There are two kinds of wonder. You may well experience the first when you look at the night sky on a clear and moonless night. The universe is vast, beautiful, and at times incomprehensible. The other kind of wonder can be experienced when someone studies something scientifically: a complex and highly ordered process analysed and understood. I mentioned last week that Ernst Mach didn’t believe in wonder. It was the first kind of wonder that he didn’t believe in: the kind that comes from ignorance and is dispelled by knowledge – a process that can lead to disillusionment. But as Einstein pointed out, when one explores phenomena scientifically the wonder only deepens as the order and complexity in a system reveals itself.
Encountering something new and terrifying is not an experience many of us seek out deliberately, but simple astonishment is usually a fruitful emotion. We have the opportunity to learn when we come up against the unfamiliar. Astonishment imprints something in our minds, and prompts us to ask questions. Take a child’s first encounter with a grasshopper: How can such a little thing make such a big noise without seeming to move a muscle? Why does it jump away so fast? How can it jump so high with such little legs? Such questions can lead to a lifetime’s fascination.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written about the experience of wonder and its importance in both science and theology. The ancient Greek philosophers taught that knowledge begins in wonder. When we are open to something and give ourselves up to discovering what it has to show us, we learn. When we already ‘know’ what it is about we shut down our perceptions and it has nothing to tell us. Continue reading