[This piece appeared as an op/ed in newspapers on the last weekend of July, 2023.]
I’ve been thinking about “finding the world interesting” – or not.
The subject is interesting to me, because finding things interesting is one of my stronger events in the decathlon of living meaningfully.
I’ve asked myself: What interesting things can be said about “finding the world interesting”?
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
We humans have available to us a variety of ways of experiencing our lives positively, i.e. ways of feeling glad to be alive, like
- feeling the positive bonds of love and affection;
- satisfying our appetites (for food, sex, etc.);
- taking pleasure in beauty in our world.
“Finding things interesting” belongs on that list. One feels better – more alive – when we find things interesting than when everything seems dull and boring. We prefer finding it meaningful to observe and investigate what we encounter in our reality.
The evolutionary perspective – which tells us that we’ve been “wired” to experience positively those things that have been life-serving — enables us readily to understand why finding things interesting would be crafted into our nature:
What we experience positively is rewarding (internally) so that we will seek out such experience. And the drive to seek out such experience has been instilled into our nature because it has helped our ancestors – those who passed their genetic endowment down to us – to survive in the (external) world.
Such “survival value” is clear when it comes to motivating us to eat when we are hungry, or to form positive bonds with those around us, or to conceive the next generation of our kind. All those motivations increased the probability of our ancestors’ succeeding in passing along to us their genetic design (and, in turn, will increase the likelihood of our passing our own design to our descendants).
Likewise with finding things interesting: the positive experience of being interested provides the motivation for a creature to learn more about the world in which it must survive. The more accurate the “maps” – i.e. the better the understanding — the greater the creature’s ability to operate successfully in its encompassing reality.
The notion that “finding things interesting” has been crafted into our nature – i.e. evolutionarily selected for – is suggested strongly by the almost universal tendency of very young humans to be animated by a powerful curiosity.
(Our species isn’t the only one whose young show such curiosity. We see it in kittens and puppies, among many others – likely in every species in which learning about the world is an important part of their survival strategy.
(But our species – which is generally observed to preserve juvenile traits (neoteny) – seems naturally to maintain a high degree of curiosity throughout our lives.
(In that context, it is troubling how widespread is the observation that a great many of our children lose that native curiosity midway through elementary school. Too much of our way of “educating” our young kills curiosity. That strikes me as exemplifying how the task of fitting into civilization often suppresses our nature, training us away from paths that lead to more meaningful experience.)
Our inherent experiential tendencies – along with their resultant motivational tendencies, and the behavioral tendencies those motivations lead to – are there because they have been life-serving (in our ancestral past).
And in that idea lies a means to correct an important defect in much of today’s secular worldview.
A major part of that worldview has given the experiential dimension short-shrift. That disrespect is the result of the belief that “reality” is confined to the objective realm— the world “out there” – while what is experienced is “merely subjective.” So a major current in the secular worldview has consigned to second-class status some important realities that are necessarily rooted in experience.
But the evolutionary perspective should lead us to a very different conclusion: our inherent experiential tendencies point to a reality that is important because it is life-serving.
There are two important ways that it is a fundamental error to downgrade the Experiential Realm as “merely subjective.”
First, because what has been selected for in our inborn experiential tendencies is a kind of projection of the external world in which we must survive. Those tendencies are not arbitrary, and they are part of the structure of life (just as much as our anatomy).
But second, beyond that, it is only in the quality of creatures’ internal experience is that any kind of “Value” can have meaning.
This applies fully to that kind of Value called “interestingness,” which is one of the paths to which we are inherently drawn.
Nothing could ever be “objectively” interesting. The objective qualities of things – whether they’re complex, or reveal patterns, or explain what’s going, or bear upon what our future will be – could never suffice to make something interesting. “Interestingness” must register in someone’s experiential realm.
(So also with our experiencing some things as “better” and some as “worse.” If there were no creatures whose experience had an evaluative dimension, nothing could matter. But on the foundation of such evaluative experiences, a Moral Dimension can be built that is real, important, and life-serving. Not in the least deserving of “second-class status.”)
At the root of the nature of sentient creatures like ourselves – crafted to perpetuate our form of life — is an orientation to seek out positive experience. “Happiness” is an umbrella term for the various forms of positive experience – like love, pleasure, physical movement, spirituality, beauty, meaningful purpose, and finding things interesting — available to us humans.
Which means that “the pursuit of happiness” is not only a right, it is an inborn assignment.