The Hicks Have a Point

Posted on June 5, 2013 by

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The confrontation between science and ignorance has had some high-water marks. You know the stories: the church fathers (et al.) have their moment of victory, are able to force a recantation or successfully curb learning for a generation or two. Then they are swept aside by the inevitable march of knowledge only to be remembered as the agents of a repressive tradition.

Certainly, our contemporary episodes don’t have quite the drama of Galileo’s negotiations with Rome or the Scopes trial. We are left with politicians pandering to their fundamentalist constituents1 and Biblical science (as promoted by, say, the Discovery Institute) attempting to slip doctrine into schools under the pretext of inquiry. For example, recently Louisiana has been arguing over the “Science Education Act” which allows public school teachers to bring creationist materials into science classrooms so students can hear “both sides” of the issue.

In fact, as these things go, Louisiana is pretty typical. The law allows public school faculty to supplement the science curriculum (which is more-or-less standard) with materials critical of scientific consensus. Like a lot of recent creationist efforts, the language is religiously neutral — in principle, the Time Cube guy could get his theory of, um, things taught alongside physics instruction, just like “intelligent design” could (in principle) be about aliens rather than deities — and, in fact, the law explicitly forbids teachers from endorsing any particular religion in their instruction. Instead, it seems to me (at least) that the point of the law is to provide sufficient doubt about scientific accounts of evolution, global warming, and human genetics that children won’t be driven away from their home faith by knowledge of science. (It’s the tree in the garden all over again.)

There is no reason to believe this particular case, or the previous encounters in Kansas and Pennsylvania, or the upcoming confrontations coming to a school district near you, will turn out any differently. Oh sure, the intelligent design people may succeed in getting their account taught alongside the (only a) theory of evolution. They might even get evolution, global warming, and the Big Bang purged from the curriculum, or, what the heck, turn the U.S. into a theocratic backwater for a few decades. But however successful they are, provided we survive it,2 scientific progress will hiccup and march on. This whole story will someday be a parable used to illustrate the role of science as the arbiter of knowledge and the futility of opposing it. When proponents of a scientific worldview argue that their opponents are on “the wrong side of history,”3 this is, of course, what they are saying.

So it is pretty easy to just dismiss this debate as a continuation of Hicks v. The Rest of Us. But listen: you have a stake in this, and, furthermore, it isn’t necessarily the stake that you think. The debate is really about how we are to understand ourselves. The hicks have a point.

In some ways, it is useful to think of scientists as being something like beavers: they do what they do without much concern for context. If the stream floods the forest, well, it couldn’t be helped. So when scientists explain the experience of déjà vu, kensho, the inclination toward religion and religious experience, the rise of life, or consciousness in terms of chemistry and conditioning, we should see that they are just following their script. Nothing to get too excited about.

The difficulty comes in as a scientific worldview becomes the central way that we understand ourselves. The ways in which most of us find meaning in life, our phenomenal experiences (including our experience of the numinous), our sense of participating in narratives that exceed ourselves, are all pretty much thrown out under the scientific regime. Sometimes, people say that we don’t need these things to have meaningful lives (like the signers of the Humanist Manifesto, who, for better or worse, saw it coming), and that the religious myths and other inheritances from our traditions have led to far more misery than anything else. And sometimes, I read Ray Bradbury or Neil deGrasse Tyson and am moved by the story of humanity making sense of nature and moving into the stars. And, sometimes, I hope that we are just transitioning from one way of understanding ourselves to another, and that the new one will make us calmer, gentler, more at ease in the world.4 And yet.

I am having trouble expressing myself.

I read an essay a while back about the prospect of nuclear war, “The Fate of the Earth.” In it, Jonathan Schell pictures the non-human world as a “republic of insects and grass,” a giant clockwork grinding on without sense or meaning. Until we come along: with us on the scene, the world is infused with meaning, understanding. Once we are conscious, the world is conscious. His argument about the urgency of preventing nuclear war is that, should we kill ourselves, the universe goes back to being a dumb machine, ticking off the seconds until eternity. Hence we are precious. Hence we should be preserved.

Of course, Schell is just being nostalgic. From the point of view of eternity, if we blow ourselves up5 next week, or we get obliterated by a comet a few centuries down the line, it really makes little difference in the situation: the universe goes back to being its mindless self. Provided there’s no one else out there — actually, that makes no difference whatsoever — at the end it never meant anything.

I’d like to be able to say that doesn’t bother me. I’d prefer to not want there to be more things in heaven and earth, that our experience count for something. But, of course, the evidence is all on one side of the argument.

“Meaning” is probably a terrible thing to want from the world. Perhaps growing up means finally siding with Sartre, or Nietzsche, or, you know, Rorschach:

Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else.

Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

So what can we do? We can take up the position of many modern Pagans, that since our made-up beliefs help us make sense of things, we can knowingly, ironically pretend they are true. (All the benefits of religion without all the calories.) Or else try the materialist version of the same idea, scientific utopianism: we’ll make our spiritual aspirations true — become immortal, create life, perfect our bodies.

Or we can simply assert the truth of our transcendent experiences, evidence and explanations be damned: God spoke to us, the UFOs abducted us, the ghost turned off the light.

Or, as Anne Lamott has it, our understanding of the numinous can be a thing that we hope is true. Admit that faith is a leap, and hope that even without hard evidence the shape of our experiences and desires has value. We can hope to be greeted by our dead relatives as we die. We can hope to attain enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. We can hope God will crack open the sky and come crashing into the material world.

1 Honestly, you can’t blame them. (back)
2 The problem isn’t that what fundamentalists believe is wrong. It is that their beliefs are going to kill us. (back)
3 It seems to me that the phrase “on the wrong side of history” is increasing in use. I read it yesterday in relation to same-sex marriage, and today about evolution while researching this essay. I am reminded of William F. Buckley: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” (back)
4 There is little evidence of this. (back)
5 I was going to write “blow ourselves to kingdom come,” but that is exactly where we are not going to be blown to in this argument. (back)

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