David Bentley Hart is a prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian. In this video he talks about being, consciousness and bliss, and beauty as the knowledge of God.
This 15 minute TED talk is by Denis Dutton, philosopher of aesthetics. With the help of fascinating ‘live’ illustrations he says that beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder but that humans are hard-wired by evolution to seek beauty. His is clearly a naturalistic explanation that does not consider religious or transcendent explanations or connections with the sense of awe.
I find the idea of the multiverse difficult to swallow. The what? The idea that there are billions of parallel universes like our own (only different!) seems a faith step to me (which is not a comment on whether it should be believed). But apparently the Everett interpretation of quantum theory says just that. (QT is one of physics’ fundamental theories—the other is relativity if I understand the lie of the land correctly.) This book review starts off at a sort of comprehensible level. Read the first paragraphs slowly to get a taste of the extraordinarily non-intuitive reality in which some scientists think we live and move and have our being. Amazing!
This footage of the northern lights was filmed on 17 March near Gullfoss and Skaftafell in Iceland with multiple DSLR cameras. The northern lights, or aurora borealis, is one of the most sublime and magnificent natural phenomena on Earth. The glow is caused by high-energy electrons colliding with oxygen atoms and nitrogen molecules.
Here’s the 2min video at The Guardian.
“The world is an astonishing place,” says Thomas Nagel, atheist and significant 20th century philosopher. “That it has produced you, and me, and the rest of us is the most astonishing thing about it.”
Nagel is the author of a much talked about book called Mind and Cosmos. Why much talked about? Because Nagel is an atheist and the subtitle of his book is Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Ouch.
The abuse that Nagel has received at the hands of his atheist ‘friends’ who are also naturalists is not pretty. This article has the details.
You may remember that Nancey Murphy tried to convince Denis Alexander that Gothic cathedrals are more awesome than the wonders of nature. But I’m on Denis’s side.
In fact, so much so that I’m heading off this week with four sons to brave the wilderness of Southwest Tasmania. For those in the know: we aim to climb Federation Peak and traverse the Western Arthur range; Australia’s most awe inspiring bushwalk according to some.
So it’s time to wind down the conversation here—although the site will remain for some time. Please continue to participate in similar conversations at the main Encounter site: abc.net.au/rn/encounter
Many thanks to those people who have contributed articles and comments to A Sense of Awe. I hope the conversation has encouraged you to ponder the things that matter.
The writings of Albert Einstein, the 20th century’s best known and perhaps greatest scientist, are a treasure trove for quotable quotes. He has been used by the religious, by atheists and by philosophers of science of all stripes, as an ally in their various causes. But however one defines his religious views, there is little doubt, that for Einstein, awe and mystery lie at the heart of the scientific endeavour.
In 1932 Einstein wrote “My Credo” and read it for a recording to benefit the German League of Human Rights. It ends with the following words:
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.
Einstein’s Credo can be found here where you can also listen to a recording (in German of course!)
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The heavens declare the glory of God, said the Psalmist.
And mathematician John Lennox says at the end of the recent Encounter program: I’ve got a telescope in my garden and one of the things I love to do is go out and just let the night sky, the galaxies, the Orion nebula, have an impact on my mind. I find that awe inspiring. Just to contemplate what the astronomers have revealed to us about the immense size of the universe. I find that very healthy. It’s a good thing to do.
This video from NASA on the ABC site is food for thought. It’s not the looking out at the universe described above, but a look at the earth from space and more likely to provoke a little cosmic introspection.
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In my non-ABC life I am currently thinking about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He’s a thinker who wants to challenge the history of Western thinking in its naive belief that we can simply take hold of reality and describe it as it is. In doing so we eliminate the mystery of ‘Being’ and we live without thinking about the most fundamental levels of what it means to be a human being.
The following piece of writing, which I wrote for another context, is not for everyone. But in some ways it complements Sarah Tomasetti’s piece on her experiences as an artist. It also challenges naive assumptions about the ‘objectivity’ of science which takes so much for granted. (Meanwhile, do join the discussion about the radio program; it’s all happening here.)
