Religion and Wonder

Does religion create a sense of wonder, and does science destroy it? That's what Mark Vernon says today in The Guardian:

In the scientific age the intrinsic meaningfulness of the natural world is lost. We no longer interpret the thunder; we understand it - as massive discharges of electricity. It is still spectacular but no longer mysterious, let alone portentous. The world is a little less awesome, if also less fearsome, as a result.

However, this is not quite the end of the story. Wonder survives. But its nature depends on what you make of the limits of science. 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. It is similar to that which one feels when pondering a puzzle. The puzzle might amaze with its ingenuity, confound with its complexity, and leave one in awe of its subtle resolution. But ultimately this wonder fires a desire to unravel the mystery.

I think it's just, just possible that Vernon does not know what lurks in the minds of unreligious folk like....me. Let's have a case study!

I took the picture above during a trip to Alaska last summer. That ethereal mass rising up behind the dark mountains is Denali, "The Great One," the highest mountain in North America. I took the picture at sunset (at 11 pm!).

So what was I feeling? Of course--awe, amazement, mystery, enchantment. Was this just "instrumental wonder," the sense of having a new puzzle to solve? Did I want to go out and weigh, measure, experiment, explain...and get rid of the amazement?

For heaven's sake...of course not. Vernon's description comes from the stereotype of the crass, hyper-analytical scientist who rushes around trying to get everything under technical control... and feels nothing.

I'm not that sort of person. My unreligious science-oriented husband is not that sort of person. My unreligious father, who is a theoretical physicist, is not that sort of person.

I grew up in a house full of art and music, getting the ability to respond to the world nicely honed. We hiked in lots of mountains, visited lots of cathedrals and art museums. I was more likely to hear my father get worked up about an operatic aria than spout off facts and formulas.

Were we the exception? Now that I'm all grown up and read books, I can see from the likes of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins that science and wonder easily go together. I can read a book like Philosophers without Gods (Antony) and find out that many philosophers who don't believe enjoy feelings of awe and mystery.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I'll admit that while we were swept off our feet by the magical sight of Denali at sunset, a question did enter our minds. We wondered why clouds very often hover around the mountain top, obscuring it from view (and making our glimpse such a treat). Did our initial sense of awe and enchantment devolve into this mundane question and then disappear once we settled on an answer?

That construal is silly. It's a volley in some hyped up war between the religious and the unreligious. I'm not involved in any such war. I expect most people gazing at Denali at sunset feel roughly the same thing. Whether they do or don't believe in a supreme being is surely just completely beside the point.

* * *

A poem read atop Denali, July 28, 2002
At night, deep in the mountains,
I sit in meditation.
The affairs of men never reach here:
Everything is quiet and empty,
All the incense has been swallowed up by the endless night.
My robe has become a garment of dew.
Unable to sleep, I walk out into the woods--
Suddenly, above the highest peak, the full moon appears.

Daigu Ryokan, translated by John Stevens


Anonymous said...

But Jean. You're not the kind of atheist that thinks science can ask and answer all questions worth asking. You admit to feeling the loss of a deluxe transcendent worl in your book on meaning - something that the attitude I was trying to locate would never do.

Here's the kind of thing I had in mind, from an essay by Richard Dawkins in 'Is Nothing Sacred?' edited by Ben Rogers.

Dawkins writes: 'Poetic imagination is one of the manifestations of human nature. As scientists, and biological scientists, it's up to us to explain that, and I expect that one day we will.'

Even to believe that science will one day explain the poetic imagination is to demean it, though Dawkins thinks it would not. For what might that kind of explanation look like? Poetry is adaptively advantageous? To even ponder that that says anything about Hamlet!

There's no need to worry It won't happen. The danger, though, is that people think it might. That in itself is enough to reduce contemplative wonder.

Jean Kazez said...

What I say in my book is--

"Ff you're a believer, it makes sense to be glad of God's existence and glad of the possibility of transcendence. And if you believe there is no God, or no transcendence, it would make sense to think that's a pity."

I then go on to say,

"I think this is a plain world [no God], but also plainly marvelous. Like the contented mouse, who doesn't waste time wishing he were an elephant, I'm satisfied with a life that lacks transcendence."

