I often find myself overwhelmed by the instantaneous nature of information. With a few clicks I can find out some cursory knowledge about almost anything in the world. Broad concepts are distilled down into pithy sentences. An authors life’s work is summed up in a few paragraphs. Even our feelings and emotions have their rational, empirical summaries; love is merely a chemical reaction in the brain, anxiety can be managed away with mere cognitive changes, sex is just an inner biological drive that finds its origins in the desire to procreate. These explanations may be true, but rather than enlighten, both the volume and reductionist nature of the information that saturates modern life has caused me to develop a keen sense of despair and a longing for mystery, for the unknown. I guess you might say that I am seeking to have less answers, and to live a life that finds joy in that which remains hidden.
Humanity naturally has an inner curiosity to seek knowledge and to conquer the unknown realms of life, and this can be a beautiful thing. Albert Einstein encapsulated this truism when he wrote that ‘curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.’ Yet if we are naturally curious, why does increased access to information and the findings of modern science still have the ability to leave one so cold? The nihilism and spiritual conflict of Dostoevsky’s The Raw Youth captures something of the dilemma of modern existence: why do knowledge and information alone have so little ability to create the conditions necessary for hope, meaning and joy? Consider how far we have come in terms of technological development. Surely we should feel satisfied, content and hopeful about our achievements. After all, our own enlightenment can conquer all- even space, it seems. Should we not therefore be supremely confident in our ability to dispel all illusion and create the perfect world?
Part of the reason for a growing sense of discontent with the lack of meaning and pervasive dysfunction within our world is that our pursuit of knowledge has dismissed two key elements: wonder and humility. As suggested by Einstein, the thirst for knowledge should ultimately stem from a place of awe and sheer wonder at the majesty and mystery of the cosmos. When seen through this lens, the pursuit of knowledge is an act of reverence before creation, not merely an attempt to generate sufficient data in order to help us live more conveniently and work more effectively. Approaching the throne of knowledge with a sense of wonder does not of course dismiss the insights of science, but rather it enriches them. The feeling of wonder, however, betrays a latent humility. One cannot stand in awe of something that one does not respect. Humility is an awareness of the interdependence of all things, and the relational nature of humanity. To be humble is to approach all forms of intellectual endeavor with an awareness of our own finite nature and responsibility to serve others. When the pursuit of knowledge is fueled by these qualities, the insights gained will lead us to genuine wisdom, not mere information.