Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Milan Kundera on how we know what to want in life and love, Nietzsche on what it means to be a free spirit, Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing, an illustrated parable of how power changes us, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?” philosopher Rebecca Goldstein asked in contemplating how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of time. A little less than a century earlier, just as the theory of relativity was taking hold, Virginia Woolf articulated in exquisite prose what quantum physics sought to convey in equations – that thing we feel in our very bones, impervious to art or science, by virtue of being ephemeral creatures in a transient world.
That transcendent transience is what beloved musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith explores in M Train (public library) – a most unusual and breathtaking book: part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself.
A person possessing the rare gift of remaining radiant even in her melancholy, Smith grieves for her husband and her brother; she commemorates her great heroes, from friends like William S. Burroughs, who influenced her greatly, to kindred companions on the creative path across space and time like Frida Kahlo, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath; she even mourns the closing of the neighborhood café she frequented for more than a decade, one of those mundane anchors of constancy by which we hang on to existence.
The point, of course, is that each loss evokes all losses – a point Smith delivers with extraordinary elegance of prose and sincerity of spirit. What emerges is a strange and wonderful consolation for our inconsolable longing for permanency amid a universe driven by perpetual change and inevitable loss.
Frida Kahlo's bed (Photograph: Patti Smith)
The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.
But every transformation is invariably a loss, and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can be relished. The mystery of the continuity between the two – between our past and present selves – is one of the greatest perplexities of philosophy. Smith arrives at it with wistful wonderment as she contemplates the disorientation of aging, that ultimate horseman of terminal transformation:
I considered what it meant to be sixty-six. The same number as the original American highway, the celebrated Mother Road that George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, took as he tooled across the country in his Corvette, working on oil rigs and trawlers, breaking hearts and freeing junkies. Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell. I could feel my chronology mounting, snow approaching. I could feel the moon, but I could not see it. The sky was veiled with a heavy mist illuminated by the perpetual city lights. When I was a girl the night sky was a great map of constellations, a cornucopia spilling the crystalline dust of the Milky Way across its ebony expanse, layers of stars that I would deftly unfold in my mind. I noticed the threads on my dungarees straining across my protruding knees. I’m still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees...
The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that’s for sure.
Patti Smith, late 1970s
In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's thoughts on the fluidity of past and present, Smith considers what "real time" is:
Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.
One of William Blake's drawings for Milton's Paradise Lost
This dance with change on the precipice of past and present is perhaps why the weather plays such a recurring role throughout the book – weather changes are the most universally palpable of transformations, and at their most acute they augur loss. Smith writes about storms with a kind of primal awe – the blizzard that strikes as she and her husband leave the theater after seeing an Akira Kurosawa film on her fortieth birthday, having entered it under clear and sunny skies; the raging thunderstorm through which she returns home alone after her husband dies in a Detroit hospital, forty-five years after he was born in the midst of an electrical storm in his grandparents' kitchen; Hurricane Sandy, which devastates the Far Rockaways just as she has fallen in love with the community and purchased a ramshackle bungalow as her newfound sanctuary.
Recalling visiting her beloved Rockaways after the Sandy devastation, Smith captures the piercing impermanence that storms swirl us into contact with:
The great storm surges that flooded the streets had killed most of the vegetation. I inspected all that there was to see. The mildewed pasteboard walls forming small rooms had been gutted, opening onto a large room with the century-old vaulted ceiling intact, and rotted floors were being removed. I could feel progress and left with a bit of optimism. I sat on the makeshift step of what would be my refurbished porch and envisioned a yard with wildflowers. Anxious for some permanency, I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is.
Bungalow, Rockaway Beach (Photograph: Patti Smith)
Nothing encodes this temporal permanency more palpably than our treasured objects, imbued with memories and haunted by former versions of ourselves, and there is nothing we imbue with memory more intimately than the worn stories of our clothes. Like life itself, these wearable micro-museums of memory are woven of both love and loss. Smith captures this beautifully in the story of one such cherished possession:
I had a black coat. A poet gave it to me some years ago on my fifty-seventh birthday. It had been his – an ill-fitting, unlined Comme des Garçons overcoat that I secretly coveted. On the morning of my birthday he told me he had no gift for me.
– I don’t need a gift, I said.
– But I want to give you something, whatever you wish for.
– Then I would like your black coat, I said.
