Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chesterton’s Apple: Thoughts on Empirical Mysticism

Over the summer I submitted my dissertation and, barring a catastrophe of review or logistics, I’ll graduate in the fall. Since I have to pay tuition for the fall quarter and have no real academic commitments[1], I have chosen to take Freshman Bio 2 and 3[2]…pre-recs for the Masters Degree in Ecology and Evolution I have had my eye on for years. Since my time will be limited I am preparing by working through three bio classes through various technological vehicles over the summer.[3] The material has simply left me entranced. I have come to believe that if I had not had a first year teacher for Biology in high school[4] I might not be an engineer today. But my emotive reaction to this data has caused me to reflect on my simultaneous designations as empiricist and mystic and why I feel that these labels are symbiotic rather than competitive.

Remembering that we Forget

The best word that I can think of for describing the content I am digesting would likely cause Dawkins heart burn[5]. I have found it ‘magical.’

Let me turn it over to my second favorite Chesterton quote[6] to explain.

“All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched…

…These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…

…We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget

And that is why I have found the central dogma of genetics ‘magical.’ This is why I think allopatric speciation appears to be some cosmic incantation. This is why explanation, for me, is faith building rather than faith destroying. Because the central discipline of the mystical empiricist, is to ‘remember that we forget’. The moment it becomes obvious that polypeptide chains must have four levels of chemical and physical structure providing our protein army with the seemingly unlimited structural variability our existence requires…we have ‘forgotten our names’ and are free to be atheists. Atheism isn’t moral failure or a failure of reason[9]…it is totally reasonable and, I believe, can be arrived at with substantial moral credibility. It does seem to be symptomatic, of a diminished sense of wonder, however; organ failure of our apparatus of astonishment.

The Theological Experience of Science

The way I have come to experience science ‘theologically’ has changed with time. For a while I was a proponent of a ‘God of the gaps’ approach. Under this approach, when Nowiki suggests that there is an unsolved paradox in biology that DNA requires proteins to form proteins which can not be formed without the information template provided by DNA, this admission would become the point of the class. Scientific knowledge from this perspective is valuable only as far as it demonstrates what we don’t know in order to exploit these gaps rhetorically. While these puzzles[10] are intriguing and not without theological implications, this is an impoverished way to interact with God’s general revelation. The faith building information is not what we can’t explain but what we can. It is all so much more dramatic and sublime than we could have ever imagined.

Dawkins would have us believe that the more we can explain about our origins and workings the less we need to invoke a supernatural agent. The God of the gaps approach agrees to wage the battle on this field[11]…and then gets its ass summarily kicked as the god it protects gets smaller and smaller and less worthy of worship. But the premise that explanation is inversely correlated with the metaphysical requirement for an external creative agent is not self evident. Only a callus comfort with the data could require disbelief. My experience is that the more of an empiricist I become the more mysticism I am required to accept.

A more robust alliance between science and theology is in the assertion that explanation does not attribute causality. Rather, the more sublime and textured and ‘magical’ the explanation the more it begs for a personal, cosmic cause. Theology is not best served by scientific failure but, rather, by its unmitigated success. Science[12] provides us catalysts of wonder, non-traditional liturgical aids to worship. In the middle ages, the great frescos were designed to draw the worshiper into an experience of transcendence. Art can still serve this purpose, but I have found science can do precisely the same thing. It is the ignored liturgical furniture of our age. The helix does not replace the icon but takes its rightful place along side as a conduit of wonder. From Einstein’s realization that matter and energy are fundamentally the same stuff, to the understanding that space and time are covariant, to the realization that all creatures pass on genetic information using the same essential apparatus, to the implication that, since atoms are composed mostly of nothing, so are we[13]…the only ones who do not marvel that the apple is green are those who have forgotten that it might have been gold.

It is cliché to say that atheism requires as much faith as theism…but let me try to say it this way: Scientifically motivated atheism is not a triumph of data but boredom with it. It is not the triumph of reason but the failure of wonder.

Dawkins assertion that understanding science necessitates unbelief is not an empirical statement it is an aesthetic statement. He is simply stating that he does not find the DNA story sufficiently inspiring. He does not find it to be evidence of benevolent creator. He might be right. But he has no claim to the kind of positivistic certainty he exudes.

