Awesome Evidence

The Starry NightSometimes, when discussing the possible existence of God (or Gods), there is the question: “Where is the evidence God exists?” One problem with that question is that different groups (believers and non-believers) are seeking different kinds of evidence. It’s a bit like how different groups — often the same two groups — get stuck on meanings of the word “theory.”

Evidence can be probative, circumstantial or even merely suggestive. When it comes to the question of God, some require probative evidence to prove God’s existence. Others, believing faith is central to belief, require only circumstantial or suggestive evidence.

Here are some thoughts about evidence I find suggestive.

starry nightHave you ever been out on a clear night, far from the city lights, and seen the sky filled with more stars than you can even begin to count? As you stood there gazing upwards, did you feel your heart soar? Did you — maybe for just a moment — find your breath taken away by the sheer size of the universe?

Why do we feel awe? What is that about?

Have you ever listened to a piece of music that reached deep inside you, grabbed your heart and squeezed tears from your eyes? Have you ever found a piece of music so filled with life and joy that you couldn’t not — at the very least — tap out the beat with your fingers or feet?

Why does music move us so? Why is it loved the world over?

music joyWhy is music so closely tied to our joys, our sorrows, our struggles, our celebrations and our worship? (As to that last, besides liturgical music, there are school songs, sports songs and even songs about money.)

The universality and power of these things begs explanation.

Many — some require all — of our behaviors have an evolutionary explanation. Our appreciation of human beauty seems well grounded in evolution. Studies show that good genetics correspond with people most consider “beautiful.”

Even the appreciation of land — the good feelings we get from a lush forest or fertile plain — point to evolved understandings long ago encoded in our genes. The tribe can prosper here.

Death ValleyBut if you’ve ever stood in the stark, forbidding emptiness of Death Valley and thought, “Wow! This is awesome!” you know that appreciation of the land can be transcendent. I would imagine one gets a similar feeling standing at either of the Earth’s poles or on the top of Mount Everest.

Why is a beautiful sunset breathtaking? Where is the evolutionary grounding for that? Given predators who hunt at night, given that humans don’t see well in the dark, isn’t fear or insecurity the likely primitive encoding for the coming of night?

Children often need a nightlight; many adults fear the dark. Shouldn’t a sunset seem an ominous omen — not something we watch with such evident pleasure? But crowds gather daily at Mallory Square to festively celebrate and watch the sun set into the Gulf.

Mallory SquareEven the sunset seems transcendent.

Awe seems connected with our intellect and our emotions.

It often stems from our understanding. Engineers feel awe when regarding a designed thing that seems to embody all the perfections of elegant design. Those who deeply understand the language of a given art feel awe regarding the works of the truly skilled artists of that art.

Those who love the idea of space and space travel feel the awe of an Apollo or Shuttle launch. One vacation my then girlfriend and I visited “the Cape” and watched a Shuttle launch in their IMAX theater. I was so moved I couldn’t speak for five or so minutes afterwards.

The experience was transcendent. I can only imagine how profoundly affecting seeing the real thing would have been. (Those who have been there almost universally report the sense of awe.)

Apollo launchAs humans we conceive of many things that seem absent in the animal kingdom: justice, equality, religion, morality, art, mathematics, science.

Humans question; we alone ask, “Why?”

So perhaps awe is a product of human intellect, a thing we made up.

But why? Those things I listed above can all be seen as useful social tools (although art might be the joker in that deck). Given the conscious awareness of self, extending that to the awareness of other, one can create an account for equality, justice, and morality.

The driving forces behind religion, mathematics and science are too obvious to mention. Their useful value to society is well-established.

Mona LisaArt may be connected to awe; certainly great art can awe us. Perhaps art actually springs from our sense of awe. (Which connects well with my definition of art as an intentional expression of ones interpretation of existence.)

So why can we feel awe? Is it just a product of our intellect? Or is it suggestive there is something very special going on here?

Maybe our ability to feel a sense of awe is a way God says: “Hello, World!”

Lastly this:

Life is often recursive. I’m in awe regarding my ability to feel awe.

