THR Web Features   /   October 27, 2015

Impossible Wonder

A Reply to James McWilliams

Paul Nedelisky

Gears from astronomical clock in Copenhagen. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Sometimes I wake up in the morning

To…blue and yellow skies.

God Knows I Tried,” Lana Del Rey


One evening, about fifteen years ago, I was waiting at a traffic light and staring absently at the sunset. It was a long light, and after I had stared at the same patch of sky for about a minute, I found myself mentally describing its color: “Yellowish-blue…” I was jolted out of my reverie. “Yellowish-blue? There's no such thing. I mean green, right?” I stared again at the patch of sky. It was on the periphery of the sunset, where golden-yellow blended into the blue of the sky. I had done some painting. I had taken art lessons. I had a more than passing familiarity with the colors. And I knew that yellow and blue do not combine to make yellowish-blue. But hard as I looked, I could discern no green in the region. It was pure, smooth, yellowish-blue.

The light changed, and I had to drive away from the sight. I knew the experience would stick with me. In fact it did, and not merely in my memory. Over the years, I found I could often see the mysterious yellowish-blue at edges of sunsets. Again and again, I would stare at the color, as if by sheer intensity of attention I might pass through the veil of unintelligibility. But I also savored these experiences—there was something transcendent about them. The luminous golden blue was a holy color. I was seeing the impossible, and it was wondrous.

But I told no one. I knew I had encountered an inexpressible thing, a thing one is not permitted to tell. And I knew how that conversation would inevitably go:

Me: I need to tell you about something I saw.
Conversational Victim: Oh? Um, OK. Was it a crime or something? What did you see?
Me: I saw a man eat his own head.
Conversational Victim: …???

You can substitute in any impossibility—“I saw a round square” or “I successfully added two and two and got five” or the genuine “I saw a color that was yellowish-blue without being green”—and the effect would be pretty much the same. “You’re a lunatic,” the concerned-looking interlocutor will think.

About ten years later, while idly surfing Wikipedia, I came across the entry,  “Impossible Colors.” It started off with the basics. When you experience color, the photoreceptive rod and cone cells in your eyes take in particles of light and send signals to the brain for processing and generation of the experience. So far so good—but the plot began to thicken. The leading theory of the relationship of the various colors that show up in experience is that the primary colors are paired in opposing relationships: Black is opposed to white, red to green, and blue to yellow. This means that when, say, the blue/yellow channel handles signals for blue, it cancels out signals for yellow (and vice versa), so you can’t experience something as both blue and yellow.

But recent studies have revealed that under certain conditions, observers report seeing colors they can best describe as blends of opposing colors: reddish-green, and bluish-yellow. This has generated a new hypothesis: instead of one color signal cancelling out its opposite, both signals are sent, but one tends to remain “silent.” This explanation reveals that under certain conditions signals of both colors could be processed into the same experience—the little hairs on my neck stood up—like seeing yellowish-blue!

Let's pause the story here for a moment. In a recent issue of The Hedgehog Review, James McWilliams published a piece called “On the Value of Not Knowing Everything,” in which he lamented that the humanities are increasingly ceding ground to the sciences. McWilliams characterizes a popular view of the humanities in the words of neuroscientist Christof Koch:

If we honestly seek a single, rational, and intellectually consistent view of the cosmos and everything in it, we must abandon the classical view of the immortal soul. It is a view that is deeply embedded in our culture; it suffuses our songs, novels, movies, great buildings, public discourse, and our myths. Science has brought us to the end of our childhood. Growing up is unsettling to many people, and unbearable to a few, but we must learn to see the world as it is and not as we want it to be. Once we free ourselves of magical thinking we have a chance of comprehending how we fit into this unfolding universe.

In the face of this view, the humanist reacts with defensive sentiments: “Leave my songs alone!” “Don't touch my novels!” “Leave my architecture in peace!” But, says McWilliams, “the reductionists are on hand to throw cold water on our mystical musings…. Chances are good, in other words, that nothing will be left alone…. Will the humanities sink under the weight of science? If not, how will they respond?”

