Amazing ain’t so amazing

People often talk about how “amazing” something is. People look up at the vast collection of stars and planets in the sky, glued together by gravity, and they say, “That’s amazing.” Or people contemplate the complex system by which all the properties of a living thing can be coded into strands of DNA which are housed in every cell of that living thing’s body and those people say, “That’s fucking amazing!” People look at the Great Wall of China and say, “That’s bloody well amazing!!”

And they are. But what does amazing mean?

We’ve all been amazed when contemplating some part of the natural or the man made world. It’s a feeling of almost mental fatigue… like we’re saying, “I can’t possibly wrap my head around all the time and effort and understanding of detail it would take to create that.” I would argue a thing’s amazingness is not so much a property inherent of that thing but a limitation of our own brain.

Let me give an example. Let’s say you walk over to your friend’s house and he points you to three toy blocks that have been piled up – two on the ground, one perched on those two. He says, “Look what my toddler just built. Isn’t that amazing?” You would probably say, “No, that’s not fucking amazing. Any monkey could do that. Your toddler is a retard and so are you!” You might even kick the blocks over to make your point.

Now let’s redo that scenario: you walk over to your friend’s house and your friend points at his toddler’s latest creation. It’s a vast miniature city made of building blocks and it includes arches, skyscrapers, elaborate bridges and moving miniature cars. It takes up several rooms in your friend’s house. He says, “My kid did this this morning. Isn’t that amazing?” You say, “Fuck yeah!”

What’s the difference between the two projects? For the first project, it’s easy to envision the effort involved – I can mentally imaging myself putting one block on two with no effort. For the second – building a miniature building block city – well, I wouldn’t know where to begin. What makes the second amazing isn’t anything about the block city, it’s my inability to comprehend its complexity.

We all understand that we have a mental workspace and that this workspace is limited. It’s said, for example, that we can (somewhat) easily keep a string of 5-7 numbers in our head. As a result, it’s easy to recall one phone number, but recollection gets increasingly difficult with two or more phone numbers. If we see someone who can be introduced to twenty phone numbers and recite them back from memory a day later, we say, “That’s amazing.” But again, it’s our own mental limitations that make it so.

2 Responses to “Amazing ain’t so amazing”

  1. John Saleeby

    Life’s a journey, not a destination!

  2. John Saleeby

    You’ve got to learn to crawl before you learn to walk, but I just couldn’t listen to all that righteous talk/