PRINT Summer 1989


IN ONE SENSE, THE purpose of science is to do away with wonders: science is a discourse of explanation, and one definition of a “wonder” is a thing not yet explained. Science is said to “enlighten” us because it allows us to understand and master phenomena, instead of wondering about them. Thus, as scientific knowledge advances, the world grows less and less “wonder-full,” and more and more wonder-empty.

On the other hand, however, our feeling of wonder deepens as science develops. Science can’t explain everything—it cannot erase wonders from our consciousness, but must content itself with pushing their boundaries ever farther into the background. Our feeling of wonder follows this progress toward the abyss, and as the world, and we within it, grows ever more wonder-empty, we are ever more bewildered. The less wonderful the world is, the more we wonder why it is there—and even, indeed, if it is there. Like Martin Heidegger, we ask questions like, Why is there anything when there could be nothing?

In yet another sense, science may be said to be actually producing wonders. For the unexpected thing, the thing that is improbable and surprising, is also a wonder, and this is the sort of event that scientific knowledge, applied through technology to animate and inanimate nature, can produce.

Before entering this labyrinth, a word of caution: the word “wonder” is doubly ambiguous. It may describe the cause of an emotion or it may describe the emotion itself, and if it refers to an emotion, this too is bivalent; “to wonder at” or “to wonder if.” The words “miracle” and “marvel,” Latinate equivalents of the Germanic word “wonder” (it is the disposition in English of Latin and German equivalents, by the way, that makes the language so subtle), stem from the verb mirari, which we recognize in other terms such as “mirror” and “admiration.” They are no clearer than the Germanic “wonder,” but they provide the concept with yet further connotations. The latter of the two words in particular may prove helpful to us here.

Aristotle held that philosophy (and thus science) is brought about through admiration: propter admirationem enim. “Admiration” in this context is a strong word, meaning the feeling we get in that fleeting moment when we face something we had not expected. There are two elements in this kind of admiration: awe and doubt. Characteristically, the modern tradition stresses the element of doubt as the source of philosophy, and doubt is indeed a strong experience, one that can bring into question the very foundations of our sense of the world, and of ourselves. But awe is even stronger: it can leave us speechless. (This may be why the modern tradition, a demystifying, skeptical tradition, is uneasy with awe—it loves words.) The ancients, more familiar with the doubleness of admiration, knew that philosophy and science are not only doubtful but also awful. We “post-Moderns” are relearning the lesson. As science advances, both erasing and creating one wonder after another, it shows again how doubtful and awful it itself is.

Aristotle was surely right in attributing philosophy to admiration: people never in awe—“blasé” people—will produce no science, and neither will those who never doubt, who accept wonders as mysteries not to be questioned. Still, we no longer quite share Aristotle’s experience of admiration; we have a different sense of the unexpected. The meaning of “wonder” has shifted. If one were to write a history of Western civilization based on such shifts in the word’s meaning, it might look like this:

In the first, protohistorical stage, the world and the people within it were experienced and understood as obeying a circular order. Day was followed by night and night by day, summer by fall by winter by spring by summer, birth by death and death by rebirth. That circular order, however, was open to intervention from outside: the sun might suddenly stand still, floods or fire might interrupt the cycle of the seasons, a person might die and be resurrected in the same body instead of being reborn in a new one. Although such interventions were rare, and were surely considered wonderful, they were not unexpected, not, at least, in the sense of inciting what Aristotle would later call “admiration.” They had their place in the world and in human life. Manifestations (“hierophanies”) of what transcended the world, they might provoke awe, but they could not be doubted; they were decipherable messages from the greater powers of existence. It was precisely these interruptions of order that gave the world and the life within it their meanings.

Then, people on the Ionian coast began to “admire” these interruptions. Faced with the unexpected, they were struck with awe and doubt, and instead of deciphering it, they began to wonder about it, to ask questions about it. Philosophy, and later science, were born. The result was that we began to understand ourselves and the world differently. The circular order came to be seen as somehow beneath the surface of the world; the cycle of the days, of the seasons, and so forth—everything we perceive—was taken as merely an appearance of a hidden, fundamental order, the mathesis universalis. And the apparent interruptions or irregularities in the cycle, which had thus far been taken as wonders, could now be explained by recourse to that fundamental (“real”) order. The planets seemed to move erratically, for instance, but “in reality” they followed circular orbits, or epicycles, that themselves sat on larger circular orbits. Thus appearances could be “saved.” It followed that it was not the irregular events in the passage of things that were wonderful, but the fundamental circular harmony itself; not the interruptions of order that gave the world meaning, but order’s own pattern.

