Wonder

Aurora borealis, Joshua Strang, public domain.

When I ask scientists about the positive interaction between science and faith, awe and wonder nearly always play a large part in the conversation.

Awe is the mixture of overwhelmment, wonder and fear that we often feel when we encounter something larger, more beautiful, powerful or complex than anything we see in our everyday lives. Sometimes even reverence, or respect come into it. The night sky, vast landscapes and the mighty forces of wind and sea are accessible to most people on this planet, and frequently leave us speechless.

Wonder, on the other hand, is a more active and hopeful emotion. When we’re confronted by something new, unexpected, or especially beautiful, we often want to examine and understand it. We might doubt what knowledge we thought we had about it, and enjoy the process of asking questions and beginning to untangle its mystery.

To wonder is a pleasant experience – the object of our attention is amazing but not threatening. While everyone feels awe, if you want to make progress in some particular area of life you need to be able to wonder. An artist wonders how to communicate a certain concept; a chef wonders what the food would taste like if she added a certain ingredient; an accountant wonders whether last year’s books were properly balanced after all; and a scientist wonders how physical forces work together to produce something so strange and beautiful.

Adam Smith has already been mentioned on this blog in connection to wonder. In his ‘Essays on Philosophical Subjects’ (‘philosophical’ meaning scientific in this context), Smith elaborates on wonder. He sees it as a negative, disturbing emotion that must be dispelled with knowledge. When we come across something new we are thrown outside our usual categories of thinking, and must investigate its properties until we find a connection with something familiar. Once we know how something fits into our current set of mental pigeonholes, or we have created a new place for it in our system of knowledge, we wonder less and peace is restored. Smith thought that wonder was a driving force in the development of modern science. If a person is naturally observant and curious, or has been trained to be so, they will wonder why certain things are connected: How does the food we eat become part of our bodies? How do dyes stain cloth? These connections are surprising and invoke wonder. If someone has the leisure to observe these things, and the time and resources to explore the processes involved, they will find themselves doing science.

I think Adam Smith was partly right. Without wonder we wouldn’t have science. If we only had awe we would be alternately delighted and fearful at what we saw around us, but we would lack the drive to investigate and the knowledge to change things.

Whether Adam Smith was unusual for his time in thinking of wonder as a negative emotion, I’m not sure (any historians out there?) I’m glad that we now see it as a positive thing – children are encouraged to wonder, adults seek out experiences that get them wondering, and scientists definitely have a well-developed sense of the wonderful.

Wonder is also an important ingredient in Christian faith. Again, awe on its own I think would achieve little if we didn’t have the intelligence to wonder about our lives and investigate answers. Wonder has twice as many mentions in the Bible than awe – which maybe shows its importance for our spiritual development. It’s often hard to think beyond our everyday grind – we don’t often have the leisure or resources to do that – but sometimes something very surprising or beautiful can help us to make that mental leap.

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