A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
September 7, 2011 0

That’s awesome! But is it true?

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This post is based on the second part of an article originally published on the ABC Religion site.

In a previous piece, Initial thoughts on awe, I asked whether enchantment is still possible in a secular age.

Traditionally the sense of awe or wonder has been linked to religious or transcendental views of the universe and the human condition. But some ‘non-transcendentalists’ such as Richard Dawkins disagree – to name the most prominent protagonist of atheist awe. For them, secularisation and atheism are no bar to living in an enchanted world, a world where it is appropriate, even obligatory, to wonder, to give thanks and to look with awe upon the works of nature.

Others, such as philosopher Charles Taylor, make it clear that transcendence for them is not solely about subjective feelings but is a fact of experience that can break in upon us: “the sense that fullness is to be found in something beyond us.”

At this point the road to transcendence divides into two trails. One, exemplified by Taylor, takes the high path into the dark of the forest where all is not seen and the hidden is as real as the visible. This way involves a belief that beyond human beings lies a reality that has a significant bearing on the human condition.

This ‘high’ view of enchantment includes a recognition of mystery, of truths too deep for words, and a rejection of reductive explanations. It claims that to talk of transcendence is to make reference to the real world, but a world beyond the limits of science; to re-enchant the world is to affirm truths that science will never come to grips with. Re-enchantment then, involves an implicit claim that science does not, and will never have, the last word.

Of course, this is a belief which is unprovable in a scientific sense. It is a faith claim, whether religious or not, that there is more to human existence than can ever be revealed by the methods and ways of science as we know it today. In the words of the apostle, “we see through a glass darkly.”

The other trail takes the ‘low’ road, crossing cleared ground where all is revealed to the eye and mystery is a mumbo jumbo word for complexity; a complexity that will be revealed in due course by science and human ingenuity.

From this perspective, the sense of transcendence is reducible to subjective experience, shared by many and rooted in evolutionary history and brain function. It has no external anchor in a world beyond human physiology that would make such claims objectively true or false.

On this view the wonder of a sunset is explainable by brain states, and a preference for Mozart over Madonna is no more than a cultural and chemical construction. While the reasons for such preferences may not yet be clear, cognitive neuroscience will reveal all.

Oh, the freedom of enjoying Gilbert and Sullivan without a guilty cringe and admitting that we never did like Puccini anyway! But I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

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