What bugs me about your Guardian article is that you suppose what starts as a feeling of wonder in an atheist must be just instrumental wonder. It must be just the beginning of a puzzle that the atheist will run off and try to solve.

Your description makes atheists seem soulless. They ones I know are not. I don't even think Mr. Dawkins is soulless--there are some really evocative bits in TGD.

Even if someone wants to try to explain awe (e.g. Jonathan Haidt) I don't think that means the "phenomenlogy" of it is affected. Atheists just stand there and feel awe, just like anyone else.

Anonymous said...

But again, I'm not referring to all atheists. To quote Dawkins again, its the kind of response to a question like what is love, with the reply, the intense firing of neurons, that is the problem.

Also, I do think there is a problem with Haidt's explanation of elevation, since it cuts out the possibility that this is actually a response to transcendence (because of the prior commitment to their being no transcendent world).

I don't see what the problem is: if atheists don't believe in God, theists do, then surely these beliefs will affect the quality of their awe.

For example, the theist will feel the universe as the pure gift of God; the atheist as the pure givenness of the blind processes of nature. There is a difference there surely. Can't we try and tease it out.

Anonymous said...

PS I should have made it clear that the comment about gifts and Haidt's elevation is perhaps a challenge to atheists as a whole, rather than the different point about scientism - a subset within atheism - before.

Anonymous said...

Even to believe that science will one day explain the poetic imagination is to demean it

What can this possibly mean? "Demean???" The Princeton definition says "demean" = "reduce in worth or character". Why should being able to explain something reduce it in worth or character?

The fact that we can explain the existence of, for instance, mother love, doesn't make mother love any less real, or important, or "demean" it!

Even to believe that science will one day explain the poetic imagination is to demean it, though Dawkins thinks it would not. For what might that kind of explanation look like? Poetry is adaptively advantageous? To even ponder that that says anything about Hamlet!

There's no need to worry It won't happen. The danger, though, is that people think it might. That in itself is enough to reduce contemplative wonder.

I find this totally bizarre. It appears to demonstrate a sense of the sacred in relation to literature. (I assume there is a semi-colon missing fro the middle of the first sentence of the second para).

Anonymous said...

Ah, I just read the Grauniad, and I think I can see the source of the problem; MV appears to believe axiomatically that "contemplative wonder" is a good in itself, presumably because mystery is a good in itself.

But this needs to be argued, not simply asseverated. Plenty of people do not share this intuition.

Jean Kazez said...


"if atheists don't believe in God, theists do, then surely these beliefs will affect the quality of their awe."

Must something different be going on in the minds of theists and atheists gazing at Denali? I don't find that at all obvious...I don't know that religious beliefs pervade all else. In any case, the theist may have thoughts of gratitude and "God's mysterious ways" but it doesn't follow that an atheist is in puzzle-solving mode. From personal experience and knowing lots of atheists I have to say--it just ain't so.

In any case, you changed the subject here from "what is awe like?" (in the minds of atheists) to "what is it?"--and whether it's good/bad to seek an answer. You seem to think you have to construe awe as a response to God or genuine mystery in the universe (unanswerable questions). Otherwise you explain it away.

But here's a suggestion--as long as you value awe and don't think it's delusional, explaining doesn't demean. I like potentilla's analogy with mother love. I don't think awe is delusional..it's a response to genuine aspects of the universe--size, glory, diversity, beauty, grandeur. It's like being swept off your feet by Beethoven's 9th. That's the right response to Beethoven--awe is the right response to Denali. You'd want to explain it away if someone were responding that way to the hedge in their backyard.

potentilla I do value the sense of awe and mystery. I mean, the universe is pretty amazing... somebody who responds by constantly weighing and measuring seems to be missing something. Aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Hi -

I feel I'll be repeating myself now. So, I was explicitly not talking all atheists, just the advocates of scientism. And, I don't think you have to read much from in scientism to see that they are profoundly suspicious of words like mystery which to my mind must have a bearing upon how you think of awe and wonder. To believe something (the universe) is a gift is different from believing it just is. How can that not have a bearing, in general, upon how you receive the world, if I can put it like that?

