We cannot live without some sorts of make-believe in our lives. Without made-up maps of the world, life is a buzzing, blooming confusion. Some elements of our mental maps (Santa Claus) satisfy emotional or aesthetic inner needs; other elements of our mental maps (a hot stove) satisfy intellectual curiosity about the world out there. We get in trouble when the two kinds of maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need.
The passage is from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion (1998). Raymo is a professor emeritus of physics, raised as a Catholic, with a religious sensibility alongside a firm skepticism. His blog is Science Musings.
We all carry around mental maps of the world—images and words that guide us—that should not be confused with the real world itself. Raymo writes that there are two kinds of entries on our maps. One type are the items that, starting when we are children, reflect our neediness for emotional comfort, simple explanations, and a sense of our own importance. Santa Claus is on the map when we are children. When we’re adults, other superstitions along with miracles and astrology may take Santa’s place. Such beliefs help many of us make sense of the world. Even more significantly, they help us feel we have a place in it, for there is nothing worse than thinking that we are merely insignificant specks.
As Raymo puts it, these are beliefs about what we yearn for. In contrast, there are the objectively realistic items on our maps that we learn about. These include the facts that stoves are hot and that dinosaurs and humans did not walk the earth at the same time.
But—and here’s what makes the book so valuable—Raymo is not saying simply that the learn items on our map are valuable and the yearn ones are not. For living solely by objective knowledge can make a person mechanical, cold, and arrogant. We need a mix of worthwhile knowledge along with an appreciation of what we don’t know and yearn to understand.
Raymo’s central metaphor for all this is that our map is like an island in a sea of mystery. The island is our knowledge, flawed as it may be, and the sea is the actual, mysterious, and infinite universe around us. On our island, “We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land.” It occasionally, as with Galileo and Einstein, sweeps in on a tidal wave, overwhelms our efforts, and forces us to start rebuilding and refilling our shores almost from scratch.
But even more significantly, as we expand the island and extend its shores, the border between the land and the sea of mystery grows longer. That is, the more we know about the objective world, the more that the mysteries of existence beckon the scientists, artists, and other creative people who are open to them. Raymo’s book, published in 1998, preceded recent science, but I think examples of this extended shoreline would include the discoveries of the many planets that circle other stars and the workings of the brain that have been unveiled by modern imaging. Both have served not to dull our sense of mystery but instead to excite and extend it.
So where on the island do we find the best and most creative work being done? At the shoreline. “We are at our human best as creatures of the shore, with one foot on the hard ground of fact and one foot in the mystery of the sea.”
The stance describes Raymo himself. And it reassures me that to relish the knowledge that science provides about the history of life and the mysteries of being alive just might be a good place to be.