And he smiled and gave it to me without hesitation or regret. Every time I put it on I felt like myself. The moths liked it as well and it was riddled with small holes along the hem, but I didn’t mind. The pockets had come unstitched at the seam and I lost everything I absentmindedly slipped into their holy caves. Every morning I got up, put on my coat and watch cap, grabbed my pen and notebook, and headed across Sixth Avenue to my café. I loved my coat and the café and my morning routine. It was the clearest and simplest expression of my solitary identity. But in this current run of harsh weather, I favored another coat to keep me warm and protect me from the wind. My black coat, more suitable for spring and fall, fell from my consciousness, and in this relatively short span it disappeared.
Smith's husband, Fred, believed that when such beloved possessions disappear, they enter "the Valley of Lost Things." When he was a child, his favorite toy – a red plastic cowboy he had named Reddy – suffered a similar fate after Fred's mother, dusting the bookcase, inadvertently knocked Reddy into domestic neverland. But he miraculously reappeared some years later, emerging from the floor when boards had to be replaced. When Reddy returned, Fred proudly placed him on the bookcase in the couple's bedroom.
Smith reflects on this dance of disappearances, which so aggrieves us precisely because objects concretize our longing for permanence:
Some things are called back from the Valley. I believe Reddy called out to Fred. I believe Fred heard. I believe in their mutual jubilance. Some things are not lost but sacrificed. I saw my black coat in the Valley of the Lost on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins. Someone good will get it, I told myself, the Billy Pilgrim of the lot.
Do our lost possessions mourn us? Do electric sheep dream of Roy Batty? Will my coat, riddled with holes, remember the rich hours of our companionship? Asleep on buses from Vienna to Prague, nights at the opera, walks by the sea, the grave of Swinburne in the Isle of Wight, the arcades of Paris, the caverns of Luray, the cafés of Buenos Aires. Human experience bound in its threads. How many poems bleeding from its ragged sleeves? I averted my eyes just for a moment, drawn by another coat that was warmer and softer, but that I did not love. Why is it that we lose the things we love, and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we’re gone?
Then it occurred to me. Perhaps I absorbed my coat.
Smith examines this question of what is lost and what is redeemed in recounting a rather allegorical experience she had while journeying to a picturesque canyon in Mexico:
It was breathtaking though dangerous place, but we felt nothing but awe. I said a prayer to the lime-dusted mountain, then was drawn to a small rectangular light some twenty feet away. It was a white stone. Actually more tablet than stone, the color of foolscap, as if waiting for another commandment to be etched on its polished surface. I walked over and without hesitation picked it up and put it in my coat pocket as if it were written to do so.
I had thought to bring the strength of the mountain to my little house. I felt an instantaneous affection for it and kept my hand in my pocket in order to touch it, a missal of stone. It was not until later at the airport, as a customs inspector confiscated it, that I realized I had not asked the mountain whether or not I could have it. Hubris, I mourned, sheer hubris. The inspector firmly explained it could be deemed a weapon. It’s a holy stone, I told him, and begged him not to toss it away, which he did without flinching. It bothered me deeply. I had taken a beautiful object, formed by nature, out of its habitat to be thrown into a sack of security rubble.
I took the stone from the mountain and it was taken from me. A kind of moral balance, I well understood.
The book is, above all, a reminder that love and loss always hang in such a balance – perhaps not a moral one, for morality presumes meaning and some losses are senseless, dealt out by a universe impervious to human concerns and conceits, but a balance nonetheless. Smith captures this devastating and transcendent truth in recounting the days following Fred's death:
My brother stayed with me through the days that followed. He promised the children he would be there for them always and would return after the holidays. But exactly a month later he had a massive stroke while wrapping Christmas presents for his daughter. The sudden death of Todd, so soon after Fred’s passing, seemed unbearable. The shock left me numb. I spent hours sitting in Fred’s favorite chair, dreading my own imagination. I rose and performed small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.
Eventually I left Michigan and returned to New York with our children. One afternoon while crossing the street I noticed I was crying. But I could not identify the source of my tears. I felt a heat containing the colors of autumn. The dark stone in my heart pulsed quietly, igniting like a coal in a hearth. Who is in my heart? I wondered.
I soon recognized Todd’s humorous spirit, and as I continued my walk I slowly reclaimed an aspect of him that was also myself – a natural optimism. And slowly the leaves of my life turned, and I saw myself pointing out simple things to Fred, skies of blue, clouds of white, hoping to penetrate the veil of a congenital sorrow. I saw his pale eyes looking intently into mine, trying to trap my walleye in his unfaltering gaze. That alone took up several pages that filled me with such painful longing that I fed them into the fire in my heart, like Gogol burning page by page the manuscript of Dead Souls Two. I burned them all, one by one; they did not form ash, did not go cold, but radiated the warmth of human compassion.
