Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/07/2011

To wonder. I wonder as I wander.

A river more than runs through it
A river more than runs through it

A Boston Pops Christmas program some time ago began in the dark with Odetta entering the back door of Symphony Hall singing by herself, “I Wonder as I Wander.” As she came down the aisle singing, the lights came up until she reached the stage. The experience was awesome—original meaning (1), not the current use as a slang interjection. As she sang, the audience (I, at any rate) listened in wonder. 

Many of my experiences of wonder are musical. The Los Angeles Philharmonic performing the Webern Variations for Orchestra in 1965. A colleague performing the Reger Fantasy for Organ, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern at the University of Iowa. The Boston Symphony performing the Messiaen Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine with Messiaen conducting, his wife playing the piano solo, and her sister playing the Onde Martenot. The Seattle Opera performing Wagner’s Die Walküre. The Dallas Symphony performing the premiere of the Poul Ruders Organ Symphony (on January 23).  Important live performances of seldom-heard major musical works by great performers. 

My experiences of wonder are not limited to music. I posted here last September 29 a piece titled, “What the (blank) Is a Mystical Experience, Anyway? And Why?” in which I included a picture from Wind Cave in South Dakota, the memory of which, for reasons I cannot begin to explain, is as clear in my mind today as when I saw it at age nine or ten. My first view of the Amazon River inspired—as you might expect—wonder. The sight of the first eggplant in my garden. My first view of the high desert in Southern California in bloom. The view (climbing by myself) of the panorama from the top of a mountain near New Hampshire’s “Old Man of the Mountain” (may he rest in peace—or pieces!).  Petra. The ocean at Salvador, Brazil, and, even more wonderful, the sea turtles there. 

I want to see Easter Island, a volcano erupting, Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, the Andes mountains ever rising from the convergence of tectonic plates. Will my desire (and the necessary effort to travel to those places) make them not-wondrous to me when I see them?  

Does my desire to know “the meaning of life” (does God—or some such reality—exist, or is everything scientifically explainable—even my consciousness) make such knowledge impossible? Probably not. In fact, if Richard Dawkins is right, my “scientific” curiosity about these things is exactly what will cause my wonder, according to Celia Deane-Drummond. 

Even Richard Dawkins, that bête noir of the religious community, admits to wonder through science. Indeed, he claims that wonder through science is rooted in something concrete—namely, scientific evidence—and so surpasses those experiences arising out of religious faith or poetry (2). 

Well, now. One can hardly argue with Richard Dawkins, can one? That very Richard Dawkins of whom one writer says, in his own abstract for an article, 

A personal narrative is presented which describes the author’s attendance at a book reading by Richard Dawkins, with whom he is infatuated, as well as his own experience in moving towards atheism (3). 

The question I’d like to pose to William Giraldi (as well as to Richard Dawkins) is, “What is the scientific nature of ‘infatuation?’” I suppose, in his plethora of writing, Dawkins has somewhere dealt with the question of how and why he, his writing, his charismatic personality inspire “infatuation.” What is the scientific reason for that? 

An Organ Symphony

An Organ Symphony

I’ve never finished reading a Dawkins book. I started once to read his Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, but as so often happens with a book designed to prove a point, I got bored. I know those infatuated with Dawkins will find that hard to believe, but it’s boring. Based on hubris as far as I can tell. Thus, I have no right to write about Dawkins. Others with far greater comprehension than mine have, however. (This not an attempt to disprove Dawkins.) 

Dawkins says wonder is a scientific phenomenon. One can truly wonder only at nature because the brain, the seat of emotion, can be seen only as a scientific phenomenon. 

Contemporary philosopher Jerome Miller views wonder as necessary for the kind of openness to reality that is needed in order to gain understanding. Hence, it does not just stay with the discovery or experience but opens out to something new and important that needs further inquiry. If Dawkins had taken wonder to this limit, it is doubtful that he would have described it in the way he has, namely, within the confines of logical scientific reasoning and argument (4).

 Wonder is an emotion like fear, anger, joy. It is a more complex emotion, and, for me, it is the place where my experience of myself often connects with the world around me. I understand simple emotions of anger and fear—at least I know pretty well how they feel. More complex,

. . . wonder differs from [most other ] emotions. . . wonder is an emotion linked with approach and affiliation, rather than avoidance. Wonder motivates attention and motivates a quest for increased connection and belongingness. . . wonder differs, . . . in that it awakens our mental capacity for abstract, higher-order thought. Indeed, wonder seems to direct our cognitive activities . . . in ways that are not directly connected with our immediate physical survival. . . wonder . . . temporarily suspends utilitarian striving. Wonder renders us. . . receptive, frequently giving rise to the sensation that we participate in a more general order of life (5).

On November 15, 2009, I wrote about an experience of wonder that awoke my “mental capacity for abstract, higher-order thought.” At the very least it awoke in me the “sensation that [I] participate in a more general order of life.” I don’t know what Richard Dawkins or anyone who is “infatuated” with him might think of my experience walking the Oregon beach.  I may have been able to have a similar experience to Rachel Carson’s, who 

. . . placed her final hope for the survival of life on the empathy, compassion, and care aroused by the emotion of wonder. “I believe,” she wrote, “that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction” (6). 

A Hope to See

A Hope to See

Or, perhaps, I have had at the Amazon, on the Oregon beach, hearing the Poul Ruders Organ Symphony, the same experience Richard Dawkins had with a friend at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California. 

As we were standing beneath the magnificent [observatory]dome. . .  and reflecting on how marvelous, even miraculous, this scientific vision of the cosmos and our place in it all seemed, Richard turned to me and said, “All of this makes me so proud of our species that it almost brings me to tears” (7). 

Wonder?  Perhaps all holy systems for obtaining enlightenment are neither bunk nor habit.
(1) “Awesome.” —adjective, “inspiring awe: an awesome sight.” —interjection—noun.   Grammar . “Any member of a class of words expressing emotion, distinguished in most languages by their use in grammatical isolation, as Hey! Oh! Ouch! Ugh!”
(2) Deane-Drummond, Celia. “Experiencing Wonder and Seeking Wisdom.” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 42.3 (2007): 587-590.
(3) Giraldi, William. “Richard Dawkins: My Encounter with a Heartthrob.” Massachusetts Review. (2009): 212-221.
(4) Deane-Drummond. Ibid.
(5) Fuller, Robert C. “Spirituality in the Flesh: The Role of Discrete Emotions in Religious Life.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75.1 (2007): 25-51.
(6) Lear, Linda. Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. Quoted in Fuller. (7) Shermer, Michael. “The Skeptic’s Chaplain.” Skeptic 13.2 (2007): 44-47.


  1. […] to other of my writings more or less on the subject are not for my reader, but for me to have them all together. That may be annoying to anyone trying to read this, but I have to do […]



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