Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Sleep of Monsters Engenders Reason

The latter half of Ursula Le Guin's Words Are My Matter consists of book reviews, which are well-written and sympathetic, pointing me to several books and writers I want to check out.  (Just what I need, as I sink slowly but inexorably in an ocean of unread books.)  One, on Salman Rushdie's 2014 novel The Enchantress of Florence, harks back to some of the cliches Le Guin recycled in her discussion of literature more generally.

Apparently The Enchantress of Florence is a quasi-historical fantasy centering on the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar I, whom Rushdie uses as a ventriloquist's dummy for his own views.  As Le Guin describes it:
Akbar is the moral center of the book, its center of gravity, and provides its strongest link to the issues which have concerned Salman Rushdie in his works and his life.  It all comes down to the question of responsibility.  Akbar's objection to God is "that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves."  The curious notion that without religion we have no morals has seldom been dismissed with such quiet good humor.  Rushdie leaves ranting to the fanatics who fear him.
This is another example of an attitude that has long baffled me as an atheist.  Since God does not exist and is a human invention, he could hardly have "deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves."  (If God did exist, perhaps it would be a different situation, but I'm not sure Akbar-Rushdie would be right even so.)  In fact, human beings did "form ethical structures by themselves," and since they couldn't really prove that they had any authority, they invented God and ascribed those structures to him.  But it isn't necessary to invoke God for this evasion of responsibility.  People can also claim that Logic or Reason or Science tells us what is right, and the humble servants of those principles will gladly act as their spokespersons and enforcers, asking (as Woody Allen once said of the religious) only a small contribution to cover their time and paperwork.

Le Guin (who, for someone who claims to dislike preaching and didacticism in literature, sure seems to tolerate a lot of it in Rushdie) continues:
Some boast that science has ousted the incomprehensible, others cry that science has driven magic out of the world and plead for "reenchantment."  But it's clear that Charles Darwin lived in as wondrous a world, as full of discoveries, amazements, and profound mysteries, as that of any fantasist.  The people who disenchant the world are not the scientists, but those who see it as meaningless in itself, a machine operated by a deity.  Science and literary fantasy are intellectually incompatible, yet both describe the world. The imagination functions actively in both modes, seeking meaning, and wins intellectual consent through strict attention to detail and coherence of thought, whether one is describing a beetle or an enchantress.  Religion, which prescribes and proscribes, is irreconcilable with both of them, and since it demands belief, must shun their common ground, imagination.  So the true believer must condemn both Darwin and Rushdie as "disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic" dissidents from revealed truth.
I'm sympathetic to some of this.  After all, I once wrote:
Personally, I’m tired of hearing believers in various kinds of spirituality sneering at atheists like me as humorless, literal-minded killjoys who want to reduce the mystery and beauty of the universe to a mindless, soulless machine. As far as I can see, it is the believers who hate mystery: they have to an explanation for everything, and their explanations have all the poetry and beauty of the Los Angeles phone directory. They spit on the loveliness of the human body because it isn’t eternal – when it is beautiful precisely because it isn’t eternal. They despise the material world because they can’t see the soul in it. And their attempts to find an underlying justice in the tragic fragility and brevity of life end up reading like operating manuals for a concentration camp.
And I stand by that: I was, like Le Guin, describing a real problem.  But I made the same rhetorical mistake here that Le Guin did: equating "religion" and "believers" with one aspect and faction of religion and believers.  Religion (like science) is a complex historical and cultural phenomenon that contains opposing tendencies.  Religion also includes "literary fantasy," also known as mythology, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Homer to the Mahabarata to the Hebrew Bible and the fan fiction of the New Testament gospels.  It can also involve "strict attention to detail and coherence of thought," as in the Talmuds, some of the Hindu scriptures, or Thomas Aquinas.

Contrariwise, scientists often demand obedience to their authority, and massive public funding for their pastimes.  Just a few billions for their time, their toys, and their paperwork.  They prescribe and proscribe, and "disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic" troublemakers arouse their wrath just as it arouses the mullahs'.  (Cf. Edward O. Wilson's "multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism," and Richard Dawkins's complaint that the philosopher Mary Midgley had been mean to him: her "highly intemperate and vicious paper" was "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic."  Like any indignant archmandrite, Dawkins indulged in a wee white lie, claiming that Midgley hadn't read The Selfish Gene before she wrote about it.  Scientists also indulge in what might be called "literary fantasy" if you're feeling charitable.  No, not all of them do all these things, but those who do seldom get into trouble for it.  And neither do all religious believers do these things.

Whether we work in literature or other arts, science, religion, or philosophy, I think we'd do best to recall the simile ascribed to Isaac Newton:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Religion, science, literature, and ethics are not distinct, sharply bounded domains.  They overlap.  What we don't know may not always be vastly greater than what we do know, but we're in no danger of reversing the proportions in the foreseeable future, and we'd do well to keep that in mind.  Twenty years ago a writer named John Horgan wrote a book, The End of Science, arguing that there would be no further "great 'revelations or revolutions'—no insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang."  He still believes this, as he explains in a blog post for Scientific American.  I was intrigued but not really persuaded by the book, but it is interesting to consider the possibility that human brains have limits that will forestall learning much more than we know now.  If nothing else, the storm of hostile responses Horgan received shows the limits of many scientists' rationalism.

What is going on here, I think, is a version of what Walter Kaufmann called the exegetical fantasy, though it could be called God (or Nature or Law or Mughal emperor) as sock-puppet: one reads one's ideas or beliefs into the universe, and gets them back endowed with authority.  If you've got good arguments and evidence, you don't need authority, and if you don't, no amount of authority will be enough.