What is Interesting?

[This post is a continuation of What is Philosophy?  You might want to start there.]

What does "interesting" mean?

I don't hope to completely answer this question here, and it will be the focus of many other essays, where I will dive deeper and deeper into this topic.  But we can at least begin to tiptoe below the surface here.  It's difficult to even know how to begin to describe the interesting.  We won't fully define it here, but there are some good hints that point toward a definition.

First: I am not using the word "interesting" the way, for instance, Kant does when he writes about our judgement of beauty and the sublime as being disinterested - that is, interest understood as a kind of personal gain (of pleasure).  In a way, you might almost say that I am using the word "interesting" in exactly the opposite way that Kant does.  We will return to this question again and again, in different forms, so I want to have you keep this in the back of your mind right from the beginning.

So: how should we define "interesting"?  How do we distinguish between the interesting and the non-interesting?  Perhaps the best way of getting to interest is to go around through the back door - by figuring out what's not interesting.  Let's consider, for a moment, the relationship between being interesting and being boring.

What is boring?  That, too, is a difficult question, but at least we have some clues.  Overly repetitive things, for instance, can be boring.  And so being "interesting" seems to have something to do with newness.  And if something is new, but in a trivial way, as a minor variation on what came before, this can be boring as well.  So perhaps there's something about predictability here.  At the other end from boring ideas are ideas that are new in an earth-shattering, mind-blowing way - ideas that completely reorient the way we think about things.  

So this helps us understand the relation between interests and the interesting.  It's not so much that the interesting is that which satisfies our pre-existing interests (which would be something like the way that Kant uses the word) - rather, truly interesting things can change our interests.  Most importantly, that which is interesting can create new interests.  But also, along the way, it may destroy or revise old interests.  We're going along, trying to satisfy our personal interests, and then we see something out of the corner of our eye, and we turn and say, "That's interesting."  We are diverted.  Something doesn't add up, something doesn't match our expectations - there's an anomaly.

But as Mary Lewandowski once said, "Human minds aren't very good.  They can get blown pretty easily."  Aren't we diverted by all kinds of things?  There are clever manipulators who are very good at diverting us.  Notice the etymological similarity between "advertisement" (advertissement) and divertissement.  So what is the difference between that which is really interesting, and that which only seems interesting?  Does it even make any sense to make such a distinction?

This question will take us far beyond the scope of the present essay.  But for now, I'll say this: the great M.I.T. mathematician Herbert Gross had the profound insight that mathematics is a game (see, for instance, here).  He wasn't trying to be one of those corny "Come on kids!  Math is fun!" people.  He meant this in quite a rigorous and serious way.  There is something which is usually understood as a field within mathematics, known as "game theory," which is usually thought of as a division within "decision theory."  But Gross noticed that, according to the precise definition of a "game" used by game theorists, just about every area of mathematics is a game.  There are rules, objectives, strategies.  Thus we should rearrange the our mental hierarchies here: it's not that mathematics is the broad, overarching heading under which we find the narrow field of game theory - rather, game theory includes all of mathematics.  Mathematics is a game - one of many.  Or, more accurately, mathematics consists of many, many games, which form a subset of all possible games.

My favorite Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown is teaching Linus how to play basketball.  Charlie says, "See? You dribble the ball a few times, and then you throw it through the net!"  Linus replies, "Why?"  That's the whole cartoon. 

There's no answer to Linus's question.  That's what you do, because that's how you play basketball.  You could do something else, but then you wouldn't be playing basketball.  You might be playing something else - a different game, with different rules - but it wouldn't be basketball.  That's what you do, because that's what you do.  There is something fundamentally arbitrary about the rules and objectives of basketball - and indeed, about all games.  If I try to dig for some deeper reason "why" games are what they are, as Wittgenstein would say, "I have hit bedrock and my spade is turned."

Yes, yes - that's all true.  But also: some games are better than others.  Some games are really boring.  The rules and objectives of games may be ultimately, fundamentally arbitrary, yet they improve over time.  If one side or team always wins, the result will be too predictable, and there will be no reason to keep watching.  Therefore, when we investigate the rules, if we discover something fundamentally unfair about them, which gives an advantage to one side, there will be a powerful incentive to either revise the rules, or abandon the game altogether.  Thus there's a kind of evolution - almost a kind of natural selection (or unnatural selection) that will cause the "genetic code" (the rules and objectives of the game) to develop into more and more complex and interesting forms.

Some games - basketball, chess, go, and so on and so on - keep getting played, generation after generation, because people keep finding something new in them - new variations, new strategies, new discoveries, new problems.  They will keep us coming back again and again to see more, experience more, learn more.

Just exactly why this is, however, can be extremely mysterious.  Consider tic-tac-toe.  It seems like it should be a completely boring game, and humanity should have stopped playing it almost as soon as it started.  But centuries later, here we are, still playing it.  Why?  To be honest, I don't know.  There's something so human about tic-tac-toe, especially in its frustrating futility.  We'll keep on playing this deadlock, over and over, for as long as humans exist. 

Math is an extraordinarily interesting game.  Or, better, a vast, extraordinarily interesting group of games.  The axioms and rules of transformations and logical derivations in math are fundamentally arbitrary - you can, if you wish, pick any other group of axioms that you like.  But many of these other arbitrary groups of axioms will produce results that are predictable, repetitive, boring.  Just the right set of rules, put together, however, will blossom into an overflowing cascade of startling revelations as long and complex as Euclid's Elements.  And logic is an extraordinarily interesting game, as well.  Certain forms of information are fecund - they give rise to more complex and surprising forms of information.  This fecundity is, it seems to me, deeply bound up in the meaning of the interesting. 

Philosophy, taken to furthest, highest extent, becomes math.  Math, taken to his furthest, highest extent, becomes philosophy.  They meet at the extremes.  All of the great philosophers have gone through the moment of considering the deepest mysteries and questions of mathematics.  This unity of apparent opposites is derivative, I believe, of an even more fundamental unity of apparent opposites - that is, the interesting and the boring.  You may object that math is boring, and in a way I agree with you.  The exploration of the mystery of the interesting is central to the discipline of materialist aesthetics.  And the riddle that is at the core of materialist aesthetics is this: discovering the interesting within the boring

I'll finish with a quote from an ad - I forget for what - in which Brooke Shields said, "Reality is more interesting than any fantasy."


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