01/19/2013 02:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Science and Awe: With Plenty of Room for Religion if You So Desire

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

It's absolutely impossible to watch the amazing pictures captured by Alexander Tsiaras and not be moved. Some, upon seeing such spectacular pictures, turn to religion for an explanation. Tsiaras himself says that it's "hard not to attribute divinity" to what he's seen.

There are two important points to be made about this. First, simply attributing the biological world's magnificent complexity to a deity does nothing to help us understand that complexity. Indeed, if we stop there, something that Tsiaras clearly has not done, we lose the ability to gain additional insight.

Second, scientific understanding, understanding the process of fetal development, understanding the way the genes in a fertilized egg control the differentiation of various body parts, or any other complex phenomenon, need not limit the sense of awe with which we approach the world around us.

Let me give you some very personal examples of what I mean.

In my life, I have had the good fortune to have had three experiences that have literally taken my breath away.

One of those experiences was when I climbed the steep metal spiral staircase from the lower level to the upper level of Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. Sainte-Chapelle was originally built in 1248 by Louis IX to house two relics he purchased from Byzantine emperor Baldwin II: Christ's crown of thorns and a fragment of the cross upon which he was crucified. The upper level of Sainte-Chapelle is dramatically different from the Gothic architecture that preceded it in houses of worship. Instead, it is one of the first and finest examples of the Rayonnant Style in which glass was incorporated throughout permitting outside light to flood into the chamber. The walls of Sainte-Chapelle are thus comprised of approximately 600 square meters of beautiful stained glass. The glass panes, reading from left to right and top to bottom, in awe-inspiring color, tell the biblical story of humanity. As I climbed the last few steps, rounding the last portion of the spiral staircase and as the chapel opened before me, the magnificent colors and images made me gasp.

Another such experience was the first time I jumped from a boat off the coast of Heron Island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. As I put my head under water and the remarkable diversity of life on the reef came into focus before me, I was again stunned by the beauty I was seeing.

The third experience actually happened twice and ties very nicely into Tsiaras' talk. Upon emerging into this world, having spent the previous nine months in a protected environment, each of my two sons took his first breath of oxygen -- and, at the same moment, I lost mine.

On a very personal level these experiences have demonstrated to me that awareness of the scientific explanations of various phenomena need not detract from the power those phenomena have on a completely different level. Having read a bit about Rayonnant Style architecture before venturing into Sainte-Chapelle, having studied the process of coral reef formation and the nature of reef community structure, and having learned about the process of human childbirth in no way reduced my sense of wonder and joy when I experienced each of those things for myself. Knowledge and awe need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, there's every reason to believe that they may work synergistically and yield enhanced experiences.

Within each of us, it should be possible to understand and appreciate a wealth of ideas -- ideas that are, at times contradictory. Perhaps the biggest challenge we face is to find ways to draw on the best of each, without compromising their essential core, and to increase the level of our knowledge. As we move toward that goal and as we struggle with the cognitive dissonance it invariably entails, we act in a manner that is quintessentially human. And that is something well worth celebrating.

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