses mystery and wonder. The two are not the same; that science reduces mystery, even if true, does not imply it reduces wonder. On the contrary, depth of knowledge often increases the capacity for wonder, at least by encouraging an appreciation of complexity. Leaf and dropletsHow, for example, can wonder be diminished by understanding something of the physiology of plants — the marvels of photosynthesis, the development of reaction wood, or how deciduous trees lose their leaves in autumn?

Second, it's likely science will never be able to explain everything, even in principle. The work of the legendary logician Kurt Gรถdel suggests this is likely to be the case, although this popular interpretation of his incompleteness theorems — i.e. that it's not possible to prove everything — is apparently a popular misconception. Even so, if science could explain everything, does this knowledge really diminish mystery and wonder, given it's also likely this would be possible only in principle, not in fact? I suppose this is itself one of the big questions about which the down-to-earth, get-real, what-a-waste-of-time crowd are so sceptical. Me? I don't know the answer; I don't know whether it would matter or not, but I do think it's worth thinking about.

But, I suspect that when someone condemns the propensity of science to reduce the mysterious to the mundane, he's not actually thinking of the general principle; instead, he has in mind specific cases — specifically, those cases where science demonstrates a cherished belief or desired outcome to be false or, to all intents and purposes, impossible. My guess is that Amelie at Earthquake Bayproof of Nessie's existence would delight most of the world's population, but the unequivocal demonstration that Nessie never existed would reinforce the low-level antipathy towards scientific investigation. On the other hand, science is at its most popular when it reveals something unexpected and sensational — the colossal interest in the colossal squid, while arising more from technology than science per se, provides a reasonable example. But imagine the response if, hypothetically, rigorous scientific research showed squid could never grow larger than a metre or two and the giant sucker marks on sperm whales were some kind of artefact created by abyssal pressures. I'm sure the response would be muted at best; the value of the finding would be questioned in popular culture (bloggers would have a field day); and the perception of science-as-killjoy would strengthen as we were forced to drown the kraken along with our sorrows.

In short, we like science when it tells us what we want to believe but many of us are quick to condemn it when it tells us otherwise. But anything that tells us only what we want to believe is more than merely useless — it's dishonest. Moreover, systems like that would be far more effective than science at destroying wonder, because they vindicate any belief, thereby making anything possible. And if anything's possible, possibility loses its power.

Ute and skull

1. Kaplinski, Jaan 1990. The Same Sea in Us All. London, Collins Harvill. 98 pp. ISBN 0 00 271091 9. (First published in the USA by Breitenbush Books in 1985). Jaan's second book of poems is The Wandering Border (Harvill 1992, ISBN 0 00 271090 0).
2. Some names have been changed.
3. Mainland Aotearoa New Zealand has three extant rails: the banded rail (moho-pereru; Rallus philippensis), the spotless crake (puweto; Porzana tabuensis), and the marsh crake (koitareke, Porzana pusilla).
4. Ruaumoko is the god of earthquakes.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The inside of a tiny paua (Haliotis sp.) shell.
2. Evening over Hawke Bay, North Island, Aotearoa.
3. Caravan at Earthquake Bay.
4. Beach detail, Flounder Bay.
5. Only part (perhaps half to one third) of the largest flock of kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) I've ever seen. This photo alone shows 23 birds.
6. After the rain at Flounder Bay.
7. Edge of the lagoon at Earthquake Bay.
8. Ute and skull at Earthquake Bay.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I love it about Aotearoa as you were enjoying the delights of the sea I was not far away in the mountains relishing that environment.
As to your ruminations and photos, always thought provoking and stimulating. Like Socrates stated, I know little but my own ignorance, or there abouts. I guess that is why I keep trying to ask the questions.
Kia ora Pete.

butuki said...

