A Journey of Discovery for Me and a Pointed Question for Scientists?

Day by day my journey of discovery as Alice (the professor of the humanities) in the blogosphere Wonderland continues.  I am reading more and more of the conversations going on at physics weblogs, and more and more about the arguments against theism in Dawkins, Harris, Johnson, Dennett, et cetera. And my bewilderment is crystalizing into one diamond-hard point of incomprehension (which I will proceed to state as a question for scientists in a moment).

I am at length recoveringfrom my initial shock and disillusionment at the knee-jerk glibness of the anti-theistic reasoning.  Poor benighted me, the postmodern lit theorist, who thought she was in a different time period!   There I used to be, surrounded (in my Episcopal parish and at my university) with physicists who were also theists, and participating with them ( and with a clatch of Greek Orthodox physicists who travel to India to teach monks Western science every year) in wonderfully integrative conversations that have enriched my life immeasurably.

There I was, innocently (and tragically) ignoring along with them the misguided “creation science” and Intelligent Design movements of my own co-religionists, never realizing that the warfare was heating up in such an ugly manner, and that by worshipping God I was held by so many to be responsible for grave sins  against the life of the mind.

Our priest, who’s a great teacher and who shows us slides of the star factories in deep space (with tears in his eyes), says that postmodernity — by which he means the critique of scientism, or the critique of hard rationalism as a belief-system — is an advance in human understanding that will be very, very hard for the fundamentalist wing of the Christian church to absorb, in this new century. But I didn’t know that so many scientists would find it equally disconcerting! I didn’t know that the lines had hardened so drastically, against all the epistemological enigmas raised by quantum mechanics, for example.

I thought we were all, you see, card-carrying members of the “pluralistic thoughtfulness will win out in the long run” school of thought. (And if it doesn’t win out in the long run, we are all doomed.)  The physicists, I imagined, based on the ones I knew and on the ones I had read in the heyday of relativity and quantum mechanics, were just like the sacramental Christians (or let’s broaden this non-Cartesian, pro-science set of denominations to include all of the “confessional” Christians, so as to get in the Presbyterians too, for Bethany,  as I’ve learned through the fascinating links at http://www.landofunlikeness.blogspot.com/) — the two groups were alike, I had imagined, in that they were thinking integratively in this less dogmatic post-modern world of ours…  So I had thought.  Well, guess again, at least on the physicists’ side. (This is a blatant over-generalization about contemporary physicists, of course, but the weblog conversations convey such a lot of animus…)

So, you see, I fell from innocence, into the rabbit hole where science and faith are currently talking (no, screaming) right past one another. I entered the blogosphere and was scorched and disillusioned by the hot flames of scientific rancor against theism, and their evident desire “to stamp the other side out of existence,” an attitude Jennifer Ouelette mentioned in her comment awhile back.

On physics blogs I listened to those for whom belief in God is exactly like believing in the tooth fairy, or better, like believing in “the great (but ineffable) Cosmic Muffin.” (I love this quip!) Gradually, as I listened, I became clear and focused on this one diamond-hard point of my  incomprehension.

So here is my question for scientists of the Dawkins and Dennett-type anti-theistic persuasion. Why does it seem to you that showing, for example, exactly how the brain produces our richly human subjective experiences would equate to showing that “soul” or the “mind’s I”  does not “exist”? Or for another example, how does finding an evolutionary mechanism that completely explains the acheivement of something as complex as the eye equate to an argument against the existence of God?  (I think everyone should read Dennett and I have a post reporting on him, in progress.)

I just cannot understand this equasion. Why should the human mind NOT be “reducible” to physical processes in the brain, if there is a God? Why shouldn’t the universe have a mechanism (natural selection) for producing high-order complexity through random variation, if there is a God? A divine ground of all existence wouldn’t dream of sponsoring a cosmological process, unless it had “gaps” in it requiring flamboyant personal interventions from time to time?

