AAI received a scholarly article with an unusual angle supportive of the naturalistic or atheistic perspective on life. The article basically compares a new genre of humility tinged by scientific awe with the sort of humility that used to be associated more with religiosity. In a sort of paradoxical maneuver, the article suggests that the scientific approach could end up being deeper or more profound than religious angles because the latter might always be subtly more prideful.
For those who’d like to read the original article (in the 60th Edition of The Journal of the Epistemology and Philosophy of Science) the link can be found here. We have asked the author to provide a short summary of his article in non-scholarly terms for the benefit of our readers.
Dr. Nick Overduin explains that he was trying to explore the sense of wonder and awe that precedes our human attempts to figure things out. He felt, for example, that the lyrics of a famous hymn such as “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hands have made” reveals a spirit which is quite different than what is common today. Nowadays, people are flabbergasted, quite aside from religion, by what we are seeing from telescopes like the JWST or Hubble. We are simply floored, and we no longer connect our awe to the idea of a Creator. As described in the original paper, the slang term “mind-boggling” is a great term; the humility that is currently “boggling” or reshaping the human mind is changing us, it is changing the way we all think and feel, and changing our whole drive to find things out. It is probably changing little kids.
Nick furthermore emphasizes that the kind of humility which used to be promoted (and which was often, indeed, very attractive) was deep down still quite prideful. For humanity assumed it was important enough to deserve an eternal and majestic partner in the heavens with whom to be in dialogue. But when that dialogue ceases, our sense of wonder actually changes into something deeper. We no longer need that partner; but though God’s absence might make us feel even smaller than before, the smallness we now experience is not part of any humiliation, it is just part of the overall deeper kind of wonder.
Nick claims that the famous saying from the religious thinker Blaise Pascal, about being overawed by “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces” is being replaced by Carl Sagan’s more scientific marvel about the cosmic context of “the pale blue dot”. These two types of “wondering” are similar and yet quite different, and the article tries to unpack that difference.
One of Nick’s favorite lines shows up in his paper. Stifter once said, “Miracles ceased, and wonder increased”…Nick absolutely loves that simple line. We are no longer believing in miracles, but we are still deeply amazed by many things, and even more so than in the past. Nick believes the new form of humility has the potential to be more encompassing than the religious versions and takes on a different hue; it becomes more accepting of insignificance, not as a moral blemish or a punitive rebuke of pride, but simply as a perceptual and cognitive starting point in assessing one’s surroundings, both interpersonal and cosmic.
Nick repeatedly emphasizes that his article is not actually about personal qualities. Instead, he is concerned with the framework that exists for initiating any thoughts about anything, something which exists at a subconscious level affecting “the way people think, argue, infer, make sense of things” (Charles Taylor). The issue in his scholarly paper is not whether individuals are modest, but whether the very beginnings of curiosity and intelligence and exploration have themselves been moulded and shaped by the grandness of everything around us, and now without any God in the picture.
In short, in the atmosphere fostered by the religious approach, humility was the quality that enabled people to concede there was likely a God and thereby go on to initiate a humble approach towards gaining knowledge about the cosmos and life in general. Human arrogance was then viewed as something that inevitably distorts the acquisition of knowledge. Aware of human smallness, the wisest humans tended to accentuate their vast ignorance and the merits of relying on some conception of deity to establish a foundation for beginning to think about anything concrete. But now, all these former versions of humility have simply become radically inadequate. This particular universe, at least – disregarding for the moment whether there are others – is not about us. To imagine a God who is in any way “for us” can become unexpectedly presumptuous rather than humble.
Nick is confident that the greatest clairvoyants in the history of religion were, in many cases, not trying to be conceited. His article is not hostile towards religion or overly polemical. And yet, he believes, humanity can nowadays begin to grasp the extent of its earlier communal haughtiness. Homo sapiens can now intuit that it becomes a distraction away from humility to import transcendental agents into the cosmos when none are intrinsically necessary.