11 Reclaiming Awe for the Right Things

Darcia Narvaez

Knowledge is fostered by curiosity. Wisdom is fostered by awe.

–Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Thank you, Kristján,[1] for your enlightening, informative, and rich paper, “Scientific Practice, Wonder, and Awe.” I was awed by your analyses, integration, and mental wanderings. But I wonder about some things that may extend the excellent work you have done. I agree that wonder is more about curiosity, the explicit mind, and heightened focus. One can get into a state of concentration when trying to solve a problem, like many of us absent-minded professors do. I think a key characteristic of awe is absorption into something greater than the self, losing the ego to a greater or higher power, a mysterious sense of connection, even engulfment. It’s a relational experience, which I think is the core of its morality. But, as I’ll explain later, it matters what you lose yourself to.

In my practice of evolutionary developmental moral psychology, I concern myself with baselines for human development and parameters for flourishing. I want to bring ideas down to earth and understand what they mean for everyday life. I maintain that purpose here.

Focusing on science: though Aristotle noted that knowledge begins in wonder, some say that science is about transforming mysteries to problems—transforming the ineffable to something understandable.[2] Might this orientation to science be about transforming awe to wonder? Would this mean that such science actually undermines awe but supports wonder? But then, once everything is categorized, what is left to wonder about? The always-seeking orientation of someone like Arthur Eddington[3] counters this, but such an orientation does not seem widespread today.

Your paper made me wonder about where we find awe today.

In interviews that were conducted by Tim Reilly[4] for the “Developing Virtue in the Practice of Science” project, we found that when scientists talk about “awe experiences,” they refer to a certain kind of awe that almost merges with intellectual wonder—awe toward an elegant theory or toward data that support a theory. It is not a relational awe but an emotionally-detached, objectifying awe. It makes me wonder if we need to expand types of awe.

If we take up the three types of awe you mentioned—truth, goodness, and beauty—the first seems less universal. “Truth awe” seems apparent primarily among scholars—that is, us—we intellectualizers, we ivory tower residents, inheritors of the ancient Greek emphasis on rationality. A problem of our age is that it is hard to establish what truth means. Truth in accord with what reality? The industrialized or neoliberal view?[5] Or the longstanding, sustainable Indigenous (First Nation) view?[6] As populaces have moved into a so-called post-truth era, perhaps we need to look at the awe of untruth. As Hannah Arendt[7] pointed out, the totalitarian mindset finds inspiration in the consistency of a narrative, not in its truth. And we see this on display in Trump’s United States. His base, for whom he governs, doesn’t mind his hundreds of lies weekly because they seem right. They are “truthy,”[8] and his followers seem entranced by his performance art, his lying boldly, bullshitting, and gaslighting.[9]

A second type, “awe of beauty,” appears to be universal among traditional societies all around the world. But experiences of awe take place typically in groups, in community, in daily ensemble singing, dancing or music making[10]—largely kinesthetic experiences, something westerners might experience only relatively rarely in spectator sport or dance clubs or choral ensembles. (We found the latter, notably, in our interviews of musicians.)[11]

I also wonder about the third type of awe, “goodness,” and how it might appear within moral hierarchical systems like slavery and apartheid. I am thinking here of the elevation experienced by white communities in the United States who lynched black citizens well into the twentieth century.[12] These communities made photographic postcards of themselves, standing proudly next to their vile deeds. We then need to ask, moral elevation of what kind? The egoistic morality of protectionism and hierarchy as shown by the lynchers? According to most religious and spiritual systems, moral elevation has more to do with an oceanic feeling of commonweal and connection to a Common Self, rather than self-aggrandizement, a demonstration through violence of one’s moral superiority to another.[13]

This makes me wonder whether we need to add at least a fourth type of awe that may intersect with moral awe, or perhaps stands alone. The awe of power might be militaristic or ideological, or the result of trophy hunting a lion or giraffe, as in recent news.[14] Humans have the capacity to downshift to this primitive state.[15] This kind of awe might be what drives chants of “lock her up,” of “throw them [immigrants] out,” the flow of power over another, my group over yours, as occurred in the Rwanda massacre[16] and seems to inebriate Trump’s United States.