Now, for those who ponder the mystery of Being; an introduction to Martin Heidegger: his life, his Nazism and his obscure but profound philosophy.
My philosophical quest in search of the nature of knowledge has recently led me down a slippery trail into my own Mines of Moria, the eerie world of raw truth. It is here, in this obscurity that lies beyond words, that the ghost of Martin Heidegger looms: certainly one of the 20th century’s brilliant minds, and a philosopher with a damning relation to the Nazi party.
This morning “A Sense of Awe” (the radio program) went to air at the (ungodly?) hour of 7am Sunday morning. We hope a vigorous conversation will ensue; this site is the place to contribute. Please get involved by leaving your comments here.
If you haven’t heard the program, you can find times of further broadcasts or an audio download at the Encounter page for the program. You can also read the transcript, but of course if you read it you’ll miss out on Pink Floyd, Vangelis, Pärt, the Bloody Beetroots and all the other subtle and not so subtle WAV file splices.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Sarah Tomasetti is a Melbourne landscape artist and kindly agreed to write a piece for A Sense of Awe about her experiences. Sarah gained a professional qualification in fresco painting in Italy in 1995. Her work is held in a number of collections including Artbank, Macquarie Bank, National Australia Bank, BHP, Grafton Regional Gallery and in private collections in Australia and overseas. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)
Like many artists before me, I am compulsively drawn to the great wild romantic landscapes of history. I am intrigued by how we need this sense of something extraordinary that lies beyond ourselves, how we have sought this through encounters with the natural world, and how, in turn, landscape painting has historically charted our cultural relationship to nature.
I recently revisited Fiordland in New Zealand and walked the Milford Track. On the fifth day one emerges at Sandfly point to take a boat across Milford Sound, the site of Von Guerard’s famous late 19th Century painting of the same name. From roughly the same viewpoint I embarked on further studies of The Lion, an iconic rock that rises with stately certainty from the tannin tinged waters of the Sound.
Kayaking close to the base, one is struck by the vertiginous nature of the granite sides that continue uninterrupted below the waterline. There is nothing resembling a shore or even so much as a foothold in a rock face carved out by a glacier. In the presence of such scale I am reminded of Kate Rigby’s conclusion to her book Topographies of the Sacred, that ‘there is something we might carry forward from romanticism: the art of dwelling ecstatically amidst the elemental, the uninhabitable, and the incomprehensible.’ *
Painting The Lion felt, in some symbolic sense, like coming home, in the sense of engaging with the deep human wish for eternal, unchanging presence; for many found in faith, in nature, or the celestial realm of the sky. The Lion is in reality a dark form, covered in deep brown and green foliage. That this painting emerged a silvery blue suggests the domain of the spirit, perhaps an interior but not visceral place.
I think this reverie I find myself in has deep roots in the human psyche but there is something else intruding now – what is it? Awe has always sat close to a tremor of fear, but this is different, something more like dread. To speak of unchanging presence in nature would seem to be an unparalleled luxury in the 21st Century when the dire predictions of climate change add up to no less than the potential apocalypse of our time. How much more contemplation can we afford? What have we done?
Making a radio program is not as simple as doing an interview and sending it into the airwaves. Let me share some secrets…
You wouldn’t believe the torrent of unacceptable vocal habits that pollutes the audio landscape. Unless of course you’ve had the joy of editing a WAV file.
This past week I’ve spent lots of time at the ABC in Southbank, Melbourne with WAV files passing before my eyes on a computer monitor. It’s part of the cost of cleaning up interviews into a product fit for public consumption on a national broadcaster.
Everyone makes a program differently, but this time I made a full transcript of my interviews (which you may have read here) and then planned the program using the transcripts. But of course only a small part of hours of interviews will find its way into the final 48min program (48min 28sec to be precise!)
That’s where the WAV files come in.
Four audio files associated with A Sense of Awe are now available to download and listen to. The first three (in highly edited form) will contribute to the radio program that goes to air on November 6. The files are:
3. A further interview with Denis Alexander (available here 15Mb 30min).
One of the latest additions to the social networking bag of tricks is Audioboo. It’s a way to record short comments and post them for posterity online.
