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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.2 (Spring 2017)
Faith vs. Cultural Meltdown
God and Science: A Delicate Balance
John R. Harris
Though the scientific mindset would seem to occupy the far polarity from tribalism, its acceptance of “thingness” as identical to reality betrays a significant and surprising similarity.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared on the author’s personal blog at https://nilnoviblog.wordpress.com/.)
I’ve been trying to shuffle around some vague ideas in the context of a class where we read a lot of ancient literature. Cultures that don’t have reading and writing are called oral-traditional by the scholars (and sometimes tribal by me): they have a certain way of looking at the gods, who are generally associated with powerful natural forces that only make sense to a pre-scientific mind as projections of human-like thinking and feeling into a super-human setting (a.k.a. anthropomorphism). Everything in this world is instantly “god”. The wind is an angry or restless god. The midday stillness is the sun god’s touching earth briefly with such imminent presence that you tremble under his golden breath. A huge, oddly shaped stone is not a representation of an earth god, as by a symbol: there are no symbols here, only nearer and farther brushes with the divine. The stone therefore is the god… and so is the mountain upon which it sits, and so is the broad world running down to the ocean.
In science, things are likewise not representative or symbolic of higher realities: they are mere things embodying the operation of unseen yet wholly natural, impersonal forces. They have no higher meaning because nothing has higher meaning, in a sense that would convey plan or purpose. The laws of nature run as they do because… because that’s how nature is set up. Out of chaos came an order which seems random to us since it has no affective content—no beautiful or noble objective. The intricate wheels of that order turn because all is enlisted into the turning, and what does not turn cannot exist.
Of course, the evolution of science was highly dependent upon literacy, since accurate records of previous observations and wide dissemination of those observations were essential to the new method. (The printing press, in fact, was needed to disseminate ideas with sufficient breadth, speed, and cost-effectiveness.) Yet literates are not necessarily devotees of the cult of science. Letters teach us to distinguish between sound and its representation; and, with a little further reflection, we realize that the sound itself represents an idea rather broader and vaguer than any one word. We slow down and ponder more deeply when we read and write, too. We understand that the stone is not the god. We start looking into ourselves for the source of that admiration, that reverence, which finds a crude symbolic expression in physical vastness and grand stillness. We begin to appreciate the separation of the ideal from the imagined, created, or fancifully interpreted objects with whose help we chase after that ideal. The world grows allegorical. A little thing may stand for an immeasurable and very sketchy truth. A sunset is not “the god” in person, but neither is it just a refraction of light through a thicker cross-section of the atmosphere’s prism. To both the tribesman and the scientist, the sunset is “thingness”; but to the former it is the greatest of things, and to the latter the merest of things. One has indiscriminately deified everything, and the other has systematically demystified everything. Neither offers a “yes and no” option where an alternative reality—not entirely captured by material but working through the material—may exist.
The ultimate challenge to the modern mind has been to proceed with the scientific analysis of material reality while not dismissing the possibility of another—a higher—reality to which litmus tests are unresponsive. One may in fact believe in one kind of knowledge and simultaneously believe in the other kind; but in practice, this proves to be a position commonly despised by the most advanced scientific minds.
The reason, I must suppose, is human arrogance: hubris. Once we create a system, we’re not content to let anything escape it. We like being in control. Upon our Mt. Olympus of scientific method, we reign like so many Zeuses. We adore our own intelligence in having been able to produce explanations that account for so much—we will not accept that the “so much” is not eventually “everything”. In this respect, science may indeed become a cult, a kind of religion unto itself. It takes on faith that nothing exists which it cannot understand and explain.
I think I prefer the tribesman, in all his ignorance. He at least clings to a natural kind of humility. He puts gods where they shouldn’t be—in stones, in winds, in sunlight; but he abstains from elevating to godly status his own capacity for imposing order.
Dr. John Harris (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, U. of Texas at Austin) is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.