Why Not in Wonderland?

Some Thoughts Upon Reading I Have Landed by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony Books, 2002)

Once again, I have taken up a book of Stephen Jay Gould's essays. There is no doubt that he was one of the best essayists of our times, writing with humor, intelligence and feeling, But there is one theme that comes up far too often in his later essays to be ignored. This theme is best summarized in his own words: "these two great tools of human understanding [science and religion] operate in a complementary (not contrary) fashion in their totally separate realms: science as an inquiry about the factual state of the natural world, religion as a search for spiritual meaning and ethical values." (p. 214)

I am not interested in going to my critique of science just yet, but I do want to mention one of its central themes, since it has some relevance to my present argument. The early developers of modern science in the West (Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Newton, ...) were all christians. They founded their scientific endeavor on a religious basis: the idea that, since the universe was created by god, it must operate on universal natural laws. It would require another long essay to even began to examine all the implications of this assumption that underlies modern science.

What I want to examine right now are the false premises by which Gould's liberal tolerance led him to uphold an institution that has long since proved itself to be a tool ofdomination, oppression and forced ignorance as a source of spiritual and ethical guidance.

First of all, Gould simply accepts compartmentalization, specialization and the division of social life and knowledge into separate spheres as a given. He doesn't show any sign of recognizing the historical nature of this division. If certain social divisions can be traced back to the origins of civilizations, the compartmentalization of knowledge is a modern phenomenon--as mentioned above, at the time modern science arose, religious concepts were integral to its birth. Though Gould doesn't recognize the religious nature of the concept of universal natural laws, he does recognize this concept as the assumed foundation upon which modern science operates. Even starting from this foundation, modern science has undermined the necessity for god. But once god is gone, there is no more basis for assuming that there are universal natural laws. Thus, modern science, by undermining the foundations of religion, has brought its own foundations into question.

From its origins until the beginning of the modern era, religion has not been a separate sphere within social life, but rather the system of beliefs essential for upholding a society and its institutions in the minds of those who make up that society. As such, it has never been a search for spiritual meaning and ethical values, but rather the imposition of a spiritual and moral conception of the world that upholds the values of the rulers of a society. Etymologically, religion refers to a joining back together of things that have been separated. A lot of silly things have been said about this, but I think that it is best understood if we look at the social divisions that occurred at about the time religion arose. This was when society divided into classes, wealth and power getting concentrated into the hands of a few who lorded it over the rest. In such a situation, conflict was inevitable. The task of religion was to create social unity through the imposition of a concept of life that justified existing social relationships and a morality that supported submission to one's social superiors. It reunited society precisely by naturalizing its divisions. Thus, it originated as a tool for justifying domination, exploitation and oppression, and for keeping the exploited classes in ignorance. As an imposed answer, it left no place for searching.

In fact, the association of religion with a search for spiritual meaning is a phenomenon of the modern era. In earlier times, where such a search has arisen, it has been a questioning of or a rebellion against religion--in the form of heresy, philosophy, sorcery, alchemy, poetry... As such, the search was an ongoing process that was able to free ethics from the set rules of morality. But the linking of the search for spiritual meaning to religion that began with the protestant Reformation was not an equation of the two. Rather, protestantism individualized religious conversion, making it a personal, voluntary decision. Thus, religion was not itself a spiritual search, but was rather the answer to be found at the end of one's spiritual search. It brought the search to an end. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is a literary description of this process.

Religion was never intended to be a "separate realm" among specializations. It was meant to be a total worldview, encompassing all knowledge. We know that it has failed completely in providing an understanding of "the factual state of the natural world". This is because it is by its nature a closed system of understanding, a final answer. How can we think that it would do any better as a guide in the "search for spiritual meaning and ethical values". Gould should have been able to see that in places where religious thought continues to be strong, a nuanced approach to meaning and an open exploration of ethical questions get suppressed along with the free exploration of the natural world. The acceptance of evolution in Europe has gone hand-in-hand with a decline in religiosity and with an exploration of other sources of meaning and ethical values. Where religion is having a resurgence in Europe, it is generally tied to a resurgence of racism, sexism. national chauvinism and frequently even blatant fascism. Put bluntly, religion has repeatedly proven itself to be as worthless in the search for spiritual meaning and ethical values as it is in inquiries about the ways that the natural world functions. How could it be otherwise when it originated as a tool of the ruling class for suppressing free exploration. I can't help but wonder how someone as erudite as Gould, with a broad knowledge of cultural and creative phenomena, could have failed to notice a delightfully open-ended realm for exploring what he calls "spiritual values".* I am speaking of the realm of poetic wonder.

As far as anyone can tell, human beings have never encountered the world around them in a purely utilitarian way. There is a basic human interaction with "nature" that has been called the marvelous, poetic wonder, etc. Religion and myth spring out of social necessity and are, thus, utilitarian in nature, Poetic wonder is evoked by the encounter of the unique indiviudal with external and internal nature. It is the process of making the world one's own. The origin of poetic wonder in the individual and her specific, unique encounters guarantees its openness . Once it gets transformed into a closed system, the poetry and the wonder wither. But its openness, its basis in the unique individual and its relational quality make it an ideal basis for an ever-changing, expanding, exploratory and experimental source of meaning and values, a true terrain for an ongoing search, always satisfying, but never satisfied.

