Awe, Wonder, and Science

We come together in this place of connection

To know and to be known

To enter into relationship, which is our teacher, our inspiration, our shelter, and our prod toward growth

In this place, may we feel safe from the storm

And strengthened to reach beyond our sanctuary

To bring others to safety

And to calm the fearful winds of conflict

That all may know peace


The Ponds, by Mary Oliver

Every year, the lilies are so perfect

I can hardly believe their lapped light

Crowding the black, mid-summer ponds.

Nobody could count all of them —


the muskrats swimming among the pads and the grasses

can reach out their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that rife and wild.


But what in this world is perfect?

I bend closer and see how this one is clearly lopsided —

and that one wears an orange blight —

and this one is a glossy cheek half nibbled away —

and that one is a slumped purse

full of its own unstoppable decay.


Still, what I want in my life is to be willing

to be dazzled —

to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.


I want to believe I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery.

I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —

that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum

of each flawed blossom rising and fading.


And I do.

Alan Lightman, from A Sense of the Mysterious

Lightman describes the feeling he had following a scientific finding he had made:

Then I felt a sense of mystery. I had shed light on a small corner of nature. Other scientists had illuminated larger corners. But there were almost certainly vast chambers and ballrooms that remained in the dark. So many beautiful and strange things as yet unknown. [...] Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

What did Einstein mean by “the mysterious”? I don’t think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I believe that he meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.

Just as Einstein suggested, I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery.

Message by Andy Pakula

These are difficult times. This has been a difficult week.

In too many places and too many ways, fear and hatred have appeared. They have challenged our most optimistic views of a compassionate and united world.

In Spain and in Finland, there have been attacks on ordinary people - people just trying to go about their lives. Lives have ended and others have been irreparably altered. There are many who will live with disabilities, pain, scars, and psychological trauma for the rest of their lives.

For those of us keeping a wary eye on what is happening in the world’s most powerful nation, there has been more horror and a sense of constant anxiety. A resurgence of far right-wing movements, of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, fascists, and the KKK exploded into violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The violence of the so-called alt-right was disgusting. Along with clubs and pepper spray and fists, again, a vehicle was used as a lethal weapon and a young woman died on the scene. Many other lives were severely impacted.

And perhaps most enduringly painful for those of us who once held a vision of the United States as a shining beacon of democracy and justice and equality, the president - Donald Trump - could not bring himself to sincerely condemn the ultra-right-wing groups that came to terrorise the people of Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, and much of a nation.

Here, we’ve been spared the trauma of violence for the moment, but we know that we are watching a slow-motion loss of compassion, tolerance, understanding, and justice.

Today’s topic is awe, wonder, and science. I obviously didn’t have this past week’s context in mind when I selected that title, but I think we’ll find there is a remarkable connection between the two. Bear with me as I will appear to be leaving current events behind. We will return to them and - more importantly - to understandings of how we human beings end up in such situations.

Let’s turn now to awe and wonder. I’m going to ask you if you’ve ever had a spiritual experience. Before I do, let’s be sure we’re setting our understandings broadly enough. ‘Spiritual experience’ may not be the term you’d use. Perhaps you’d call it an ecstatic experience or a moment of transcendence. A spiritual experience does not have to be some kind of interaction with a deity. It does not have to be life-changing. It does not need to last a long time to count. Without wanting to steer you, I’d suggest you think of a spiritual experience as an instance where your experience of and sense of the world shifted very quickly - where everything seemed different in a good way for a time.

Please raise your hand if you’ve had at least one experience that fits this very broad definition...

Raise your hand if you’ve had more than five such experiences…

As you think about those experiences, what individual words come to mind?

In the compendium of human spiritual experiences, a sense of oneness is often reported. A feeling of being small in a vast universe but connected nonetheless. A sense of awe and wonder and a sudden ability to see things and people with new eyes - free of shadows of self-absorption, worry, and distraction.

I will touch on our theme of science in two ways today. The first is the argument that science destroys the possibility of spiritual experience.

There can be no question that the advancement of human knowledge and the application of a scientific approach to life do foreclose some paths of spirituality. If your spirituality requires belief that the earth is the centre of the universe, then science has pretty well ruined it for you. If you cannot experience the wonder of the natural world without believing that a supernatural being created everything six thousand years ago as it is today, then the natural world becomes much less enchanting for you.

But consider the words we heard earlier from physicist and author, Alan Lightman. He describes how his own small discovery triggered a sense of awe. He had - as he put it - illuminated a small corner of knowledge and his mind opened to that fact that, and he goes on to say: “Other scientists had illuminated larger corners. But there were almost certainly vast chambers and ballrooms that remained in the dark. So many beautiful and strange things as yet unknown.”

