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Sorry pal, this woo is irreducible
OR: Crush me under the weight of 1,000 CBT manuals
Years ago, I attended a wedding that should not have happened.
The couple had been with each other forever, held together by nothing but inertia, a sort of living monument to the sunk cost fallacy. The bride was goofy; the groom was grim. She wanted kids; he didn’t. They fought constantly. In their vows, they gravely promised to be together through the bad times; conspicuously, they didn’t mention good times.
And yet, they married! She wore a dress and he wore a suit and a priest bound them in eternity before God. Friends gave speeches and everyone clapped. We ate and danced and wrote them checks and wished them everlasting happiness.
I left a little shaken. It felt like you shouldn't be able to do that, like the machinery of matrimony shouldn’t move unless it's powered by true love. If you’re marrying the wrong person, shouldn’t the wedding dress burst into flames? Shouldn’t the priest get struck by lighting? Shouldn’t someone at least say something?
I was younger then, and more naive; I didn't realize it was possible to make such a bad decision with so much premeditation. I knew people who had done dumb things, of course. One of my high school classmates had once pinned down another boy in the locker room, stuck his bare butt in the poor kid's face, and let rip a big fart; he had to register as a sex offender. Another guy, after losing an away basketball game, found some girls' swimsuits in the locker room, put one on, shat in it, and left it in the shower. (My high school sort of had a reputation for doing nefarious butt stuff in locker rooms.) Another guy leapt through a bonfire just after it had been doused in gasoline and got third-degree burns all over his body, which he tried to hide from his parents and teachers by wearing a hoodie with the hood up at all times; this worked until the wounds started oozing and he had to go to the hospital. I knew girls who dated these guys.
But these were all mistakes of youth, borne of hotheadedness, inexperience, and half-formed prefrontal cortices. Shouldn’t age and reflection cure most of them and diminish the rest? Dating the fart-face guy merely requires a lack of knowledge, after all; anyone can be excused for not knowing what a jerk looks like until he bares his keister. But marrying the fart-face guy requires the wrong knowledge: you have to behold his bottom, inhale a big whiff of his stink, and still decide to sign forms with him and pay a catering deposit. How could we possibly know less after living longer?
SORRY I FORGOT TO MENTION THE PART WHERE THE TEENS KILL EACH OTHER IN THE WOODS
There is a way to become more ignorant through learning, a wicked feedback loop that can send you spinning in precisely the wrong direction. The genesis of that loop, the big dumb conundrum, is that most human experience is ineffable.
As I wrote in You can't reach the brain through the ears, we've got this kaleidoscopic inner life: emotions! thoughts! images! But your brain does not offer screen-sharing. If you want to convey what's inside your head, all you can do is waggle your tongue and hope to vibrate other people's ear-bones at a frequency that makes them understand.
This doesn't work all that well, and that's a problem, but it gets worse. Not only are we stuck describing a small part of our experience—it's a weird little non-representative part, and other people assume that part is all there is. Like this:
In a situation like this, there's no way the blue circle could ever expand to fill the red circle. At best, it can only reach the borders of the speech bubble—you can come to understand everything that someone is saying to you, but you can never understand the things they can't say. It’s like trying to throw a dart at a bullseye with your eyes closed, and the only feedback you get is someone shouting at you, and even when you’re a little left of the target, they keep shouting “A little more to the left!”
Here's a story I think about a lot, one that illustrates this problem well. Once, long ago, my friend's mom went to the library looking for a book for her kids. “Do you recommend this Hunger Games book?” she asked a librarian. “Oh yes,” the librarian replied. “It's about a world that's divided into districts, and each district makes something different: one makes grain, another makes energy, and so on. Your kids will really like it.” This is, of course, factually true about The Hunger Games, but it misses the point, which is that the book is actually about a bunch of teenagers being forced to kill each other in the woods.
The more you talk to this librarian, then, the less you will understand The Hunger Games. “District 8 makes textiles! District 10 makes livestock!” As you acquire more of these pointless facts, you'll probably feel like you're becoming a Hunger Games expert when you're actually becoming a Hunger Games dummy.
Here's another way of looking at it. When I lived in the UK, I often met Brits who had been to exactly one location in the United States: Las Vegas. I always found this hilarious. To them, the United States of America was a beached cruise ship, a shrine to every vice, a place that stank of cigarettes and desperation. It was all-you-can-eat buffets and poker chips and gutters full of prostitutes' business cards. It was a giant fountain in an endless desert. It was a Cirque du Soleil show that was very nice, actually. It was your Uber driver pointing to a parking lot and saying, “That's where that guy killed all those people.”
And the thing is, yes, America is all of those things! But it's not only those things. Spending a week in Las Vegas, or even a year, or ten years, will only give you a vivid picture of a tiny part of a big country.
Unfortunately, life is often like having a conversation with a foolish librarian, or like living for a year in Las Vegas. Nobody tells you that you're only learning about one weird little non-representative sliver of reality. Often, this is because nobody can tell you. The truth is locked away in the realm of the ineffable, a place impervious to description. You can't read about this place or see it on TV. You just have to visit it yourself.
ARGENTINES WITHOUT MEANS
Which brings us back to the wedding that should not have happened, because nowhere is this problem greater than in love—the human experience that is most discussed, but least understood. In fact, the more you discuss it, the less you might understand it, because the real heart of it, the what-it’s-like of it, can’t be put into words, and yet that’s pretty much the main thing we try to put into words.
