Contemplative wonder is doomed, doomed, I tell you

I’m told by more than one witness that Mark Vernon is a nice guy (and I don’t doubt it) – but he does talk the most godawful crap.

Do you need to be religious to truly experience wonder at the world? This question lurks behind much of the ongoing debate about atheism. If everything can be explained by science, what is worthy of awe?

That’s a ridiculous question, and also a sinister one. It’s ridiculous because of its gormless assumption that explanation is for some reason inimical to awe. But why should it be? Think of the first atomic bomb, dropped in the desert at Alomogordo. The physicists and engineers watching knew how it worked, obviously; they could explain it; but they were certainly awed by it. The question is sinister because of its primitive fear of explanation. I don’t think the world is in need of people urging us to remain ignorant. Ignorance is easy, and there will always be plenty of it; I can command whole oceans of it myself; explanation is harder, and needs all the encouragement it can get.

For some atheists modern science can ask all questions worth asking and find answers: there are still mysteries in the world, but they are more like puzzles that can and one day will be explained by natural processes. The wonder that someone with such a belief might feel at these things could be said to be instrumental…This wonder is different in quality from contemplative wonder, which does not undo but lets be. It involves a conception of science that extends knowledge but admits its limits. Some things are beyond its comprehension and remain intrinsically mysterious. Consciousness, morality and existence itself are obvious candidates – the things that the artistic, religious and moral imagination are so well equipped to ponder.

Contemplative wonder does not ‘undo’ but lets be. Well, fine, Mark; if you want to contemplate, go ahead; but your desire to contemplate doesn’t necessarily translate t a general rule. And then, what do you mean ‘the artistic, religious and moral imagination are so well equipped to ponder’ morality and existence? That they’re all able to just sit down with slack jaw and stare? Maybe they are, but so what? Or do you mean (in contradiction to your ‘does not undo but lets be’) that they are well equipped to ponder such things to some purpose? If so, leaving aside your self-contradiction, I would love to know how they are well equipped to do that, and to what purpose. What can the ‘religious imagination’ tell us about morality or existence by way of its ponderings? I realize it can make up fictions and then dogmatically assert them and demand allegiance to them – but that doesn’t seem to be what you have in mind.

[Bacon] also knew that this magisterium of experiment did not overlap with the magisterium of religion, which “extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value”, in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous formulation.

Famous and profoundly mistaken. Religion has no genuine ‘magisterium’ because it doesn’t go about the work in the right way. Religious morality is command morality, derived from revelation and authority; it is fundamentally worthless.

It is when you deny the separate domains of these magisteria that you erode the capacity for contemplative wonder. When scientific knowledge is thought to be effectively without limit there is nothing much to stop contemplative wonder dissolving into instrumental wonder too. This must be what people sense when they fear that science is unweaving the rainbow. The worry is that it leaves nothing sacred.

And if it’s not what people sense when they fear that science is unweaving the rainbow, you’ll do your best to talk them into fearing it. Not a good or wise thing to do.

Jean has an eloquent comment on the subject.

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