Sunday, May 11, 2014

two questions

I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts.

-- William Wordsworth, 1798

What I’ve come to learn is that [the Bible is] the manufacturer’s handbook.

-- Rep. Paul Broun, September 27, 2012*

There is only one scientific question: how do things generally work? If you are addressing this question you are doing science. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing science. This goes for you and me, for fundamentalist ministers, for popes and presidents, and it also goes for scientists.

There is only one religious question: what is worth dying for? If you are addressing this question you are doing religion. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing religion. This goes for you and me, for scientists and philosophers, and it also goes for popes and prophets and fundamentalist preachers.

No one works on either of these questions all the time, because there are plenty of other good questions to be asked and answered, but everyone works on each question some of the time. But you can't do both at once because they are different questions, different as oil and water that cannot mix. If Neil deGrasse Tyson rhapsodizes on the awesome magnitude of space/time, revealing what makes him tick and displaying his intuition of the sacred, he has for that moment stopped being a scientist. If Dr. Broun insists that all the major scientific theories are "lies from the pit of hell," and treats the scripture as a textbook of cosmology, he has for that moment stopped being a man of faith.

Science is not about awe, and religion is not about the facts. Science is about generalities, but religion is about singularities. The product of science is expressed in laws, but the product of faith is expressed in miracles. They have nothing to say to each other.

The laws of science, i. e., Newton's Laws of Motion, or Einstein's Laws of General and Special Relativity, or the octaves and chords of the Periodic Table, are not human laws. Copernicus did not compel the earth to travel around the sun, Newton did not order every action to produce an equal and opposite reaction, and Freud did not command the Unconscious to direct our conscious decisions. So-called laws of nature express regularities. They tell us how the world generally works. It is not scientists who speak such laws but Cosmos itself, answering to those questions that scientists call experiments.

Now as every stockbroker tells us, we cannot prove, by proclamation or deduction, that the cosmos will do tomorrow what it has done till now. We can be pretty darn sure that the sun will come up again tomorrow, but we acquire that assurance by affirming the regularity of the world, that if we do this kind of thing, then a certain kind of that will follow. A scientist may be wonder-struck at what he learns, but his job is to demystify the world, and he had better get on with it. He picks out the pattern in what we thought was chaotic. He makes the unconscious conscious, the unpredictable predictable, the random lawful. Otherwise he is a failure.

Miracles, i. e., the Resurrection of an executed prophet, or the peaceful collapse of a violent empire, or the recovery of an addict, or the making of a way where there is no way, or the reconciliation of lifelong enemies, are not lawful; they are exceptions to laws. They are the things that no one can see coming. No one thought that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would make peace; no one thought that gay people would win the right to marry each other; no one thought a president of color could be elected; almost no one thought that people would walk on the moon -- not until these things happened.  They are things to be marveled at -- miracula.

After miracles happen, science may try to rationalize the singularity, by making new and larger laws that include it. Sometimes science succeeds. Sometimes not. With success comes demystification: a former miracle becomes the newest predictable event. With failure comes skepticism: we don't expect the thing to happen again -- or perhaps we don't expect that it happened even the first time.

If tomorrow morning the science page of the New York Times reports that a prophet, using only his words, turned certain containers of water into containers of wine, the event so described would be a miracle. But it would not end science. Nor would it prove that God exists. It would prove only what we already know: stuff happens that we have no way of expecting. But science is not about that stuff. Science is about all that other stuff that we can learn to predict. And its task is to show us how to predict things we formerly had no way of predicting.

If the New York Times reported transformation of water into wine by fiat, then on the very next morning a new research project would begin, whose goal would be to determine how, by a hitherto unknown process, water can be so altered. When we have our science hats on we expect that, sooner or later, if enough resources are provided, the project will succeed, and new larger laws of nature will be discovered. Perhaps we can industrialize the process, making vineyards unnecessary -- though there will always be those old farts who still savor miracles, clinging to the notion that there is no substitutute for terroir. And perhaps there is no substitute. It's been said that most people blindfolded can't distinguish red from white; but even if that's true do we really want to get all our wine from test tubes, forgetting what earth is for, to whom we shall return whether we are familiar with our mother or not?

I have a recurring dream that looks a bit like Tyson's voyage amidst iridescent vortices of space and time.** Like him I look through the portal of a space-ship, and I marvel at the awful beauty of what I am privileged to behold. Then I think of how far I have come from the earth, a very particular place, a New England village with trees that arch over the street, Victorian homes and a meeting-house on the square with white pillars and green shutters, a high spire and clear windows through which truth can shine. How long ago and far away. How many doors I have shut behind me, when the music grew sour, to enter different rooms with a different face and a bigger ensemble and a greater hope, one door after another. I realize that they were one-way doors; the portal of this cockpit behind me is sealed. There is no going back, only forward amidst strange splendor, and I long instead to put another log on the fire, don my slippers and sip my single-malt in an ancient parlor now forbidden by a flaming sword.

The sadness of fundamentalists, or of politicians who troll for votes by pretending to be fundamentalists, is that neither the scientific question nor the religious one is adequate in itself for life. Though I am reasonably healthy for a man of my age, I have on three occasions rejected, with the help of medical science, nature's plan for my death. And my friend has come through a greater trial than any of mine, with a vision of recovery before him confirmed by the fallible predictability of "best practice." If Dr. Broun's spouse or child gets cancer or a rotten appendix, I will not condemn him for praying; but I know damn well that before he prays he will recommend his loved one to medical science, though the scripture of science proceeds, he says, from hell-mouth. But he does not really believe that science emerges from hell-mouth: when life is on the line he will entreat the scorned goddess to work a miracle for him.

So there are two possibilities about the congressman's character. He is perhaps an outright liar, swindling those who hate the mind. Or with slender knowledge of himself he may really think he believes what he said, ignorant of his own ultimate concern. When he takes his scripture for a science text, he mixes what God has set apart, offending both science and his faith. Let us pray for his soul.

I have plenty to confess myself, but I'm pretty damn sure I know the difference between my sixteen-year Bushmill's Irish, aged as they assure me in three woods, and my Laphroig triple wood Scotch. Pretty sure. Really. I'd know it blind-folded.

*Liberty Baptist Church, Hartwell, Georgia

**Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, Fox Television Network

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