Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World

Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World

by Lisa H. Sideris


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520294998
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/15/2017
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lisa H. Sideris is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at
Indiana University, where her research focuses on religion, science, and environmentalism. She is the author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection.

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Seeking What Is Good in Wonder

Depending on the company they keep, some wonders are respectable and others disreputable; but none [today] threatens the order of nature and society. Scientists have yet to explain many, perhaps most, wonders, but they subscribe to an ontology guaranteeing that all are in principle explicable. If the first criterion for distinguishing respectable from disreputable marvels is whether they are real, the second is whether there are explanations to reassure us that the apparent exceptions only conform to nature's laws. In practice, the second criterion often decides the first.



What does it mean to wonder? Wonder is almost routinely exalted as a laudable state, but perhaps not all expressions of it deserve to be celebrated. Wonder seems to exist at the border of sensation and thought, aesthetics and science. It has the power to transfix as well as transport us. It is characterized both as a childlike capacity, closely aligned with sensory and emotional engagement, and as a kind of scientific virtue. Wonder is both the province of the wide-eyed child in the woods and the wild-eyed scientist in the lab. Aristotle considered wonder to be the beginning of philosophy, and René Descartes famously categorized wonder as the first of the passions, an intellectual passion that orients us toward understanding the object of wonder. Yet, while wonder is often assumed to hold a privileged place in the production of scientific and philosophical knowledge, it is a deeply ambiguous place as well. In romance languages, wonder's etymological origins show connections to an Indo-European word for "smile," but this is not the case in German and English, where wonder (Wunder) may be traceable to wound — a tear in the fabric of the ordinary, an "uncanny opening." Wonder, typically expressed as awe, may border on terror or horror in the presence of something that overwhelms the mind with its sheer enormity or power. Wonder in the form of terrifying awe is often associated with encountering something holy or otherworldly, as with God's interrogation of Job from the whirlwind. The ambivalence or outright fear evoked by wonder may be met with a desire to control and domesticate the world, to "systematically insulate it against the intrusion of strangeness." Wonder's terrifying and even painful elements are captured in the more secular category of the sublime. Often distinguished from the beautiful, which connotes something more pleasing than threatening to the mind or the senses, the sublime may be experienced in the presence of nonsupernatural but vast and imposing or powerful phenomena, such as high mountains or a violent, stormy sea.

Yet another distinction emerges between wonder and wonders. The former refers to an experience or response and the latter designates objects themselves, such as odd or interesting items, novelties and marvels housed (as they often were in early modern Europe) in curio cabinets. A catalogue of wonders might include a two-headed dog or a lodestone. Historically, the category of wonders has merged the sacred with the secular, including such phenomena as "plants, animals, and minerals; specific events and exotic places; miracles and natural phenomena; the distant and the local; the threatening and the benign." Although contemporary discussions tend to focus more on wonder than wonders, this distinction helps us to appreciate that, in judging wonder's appropriateness or ethical value, we need to attend both to its forms of expression and to its objects.

That wonder and its associated terms can align with such seemingly disparate experiences, ranging from childlike delight to profound destabilization and even pain and death — a "cognitive crucifixion" — suggests its unusual status among our repertoire of responses to the world. Wonder, in its frequent association with scale, may foster a sense of our own smallness or insignificance in relation to its objects, perhaps even a sensed loss of the self. That experience may produce either fear or a more uplifting sense of awe or exhilaration — depending upon how one feels about self-loss! The experience of loss of self, of letting go of ego-dominated rationality, is one of the links between wondering responses and experiences often termed religious, as theorists such as William James have noted. In such moments of profound receptivity to the unexpected, we may sense our connection to something that is ontologically or spiritually more (as James termed it) than what is given in our daily experience of the world or the world as filtered through familiar categories of knowledge. Loss or decentering of the self, and dispositions that flow from such decentering, can have important ethical value: "openness, availability, epistemological humility in the face of the mystery of being, and the ability to admire and be grateful." On the other hand, as I will argue, wonder that manifests as blunt and irreverent curiosity, or that follows in curiosity's wake as a form of admiration at our knowledge, may have the opposite potential of puffing us up with pride. How can we make sense of the fact that wonder variously engenders or accompanies a salutary sense of smallness and humility, as well as aggrandizes admiration of our own feats?