This kind of thinking is so very Cartesian, separating nature-as-machine from “mind” as though it has to be a “ghost” in the machine or else it is not “mind.” But in sharp contrast to this kind of dualism, historically Christians and Jews have been in a philosophical, theological tradition of “thinking immanence.” Aquinas, for instance, theorized the mind as the life of the body — i.e. as inseparable from its physical actuality, except in purely formal terms. And Aquinas (and everyone else) agreed with Augustine that if the life of my mind is (equivalent to or defined as) the life of my body, then “God is the life of the life of my mind…” (Confessions).

This immanentist thought is a very different kind of thinking from the later Cartesian dualism that has placed a chasm between matter and spirit, and that still does in the outlook of many scientists today, apparently. And in the minds of many analytical philosophers, like Dennett, even though the analytic tradition claims not to be technically Cartesian today, or even foundationalist.

For me and for many other theists, our immanentism leads us to pure fascination and rejoicing as the beautiful formalisms of science work out more and more of the intricate structures within the physical world. For us, it’s just that Stephen Hawking’s (mere) metaphor of “knowing the mind of God” has a deeper resonance. (A Real Presence, if you will.)

Now up to this point, you’ve actually been reading a post I wrote several weeks ago, when I was engaging mostly with the physicists in the blogosphere, and when I was drawing on my knowledge of the history of physics, as it was up until about 10-15 years or so. So much has changed; so much has been discovered in these years! But the old Cartesian paradigm of Newtonianism has only regrouped and solidified, from what I’m reading. There’s a new triumphalism in physics that I wasn’t expecting, growing out of an embattled mentality in reaction to creationism (which is a reaction to scientific arrogance, which is a reaction to…)  So I still empathize entirely with the scientific mind’s distaste for the monolithic worldview of  religious literalists.  But scientific hard rationalism is also strikingly literalistic and monolithic, too, and seems newly unaware of any epistemological complexities in its own methodologies.

Okay, so now here comes Alice’s next surprise, and it’s a huge one. Hurray for the Darwinians! In evolutionary science and Darwinian philosophy of science, a huge advance on Cartesian rationalism is being made.  Wonderfully better paradigms of language and consciousness are emerging right now, breaking down completely the dualism between mind and matter. The funny thing (but it isn’t very funny) is that this movement, for whom Dennett is the outstanding thinker and spokesman imho, is being framed by these writers as combating religious belief, which is seen as identical with an outdated Cartesianism that was actually invented, in fact, by science.

As Lesslie Newbigin so beautifully pointed out in all his writings, the branch of Christianity producing the biblical literalists has bought entirely into (outdated) Newtonian scientific paradigms of “fact” and “truth.” They have not been able to distinguish the Gospel from their Modern Western culture, because they have not engaged on an equal footing with the non-Cartesian Christians, in other denominations, in other times, or in other contemporary cultures, none of whom feel a need to defend Genesis by making it a science textbook. Only in monolingual, English-speaking North America…. (Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture, where Newbigin says that no branch of the Church “arrives at the foot of the Cross” without humble, respectful interaction with the larger church… )

Returning to the scientists, though…. What the anti-theistic scientific writers don’t seem to realize is that the Cartesian mind-body and mind/nature dualisms they are deconstructing were innovations of scientific modernity and were not historically associated with Judaeo-Christian thought in the West prior to Descartes.  (Yes, I know, there’s the tradition from Plato, but he was not a mind/nature dualist and he was never adopted simplistically in the Greco-European Christian tradition. This is treated in my own work in the sessions.) 

Cartesianism is similar to what used to be called gnosticism, in its mind-body dualism, and even though many modern Christians are gnostics without knowing it, nonetheless, it’s not the historical faith. (And historically, so very importantly, faith has always been a way of knowing, not a certain mind-state opposed to evidential learning, as it has become today in many modernly-religious minds.)