And we hear: love is a crazy little thing, a battlefield, a drug, my drug, all you need, a secondhand emotion, something you can find in a hopeless place and that you can't help falling in, but that also lifts you higher and higher. It makes you want to write love songs and to not write love songs. It also makes you want to go to the mailbox. Love will keep us together and love will tear us apart. Some of the things that can make you fall in love are a movement, a shape, a way, a DJ, being a fool, the way someone lies, and a tractor.
And yes, love is all of those things. But it's not only those things. There's a part that's more than words, a part that cannot be broadcast via radio waves, depicted in pixels, or embodied in ink. It can only be felt. That's why, at a happy wedding, the couple looks like they know a secret that no one else knows, a secret that no one else can know.
This is, of course, a big problem for people who are trying to figure out whether they should spend their lives together. It’s easy to think, “Hey, our love is a battlefield, it lifts us higher, we can’t keep our minds on nothing else, maybe we should get some rings and make this official.” It’s also easy to think, “Well, we can feel our faces just fine, maybe we ought to call it off.” And both might well be mistakes.
So what do you do? How do you know that you know the secret that no one else knows? This problem is most fraught in love, but appears anywhere that our ability to experience outpaces our ability to describe, which is everywhere: how do you know you’re living a good life, choosing the right career, having enough fun?
There isn’t an answer to those questions, of course. But there is a way to start, and it’s by believing that mysteries exist.
I know that might sound dumb, but my three decades of formal education strongly implied to me that mysteries do not exist. There are things we don't know, sure, but these are temporary embarrassments, soon to be rectified. None of my textbooks included a chapter called “things we will never understand.” Even my religion classes were completely matter-of-fact about the mysterious: “an all-powerful, everlasting, omnipotent God sent his one son to earth to die for our sins because that had to happen, duh.”
And why would anyone claim otherwise? How could a high school principal get a school levy passed, and how could a university president justify charging you $60,000 per year for an education, if they had to admit there are things—important things, life-changing things—that they simply cannot teach you, because they cannot be taught at all?
The principals and the presidents probably don't believe in such mysteries anyway, because they are inheritors to a tradition that began in the Enlightenment, a drumbeat and a refrain that goes, “Make all things legible!” Stamp out the mysteries, bring the unknown to heel, shoot the whole universe through the with the light of understanding! Science and reason, in this tradition, are like the bulldozers in Avatar, knocking down the forests of mystery and paving them over with logic and understanding. (Except, uh, in a good way.)
And yes, science and reason are like that. We've bulldozed our way to the moon and to the bottom of the ocean, we've bulldozed smallpox and polio, we've bulldozed snake oil and witch burnings. Well done, us!
But there are forests that no bulldozer can reach, mysteries that cannot be subjugated with numbers. Irreducible woo, we might call it. (Mystical knowledge is good too, but when else are you gonna be able to say “woo”?) Trying to pave these places with reason is a category error, like spending hours looking for your car on Parking Level 2 when you actually parked on Parking Level 5.
One of these irreducible woos is, of course, “what does it feel like to be really really in love with someone.” Listening to 1,000 love songs is not the same as being in love. Neither is reading about oxytocin or surveying a nationally representative sample of couples. No one can explain it to you, and even if they could, they could only explain what it’s like for them to love their partner, but they can’t explain what it’ll be like for you to love yours. It’s like someone going to see Mission Impossible and explaining the plot to you, as if every movie is Mission Impossible. “You’ll love the part where Tom Cruise jumps out of a helicopter,” they explain confidently as you head off to see Steel Magnolias. Sorry pal, you can’t IMDB this one. This woo is straight up irreducible.
CRUSH ME UNDER THE WEIGHT OF 1,000 CBT MANUALS
Back in college, if I had heard someone prattle on about irreducible woo, I would have howled. No, no, the sprawl of science will expand to cover all of reality one day, I would have claimed, and those who resist it are fools and crooks.
Once, in a clinical psychology class, I read that some practitioners of psychodynamic therapy reject the idea that their treatments can be studied scientifically. Charlatans! I thought. Quacks and frauds! Crush these people under the weight of a thousand cognitive-behavioral therapy manuals until they submit to the norms of science! (I was a dramatic 21-year-old.)
Then two things happened. First, I got a skull full of poison. I felt bad for a long time and I didn’t know why, and every rational response only made it worse. The only thing that helped was a big time woo-doctor telling me my head was full of demons and I had to slice them in half.
More importantly, I fell in love. And that's why I'm thinking about all this, of course: I just got married. It looked like this:
I can enumerate lots of reasons why I chose to spend my life with Priya: she’s kind, she's brilliant, she’s funny. But the most important reasons cannot be enumerated. They can only be experienced.
I don’t believe it’s possible to love someone, to really love someone, without believing in mysteries. How can you commit the rest of your life when you have no idea what it holds? How can you care for another person just as much as—more than!—you care for yourself? How can you be solid enough to stay with someone, but supple enough to change with them? The most defining feeling of my time with Priya has been something I can only describe as, “oh, I didn't realize it could be like this.” There was no way to know that beforehand, because to really understand what the like this is like, you'd have to climb inside my skin, and please don't, I'm using it right now.
So it makes no sense, and if you try to make it make sense, you’re gonna end up with a wedding dress on fire and a priest struck by lightning. Believing in mysteries is no guarantee that you’ll solve them. But denying them guarantees that you never will. All I can tell you is that they exist, and once you find your way inside them, you never wanna leave.
Experimental History is a mystery made possible by readers like you