If you would like post an audio comment on the topics of conversation here, just follow these instructions:
- First set up your free Audioboo account at http://audioboo.fm
- Then, while you are still logged in to your Audioboo account, go to the Sense of Awe page (http://audioboo.fm/asenseofawe) and record your comment. (You will need a microphone connected to your computer.)
We look forward to hearing from you.
Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman is the voice beyond an evocative and thought provoking 5 min video titled Beauty which can be found via this page at The Immanent Frame. The blog post there says:
While Feynman himself was a self-acclaimed atheist, and the project itself aims to “promot[e] scientific education and scientific literacy in the general population,” watching these videos, one cannot help but become enveloped by some sort of spiritual sense of the world and its majesty.
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As you might have gathered, I’m a neophyte radio freelancer working on only my third program. I’m enjoying the challenge but I don’t have years of experience or training. And some of the ropes are tricky to learn.
Margaret Coffey is an ABC old hand and my mentor at Encounter. So I asked Margaret to jot down a few thoughts on the making of a radio program. Margaret writes:
So, you’ve been following Chris’ blog and reading transcripts of interviews with eminent thinkers – and ideally you have been posting your thoughts in response. I hope you want to take up Chris’ invitation to help him plan the making of a radio program in the Encounter series. His task is not simple; there are difficult and tantalising philosophical issues to consider here.
Now, add to the mix the challenge of making a radio program. Each Radio National program brief dictates what the program maker aims to do. Although Encounter sometimes delivers straight lectures, edited and interpolated to greater or lesser degree for broadcast, it generally aims to proffer a ‘feature’ program—a program that tries to make an affective as well as an intellectual experience of radio and that therefore uses the tools radio makes available.
Making such a program is quite a different task from writing a feature article or a lecture and I think it’s especially challenging if you want to enlarge the audience’s sense of whatever it is that is at issue. That means you have to find a means of getting away from simplicities, from conventional tags that align this with that and in so doing might save you the time and effort of dealing with complexity.
Allow me to introduce two guests featuring on the coming Encounter program. One grew up on the land in North America and finds little awe in nature but wonders at Gothic cathedrals. The other, from Britain, has had his fill of cathedrals but finds the mountains awe inspiring.
Recently they shared their thoughts on such matters and others too, including how they deal with doubts about their faith; the metaphysical implications of their messy desks; and their confidence in both science and God.
Nancey Murphy is a philosopher of science and theologian from Fuller Seminary in California, and Denis Alexander, all his life a scientist, is now Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Christianity in Cambridge.
Below you will find a transcript of my lengthy interview with them at the recent Tasmanian conference. Please use the comment form, not only to comment on the content of the interview, but also to let us know what parts of the interview you think should be used for the radio program in November. Editing is imminent and we value your feedback.
Chris Mulherin: We’re at a conference at the beautiful Tamar Valley near Launceston, Tasmania. There are perhaps a hundred people here, mostly Christians professionally involved in science and technology. The conference is run by ISCAST, the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology, and the conference theme is ‘Disenchantment—faith and science in a secular world’. I’m talking to two of the main speakers at the conference; Nancey Murphy from the United States, and Denis Alexander from the UK.
Nancey Murphy, you’re a philosopher and theologian at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, and famously, you don’t believe in the soul, although you’re a Christian. We’ll get back to the soul, but first: what led you into the philosophy of science?
Chris Mulherin: John Lennox, you’re an Oxford mathematician but perhaps better known to the public as one of those who does public battle with Richard Dawkins and the new atheists. Recently you debated atheist philosopher Peter Singer in Melbourne. Why do you divide your time in such disparate pursuits?
John Lennox: I don’t think they’re entirely disparate pursuits, I’ve always been interested in the broader implications of science and the issue here is that people like Richard Dawkins are arguing that if you are a scientist, the only logical position you can take intellectually is atheism. And I dispute that and I quite honestly don’t like seeing science abused in that way. So I want to put across a counter-argument to the public and let the people judge.