On the point about whether explaining explains away, as it were, I take the point that it needn't. It can obviously deepen your knowledge taken in conjunction with other reflections. But I would again say that it seems that scientism, which is at the very least sceptical of forms of knowledge other than the empirical, would reduce things like poetry, and so demean them. In Dawkins you get it in Climbing Mount Improbable, where he basically says that biology is true and everything else - literature, poetry and of course religion - is made up. As John Cornwell puts it, Dawkins would apparently substitute a text book on senile dementia for King Lear and a botany fact sheet for Wordsworth's Daffodils.

I"m not saying all atheists are like that (or on fact that Dawkins is like that all the time, though I think he has become like that recently). But the scientismists, if that is the word, do seem to be.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes I feel as though I am inhabiting an alternate reality. Mark Vernon says:

"In Dawkins you get it in Climbing Mount Improbable, where he basically says that biology is true and everything else - literature, poetry and of course religion - is made up."

Um, where does he say this? I turn to my copy and I read sentences such as: "There is genuine paradox and real poetry lurking in the fig, with subtleties to exercise an inquiring mind and wonders to uplift an aesthetic one".

I don't recognise Mark Vernon's caricature of Dawkins.

Jean Kazez said...

"To believe something (the universe) is a gift is different from believing it just is. How can that not have a bearing, in general, upon how you receive the world, if I can put it like that?"

It might have a bearing and it might not! You could think chocolate is a gift but not experience it as a gift. You could think music is a gift, but not experience it that way.

I really am inclined to think the basic feeling of awe I have while gazing at Denali is pretty much independent of my religious beliefs.

In any case...it's an empirical question. I'm curious what the facts really are...How many people really do feel open-ended "mystery and wonder" while looking at Denali or the Grand Canyon or whatever, and whether religion makes any difference.

I'm also curious whether other non-believers accept the assumption I make along with Mark--that awe and wonder are good. I may just have to bring this up over at Talking Philosophy where there are lots more people who might be willing to add some data.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I don't recognise Mark Vernon's caricature of Dawkins."

No, neither do I. Come on, Mark, that won't do - you can't just offer your own wildly inaccurate (and frankly unfair) summary and pin it on Dawkins. If you want to persuade all these terrible scientistic atheists, that's not the way to do it!

And I think you're simply misunderstanding the quoted passage from Dawkins, both here and on the Guardian comments.

"Poetic imagination is one of the manifestations of human nature. As scientists, and biological scientists, it's up to us to explain that, and I expect that one day we will."

Poetic imagination is something that happens in the brain, and biological scientific explanation of it would be highly interesting - and no, it wouldn't just be 'it was adaptive'! That's just silly (not least because anyone could say that right now, so obviously it's not what Dawkins means by 'explain'). Crude caricatures of people you disagree with (such as Dawkins, and, um, Dawkins, and then there's Dawkins) don't help you make your case - in fact they help you fail to make it.

pj said...

I'm with potentilla, I just can't quite see what Mark's trying to say.

He hides behind the label 'scientism' and the usual bogeyman of Dawkins, and doesn't specify exactly what it is that he objects to.

It seems like he is claiming that an attempt to understand evolutionary origins of things like poetry 'demeans' them. I think that is something he's going to have to try a lot harder to establish, rather than just assert.

And if that intuition(?) is all that his objection to Dawkins and scientism amounts to then it is a pretty thin objection. Is he really claiming that, say, people who study the biology of a disease are not struck by an illogical but visceral hatred of it as they see it affect people? And, more pertinently, is he saying that it would be better not to understand such things, because of the risk of losing our 'wonder' as the havoc it wreaks?

Finally, what does religion, by which Mark usually means Christianity, have to offer to this world of ascientific wonder over and above the traditional dogma of resurrection and miracles - for instance, what does religion have to say about thunder that is more filled with wonder than science. Or is he advocating returning to animistic religion?

pj said...