So right now, the physicists and the Darwinians are not on the same page, in terms of the sophistication of their understandings of the nature of human knowing and the complexities of the search for understanding.  But a Darwinian such as Dennett is introducing all the complexities and richness of what we in cultural and religious studies deal with, not to mention in philosophy and theology, while the physicists by and large are retreating to reductive knee-jerk positivism. Gone is the profound humanistic thoughtfulness of an Einstein, a Bohr, or a Brownoski, and the scientific communties which surrounded them. Yet the two current camps of scientific apologists  think they are all alike, simply because both camps claim to be reducing mind or design to “purely physical” mechanisms or descriptions.  (But for the Darwinians, these physical mechanisms accomplish  “design work,” and they do so “for reasons”!)

Enough for today. More on Dennett’s paradoxy soon. And whatever you do, don’t miss the New Yorker story on the Amazonian tribe that is challenging the dogmatic dualism of Chomskian linguistics. As you read this, remember that Dennett is on the anti-Chomskian side of this fascinating intellectual contretemps!

13 thoughts on “A Journey of Discovery for Me and a Pointed Question for Scientists?

  1. HI

    Dear Professor Blumberg:

    I came here via cosmicvariance. We exchanged some words over there if you remember me. I have long wanted to comment on your blog, but have hesitated so far. I felt handicapped by double cultural barriers (one for being a scientist and one for being a non-Westerner) and one language barrier (for not being a native speaker of English) to fit in with the sophisticated discussions going on here. But there is no point of pretending to be an educated and cultured person I am not.

    Your shock and frustration of reading what scientists write about religions is strangely familiar to me. What is ironical to me is that they are so similar to the reactions I had when I read about what postmodernists wrote about science many years ago. In fact, when I first read your comments at cosmicvariance, it was your postmodernist bent that raised a red flag to me and not the fact that you are a theist. Now I must admit that I don’t know much about postmodernism. It is possible that postmodernism is wonderful as you describe. Since you are requesting patience, I’m not going to rush my judgment on postmodernism. But I’d be lying if I said I have a good impression about postmodernism. One thing I would like to comment without evaluating postmodernism itself is that postmodernists are perfectly capable of being arrogant and quite happy to make statements about things outside of their specialties. I’m not surprised that you don’t like what Dawkins wrote but I was surprised that you seem even shocked. I don’t think postmodernists can claim innocence for this kind of things.

    Let’s move on to your specific questions.

    “Why does it seem to you that showing, for example, exactly how the brain produces our richly human subjective experiences would equate to showing that ”soul” or the “mind’s I” does not “exist”?”

    By “soul,” do you mean something that exists and can function (think, remember, etc.) independent of your physical brain and that persists even after you are dead? It’s important to make sure what we mean, because words can be slippery and I have at a disadvantage of using a borrowed language. If by “soul” you mean something along that line, I think showing how our subjective experience is crucially dependent on a physical brain is evidence against existence of such “soul.” Even brain damages to a living person can result in dramatic changes in cognitive abilities or even personalities of the person, depending on which parts of the brain is damaged. How can I believe in “soul” that persists even after the brain is completely destroyed. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something marvelous about human mind and consciousness. Our minds are more than collections of brain cells just like Mona Lisa is more than paints on canvas. I think there will be scientific explanations to all of this (though I don’t necessarily mean that we human can reach them), but that won’t make it less fascinating. There are a number of physical phenomena whose mechanisms we understand, but we are still marveled when we see them.

    “Or for another example, how does finding an evolutionary mechanism that completely explains the acheivement of something as complex as the eye equate to an argument against the existence of God? “

    It will at least make Gods unnecessary as a way to explain the origin of the eye. If you agree or not, many religious people including those in the ID movement argue that Gods must exist or otherwise we cannot explain X, where X can be complex organs as the eye, or the existence of life itself, or the universe itself. Of course having scientific explanations does not disprove the existence of Gods. But is there still compelling reason to believe in Gods left?

