Linus’s blanket: scientists, scholars, and clinging to faith.

By on December 9, 2011

Several weeks ago, PZ Myers blogged about an article by Alan Lightman which stands as a classic example of the genre of writing in which educated, intelligent people complain about atheists and try to reconcile religion and science – usually, strangely enough, by claiming a sharp distinction between the two and thus insisting that the latter is not an appropriate tool to explore the former. (You would think this argument would enhance the idea that they are irreconcilable, but whatever.) You can read PZ’s post to further explore this problem.

However, I want to focus on one part of Lightman’s article, in which he discusses an intense, spiritual experience he had with baby ospreys. I will quote it in full to ensure that it is clear the type of narrative Lightman is weaving here:

Then, one August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I cannot explain what happened in that half-second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.”

I have no doubt that Lightman is sincere in this account, or that this experience touched him deeply. But what I do quibble with is his insistence that this event be interpreted outside the bounds of science – outside the bounds of known reality, in other words. Lightman says he “cannot explain” his experience – well perhaps it is just me, but didn’t he just explain it pretty well? Now I know he means that he cannot possibly inject the exact feeling and experience of that moment into our own consciousnesses, but this is a  common problem caused by the fact that we all have separate brains, not because the experience he was trying to convey has some particular quality that sets it apart from the rest of human experience. After all, is there anything that requires faith – anything even remotely supernatural – about the idea that we should share recognition and connection with our fellow animals? We are all animals, after all, and even Richard Dawkins – who Lightman of course singles out as one of the particularly Narrow Atheists – acknowledges that most animals most likely have some version of what we refer to as consciousness. As a lover of animals, I am in no way trying to diminish Lightman’s experience – but the very fact I have to defend myself against such an assumption is what I am so annoyed by. Why, for Christ’s sake, must intense, meaningful and profound experiences be cited and recounted as support for some obscure, nearly meaningless definition of “faith”? Why do we insist on this prejudice that to keep it within the bounds of known reality, we somehow diminish these experiences?

In asking this, I’m not claiming we know or understanding everything. To explore this point, let’s look at Lightman’s definition of faith: “Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves.” Really? Is that faith? Doesn’t faith require some version of belief, some commitment to an idea that something is actually out there or is predestined? Isn’t faith, not a lack thereof, really the act of presuming to know more than you do? After all, anyone who has ever loved has given themselves over to something “we do not fully understand” – likewise, anyone who participates in social movements gives themselves over to something larger than themselves, but I do not see how this requires having faith in any particular outcome for either of these scenarios.

To a large extent, we are dealing with a simple semantic confusion. When someone says, “I have faith in you,” they do not mean, “I know you will do the right thing/succeed regardless of the body of reality-based evidence around me” – they simply mean, “I have confidence in you,” and almost always, they have good reasons for this confidence. Such expressions of human experience, dipped deeply in our most intense and mystical emotions, often feel like they somehow argue for an unknowable realm of faith – but once you actually look at what is being expressed, there is no real need to resort to labeling these sentiments “faith.” But we love the idea of faith, it makes us feel so warm and cozy and safe – and people like Lightman think that to do away with a concept of faith, however meaningless and watered down it has become, is to do away with the emotions and experiences he likes to describe with the word faith. Thus they fight it, tooth and nail, and find faith-filled mysticism wherever they can, even if, because they are scientists and scholars, it has to retreat to the most obscure and inoffensively nontraditional of theological corners.

And for all that we do not understand, what is wrong with a simple “I don’t know”? Why must we always mystify the unknown, neutralize it and incorporate it into the “in some mystical way, actually known!” umbrella of faith? Isn’t it presuming more to label everything mysterious as that which requires faith to truly experience or appreciate?

All of which brings to mind Nietzsche, who I was blogging about several weeks ago. Nietzsche argues that the two-world metaphysic of Christianity has made it incredibly difficult for human beings to really grasp the idea that there is this world and only this world – that there is no purer, better version of the earth and all its forms floating around out there somewhere in the Platonic mist. (Nor, as Owen Gingerich argues in the same Lightman article, is the known universe somehow wrapped in a bigger, better supernatural universe; an example of clinging on to the two-world metaphysic no matter how ridiculous the postulations become par excellence.)  The consequence of this is that we cannot help but assume that to materialize something – to ground it firmly in this world – is to degrade it. It seems to me that this is the central assumption of assumptions behind Lightman’s arguments and all those sympathetic with saving space for faith: a purely materialistic word view would drain the world of magic and wonder, of mysticism and spiritual bliss.

Linus is really attached to his blanket. He kind of freaks out when you insist he can live without it. I think the analogy makes itself.

As an atheist prone to what I think most people would describe as “profound” experiences, this assumption is really starting to piss me off. I feel compelled to spell out my own experiences with the supposedly grand mystery of human experience – to relay to you the absolute connectedness, wholeness, and beauty I can experience at the hands of music, as just one example – the way in which electricity seems to bounce back and forth through the cores of my bones according to the melody and rhythm of a perfect musical piece, and how I even feel compelled to get down on my knees and assume a posture of worship, so complete and overwhelming is the intense joy – and then to insist that I never feel compelled to resort to anything I would call faith in order to appreciate and fully experience these moments and what they mean to me.

Those who cling to some idea of the divine, the supernatural, or “faith” usually argue that there is something arrogant about atheists insisting that the material world is all there is; and yet, I find something rather arrogant about these same believers in faith presuming that my experience of my own life is somehow limited or smaller due to my atheism and my materialism. But of course, that only makes sense – those who really have “faith” often presume to posses, in the name of a humble ignorance, an intimate knowledge of the lives and experiences of others.


It’s “Linus” and the blanket…
Just a quibble…

Robin Marie

Oh!, that would explain why I had such a hard time finding pictures! Thanks *so* much for the correction.

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