Thursday, June 04, 2015

Awe and Altruism

A faculty member in the psychology department of one of my own colleges, the University of California in Irvine, has conducted a study that appears to demonstrate a connection between feelings of awe and impulses toward altruistic behavior:

Awe Promotes Altruistic Behavior

Awe, "that sense of wonder felt in the presence of something vast that transcends one’s understanding of the world," seems to promote unselfish behavior by diminishing our egoistic sense of self-importance. Religion and spirituality, art and music, and the grandeur of nature are some experiences that can evoke this "sense of wonder."

I tend to take experiments like the ones described in this article with a grain of salt. Can "pro-social" behavior produced in an artificially structured setting, where it doesn't cost the giver much if anything, be validly generalized to the complex phenomena of unselfishness in real life? Nevertheless, it's an encouraging study anyway. It hints that responses to both the transcendent and the needs of others spring from innate human traits and may be fundamentally connected.

In his early work THE PROBLEM OF PAIN, C. S. Lewis traces the two strands that grew together to form religion as we define it. The first, the Numinous, he identifies with the emotion of awe. This feeling transcends ordinary fear. Lewis maintains that the awe-filled reaction to numinous phenomena can't be derived from external events or natural experiences but seems to be inborn in the human mind; he believes this emotion to be a genuine revelation of the supernatural. The second strand is the ethical element, an awareness of "a moral law at once approved and disobeyed." In fact, he's talking about the very factors in human nature that the Irvine researcher analyzed. According to Lewis, "The moral experience and the numinous experience are so far from being the same that they may exist for quite long periods without establishing a mutual contact." Religion as we know it arises when the two strands intertwine, so that the numinous power or powers become understood as the source of ethical values.

Lewis suggests that this combination isn't necessarily inevitable. Given the results of the Irvine study, maybe he was mistaken. Maybe the human brain naturally connects cosmic awe with transcendent ethical values, and maybe that happens because (a point Lewis would agree with) those phenomena have objective reality. Moreover, if the connection comes naturally to us, maybe a similar link between the numinous and the ethical evolves in the brains of all sapient species no matter what planet they inhabit.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment