The age of amazement

Margaret Somerville
March 7, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

We now realize that our physical ecosystem - our physical environment - can be irreversibly damaged by our conduct, unless we intentionally act to protect it.

The same is true of what we can call our metaphysical ecosystem - the collection of shared values, attitudes, norms of behaviour, the stories we tell each other and buy into to create the glue that binds us together as a society, and so on - which we must also hold on trust for future generations.

Paradoxically, the new science and technology confront us with both the biggest threats and the biggest promises of benefit to both our physical and metaphysical ecosystems. Whether that techno-science proves to be an unprecedented danger or an unprecedented benefit to those ecosystems will depend on how we view and use it. If it offered all good or all bad, we wouldn't have an ethical problem, but it portends both risks and harms and benefits, and ethics is concerned with maximising the good and minimizing the bad.

I am proposing that people who experience amazement, wonder and awe in regard to both the knowledge and the unknown that the new scientific discoveries open up, will make very different and ethically preferable decisions from those who do not have that experience, about the ethics needed to govern the new science.

I will explain what I have in mind, here, in a little more detail shortly, but first let's identify some examples of scientific developments where experiencing amazement, wonder and awe could be important with respect to what we decide is ethical or unethical.

If we look just at reproductive technologies, already realized or future developments include:

CRISPR cas9 technology and subsequent developments that enable us to change the human germ cell line, that is to design our children and, thereby, all future generations born from them. We now have the power no other humans have ever possessed to alter the 4.8 billion years of evolution on Earth that has resulted in us and all other life.

Children with three genetic parents have already been born in the UK and USA where replacement of mitochondrial DNA technology is allowed to be used on human embryos.

Manufactured sperm and ova would allow same sex couples to have a genetically shared child.

Ectogenesis - artificial wombs - will make pregnancy unnecessary and eliminate surrogate motherhood. Lambs have been sustained in "uterine bags" for many weeks.

Uterine transplants to men would allow them to bear a child.

Reproductive cloning - three cloned monkeys have recently been born.

If we view the passing on of life to our children with wonder, amazement and awe and as involving a mystery, we are likely to believe that designing or artificially creating our children's genetic inheritance is unethical, because they have a right, as the philosopher the late Hans Jonas says, to their own untampered-with, unique ticket in the great genetic lottery of the passing on of life to them, and because they have a right to come into being from natural origins.

Whether there might be specific exceptions to this general stance, for instance to avoid a horrible genetic disease, is a further question that I will not explore here.

In contrast, people who do not see any mystery in the passing on of human life, but, rather, simply a physical reality, are likely to believe in future parents' absolute rights to reproductive freedom, which means that it is ethical for them to use the relevant techno-science intervention as they see fit, including, for instance, even having themselves cloned.

The wonder equation

Ethics is a subcategory of philosophy, a discipline not renowned for brevity or indeed easy accessibility by non-philosophers. To help with both, I thought I'd summarize my proposal in this article in a formula:

W - C = H + E

which translates as "wonder, amazement and awe" minus "cynicism" equals "hope and ethics".

I struggled with whether the order should be "hope and ethics" or "ethics and hope" and concluded that it didn't matter, because each elicits the other. Likewise, sometimes wonder precedes amazement and sometimes amazement comes before wonder.

So why do I believe experiencing amazement, wonder and awe is so important? Here's my basic claim: "Experiencing amazement, wonder and awe can enrich our lives, help us to find meaning and change how we see the world…. It can change the decisions we make, especially regarding values and ethics and how we live our lives."

I believe that this claim applies generally, but it is particularly a propos in the context of ethical decision making in science and technology.

I am proposing that experiencing amazement, wonder and awe at what 21st Century techno-science science reveals and the astonishing new powers it gives us, which no humans before us have ever had, has an important role to play in making ethical decisions about what we should and should not do with that techno-science.

Towards transcendence

Amazement, wonder and awe are three entry doors into an experience of transcendence , the feeling that we belong to something larger than ourselves and that what we do matters more than just to us, including to future generations of humans. We must not leave them a world in which no reasonable person would want to live.

A central component of transcendence is what I call the human spirit , "the intangible, immeasurable, ineffable reality to which all of us need to have access to find meaning in life and to make life worth living - a deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to all life, especially to other people, to the world, the universe and the cosmos in which we live; the metaphysical - but not necessarily supernatural - reality which we need to experience to live fully human lives."

We seem to be the only species which can experience amazement, wonder and awe, in other words, these capacities are "uniquely human characteristics...the very essence of our humanness." Consequently, we have an enormous responsibility not to damage or destroy them or the opportunities to experience them, but to hold them on trust for future generations.

The secular sacred

I believe fostering a sense of what I call the secular sacred can help us to do that. The sacred identifies and protects that which must not be destroyed.

The secular sacred is a concept that everyone can accept whether or not they are religious (although note it does not exclude the religious sacred for those who are religious) and, if religious, no matter which tradition they follow.

We also seem to be the only species that searches for meaning, and amazement, wonder and awe can precipitate the search for meaning. Many people who have these experiences perceive a mystery in both their own and the universe's existence, which I call the mystery of the unknown/Unknown . For some, this has an association with religion and for others does not. I suggest that the most fundamental division in ethical decision making in relation to the new techno-science is between those who believe there is a mystery in life and those who adamantly reject such a belief.

