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Jun 12, 2019

To See the World for the First Time

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Sophia Vasalou

Sophia Vasalou

University of Birmingham

Sophia Vasalou’s research focuses on the development of virtue ethics in the Islamic intellectual tradition, with a specialization in Imam al-Ghazālī's work.

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To See the World for the First Time

Can religious traditions help us see what is most mysterious in what is most ordinary?

A flower coral, eusmilia fastigiata, at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; photo: The Coral Kingdom Collection

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
—William Blake, 1790

Imagine science has reached a point where medical researchers are able to administer precise doses of pharmaceutical substances that alter the chemistry of the brain in highly targeted ways. We already have drugs that act as cognitive enhancements. We also have drugs that try to tackle with a broad brush, and with varying degrees of success, certain emotional conditions, such as depression. The drugs I’m asking you to imagine are rather different: they can generate specific emotions. Call them “targeted emotional enhancements.” A dose of such a drug can induce an emotional state of your choice. Choice is exclusive, so that selecting one emotion excludes all others. Choice is also permanent: unlike most drugs we know, this drug alters your brain chemistry permanently. The state you choose will define the texture of your emotional life for decades to come. What would you choose?

I can imagine most people hesitating. We may be reminded of the reasons many people would hesitate to be hooked up to the famous “experience machine” devised by Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick to make a point against the adequacy of hedonism as a psychological theory. Nozick’s machine can give us all the pleasurable experiences we want by direct stimulation of our brain. Yet most people would refuse to be plugged in to it. Partly that’s because we want to be agents of our lives, not passive receptacles of experiences injected into our minds from the outside, however pleasant. Partly it’s that we value the sense of being in contact with something we think of as “reality.” The bearing of Nozick’s thought experiment becomes even more direct if you assume, in the case of these emotional enhancers, that there is only one obvious choice most if not all people would make. Given the choice, what else would they opt for if not a lifetime of uninterrupted joy?

For my part, I’m not so sure. But I believe I know at least what one man— Aldous Huxley, best known as the author of Brave New World—would have chosen. In 1953, Huxley conducted an experiment showing that such a pharmacological possibility was already by no means in the realm of fantasy. Under professional supervision, Huxley ingested half a gram of a drug called mescaline, and then sat back to experience the results. Mescaline is the active ingredient in the peyote cactus, a hallucinogenic plant known for its traditional use among Native Americans. The results were described in a remarkable little tract known under the title The Doors of Perception, in which Huxley, aided by audio recordings made at the time, reconstructed his experience and reflected on its significance. Although it would be impossible to reduce that extraordinary account to a single idea, central to the texture of Huxley’s experience was what we would have no difficulty recognizing as a dramatic, almost ecstatic experience of wonder.

As Huxley watched, the world was transfigured. Colors became more intense, flaming out like precious stones. The surfaces of things changed. He found himself dwelling on the folds of his trousers in bewitchment. Ordinary things, such as chairs and tables, took on a miraculous aspect. Huxley’s eyes feasted on the world around him as if he were seeing everything for the first time.

Two things stand out in the way he articulated this ecstatic mode of perception. Over and over, he described it as an intense experience of meaningfulness. Everything, the most mundane things, seemed significant. And over and over, he used what seems like a strongly religious vocabulary to articulate that sense of significance. What he felt he was seeing under the effect of mescaline was “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” He was beholding the “unfathomable mystery of pure being.” Everything he saw was charged with “isness.” Huxley described it as a “sacramental vision of reality.”

It is hard to walk away from Huxley’s account unmoved. Yet his experience raises many questions. If we take it as a paradigmatic case of wonder, it provides us with a rare phenomenological account of the experience that helps us think more clearly about its nature. Yet it also helps us confront the question: Why is this an experience of value—an experience we might think worth having? And more provocatively: How can we access it? And just how far are we prepared to go to do so?

The first question is one that is almost as old as the history of thought. Plato and Aristotle were both answering it in their own ways when they described wonder as the passion that makes us think. “It is owing to their wonder,” in Aristotle’s familiar words in the Metaphysics, “that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” That it does so has to do with a special feature of wonder that sets it apart from other emotions. Other emotions, such as anger or fear, are based on evaluations of how particular circumstances or events affect our interests or needs. You took something that’s mine, so I’m angry with you. I think someone may hurt me, so I feel scared.

Insofar as it reflects a uniquely human ability to respond to the world in ways that transcend practical concerns, some might even say that wonder is the emotion that makes us human.

