Wonder, part 1

Happy October! I love this season – the cooler air, the exuberance of spring and summer giving way to the quieter brilliance – the poignant beauty of the ebbing of life. It’s a month of wonder – and a perfect month for us to reflect on wonder and allow wonder to fill our breasts.

So wonder is our theme of the month, and the subject of the October issue of On the Journey. Of course, any season in which you can slow down a little, and appreciate beauty – and, really, everything is beautiful if your are in a mind to see its beauty – is a time of wonder. So, come, friends: let us wonder together; let us wonder about wonder.

Wonder is itself a wonder. What an amazing thing that we should be beings who get amazed, a wondrous thing that these animal bodies – yours and mine – should be built to experience wonder. Where does that come from? It’s a wonder. The capacity for wonder is not unique to humans. The chimpanzees – whose branch on the evolutionary tree split off about 6 or 7 million years ago from the branch that eventually led to homo sapiens – also seem to experience wonder.Jane Goodall noticed the wonder that chimps seemed to feel in the presence of a waterfall. Here, let’s let Jane herself explain:

What are these chimps doing in this video? What are we doing when we stand in wonder before a waterfall, or a grand vista? There doesn’t seem to be any utilitarian purpose for this. It doesn’t seem to confer any reproductive advantage, so how did natural selection select for the capacity for wonder? For these chimps it looks actually risky. They could slip on the rocks. Chimps can’t swim, so the risk of falling in could be life-threatening.

We heard Goodall say that
“The chimpanzee's brain is similar to ours. They have emotions that are clearly similar to those that we call happiness and sadness and fear and despair and so forth. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality? Which is, really, being amazed at things outside yourself.”
She goes on to say:
“I think chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are, but they can’t analyze it, they don’t talk about it; they can’t describe what they feel.”
Hmm. Being amazed at things outside yourself is part of spirituality -- as is, for that matter, being amazed at things inside yourself. The larger part of spirituality, it seems to me, is the making meaning of things, of life, of this existence.

So describing the feelings of wonder – which is how we place those feelings in a context of meaning – is itself a big component of spirituality. If the chimps can’t describe what they feel, then I’d say they have a seed of spirituality, but that seed hasn’t sprouted into spirituality. That seed is wonder, and it does seem that the chimps are experiencing wonder.

It’s true we don’t know what’s happening in a rain-dancing chimp’s mind. Let’s remember, we don’t know what’s happening in a rain-dancing human’s mind. We don’t know what’d going on in each other’s minds – or even in our own mind. We are mysteries to ourselves.

It turns out various loud stimuli – machinery, boisterous people, or waterfalls -- can elicit chimpanzee displays. But what about that sitting quietly and staring at the waterfall afterwards? That’s just what I – and most people – would do at the foot of a waterfall: quietly gaze.

Philosopher Jesse Prinz identifies three components of wonder. There’s the sensory. “Wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes.” That part, we have in common with chimps, and some other animals.

Then there’s the cognitive. Wondrous things are beyond what we can cognitively comprehend. There’s something perplexing about them. Whether the chimps experience this component is less clear.

Finally, there’s the spiritual. “We look upwards in veneration;” our heart swells.

Wonder is what we experience when we confront mystery. Some kinds of mysteries are solvable by figuring it out, or looking up the answer. Those aren’t the kinds we’re interested in today. Rather, wonder is what we experience when we confront irresolvable mystery. This kind of mystery, you don’t solve. You live the mystery.

Who am I? Who is asking that question? What is this world? What is matter? The more we attend to the details of what the physicists say about it, the weirder and more mysterious it gets. (For instance, they say that matter is whatever occupies space and has mass. That's handy for scientific purposes, but from a wider standpoint, it simply replaces one mystery with two: space and mass.)

Why is there me? Why is there anything? Why is there something rather than nothing? Where am I – what is the meaning of this geographic location, or this stage in the arc of my life? These are the questions that admit of no settled answer. You might have provisional partial answers, but it might be better to not even have that much. Just be in the mystery, without grasping after an answer.

What sort of place is the universe? What is life, and how does it happen? What is consciousness, and how does it happen? Scientists seem to have a lot to say about these, so maybe they are in the category of things to figure out. On the other hand, the scientist's stories leaves us with just as much mystery as ever. When the physicists say that, you see, there are 11 dimensions, and billions of parallel universes made possible by different pathways taken by photons – or when biologists tell us about the chemical equations of the reactions inside a cell, reactions which, they say, constitute and define life – or when neurologists say that consciousness is an emergent property of 100 billion neurons firing across 100 trillion synapses – one may reasonably feel that such steps toward solving the mystery don’t really clear up any of the mysteriousness we must live.

Knowing the science merely gives us a particular sort of language for expressing what is, at bottom, the same wonder. Before the science, there were elaborate theologies. Knowing the theology, likewise, merely gives us a particular sort of language for expressing what is, at bottom, the same wonder.

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