Saturday, March 06, 2010

"Upon this chaos rode the distressed ark"

I've been reading Stephen Baxter's Ages In Chaos, the story of James Hutton and the discovery of geologic time. As someone who has studied and taught this stuff for half a century, there is not much in the book that I don't already know. It strikes me, however, that the book is not so much an account of the discovery of geologic time as it is the story of how Europeans escaped from the intellectual shackles of the Scriptures.

Leonardo, Bacon, Steno, Burnet, Buffon: All grappled with the problem of how to make the evidence of their senses conform to the ancient stories and myths of prescientific peoples -- stories and myths that had been ordained the inerrant word of God by the Christian church. The intellectual acrobatics necessary to stay on the right side of orthodoxy were sometimes ludicrous, but try they did. It wasn't until the time of Hutton, Lyell and Darwin that the senses finally trumped Scriptures as the arbiter of truth.

Today, within the scientific community at least, it seems obvious that what presents itself to the senses -- the fossils, the folded strata, the faults and unconformities -- tell a more reliable story of the Earth than the utterly typical imaginings of peoples who lived in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Indeed, it seems so obvious that one wonders how the ancient books were ever considered to be divine communications. But of course, not a lot has changed. The majority of peoples in the world continue to put their faith in scriptures -- the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc. -- even when it requires rejecting the knowledge so painstakingly wrested from nature by Hutton, Lyell and Darwin.

Why? Is it that we like immutable certainty? Do we prefer the ancient stories because we like to believe that the creator of the universe has me -- yes, me -- constantly in mind? Is it the privilege of belonging to a chosen people -- God's in-crowd? Is it the irresistible attraction of immortality?

Who knows? Perhaps a bit of all. Whatever the reason, those of us who accept with gratitude the liberating efforts of Hutton and company find in the new empirical stories a cosmic vista of unsurpassed grandeur -- even if it means foregoing the notion that we possess the Truth and will live forever.