Wonder, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be rooted in practical interests in the same way. The early people whom Aristotle imagines looking up at heavenly phenomena and asking why weren’t driven by a sense of how practically useful it would be to answer that question. As the French philosopher René Descartes would later suggest, wonder arises in us before we’ve even had a chance to consider whether an object benefits or harms us. Insofar as it reflects a uniquely human ability to respond to the world in ways that transcend practical concerns, some might even say that wonder is the emotion that makes us human. If you follow this line of thinking, the value of wonder will lie in the wide range of intellectual achievements it has made possible, making us ask questions—philosophical and scientific—and answer them.

Yet the experience of wonder that Huxley describes does not fit that productive mold, the mold of productive inquiry. While he repeatedly talks about an experience of “mystery,” this is not a mystery he’s interested in explaining. Nor is Huxley interested in thinking. Seeing seems more than enough. In this regard, his experience reminds us of a type of wonder that is at home less in philosophy and science than in poetry and religion. This is the kind of wonder the poet William Wordsworth described when he talked about seeing the “glory in the flower” and the “splendour in the grass,” or that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had in mind when he talked about contemplating the world “with feelings as fresh, as if all had then sprang forth at the first creative fiat”—with a mind that “feels the riddle of the world.”

If we focus on this type of wonder, to ask why wonder is worth experiencing will be like asking why it’s worth experiencing anything at all. To wonder simply is to experience—to really, or properly, experience. Why open the “doors of perception”? Just to perceive. Though this bare statement still leaves out an important element of what one is experiencing things as. To feel the wonder of Huxley and the poets is not just to experience things but to experience them as signs, as meaningful yet mysterious. A sense of mystery is a sense of possibility. It involves a sense of not-knowing that is nevertheless suffused with trust or hope. It’s no accident that wonder has sometimes been said to have a similar structure to hope.

This, it seems to me, is the kind of wonder that has played a special role in the emotional life not just of poets but also of theologians and religious believers. The contemporary psychologist of religion Robert Fuller has described wonder as an emotion with a “spiritual” or “metaphysical” tendency, which provides a powerful impetus to quests of a spiritual or religious kind. Many thinkers, from Augustine to Rudolph Otto, have seen wonder—and its more intense form, awe—as the quintessential religious emotion. The twentieth-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed for it. Faced with the thought experiment with which I began, we can guess how these thinkers would have responded. We can perhaps also imagine how they might have countered any comparison with Nozick’s experience machine. The wonder of the poets and the theologians is no mere “feeling” that can be untethered from the world: a wonder worth its salt makes us see things as they really are, really see things. And the state of wonder is no pure state of hedonic pleasure, such as physical pleasure or joy. It is at best a state of hopeful tension. It relishes a sense of possibility, not a sense of possession. Rather than shut down experience, it opens it.

Yet if we go along with this view, we’ll be brought back full force to the trickier question of means. If we can see reasons to value this kind of wonder, how do we get to it? About Huxley’s pharmaceutical option I don’t have much to say, apart from making a simple observation. Despite what I just said about how “experience machine” objections might be met, the idea of a pharmaceutically produced sense of wonder seems to harbor an inherent tension. Because granted, the experience may feel meaningful. But the awareness of its causes creates a worry that won’t easily go away. In what way are you after all really seeing things when you’re seeing them under the influence of a drug that has altered your brain chemistry? We might put it as a problem of warrant: the more we value an experience, the more concerned we are to secure it, so the more we want to ensure it is properly grounded—one might say, earned. An experience produced by a drug seems contingent. It seems insecure. Personally, I don’t want to find a numinous experience of intense meaningfulness or passionate love, or whatever, at the end of a spoon or a dropper.

This point, I realize, raises difficult questions about the relation between human experience and its biological foundations (not to mention, the role of contingency in our lives). But putting these to the side, it is clear that direct interventions in brain chemistry have been far from the best-travelled road for those who have valued this kind of experience. Huxley himself had much to say in defence of pharmacological means, but he recognized that this was not the only way in which we could come to have the experience. So what other ways are there for accessing this wonder—for earning it?

