Why is Wonder?


Sometimes I am accosted by the strangest questions; they remind me of the unanswerable ‘why’ questions that so often bubble out of 3 year olds -the only difference, I suppose, is that I would no longer be satisfied with the unadorned ‘just because’ answers I’m sure I used to get from my frustrated parents.

But it seems to me that once I retired from the practice of Medicine and was no longer required to answer other people’s questions, it was inevitable that I would have to ask some tricky ones of my own -questions I would be forced to answer for my self. And then I realized that I was no longer the authority figure I once thought I was because the questions I ended up asking were more abstract. Less likely to admit of an easy solution.

Perhaps that’s what Retirement is designed for, though: imponderables. It is close to the denouement of a life and any loose threads of the clothes you once wore are carefully trimmed away and cleaned in preparation for the final scene.

My most recent attempt at cutting away loose strands concerned wonder. Why is wonder? I asked myself one evening, as I sat on a beach watching the cooling sun slowly sinking into the ocean. But when no answers surfaced and I turned to leave, a rim of clouds still glowed orange on the horizon like embers on a dying campfire and I found I couldn’t move. Why did I find myself so filled with awe, so taken with a scene I must have admired in countless versions in magazines or coffee-table books? Why did the experience stop time? Why did I hold my breath? And, what purpose could it possibly serve?

Different from mere beauty, which is shallow in comparison, wonder seems more spiritual -more intense– and less describable in words. It is a feeling, a wordless experience of awe. And yet, ineffable as it may be, is it just a curiosity, or more like an emergent phenomenon: a synergism of factors each of which, taken by itself, is not at all unique? And if so, why would their collective presence have such a major effect on me?

I am far from a religious person, but I am reminded of an idea I found somewhere in the writings of the philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich, years ago. I was wondering what prayer was, apart from an attempt to request a favour from whatever deity you had been taught was in charge. It seemed to me unlikely that words alone could establish any real communication with the god; more was required to make prayers feel like they were being heard. If I understood Tillich, he seemed to imply that prayer was -or should be- like the ephemeral, but almost overwhelming sense of awe felt on seeing, say, the array of burning clouds that could still bathe in the sun setting behind a now-silhouetted mountain. An unknitted communion…

Is that, then, what wonder is: an unintended prayer…? An unasked question? I happened across an essay by Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, who attempted an examination of wonder, and felt that it shared much in common with Science, Religion, and even Art: https://aeon.co/essays/why-wonder-is-the-most-human-of-all-emotions

The experience of wonder, he writes, seems to be associated with certain bodily sensations which ‘point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes… The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled… Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration.’

That may be the ‘what’ of wonder -its component parts- but not the ‘why’; his explanation seemed more of a Bayeux Tapestry chronicling events, not why they existed in the first place. I dug deeper into the essay.

Prinz goes on to mention the ‘French philosopher René Descartes, who in his Discourse on the Method (1637) described wonder as the emotion that motivates scientists to investigate rainbows and other strange phenomena.’ Their investigations, in turn produce knowledge. ‘Knowledge does not abolish wonder; indeed, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the mysteries they unravel. Without science, we are stuck with the drab world of appearances.’ Fair enough -Science can not only be motivated by wonder, it also contributes to it.

‘In this respect,’ Prinz writes, ‘science shares much with religion… like science, religion has a striking capacity to make us feel simultaneously insignificant and elevated.’ Awe, an intense form of wonder, makes people feel physically smaller than they are. ‘It is no accident that places of worship often exaggerate these feelings. Temples have grand, looming columns, dazzling stained glass windows, vaulting ceilings, and intricately decorated surfaces.’

Art, too, began to partake of the sublime, especially when it parted company from religion in the 18th century. ‘Artists began to be described as ‘creative’ individuals, whereas the power of creation had formerly been reserved for God alone.’ Artists also started to sign their paintings. ‘A signature showed that this was no longer the product of an anonymous craftsman, and drew attention to the occult powers of the maker, who converted humble oils and pigments into objects of captivating beauty, and brought imaginary worlds to life.’

Interestingly, then, ‘science, religion and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instils reverence. Without wonder, it is hard to believe that we would engage in these distinctively human pursuits.’ Mere survival does not require any of these, and yet they exist. ‘Art, science and religion are all forms of excess; they transcend the practical ends of daily life. Perhaps evolution never selected for wonder itself… For most of our history, humans travelled in small groups in constant search for subsistence, which left little opportunity to devise theories or create artworks. As we gained more control over our environment, resources increased, leading to larger group sizes, more permanent dwellings, leisure time, and a division of labour. Only then could wonder bear its fruit. Art, science and religion reflect the cultural maturation of our species.’

‘For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment. The late arrival of the most human institutions suggests that our species took some time to reach this stage. We needed to master our environment enough to exceed the basic necessities of survival before we could make use of wonder.’

Maybe, then, that is the answer to the ‘why’ of wonder. Perhaps it’s a fortunate -some might say providential- byproduct of who we are. Not inevitable, by any means, and not meant for any particular purpose, and yet, however accidental, it was the spur that pricked the sides of our dreams, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I’m not so sure it’s even that complicated, though. It seems to me that wonder is more of an acknowledgement, than anything else: an acknowledgment that we are indeed a part of the world around us; a tiny thread in a larger pattern. And every once in a while, when we step back, we catch a glimpse of the motif and marvel at its complexity. It is, then, an acknowledgment of gratitude that we are even a small part of it all… Yes, a prayer, if you will.

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