Marveling and its opposite

Among all arguments that get called “design” arguments, I can see a clear value in a.) those that are based on the intrinsic final causality in nature and b.) those that are based on marveling at nature. I’m skeptical of all others. The second sort of arguments are best when most  immediate – having more than one step in the argument usually kills them, and trying to capture the argument in words usually falls flat.

Describing marvels can easily come out as though we are describing our own ignorance.  But though there is an element of ignorance in marveling no one finds mere ignorance marvelous or desirable. There is something incommunicable in the act of marveling – like an engaged person who suddenly realizes what is coming and says “I’m going to get married”. It’s not that he didn’t know this  fact before or that he recognized some new fact that related to this, but that he has insight into a fact that he and everyone else knows. When he tries to explain what he saw, all he can do is repeat the same fact that everyone knows, perhaps while he stresses the word “really”- “”Whoa…I’m really going to get married…”.

There is also an opposite experience to this marveling at nature. Call it R.  It’s hard to look at the ephippiger wasp’s method of feeding its young (as Darwin did) or the mating habits of the praying mantis or black widow without having at least a mild case of R. The sheer size of the universe with all of its vast empty parts also might incline us to the same thing. Some argue that the whole story of evolution is R, but a more time tested example would be the painful death of a young child.

Philosophy might have a role to play in arbitrating between marveling and R, but I’m not sure how much of one. The sort of argumentation proper to rhetoric and art is more appropriate here. Perhaps it’s simply a lesson that nature prefers to teach herself.  But this would be to put it in a way to be marveled at.



  1. Leo Carton Mollica said,

    October 29, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Great post! Out of curiosity, what do you think of Alvin Plantinga’s sensus divinatus as grounds for believing in God? It seems similar to your b.) variety of argument.

    • October 30, 2010 at 11:53 am

      Never read Plantinga on that. Van Inwagen wrote something similar which I found interesting.

  2. thenyssan said,

    October 30, 2010 at 6:49 am

    Very nice post. A few questions for you, James:

    1. Would you say “marveling” is our experience of beauty?
    2. If so, does our apparent inability or at least difficulty to articulate “marveling” indicate that beauty is a transcendental of “being?”–e.g., “Just LOOK at it!”

    I’m tempted to think that marvel/Beauty collapses into desire/Good except that I don’t think marvel/Beauty includes in itself the desire for attainment (as the wording of my e.g. indicates).

    3. Is it worship?

  3. October 30, 2010 at 11:51 am

    1.) Yes, taking the word “beauty” broadly in a sense that includes the sublime. The vision is luminous and filled with intelligible clarity, and spreads out over many in harmony.

    2.) I think the difficulty comes from the mode of the knowledge we have of the thing, which is not a discursive mode.

    3.) If not, it has some lovely similarities. There is a sense of both our own subordination to what we see while at the same time we feel some community with it. We both see something personal behind nature and yet realize that we are utterly inferior to it.

    • thenyssan said,

      October 30, 2010 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks. Having said all that, I’m not sure what to make of R. It seems like some examples of R might only be a peculiar form of marveling. Perhaps it is just a strange and alien harmony being perceived, rather than a disharmony.

      I’m also tempted to extend that to all instances of R, but I am afraid of trivializing evil. What I have in mind is how moral evils must seem to the blessed: surely if they see them at all it is from God’s vantage point, where it seems they are subsumed into the symphony of God’s omnipotence bringing good out of evil. If the blessed could see evils and experience R (revulsion?), it seems that evil would have some sway in eternity.

      Is evil supposed to be trivialized in the ultimate victory over it? And where does that leave us here? Would it be at all proper for a saint-in-the-making to see evil this way?

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