There is a special difficulty here that poets and mystics have been keenly aware of. Because to the extent that the type of wonder we’re talking about is a response to things that confront us every day—chairs and tables, the folds of trousers, and the colors of books—to experience it would seem to require a dramatic change in the way we interact with our surroundings. The difficulty is given teeth by the paradigm that poets and artists of the last couple of centuries have often relied on when approaching this kind of wonder—namely, the wonder of the child. Because for the child, the world is simply new. Yet novelty is a finite stock, rapidly consumed as we go through life. Once we’ve seen things, we can never unsee them. We only experience things for the first time once. Which means we only experience things once. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it with evident pain: when you’ve once laid eyes on a work of art and been powerfully touched by it, “you must take your leave of it; you shall never see it again”—that is, even if you see it every day.

Spirobranchus Giganteus At Gili Lawa Laut

Christmas tree worm embedded on coral near Indonesia; photo: Alexander Vasenin

Some people appear to be gifted with an unusual ability to spontaneously see the world around them as if for the first time. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is said to have had that gift. The same applies to that great hero of modern Greek literature, Alexis Zorba—the subject of Nikos Kazantzakis’s eponymous novel, Zorba the Greek—who seems to see and unsee the world around him as easily as others breathe. “Sea!” “Earth!” “Wine!” “Woman!” Ordinary things loom before him like terrible mysteries. But that’s what makes Zorba a hero. He can do extraordinary things. What about those of us who can’t?

What seems clear is that the wonder we experience as adults simply cannot be of the same kind as the one we experienced as children, or spring from the same causes. Yet if we want to figure out how we can still find our way to it as grown-ups, it will help to have a more fine-grained picture of the routes we followed as children. Because while children may be brought to wonder by experiences of new things in the world around them—the kinds of experiences their parents make possible for them through weekend trips to the aquarium or the museum, to let them stare wide-eyed at sleek fish gliding through water tanks and the skeletal remains of prehistoric colossi towering overhead—it would be a mistake to restrict our attention to these kinds of experiences—that is to say, to visual encounters with outside phenomena. Besides the wonder experienced in aquariums and museums, we need to think of the kind of wonder provoked on a parent’s lap or at the bedside by stories and books.

That wonder can be provoked by stories was an idea familiar to Aristotle, some of whose most interesting comments on the emotion appear not in his philosophical treatises but in his work on poetry and rhetoric. We may think here not only of the wonder aroused by great literary heroes and their exploits but of the wonder we feel when, after many twists and turns, the end of the story confronts us with a final pull of the yarn that somehow ties everything together with marvelous coherence. Yet to mine the significance of this idea, we need to think beyond fictional stories to narratives in a more general sense. The basic insight can then be put broadly: many of the most important experiences we have, including the most powerful emotions we experience, are mediated for us by narratives given to us by others. This reflects an even more basic insight, so simple it will hardly seem in need of argument: our emotions are the product not simply of things we see, in some “brute” or “naïve” sense of seeing; they’re the result of the ways we see and of the things we think. And we often owe both to the way others help us see and think, through the things they say or write.

That experiences are constructed by narratives holds true, as the nature writer Robert Macfarlane observed in his aptly named Mountains of the Mind, even for experiences we think of as products of a naive or immediate seeing, such as the response to natural landscapes. The best example is provided by the history of the human relation to mountains. Mountains were not always avidly sought out by people and experienced with wonder and awe as they are today. It took a cultural change that played out in the thinking and writing of the lettered classes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, resulting in a dramatic overhaul of aesthetic ideas. The wondering response to mountains was made possible by such narratives, which created a new way of reading the stable physical forms out there in the world.

This simple insight is important for thinking about the availability of wonder across our life span. Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge appreciated it fully, to the extent that they saw the narrative art of poetry as a central tool for restoring access to a childlike wonder. Yet a sufficiently broad notion of “narrative” can help make visible a host of other tools or pathways through which the experience of wonder is made available to us. This includes, significantly, the pathways provided within religious and spiritual traditions.

Bleached Coral Acoropora Sp

Bleached Acropora coral, 2016; photo: Vardhan Patankar

In many of these traditions, wonder is not an experience to be had by the by but a devotion, and a variety of narratives are pressed to its service. An example of one kind of narrative created with this purpose in mind is provided by the eleventh-century theologian Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī. His major work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, includes an entire volume dedicated to an activity he designates simply as “reflection” or “meditation” (tafakkur). The main topic of this meditation turns out to be the wonders of God’s creation. In a narrative that unfolds over several dozen pages, al-Ghazālī takes us on a cosmic tour of the created world and invites us to dwell on a range of familiar objects, including the different aspects of our own physical constitution, to discover what they “say” about their divine artificer. Al-Ghazālī’s hope, as he takes us on this narrative journey, is to help us re-experience a sense of wonder we have lost through familiarity. All these natural phenomena are “signs” that speak of God and that, having forgotten them, we need to be reminded of. For an austere ascetic such as al-Ghazālī, this is as close as he comes to acknowledging the claims the natural world makes on our appreciation.

