The Necessity of Awe

This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant

From Aeon:

hen a scientific paradigm breaks down, scientists need to make a leap into the unknown. These are moments of revolution, as identified by Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s, when the scientists’ worldview becomes untenable and the agreed-upon and accepted truths of a particular discipline are radically called into question. Beloved theories are revealed to have been built upon sand. Explanations that held up for hundreds of years are now dismissed. A particular and productive way of looking at the world turns out to be erroneous in its essentials. The great scientific revolutions – such as those instigated by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein and Wegener – are times of great uncertainty, when cool, disinterested reason alone doesn’t help scientists move forward because so many of their usual assumptions about how their scientific discipline is done turn out to be flawed. So they need to make a leap, not knowing where they will land. But how?

To explain how scientists are able to make this leap, the philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen in The Empirical Stance (2002) drew on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1939). Sartre was dissatisfied with the major mid-20th-century theories about emotions (especially those by William James and Sigmund Freud) that treated emotions as mere passive states. You might fall in love, or be gripped with jealousy. It seemed that emotions happened to you without any agency on your part. Sartre, by contrast, held that emotions are things that we do. They have a purpose, and they are intentional. For example, when we get angry, we do so to seek a solution, to resolve a tense situation. Sartre wrote:

When the paths before us become too difficult, or when we cannot see our way, we can no longer put up with such an exacting and difficult world. All ways are barred and nevertheless we must act. So then we try to change the world.

The world that Sartre referred to is the world of our subjective experience. It is the world of our needs, our wants, our fears and our hopes. In his view, emotions transform the world like magic. A magical act, such as voodoo, alters the attitude of the practitioner to the world. Magical spells and incantations don’t change the physical environment, but they change our world, by shifting our desires and hopes. Similarly, emotions change our outlook and how we engage with the world. Take Sartre’s example of sour grapes: seeing that the grapes are unreachable, you decide, ‘they are too sour anyway’. Though you didn’t change the chemical property of the grapes in any way, the world has become a bit more bearable. Anticipating contemporary ideas about embodied cognition, Sartre speculated that physical actions help us to produce emotions. We clench our fists in anger. We weep in sadness.

Applying this idea to scientific practice, Van Fraassen argues that scientists draw on their emotions when dealing with new, bewildering ideas, especially those that sprout up during scientific revolutions. If the paradigm is faltering, scientists need to change the way they view the world – and this requires that they change themselves. Scientists need to transform both who they are and what they know. Only once scientists themselves are transformed in this way can they accept a theory that they originally thought outlandish or ridiculous.

There are a few problems with this theory. Van Fraassen doesn’t specify which emotions can help scientists. Would it be sufficient to be intrigued or excited by a new theory, or to feel curiosity? Would anger at the failure of the old paradigm do the job? And it’s not clear how scientists can use emotions to change their minds. Sartre seems at times to assume that we have our emotions under direct voluntary control. But this appears implausible, on the face of it. Surely not all our emotions are under our direct control?

One way to salvage the Sartre and Van Fraassen account is to propose that emotions are under our indirect control. We can’t control our emotions directly, but we can engage in practices that, over time, help to shape how we emotionally respond to a variety of situations. And as for which emotion most helps scientists, I have a particular one in mind: awe.

In their classic account of awe, the psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt characterise awe as a spiritual, moral and aesthetic emotion. In their view, all clear cases of awe have the following two components: an experience of vastness, and a need for cognitive accommodation of this vastness. You might feel awe for things that are physically large, but also for ideas that are conceptually vast. For example, at the end of the first edition of his Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin expressed awe for his theory of natural selection:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The need for cognitive accommodation makes you aware that there is a lot you don’t know. You feel small, insignificant and part of something bigger. In this way, awe is a self-transcendent emotion because it focuses our attention away from ourselves and toward our environment. It is also an epistemic emotion, because it makes us aware of gaps in our knowledge. We can feel overwhelmed looking at the night sky, deeply aware that there is so much we don’t know about the Universe. In one recent study, participants listed nature as their most common elicitor of awe, followed by scientific theories, works of art and the achievements of human cooperation.

The philosopher Adam Morton speculates that epistemic emotions play a crucial role in scientific practice. Imagine a scientist who knows the latest research techniques, and who is intelligent and analytical. If she lacks curiosity, awe and other epistemic emotions, she won’t have the drive to become a good scientist, who can change her mind on the basis of evidence, explore new hypotheses or pay attention to unexpected results. As Van Fraassen argued, to change the field or accept radical changes in it, you need to alter your outlook on the world. Awe can do this. It focuses attention away from yourself and makes you think outside of your usual thought patterns.

Link to the rest at Aeon