Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, January 17, 2000
Toronto -- In the 1950s, there was a story about a late distinguished scientist who had taken to walking around in enormously oversized boots for fear of falling through the interstices of that largely empty molecular space that we common folk, in our folly, call the real world.
For him, the awe-inspiring movement of his thoughts had become a rushing cloud of electrons interspersed with the light-year distances that obtain between us and the farther galaxies. This was the world the great physicist had discovered, in which now he had found himself so irrationally a prisoner.
Real and unreal are a magician's words. It is the great triumph of science that it has extended our vision of the real beyond our senses a millionfold, a billionfold, and has named it the natural world.
To strive to know the real -- in nature as much as in one's mind -- is at the root of all knowledge. "From the unreal, lead me to the real," the Upanishadic sages invoked 3,000 years ago. And William Blake, as he railed against Isaac Newton's single vision, wrote in the 18th century: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks in his cavern."
For many, this knowledge of the poets and seers is nothing but mystical mumbo jumbo.
Both Marx and Freud, even as they themselves grappled to define what is real, dismissed it as mere phantoms of the mind. For many moderns, anything that smacks of religion creates revulsion and images of fanaticism and dogma. Anything religious seems certainly unscientific.
This clash came to the fore once again recently when the Kansas Board of Education voted to ban the teaching of Darwinian evolution in its schools. Earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had decided that creationism, since it was a religious belief, is not to be taught in schools either. And thus the cold war -- and not always so cold, either -- continues between evolution and creationism, and between science and religion.
Even today, no more than 10 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution; certainly not many, even among them, understand it very much. Many others may reject creationism as incredible but nevertheless feel a deep-seated disquiet about all that evolution proclaims.
For evolutionists, however, as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins puts it: "Darwin provides a solution, the only feasible one so far suggested, to the deep problem of our existence. . . . We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man?"
After posing the last three questions, he tells us, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson concluded that all attempts to answer them before 1859 -- when On the Origin of Species was published -- were "worthless" and that "we will be better off if we ignore them completely."
So there goes, in one swoop, Shakespeare, Dante and Lao-Tzu. To my mind, Darwin never addressed the questions: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? But many scientists believe that these questions, if indeed not all questions, can be answered only by science, through rational thought alone.
"Reason is only reason," Fyodor Dostoevsky, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, wrote, "and it satisfies only man's reasoning capacity, which may amount to only one-20th of his entire capacity to live."
And at the dawn of the Age of Reason, in the 17th century, Blaise Pascal had observed: "There are two equally dangerous extremes: to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in."
The theory of evolution, with massive evidence, has proved that life has evolved without any design, and hence without a designer. Refuting earlier Christian assertions of the presence of a designer, Dr. Dawkins insists that "natural selection -- the blind, unconscious, automatic process that Darwin discovered, and that we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life -- has no purpose in mind. It has no mind, and no mind's eye."
And Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod echoed the existential despair when he wrote in Chance and Necessity that man "knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance."
Everything in our lives, and our history reminds us -- unless we choose to be prisoners in the unnatural world of science, like the physicist with enormous boots -- that we humans live in the hope of discovering some meaning, if not necessarily in the vast world out there, then in our own lives. Down here.
We are dream animals, nourished and haunted by our dreams that are in and out of nature. And that is our glory and our torment.
A creature who dreams outside of nature, but is at the same time circumscribed by its laws, has acquired, in the words of the psychiatrist Leonard Sillman, "one of the cruellest and most generous endowments ever given to a species of life by a mysterious providence."
Adaptation. Survival. Struggle. Natural laws. This is your star, says science. Accept the world as we describe it to you.
But the escaping human mind cries out, in the words of the writer G. K. Chesterton: "We have come to the wrong star. . . . This is what makes life at once so splendid and so strange. The true happiness is that we don't fit. We come from somewhere else. We have lost our way."
If we leave aside the Book of Genesis for a moment, and look, instead, at the Book of Job, we move closer to the spiritual yearnings of the human soul. There we discover that science and evolution are suddenly struck with silence; they have no answers to give to Job. Or to Arjuna. Or to Sisyphus.
When we reflect on the nature of suffering, and inquire about compassion and love, and about meaning and purpose -- as much in our own lives as in the universe -- and about grace and forgiveness, no answers leap from under the electron microscope. These answers are sought, if they are sought at all, in the words of James Joyce, "in the smithy of one's own soul."
In this smithy -- the ground of our being -- science and spirit, and reason and all other stirrings of life, walk hand in hand, groping for the way.
Here science, music, poetry and a thousand other subtle mysteries of being and becoming that are present at every moment of our lives are woven together in the grand tapestry we call reality. In the 17th century, in his difficult days, Galileo pleaded with the church that "scriptures tell you only how to go to heaven, not how heavens go." Today, we are left pleading with science that it informs us only how heavens go and not how to go to heaven.
Learning to go to heaven -- the arduous re-creation of good, blessed life -- and to discover the nature of the Wizard of Oz, remain as elusive today as ever.
It is a perennial voyage for all of us dream animals.
In this voyage, science can be our companion but we need to plead with it -- with its dogmatic face and its expensive instruments -- that the miracle of the Big Bang that is said to lay at the throbbing heart of the universe in fact repeats itself continually in the cloudland of our thoughts and our dreams here on tiny Earth.
And the black hole and the selfish gene in our hearts threaten our existence as surely as anything in the outer space or in the innards of an organism.
"Nature is a wizard," Henry David Thoreau once remarked. He meant, I believe, that nature -- like the wizard and like our minds -- is not all natural. His mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson -- also a contemporary of Darwin -- insisted that the "very design of imagination is to domesticate us in another, a celestial nature."
We have walked on the yellow road with science to see the wizard for more than four centuries. It has been a good journey, and we have seen many awesome sights on the way. Who the real wizard is remains a mystery. To unravel that mystery, I have reason to believe, we need a different set of instruments and a different pair of eyes than what science can give us. It is not to belittle the grand enterprise of science but only to suggest that without visionary imagination, no theory, nor any facts, have much meaning.
Let me look from the corner of my eye yet again and hope, with G. K. Chesterton, that "if a seed in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?"
It is my hope that this is the real miracle of evolution.
Sehdev Kumar is a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, where he teaches environmental studies.