--Jack, in Charles de Lint’s Someplace to be Flying
As someone involved in the practice and teaching of medicine, I have come to accept that the more I learn, the more I learn I have more to learn. Medical culture in the modern day often shows an arrogant pride in what we modern folk understand about the material world, perhaps because our knowledge has given us such previously-unimaginable power over life and death. But so much remains a mystery. I do not think any honest doctor at the bedside of a patient in their last breaths can contest that at the foot of Nature, we are all made humble.
But per the quotation above, taken from one of Charles de Lint's magical novels, opening our minds to the unknown does not necessarily only mark a mental stopping point--it also gives us new places to begin exploration. And for those reasons, I wanted to mark the virtue of Wonder today by briefly celebrating the life of a noted 19th century doctor and scientist, Emil du Bois-Reymond, whose studies of animal electricity helped lay the path for understanding the human nervous system.
Emil du Bois-Reymond was born on this date in 1818. His Huguenot (Protestant) family fled France for Germany during the religious persecutions of the 17th century. He studied a broad range of topics at the University of Berlin, including ecclesiology (the study of the development of religious institutions) and geology, before settling on medicine. He had the good luck to find a mentor in Johannes Peter Müller, a noted anatomist, who encouraged his students to apply scientific methods to the study of the material world, but to not forget that "there appears to be something in the phenomena of living beings which cannot be explained by ordinary mechanical, physical or chemical laws.”
Dr. du Bois-Reymond’s work on the electrical properties of nerves, enhanced by studying creatures like electric eels, spanned over 35 years. In addition to greatly expanding our knowledge of biochemistry, he championed medical education, tutored many other great doctors, and used his influence in the Prussian court for the advancement of the sciences.
Yet, despite championing the explosion of scientific knowledge that occurred in the 19th century, Dr. du Bois-Reymond went down in history for reminding us of the limits to purely scientific knowledge. His philosophy, known by the Latin phrase “ignoramus et ignorabimus” (“We do not know and will not know”), stimulated debate across scientific circles in his time. This culminated in his famous “Seven Riddles” speech, in 1880, in which he outlined seven great mysteries that science would never be able to answer:
- The ultimate nature of matter and force,
- The origin of motion,
- The origin of life,
- The paradoxical intricate order of nature that seems to belie the Universe’s innate tendency towards entropy (chaos) and suggests some sort of original plan or design,
- The origin of simple sensations,
- The origin of intelligent thought and language, and
- The question of freewill.
What strikes me is that, while the things we understand tend to make us confident, even arrogant, it’s when we admit something goes beyond our understanding that we sense something magnificent. The word “Wonder” suggests ignorance, yet at the same time greatness, as in the phrase “a wonder of the world.” So, while technically the capacity for Wonder might be categorized as an emanation of the root virtue Wisdom, I think if you dig a little deeper, it might ultimately belong to another virtue: Transcendence.
One of my favorite songs on this theme is Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder.” So, take a moment to listen to its beautiful message and mark the place of the Great Unknowns in our Universe. We are not diminished by our Unknowing: It magnifies us.
May we see the gates of Wonder, and perhaps make a home there.