McWilliams has an answer: The value of the humanities might consist in preventing complete knowledge for the sake of preserving wonder. His view of wonder is essentially the Baconian one, that wonder is “broken knowledge,” that successful scientific explanation replaces the marvelous with a machine. Consequently, wonder can be preserved only by preventing complete scientific explanation:

In our age of endlessly aggregated information, the ultimate task of the humanities may be to subversively disaggregate in order to preserve…serendipity…[A]s long as a flicker of doubt precedes knowledge, there will always be room for humanistic thought—thought that revels in not knowing.

McWilliams concludes the piece with a quotation from a friend of his: “The trick is knowing enough but not too much, not so much that you kill that sense of wonder.”

But is this true? Does understanding really rule out wonder? Science proceeds—some would say rational inquiry in general proceeds—by testing hypotheses against the evidence. McWilliams has given us a hypothesis: If we know how something works, then we won’t experience wonder at that thing. This seems very testable, and even the sort of hypothesis you could test for yourself. Begin by reflecting on your wondrous experiences. Did you find out what explained any of them? If so, focus on those experiences. In each of these cases, did you lose your sense of wonder once you learned the explanation? Or, contra McWilliams, has the wonder sometimes persisted despite understanding?

Let’s return to the story. At last I had an explanation for my experiences of yellowish-blue—and not just any explanation, but one from empirical science. The more unhinged, supernatural, or magical explanations which I perhaps couldn’t rule out before were now put to rest. It was just good ole neuropsychology. By McWilliams’s lights, I should have then filed the experience under “SOLVED,” and said a wistful goodbye to my wonder at this impossible color.

But that’s not what happened. Even now that I have the explanation, when I see yellowish-blue at sunset, I marvel at it. I know that the relevant portions of my brain are processing the signals for both yellow and blue and including them in my experience. But there’s just something about that yellowish-blue—its rarity, the connotations of splendor intrinsic to that specific shade, its otherworldliness, the color itself—that enchants.

And I don’t think I’m alone on wonder island. You have read this essay and are now equipped with at least the beginnings of a scientific understanding of how and why “impossible” colors are sometimes visible. Yet I would wager that some of you, taking in some future sunset, noticing where the gold shades into the blue, suddenly—for the first time—noticing a yellow that is also blue, will experience the wonder that accompanies that color.

Thus, if I’m right, then McWilliams’s hypothesis is false. Wonder is compatible with explanation, with understanding, with knowledge. My objection from “impossible” colors is sufficient to make the point. But while my counterexample, I hope, makes for entertaining reading, it is more outlandish than is strictly necessary to falsify McWilliams point. I would hazard that plenty of more routine experiences of wonder persist despite an understanding of the phenomenon in question. Here’s a brief litany of candidates for comprehensible yet genuinely wondrous experiences: beholding heat lightning or the aurora borealis; walking on “trembling earth” (the floating islands of peat that form in some swamps); runway takeoffs (sometimes I have to fight the urge upon takeoff to shout to my co-passengers: “We’re flying, everybody! WE'RE FLYING!”); the scent of fresh hay on a cool evening; how a sunbeam illuminates someone’s hair in the magic hour.  And I could continue.

So if knowledge—and scientific understanding in particular—need not undermine wonder, where does that leave the humanities? There isn’t space here to pursue this question in depth, but I will leave you with this thought: Science might tell us what the wondrous phenomenon is, and how it arises, but it's hard to see how it could tell us what the wonder means, why it is significant, why the universe is such as to be wondrous, or what the inspirational force of wonder says about human nature.* Wondrous experiences reveal the world to be a marvelous place, and this contributes to the fullness and meaningfulness of our lives. The trick is to recognize that the wonder can persist along with knowledge, and then to explore what the wonder is, and what it might mean. And this project will inevitably lead to the work of literature, philosophy, theology—in short, to the humanities.

Paul Nedelisky is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulNedelisky.


*As an historical fact, the natural sciences have failed to explain meaning, purpose, value, and human nature. This is in part because the investigative tools of science make difficult or impossible the scientific study of phenomena that aren’t wholly empirical.