In other words - when talking about thunder - Mark just seems to be attacking science, not atheism or 'sciencism', because religion has nothing to say on the topic, unless the religion he is advocating is the animism of a different age. Where is the conflict? Because it seems to me that this opposition to 'wonder' and 'poetry' that Mark claims sciencism lacks is just a rather woolly stick to beat atheism with.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes, I certainly do think awe and wonder are good. I've always been a great wanderer in clouds and hills, a great fan of storm clouds and sunsets and mountains and oceans. I even like Wordsworth, let alone the other Romantic poets; and I yield to no one in my passion for Hamlet and Lear. And yet I am the kind of atheist that thinks science can ask all questions worth asking, and that it can at least contribute something to most of them; I also think that the ones it can't answer or contribute to cannot be genuinely answered by any other 'magisterium.' I think it's stark nonsense to say that science can answer these questions and religion can answer those. 'Religious' answers to questions either include non-religious elements or simply don't answer them at all. Any purely religious answer is a non-answer.

Anonymous said...

Jean, yes I do value the sense of awe and mystery, but not particularly more than I value the sense of awe coupled with either the knowledge or a curiosity about the science behind whateveritis (so I suppose I value the awe more than the mystery). I don't think that gazing rapturously at Denali is in any way spoiled, let alone "demeaned" by passing thoughts about why it is pink or why the cloud on the top. (Neither do I think the opposite, that the experience it particularly, necessarily, enhanced by having these thoughts).

I don't think contemplative wonder is somehow better than awe + wonder-why . To believe something (the universe) is a gift is different from believing it just is Yes. But it is not better. To preserve the former is not an end worth pursuing in itself, separately from what people individually prefer or do naturally. Explaining is not the same as explaining away.

everything else - literature, poetry and of course religion - is made up Well of course it's made up. By people. Why would that make it any less interesting or beautiful or important to human lives?

John Cornwell's bon mot about Dawkins above is just tripe. IMHO, this whole "scientism" trope is largely a strawman.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm relieved I'm not the only one who enjoys the sense of awe and mystery. It is good to have a calm mind and take things in...but we stood there looking at this sight for an hour. It didn't hurt at all that for some of the time we wondered some specific things and maybe found some answers. (So I agree with you, potentilla.)

On science having all the answers--well, maybe all the answers to specific types of questions. Why did this happen? What is this made of? I'm prepared to think there are some good questions that are outside the scope of science--moral questions, for example. I don't think all philosophy questions can just be turned over to the folks in science departments.

On Dawkins--I heard him on a very popular US radio show (Fresh Air) calling himself a "religious atheist." He seems to be serious about the poetic stuff.

He's is not so good at conveying respect toward religious folk. Respect is good. What it consists of and how it is possible amidst great disagreement is a hard question. Maybe it has something to do with recognizing common ground. Nice thing about the roadside rests in Denali National Park--there is a lovely sense of community. Everyone's looking in the same direction, saying the same things, messing with similar cameras. I can't believe inside there's a world of difference.

Ophelia Benson said...

Moral questions...well that's why I said 'it can at least contribute something to most of them' (to answering most of them, I meant). I think science can contribute something to answering even moral questions, though I certainly don't think it can answer them. If we had no empirical knowledge of human beings at all, how would we begin to tackle moral questions?

So I think it's a little too sweeping to say moral questions are outside the scope of science. I think the anti-strawman-scientism crowd have been training us to say that, and I think we should resist giving away too much.

Ophelia Benson said...

I'm not so sure about that 'respect is good' idea - depending of course (as you say) on what is meant by respect. I don't think religious folk are entitled to any more of it than anyone else, simply on the grounds that they are religious. And I don't think Dawkins is all that bad at it, either - he does repeatedly maintain a polite silence in the Channel 4 documentary when particular people say daft things to him. He's pugnacious when religious folk are pugnacious, but I'm not convinced he ought to be good at respect then.

Jean Kazez said...

I think Dawkins clearly makes people feel disrespected (perhaps Mark Vernon?) and with some reason. In that documentary (Root of All Evil) he stands around in houses of worship gaping at the congregants like they were freaks. Yes, he's fairly quiet when he talks to various people (e.g. Ted Haggard), but my take on it is that he is (shockingly enough) tongue tied. He doesn't seem to want to go into Oxford intellectual mode with a living breathing person in front of him who's clearly from another cultural world. Or maybe he's just not tremendously good at on-the-spot combat.