I leave you with two things I think are totally awesome:

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

28 responses to “Awesome Evidence

  • dianasschwenk

    Love this post Smitty. As you know, I believe in a creator (God). And if we are created in his image, it doesn’t surprise me that we also yearn to create. Wouldn’t art fit into that? Or even science for that matter? ❤
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m glad you liked it. Art could absolutely be aligned with the spark of imagination and heart gifted to us by our creator. Stir in that other special gift, our intellect and curiosity, and, yeah, sure, you betcha — poof — science!

  • dianasschwenk

    I love Leonard Cohen and I love K.D.’s version of this song!

  • Doobster418

    “Have you ever been out on a clear night, far from the city lights, and seen the sky filled with more stars than you can even begin to count?” Yes, I have and I felt the same sense of awe you described. I have been moved by art and by music and I have a feeling of wonder at all that I see around me. But that is not, to me, evidence, probative, circumstantial, or suggestive, of God’s existence. It suggests a vast and wondrous natural universe, something inconceivably large that I am but an infinitesimally small part of. It is not something that makes me believe, through my sense of awe at these things, that God is saying hello to me. God is not telling me, “behold the gifts I have given you.” But if believing that those uncountable stars, Death Valley, the view from atop Mount Everest, the sunset or the sunrise, the ability to be moved by art and music…if believing those are God’s gift makes you or anyone else feel better and appreciate them even more, I applaud your beliefs. I just don’t share them.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You seem to have misunderstood the question: Where does our ability to feel awe come from?

      If you deny that what you admit you do feel has no evidential meaning, what is its purpose? Why does it exist?

  • Doobster418

    No, it’s not that I misunderstood the question, WS. It’s more that I don’t see the need for the question. To me, it’s less important — or perhaps unimportant — where our ability to feel awe comes from as much as that we have the ability to feel awe.

    I don’t need to know the origin of everything around me, or, being unable to know that, to construct a supernatural deity to explain it, in order to appreciate everything around me.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      How is your unquestioning faith in a mysterious physical universe any different from an unquestioning faith in a mysterious spiritual universe?

      • Doobster418

        Maybe, in the end, it’s no different. But I can see with my own eyes the physical universe. I can’t see the spiritual universe.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        And there’s no chance that’s because your eyes are closed? You deny awe means anything, but neither can you account for it.

        But okay, the physical universe you can see and test, and you deny any of it is in any way spiritual. Fair enough. You must then have a strong suspicion — amounting to an almost unavoidable belief — that you exist in a virtual reality, right?

      • Doobster418

        Okay, I do admit that I’ve been watching The Matrix trilogy on TV this weekend, but no, I don’t live in a virtual reality and I don’t see how you can jump to the conclusion that denying a spiritual universe means that I must live in a virtual, rather than a physical, reality. I simply don’t accept your assertion that “if you believe in materialism [the physical universe], you almost have to believe this reality is a simulation.”

        And also contrary to what you have suggested, my eyes are wide open. Where did I say that awe means nothing? We can see and recognize beauty; we can experience feelings of awe. I account for awe as being an innate part of the human condition. But I don’t attribute the human condition to God. Why must it be one way or the other, Wyrd? If you experience awe and attribute it to God or to a spiritual universe and I experience awe and don’t attribute it to God or a spiritual universe, so what? What you believe works for you, what I believe works for me.

        Why does it matter to you if I don’t see things the same way you see things, unless your objective is to make me see things your way. My objective is not to make you see things the way I see them. But at the same time, I will feel free to express the way I see things and to explain why, just as you have done.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I simply don’t accept your assertion that ‘if you believe in materialism [the physical universe], you almost have to believe this reality is a simulation.'”

        Doob, that assertion is supported by a strong logical argument and six central aspects of physical reality that all point to this being a simulation. Nor is it, as you say, a denial of a spiritual reality, but an affirmation of a physical one. Such affirmation logically leads to the conclusion. If you deny that you provide an alternate account.

        “Where did I say that awe means nothing?”

        Again, we’re talking about the source of awe, of which you said:

        “I don’t see the need for the question. To me, it’s less important — or perhaps unimportant — where our ability to feel awe comes from”

        I’m curious why you felt the need to comment here at all. You have no argument to offer, just a ungrounded, faith-based assertion of your implicitly superior point of view. What did you feel the point of commenting was? Since your mind is obviously closed, there’s no point in debate. You have what seems to be a case anti-theism rather than simple atheism.