I drive people nuts with all the wacky questions I always ask or the kookie way I "overly" concern myself with the physical world around me. "Man, what are you getting all upset about killing a few hornets? They're just bugs, for Chist's sake!" Even my brother, who understands me a lot better than most, just doesn't get why finding a place to live that I can fall in love with is so important to me. "Who cares where you live? There isn't any perfect place. It's the people around you that matter." Well, yes, of course the people matter, a lot, but a place that evokes no sense of wonder (though the sense of wonder awakens anywhere I am, to be honest) or that involves only humans seems somehow deeply maimed. The one place where I felt the same sense of belonging and joy that you seem to every day, was Oregon, in the US, when I was in college. I suspect there are very similar forces at work in both Oregon and New Zealand. Hence my plans to move to western Canada and still perhaps New Zealand (I'm going to try to visit next December!).

I don't think it's possible (for me, at least) to go through day after day without constantly seeking connection with the living and non-living things around me. To commute to work I eschew the train and elect to walk the five kilometers every day just so I can stop along the way and marvel at creatures in the fields, the skylark song in the air, the flash of lightning over the distant hills. That short distance, away from the glaring extravaganza of the main shopping strip, and the depressing ghost town of my downtown main street, and the careless bureaucracy of my university (I've never before been in an educational environment that offers little or no benefits of an academic setting... it's truly weird, almost surreal at times), allows me to switch on to that peculiar sense of zeroing in on the details and feeling hugely singular with everything around, as if, in connecting with other living things, my spirit merges with all the spirits around, like water droplets forming a bigger puddle on a tabletop.

How to explain such feelings and logic to someone who finds it all perplexing? And how do I talk to and accept someone else's alternate logic where humans are the center of everything?

The animation movie director Hayao Miyazaki, who did such masterpieces as Totoro, The Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away (I'm in love with his work in the same way I'm in love with Tove Jansson's work), was interviewed last week about his new movie "Ponyo On the Cliff By the Sea" (a radical shift away from his other recent work, in that the entire thing was drawn by hand). During the interview he suddenly got very irate and inexplicably started shouting at people around him (he's famous for his irascible nature). When he calmed down and was why he had suddenly lost it, he replied that his best friend had just died a few hours before the interview. Just at that moment one of his staff members came down and excitedly announced that there was a beautiful sunset happening. Everyone scampered up the stairs to the roof of the Ghibli company building and stood there gazing at a sky resplendent with orange clouds. The camera turned to Miyazaki and caught him murmuring, "Man! When you die you lose all chance of ever watching sunsets again!"

Anne-Marie said...

I've read your post a few times now and have tried to form a coherent comment ... but for some reason my thoughts won't reach my typing fingers this morning. May be later ...

I will comment on the photos though. These are some of the best I've seen on this blog. I particularly love the contrast between the delicacy of the first one, the tiny paua on the beach; and the disturbing last photo - the cow's skull on the ute with a brooding headland in the background. I love how you've washed out the colours in this one, emphasising the sense of menace. Or may be it's just me that sees menace here?

I really like the second and third photos, too.

As for Scorpio ... he isn't the wrong way up in the southern hemisphere, but he is upside-down. Wouldn't you be upside-down if you were clinging to the underside of a rock, Pete?

pohanginapete said...

Robb, yes, it's a good feeling to know that wherever you are in Aotearoa, you're never far from the sea or mountains, and often both. Interesting you should mention Socrates: I learned just the other day that he attacked writing on two grounds — because it's removed from what it tries to represent, and because it can't defend itself or further explain itself. I suppose the same criticisms could be directed at photos, so I guess Socrates wouldn't have liked my blog ;^) I'm glad you do, though!

Miguel — you're visiting New Zealand next December? Wonderful! If I'm here I'll show you your kind of places — allow plenty of time. And I too love Miyazaki's work (particularly Spirited Away); it has the same quirky humour and insights as Tove Jansson's works. Incidentally, have you seen Tove Jansson's comic strips? Peregrina pointed them out to me recently; I wasn't aware of them, but I'm almost afraid to check them out in case they don't live up to her other work. But I imagine you, as an accomplished illustrator, would find them particularly interesting.

Anne-Marie, thanks for the perceptive comments about the photos. I tried to convey something of the feeling of Earthquake Bay; it's similar to, but not quite, menace. More a sense that it's a place that doesn't reveal everything; that one doesn't trifle with a place like this. Somewhere that demands respect. It's strange, beautiful, and almost “apart from time”; as if it exists in some time other than the present.
And Scorpio — yes, true. And I do know that feeling of clinging to the underside of a rock. If the holds are big and spaced nicely, climbing overhanging rock can be exhilarating ;^)

butuki said...

