Jun 12, 2019
A flower coral, eusmilia fastigiata, at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; photo: The Coral Kingdom Collection
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
—William Blake, 1790
Imagine science has reached a point where medical researchers are able to administer precise doses of pharmaceutical substances that alter the chemistry of the brain in highly targeted ways. We already have drugs that act as cognitive enhancements. We also have drugs that try to tackle with a broad brush, and with varying degrees of success, certain emotional conditions, such as depression. The drugs I’m asking you to imagine are rather different: they can generate specific emotions. Call them “targeted emotional enhancements.” A dose of such a drug can induce an emotional state of your choice. Choice is exclusive, so that selecting one emotion excludes all others. Choice is also permanent: unlike most drugs we know, this drug alters your brain chemistry permanently. The state you choose will define the texture of your emotional life for decades to come. What would you choose?
I can imagine most people hesitating. We may be reminded of the reasons many people would hesitate to be hooked up to the famous “experience machine” devised by Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick to make a point against the adequacy of hedonism as a psychological theory. Nozick’s machine can give us all the pleasurable experiences we want by direct stimulation of our brain. Yet most people would refuse to be plugged in to it. Partly that’s because we want to be agents of our lives, not passive receptacles of experiences injected into our minds from the outside, however pleasant. Partly it’s that we value the sense of being in contact with something we think of as “reality.” The bearing of Nozick’s thought experiment becomes even more direct if you assume, in the case of these emotional enhancers, that there is only one obvious choice most if not all people would make. Given the choice, what else would they opt for if not a lifetime of uninterrupted joy?
For my part, I’m not so sure. But I believe I know at least what one man— Aldous Huxley, best known as the author of Brave New World—would have chosen. In 1953, Huxley conducted an experiment showing that such a pharmacological possibility was already by no means in the realm of fantasy. Under professional supervision, Huxley ingested half a gram of a drug called mescaline, and then sat back to experience the results. Mescaline is the active ingredient in the peyote cactus, a hallucinogenic plant known for its traditional use among Native Americans. The results were described in a remarkable little tract known under the title The Doors of Perception, in which Huxley, aided by audio recordings made at the time, reconstructed his experience and reflected on its significance. Although it would be impossible to reduce that extraordinary account to a single idea, central to the texture of Huxley’s experience was what we would have no difficulty recognizing as a dramatic, almost ecstatic experience of wonder.
As Huxley watched, the world was transfigured. Colors became more intense, flaming out like precious stones. The surfaces of things changed. He found himself dwelling on the folds of his trousers in bewitchment. Ordinary things, such as chairs and tables, took on a miraculous aspect. Huxley’s eyes feasted on the world around him as if he were seeing everything for the first time.
Two things stand out in the way he articulated this ecstatic mode of perception. Over and over, he described it as an intense experience of meaningfulness. Everything, the most mundane things, seemed significant. And over and over, he used what seems like a strongly religious vocabulary to articulate that sense of significance. What he felt he was seeing under the effect of mescaline was “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” He was beholding the “unfathomable mystery of pure being.” Everything he saw was charged with “isness.” Huxley described it as a “sacramental vision of reality.”
It is hard to walk away from Huxley’s account unmoved. Yet his experience raises many questions. If we take it as a paradigmatic case of wonder, it provides us with a rare phenomenological account of the experience that helps us think more clearly about its nature. Yet it also helps us confront the question: Why is this an experience of value—an experience we might think worth having? And more provocatively: How can we access it? And just how far are we prepared to go to do so?
The first question is one that is almost as old as the history of thought. Plato and Aristotle were both answering it in their own ways when they described wonder as the passion that makes us think. “It is owing to their wonder,” in Aristotle’s familiar words in the Metaphysics, “that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” That it does so has to do with a special feature of wonder that sets it apart from other emotions. Other emotions, such as anger or fear, are based on evaluations of how particular circumstances or events affect our interests or needs. You took something that’s mine, so I’m angry with you. I think someone may hurt me, so I feel scared.
Insofar as it reflects a uniquely human ability to respond to the world in ways that transcend practical concerns, some might even say that wonder is the emotion that makes us human.
Wonder, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be rooted in practical interests in the same way. The early people whom Aristotle imagines looking up at heavenly phenomena and asking why weren’t driven by a sense of how practically useful it would be to answer that question. As the French philosopher René Descartes would later suggest, wonder arises in us before we’ve even had a chance to consider whether an object benefits or harms us. Insofar as it reflects a uniquely human ability to respond to the world in ways that transcend practical concerns, some might even say that wonder is the emotion that makes us human. If you follow this line of thinking, the value of wonder will lie in the wide range of intellectual achievements it has made possible, making us ask questions—philosophical and scientific—and answer them.
Yet the experience of wonder that Huxley describes does not fit that productive mold, the mold of productive inquiry. While he repeatedly talks about an experience of “mystery,” this is not a mystery he’s interested in explaining. Nor is Huxley interested in thinking. Seeing seems more than enough. In this regard, his experience reminds us of a type of wonder that is at home less in philosophy and science than in poetry and religion. This is the kind of wonder the poet William Wordsworth described when he talked about seeing the “glory in the flower” and the “splendour in the grass,” or that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had in mind when he talked about contemplating the world “with feelings as fresh, as if all had then sprang forth at the first creative fiat”—with a mind that “feels the riddle of the world.”
If we focus on this type of wonder, to ask why wonder is worth experiencing will be like asking why it’s worth experiencing anything at all. To wonder simply is to experience—to really, or properly, experience. Why open the “doors of perception”? Just to perceive. Though this bare statement still leaves out an important element of what one is experiencing things as. To feel the wonder of Huxley and the poets is not just to experience things but to experience them as signs, as meaningful yet mysterious. A sense of mystery is a sense of possibility. It involves a sense of not-knowing that is nevertheless suffused with trust or hope. It’s no accident that wonder has sometimes been said to have a similar structure to hope.
This, it seems to me, is the kind of wonder that has played a special role in the emotional life not just of poets but also of theologians and religious believers. The contemporary psychologist of religion Robert Fuller has described wonder as an emotion with a “spiritual” or “metaphysical” tendency, which provides a powerful impetus to quests of a spiritual or religious kind. Many thinkers, from Augustine to Rudolph Otto, have seen wonder—and its more intense form, awe—as the quintessential religious emotion. The twentieth-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed for it. Faced with the thought experiment with which I began, we can guess how these thinkers would have responded. We can perhaps also imagine how they might have countered any comparison with Nozick’s experience machine. The wonder of the poets and the theologians is no mere “feeling” that can be untethered from the world: a wonder worth its salt makes us see things as they really are, really see things. And the state of wonder is no pure state of hedonic pleasure, such as physical pleasure or joy. It is at best a state of hopeful tension. It relishes a sense of possibility, not a sense of possession. Rather than shut down experience, it opens it.