      • Doobster418

        Atheism is simply the absence of belief in gods; anti-theism is a conscious and deliberate opposition to theism. I do not believe in the existence of gods or a God, but I am not opposed to those who do hold that belief and who derive value from that belief. As I have said a number of times on my blog, “whatever floats your boat.”

        Why did I comment in the first place? I thought your post was well written, interesting, and provocative and I was merely expressing that I have had similar experiences as you have had — seeing a starry sky, hearing emotionally engulfing music, viewing a magnificent landscape, or seeing a beautiful work of art — and didn’t see those as subjective evidence, as you apparently did, of God’s existence. I wasn’t intending to argue or even debate, as much as to just express my opinion, which I believe is the intent of posting comments.

        It was you who challenged my opinion by suggesting that I misunderstood the question and later suggesting that I can’t see what you’re suggesting because my eyes are closed. Perhaps I should have not bothered, at that point, to respond further.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Doob. Do you really think you can offer an opposing opinion and not expect to be asked to support that opinion?

      • Doobster418

        Sure, why not? When I ask some Christians to support their belief that God exists, they say, “It says so in the Bible.”

        Besides, it wasn’t so much an opposing opinion that I expressed, just a different perspective.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But that is not, to me, evidence, probative, circumstantial, or suggestive, of God’s existence.”

        Sounds like a contrary opinion to me.

        “Sure, why not?”

        Okay, that’s fine, but don’t expect me to take your opinion or “different perspective” any more seriously then I (or you, for that matter) do theirs.

  • Hariod Brawn

    The question of ‘evidence’ is of course what will ensure this debate rages for eternity in its polarising futility. I rather like William James’ approach to religious experience in that whatever pragmatically conduces to emotional solace, then so it is that such pragmatism should always be acceptable. I recall the 33 miners trapped underground in the Copiapó mining accident in Chile just 4 years ago. What sustained the miners, and as each individually confirmed was true for themselves, was their belief in a God who would save them. For the atheist observer, then engineering saved them of course. Yet it was not engineering that provided the emotional solace in the miner’s darkest hours. Who can object to a belief which holds such power? Religion is another matter; and the scope for valid criticism there is almost without limit.

    P.S. Magnificent footage of the shuttle. Of course, if God had designed it we wouldn’t have had the O-ring problem!

    P.P.S. (Pedants Post Script): There’s a missing ‘what’ here: “Studies show that good genetics correspond with people most consider beautiful”.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I agree completely. At the very least spiritual connections and feelings have positive social value. (As with all powerful social tools, they have a dark side that testifies to their power. Likewise chainsaws.)

      Einstein wrote (in Science and Religion):

      Even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

      Another Einstein quote I like comes from an interview in 1930:

      “Speaking of the spirit that informs modern scientific investigations, I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling, and that without such a feeling they would not be fruitful. I also believe that, this kind of religiousness, which makes itself felt today in scientific investigations, is the only creative religious activity of our time. The art of today can hardly be looked upon at all as expressive of our religious instincts.”

      Good enough for Al; good enough for me!

      P.P.P.S. (Purely Pedantic Post Script): No missing “what” but I left out an (unnecessary IMO) “that” after “people” — I confess to liking sentence structure that makes people go, “Wait, what? (Oh, there’s the missing “what”! 🙂 )

      • Hariod Brawn

        What marvellous quotes from Einstein; I was always drawn to this one:

        “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

        I also love this famous exchange with Marilyn Monroe:

        Marilyn: “Oh Albert, just imagine what it would be like if we had a baby with your brains and my body!”

        Albert: “But Marilyn dear, what if it had your brains and my body?”

        Finally, apologies for my pedantic and erroneous typo-call W.S. I can see now that your phrasing works (sort of), even though it did jar with me at first.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, dear. Call me — with full justification — an insufferable pedant and overbearing über-geek, but as truly lovely as both quotes are, I just cannot allow them to pass. One stick in my craw is the growing dilution of accuracy as misinformation is scribed on the internet wall. The situation approaches agonizing when a friend posts something really nice — but begging correction — on ones own blog.