    I didn’t understand much of what you wrote about Cartesian and Newtonian, your puzzling fascination about relativity and quantum mechanics (of course they are fascinating, but I’m not sure exactly what about them make YOU fascinated), and why you think physicists and Darwinians are not on the same page. You write Newtonian paradigm is outdated. Well, Newtonian physics is certainly inaccurate, but isn’t it still very useful both in the sense that it has many applications and in the sense that it is rich and beautiful. There may be discontinuity between Newtonian physics and the new physics of relativity and quantum mechanics. But can’t you also see relativity and quantum mechanics as extension of what Newton started, which is an attempt to understand nature using mathematics? How could we have relativity and quantum mechanics without Newtonian physics? Don’t you also see in Einstein and the founders of quantum mechanics a strong attitude against what is not measurable? Notable is Einstein’s rejection of aether as superfluous (in contrast to Lorentz).

    The article about the Piraha people that you mentioned is interesting. (But when you mention “the dogmatic dualism of Chomskian linguistics”, do you mean that the Chomskyan theory is inherently dogmatic or do you mean that people took it as a dogma? I am ignorant about linguistics, but I wonder if there isn’t anything useful about Chomskyan theory, even if it’s proven to be incorrect, just as Newtonian physics is still useful even after proven incorrect.) From my prejudiced point of view, what was fascinating was that Everett (who seemed to be a Christian first and a linguist second) gave up on his Christian faith after interacting with Piraha people, but he still thinks linguistics as a useful approach to understand Piraha people, even though he no longer believes in Chomskyan theory. As someone from a non-Christian tradition, I just wonder how you can remain a Christian when confronted with a different cultural tradition.

  2. Janet

    HI, I hope I haven’t embarassed you by responding to you so
    “publically.” And I know I got carried away in my post, and didn’t stay on the track of some your comments. I will pick them up later though, and I would love to know where your thinking is on my responses. best, Janet

  3. Gavin

    Why does it seem to you that showing, for example, exactly how the brain produces our richly human subjective experiences would equate to showing that ”soul” or the “mind’s I” does not “exist”?

    What this would show is that our experiences will probably not continue after we die. Since the vast majority of Christians mean by “soul” some part of us that continues to experience things after we die, this “soul” idea would become less tenable.

    It seems that the answer is similar for all of your questions. Imagine two people looked at a battery and wondered how it work. One person guesses that there is a chemical process involved, the other thinks that the electrons are moved by gnomes with shovels. They then open a battery and find chemicals, which they test and eventually discover have all of the properties necessary to create an electric current. The first student says “Looks like there aren’t any gnomes.” The second student says “sure there are gnomes, we’ve just learned that they are invisible and don’t do anything.” Or maybe he says, “We’ve actually learned the true chemical nature of gnomes.” Or maybe he says something else entirely. No matter what he says, I don’t see any point for gnomes once we understand the chemical process.

  4. Janet

    Gavin, I get your point. This is a very clear and useful example. Based just on explaining the system of the battery, no gnomes with shovels. I agree.
    But then, to explain the chemicals and their actions you would need physics, and for physics you would need lots of fundamental mathematical formulas, and after a while, physicists start saying, what about all this mathematical order in the physical world? You can answer, it just is. It doesn’t “mean” anything except that the inverse square laws make accurate predictions within certain parameters. (So shut up and calculate.) But many physicists feel that the mathematical order is somehow more real than its simple occurrences in specific physical systems. Now you are into an enduring human iintellectual intuition based on very high-level thought that somehow something that is “in” the universe (formal order) is also more real and enduring than the universe itself, and so somehow “beyond” it. You’ll find this paradox of immanence AND trancendence in Greek philosophical thought, in Christian thought, in mystical thought of all kinds, and among the physicists and mathematicians of the Platonist school.
    Gavin, I think science has now shown, just recently, that there aren’t any gaps in the history of the universe that need a “God” to step in and intervene. So the old religious explanations of physical processes that used supernatural explanations like “gnomes with shovels” is now a thing of the past. But I’m fine with that, as a Christian. Like most Westerners, like Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas, I’ve always thought God was immanent in Nature, not directing it externally, and I love that God lets the universe be itself and move spontaneously toward higher-order complexities all by itself, in a unique and unrepeatable history, based on the inward potentialities within matter itself. But explaining natural processes has only been one small part of what God and religion have been about for the human race. Science gives no evidence for a supernatural Entity intevening in natural processes. But science is devoted to explicating a world that is utterly awe-inspiring and yet highly intelligible. We are into huge metaphysical mysteries here, that science may or may not ever get around to. I want deeper contact with ultimate reality and I think I may have experienced that in some small way through my religion, and that it makes me a better person. Most of all, it’s like an art or like music, something so beautiful and sacred and precious I would never want to give it up, and would want to give my life for it. I feel the same way about science, actually, and I suspect the scientific quest to know is rooted in humanity’s common humble spiritual desire to know what is really real and to transcend our inhumanity. Does this make any sense?