Art by Maurice Sendak for a rare 1967 edition of William Blake's Songs of Innocence
This, indeed, is the book's greatest gift: The sublime assurance that although everything we love – people, places, possessions – can and likely will eventually be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and this is the only permanence we'll ever know.
Echoing Italo Calvino's unforgettable assertion that "every experience is unrepeatable," Smith writes:
Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.
I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty. Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons. Doves returning to nest on our balcony. Our daughter, Jesse, standing before me stretching out her arms.
– Oh, Mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.
We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.
With lyrical lucidity, Smith reminds us that the only liberation from the shackles of change lies in its acceptance, in the act of willful surrender:
Shard by shard we are released from the tyranny of so-called time. A curtain of purple wisteria partially conceals the entrance to a familiar garden... In a wink, a lifetime, we pass through the infinite movements of a silent overture.
One of William Blake's drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
Indeed, we move through this world both mutable and abiding, and it is the movement itself that anchors us to ourselves. Returning to the Möbius strip of our personal continuity, Smith writes:
I believe I am still the same person; no amount of change in the world can change that.
I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.
Virginia Woolf's walking stick (Photograph: Patti Smith)
Stubbornly writing the story of our own finitude and impermanence, Smith seems to suggest, is our only true homecoming to wholeness:
Home is a desk. The amalgamation of a dream. Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done. All the lost things that may one day call to me, the faces of my children who will one day call to me. Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie nor retrieve a dusty spur, but we can gather the dream itself and bring it back uniquely whole.
Complement the wholly enchanting M Train with Smith on the love of books, her stirring poems for her departed soul mate, her advice on life, and her homage to Virginia Woolf, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander's beautiful meditation on love and loss.
For a bewitching immersion in Smith's radiant spirit, treat yourself to her conversation with the New York Public Library's Paul Holdengräber, part of these nine fantastic podcasts for a fuller life:
If we walk the victim, we’re perceived as the victim. And if we enter ... glowing and receptive ... if we maintain our radiance and enter a situation with radiance, often radiance will come our way.
William Blake ... being a sort of a victim of the Industrial Revolution ... was a great poet, a great songwriter, an activist, a philosopher, a visionary. He gave us beautiful books, paintings, ideology – and yet William Blake in his lifetime was never appreciated. He had no real success. He was often ridiculed. He died poverty-stricken, but he also died full of joy. He never let go of his vision, he never let go of that radiance, he never let go of the language of enthusiasm. So I try to remember now when I feel sorry for myself to give a little thought to William Blake.
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In the fall of 2014, I sat down with friend, collaborator, and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer for a conversation about what Thoreau can teach us about accepting love.
That conversation evolved into an essay titled "The Art of Not-Having-to-Ask," which I wrote as the postscript to the paperback edition of Amanda's wonderful, life-expanding book The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library).
We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.
In Buddhism and other ancient Eastern traditions, there is a beautiful concept connoted by the Pali word dana (pronounced DAH-nah), often translated as the virtue of generosity. But at its heart is something far more expansive – a certain quality of open-handedness in dynamic dialogue with need and organically responsive to it. The practice of dana has sustained the Buddhist tradition for two and a half millennia – monks give their teachings freely, and the lay people who benefit from them give back to the monks by making sure their sustenance needs are met.
In a sense, dana is the art of not-having-to-ask – a natural and intuitive recognition that the energies poured into creating meaning (and what is art if not the making of meaning?) must be replenished in order for that stuff of substance to continue flowing through and fertilizing the ecosystem of interconnectedness in which all beings are entwined.
In the modern West, governed by the invisible hand of tit-for-tat mentality long before Adam Smith articulated its grasp, we’ve had to master the art of asking as a coping mechanism making up for our intuitive but atrophied mastery of the art of not-having-to-ask.
It is always the artists who crack open society’s self-imposed shackles and return us, over and over, to the naked truth of the human spirit, to the intuitive knowledge sold short by the ideologies we’ve bought into – something Henry Miller did beautifully in one of his love letters to Anaïs Nin, penned in the thick of WWII, in which he contemplated precisely this atrophied understanding of the natural osmosis of giving and receiving. Arguing that asking and receiving require at least as much grace and generosity as giving, Miller wrote to Nin:
"By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you really aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service… It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being..."
