The Big Shrink


I love books. I’m an irrepressible nerd when it comes to reading; I look forward to breaks from my studies so that I can read (well, and so I can sleep). One of my professors has been known to say “Don’t let your classes get in the way of your education,” and I definitely share that sentiment at times.

Yesterday I received these books in the mail: Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen (on economics and political freedom), A History of God by Karen Armstrong (a history of the world’s three great monotheistic faiths), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (on the philosophy of science), Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll (on evolutionary developmental biology), and On Human Nature by E.O. Wilson (on a naturalistic view of what makes us human).

I’ve already started reading Wilson’s On Human Nature, which won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Of course, I should really be studying for finals… Edward O. Wilson, originally an entomologist (studying ants), has been one of the most prolific scientists of our times. Beyond his innovations in his original field, Wilson founded the field of sociobiology (which spawned evolutionary psychology) and has been a leader among American humanists.

I’ll get to some quotes from On Human Nature soon, but for now I think I’ll snip some quotes from the only other book of his that I’ve read, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (see my review). Wilson, a “provisional deist” (he sees an initial establishing force for the universe as possible, but sees no evidence for a theistic, personal God) writes about the areas in which we allow God to be active have shrunk over time.

This is particularly pronounced to me having grown up in the Church of Christ, where all sorts of elaborate theological justifications (such as the “Apostolic Age”) are proposed to explain why followers of Jesus no longer have miraculous power. In other words, members of the Church of Christ are rational enough to recognize that we really can’t handle snakes without getting bitten, or heal the sick, but must come up with a theological explanation for why. From Consilience:

For many the urge to believe in transcendental existence and immortality is overpowering. Transcendentalism, especially when reinforced by religious faith, is psychically full and rich; it feels somehow right. In comparison empiricism seems sterile and inadequate. That is why, even as empiricism is winning the mind, transcendentalism continues to win the heart. Science has always defeated religious dogma point by point when the two have conflicted. But to no avail. In the United States there are fifteen million Southern Baptists, the largest denomination favoring literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, but only five thousand members of the American Humanist Association, the leading organization devoted to secular and deistic humanism…

Science has taken us very far from the personal God who once presided over Western civilization. It has done little to satisfy our instinctual hunger…The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Is there a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world views?

No, unfortunately, there is not…For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately first fled the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative…

It seems to me that some branches of liberal theology have done the best job at reconciling religious faith (which has become synonymous with ‘mystery’) and a scientific understand of human nature. Liberation theologians (or at least those who are moving away from an explicitly Marxist framework) have done the best job of shaping ethical principles that would improve the world. But a conservative, charismatic blend of Christianity (which asserts that prayer heals, miracles happen, etc.) seems to be the most honest, accurate version of what the early church believed. Wilson continues,

The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all the religious cosmologies combined.

I’m not sure if he’s right that the materialist epic really is more appealing. Grand? Impressive? Awe-inspiring? Yes, yes, and yes. Yet that doesn’t make it as transcendentally appealing. But should we accept what is appealing, or what is accurate? In a way, I envy those, like the orthodox Church of Christ believers, who see no contradiction. But once the curtain has been pulled back, how does one believe the Wizard really rules in Oz?


One Response to The Big Shrink

  1. jeffpeel says:

    I’m sorry but I have to say that I find nothing inspirational in religion – never did. I find it vacuous. The great Physicist Richard Fernmann put it nicely when he said “it’s much more interesting not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.” It is questioning that provides us with wonder. I have two children that use the word “Why” at the start of just about every sentence. As adults we simply lose the natural instinct we have to question because we are told not to and provided with too many answers that are often shown to be a sham. Try reading Richard Dawkins or Matt Ridley or AC Grayling if you need greater stimulation. Spirituality offers a false promise. It simply stifles freedom to think – and that is the greatest freedom of all.

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