Wonder is a tapestry rich with meanings, but its very richness makes it easy to pull out particular strands while ignoring others. I want to focus critical attention on a few, very particular meanings of wonder that have often been isolated from their broader context. These include: wonder assumed to be (primarily) a function of ignorance; wonder as the force that drives ongoing discovery and successive puzzle-solving — what I call "serial wonder"; and wonder characterized by admiration or pride at that which is assimilated and known. These strands, which are often intertwined in modern discourse on wonder, actually represent only a small portion of all that wonder has signified, in theology, philosophy, and science, over a span of many centuries. Wonder — properly understood — is not merely an ephemeral response to what is poorly grasped or appears novel; it persists even after ignorance is erased or newness wears off. A strong association of wonder with successive puzzle-solving imputes motives to wonder that more properly belong to curiosity (some of those motives prove problematic, as I will argue). To wonder at the vast store of human knowledge may be understandable, but this orientation effectively strips wonder of much of its ethical potential and admirable dimensions. The stripping away of wonder's virtues also makes wonder the purview of the expert whose task it is to inform the masses where wonder truly resides in the world around us.

The reorientation of wonder as largely a response to knowledge will form a focal point of much of the analysis of wonder that follows. In short, much of what passes for wonder in a significant portion of contemporary scientific and environmental discourse (whether the context is celebratory or disdainful of wonder) is scarcely wonder at all. Inappropriate forms of wonder lurk alongside and mingle with more genuine and wholesome varieties. Distinguishing these is not always easy or straightforward. Nevertheless, a good rule of thumb might be this: When expressions of wonder become tinged with celebrations of hubris, or interwoven with triumphalist claims of progress, certainty, or mastery (over nature, or over others, even over ourselves), we can be fairly sure that wonder has somewhere taken a wrong turn. Understanding how and in what ways wonder has been diminished and distorted is the overarching aim of this chapter.


At first glance, it might seem that both novelty and familiarity act to undercut wonder's endurance or resilience — novelty because it gradually wears off, and familiarity because it seems to convey nothing new. But wonder can coexist with either; it is neither — necessarily — dependent on newness nor dispelled by close acquaintance or even intimacy. Wonder as a response to sheer novelty or newness accounts for its common association with children who are more likely than adults to encounter the world with fresh eyes and without the knowledge conditions or engrained habits of mind that can mute our sense of wonder over time. Some theorists maintain that the very nature of wonder necessarily entails that it "decays" and "declines" with age and experience. Wonder participates in an "epistemology of youth," according to Philip Fisher, and a "rapid wearing out of the new is also part of the aesthetics of wonder." However, I am not convinced that this conclusion is warranted (and indeed, there is something fundamentally immature about the demand for constant novelty and titillation in order to sustain a sense of wonder). Prior experiences of wonder, including those in childhood, may serve as a lifelong reference point, a perspective on the world to which we can return again and again. Rachel Carson alludes to a sense of wonder that is sufficiently "indestructible" to last a lifetime, acting as "an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."

R.W. Hepburn argues that some instances of wonder "could not be described at all convincingly in terms of response to the surprising and novel." They may arise, for example, from "the linking of present experience with memory-traces of very early experience." As Carson's account also suggests, emotional impressions from early childhood may lend new life, renewed excitement, to sensory experiences in later adulthood that might otherwise affect us little. Indeed, our very awareness of the "wide temporal gap" between this moment and our own remote past may enhance the feeling of wonder, Hepburn notes. This understanding of wonder and enchantment as "renewable" has been central to educational programs for children that aim to instill wonder at (and later, care and responsibility for) the natural world, ranging from the nature study movement of the early twentieth century to modern-day environmental education and ecological literacy programs. Intense sensory and emotional engagement with nature at an early age may have lasting moral impact, even after maturity supplements the child's sense of the magical with a more rational, even scientific, understanding of nature and its processes. Again, Carson's approach to nature education fits this mold. The "emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil" of early childhood and they prepare the ground for the later acquisition of knowledge. Nature study for children, distinct from training in the sciences, has always made sensory and emotional responses central. Given the close, primal link between the senses — particularly the sense of smell — and memory, it seems plausible that wonder has a great deal to do with what Carson calls the remembered delights of childhood. These reflections cast doubt on the pessimistic conclusion that wonder necessarily or completely decays with age.

As this portrait of resilient and recurring wonder suggests, repeated exposure to and knowledge of something, or someone, need not dispel wonder. Familiarity may indeed deepen a wondering appreciation, so long as familiarity is of a sort that disclaims exhaustive, totalizing comprehension of its objects. We may well remain in a state of wonder at that which seems well understood, and we may also experience very little wonder at things that are poorly understood. Even though I cannot say precisely how my toaster works, I do not consider it an object of wonder. The birth process, on the other hand, is rather well understood, but nevertheless remains a process at which we often marvel, and rightly so, for as theorists of wonder have often observed, wonder may have less to do with how or what a thing is than that it is. Ontological or existential wonder can foster a mood in which "certainties give way to questions which, so long as wonder remains, can never receive final answers." Hence, while we may be able to explain childbirth in minute detail, we cannot explain why it is "that love should bear fruit in such a strange fashion." Put differently, that which presents itself to us as a mystery is not necessarily unknown or vaguely understood. On the contrary, we can come to know something as a mystery. "It is too often assumed that the mysterious is equivalent to the unknown and that, in the light of adequate knowledge, mystery will give way to clarity." Wonder enables us to see things anew in encounters with what we think we "know," but much may depend upon the general attitude that attends the acquisition of knowledge, as I argue in chapter 7.