Unlike religion, poetic wonder is grounded in the material world. It does not push wonder, joy and ecstasy into an invisible realm but rather bases them in concrete relationships that we develop here. Certainly, these relationships can spark imagination, the capacity to see beyond what is here, but this "beyond" is not a separate realm, but rather an expression of possibilities, whether those of the world or of our own minds. William Blake said it well in "Auguries of Innocence":

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

This relationship has also been describes like this: "We can term a relationship with (external or internal) nature one of 'wonder' if it does not reproduce nature or the individuals who are involved in it". Here we see the non-utilitarian nature of this relationship. The description continues: "By integrating nature as an element of their unique individuality, individuals make another reality appear, one which is not a social reality, but rather their own reality. Constantly hidden behind the former, the latter reality cannot appear when the realistic criteria inherent in every society are in place, but only as a sense of wonder that is more or less poetic." This essentially individual nature of poetic wonder, its opposition to social realism, is of major importance in terms of the question of the creation of meaning and, consequently of ethical values.

There is no evidence that the universe or life have any inherent, universal meaning. Rather it seems that all existence is contingent, an accident. Thus, any meaning that exists is created by accidental beings; it is contingent. Socially created meaning will direct itself toward maintaining the society from which it springs. Thus, it will tend to present itself as universal and constant, as inherent in the structure of nature, rather than as contigent and historical. This is religion, and obviously it tends toward dogma and the perception of ethical values as absolute and universal moral laws. On the other hand, when individuals take the creation of meaning into their own hands, its contigent and relational nature becomes evident. This creation is never completed, but is a continual search, an ongoing journey. It doesn't rest upon belief, upon faith, but rather on exploration, experimentation and questioning.

Social meaning, in the form of religion or, in modern times, ideology, demands absolute acceptance. But it is not capable of satisfying. This is why it must be accepted by faith, as a belief. Its promise will be fulfilled in the future--perhaps of an afterlife, perhaps in a future "realization" of history....

The search for meaning on the individual level, in poetic wonder, makes no promise of ultimate satisfaction, of providing a final answer. Paradoxically, precisely for this reason, it is immediately satisfying, encompassing a fullness of the moment that transforms that moment into an eternity. When I taste the minty iciness of the full moon, drink the warm, golden sweetness of the sun, feel soaring, wild freedom of the hawk running through my veins, in that moment I feel an overflowing fullness, an expansive generosity that needs no tomorrow. And yet, I gladly embrace tomorrow, precisely because it allows me to express my generosity, to empty myself and fill myself back up again...

In saying this though, I don't want to be misunderstood as denying the existence of an objective realm. The relational nature of poetic wonder has its basis in the fact that it is an encounter with an outside.** This outside has traits about which human beings can develop a shared understanding--if they can overcome the social biases that assume "universality" for a specific society. This is the realm of that which Gould calls "the factual state of the natural world"--the realm he grants to science.

As I pointed out above, modern science has its foundations in an essentially religious concept: the idea of universal natural laws. This idea has its origins in the belief that a divine person created the universe and inscribed such laws into it. It was made the basis of modern science, because the early modern scientists of the Renaissance were good christians, and the methods of science had to have some assumed foundation from which to operate if they were going to be able to create a usable understanding of the world. The transformation of god into universal Reason in the Enlightenment was simply a secularization of the christian concept, not its eradication.

Despite the fact that modern science has its foundation in an assumption that originates in the closed system of religion, its method of operation, at least ideally,***--observation and experimentation--is supposed to be open-ended, encouraging ongoing exploration. But its grounding in a basically closed conception of how the universe operates (and its dependence upon funding from the state and corporations) keeps this exploration within specific boundaries, preventing scientists from seeing certain uncomfortable realities.

This leaves me to wonder how one might explore the objective realm, the external reality that we all encounter, developing methods of observation and experimentation that operate from a different basis, an open, poetic and relational basis.

The most essential change this would make is that it would do away with the concept of universal, rational natural laws, and with it the essentially quantified, mechanistic view of the world. This does not throw the universe into a state of absolute contingency, of total randomness, but it does significantly increase the importance of contigency, of the element of chance, in the world we encounter. But as in human relationships, in the relationships that make up the universe in which we live, there are habits, general tendencies, ways things usually go, and there are qualities inherent to certain beings and relationships--qualities that define them. But these are not laws; they are traits, characteristics, relational forms that belong to the beings involved in the particular relationships, not to the universe. We can certainly come to understand such qualities through observation and experimentation, but through a different sort of observation and experimentation: one in which we make no pretense of being objective, of being an external spectator, but rather passionately encounter the beings of this world, immersing ourselves fully into the life of our world, which would then appear to us as a Wonderland.


* I am not convinced that there is any reason to use the term "spiritual" in any positive sense anymore. It is no longer necessary, if it ever was, to turn to god or a spiritual realm to explain any reality we encounter. If we continue to use to speak of "spirituality" or "spiritual meaning' in any positive sense,it is necessary to create clear, new meanings for these terms that wrench them from their religious significance with its assumption of a separate spiritual realm. I personal prefer to find other words that don't have such implications. Like the marvelous, the poetic, wonder....

** This opens questions relating to the nature of the external and the internal, and of consciousness as the place where the two meet.

***Thomas Kuhn and other recent philosophers of science have shown how science generally operates as a closed system, requiring ruptures to create openings for new ideas and information to get in.