Chris Mulherin: Let me ask you about attitudes to science in the public space. As we listen to science, as it’s portrayed in the public eye, I wonder if there’s a tension between two attitudes to science? What we might almost call absolute and relative views of science. One view perhaps represented by the so-called new atheists is very confident that science is the only grounding for truth and knowledge. Another view seen, for example, in scepticism about global warming, shows a lack of confidence and a disenchantment with science. What do you make of these two attitudes to science?
John Lennox: Well I’d call the first attitude scientism. Because it is an attitude to science that science is the only vehicle to truth. And I suppose the easy way to put it is the way Bertrand Russell formulated it: That ‘what science cannot tell us mankind cannot know.’ I’m interested in logic and Russell was a great logician but his logic failed him there. Because his statement ‘what science cannot tell us mankind cannot know’ is not a statement of science. So if it’s true, it’s false.
In other words I think we’re having an over-reach here. And really great scientists like Sir Peter Medawar were very clear — as are most scientists — on the limits of science. That’s the reason science is successful. Medawar puts it this way: that it’s very easy to check that science doesn’t tell us everything. It can’t even answer the simple questions of a child: Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? And so on.
And Einstein once said you can speak of the ethical foundations of science but you cannot speak of the scientific foundations of ethics. In other words you cannot get ethical values from science. So science is there, it’s wonderful, but we do it a disservice, as Medawar also pointed out, if we make it the sole criteria of the truth. And that’s absurd of course because science is not coextensive with rationality. If science were the only way to truth, you’d have to shut half your university departments in Sydney.
There’s an old anecdote that haunts me as I rush about my life in the global fast-lane. It’s about a Western traveler in another culture, in a hurry to get to the end of the journey. One version goes like this:
In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a long trek. Local tribesmen had been engaged to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.
In his 1999 book God for a Secular Society Jürgen Moltmann writes of the impoverishing effects of our Western battle with time:
Modern men and women are ‘always on the go’, so wherever they are, they are always pressed for time. Is it the Christian understanding of time as irreversible, and as an unstoppable ‘ever-rolling stream’, flowing out of the future into the past, that has plunged us into this shortage of time? How can we be rescued from it?
Never before did human beings have as much free time as they have today, and never did they have so little time. Time has become ‘precious’ too, because ‘time is money’. The world offers us endless possibilities, but our life-span is brief. Consequently many people fall into a panic in case they should miss out on something, and they try to step up their pace of living. The utopia of overcoming space and time by way of high-speed trains, faxes and E-mail, Internet and videos, is a modern utopia. Everywhere we want to ‘keep up’ with things – the phrase is significant in itself. We want to be omnipresent in space and simultaneous in time. That is our new God-complex.
The difference between our life-span and the possibilities offered by the world tempts us into ‘a race against time’. We want to save time, so as to get more out of life, and miss out on life in the very attempt. … We have more and more ‘contacts’ and ‘know’ a great many people.
Matthew lectures in Philosophy at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and his interesting thesis is that it is a lack of “enchantment” in rich, developed countries that causes soul-starved Westerners to experience mental (and sometimes physical) illness.
David Tacey will launch The Work of Enchantment on Friday night, so I asked Matthew about the book and his response to my introductory posts. (See “Initial thoughts on awe in a secular age” on this site or the longer article at ABC Religion and Ethics at “Is awe still possible in a secular age?”) Matthew writes:
I would support the claim of David Tacey from his book Re-Enchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, that there is a deep-seated tension in Australian life between artists and intellectuals:
The artists are advocating (re)enchantment from the depths of a prophetic imagination, while the intellectuals are promoting disenchantment and an ironic vision of the world.
This goes not just for Australian life, but for the rich “First World” and is linked into the disenchanting power of Big Capitalism – by which I mean commodity capitalism, in which, as Adorno first said, culture itself is commodified and sold. Education is a commodity too on this market. Nothing is sacred, everything has its price and money is the bottom line. The fiscalisation of the world.
This spells the death of art – it already has, whereby art is defined by market, and an artist is as great as his or her publicity.