  5. HI

    I think Gavin’s gnome analogy is a good one. And I’m not quite persuaded by Janet. It seems to me that Janet, you are proposing to call the physical laws that enable the chemical process, or the order of the universe behind the physical laws as gnomes. But I find it a little problematic. If you are referring to the physical laws or the order of the universe, why don’t say it? Why insist on using the loaded word “gnomes” that conjure up the image of little men? Why should gnomes be credited for all the order and beauty of the universe?

  6. Janet

    Gavin and Hi, this is really helping me. I’m writing a post to try to clarify the points here that I want so much to make, so I can see what you think.

  7. RE: ‘HI Says’ on the Soul:

    Consider the phrases “go with your Gut,” and “do as your Heart tells you.” In both instances, organs other than the brain are incorrectly credited as the source of specific thoughts like feelings and instincts. Likewise the Soul refers to other characteristics of the brain, like the persona.

    True, cellular organisms and plants do not need a brain. But for mammals and many other creatures, a functioning brain is requisite for “life.” Thus consciousness (meaning any trace amount of brain activity) is the objective definition of the Soul. A simple thought experiment demonstrates the necessity of this delineation.

    Some people are so severely paralyzed that they can only move their heads. Even worse conditions impair normal eating and speaking. But as long as the brain retains some minimal amount of activity, a sentient being exists. Experience, memory, etc. are kept “alive” on an intricate network of synapses that possess the latent capacity for thought. Medical science has made the body almost replaceable (ex. Christopher Reeves). Truly, we are our brain.

    The opposite condition is brain death — a non-sentient body on life-support. The capacity to think, feel, and remember ceased with the termination of electrical stimulation to the brain. Such a person can be accurately described as a real-life zombie — tissue animated without a “Soul” — the living-dead.

    In most philosophical traditions, humanity regards itself “above” all other life because of the Soul (our persona, the brain). So if the “Soul” is removed from the body, the human being is no longer special.

  8. the poet

    I love this discussion, but find myself feeling paralyzed whenever I try to join in. Part of me wants to simply quote poet Mary Oliver on the soul. Another wants, like some of you, something more scientific. Is the soul a projection? Is it merely what we mean by “the self” or “the persona”? Is it an electrical impulse? (Is it a gnome with a shovel?) Associated with the pineal gland? Are we ensouled by God? Does a fox or a bear have a soul? Does the dogwood tree flowering in my front yard? What does my friend mean when she says her brother the heroin addict looks at her with soulless eyes? Two books I’ve been reading (and just finished) are Elegy for Iris by John Bayley and Anam Cara by Jim O’Donohue. Both–by very different means–make the case for a soul that is not like a pinball richocheting inside the machine (maybe that would be the ego!) but something encompassing, larger than us, no easier to pin down to an actual location than “beauty” or “love.” I know poets who are like scientists highly skeptical about the soul. I find myself content, mostly, to dwell in the mystery of it.

  9. We have “a poet” writting in, hurray and hurrah! What lovely language. And how well this illustrates the way we tunnel ourselves in when an entire rich concept such as the soul is reduced to a stereotype as a politicized move in the current so very tragic Science Wars.

    Hey poet — maybe we’ll even get a lyric poem, someday? I wish, I wish.

    All the rest of you poets and humanists and theorists and former students of mine (from 25 years ago even!) who keep telling me that you are following along in this conversation — well, let’s hear your voices, too. Don’t be “paralyzed.”

    (P.S. I want to hear Mary Oliver on the soul….)