The poet Mary Oliver describes the pond lilies with the eyes and the voice of mystic. Her observation and descriptions drawn with ecstatic reverence for the natural world remind us of the possibilities open to all of us in our interactions with the natural world.

And I want to close this piece of our exploration with the words of 20th century scientist-mystic, Carl Sagan:

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, This is better than we thought!  The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?  Instead they say, No, no, no!  My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.  A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

There is a challenge to us in Sagan’s words - can we help people find a path to awe and reverence based on the world as it is - in all its magnificence and mystery?

Nature is one of the great paths to spiritual experience, but there are many others.

A more controversial path is a chemical one, driven by hallucinogens like psilocybin or ayahuasca or with the aid of empathogens such as MDMA. Of course, this has not always been controversial. It has been central to religious practice in many cultures.

Another powerful ecstatic experience that has been with us throughout human history is dance. Today, we may not think of it as spiritual, but the experience of dancing with others at a rock concert or a rave, for example, can leads to a great sense of connection, oneness, a transcendance.

For me, spiritual experiences have come also from interactions with other people - experiences when the differences and difficulties between individuals appear to melt away and a true connection remains.

Perhaps my favourite routine practice for spiritual experience is one I came up with myself, only to find more recently that another New Unity member also came upon it independently. It seems to work best in Tube stations on escalators. As I ride in one direction, I notice the faces of the people riding the opposite way. At first, there seems to be nothing there. Mostly blank expressions or irritation or what looks like resignation. At first, I notice nothing more than a tendency to judge these people by their appearances. But as I ride and observe, I start to feel as though I can see beneath the appearances. I remember and feel that there is an inner life in each person - just as I experience my own. The faces come, one after another, and I am filled with a sense of our greater connection, our essential unity, our oneness.

All that for the price of a tube fare.

I promised that I would circle back to difficult current events. So, how does spiritual experience come together with racism, neo-Nazis, white supremacy, and xenophobia? It is in how we understand others. How we think about oneness and connection.

One way we tend to respond to the people who espouse views that are abhorrent to us is to turn to dualistic portrayals like good and evil. We are good and they are evil. Or we are smart and they are stupid. We are enlightened and they are primitive.

But if this is the way we think, then the only hope we can have for a better world is to crush and destroy our opponents. These dualisms leave no room for change and growth and reconciliation. And, if this is our vision of them, then we have surrendered our own great conviction in the worth and dignity of every person. We surrender to a traditional religious view of a world divided into the worthy and unworthy, saints and sinners.

The alt-right do not think they are evil. In fact, they think we are the evil ones. If we are going to understand one another and learn to deal with confrontation and hatred in some constructive way, we are going to need to move beyond dualisms like good and evil and right and wrong.

Our spiritual experiences bring us a sense of connection and oneness. They point to a way around dualisms. These moments show us a glimpse of a world where we can understand one another and love across differences - where all that divides us melts away.

Science may ask if this sense of oneness is real. Is our sense of separation and division the illusion or is the dream of oneness nothing more than a dream?

Scientifically, oneness is - to a great extent - fact. We are all composed of matter that originated together and that was forged in the hearts of stars. The matter that makes us up interchanges often enough that we are not who we were a few years ago and - being close to each other - we each become part of what the others were. In everything we touch and consume, there are molecules that were once part of the lives of all the ancients - we have bits of socrates and Jesus and the Buddha and Moses and Lao Tse and all the others.

Practically, in our interconnected world, we are linked one to another economically and politically. A financial disaster in one place harms others. Wars no longer have only local impacts. The world becomes smaller and smaller and our interconnections are unavoidable.

Is there a supernatural reality to our oneness. I like to imagine that there is. I like to let myself feel it’s true and feel that deep connection. I am inspired by the moments when that sense appears. Whether or not I believe that in a supernatural way really doesn’t matter. It’s all about acting as though oneness is real.

Last week, we talked about Jonathan Haidt’s powerful metaphor of our minds as a rider and an elephant. The rider is the talker and planner and likes to think it’s in control. As the metaphor suggests though, the puny rider only controls the powerful elephant if the elephant is willing to be controlled. The rider and elephant metaphor reminds us that most of what goes on in our minds is unconscious - it is not accessible to our rational thinking rider. If we want to change, we need to work not just with the chatty but weak rider, but also explore the elephant.

Today, another concept from Jonathan Haidt is relevant. It is a piece of how the elephant works. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt looks at our ethics and our behaviour and concludes that we were shaped during our evolution to be good mostly at competition within groups but also, when necessary, by competition between groups.

