Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Wizard of Awes: Part #2

My last post’s title was “Ah, Yosemite Falling Again.”

Ah—as in pleasant surprise, relief, regret, amazement…

But, of course, the main side-traveler is the pun, ah and awe, and an allusion to The Wizard of Oz, the famous children’s book and award-winning movie.

And the matter which so many thinkers have brought up--astrophysicist Adam Frank most recently this week on a NPR blog--where does the human emotion of awe come from?

Is awe only a movement of brain chemistry?

Is awe only a religious illusion?

Frank’s answer on awe is “about attention not attribution.” Don’t worry about attributing the experience, but focus on the validity of the moment.

But I’m an onion peeler. How can we find value in “awe” if it’s only an illusion of brain chemistry?

Is awe no more than an evolutionary adaption, a “misfiring” of natural selection, no more than neurons, etc?

Keep in mind what I am worry-warting here is neuroscientist Sam Harris’s infamous statement that even our sense of “I” is an illusion.

According to some scientists such as Sam Harris, we conscious primates and everything in existence from the Big Bang to me typing this sentence—all of it is determined. If so, if the “I” who is clicking my keyboard doesn't exist, but is only an illusion, then, of course, a transcendent emotional experience of mine when standing below Yosemite Falls is even of less significance, of no significance.

In that case, like in the children’s book and movie, there is no wizard of awes.

The transcendent feeling we humans sometimes experience when encountering the gigantic depths of the Grand Canyon, the intense and vast expanse of the Milky Way Galaxy while on a camping trip far from light-dense cities, or standing entranced on the walking bridge drenched in the spray from Yosemite Falls which plunges down into the gorge of Yosemite Valley thousands of feet below...

It’s all just atoms functioning.

No god wizard of religion, but no ultimate reality of philosophers and some scientists either.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the skeptical view of religion. At present, after battling against some of the horrific delusions of various religions for 52 years, I've become skeptical of the usual supernatural wizards who are trotted out as the source of our awe when we encounter scenes that take our breath away.

But I find most atheists, not only sharp at showing the false pretentions of religion, but too often dissing the wonder of awe as well, too often claiming to know far more about the cosmos and absolute reality than even the most erudite cosmologist, and so often insistent it's all meaningless and purposeless.

No doubt this is why Einstein emphasized that he wasn't an atheist; he said wonder was the real basis for all science: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed..."

"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity...I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."
From The World As I See It by Albert Einstein

My own view is that the sense of awe we experience when encountering incredible natural vistas is inherent in us the same way that reason, creativity, free will, human rights, and ethical standards such as honesty and compassion are.

In this dramatic vista that has overwhelmed us, we finite primates encounter a touch of the beautiful, the wondrous, the infinite.

In the LIGHT,

Daniel Wilcox

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