Pete, I have seen a lot of Jansson's work, including many of her illustrations and cartoons, but I'm not sure if I've seen the comic strip. I may have, in parts. Jansson is extremely popular here in Japan (enough to have made an entire animated television series that I watched as a boy and I loved as much as the books) and so it is easy to get a lot of her work, and since the Japanese really do some beautiful publishing you even get to see a lot of what she has done in the original formats.

Have you ever read Jansson's novel "The Summer Book"? It's a story about a family living on a truly tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. In some ways completely different from her Moomin series, but still carrying the same sense of haunted euphoria. The edition I have includes photos of Tove and her family on the island where she grew up, so the interplay between the story and the photos almost makes you think the story really happened. wonderfully done.

If I visit New Zealand I mainly want to have a look at what would make me seriously consider living there. I have some other friends there, too, and if they're around I'd like take a day or two to get a glimpse of their lives, but if you are around I would definitely like to spend some... plenty of... time seeing the area through your eyes. I will probably contact you about what I can possibly do in (two weeks?) vacation. I'm not there this time to climb the Milford Track or to see everything in a whirlwind. There's just not enough time and it would be a pity to flash through everything without getting a sense of what NZ is really about. ANyway, I'll contact you to talk a little more about it.

jacqueline b said...

Hi Pete,
the paua...
i printed it out and it's o the fridge.

Just wondering if you have a reference for that Socrates anecdote? I'm drowning in literaary theory and it sounds like it might be useful.
best wishes, jacq

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Hi Pete
A sleepy Saturday morning in Jakarta. An interesting read. You put your finger on something when you said "in any case, we're so far from being able to explain everything that I can't believe science really threatens mystery, at least in the foreseeable future."

Yes there's a higher form and a mystery out there somewhere.

Have a relaxing weekend.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this, Pete. Images of both kinds to dwell on, words and photographs, with plenty to think about as well.

I don't usually like the effect of manipulated photos that are predominantly monochrome with just one or two objects left in colour, but the ones here come off. I think it's because the colour is so unsaturated that it isn't the first thing that catches attention. Well, it didn't catch mine, anyway.

I agree with you that knowledge often increases the capacity for wonder. I find it does for me. And I also agree with the statement you make in the last paragraph. That's a profound thought.

Finally, I'm always amazed when I get away from all the light pollution and, on a moonless night, look up at the myriads and myriads of stars in the sky. Unbelievably many, and most of the time we're unaware of them. In town it's even sometimes hard to see the least bright star in the Southern Cross. ... And I've been wondering, since I'm a Scorpio, if I'd be any good at rock-climbing, especially overhangs ;-)


PS. I've added a belated comment to your previous post.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, yes, my sister brought The Summer Book with her when she visited early this year. It lived up to expectations. The Milford Track's apparently stunning, but if remoteness and solitude mean anything, forget it. I can suggest better options, including places that feel more quintessentially New Zealand.

Jacq, that's a nice thought, knowing a little piece of Aotearoa's on your fridge over there :^) Socrates' views on writing are documented in the later part of Phaedrus. There's more than a little irony in reading his views, knowing we'd probably know nothing of them unless Plato had written them down.

Thanks Bob. I think the relatively new approach to science which focuses on complexity will eventually restore reductionist science to its proper place as a useful tool. Unfortunately, reductionism's still used all too commonly (and spuriously) as a methodology for all purposes. But even if complexity does manage that, it's still only one way of understanding.

Thanks Peregrina; glad you enjoyed it. The topic's vast, and has been well written about, but I've often thought about that criticism of science and wanted to respond in my own way. And out here in the countryside, I get plenty of opportunities to gaze up at the stars, so wonder comes easily. I remember reading, years ago, about how Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard et al.) lamented the loss of the night sky in the ever-expanding big cities; even then I realised how lucky I've been — and still am.

wanderist said...

Pete--All very well said.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Larry :^)