The value of interests


It’s not necessary for interests to be all-consuming. Every thought and action is accompanied by a small emotional response and simply pursuing a multitude of micro-interests can fill a day and keep boredom at bay.

Some interests are naturally built into us and we don’t need to work hard at nurturing them. Because humans need to eat, find shelter and reproduce to prosper, evolution has made food, homes and mates naturally interesting to us. Also it has made the things that are good for us pleasurable and the things that are bad for us revolting.

Evolution’s idea was that rather than letting us try to work out logically what food is good for us, where to build a hut and who to mate with, it would instead make things easy by giving us feelings for us to act upon. A feeling of pleasure often goes hand in hand with having made a good choice.

Thus we find, as if by sheer good luck, that foods that contain what we need to live, like proteins, sugars and vitamins are contained in the foods we like: meat and fruit are two examples.

On the other hand we perceive poisons as being bitter. This is not because they actually are bitter. Bitter is just a subjective judgement. Things taste bitter to us because they are bad for us. They are not bad for us because they are bitter. An animal that needed foods containing poison would not find them bitter at all but delicious in some way.

Humans enjoy landscapes full of greenery and water, edible animals, paths we can walk along and escape down. The reason we find these landscapes attractive is because they are places in which we can live well. Landscapes that don’t contain these things are considered ugly.

By the same token, we find nubile young women beautiful. They are the kind of women we want to have our children. On the other hand, we are not attracted to old infertile females with bad teeth, matted hair and acne-ridden skin. Evolution has done it’s job by making us like what is advantageous to the reproduction of our genes. Here I add some big caveats.

So much for the sensual interests. But what about intellectual interests? An intellectual interest can add an extra dimension to our enjoyment of the sensual world. Richard Feynman made the point that while his artist friend sees only the surface beauty of a flower, the scientist sees both the external beauty of the flower and the beauty of its underlying structure. Feynman’s gaze thus includes both an appreciation of the surface beauty of the flower and a deep understanding of how it functions. His appreciation is deeper and more complete than that of the artist.

The combining of the artistic response to beauty and an analytical scientific understanding of the world was what Robert M. Pirsig was trying to achieve in his book, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, though I’m not convinced he succeeded.

Three men who are perhaps able to combine these two ways of looking at the world are Richard Feynman, David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins. They all seem to find the world both beautiful and fascinating and their scientific understanding only increases their appreciation of its beauty and fascination.

Yet somehow I don’t feel the same sense of awe as they do. This may be because I am not a scientist. Or an artist. I am interested in the world without being awestruck by its beauty. However, there is someone whose feelings I can better understand and that is Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes isn’t so interested in sensual pleasure or beauty, but he is interested enough in the world to use his senses to the full. It is this that enables him to solve crimes. He has his eyes and ears open all the time, looking for clues. To this close attention of sensory data he adds a great reasoning mind.

It seems to me that a mind like Sherlock Holmes could never be bored and would never fall back into lazy self-absorption. And this is what interests are for: to release us from the prison of our selves.


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