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Seeing scientific knowledge as limitless erodes our capacity for contemplative wonder, says Mark Vernon

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?

At one level the question is answered quickly. Of course atheists understand the sense of amazement at the universe. Richard Dawkins devoted a whole book to the matter, Unweaving the Rainbow. The title comes from a poem by Keats, who feared that Newton had reduced the beauty of the rainbow to the science of coloured light. Dawkins argues that science positively reinvigorates the appetite for wonder in the astonishing explanations for things that it yields.

Nevertheless, is that the final word on the matter? Think of our primitive ancestors on the savannah, watching a thunderstorm approaching across the plain. As the dark sky splits with light, and the turbulent atmosphere howls with thunder, they feel fear. For in an enchanted world it makes sense to connect events in the natural world with those in the human and divine. Hence in King Lear the "deep, dread-bolted thunder" signals Lear's own demise.

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.

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.

This difference between intrinsic and contemplative wonder echoes a great divide in the history of science. When the pre-Socratic natural philosophers speculated about the nature of the world, they were contemplating the nature of the gods too: when Pythagoras discovered his theorem it seemed obvious to him to find an altar and sacrifice an ox.

This changed with Francis Bacon, the author of the modern scientific method. He believed that science has the empirical world at its fingertips. Moreover, he thought God had given man the right to unpick and exploit it. "The secrets of nature are better revealed under the torture of experiments than when they follow their natural course," he wrote.

However, he 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.

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.

ยท Mark Vernon is the author of After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life; and What Not to Say



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