Al-Ghazālī’s narrative of wonder finds its counterpart in many other theistic traditions. Modern readers, it’s true, may sometimes find it difficult to relate to these particular narratives and the kind of wonder they beckon us to. With several centuries of sophisticated philosophical inquiry under our belt, we may feel defensive about surrendering to a type of appeal that we may recognize as the essence of a familiar and no longer quite so redoubtable argument, the argument from design. Yet it is in principle possible, after all, to separate the type of vision these narratives seek to nurture from the purposes to which they put it. Take it from the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins: his popular book Unweaving the Rainbow is nothing if not a modern-day exercise in engineering this vision, put to very different uses. And there’s no reason, either, that we must remain loyal to particular narratives. We can make better ones, ones better suited to our current worldview.

Yet these kinds of narratives of wonder do not exhaust the toolbox of religious thinkers and the traditions to which they belong. In fact, some of the most interesting and most powerful narratives may be ones that do not expressly set out to evoke that emotional response in their readers, and rather work in quieter ways. (Is this part of what may alienate us from wonder-narratives such as al-Ghazālī’s and even Dawkins’—that their purpose is so naked?) Instead of directly telling us something is wondrous, they lead us up to it through a side door. And one of the ways you can lead people is by offering them arguments.

There is always something subjective about picking out such narratives, but one of the best examples I know is provided by the recent book The Experience of God, by the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. The type of wonder that interests Hart differs from al-Ghazālī’s: it is not the wonder we experience at particular beings (the moon or the sun, the human body and its constituents) but at being as such. Yet what he shares with al-Ghazālī is a (Qur’anic-Platonic) sense that this wonder needs to be not so much acquired as recollected. It is there beneath the skin of our awareness, ready to emerge under the right conditions.

One way of looking at Hart’s narrative is as an attempt to indirectly supply these conditions. His main aim, modestly, is to explain how the great religions understand the concept of God. But understanding this concept means recovering a kind of experience. It involves recognizing that God is “somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world.” To understand what “God” means is to understand what it means to say that all of us are always engaged with His reality “in every moment of existence and consciousness” and that God is the condition that supports our capacity to experience anything whatsoever. Once we have uncovered or recovered this insight, we will see that what is most mysterious is there in what is most ordinary.

Hart doesn’t expressly seek to reconnect us to that experience of mystery. Nor does he expressly try to do so by argument. He is not optimistic about how successful arguments can be, and he would probably be uneasy about my describing the kind of narrative he offers as an “argument.” Yet that experience is nevertheless one that his narrative makes available to the reader. And if you access it while reading the book, it will be by following a long train of arguments that takes on the claims of naturalism, the worldview directly opposed to theism, and dissects its weaknesses, including why it is incapable of accounting for the basic fact that things are. Among other things, this involves going over some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, notably cosmological arguments.

The American philosopher C. Stephen Evans recently suggested that it is a mistake to view such arguments as attempts to rationally compel belief in God. Instead, we should see them as attempts to articulate what he calls “natural signs.” In the case of the cosmological argument—one of whose Islamic strains, the kalām argument, has been vigorously championed by philosopher of religion William Lane Craig—this natural sign is simply our natural wonder before a world we experience as mysterious and contingent, as crying out for explanation. Yet Evans’s point can be put the other way around with equal relevance, because that kind of cosmic wonder is after all not entirely natural, in the sense of being easily available. It seems highly possible that many people go through life without once being struck by how remarkable it is that anything exists. It is an experience we often need to work our way to. Arguments of this kind, and theological narratives more generally, provide us with one possible means. Such arguments don’t just express wonder—they can also generate it. Do you need to be entirely convinced by the arguments to be carried into this kind of wonder? Can a sense of cosmic wonder be invalidated by argument? These are interesting questions that can lead us far.

So wonder can be found in the stories we tell each other, the ways we help each other think and see. And if we search for wonder, it is because we think it helps us see most fully. Emerson lamented the fact that our moods make us captive to their ways of seeing. Moods are “lenses which paint the world their own hue” and determine what we can see. Yet there are moods that help us see more than most. If we had to be captive to a mood, we could do worse than make that mood wonder.


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