Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Theists explain the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a compelling example of a divine being’s power to defy the natural laws of the universe. The secular among us are more reluctant to disregard such laws and gravitate towards explanations that do not require the supernatural. But common across all people who hear the story, and stories of similar miracles, is a desire to understand and explain what exactly happened. If you are walking down the street in your neighborhood and, all of a sudden, a crippling light flashes from the sky, driving you to the ground, and a voice identifying itself as a God begins to boom from behind it, you would likely want to know what the hell is going on.
When we witness, or hear of, events that challenge and defy our understanding of the world, how do we react? What do we feel? And what kinds of explanations do we seek? Psychologists have explored these questions for some time, but recent research has begun to focus on a particular emotion that seems intimately tied to this kind of situation: awe.
In general, we feel awe when in the presence of something that is so big, beautiful, powerful or complex that it is hard to wrap our heads around (e.g. gazing at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe, witnessing the destructive force of a natural disaster). We feel it when we are struck dumb by the presence of the mysterious, magical, wondrous or beautiful and its experience drives us to seek explanations. Something has not only defied our expectations about how the world works, but it has made us want to understand, explain and find meaning in what has happened.
One consequence of experiencing this emotion is an increased belief in the power of supernatural agents, like gods. Much like Saul, people show an increase in spirituality and religiosity after feeling awe. This fits nicely with most people’s belief that awe is a spiritual or religious emotion. After all, if Oprah says it’s true, who needs the research?
But what about other kinds of explanations? Awe can be experienced in the domain of science, too, at least according to Carl Sagan, Einstein, and Richard Dawkins. These guys are no Oprah, but nonetheless I considered it worth exploring whether experiencing awe might influence attitudes towards scientific explanations as well. There are at least two possible ways in which it might do so. First, awe might simply turn people away from science. Religious and scientific explanations are often in tension with one another, and any process that drives you towards one might drive you away from the other. Second, it might simply depend on the religious beliefs of any given individual. Awe might drive the religious even farther towards religious explanations, and the secular farther towards scientific ones. In other words, if only Saul had been a STEM major then he might have explained the blinding light and booming voice as some kind of solar-event-induced hallucination.
To test how awe relates to scientific explanations, my collaborators and I conducted three experiments. All three used the same experimental technique of measuring participants’ self-reported levels of theism, showing them a video meant to elicit either awe, amusement, or a neutral state, and then measuring their attitudes towards science.
In Studies 1 and 2 we measured attitudes towards science by asking for participants’ level of agreement with statements like “We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable,” and “the events that unfold in this world can be entirely explained by science.” We found consistent results across both studies: awe decreased belief in science for theists, but did not affect attitudes toward science for non-theists.
Study 3 tested the same hypotheses, but this time we used a measure of participants’ attitudes towards different kinds of scientific theories. Though awe did not influence non-theists’ attitudes towards science in the first two studies, maybe it might affect them with a subtler measure of attitudes towards science. Specifically, maybe awe would change their preference for different scientific theories that emphasized order vs. chaos and randomness. After all, if awe motivates people to find explanations and meaning, then they might prefer scientific explanations that are simpler and more easily understood compared to the messier ones.
After manipulating their emotional state, we showed participants two versions of evolutionary theory: one that described evolution as an unstructured and random process and another that described evolution as following certain paths and not dependent on randomness. This time, feeling awe had no effect on the theists in our sample (they tended to prefer the orderly version regardless of emotion), but it significantly increased the non-theists’ preference for the orderly theory over the random one.
We draw two conclusions from these studies. First, awe drives the theistic further away from scientific explanations, presumably because it drives them towards supernatural ones. Second, awe attracts non-theists to scientific explanations but only to the extent that science is framed as explicitly providing order and denying the importance of randomness in the process. On the one hand this finding undermines the notion of awe being exclusively linked to religion (sorry Oprah), but on the other hand this is disconcerting to those interested in promoting an accurate understanding of science. Randomness is a defining feature of evolution, and emotions that push us away from accepting that fact may not be the kinds of states that thinkers like Sagan and Einstein would have endorsed.