I know that we would all like to think that evolution shaped us to be loving and compassionate and for evolution to be continuing to evolve in that direction. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the truth.

Haidt describes human social behaviour as 90% chimp and 10% bee.

Our chimp nature reflects competition between individuals within groups.  We are all the descendents of the proto-humans who succeeded in reproducing the most. They were the ones who were most successful at besting their rivals to get the most food and the best mates. Among chimps, the alpha males who get to reproduce the most are basically bullies. We have a lot of that in us.

But we were also shaped by competition between groups. For our genes to succeed, our ancestors had to be able to switch to a mode where they could work seamlessly together against some external threat. They needed to switch to a mode more like that of bees who are entirely self-sacrificing for the good of the group.

Haidt calls this change from chimp mode to bee mode ‘the Hive Switch.’

Although the switch developed in the context of intergroup competition, Haidt says, it is not triggered only in group situations. Once the switch evolved, it could also be triggered by solitary experiences like experiences of nature and meditation. A sense of oneness is no surprise, then, if it is a part of our wiring that enabled us to put individual competition aside and act for the good of the group.

This hive switch can be activated in many ways, Haidt says. It happens with experiences of nature, the action of psychopharmaceuticals, dancing in groups, sports, marching, singing together, meditation, attending demos, and - yes - even sometimes by sermons.

I hope that the sense of human beings as 10% bee resonates with you. In many ways, that is what New Unity is about. We try to move beyond our competitive chimp selves to take on a bit more of the hyper-collaborative bee mode.

This switch is important to our communities and it is important to our happiness. The sense of oneness rescues us from the loneliness and embattled feelings we may suffer when we see the world only from our chimp perspectives.

But, despite the wonderful, communitarian, compassionate nature of our inbuilt hive mode, this switch and this way of being can also be humanity's undoing.

Being in a hive tends to make us care less about the people outside of our hive. And hive mode tends to work only when we feel we are with people who are like us, so it tends to reinforce homogeneity and push away diversity. Worse yet, hive mode driven to large scale around populist, charismatic leaders has led to fascism, dictatorship, and unfeeling violence against those who are different. We have built into us a switch that can be triggered in the service of hate and even genocide.

A hive mode makes us blind to the needs and the humanity of competing groups. The left and the far right are not morally equivalent, but they each fail to understand or have any compassion for what their opponents are saying or feeling. Positioned as I am quite far to the left, I need to work to recognise my opponents - my right-wing enemies - as human. I need to strive to understand how they see the world and how they see my side of the conflict.

The truth is that those of us on the left end of the political spectrum are not perfect. We can be very judgemental. We can condemn people for attitudes they grew up with and see as normal. We can silence them and call them names and worse.

I hesitate to even say these things because I feel like a traitor to my side - and that feeling is a clear warning that hive-mode is clouding my thought and emotions - causing me reflexively to take our side in any disagreement - pushing me to react with dismissal and hostility to anything outside of our way.

There is no point in considering our hive nature to be either good or bad. It is part of who we are. It is built-in. It is hard-wired. There is no software update available to create humans 2.0 who automatically hive with people who are different and who don’t decrease their caring for people outside of the hive.

Our hive-mode behaviour is a reality. We form groups that make us happier and where we help each other and, in those groups, we naturally resist difference and change and we are naturally suspicious of and hostile to other groups

We can’t abandon our hives - our congregations - our clubs - our football sides and all the other experiences that give us the real sense of oneness. They give us joy and meaning and a sense of deep belonging. In a very real way, they help to make life worth living.

What we must do, however is be vigilant for the downsides of hives. This means knowing that we will be suspicious of difference - even here. We must think about who we are keeping out. We may do it in subtle ways but we undoubtedly do it.

We must take account of the fact that membership in a hive will harden our perspectives toward members of other hives. Are you an Arsenal supporter? Any hostility to fans of other clubs? That’s just the beginning.

We must recognise that part of our dismissal of and hatred for our political opponents is driven by our inbuilt nature - by the presence of a hive switch that helps us within groups and makes trouble between groups.

This understanding is not good news or bad. It tells us about who we are and how we are prone to act.

Our biology is not our destiny. Our actions depend on how we interact with our biology. Let us learn and grow and to use our increasing insight to better ourselves, to strengthen our communities and turn them toward greater compassion, and to make a better world for tomorrow.

Let us know deeply the power of our ability to connect

To dissolve into oneness together

Leaving competition and hostility behind

And let us be always vigilant for the shadow side of deep community

May ours be a community beyond the automatic response

Welcoming difference

Striving for compassion for our enemies

And cultivating love beyond biology