ABOUT WONDER

I was listening to Mary Catherine Bateson on a podcast this morning. She observed that a shared aspect of the three Abrahamic religions is the sense of wonder, with its concomitant idiom of praise arising from a shared sense of marvel. It reminded me of Bruno Latour’s description, in Facing Gaia, of the monotheisms as counter-religions”: forms of belief that grew to exclude the possibility of divinities other than the one to which each was pledged. This marked a shift from religions of antiquity, which acknowledged divinity in plural forms.

Both observations are terrific oversimplifications, of course. And yet there is something unmistakeable in them. And these two confessional vectors are hardly exclusive, but closely paired: wonder at the majesty of one’s sole God is the front porch to a house which, however many mansions it may hold, has no room for the gods of others.

Science, too, traffics in wonder. And as Latour points out, it has emerged as a counter-religion in the same key as the others: for science, as a culture, as a belief system, as a confession, recognizes a sole force, Nature, as its de-facto divinity.

There have been charismatic dissents from this mononaturalism—the line of process philosophers running through James and Whitehead, for whom the plurality of nature was paramount; and the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, who figures ours as a dappled world” where the laws” of science hold locally, partially, in fragmented pools and prisms.

Wonder is often the coin of mononatural science, figured most richly and evidently in documentary films and the imprecations of public scientists. And it makes me uncomfortable—for scientific wonder, like the Psalmist, often has little patience for pluralism, for dappled light.

And yet I’m beginning to think that something like wonder might be a crucial missing ingredient in the climate debate. What’s needed is a negative wonder, or perhaps more richly a plural wonder: a practice of acknowledgment of the marvels of excess, and abundance, and multiplicity, mystery. Praise for a planet capable of husbanding such plurality and diversity in living things—a fraught plurality, the very power and majesty of which is tangled up with what makes it ephemeral and tenuous.

December 21, 2017


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