    As for all the other comment-threads, I’m working and thinking hard and I will get back to everyone on those questions.

  10. the poet

    Okay, so here’s the Oliver poem I was thinking of. You’ll see (I think) that by mentioning Oliver I wasn’t so much joining into a discussion of whether or not there is a soul, but why humans should be privileged over everything else to possess one. Oliver seems to me to be equating “the soul” with “the divine.”


    Is the soul solid, like iron?
    Or is it tender and breakable, like
    the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
    Who has it, and who doesn’t?
    I keep looking around me.
    The face of the moose is as sad
    as the face of Jesus.
    The swan opens her white wings slowly.
    In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
    One question leads to another.
    Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
    Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
    Why should I have it, and not the anteater
    who loves her children?
    Why should I have it, and not the camel?
    Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
    What about the blue iris?
    What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
    What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
    What about the grass?

    Mary Oliver (from Blue Iris: Poems and Essays)

  11. What a gorgeous poem! Thanks so much, poet. (“The poet” has some of her own gorgeous poems, too, exploring the same themes. We should beg her for one of those, shouldn’t we?)

    Yes, as Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things….” (“God’s Grandeur”).

    When Hi brought up to me the question of a soul that lives on when the body dies, along with Gavin, who’s also raised it several times, Hi went on immediately to say that the things of nature are of course moving and interesting and compelling in their own right, even without any metaphysical dimension. (That’s my own paraphrase.)

    I think there is a great hunger in our time for a rebirth of the sense of wonder and mystery in the cosmos, because that attitude was not so much in fashion during the Age of Reason, with the “clock-work universe,” the Industrial Revolution, and the ideal of the strictly rational scientific professional.

    Read Rachel Remen’s account of her training as a doctor in *Kitchen Table Wisdom*, one of the wisest and most redemptive and compassionate books of recent memory, in my judgment. She finally regretfully left the practice of medicine, which she loved, to counsel the dying, because she found her dying patients had more wisdom and more human resources for investing their deaths with meaning than the medical professionals who attended them. (The practice of medicine has changed radically of late, of course.This is another area in our society where deep change has been very rapid over past 40 years or so, and so we have to call the new situation a post-Modernity situation, don’t we?)

    I still haven’t responded to Gavin and Hi on that subject of the soul. I’ve been writing on it and slowly working myself up to such a post, but I need more time. Still, I’m pretty sure it will have quantum mechanics in it! With my significantly enhanced and updated state of understanding!

    Here’s the Hopkins’ sonnet:

    The world is charged with the glory of God.
    It will shine out, like shining from shock foil.
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
    Crushed. Why do men then not reck his rod?
    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

    And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    This is a deep down refusal by Hopkins to view the natural world as an inert machine. (And I’m sure he didn’t oppose anything scientific.) The view of everything material as being inert and strictly mechanistic, with only the “mind” or “soul” of mankind being alive and capable of any freedom or spontaneity — this is the very essence of the Cartesian paradigm that came abruptly into being and then ruled the West for several hundred years.

    So do you see why I think it is rather ironic that Richard Dawkins et alia want to characterize religion, specifically Christianity, as clinging to the superstitious belief that some supernatural, spiritual entity exists in an otherwise strictly material human body, when this was the view of things, the “ghost in the machine” model, introduced in the West as part of the rise of science!

    Western Christian thought, like Greek rationalism, viewed the cosmos as indwelt by vital form on every level of complexity. In the West, the “anima” of a living body was its indwelling formal vitality, not something separate from the body. When Plato and Aristotle make their philosophical explorations into whether something of a human being might last beyond death, they reason from the depth of the connection between the mind’s comprehension of formal beauty and the source of formal beauty itself. That is very interesting in itself, but Christian thought refuses that direction, and refuses to think the conscious part of a person in separation from the body. (Hence the scandal of the resurrection of the body.)

    In other words, Christians are the most monistic creatures imaginable in their traditional view of the human being (and all other living and organic beings). That “dearest freshness” that “dwells deep down things” is in those things!! It is not some extrinsic spiritual “entity” or ghost or genie in a bottle. And all that elegant vitality begins with the scientific laws that governed the condensation of the first hydrogen molecules during the Big Bang.

