The Weirdness of Weirdness

I’ve been brooding over weirdness lately. To me, the world and everything in it is weird, and weirdest of all are the clumps of matter that can contemplate themselves and think, “Weird!”

But the more I think about weirdness, the weirder it seems. What sort of quality is weirdness? Is it wholly subjective, like goodness and beauty? Or is it in some sense an objective property of the world, like temperature?

Weirdness is, ordinarily, a relative term. If you call something weird, you mean it seems improbable and inexplicable in comparison to other, non-weird things. The feeling of weirdness could be an adaptive trait, akin to curiosity, because it motivates us to figure out how, say, heredity or magnetism works.

But according to this practical point of view, weirdness should dissipate as we explain more and more things. Being mind-boggled by all things all the time certainly doesn’t seem adaptive. And in fact psychiatrists have pathologized feelings of acute weirdness, or estrangement from reality. They call this condition derealization.

So let me try to explain what I mean when I say that everything is weird. Since childhood I have had moments of jaw-dropping astonishment that I or anything else exists. Psychedelics, which I started taking in my teens, amplified the feeling. The sensation of weirdness can have a positive or negative emotional valence. That is, it can be accompanied by ecstasy or terror. But after these emotions fade, I am still left with the intellectual conviction: everything really is weird.

Science, once I started learning and writing about it, corroborated this youthful intuition. Science has revealed that the origin of the universe, of life and of consciousness is each highly improbable. Multiply these improbabilities and they spike toward infinity.

Here is where emotions come into play. You might react to our improbability with joy, because you realize how lucky we are to be alive. We shouldn’t be here, and yet here we are. It’s a miracle! Or you might brood over how how perilous our existence is, because you realize that non-existence is infinitely more probable than existence. But the improbability that triggers these emotions isn’t just in your head, it is out there. And so is the weirdness.

The problem is, many people don’t think the universe, life and consciousness are especially weird. When I talk to my students about the weirdness of existence, they often look baffled. They think I’m weird for insisting that existence is weird. And in fact leading thinkers believe that science has already told us so much about the world and about ourselves that it has dissipated the mystery of things.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett is a prime example. He has argued for decades that life and consciousness aren’t that weird. They are just results of physical processes. Science hasn’t pinned down all the details yet, but it’s just a matter of time. Consciousness will soon seem no weirder than digestion or metabolism. If you insist that things are fundamentally weird, Dennett implies, you must be some sort of flake.

Other philosophers disagree. In his 2013 book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Thomas Nagel argues that conventional, materialistic science cannot account for the emergence of life and consciousness.

In a review of Dennett’s recent book From Bacteria to BachNagel states: “To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.” (See also my review of Dennett.)

Philosopher Paul Feyerabend, when I interviewed him in 1992, was even more adamant that scientists aren’t figuring out reality. “This to me seems so crazy!” Feyerbend exclaimed. “It cannot possibly be true! What they figured out is one particular response to their actions, and this response gives this universe, and the reality that is behind this is laughing! ‘Ha ha! They think they have found me out!’”

This dispute has a parallel in the realm of spirituality. I recently posted profiles of two sages with divergent ideas about the state of insight known as enlightenment. For Stephen Batchelor, a Buddhist, enlightenment consists of seeing “the sheer mystery of everything.” Far from getting answers to the mystery, you see “the massiveness of the question,”

The other sage, a philosopher and avid meditator whom I’ll call Mike, told me that he achieved the highest state of mystical enlightenment in 1995. The essential component of his worldview is a sense of oneness. “What you are, and what the world is, is now somehow a unit, unified,” Mike said.

Wonder wasn’t part of Mike’s outlook. If anything, he said, enlightenment made the world seem less weird. Nor did William James, in his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, include feelings of wonder, or weirdness, in his criteria for mystical experiences (although he did include “ineffability,” the quality of being hard to express in words).

These disagreements give me pause, because they make weirdness seem subjective. And yet I cling to my conviction that the world is weird, and that its weirdness is more fundamental than other qualities we attribute to it, such as goodness, badness or oneness.

I don’t really see the weirdness of the world any more. I am so absorbed in my own little schemes and troubles that I usually take reality for granted. And someday, scientists might convince themselves, and the rest of us, that the world is no longer weird, because they have figured it out. They will exult in their triumph. But when we stop seeing the world as weird, we have lost something, not gained something. Whether or not we see it, the weirdness will still be out there.