One problem with disrespect is that it tends to be reciprocated. If the atheists are going to call theists stupid (or the like), the theists are pretty likely to turn around and call the atheists...what, shallow? immoral? Maybe even wonder-challenged.

Respect is an interesting subject...

Ophelia Benson said...

But the house of worship in question is one where a little playlet about the damnation of homosexuals is performed. That's why he looks at the congregants as if they were freaks (if he really does that, which I'm not sure I buy - I remember his expression being one of pained bafflement, which is not quite a freak-show look, though perhaps close). I'm not convinced that respect is the required attitude in that situation.

And since you agree that he is fairly quiet when he talks to people - why can't that be respect just as well as it can be tongue-tiedness or unskill at combat? You say that's your take - but since the point at issue is Dawkins's lack of respect, I'm not sure it's fair to use your take on what could be simple civility or at least reluctance to attack overtly, in order to back up the claim of lack of respect.

Are you sure the drip-drip of Mark Vernon and all the others hasn't influenced your view on this? Are you sure you're not seeing failure to respect because you've been coached to see it by a lot of believers or quasi-believers who see disagreement as failure to respect?

On the other hand...I've just remembered a certain interview...perhaps I'll yield the point.

Jean Kazez said...

There are points where he seems to try to go into a combat mode and then it gets garbled up. Yet he's so articulate and so much in command of himself in print. So I wonder about that.

Drip-drip...well, I do ask myself why it is that RD makes Mark so mad, since I'm so extremely fond. I've thought about that quite a bit..and what I've come up with is this theory that Dawkins is disrespectful. And then when I go back to see if there's anything there to corroborate that, I have to say, um, yes.

It's good to have lots of atheist voices out there so not all of the public impression of atheism is based on one person. That's why I'm so fond of the book Philosophers without Gods. Lots of voices, lots of attitudes.

Anonymous said...

Do you know, Geoff Coupe’s sense of alternative realities may not be far off the mark. I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s new book, A Secular Age, and he suggests that radical pluralism – or co-existing alternative realities – is the defining characteristic of the secular world in which we live.

Jean, I really don’t understand why you think regarding something as a gift or not makes no difference. If someone gives you a chocolate bar as a gift you are thankful. If it just appears you just take it.

Similarly, I just don’t see how whether or not you hold to scientism can be thought to make no difference to these things. Scientism is the belief that all other kinds of human knowledge is a footnote to science. It exists! It is to collapse all the different ways of understanding the world to which people have turned onto the empirical method. Scientismists themselves often say that it is brave point of view because it can appear so cold – and awesomely cold. But they believe that is the way it is and that science will one day understand it and that its task now is so to. To say that simply makes no difference to the way you wonder at the world seems bizarre to me.

The kind of science that appeals to me is captured, say, in the kind of learning that Tolstoy expresses in his Confession. ‘I know that the explanation of everything, like the commencement of everything, must be concealed in infinity. But I wish to understand in a way which will bring me to what is inevitably inexplicable. I wish to recognize anything that is inexplicable as being so not because the demands of my reason are wrong (they are right, and apart from them I can understand nothing), but because I recognize the limits of my intellect.’ That, to me, can reasonably be called contemplative wonder.

The point about works of art that make no religious reference, or to treat nature as if it has no religious reference, is a slightly different thing I think, and takes the question away from my piece and on to the more general issue of wonder. For example in aesthetics there is what is called absolute art – that is art that refers to nothing but itself. Beethoven, for example, is sometimes called the first big composer of absolute music – compared with, say, Bach for whom all music was a prelude to God. A difference in terms of the quality of wonder here might be like the difference between a statue of a woman and a statue of the virgin. Everyone can look at the statue of the women with the same sensibility. But the statue of the virgin will mean different things to a religious person and so I would say the quality of her wonder will be different too. The non-religious person will deconstruct the religious content of the image, and given that would involve taking out the religiously transcendent element, would inevitably seem to be missing out on the most important part to the religious viewer.

I can recommend the philosopher of religion Denys Turner’s essay/lecture ‘How to be an atheist’. He argues that the fundamental difference between a theist and an atheist turns on this question of whether the world is regarded as gift or not. Someone who believes a creator does not exist cannot literally think of the universe as a gift for there is no giver. They might adopt the metaphor, I suppose, but it becomes an instrumental metaphor without any ultimate reference – supporting say the good practice of showing gratitude – rather than a metaphor that expresses what they fundamentally believe to be the case, because the universe is an accident, a delightfully fortuitous accident, but an accident nonetheless.