    It is very hard for people in general, I think, to understand why science might want to condemn the metaphysical dimension of the universe when we all feel the mystery and beauty and depth and fascination of living things and of the entire natural world. And it is hard-wired in human beings to think of *this* as being divine or as being connected with God. (Where is the problem with this, in our day and age?)

    I truly believe this must have a lot to do with the polls that consistently show Americans saying that God had something to do with the cosmos and the emergence of life and human beings. But most of those people do support teaching evolution in the schools. To me, we seem to be a very secular country, by and large, and yet even otherwise secular people stubbornly resist the idea of a universe without the traditionally divine features of indwelling beauty and order and vitality and meaning.

    So what’s the problem with that for science? Today? Lots of scientists have no problem with it, and lots of scientists are Christians or theists of other kinds — and always have been.

    Why do Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, for instance, think it is so important to war against a deep religious impulse to feel awe and the deepest respect for the physical world. Especially when they themselves are always testifying in their own words and their own terms to feeling the very same things about the physical world. (See that Dawkins interview post of mine and read Dennett’s meditations on nature’s capacity to design.)

    The traditional, historical Christian view is that the most fundamental spiritual thing in the universe is precisely the formal order that science studies. And it was this metaphysical conviction about indwelling order that enabled science to come into being in the first place, as many studies have shown; Christian commitment to an elegantly ordered cosmos open to the human mind was “the Oxygen that was burned in the combustion with Greek rationalism,” sustaining the scientific enterprise in the West, even as it moved steadily away from that metaphysics, as chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi put it in *Personal Knowledge*.

    Before we ever get to considering any of the religious beliefs that contradict the natural order (immortality or the miraculous), I would like to talk through the even larger parts of the Judeao-Christian tradition that affirm and support the natural order, and its close and rigorous study by science! Why should science need to quarrel with the best parts of that tradition?

    Lets not pay too much attention to the fundamentalists on either side, because their positions are quite absolutist and to that extent unscientific! And irreligious, I would say. One thing the Judaeo-Christian tradition is about is introspection, self-critique, the overturning of certitudes and complacencies, the mysteriousness of the cosmos and human nature and revelation. This is a scholarly tradition and one that values thoughtfulness and openness to the study to the natural world; if it has swung over into scientistic absolutism, in the form of biblical literalism and creationism, these are very much Modern developments, and we need to counter that, from the sides of science and religion alike, with more thoughtful conversations.

    For the very thoughtful and scientific readers I’ve met on this weblog, I’d really like to recommend to you the idea of reading John Haught’s *Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation* and Michael Polanyi’s *Personal Knowledge*. You won’t agree with Polanyi much of the time, but his discussions of specific episodes in the history of science, inlcuding Einstein and quantum mechanics, are utterly fascinating and thought-provoking. And he was a world-class physical chemist doing a very early critical re-examination of “objectivism” in science. And what a lover of science and of evolution he was!

  12. the poet

    Oh, I’m so glad we’re getting some of the “grace” notes suggested by “deepgraceoftheory”! Rachel Remen is a terrific writer to bring up. Reading her, I often think of the adage (is it from Meister Eckhart?) that when one doesn’t know how to pray or what to pray for, gratitude is good. This post and your most recent one, on Barbara Hernnstein Smith (sp), really rock, Janet. Thank you for the provocation.

    And thank you for the Hopkins poem! “Shining like shook foil!”

    As I read your response to my post, I found myself growing somewhat anxious, then realized (as I confronted your fundamentalist paragraph) what that anxiety was about. Indeed, when we reduce religion to its own most extreme examples, then it isn’t worth much (at least to my mind). I like to think of what my old professor explained, about the “lig” in religion being the same as that in ligature or ligament. So religion is that which binds us together, that creates communities, and surely that’s what we mean when we say “a science of religion” or a “religion of science.” (And what a terrific community you’ve drawn here!)

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