by Daniel Tippens
In my last essay, I argued that there are cases when having a passion alone can justify a belief. In this essay I want to apply this notion, extrapolating from this lovely poem.
The Heart of Night
When all the stars are sown
Across the night-blue space,
With the immense unknown,
In silence face to face.
We stand in speechless awe
While Beauty marches by,
And wonder at the Law
Which wears such majesty.
How small a thing is man
In all that world-sown vast,
That he should hope or plan
Or dream his dream could last!
O doubter of the light,
Confused by fear and wrong,
Lean on the heart of night
And let love make thee strong!
The Good that is the True
Is clothed with Beauty still.
Lo, in their tent of blue,
The stars above the hill!
The poet Bliss Carman eloquently captures the character and attitude of the individual who wonders. Such an individual, first, has a sense for the majestic, feeling awe when she looks at up at the cosmos. “We stand in speechless awe, as beauty marches by. And wonder at the Law, which wears such majesty.” To feel fear is to sense what is dangerous. To feel wonder is to sense what is majestic.
But to feel wonder also has a particular domain, according to Carman’s understanding of the passion, who says “across the night-blue space, with the immense unknown.” Anger only makes sense when directed toward agents and wonder only makes sense when directed toward the unknown. One way to understand this is to consider how what we ascribe majesty to is precisely those things which are somewhat beyond us. Individuals of royalty are majestic, and they are those things which have an air of mystery to them. To feel wonder, then, is to sense majesty in the unknown.
Of course, in order to sense majesty in the unknown, such an individual must recognize that there is an unknown. She must recognize that there are things which lie beyond the limits of reason, which we do not and possibly cannot understand completely, and can only strive toward. In this way, the wondrous individual exhibits the virtue of epistemic humility.
God, throughout western history, has been considered that thing in the unknown which instills wonder in us. It is the thing that is beautiful, epistemically beyond us, and awesome. If we agree that the experience of a passion alone can provide overriding confidence in a belief, then when one feels wonder, when he looks into the unknown, I see no reason why this couldn’t be such a case. Why isn’t that passion alone sufficient to ground overriding confidence in the existence of something majestic in the mysteries of the cosmos?
Given that the nature of the belief in God (as Hume himself noted) is of a very special kind that has an air of mystery about it, to believe in a God because one feels wonder does not reflect a sense of being naive and need not be the result of willful ignorance about the evidence for or against his existence. Indeed, many of the most brilliant minds in history have been convinced that a God exists, and surely if anyone knew of the evidence for or against existence of God, it would be them. Newton, for example, criticized Descartes’ picture of the physical world because it didn’t make room for the existence of God. To believe in the existence of God because of one feels wonder need not reflect naivety or irrationality, but rather can manifest the virtue of epistemic humility — a healthy recognition of “how small a thing is man.” Belief in God from wonder also does not reflect any moral vice; it need not be the result of a faulty capacity; and to feel wonder at the unknown isn’t inapt in the way that feeling anger at a rock would be. The undermining conditions for a passion, mentioned in the previous essay, just don’t have to apply when one looks up at the stars and is struck by wonder.
If someone were to ask me why I believe in God, then, I could legitimately and confidently tell them that it is because I wonder when I look into the unknown of the cosmos, and I don’t know of any reasons they could provide me with that could override this wondrous confidence, so long as I have done my due diligence in understanding contemporary physics. I sense something majestic in the mysterious, and that is enough.
What I particularly like about this reason for confidence in the existence of God is that it is deeply motivational. Human beings are attracted to things of beauty and awe. If you see a beautiful person, you want to know her. You want to understand more about her and to get to know her more intimately. To sense beauty in the unknown, then, motivates someone who studies the natural world to understand as much as possible about it, even though he recognizes that he will never understand it fully. I said at the beginning of the essay that what it means to have confidence in a belief is that one acts in accordance with it. To have confidence in the existence of this God from wonder is to act in such a manner, which means striving to get closer to that majestic thing in the unknown.
None of this commits the wondrous individual to believing that his God must be an agent or person, for there is no reason to think that we can’t sense majesty in non-agential things. It also isn’t to believe in a heaven, hell, or even an afterlife. The wondrous individual’s God is that majestic thing which he senses when looking into the unknown, and that’s it. There is something that lies beyond reason, which we have access to through overriding passion, and that thing is awesome. In this way, what the wondrous individual believes on the basis of his passion is something thinner, so to speak, than what people of traditional religious conviction believe in.
Einstein, Newton, John Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz — just to name a few — were some of the greatest minds we know of who tried to understand the unknown, and they all believed in a God. Their understanding of this entity was different — some took it to be agential, and others didn’t — and I suspect that this is because they simply felt the pull of wonder when they looked at mystery, acting in accordance with it, and giving us the different products of their explorations toward the majestic.
Many individuals of deep piety and conviction show a concern for a society that becomes godless; when its population stops believing in something majestic beyond the limits of inquiry. The ruminations above suggest an answer as to why. Failure to believe in something like a God may reflect a society that does not have a sense of wonder. They do not look up, may be “confused by fear and wrong,” and will not explore “the stars beyond the hill.”
Daniel Tippens is a PhD student at the University of Miami working in Moral and Political Philosophy. He currently blogs at The Related Public.