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The Wisdom of Bored Inquiry

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

―Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)

“There’s as many atoms in a single molecule of your DNA as there are stars in the typical galaxy. We are, each of us, a little universe.”

―Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos (2014)

Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson would suggest we adopt the mindset of a child who looks at the universe in wonderment. Such a mindset leads us to stare at the night sky and dream about worlds beyond. But what isn’t mentioned is that children also have an incredible capacity for boredom. They can be ferried across the Seven Wonders of the World, only to look up occasionally and apathetically from their portable video games. But is there a wisdom in bored inquiry?

It’s wonderment that drives the quest to zoom the lens further down to figure out what truly constitutes matter. But it’s disillusionment or dispassion that has the capacity to reason that maybe there is nothing magical about existence at all. Wonderment is what drives people to look at the complexity of an organ like the eye and conjure an intelligent designer behind it. But it’s a cool skeptic who sees wonderment as yet another human bias to be triumphed and asks, “What if it’s all just random?”

In retrospect, it seems strange that the vast majority of history’s great scientists believed in God. The great physicists, Newton and Einstein, both were believers, despite both piercing the hitherto divine veils of reality. Scientific inquiry and religious inquiry have for many millennium been linked by the same quest for knowledge. Pioneers all want to reveal His design, and yet each revelation chips away at the possibility of His existence. The faith-driven scientists have boxed faith into a corner, which may help explain why the next generation has been characterized by apathy.

But apathy, and its cousin skepticism, could potentially drive the next generation of discoveries. Metaphysics, which in a way is the negation of physics, is still an infant compared to physics. Philosophies like Wheeler’s It from Bit, might finally get a proper treatment now that we’re entering a world driven by computer programmers who can easily grasp the idea that the universe might be a giant abstract Turing machine. Computer science might even be the ultimate dispassionate post-modern knife as it has been cutting through every discipline with computational genetics, computational linguistics, and computational everything. We will need cool minds to dispute both the age-old fantasies of Rapture and Apocalypse, which have been re-branded as Singularity and Malthusian Catastrophe. And we will need them to also explain how, despite the lack of any magic or mystery undergirding the universe, everything is still going to be okay.

Philip Dhingra is the author of Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am.

For Philip’s 14th birthday, Hannah gave him Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which kicked off a life-long obsession with self-improvement. Over 16 years, Philip wrote 82 letters to Hannah describing every book, pop psych article, and method that he used — or abused. Dear Hannah is either a cautionary tale about self-improvement, or it is a filter for the 10% of self-help that may actually change your life.