Rethinking God’s Finger

 

sistine-chapel-ceiling-adam-and-god-michelangelo-the-creation-of-adam-genesis-god-art-poster-print-prynk-tattoo-1999423788Darwin's_finches_by_Gould

                                                    nasa black hole

Some  interesting things are going on out at the peripheries of the so-called sciences, the so-called humanities, and the so-called arts.  I say so-called because I think the distinctions, in many ways, lack a difference.  At least, that’s the way “they” should be conceptualized because considering them as separate creates an intellectual silo mentality, and a silo mentality restricts creativity.

 

Science is the process by which we seek a verifiable vision of the universe.  The humanities seek to understand humankind which, of course, is a part of the universe  – arising from the same creative force; presumably governed by the same set of laws.  And the arts  are individuals’ attempts to articulate a vision of some part of the universe. (By “universe” I mean the totality of reality – feelings, concepts, and abstractions as well as nuts, bolts and table legs.)  Art succeeds to the extent that it mirrors  the vision of the universe held by others.  As currently practiced, the methods used by the arts, the sciences and the humanities are different.  That is a large part of the problem.  But whether one  is walking, horseback riding, or sailing to Byzantium, the basic event is the same. One is questing Byzantium, whatever the mode of transportation.

 

But out at the edges the distinctions blur.  From the antiquities onward important geniuses have straddled disciplines.  One look at Da Vinci’s notebooks makes clear his identity as both artist and scientist.  Michelangelo was as much anatomist as sculptor.  And consider Herbert Melville and his masterpiece of whale biology and grand allegory.    

 

Lately, I’ve come across some fascinating modern examples of such hybrid vigor in the works of contemporary polymaths.   Missa Charles Darwin is a recent composition by Gregory Brown, written in liturgical polyphony and structured in the form of a traditional mass.   Music has long been a mainstay of religion – soaring melodies reverberating in the grand architecture of cathedrals, calls to prayer sung from minarets, gospel choirs – lyrics  relating ancient stories or prayers.  The text of Brown’s Missa, however, is mostly quotations from the writings of Charles Darwin. And the notes of the music actually follow the base sequences of segments of the DNA of one of Darwin’s finches! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3IsKOXjcbk The result harmonizes magnificently with that part of us yearning for spirituality.   Such use of music to underscore the awesomeness and wonder of Darwin’s idea – to “religiousize it” if you will – succeeds so brilliantly that the comments following one of its performances on Youtube include a barrage of hate and fury from the religious right as heated as the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Despite this vitriol, however the music critic of the San Diego Story writes, after hearing the piece, “I have heard a surfeit of contemporary sacred music, and no composer has impressed me more than Gregory Brown. A smart publishing house should toss him a hefty retainer and sign him up to a very long contract.
And there are similar things happening on the other side of the supposed art/science divide.  A group of molecular biologists at Harvard, recognizing the beauty and complexity of their field, have collaborated with some very talented visual artists and animators to create a stunning video of the dynamic chemistry of a cell.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/science/watch-proteins-do-the-jitterbug.html?hpw&rref=science&_r=0  The work is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and, perhaps to satisfy the “scientific” bent of that granting agency, its stated purpose is pedagogical. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that it could hold its own very nicely against many of the installations at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  Clearly it merits matching funds from the National Endowment For the Arts, bringing to life for the non-scientist  the wonder and awesomeness of  the inner workings of……well….. life.  Equally awe-inspiring is an animated reconstruction of an event at the other end of the size spectrum – a spectacular star/black hole encounter. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap151028.html Given the right frame of mind, NASA artists’ visualization of this event – usually “explained” in terms of the mind-bending language of quantum mechanics – rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for its power-driven beauty.  Not only that, but it has the advantage of being evidence-based!

And the scientific/literary interface is  yielding up some inspiring treasures as well.   Several years ago Alan Lightman – PhD. in Physics from Cal Tech and subsequently assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard – wrote Einstein’s Dreams a novel which became a runner-up for the 1994 L.L. Winship/PEN New England award.   Each chapter in this delightful little book features time behaving according to a set of laws different from the ones with which we are familiar.  As well as creating some thoroughly fascinating challenges for its lovable characters, the book manages  to imbue the reader with a much deeper grasp of the nature of this elusive entity.  

More recently, E.O. Wilson, after a distinguished career as a myrmecologist and evolutionary biologist, offered up a novel which made it to  number 35 on the NYTimes hardcover bestseller list.  Barbara Kingsolver, reviewing Anthill for the Times Book Section http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/books/review/Kingsolver-t.html wrote: “Scientists hardly ever write novels. Fabricating imaginary people is not the domain of the scientific method, to put it mildly. Constructing a plot, lacing it with clues to lead the reader to a well-prepared conclusion, is heretical business for those trained to unprejudiced observation. But any who take the leap may use their worldliness to good advantage, smuggling gems of empirical knowledge across the literary border to create fiction with unusually rewarding heft.”   Yes, “smuggling gems” across disciplinary borders – we need more of that.