In Northern Italy during the 15th century, people began to admire the circular planetary order, which struck them as entirely improbable and unexpected. They began to wonder about it, to ask questions about it—questions that the Ptolemaic system could not answer. But they found that appearances could once again be “saved” by recourse to the Copernican system, which was simpler, and satisfied more of their doubts. And they also found something even more wonderful: new, alternative orders that could be devised within other new systems might be used not only to “save” appearances, but also to manipulate them—to produce wonders. The new orders, or “theories,” could be practically applied to bring about improbable situations. Modern science was born, and, later, modern technology. And it was no longer the world’s fundamental harmony that was wonderful, but the fact that we could manipulate the world and use it for wonder production. The knowledge that we had that power constituted a radical humanism. It transferred wonder from exterior events into our innermost selves: we ourselves became wonderful.

We are entering a new stage in this shifting meaning of wonder: we are beginning to admire our ability to produce wonders. That faculty strikes us with awe and doubt, because it is so improbable and unexpected. We begin to ask questions about ourselves, to wonder about ourselves, to “analyze” what is “within us.” And we discover something really astounding: there is nothing within us. There is no consistent core, no “self,” no “I,” only a swarm of pointlike recombinant virtualities in a constant state of flux. And these virtualities may not be unique to us, or even to animals: our thoughts can be analyzed into algorithms and projected through computers, the responsibility for our decisions is already being shared with the computer by virtue of its ability to process vast quantities of information, and in the near future our desires, wishes, and even our sense of the power we have to create wonders may be passed on to our machines. The discovery that we are not really wonderful or marvelous does not really astound us, however; we suspected it all along. What does astound us is the fact that despite our wonder-emptiness, an ever-increasing quantity of wonders is being produced “through us.” And this makes our sense of wonder bottomless.

This short outline of the history of Western civilization (which is itself both doubtful and awful) should not be read as a series of successive phases. The stages overlap, and all remain present with us. Even now, we would fall on our knees if the sun were all of a sudden to stand still. Immediately afterward, though, we would devise astronomical, optical, and psychological explanations to show that the event was no wonder but something we could have predicted. Even now, we cannot but be astounded by the symbiotic orderliness of life on Earth, with each species in its own ecological niche, and each organism equipped with its appropriate organs; immediately afterward, though, we begin to say that this order is as violent as it is harmonious, and that in any case it is the result of blind chance, and could just as easily have been quite different. Even now, in other words, we retain the protohistorical and the Aristotelian meanings of wonder, along with the contemporary one.

Still, all previous meanings of the word pale compared to the sense of wonder taking hold of us right now. We “know” that there is nothing wonderful about the world, or about ourselves (and nothing to be admired), and still we produce wonder after wonder. Perhaps we have decided that what science is really about is not to explain wonders (there are none to be explained) but to create them. And this is the source of endless wonder.

AT THE PRESENT STAGE of scientific progress, this is more or less how we understand the world and ourselves within it: a particulate cloud of gas and dust expands after an initial explosion. The cloud is thinly spread—full of holes, of “nothingness”—and as it expands, it grows ever thinner, ever more “nothing.” Here and there, however, clusters of particles have formed, as if in opposition to the general tendency toward thinner distribution—and as if in opposition to the second law of thermodynamics. This opposition is only apparent and temporary: the accidents of conglomeration are statistically “necessary,” and as the general expansion goes on, entropy will demand that the clusters eventually dissolve. We may call the particles “energy” and the clusters “matter” if we keep in mind that these terms are relative to each other, for “matter” is closely packed energy and “energy” is loosely distributed matter. The pattern followed by the spreading cloud can be plotted as overlapping fields of particles, clusters, and emptiness. We shall then find that we ourselves are clusters wherein several fields intermingle.

We can visualize this understanding of ourselves and of the universe by imagining that we can feed all the algorithms responsible for it (Einstein’s relativity equation, and so forth) into a computer. Wirelike nets will appear on the computer screen to show the patterns of the fields. Here and there, the nets will interfere with each other, forming baglike protuberances. One such protuberance may be identified as showing the planet Earth; another, more complex one as the biomass that covers Earth; and yet another, even more complex one as ourselves within that biomass. If we “animate” the image, we may watch these protuberances form and complexify. Then, gradually, they will grow shallower, until finally they fade back into the regular grid of the nets. The spectacle will end when all the nets’ irregularities have disappeared without trace, when the pattern stretches uniformly (without form) in every direction. If we feel like it, we may call this happy (or unhappy) end of our computer-generated video “thermic death.”

Watching this video, we may be struck by the idea that everything we are used to calling “matter” is a wonder. As the product of an accidental cohesion or collision of particles in a field whose tendency is to disperse rather than to coalesce, it is per se improbable and unexpected. It follows that the more complex matter is, the more it is wonderful, because the more improbable are the collisions that create it. A hydrogen atom, produced by the collision of only two particles, is less wonderful than a complex chain of molecules, and that chain is less wonderful than is our own nervous system. This idea is curious for two reasons: first, the term “wonder” may now be quantified, and second, we can produce wonders by forcing particles to collide. And today we can actually do this. We can compute particle collisions, can produce “artificial” matter—we call the process "fusion.”