Then there is technological awe. We’ve shifted the species-typical experience of awe from experiences in the natural world to awe for technology. Thomas Berry pointed out that technology has been luring us toward a “wonder world” for decades, if not centuries, but if we look around, we have ended up with a “waste world”: toxically polluted and largely empty of the biodiversity and complex beauty that existed before colonialism, capitalism, and corporatism.[17] Still, inattentive to the consequences, we continue to be entranced by the latest technology.

So I think we need to ask whether there are better and worse kinds of awe—leading to more or less flourishing. Particularities matter. Intellectual awe of truth: What truth or whose truth in a post-truth era? Awe of what kind of morality—that of the white supremacists, or of the inclusivists? In science—which science? A power science whose awe come from power over nature, from a successful analysis, successful extraction, method, or outcome?

I appreciate the call to allow ourselves to fall into rapture. But it seems to me that awe requires the capacity to perceive and feel in relation. Awe does not individualize but communalizes—helps us feel connected. Noble laureate Barbara McClintock discussed “feeling for” the organism.[18] This type of awe relates to holistic functioning, attributed usually to right-brain functioning (versus focused attention, which is typical of the left hemisphere).[19] Holistic attention maintains an awareness of the dynamic, relational whole. Such an orientation is more apparent in first-nation societies around the world.[20] How does one get to that kind of awe? Our life experiences must prepare us. It turns out that the right hemisphere is scheduled to develop more rapidly in the first years of life, under species-typical care.[21] Right-hemisphere governed processing includes empathy, relational connection, and self-transcendence—which are fostered by humanity’s evolved nest.[22] But species-atypical child raising is normative now in advanced societies, dominated by forces pressing against nurturing, such as patriarchy, the European Enlightenment philosophy of mechanism and separation, and a focus on money-making. Under this regime babies are coerced into isolation, artificial food, and silenced distress. Occurring at a time of rapid brain development in the first years of life, these experiences consequently undermine capacities for connected self-transcendence and many other capacities that are initially right-lateralized, or governed by the right hemisphere.[23]

The undermining of holistic and relational attention is further accomplished with culture and language, influencing the type of processing a person learns to bring to a situation.[24] East Asians raise their children to be attentive to the feelings of others and to fitting in, whereas westerners tend to focus children’s attention on objects and agency. Western languages emphasize nouns, whereas indigenous and east-Asian languages are based on verbs and the interrelation of dynamic entities (for example, “tree being”). East-Asian societies have historically emphasized ethical and harmonious relationships and adjustment to situations rather than self-promotion and control, as in the west. These differences may have something to do with the lack of curiosity in terms of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” in traditional east-Asian societies, where curiosity is used for pragmatic ends and with attention to community effects.

Western science may have emerged from a combination of underdevelopment of the implicit systems initially governed by right-hemisphere development in early life; language and culture that emphasize detachment from relationships through objectification and a reliance on narrow intellect; and a detachment from intergenerational and cross-species consequences.[25] Experimental studies of left and right hemisphere functioning show that the left hemisphere narrows vision, categorizes, and seeks control, believing itself to be all-important—do these sound like the characteristics of western science and the seat of wonder? In contrast, the right hemisphere, implicitly guiding behavior when well-developed, takes in the dynamism of experience, perceiving and responding to interrelations—the seat of awe?[26]

Without full development of holistic attention capacities, perhaps one is relegated to only wonder. The undergraduate students in my classes typically come to situations with focused attention—the categorizing mindset, the mindset that gets caught in artificial boundaries and categories. But unless one is discussing human-made objects, no individual is the same as any other individual: no snowflake, no tree, no flower petal, no human body or human brain. Observational science tells us this, but maybe literature does it better, and maybe immersion in wild nature (an experience widely missing today) does even better. The lack of deep consistent experience in nature leads to Nature Deficit Disorder,[27] which my students display on arriving in class (pre- and post-course surveys indicate that our class decreases that disorder as we focus on increasing nature connection). We work hard to help them relearn the open relational mindset and a docility toward nature as part of an Indigenous approach to science.[28] This requires learning to develop and attend to intuition and connectedness. In my classes we aim for awe instead of only wonder.