Chesterton’s Apple

When I first read the Chesterton quote above, I immediately thought of the fourth grade. I was sitting in my reading group[14] and opened my book to a new story[15]. I have no recollection of the story, only of the illustration. There was a silver unicorn standing on a hill of red grass. A green waterfall was in the background and the crimson ground covering was periodically punctuated with thin but bulbous vertical structures (that I can only imagine fulfill the ecological niche that trees fulfill in our reality). I remember thinking how fantastic it would be to live in such a magical world. A world like that would surely be filled with wonder[16]. But then I realized, that if that was my world, it would be ‘natural’ and, thus, unremarkable.

The quote came to mind again when I was in Kenya. The jarring strangeness of such a completely different ecosystem than any I had experienced was enough, in itself, to ‘remind me of my name’[17]. But it was the zebra that brought Chesterton to mind. The zebra was astonishing not because it was striped, but because it suddenly reminded me that the horses I grew up with were not.

But, most recently, Chesterton’s discussion came to mind when reading Augustine’s city of God where he discusses the phenomena of magnetism:

“The miracles of the visible world of nature have lost their value for us because we see them continually…But things which come before our eyes in everyday experience are little reckoned of, not because they are less remarkable in nature but simply because of their continual occurrence – so much so that we have ceased to marvel at many of the marvels…daily familiarity gradually blunts the edge of wonder…who could fail to be astounded at this property of a stone, which was not merely inherent in it but also passed on through so many object suspended from it, and bound them together by invisible connections?...the natural phenomena know to all men…would be a source of astonishment to all who observe them, if it were not man’s habit to restrict his wonder at miracles to the rarities… this present state of things…has been cheapened by familiarity, but…is in fact much more wonderful” (p 390, 970, 981 and 1026)

Augustine essentially says, when something like magnetism stop making us say ‘holy crap, that’s magic’ simply because it is explainable and predictable, we have lost our way. If we found a rock that attracted water or repelled muskrats, we would find it magical. We discount the multitude of miracles God has worked into our universe by the very criterion that they are in our universe to observe. That seems an odd criterion to exclude an evidence of transcendence.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of scientists: those for whom understanding the details of creation diminishes wonder and accentuates their materialism, and those for whom learning the details of creation amplifies wonder and makes them, increasingly, mystics. This is an aesthetic rather than a rational choice. It is disingenuous to assert that the data requires one or the other. The locus of selection resides in the perception of the data rather than the data itself. The latter is the only way science has ever worked for me[18]. The more of an empiricist I become, the more of a mystic I am transformed into.

