Lying under the stars in the Sierra Nevada and having a front seat at the greatest and longest running celestial production, I can’t help but feel a quickening of the pulse, a swelling of the heart and a suspension of breath, the usual accompaniments of a profound sense of wonder. Richard Dawkins has described wonder as the source of all scientific inquiry and while staring at the stars it is difficult to gainsay him. As I watch the heavenly display I recall that scientists are in the midst of the third in a series of scientific revolutions that are shaping our understanding of our origins and our place in the cosmos. The Copernican Revolution in the 16th century exposed as an illusion the belief that the earth was the center of all creation. Later, the Darwinian Revolution unseated men and women from their divine pedestal of biological exceptionalism, and more recently the Stardust Revolution is revealing how life on Earth actually originated in the stars, placing life in a cosmic context. Some would argue that science is an acid eating away at the eternal mystery of life, but for my part science simply dissolves one mystery only to reveal a far grander one.
But it is not just science that has its origin in wonder. D.H. Lawrence said “There is a sixth sense, the religious sense, the sense of wonder”. Personally, I have never felt more religious than when I was playing with a particularly intelligent Chihuahua puppy and felt the wonder of being closely connected to another species and so, to all living creatures. Ignoring the trappings of religion, this sense of the interconnectedness of all living things is surely at the heart of all true religions and leads us to stand in awe at the miracle of ordinary life.
Socrates plausibly said that philosophy begins in wonder and his conversations as reflected in Plato’s dialogues, is certainly a tribute to his ability to feel wonder at what most of us would consider merely the mundane. But the sense of wonder is not just at the heart of science, religion and philosophy. Surely wonder is also at the heart of our reaction to great art, which, while moving us in unexpected ways, also impels us to stop and pay attention to the change in perspective that has occurred within us.
But how can one stop there? A knowledgeable traveler who visits the home of a famous but long deceased writer, and respectfully touches the desk at which the masterpiece was written, the historian who is moved by standing on the field of a great battle at which the fate of nations was decided, the parent who sees their child take its first steps. All share a sense of wonder.
Without a sense of wonder it is difficult to see why we would ever engage in any civilized pursuit. Indeed, without a sense of wonder we would not be recognizably human.
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” Carl Sagan