        The Einstein quote above comes from 1950 letter quoted in The New York Times in 1972. But in The New Quotable Einstein, Alice Calaprice offers what is likely a more accurate version from an letter Einstein wrote to a distraught who’d lost his young son and had asked Einstein for some comforting words. The version she quotes goes like this:

        A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind. [source: Wikiquote]

        Part of why I am compelled to complete accuracy here is the combination of my reverence for Albert and the knowledge that the poor fellow is one of the most misquoted, misattributed people ever. It’s also interesting how the two differ. They’re identical up to the point Albert mentions religion. I sometime think old Al talked more about religion than made some of his fans comfortable. 🙂

        FWIW, there were “red flags” that caused me to be skeptical of the quote and to seek its source. Maybe I have a sense of his phrasing or word choices? Maybe it’s just learned skepticism from all the misquotes. In any event, “personal desires,” “few persons,” and “circle of compassion” all raised my eyebrows. Somehow they just didn’t sound quite like him. I’ve learned to trust that sense, whatever it is.

        Hariod, I hope I haven’t ruined the quote for you!

        Funny thing about Albert and Marilyn… Same thing happened to: George Bernard Shaw & Isadora Duncan; Anatole France & Isadora Duncan; Arthur Miller & Marilyn Monroe; Albert Einstein & a chorus girl; George Bernard Shaw & a strange lady in Zurich. The earliest known source is from the Boston Globe in 1923:

        In all probability the conversation between Isadore Duncan and Anatole France, who were discussing eugenics, came to a sudden stop when Isadore said: “Imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!” and Anatole responded: “Yes, but imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!”

        There’s a Washington, D.C., columnist who reported this variant in 1953:

        “The trouble with Ike,” remarked one Republican friend, “is that he’s been like the chorus girl who proposed to Dr. Einstein. ‘With your brains and my beauty,’ she said, ‘think what children we could have.’
        “‘But,’ replied Einstein, ‘suppose they had my looks and your brains.’

        There is also a 2009 book review in the Daily Mail of London with an anecdote labeled “probably apocryphal”:

        The other story is of Marilyn saying dreamily to Miller: ‘We should have a child, Arthur. Imagine a baby with your brains and my looks.’ To which Miller retorted: ‘Yes, but what if it got your brains and my looks?’

        [source: Quote Investigator]

        I’ve said this many times on this blog. (In fact, one of my very first posts is about it.) Sourcing quotes has become one of the trickier things to do on the interweb. It can be like looking for a needle in a stack of needles.

    • Hariod Brawn

      You haven’t ruined the quote at all W.S. You know what they say in journalism: “why let the facts get in the way of a good story?” The quote, which I lifted today from ‘Goodreads’, is as I always remembered it; and the phrase “circle of compassion” has always been present in this apocryphal(?) wording to the best of my knowledge, and certainly was there in pre-internet days too. Frankly, I can’t see that the alternative wording you cite makes any difference to the sentiment W.S. – how does citing religion alter the substance here? Perhaps one reason why his supposed quotes vary so much is that a good deal would be translations from his native Swiss/German, or perhaps on occasions from the French he spoke too would they not? Why should anyone want to cite an outright falsity?

      As to the joke, then yes, I know that is highly apocryphal and that it’s been attributed to everyone and their dog; but again, in the pioneering spirit of providing tenuous links and not letting the truth get in the way of any such link, I thought it was worth indulging come what may. Your studious and rigorous striving for authenticity is nonetheless noble, and as the great man himself said (or did he?): “Strenuous intellectual work and the study of God’s Nature are the angels that will lead me through all the troubles of this life with consolation, strength, and uncompromising rigor.”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, yes, Goodreads isn’t a good place to source quotes — lotta misattributions there. No doubt it’s a good, even great, place to get reads, though! The quote you lifted comes from a 1972 newspaper, so the phrases that caught my eye would have been there since pre-internet days.

        I agree the different wording doesn’t change the basic sentiment significantly. It’s the “one issue of true religion” that’s been elided and may (or may not) reflect a bias on the part of whoever wrote it as they did.

        You’re right, of course, translations can be a problem, but if that’s what obtains here it’s one hell of a translation error! 🙂

        As to why anyone would cite a falsity, you’re joking right? I know you didn’t just fall off the turnip truck! 😀 (I’ve always assumed people think there’s more gravitas and intellectual backing if their particular pet idea was said by the Great Albert.)