This post was prepared while listening to The Question by Emery

[1] Though I will still have a full time job, three preaching commitments and a young family…so I am contemplating a 10 week blogging sabbatical…which, at my current pace, only means skipping 3-4 posts.
[2] The second and third classes of the series for majors.
[3] These include DVD’s from the teaching company (aquired used), Mp3’s of previous offerings of the UCD class, and online video/audio of MIT’s classes through their open course policy.
[4] My parents were both educational institutions in our school, widely respected as two of the best teachers in the district. In my entire high school career they tried to use that clout only once, to get me family friend and instructor extrodinare, Bill Berry (who, in an uncomfortable unrelated, but hilarious anecdote both Amanda and I call Uncle Bill) for Biology. I got a first year teacher instead.
[5] I have split this post. It originally included an entire point about Dawkins, the New Athiests, and the sociology of belief, but I have decided that the digression was sufficiently diverse and substantial to warrant its own post.
[6] My favorite being the one this blog is named after.
[7] Incidentally, one could claim that ‘remember that we forget’ is the dominant theme of Deuteronomy…but I digress.
[8] That is the best I can do to get the gist without being overly long – though I fear I have failed on both counts in that the quote is too long and misses the gist. Let me just say, “The Ethics of Elfland” in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is 100% worth the 25 minutes it would take to read.
[9] My biggest problem with Dawkins is not that he thinks that his rehashed ideas have suddenly become definitive or that his rhetorical flair outpaces his insight…it is that he’s a bully. He does not present a case and then allow it to stand or fall…he impunes the opposition that if they do not agree with him they are either (a) not sufficiently educated, (b) morally compromised, or (c) simply not intelligent enough to see his position. With all his positivism and trumpeting of cold rationality, his writings do not seem to primarily exist to change people’s minds, but, rather, to induce shame. That is the primary symptom of intellectual bullying.
[10] And there are many of them. For example, how did we go from single cell life forms to every major body plan in 30 million years (see Gould’s Wonderful Life), how is it that life evolved so quickly after conditions on earth became hospitable for it…but only did so once, or why is is that the statistical explanation of entropy (Boltzmann – which is more satisfying than mechanical explanations) does not account for the temporal asymmetry generally observed.
[11] Much theological reflection on science fights the battle on this indefensible hill. Reflective Christians have built impressive battle works on the many intriguing paradoxes of science, holding insufficient explanation as the apologetic trump card that will carry the day. Then someone uncovers some evidence or designs some clever experiment or simply proposes a credible hypothesis, and the battle is lost (only those who have fought it continue quixotic guerilla warfare for ensuing decades being so emotively vested in defending the hill that they cannot let it go).
[12] I recently appreciated this description of the task of the empirical mystic: “Theologians and scientists both exegete God’s world, which we have been given to study and appreciate. Contemplating this world fills us with wonder and gratitude. Science, based in the freedom of the knower, can along with theology contribute to our understanding. The Spirit itself has formed within us the creative capacity not only to understand the world but also to give it voice and offer it back to God with thankful praise.” Pinnok - Flame of Love p 65
[13] And that it is electrical forces rather than physical resistance that keeps us, for example, from passing through the chair we are sitting on, since both are so unsubstantial.
[14] This seemed to be the universal way to organize the mornings in elementary school, the teacher would meet with the various reading groups (of stratified ability) in the morning while the other kids did seat work and then would teach the whole class the other subjects after lunch.
[15] Incidentally, I have two quasi-philosophical memories of 4th grade reading group. The other was regarding a story about the first woman to swim the English Channel. The story ended with some stats about how the record time required to swim the channel has dropped as more people have done it. Mrs. Reed (my favorite primary school teacher and about the kindest most spiritual lady you’d ever meet) asked if we thought that the record time would ever stop dropping. We all said no, that the more people tried and the better training technology got the faster the record time would be. Mrs. Reed then asked, ‘will the record time eventually be zero then, and what about after that, will it take negative time.’ This bugged me until High School when I realized that, oddly, it was the opposite of Zeno’s paradox.
[16] I have since noticed that it is a ubiquitous convention in science fiction to give a planet two obvious suns or moons as if to say ‘you are not in Kansas any more’ but also as if to say ‘ it is totally arbitrary that we only have one, and if you were not from earth you would find that totally novel.’
[17] If you grew up in upstate NY, the Hippopotamus is intravenous wonder.
[18] It is also why I am addicted to school and the systematic metabolism of new academic disciplines. The discipline of digesting novel facts helps me remember my name. It is a spiritual discipline of my orthodox Christian worship.


Joel Wilcox said...

I hope you don't mind continued commenting by a stranger ... I just wanted to say that I appreciate that you can tear apart Dawkins without attempting to destroy evolutionary theory. Most Christians (in America, at least) seem to see them as one and the same.

And I agree, after majoring in biology (at a Christian college that taught evolution, no less), that studying the amazing weirdness of living creatures is a great way to be amazed by God ... if you're willing to be amazed. Just wait until you learn about the molecular superstructure of ATP synthase.

Joel said...

Three thoughts:

1) It was kind of you to say in the footnotes that you got a first year biology teacher and cut it off there, rather than adding "who was awful".

2) I agree that Dawkins is a bully. In my continuous back and forth with religion/spirituality in general, my internal compass has managed to swing back from "atheist" to "I believe in something", so I feel less warmth toward "The God Delusion" than I did when I read it last year. Even then, though, when I agreed with more of his ideas, I found him to be a little hostile.

3) I like apples.

stanford said...

Joel W,

I love comments of all forms. Comments from strangers are actually particularly welcome.

Joel K,

I thought of you as I wrote that and wondered if you'd have an opinion. :)

Thanks for the insightful thoughts guys.

Tyler said...

Stanford, well said as usual. I wonder (!) whether labor and delivery grows tiresome for doctors and nurses who routinely oversee births. I remember thinking when Micah was born that I would then understand the whole process. I could not have been more misguided and witnessing two more births since the first still has me marveling at the process.

Finally, I'll say that winemaking provides me the opportunity to wonder even as I investigate the "inner workings" of why things are the way the are...in wine. Or as you say: "My experience is that the more of an empiricist I become the more mysticism I am required to accept." And I have become closer to God as a result, and more comfortable with the idea that wonder and mysticism is OK. For me it was C.S. Lewis and his distaste for the disappearing appreciation for 'magic' that sent me along this path.

Well done. tt