Mystery must be distinguished from myth, in the sense of a fairy tale, an illusion, or an untrue story. Experiencing mystery involves sensing there's an immense unknown that we can intuit, to some extent, but not fully understand, and we must respect its integrity.

We must also choose the principles on which to base our ethical decision making about the new techno-science, our basic presumptions or default positions. I propose that we should adopt respect for Nature and the natural, respect for all life, especially human life, and respect for the human spirit.

This does not mean that we must not intervene on Nature or the natural or impact life or the human spirit, but rather that we must be able to clearly ethically justify our interventions.

Ethical conflicts arise when we disagree about what each type of respect requires we do or not do, or when values conflict and we don't agree on which should be given priority.

Three competing world views

We can assume that we are all amazed by what we are discovering through science, but whether that elicits wonder and awe depends on how we view both science itself and what we discover.

How we view science depends on which of three worldviews we adopt.

The "'Pure' science" worldview - scientism or scientific fundamentalism - declares that science is the only valid way of knowing and that science will eventually be able to explain everything.

This view denies any concept of mystery, and strongly rejects religion. Let me be clear here: Science is a very important way of knowing, the problem arises when it is regarded as the only valid way of knowing.

We can compare the "pure science" world view with the "'Pure' mystery" worldview, which reflects religious fundamentalism. People with this view believe that religion is the only valid way of knowing and that scripture is to be interpreted literally, for example, that God created the world in seven days. This view strongly rejects science and adopts pure mystery.

There is, however, a third worldview, the "science-spirit" worldview .

Think about the massive expansion in the spectrum of our knowledge in the last 50 plus years. We can describe it as "spacing out" - what we have learnt from astrophysics and the exploration of vast outer space - and "spacing in" - what we now know from molecular biology and genetic research.

In travelling far out to deep outer space and far into deep inner space we are enormously increasing what we know, but in doing so we are even more vastly expanding the area of what, as a result, we know that we don't know. There's a Japanese saying that explains it this way: As the radius of knowledge expands the circumference of ignorance increases.

Imagine what we learn from science as a laser beam piecing the darkness of our unknowing. The further out it goes the larger the circumference of our unknowing that it opens up. We now know so much more than we did previously, that we know that we know hardly anything.

Recognizing the existence of this mystery of the unknown/Unknown which science opens up can, and I believe should, elicit amazement which leads us into an experience of wonder and awe, and, I hasten to add, whether or not we are religious.

I have sometimes tried to explain what I'm trying to say here using my "Ant theory" of the universe. If you visit the Northern Territory of Australia you can see these giant termite mounds all built along the lines of the Earth's magnetism. Those termites lead an organized life - they have a community - and have different roles in their colonies. As far as we know, they have no perception of the wider world in which they and their anthills exist and which we perceive and in which we also live organized lives, form communities and have different roles in our societies. Might our new science be revealing to us indications of wider worlds beyond our present knowledge or even imagining of which we are a tiny component? Might we be the "ants of the universe"?

So what should be our stance regarding the incredible powers this new science is giving us? Unlike any humans before us, we hold the essence of life itself in the palm of our collective human hand and its future is more and more under our control.

I believe that regarding our new knowledge with amazement, wonder and awe could help us to practice what philosophers call "epistemological humility" - that is, acknowledging, as Socrates said, "The only thing I know is that I know nothing" - or perhaps, more precisely in the realm of science, "I know that I know only a mere sliver of the totality of what there is to know". The wisdom that attitude implements could protect us and future generations from ethical errors and the resulting damage we could do to them in using the new techno-science.

Leaving a legacy of hope and meaning

So, what do we owe to future generations in relation to how we use the new techno-science?

Above all, we must leave them a legacy of hope. In doing so, we will also create hope for ourselves, because hope is generated by a sense of connection to the future. Hope and ethics are related, because hope makes us more likely to ask ourselves what we owe to future generations and what that requires of us ethically.

Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit, without it our spirit dies, with it we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Hope is to our human spirit as breath is to our bodies. Hope is not passive. Just as we make war and make peace - indeed "make love"- we need to intentionally make hope, that is, eliciting hope needs to be an intentional goal.

Striving to leave a legacy of hope can also help us to find meaning, because feeling that our lives will have meaning after we are no longer here, that we will have left a legacy, is part of the search for meaning.

The antithesis of hope is cynicism, which is lethal to the human spirit. Experiences of amazement, wonder and awe are an antidote to cynicism and, thereby, a protector and even promoter of hope. We must seek out these experiences whether in encounters with the knowledge the new science reveals or in Nature, or in some combination of science and Nature.


Which leads to final examples of how amazement, wonder and awe can impact on how we view what we learn through science, for instance, about life itself:

Science has told us about DNA and genetics, which raises the question, "Are we just "gene machines" - "genes-R-us" - and that's all there is to being human?" Such "genetic reductionism" is espoused by those who reject the concept of there being a mystery at the central core of our existence.

If they are correct, what is the difference between a human being and a robot and might artificial intelligence mean that robots are smarter than us and therefore deserve greater respect than human beings?

Or, on the contrary, do we marvel at the fact that the great diversity of all life, including among humans themselves, is coded by just four nucleotides and regard that fact as an unfathomable mystery?

Science has also told us that we come from stardust - every atom in our body is billions of years old. Pondering from whom or what our atoms might have come should fill us with amazement wonder and awe, and hope, through a deep sense of connection, not only to the past, but also to the future.