An association of feelings of wonder with a deficient state of knowledge has led some thinkers, past and present, to regard wonder with wariness or even disdain. Conflation of wonder's mysterious quality merely with that which is not (yet) understood recurs frequently in science writing. It is a particular hallmark of Richard Dawkins's treatment of scientific wonder, as we will see. When wonder is narrowly defined in terms of deficient knowledge, its presence may evoke a strong sense of dis-ease, even hostility, particularly among those who understand success in science as the progressive eradication of unknowns. On this account, wonder is of value primarily because it can mobilize us to find answers, to eliminate the very conditions that gave rise to wonder. But if the sensation of wonder is deemed pleasant and desirable in and of itself, such mobilization may not occur and ignorance will prevail. Thus Francis Bacon referred to wonder as a form of "broken knowledge" — a tendency of the mind to break off its train of thought, to enjoy itself instead of knowing." Wonder's capacity to stall the mind, to induce stupefaction, can entail a sudden halt to the process of scientific investigation. Thus, while we may commend and encourage a gaping and gawking form of wonder in children, wonder of this sort might — appropriately — be considered unseemly in adults, and particularly in the world of professional science.

Even when not accompanied by a strong desire to remain in ignorance, wonder has a contemplative or meditative quality that — for better and for worse — can interfere with or distract from mundane and task-oriented activities. Concerns about wonder's potential sloth or lack of utility are bound up with the crucially important distinction between curiosity and wonder. Descartes, as noted above, praised wonder as the first of the passions — the passion that initially energizes the intellect. Yet his celebration was also tinged with suspicion of wonder, a need to liquidate and drain away its potentially dangerous power to disrupt the acquisition of knowledge. Thus, curiosity is sometimes understood as a kind of wake-up call, a jolt to wonder's soporific inclinations: curiosity can narrow and focus the wondering response, encouraging the mind to search for explanation. To the extent that wonder is regarded as something unseemly or unpleasant — or dangerous — curiosity performs a valuable service. Curiosity enters into the wondering process as a helpful heuristic by posing particular (and in principle, answerable) questions.

Contemporary science writing often invokes this dynamic of active, hardworking curiosity and gaping, dreamy wonder. Relatively few scientists write openly nowadays about their experiences of wonder, but such professions of wonder were once fairly common. Those who do so today are often at pains to highlight the uniqueness of scientific forms of wonder from all (or at least most) other kinds; they particularly want to cordon off scientific wonder from forms of wonder that are evoked by, related to, or in any way celebratory of a state of not knowing. In order to do so, these thinkers often turn to curiosity as wonder's saving grace. Some scientists maintain that a hallmark of scientific wonder is that, while the nonscientist may spontaneously wonder at any number of phenomena and think "how strange!", the scientifically minded will cultivate wonder to a "more intellectual height" and then devise explanatory hypotheses that can be tested and verified. The claim that all nonscientific forms of wonder are at best only weakly interested in explaining wonder-evoking phenomena is not uncommon, simplistic (and often flattering to the scientist) though it seems. Mark Silverman, a Harvard physicist, argues that the scientist, and the scientist alone, "goes beyond 'gapes and stares' employing his experimental and mathematical resources in an effort to understand in some more profound way the significance of his observations."(Note that the scientist's hard work pays off in the form of "more profound" insights than the dreamy wonder of the nonscientist can ever produce.) Silverman characterizes curiosity as the laudable dimension of wonder, wonder's "scientific" sidekick, and the driving force of inquiry. Science moves beyond naïve wonder — philosophy may do so as well — to a form designed for self-destruction. As Marie George argues, the scientist recognizes that "his wonder will cease upon learning the cause ... it is proper to science and philosophy to break matters down into questions which are resolvable." But as we will see, the story of the relationship between wonder and curiosity is much more complex than these accounts suggest, and it is largely a story about distinguishing — ethically, theologically, and scientifically — appropriate and inappropriate forms or objects of inquiry. This task of discernment remains vital today and it has largely been neglected in the blithe celebrations of scientific wonder that I analyze in later chapters.


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Copyright © 2017 Lisa H. Sideris.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Return of Mythopoeic Science
1. Seeking What Is Good in Wonder
2. The Book of Nature and the Book of Science: Richard Dawkins on Wonder
3. E. O. Wilson’s Ionian Enchantment: A Tale of Two Realities
4. Evolutionary Enchantment and Denatured Religious Naturalism
5. Anthropic and Anthropocene Narratives of the New Cosmology
6. Genesis 2.0: The Epic of Evolution as Religion of Reality
7. Making Sense of Wonder

Glossary of Terms


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