But this curious idea begs an even more curious question. If “we” are an ephemeral protuberance of overlapping fields, how can we compute other protuberances? This question has many answers, but only one that agrees with the computer-generated video: “we” are the result of highly improbable but statistically calculable coincidences, and by this coincidence we are capable of generating further coincidences. To put this more traditionally, the species Homo sapiens, an accidental, improbable product of chance, accidentally has the ability to produce further improbable situations by its own intention. In the human species, in other words, chance accidentally turns around and becomes intention. This proposition articulates a very deep sense of wonder: it is much more wonderful, more doubtful and awful, than those answers that contain such apparently wonderful but actually spurious terms as “mind” and “spirit.”

Let us face it with courage: science has now reached a point at which it can produce any amount of wonders, on any level. One of these levels, we have seen, is the manipulation of particles to collide, and through this fusion process we can produce “plasma,” a material having some of the properties of energy and some of the properties of matter. In making plasma we are imitating what happened accidentally in nature (and continues to happen in the center of the Sun). In fact, we are imitating what can be called “the origin of the material world”; if you prefer, we are imitating the Creator. And we can do the same thing in any number of other ways. In the production of “artificial” chemical elements, for example, we are already exceeding what happened accidentally in nature—we are improving upon the Creation. Similarly, the “artificial” molecules we now can make are not so much replications of preexisting molecules as additions to the world’s variety. The “artificial” polymers we can create may eventually lead to “artificial” alternative life forms. And we are only starting. By computing the elements of existing genetic information, we can produce alternative plants and animals, and we can do so according to a deliberate program, not according to nature’s blind chance. By computing the elements of what used to be called “the mind,” we can produce “artificial” intelligences, with “artificial” thoughts, feelings, wishes, and actions. Nothing seems to stand in the way of our reaching levels of wonder never attained in nature. These levels may defy our imagination, but not the competence of science. If by “wonder” we understand improbable clusters of particles, there is no limit to the wonders science may eventually produce.

But this is precisely not what we mean by “wonder” when we say that a new sense of wonder is taking hold of us today. This new sense of wonder (if indeed it is new) makes us ask, If every wonder, whether natural or artificial, is condemned to disappear within the general tendency toward probability (toward entropy), why make them? If every unexpected, improbable event, be it the product of blind chance or of human deliberation, is finally to be forgotten, why deliberate it? Because the ultimate wonder, the mystery of all mysteries, is not the improbable marvel that every existing thing can claim to be called, but the fact that all these marvels are in the end wonder-empty.

As we try to formulate this new sense of wonder, it slips between our fingers. Wonder today is attached to the turning of chance into deliberation that we feel happens “within” us, or “through” us—or, even more radically, that we feel the “self” is. If we fed the algorithm for this sense of wonder into our computer, we might see the protuberances that meant “us” become a series of vortices swirling on the screen, and spouting yet further irregularities into the net—spouting wonders. This swirling, which defines the difference between chance and deliberation, constitutes an acceleration of accidents: if the world were given enough time, the products of contemporary science could come about by chance, by a highly improbable “natural” collision of particles, instead of through human deliberation. Thus we can understand deliberation as the production of effects very much earlier than nature does. Yet to say that deliberation is an acceleration of chance is only to transfer our sense of wonder: what is this acceleration?

One point, however, remains: whatever “chance” and “deliberation” may mean, they both deny law and order. They deny law both in the sense of “natural law” and in the sense of “transcendental program”; and they deny order both in the sense of “underlying harmony” and in the sense of “logical and mathematical order.” If there is chance and deliberation, there can be no law and order. The Greek term for “law and order” is norm; if there is no norm, nothing is normal, and everything is “e-normous.” Which is to say that everything is a wonder. And if everything is a wonder, nothing is, because there is then no distinction between wonder and not-wonder. Furthermore, the fact that there is no law and order is in itself enormous. And it is this enormity that is the source of our sense of wonder.

In the face of all this, two answers are open to us. The first: once we have discovered that there is nothing wonderful about the world and about ourselves, that it is all a blind game of chance that we, mysteriously, can accelerate, and that will automatically exhaust itself in time, we can play at it for the pure fun of it. We can produce wonders a little more intelligent than the idiotic wonder of nature (of which we ourselves are a good example): a little more intelligent atoms, molecules, living organisms, human beings. This is the answer given by Homo ludens, the esthetic, artistic response.

The other answer: once we have discovered that the world and life within it are absurd (wonder-empty), we must face this enormity by going it one better. Everything we do is an absurd gesture in the face of the absurdity of life and death, so let us be honest about it—let us be deliberately absurd. Let us admit that science and technology are absurd gestures, that “artificial” wonders are absurd wonders, and let us make these gestures and produce these wonders precisely because they are absurd. This is a familiar answer, aphorized long ago as credo quia absurdum: I believe it because it is absurd. This is the answer given by Homo religiosus.

None of these answers is satisfactory: none quells our wondering. But then maybe nothing will—which is why it is called “wonder.”

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie. Arles. The author of various books on modern communications, he contributes regularly to Artforum.