  • Lisa

    That was an excellent version of the song. A song that always touches me is Pachabells Cannon, whenever I hear it I feel as if I have been redeemed. I think the general thrust of this post might also fall under Maslow’s peak experiences.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      That’s an excellent point about peak experiences. That hadn’t occurred to me at all, so thanks for the contribution! I do rather like Maslow, and now you’ve got me thinking about it, there are some interesting connections to his ideas about self-actualization.

      Einstein describes an almost overwhelming physical experience he had when he applied his Theory of General Relativity to the problem of Mercury’s orbit. For that matter, Tim Jenison has a very emotional moment contemplating his completed “Vermeer” in Tim’s Vermeer (which I mentioned in today’s post).

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I don’t know where awe comes from, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think it comes from evolution. Often finding the adaptation for a specific emotion or attribute is complicated (hence the difficulty and controversy of evolutionary psychology).

    But not all emotions are directly adaptive. Some are spandrels, secondary by products, effects, of adaptive attributes. And some are only adaptive in complex combinations with other attributes.

    The appreciation of a desert scene or a sunset might be similar to the joy of staying under the bed covers while it storms outside, in knowing that we get to avoid any negative consequences of the event. Maybe.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, those seem to be the choices, don’t they:

      1. Awe has an evolutionary basis
      2. Awe is a byproduct or secondary effect
      3. Awe is an indication of something special

      Obviously I’m positing the possibility of the third choice, plus I’m arguing against the first one. We can create an account of abstractions such as justice and many others, but an account of awe seems much more challenging. The kind of experience I’m referring to isn’t anything like the joy of staying beneath the covers — that’s a purely emotional feeling that easily explained. What would make one (as I often do) stand and watch a good storm with thorough enjoyment?

      That leaves the second option, and it seems counter-intuitive (for what little value that has) that something as compelling and powerful as awe would be a useless byproduct. So one is left with finding a good account of awe or confronting the third possibility.

      [As an aside, a recent paper floats the idea that grief has an evolutionary selection basis. Grief seems clearly a byproduct of emotional bonding — specifically the breaking of one — but the paper suggests the posture and display of grief is a desirable trait. It demonstrates ones capacity to bond and care, and that makes one a more desirable mate than one who doesn’t. Interestingly, it seems that showing too much grief is counter-productive — there’s a sweet spot of ideal grief — because it reveals either falsity (if faked to garner emotional support) or over-bonding (if genuine).]

      Arguing against my own point, it’s possible awe is related to the same perceptions and drives that lie behind invention and exploration. Perhaps it is an emotionally connected form of curiosity + imagination. Maybe the awe of something drives us to understand or explore or even conquer it.

  • ~ Sadie ~

    WS – LOVED this post!! I loved the videos, too! I really enjoy K.D. Lang and had never heard her version of that song. I had never seen that NASA video either. My time at NASA, especially in education provided me with many opportunities to share a lot of knowledge with the kids. I have seen the pyrotechnic hardware they use – I have held the smaller nuts/bolts in my hand. When you go in the pyrotechnics bldg onsite at NASA, you leave your badge when you check in to be put in an explosion proof box, JIC . . . 😉 seriously, as a journalist, I asked! I wrote about it for the kids – figured some of them might dig the pyro part of the science/tech I was promoting. And notice NASA loves their acronyms! I have sat in Mission Control during a launch at one of the consoles (and many other times, too – working education I found a way to share lots of stuff!!) – the shuttle was an awesome bird . . . I will always be in awe.

    And a lot of philosophical scientific discussion above 🙂 Though I love that, and often love to have those types of discussions – when I am in awe, it’s like when I am happy – I don’t want to question it or where it comes from or why (or even write about it), I just want to be in the moment enjoying it. I am told I think and analyze wayyyy too much – but with some things, I don’t, I just be ☮ (she says smiling!)

    I thought you might like this . . .

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, nice video! That’s right, you worked at NASA in the alphabet soup! I’m lucky to have found a video you’ve never seen.

      Hmmm. “Some awe is awesome,” isn’t really a palindrome, but it could be the start of a Haiku! How’s this:

      Some awe is awesome;
      The stars take our breath away!
      Is that consciousness?

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