Ophelia – Perhaps I think the challenge for you is to say what a scientific explanation of poetry might look like. If that is not possible now then to say that science will one day explain it is a leap of faith. If that is possible, even if only in provisional outline, then let us have a look at it and see what it adds to our understanding of poetry. I suspect it would add very little to what is already understood about poetry from criticism, appreciation, history of art and so on. If that ‘very little’ is taken as the best explanation of poetry, as the scientismist would say, then that I would say would be demean it.

Perhaps enough for now just to add that my objection to Dawkins is that he does not seek the best in theology and religion before arguing against it. He uses the worst and then takes that to be a knock-out. That is bad faith, to say nothing of bad scholarship. John Cornwell’s book Darwin’s Angel goes through this very carefully and convincingly I think.

Alternatively, if you think Cornwell is bound to be biased, consider this comment of Frank Furendi, made yesterday at the Battle of Ideas festival here in London. He say that his sadness, as an atheist, is that the militant atheists have reduced the level of debate to a level even lower than their theist opponents. They are running on bad faith – his phrase this time not mine – in apparently wanting to pull down religion because they cannot make sense of the human condition.

Jean Kazez said...

"Scientismists"--there's got to be a better word. But I can't think of one.

I'm not a scientismist only because I think there are lots of different forms of understanding. Think of all the different departments in a university...

But on the issue of what wonder is like for believers and non-believers. At the far ends of the spectrum, it might be very different. The very devout believer stands in front of Denali praising God for this gift. The very science-minded just have a list of questions--what makes the mountain pink? Exactly how tall is it? And therefore can't feel open-ended wonder, a sense of enchantment.

My impression of your article in the Guardian was that you weren't just worried about a few science fanatics at the far end of the spectrum, but making a more general point about where atheism leads--to the no-feeling end of the spectrum.

I don't think that's obvious at all. My point about chocolate--one person could think it's a gift from God and another not, but the actual in-the-moment experience of enjoying chocolate could be exactly the same. One person thinks sex is for procreation and another doesn't...again, the in-the-moment experience might be the same.

Etc. But what does it matter, this little narrow point about the "phenomenology" of wonder? It matters because I think we all actually believe feeling awe, wonder, enchantment, etc., is part of having a rich mental life. So if atheists tend to be wonder-challenged, they're worse off than others. Their lives are more sterile and impoverished...

Which I think is nonsense. My husband makes a great point (and why can't he be bothered to comment on my bog himself? oh well...), which is that mere belief doesn't necessarily make a person good at feeling awe, wonder, mystery, etc. Belief can give you a very pat sense of having the answers.

I will track down Denys Turner...and by the way, when is your book (After Atheism) going to be available in paperback in the US?

Anonymous said...

Can somerone give me an example of a person who "can't feel open-ended wonder, a sense of enchantment"?

Anonymous said...

Not sure when After Atheism is going to be out in the US (there's a whole chapter on 'wonderment' in it!). Probably early next year I imagine.

The point of your husband about belief being quite capable of limiting wonder is a good one: it seems to me there are plenty of believers who answer all the questions before they have even been asked. Karen Armstrong's new book on the Bible is good on this, I think: it became religious scripture because people found it pointed them to things beyond the text itself. Now, though, people read the text as if it were merely a serious of proof points. Incidentally, I have tried to tease these matters out in other places, such as that publication that I have no doubt everyone in this thread reads, the UK's Church Times.

Of course, wonder is part of a rich mental life - but it is mental, and so thoughts must count as well as feelings (as indeed they do, I believe, in sex!).

And is scientism only of the 'almost possible to ignore' few? They might not be as numerous as Christian fundamentalists but they are quite influential I think. I was only listening to Daniel Dennett on the radio last night, and his ideas on artificial intelligence being contrasted with John Searle's: there are certainly many who would have reason to interpret Dennett's 'consciousness is an epiphenomenon and that is that' as that.

