May 26, 2010

Sweet Home, America

(Click on the box to see the whole thing, if necessary.) Oddly enough, for such a hip, urban, secular guy (I don't care what you think, I was describing me), I'm originally from Alabama, the Heart of Dixie, as was my mother and a bunch of ancestors before me. Where the magnolias bloom and the oil-soaked waves gently lap the shore in Mobile. However, I've been in California since the age of six months or so (with a brief timeout in Denver, CO), so I don't retain much in the way of Southernness. Goes to show the power of acculturation; I've got all these wacky ideas most closely associated with Northern California, which for many people in the USA may as well be an alternate universe. We think differently out here, that's for sure, and the gap widens as time passes.

Changes occur to the whole country over time, of course. I'm old enough to descry significant changes in American culture which have occurred over my lifetime, brief as it's been. Sometimes such moments of recognition happen when I'm reading a book written during my time here on Earth but from a significantly different era, such as the Fifties or Sixties. These can be good sources of comparison, more reliable than a contemporary book written about the same era, because a modern writer is influenced by his immediate environment. I have a lot of old books around the house which have somehow managed to survive my periodic purges, which take the form of (a) throwing away (recycling), (b) lending and never seeing again, and (c) donating to the local public library. I found one the other day by Richard Feynman called The Meaning of It All, actually a transcribed series of lectures (the John Danz Lectures) given in April, 1963, which Professor Feynman gave at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Feynman's reference to the "meaning of it all" should be taken literally: that's what he was talking about, life's meaning. In his characteristic no-nonsense, colloquial, simple (yet profoundly deep) way, Feynman spoke about the effect of science education on belief in God. Feynam was an atheist, but he had no difficulty accepting religious belief in others. He did share some of the attitudes of the modern "atheist movement" (Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris), but he didn't get too worked up about it. He saw religion's pernicious qualities, its tendency to encourage dogmatic irrationality, pogroms, the Inquisition, religious wars, et cetera, but he was not on a crusade. It's amusing to wonder whether he would have the same equanimity now.

Anyway, in his usual brilliant way, Feynman describes what happens to the thinking of an intelligent person when he encounters formal scientific education at the college level. He first learns the advantage of doubt and skepticism in general, as necessary for scientific thinking. The tentative nature of theory and hypothesis, epistemological uncertainty in general. This creates a scientific "attitude" of questioning everything, even religious beliefs. The student then learns about the actual structure of the Universe, the speck of dust on which humans live, our similarity to animals (and to plants, such as the benzene ring found in chlorophyll, the benzene ring found in hemoglobin), the fact that our speck of dust orbits one star among billions of such stars in our own galaxy, and that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of many billions of galaxies in the known Universe...and the student begins to wonder, wasn't this a rather complicated arrangement for Somebody to put together if the whole thing is just about humans? Doesn't the religious view make more sense as the anthropocentric (not that Feynman would ever use such a ten dollar word) conceit of primitives who didn't know about all this other stuff?

I didn't know exactly what was going on in my own mind when I traveled that journey myself, but that describes pretty well how it all happened I think. Feynman concluded part of the lectures by saying, "There was another tremendous argument when it was found likely that man descended from the animals. Most religions have retreated once again from the metaphysical position that it wasn't true."

April, 1963. I think it's important to note the month, because all of us who were alive and cognizant of what was going on at the time remember what happened about 7 months later. That was a watershed in American history. I don't think the country was ever the same after the Kennedy assassination. In some ways, I think the whole Kennedy conspiracy industry is an unconscious revolt at the idea it can be explained as the act of one madman, because the effects were too momentous. A pall hung over the nation, a pall that has never really lifted. Before Kennedy died, the country was in its stride; after...not so much.

I think Richard Feynman might be surprised to see the rise of Obscurantism in modern American society. When you analyze the Pew Poll above, you come away with the dismal realization that today, 2010, only about 26% of all Americans actually subscribe to the sunny generalization in Feynman's lecture. 74% of Americans do not believe in a straight-up, secular, scientific belief in human evolution occurring through random mutation and adaptation. States want to outlaw its teaching in schools, or "supplement" it with education in Intelligent Design or Creationism. A sea change has occurred in America since April, 1963, and I don't know how to describe it exactly, but it is definitely a movement away from the scientific Enlightenment that Richard Feynman was talking about. It is a rejection of (or reflects the inadequacy of) American education in general, and a popular movement toward superstition and myth. History counsels us that such things usually don't end particularly well.

1 comment:

  1. hammerud5:17 PM

    The problem with the theory of evolution from a scientific perspective is that probability science reveals that what is purported to have happened could not have happened. Lecomte duNouy, a French evolutionary scientist, Nobel Prize winner, and expert at probability science, said that anything whose probabilities are less than ten to the fiftieth power will never happen (10 to the 50th power is about the number of electrons in the universe). Sir Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University, a renowned scientist, examined the probability of a living cell arising spontaneously at ten to the 40,000th power. Scripture does mention "willful ignorance" and "oppositions of science falsely so called." The complexities we can see infer God (Romans 1:20), not random chance; but, as Scripture states, many of us "have eyes to see, but don't see."