We live in a time of planetary devastation not only from global warming and our approach to a “hothouse earth,” but from the eradication of species, the tens of thousands of chemicals taking over the rivers and oceans and floating in our bloodstreams, and the resulting massive toxicity in land, water, air, and our bodies.[29] Do we need awe to help us alter the destructive ways of the dominant culture? Can awe help us mitigate the climate crisis? Perhaps. If we could only turn off all the lights and once again see the Milky Way when we step out of the door at night, as was possible until about 150 years ago. If we could only see around us redwood trees the height of the length of a football field, with layers of ecosystems at different heights.[30] If we could reawaken our sense of connectedness to All and re-adopt a partnership orientation with earth entities rather than a dominator orientation, we might be able to turn things around.[31]

Perhaps the capacity for the right kind of awe does rely on humility. As Richard Powers writes in his science-rich novel The Overstory:

People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures—bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful—call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.[32]

A deep respect for and awe of nature is part of our ancestral Indigenous heritage, a heritage that the recent dominant worldview seems to have impaired.[33] Ohiyesa (Charles Alesander Eastman) describes how he showed a group of Lakota chiefs the wonders of the civilization that had taken over their lands with a tour of Washington, DC. After a visit to the Corcoran Art Gallery, he quotes one of the chiefs as saying: “Such is the strange philosophy of the white man! He hews down the forest that has stood for centuries in its pride and grandeur, tears up the bosom of Mother Earth, and causes the silvery watercourses to waste and vanish away. He ruthlessly disfigures God’s own pictures and monuments, and then daubs a flat surface with many colors, and praises his work as a masterpiece!”[34] As Sam Keen has written: “One way to define modernity is to trace the process by which nature has been desacralized and God has moved indoors.”[35] Clearly, the divorce from nature connection has contributed to the destruction of the other-than-human world.[36]

Maybe science education should make sure to take students back outside. Maybe we should temper wonder with awe, although not awe of power or awe of technology. Perhaps the most fundamental orientation to cultivate in students is awe of nature, a re-enchantment with the source of our lives, the earth. Maybe Mother Earth is the ultimate center of truth, goodness and beauty—the forms of awe identified by ancient Greeks but also First Nation societies.[37] Gratitude toward the natural systems on which our lives depend—soil, sun, water, insects, animals, plants—a central mindset among First Nation societies, may help us realign ourselves, our science, and all our endeavors around the laws, complexities and sensitivities of natural systems—before it is too late.

DARCIA NARVAEZ is Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame; she focuses on moral development and flourishing from an interdisciplinary perspective. She is co-PI on the project Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science, supported by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. Dr. Narvaez’s current research explores how early life experience and societal culture interact to influence virtuous character in children and adults. She integrates neurobiological, clinical, developmental and education sciences in her theories and research about moral development. She publishes extensively on moral development, parenting and education. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association. Her dozens of books and articles include Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing (with Four Arrows, E. Halton, B. Collier, and G. Enderle); Embodied Morality: Protectionism, Engagement and Imagination; and Basic Needs, Wellbeing and Morality: Fulfilling Human Potential. Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom won the 2015 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association and the 2017 Expanded Reason Award. She is on the boards of Attachment Parenting International and the Journal of Human Lactation. She writes a popular blog for Psychology Today (“Moral Landscapes”).