One more thing: thank you for the good manners of your blog. Though I know it says more about the contributors than anything else, the Guardian's Comment is free thread is truly disrespectful. I'm quite surprised they keep it so open in a way, should that level of 'debate' become associated with their brand.

Ophelia Benson said...

Mark - "Perhaps I think the challenge for you is to say what a scientific explanation of poetry might look like."

But as I said - that is not what Dawkins wrote. I really think you ought to make more of an effort to read people carefully and accurately, especially if you're going to keep placing them at the center of your writing. Now you're engaged in meta-misreading - you misread Dawkins and now you've misread me correcting your misreading. That doesn't make your writing more persuasive. The passage that you yourself supplied reads 'Poetic imagination is one of the manifestations of human nature. As scientists, and biological scientists, it's up to us to explain that, and I expect that one day we will.'

So the issue is not 'a scientific explanation of poetry,' it's scientific explanation of poetic imagination, which is a different thing. To repeat: imagination is something that happens in the brain; brain activity is something that scientists can research, inquire into, explore - and attempt to explain. Why would it not be? I haven't read the whole article, so perhaps Dawkins is saying that scientific explanation of poetic imagination would exhaust the subject and leave nothing further for any other way of thinking to say - but I have to say I strongly doubt that he is saying that. If he is, could you quote that passage for us? At any rate, the bit you quoted doesn't say that. Maybe that's the source of your confusion here (yes, sorry, I think it's confusion) - are you thinking that explanation equates to complete and exhaustive explanation that crowds out all other discourse or thought on a given subject? If so, I think you're mistaken. And I'm irritable on the subject because I think it's a profoundly anti-intellectual obscurantist anti-knowledge anti-curiosity kind of mistake; I think it's harmful.

Anonymous said...

Ophelia - Given that the poetic imagination is presumably the source of poetry - constituted as it would be by knowledge of language, culture and so on - I do wonder whether you might be accused of a little sophistry here. Also, I would say that imagination is something that happens in the mind not the brain, which is intimately linked to the brain of course but there is no particular reason to think mind is identical to the brain, unless you have an a priori commitment to everything being strictly material (no doubt part of a scientistic belief - though not of course necessarily implying you are scientistic if you hold it).

I rather like the philosopher John Hick's metaphor of the relationship between brain and mind as like that between two dancers, sometimes one leads, sometimes the other. I would have thought that if the metaphor can take it, that poetry would be a good case of mind leading brain.

In that particular piece by Dawkins he doesn't say what a biological explanation of the poetic imagination might be. He merely asserts that one day biology will explain it. It is the superior position assigned to science in a hierarchy of knowledge which that assertion implies that I object to. Dawkins can be careless in his rhetoric so maybe if pushed he would say that biology would complement an understanding of the poetic imagination. But even that to me is a bit like saying atomic physics will explain how to cook a delicious meal. You could if you like, I suppose, talk about the atoms on the plate. But I'd rather have a cook book, lots of practice, perhaps some advice from a chef, and then the all important and subjective matter of tasting. Maybe that subjective issue - also crucial in poetry and the poetic imagination - is why biology really is pretty incidental to these things.

And stilln, beyond something to do with adaptive advantage, I cannot begin to think what a biological explanation of the poetic imagination might be like.

Ophelia Benson said...

Mark, is it really sophistry to point out that Dawkins said 'poetic imagination' rather than 'poetry'? If you want to claim that he really meant poetry rather than poetic imagination, I think you have to spell that out, rather than just forcing him to say it by misquoting him (repeatedly!). I think it takes a bit of gall to accuse me of sophistry for urging you to quote people accurately.

So, if you would say that imagination is something that happens in the mind not the brain, does that mean that you literally think imagination is something that does not happen in the brain? If so, can you explain how that is physically possible?

As for preferring to have a cook book etc etc rather than atomic physics - this is what I said in the previous comment: you can have both. Obviously. You can have all of it. There is no problem with that. The same applies, equally obviously, to poetry. An explanation of the physics of cooking does not rule out all sorts of other explanations and descriptions and ponderings of cooking. So why are you so determined to make it an either/or? Why are you (apparently) so convinced that scientific explanations of various kinds somehow prevent or destroy other ways of thinking? And why aren't you worried about the anti-intellectual implications of that?

