December 8, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Awe, Shucks: Backwards Causation in Scientific Explanation

Is it the emotion of awe that creates belief in the supernatural, or is it the other way around?

Intent on giving naturalistic explanations for everything, psychologists cannot bear the thought that a real God exists who is awesome.  Feelings of awe by humans must be mere emotions from our primitive ape-like past before they learned to do science.  In that vein, a study presented in the Association for Psychological Science gets causes and effects arguably backward, claiming “Experiencing Awe Increases Belief in the Supernatural.”  It’s a bit like saying the rooster crow causes the sunrise.

It is true that some people might be driven to illogical supernatural explanations by unexpected, intimidating or unknown natural phenomena, like a nearby lightning strike or the first sight of the Grand Canyon.  “Awe-inspiring moments — like the sight of the Grand Canyon or the Aurora Borealis — might increase our tendency to believe in God and the supernatural, according to new research,” the subheading reads.  But to say that such an experience explains the origin of awe itself is another matter entirely.  Perhaps certain people are awe-struck because there really is a God.

The psychologists did try to consider both sides of the equation as causal:

“Many historical accounts of religious epiphanies and revelations seem to involve the experience of being awe-struck by the beauty, strength or size of a divine being, and these experiences change the way people understand and think about the world”, says psychological scientist Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College.

We wanted to test the exact opposite prediction: It’s not that the presence of the supernatural elicits awe, it’s that awe elicits the perception of the presence of the supernatural.

It must be a scientific explanation, because he conducted experiments.  Valdesolo showed human lab rats scenes of awe-inspiring phenomena, as well as plain news pictures.  The ones who saw beautiful, grand scenes expressed a sense of awe and tended to explain the scenes as confirming their certainty of belief in God, as opposed to those who saw the news photos.  The awestruck participants were also less tolerant of uncertainty, he said.  But then, his slip was showing:

“The irony in this is that gazing upon things that we know to be formed by natural causes, such as the jaw-dropping expanse of the Grand Canyon, pushes us to explain them as the product of supernatural causes,” Valdesolo notes.

In other words, the psychologist had already ruled out the supernatural or the existence of God as a causal explanation.  No wonder he got the cause-and-effect backwards from the way most people think, even if they would agree that God used natural causes to produce some of the grandeur of creation (like the Grand Canyon).

Leaping ahead in scientific progress, Valdesoro is looking into other natural causes for awe:

For example, they are testing whether adopting submissive body postures, which make us feel less powerful, might dispose us to experiences of awe. Such a link could perhaps explain the presence of such postures in religious practice, such as kneeling, bowing, and gazing up.

But these are only possibilities.  He admits his own uncertainty with heavy use of hedging words, like “might,” “could,” and “suggests.”  There are always exceptions.  His hypothesis would not appear to explain the practice of the Old Testament Jews standing to hear the Scriptures read, and lifting their eyes and hands to heaven in prayer.  And just perhaps, falling on one’s face, as did Daniel and Isaiah, might be due to them finding themselves really in the presence of the Almighty, in which case awe is the effect, not the cause.

Evolutionists (especially evolutionary psychologists) are such killjoys.  They’re like the self-styled academic Andrew MacPhee in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength who tries to explain everything rationally, ending up explaining things away instead of really explaining them.  “Look at that beautiful blue sky!” a friend might say, only for him to respond, “The sky is not really blue; it’s just scattering sunlight with the blue rays scattering the most to impinge on our corneas; but actually, they are not really rays at all but electromagnetic quanta.”  Valdesoro fails to admit he is already a supernaturalist by presuming that explanation (a non-material, conceptual thing that presumes honesty and truth) is real.  He could use a good dose of real, true awe that has no scientific explanation.  It would do good for his unevolved soul.  A hearty conversation with John Lennox or Albert Mohler might be a good start.  Joni Eareckson Tada, also.





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  • rockyway says:

    “The irony in this is that gazing upon things that we know to be formed by natural causes, such as the jaw-dropping expanse of the Grand Canyon, pushes us to explain them as the product of supernatural causes,” Valdesolo notes.

    The real irony here is that V. got a grant to do engage in this meaningless exercise… or that, given his materialism, he thinks his conclusions are meaningful.

    – V. says he ”knows” that the Canyon was caused by ‘natural’ forces, but he’s merely assuming the Uniformitarian explanation is correct. (Providing us with the further irony of someone so naive as to believe their old college textbook to be infallible.)

    – How ‘awesome’ (frightening, impressive, etc.) something is, depends a great deal on how it happened; e.g. how fast it happened, how ‘abnormal’ it was, etc. Whether you feel the canyon was carved out [a teaspoon at a time] over millions of years by a river… or whether you feel it was carved out in a few days or even hours, makes a difference how you experience the canyon.

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