Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Raptured by fact

Why are the ancient stories so resilient in the face of the overwhelming practical success of science?

An obvious answer: Because the ancient stories promise that death is not final.

Then there's the possibility of habituation: We adhere to the traditions we grew up in. The overwhelming number of Christians, for example, would almost certainly be Muslims had they been born and raised in Qom, Iran. Once a story of "how things are" gets tangled in the neurons of the brain, it's a devil of a time to shake it free.

Add to this the solace of believing that the creator of 100 billion galaxies has me -- yes, me personally -- in mind. It's like getting a birthday card from President Obama ("Good luck, Chet. I'm thinking of you on your special day."), except in spades.

And so on. All of this against a one-size-fits-all scientific story of how things are that is hard to understand in its details and sets us adrift in an (effectively) infinite universe with no one to man the oars but ourselves.

But let me put a more congenial spin on it. We are curious creatures by nature. We want answers to the Big Questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? (That is to say, why are the laws of physics what they are?) How did life begin? What is consciousness? These are fair questions. They are among the biggest questions we can ask. The fact that we ask them is a defining characteristic of our species.

The ancient stories of how things are provide answers -- anthropomorphic, animistic, artificialist -- stories that are satisfyingly easy to understand because they mirror our sense of self.

The scientific story doesn't provide answers, at least not yet and maybe never.

Which brings me back to Ursula Goodenough; "The realization that I needn't have answers to the Big Questions, needn't seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany," she writes. It is, in fact, a kind of liberation -- freedom from thrall to the Big Questions -- liberation to revel in the pure "is-ness" of creation, the inexhaustible miracle of the here and now. But "is-ness," in all of it depths and dimensions, requires attention, study, and a certain poetic openness to particulars -- the flower in the crannied wall, the grain of sand. Which is why the scientific story of how things are will not replace religious myths that are there for the effortless taking.