We need more of this merging of silos.  Not just “interdisciplinary” work but broadened truth-seeking, rather than narrowed. More synthesis, less reductionism.  More Renaissance minds, less specialization.   More Da Vinci and his notebooks  – defining him as neither an artist or a scientist.

The greatest stories ever told in Western civilization are Genesis,  Exodus, the biography of Christ and the Quran.  These artistic, humanistic efforts were, like modern day science, an attempt to explain the universe and humanity as they were thought of at the time. As great stories, they have had phenomenal staying power but they are rooted in an understanding of the world which is literally millennia out of date.  And the greatest music ever written echoes these stories in one form or another.

But reality as we have come to understand it since these great stories were originally told has the potential for even greater stories, the potential to inspire even greater respect for the Great Power that set it all in motion.  And there’s another dimension. Given how much we now know that we couldn’t begin to have imagined back when those first great stories were told, it makes considerable sense, as we look forward into the future, to forsake the hubris of certitude and realize that there is a great deal more miraculous stuff still out there beyond the horizon of our current knowledge.

Just imagine Moses living today instead of 3500 years ago and now being the privileged recipient of the story of earth’s creation. A modern Moses would be well-aware of the overwhelming evidence that the earth is four and a half billion years old, would have already studied the fossil record of humankind, and already seen the remarkable images of the universe posted on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website.  Talk about miracles!  Those stories are so much richer than the deus ex machina trope of Genesis.  In the hands of an E.L.Doctorow, James Michener or some other equally talented writer perhaps the Gideon Society would even begin leaving copies of the new version of Genesis in motel rooms!  And even that story will no doubt merit rewriting within a matter of decades.

 

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Is Lightman in the Dark about Nature?

It’s distressing when you come across something written by one of your literary heroes and find you disagree with them entirely.  That happened to me the other day when I came across a piece by Alan Lightman in the May 2, 2014 New York Times called Our Lonely Home in Nature.

Lightman is a distinguished physicist  – and the first person to receive a professorship in both the sciences and the humanities at MIT. You may know him from a wonderful little book of his called Einstein‘s Dreams.   It became an international best seller back in the early ‘90’s and in it,  each chapter has time behaving in a different way.  Sometimes it moves at different rates for different people.  Sometimes it moves forward in fits and starts.  Sometimes it flows backwards.  You get the idea.  It is a wonderful book.

Early on in his NYTimes essay, Lightman and I are on the same page. For all of recorded history, he says, humankind has had a conflicted view of nature.  In ancient times, we made awesome and frightening gods of the natural elements.  But, “Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun?  Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur?…….In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities.”

If he had left it at that, he would still be one of my heroes, but he spoiled it all in the last few paragraphs.  Just because he and his wife have a close call while sailing during a storm, he goes way out on the wrong limb. “We are fooling ourselves”, he writes. “Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.  Nature is purposeless.”

To this I would respond, “Lightman doesn’t know what he’s talking about “ but I say this not in a way to put the distinguished professor down or make him out to be any less brilliant than he certainly is.  It’s not really his fault.  As I have argued in an earlier post ( “Nature” Doesn’t Do the Job), the fault lies with our language.

Lightman’s close call at sea was with the “nature” of natural selection.  Enough bad judgements about being out on the ocean in uncertain weather and that “nature” will gradually rejigger the genes involved in our species’ ability to asses risk.  But the thing which drew him out on the ocean in the first place had something to do with the elation he says he experienced:  the “nature” of vistas, mountains, soaring trees, birdsong.  And there are so many others.

Lightman says later on,  “We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept.”   How’s that again?  Our human constructions are mindless?  Or does our mind, being part of nature, make nature mindful?

I feel like I’m jogging on a Möbius strip.  And maybe that’s not a bad analogy. Maybe being on one side of the choice (Nature = Randomness) and being on the other side (Nature = Mindfuness) are really the same thing.  To stretch things a bit further let’s treat that as an algebra problem:  Randomness = Nature = Mindfulness.  Or…..Randomness = Mindfulness!  Wow!  That’s beginning to sound like another one of my previous posts ( Random:Thoughts).  But if you’re not mathematically inclined perhaps there’s another way of thinking about it.  If you accept your own thoughts as real and mindful and you accept that you are a small subpart of the natural universe then there you are.  There are at least sparks of mindfulness in nature.

Personally, I think those sparks are just part of a much larger conflagration. In fact if I try to let go of the idea that my species is the central entity of the cosmos (an idea which has led us astray more than once in the past) I start imagining my mindfulness as a temporarily detached bit of a much larger source of enlightenment.

But I’m straying from my story.  Eventually Lightman does redeem himself and I have to give him a lot of credit for where his essay ends up – even though I don’t like how he gets there.  For Lightman’s final point is that since “nature” is not about to look out in any special way for us humans and the things we value, we jolly well better look after ourselves.  And that means taking care of the planet we depend on for everything.