Bibliography

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  • Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988.
  • Berry, William. It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture & Other Essays. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2013.
  • Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
  • Cajete, Greg. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light, 2000.
  • Dallaire, Roméo. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.
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  • ——. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: HarperOne, 1980/1990.
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  • ——, ed.  Basic Needs, Wellbeing and Morality: Fulfilling Human Potential. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018.
  • ——, Jaak Panksepp, Allan N. Schore, and Tracy Gleason, eds. Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Nerburn, Kent, ed. The Soul of an Indian and Other Writings from Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman). Novato, CA: New World Library, 2001.
  • Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. New York: Free Press, 2003.
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  1. This essay was an oral response to “Scientific Practice, Wonder, and Awe,” Kristján Kristjánsson’s keynote address, also printed in this volume.
  2. Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003) and The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: HarperOne, 1980/1990).
  3. Matthew Stanley, Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); also see Stanley’s essay in this volume.
  4. Timothy Reilly and Darcia Narvaez, “Virtue in Practice Interview Protocols,” unpublished data.
  5. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  6. See Four Arrows and Darcia Narvaez, “Reclaiming our Indigenous Worldview: A More Authentic Baseline for Social/Ecological Justice Work in Education,” in Working for Social Justice Inside and Outside the Classroom: A Community of Teachers, Researchers, and Activists, edited by Nancy E. McCrary and E. Wayne Ross (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 93–112.
  7. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1973).
  8. “Truthiness” is a term coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert to describe the subjective feeling of a claim’s rightness, regardless of its objective truth. For a tally of President Trump’s lies in his first two years, see Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “President Trump Made 8,158 False or Misleading Claims in his First Two Years,” Washington Post, February 17, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/21/president-trump-made-false-or-misleading-claims-his-first-two-years/?utm_term=.010a73c1f068.
  9. Paul Rosenberg, “Lies, Bulls**t and Gaslighting: A Field Guide to Trump's Reality-Warping Mendacity,” Salon, February 24, 2019, https://www.salon.com/2019/02/24/lies-bullst-and-gaslighting-a-field-guide-to-trumps-reality-warping-mendacity/.
  10. See, e.g., Victor Turner, On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985).
  11. Reilly and Narvaez, “Virtue in Practice Interview Protocols.”
  12. See Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008).
  13. Darcia Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014).
  14. Matthew Diebel, “American Woman Pictured Posing with Dead 'Rare' Giraffe She Shot in South Africa Sparks Outrage,” USA Today, July 2, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/07/02/trophy-hunting-outrage-after-american-woman-kills-rare-giraffe/750376002/.
  15. Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality.
  16. See Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003).
  17. Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988).
  18. Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (New York: Times, 1984).
  19. Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality. See also an extensive review of research comparing right and left hemisphere capacities in Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
  20. See Phillip Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, translated by Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Alexander R. Luria, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations, translated by Martin Lopez Morillas and Lynn Solataroff (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).
  21. Allan N. Schore, “Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health,” Infant Mental Health Journal 22.1-2 (2001): 7–66; Darcia Narvaez, Jaak Panksepp, Allan N. Schore, and Tracy Gleason, eds., Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  22. Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality; Darcia Narvaez, ed., Basic Needs, Wellbeing and Morality: Fulfilling Human Potential (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).
  23. Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality.
  24. Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003).
  25. Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality.
  26. Rather than listing all the sources here, see the extensive review of research studies in McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary. Also see Jill Bolke Taylor, My Stroke of Insight (New York: Viking, 2008).
  27. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (New York: Workman, 2005).
  28. Greg Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light, 2000).
  29. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC 5th Assessment Report–Changes to the Underlying Scientific/Technical Assessment (IPCC-XXVI/Doc. 4) (Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 2013); Elizabeth Kolbert, The sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014); Leonardo Trasande, Sicker, Fatter, Poorer: The Urgent Threat of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Our Health and Future...and What We Can Do About It (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019); Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005); Will Steffen, et al., “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115.33 (2018): 8252–59; Richard C. Thompson, Charles J. Moore, Frederick S. vom Saal, and Shanna H. Swan, “Plastics, the Environment and Human Health” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364 (2009): 1971–2166.
  30. Richard Powers, The Overstory (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018).
  31. Riane Eisler, “Societal Contexts for Family Relations: Development, Violence and Stress,” in Contexts for Young Child Flourishing: Evolution, Family and Society, edited by Darcia Narvaez, Julie Braungart-Rieker, Laura Miller-Graff, Lee Gettler, and Paul Hastings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 61–78.
  32. Powers, The Overstory, 285. Emphasis in original.
  33. Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality.
  34. Kent Nerburn, ed., The Soul of an Indian and Other Writings from Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman) (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2001), 16–17.
  35. Sam Keen, Hymns to an Unknown God (New York: Bantam, 1994), 27.
  36. William Berry, It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture & Other Essays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2013).
  37. Cajete, Native Science.