Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The eternal silence of infinite spaces...

The little book from which I took the numerical example of two days ago, British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey's Leaps of Faith, published in 1995, may have been the first (and best?) shot in the current brouhaha of science and faith. I've been reading again my copy, and recognize my debt to his trenchant analysis. I seem to recall quoting him in my own Skeptics and True Believers (1998).

He poses his theme with this statement: "All great supernatural belief systems -- indeed, all philosophical systems, up till now -- have catered to two central [human needs]: the need for a rational understanding of the surrounding world, and the need for emotional security within it."

The first need has been answered by the various cosmologies that humans have used to explain the origin and working of the world. For most humans, in all places at all times, the second need has been met by the belief that a supernatural being attends lovingly (or at least justly) to our needs, and that the self will survive the death of the body.

The dual assumptions of godly attention and personal immortality have been discredited by science, Humphrey contends. Science has provided a dazzlingly successful rational understanding of the world, but it has not found the slightest evidence that a divine being intrudes into the workings of nature, or that a human self will survive the death of the body.

Psychologist that he is, Humphrey surveys the sources and symptoms of our existential angst, and prescribes a remedy: "Instead of pining for our lost souls and absent psychic powers [prayer, the paranormal, etc.], we shall have to begin to take pride and pleasure in the facts of our embodiedness, our mortality and individuality." Individuality and mortality are the driving forces of evolution, "the elements on which life has taken wing...on which all things bright and beautiful -- natural and cultural -- have relied for their creative energy." It is not just that we have no need for the hypotheses of a watchful divinity and personal immortality, says Humphrey; we would not be here if those hypotheses were true.