Saturday, November 14, 2009

A drum roll, please...

The great advantage of belonging to a literate civilization is not having to rely entirely on one's self to make one's way through the world.

Each of us, on our own, will most likely follow the path of least resistance, the one laid down for us by our parents, neighbors and teachers. And nothing wrong with that; respect for the wisdom of elders is surely a beneficial attribute.

It can also be parochial. In matters of religion, for example, the vast majority of people believe the religion of their parents or culture to be "the true faith." In politics, too, we are influenced by our early experience, although perhaps not to the same extent as in religion. It's conceivable that a tendency toward liberalism or conservatism might be genetic, but that too links us in an "accidental" way to our immediate predecessors.

I don't doubt for a minute that if I were born of other parents in another culture I would be writing a very different sort of blog.

But here I sit in an excellent collegiate library, surrounded by many thousands of books offering the best (and some of the worst) of civilization. Not just Western civilization, but a substantial component of other civilizations from around the globe. And from this wealth of learning I piece together a world view, shaped, inevitably, from the clay of my origins. Liberal, Roman Catholic, agnostic, rational, romantic, naturalistic -- and informed by the only tradition I have recognized that is based on voluntary consensus-building and systematically applied doubt. Science.

I voluntarily surrender some measure of my intellectual autonomy to a tradition that seems to have served humankind well. Galen. Lucretius. Galileo. Boyle. Faraday. Maxwell. Pasteur. Curie. Einstein. Salk. McClintock. Watson and Crick. Their story is cumulative, it builds like a drum roll, it is measured constantly against empirical experience, its "proof" is the stunning successes of science, medicine and technology.

Yes, I recognize and freely confess that who I am is in some measure who I was, and I know too that science is not a sufficient guide to life. But I am careful to hew to both the letter and the spirit of the scientific way of knowing. Not because I concede to dogma, or because I scorn my origins, or because I lack confidence in myself, but because I am gifted by a literate civilization with the greatest minds of a grand tradition.