If you can't begin to think what a biological explanation of the poetic imagination might be like, could that be simply because you haven't read enough about cognitive science? Is it possible that the subject is more interesting than you think? I'm pretty sure from my own experience that it's a lot more interesting than you make it sound.

Ophelia Benson said...

Small addendum. Good chefs actually do know about the chemistry of cooking (which of course rests on atomic physics). It's not just seat of pants stuff, it's not just instinct or intuition or a knack or genius, though it may well be all of that too. To the best of my knowledge, cooks don't deteriorate as they learn more about what heat does to various elements of food.

pj said...

"I would have thought that if the metaphor can take it, that poetry would be a good case of mind leading brain."

I'm sure that's all lovely and poetic and everything - but what exactly is it supposed to mean?

pj said...

"I can recommend...‘How to be an atheist’. He argues that the fundamental difference between a theist and an atheist turns on this question of whether the world is regarded as gift or not. Someone who believes a creator does not exist cannot literally think of the universe as a gift for there is no giver."

So the core point here, again, is to try and move away from the question of whether Dawkins and atheists are right about the factual basis of religion, and onto the argument that religion is nevertheless nice?

Is that what you mean by:

"Dawkins...does not seek the best in theology and religion before arguing against it. He uses the worst and then takes that to be a knock-out."?

I haven't read Cornwell's book but I have seen no sign of anything more sophisticated than that in his writings available online - is there any more to it than that?

Anonymous said...

Ophelia -

Just for the record, I did quote Dawkins correctly my 'slip' being in a subsequent reference; I didn't say the imagination has nothing to do with the brain and no I can't explain mind else I'd be on the plane to Sweden; the point is the hierarchy of knowledge with science at the top in terms of understanding that does seem to me to be an issue in matters like poetry; I am not making it an either/or (my concern is that others do); it is not whether scientific explanations do or don't destroy things it is whether they shed much light on matters like poetry compared to other forms of knowledge; I do find the subject interesting or I won't write about it! - what interests me as much though is the trust many people seem to place in science that seems to fail them when it comes to other forms of knowledge when those other forms seem far richer; the point is not whether cooks can't learn anything from chemistry, period, it is that if I wanted to be a cook I would go to cookery school not a chemistry class (and of course atomic physics as I originally referred to is a different discipline from chemistry, and I speak as someone who did a physics degree and thought they never quite got chemistry: different kind of maths you see).

But look. I suppose we have this in common: both feeling exasperated as a result of feeling we've been misread.

On that basis I'd like to call peace, for now at least!

Seriously, with good wishes,

Ophelia Benson said...

Mark, oh that's right, I forgot about the physics degree! Sus Minervam, as one of Erasmus's Adagia (one of the briefest, surely) has it - the pig teaching Minerva: i.e. don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs. (Addressing myself, here.)

Pax it is!

Anonymous said...

If anyone is interested, one hypothesis (no more) about the prevalence of art in human society is that it stems from sexual selection, like the peacock's tail (but affecting both sexes, if possinbly to different degrees, because of the particular ecological constraints of humanity). The main exponent of this is Miller in "The Mating Mind". Here is an entertaining review. Denis Dutton, being a philosopher (of aesthetics?) criticizes it not enough in some ways and too much in others (ie hw doesn't understand the science very well), but reading the review is quicker than reading the book!

This is, of course, just one level of explanation; like suggesting why eating it a thing we like to do, without explaining anything about cookery.

Anonymous said...

I just found a precis of the book.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Dawkins denegrates poetry, nor does he place science "above" poetry. He just means that poetry can be explained as a process of a tangible reality, as opposed to a supernatural transmission from a spiritual realm of some sort.

I find science and poetry inspirational in different ways at different times; I find religion close-minded and devisive. A scientific explanation of poetry would not contribute to or affect poetry, but it would contribute to science. I think both science and poetry are positive forces within society.

The point that Dawkins makes is that religion not only explains nothing about the world (even though it claims to) but that it is a negative force in society. I think anyone would be hard pressed to convincingly argue that poetry has a negative affect on society, however I don't think it's too hard to see the negative impact religion has had on society.