Wonder and Magic

Pretty snowflakes are nothing but some water molecules arranged in special hydrogen bond patterns. Lady Gaga's love songs squeeze and twist your heart only because your brain may be wired to perceive such chord progressions as sad. And your significant-other means the world to you simply because some oxytocin/vassopressin molecules interact with the dopaminergic reward systems during your intimacies. The list goes on, but this is enough to illustrate the pessimism with which some frame scientific knowledge. The explanation of a feature in terms of its underlying mechanism does not diminish its value. Just because love is not created by magic but by an awesomely complex machine (the brain) doesn't make it any less wonderful, in the same way that knowing the ingredients and recipe of New England clam chowder doesn't make it less delicious (I'm afraid the same can't be said for fois gras or animelles, for different reasons of course). The danger of thinking that a mechanistic explanation of something seemingly magical is bad is that it may impede scientific progress. If our friends on Capitol Hill decide next week that it's a waste of time to search for the neural basis or evolutionary advantage of music, we may be deprived further of knowledge about the mechanisms of language, emotions and social cohesion. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's not what started the industrial revolution, the space race or the information age; nor will ignorance cure cancer (fruit-fly research in Paris, France might). Aside from magical parts of human nature, science promises to demystify more sinister ones like violence or racism. What happens if we discover that men have a natural rather than "merely-social" tendency to beat their wives? Does that mean science justifies wife-beating? Not a chance. But we do have to be careful with our facts, since some confuse what is with what ought to be, or worse still - what is natural with what is ought to be.

With scientific explanations of our nature, we will still have magic in our lives. But we can't go on pretending something is true when it is not. The mystery of music may disappear when you are reading about the brain areas involved in music perception, but it won't fail to creep up on you when you're listening to your favorite Beethoven. The question is how to inform the public about the mechanistic nature of everything without them becoming emotionless robots.