Filed in Science

The Transcendent Imperative

At a time when our spiritual traditions struggle to remain relevant in a culture dominated by scientific materialism, Andrew Cooper considers the pros and cons of a new religious model based on the psychology of “flow.”

Andrew Cooper

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Another problem has to do with the nature of scientific knowledge itself. A Haitian adage says, “When the anthropologists arrive, the gods depart.” Science is our world’s most powerful form of knowledge, but despite its pretensions to the contrary, it is not impartial, nor is it free from the values of the culture from which it emerged. Science is an epistemic stance, one that makes possible certain types of reflection and knowledge even as it ignores others. As a mode of understanding the world, science places primary value on explanatory knowledge. This is quite inimical to a mythic stance, which holds that the world is disclosed most meaningfully in its mystery. Mythic consciousness demands that certain things—sacred things—be approached not with the distance of disinterested scrutiny but in a spirit of faith. Otherwise, the gods depart.

Then, too, there is the thorny issue of direction in evolution. The late Stephen Jay Gould, who was perhaps America’s most eminent evolutionary thinker, pointed out that, beginning with Darwin himself, evolutionists have distinguished between the fact that evolution has occurred and the theories advanced about how it has occurred. Gould himself rejected the idea that evolution possesses a sensible directionality leading toward complexity, dismissing such notions as “spin-doctored” views designed to bolster our sense of human importance: there is no directionality, in other words, just adaptation.

The issue is, for now, not resolvable, and in fact, it may stay that way. Complexity seems to be a sound and elegant interpretation of what we know, but accepting it or rejecting it is a choice. In this regard, then, it is, ironically, a kind of faith. And if we set aside arguments about competing theories of evolution, the power of the idea remains, for evolution is the modern creation story.

We humans, being the story-telling creatures we are, live and make sense of the world by means of the stories we tell about it. In placing flow within the context of evolution, Csikszentmihalyi is following a tradition, going back to prehistory, of linking human purpose to the larger designs of the cosmos. Thus the story of who we are and the story of what the universe is are bound together. But the fit is still a bit uneasy.

The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal was, it has been said, the first in the West to recognize the severity of the religious implications of the then-emerging scientific-rationalistic worldview. He wrote of the dread endemic to a world from which God was now hidden and which was thus emptied of meaning. In such a world, religious faith was a kind of wager, a leap into the unknown. But, Pascal asserted, having made that leap, an individual would find that his or her faith would, in turn, be ratified. However different our world may be from Pascal’s, his wager is still our own.

The tension between the scientific and religious descriptions of the world is still acute. Science and religion are still far from having worked out their troubled relationship, and the question remains whether and how they can. For some in both camps, the answer is that no rapprochement is possible, as the two ways of seeing the world are believed to be simply incompatible and incommensurate. Others suggest a kind of division of labor, in which each addresses a separate set of concerns. Some believe we can, and must, find our way to a broad synthesis, something new and whole, built on, yet fundamentally different from, what has come before. This last, perhaps the great intellectual and spiritual challenge of our time, is surely a resolution devoutly to be wished. But we have a long way to go.

Traditional religious mythologies imbued life with coherence and human activity with significance. But we now know that the truths they expressed were, at least for the most part, not literal but metaphoric. Truth in science is something quite different. Its objective is to explain the world, not to confer meaning upon it. The power of science comes from its adherence to fact; engendering resonant symbolic experience is simply not its concern. Given the constraints it necessarily places on imaginative activity, one must wonder whether science is, in itself, a sufficient basis for a rich and compelling narrative of human purpose.

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