Awe and Wonder in Scientific Practice: Implications for the Relationship Between Science and Religion

Issues in Science and Theology: Nature – and Beyond (2020)
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This paper examines the role of awe and wonder in scientific practice. Drawing on evidence from psychological research and the writings of scientists and science communicators, I argue that awe and wonder play a crucial role in scientific discovery. They focus our attention on the natural world, encourage open-mindedness, diminish the self (particularly feelings of self-importance), help to accord value to the objects that are being studied, and provide a mode of understanding in the absence of full knowledge. I will flesh out implications of the role of awe and wonder in scientific discovery for debates on the relationship between science and religion. Abraham Heschel argued that awe and wonder are religious emotions because they reduce our feelings of self-importance, and thereby help to cultivate the proper reverent attitude towards God. Yet metaphysical naturalists such as Richard Dawkins insist that awe and wonder need not lead to any theistic commitments for scientists. The awe some scientists experience can be regarded as a form of non-theistic spirituality, which is neither a reductive naturalism nor theism. I will attempt to resolve the tension between these views by identifying some common ground.
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