Shortly after Nin herself rejoiced in her diary "JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.” upon receiving news of the Liberation of Paris, which ended the Nazi occupation, another great creative spirit of the era contemplated the art of asking. With her unmistakably modernist prose, Gertrude Stein wrote in a 1945 letter to a friend as Paris was slowly recovering from the war:
“These days one asks for what one wants, since you cannot buy you have to ask and asking works such is the way of life."
Such is the way of life indeed, but only if we are nursed on an early and steadfast security in asking: The hallmark of great parenting is unconditional love, in the warm embrace of which the child’s needs are met, often without having to even ask; and when she does ask, the parent doesn’t shame her for asking. Thoreau (per Amanda's anecdote [in the book]) seems to have been the product of such parenting, for he clearly had no reservations about accepting the Sunday donuts his mother brought him – she simply assumed that this was what her son needed, and he simply received them. Thoreau was unashamed to devour the donuts in his cabin while he honed his spiritually enlightened, unmaterialistic definition of success:
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success.”
In our judgmental black-and-white culture increasingly incapable of nuance, we might be tempted to dismiss this duality as a special form of hypocrisy that discredits Thoreau’s creative legacy. But make no mistake: It was, in fact, a special form of wisdom that only adds to his genius – the wisdom of recognizing that the art of giving and the art of receiving are compatriots in the kingdom of creative culture, absolutely vital to each other’s survival.
The magic of our own era – 2,500 years after the dawn of dana and a century and a half after Thoreau and many decades after Miller and Nin and Stein – is that the average person probably interacts with more people in a single week, online and off, than the average Buddhist monk or transcendentalist philosopher or even socialite writer did over the course of a lifetime. In a sense, we are being constantly reparented by one another, our needs incubated in the collective nest of culture. It's magical, and also scary, but mostly magical to be able to ask complete strangers for those soul-nourishing donuts – and to be able to offer one another these allegorical donuts of dana as we unlearn everything our transactionalist culture has taught us about “the market,” relearn our natural open-handed generosity, and slowly remaster the art of not-having-to-ask.
Send some dana Amanda's way by grabbing a copy of The Art of Asking for yourself or your favorite creative rebel and by joining me in supporting her art on Patreon, then revisit her beautiful and rather contextually appropriate reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska's poem "Possibilities."
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"To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions," Hannah Arendt asserted in her spectacular meditation on the life of the mind, would be to "lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded." Indeed, that gap between what we yearn to know and what we might never know is filled with the creative restlessness responsible for almost all human achievement – our art and our science and our philosophy, those myriad tentacles by which we reach for the unknown knowing full well it might be unknowable, but reaching nonetheless.
That perennial human impulse is what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall explores in the enormously stimulating Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (public library).
Lisa Randall (Photograph: Phil Knott)
Our sensemaking pursuits have such abiding allure because the universe beckons out to us not merely with its beauty, but with its sublimity – that sharp edge of truth and beauty, where terror and transcendence converge to tantalize us by the same psychological machinery that makes for the paradox of why frustration is essential for satisfaction. Randall considers the singular seduction of the sublime:
The word precisely captures what makes the universe so wonderful and so frustrating at the same time. A great deal seems beyond our reach and our comprehension, while still appearing to be close enough to tantalize us – to dare us to enter and understand. The challenge for all approaches to knowledge is to make those less accessible aspects of the universe more immediate, more understandable, and ultimately less foreign. People want to learn to read and understand the book of nature and accommodate those lessons into the comprehensible world.
The sublime proffers scales and poses questions that just might lie beyond our intellectual reach. It is for these reasons both terrifying and compelling. The range of the sublime changes over time as the scales we are comfortable with cover an increasingly large domain. But at any given moment, we still want to gain insights about behavior or events at scales far too small or far too large for us to readily comprehend.
A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson
Although our quest to unravel the mystery of the universe springs from a common source, Randall points to the decided differences between sensemaking mechanisms like art, science, and religion – differences muddling which is to our great civilizational detriment:
Our universe is in many respects sublime. It prompts wonder but can be daunting – even frightening – in its complexity. Nonetheless, the components fit together in marvelous ways. Art, science, and religion all aim to channel people’s curiosity and enlighten us by pushing the frontiers of our understanding. They promise, in their different ways, to help transcend the narrow confines of individual experience and allow us to enter into – and comprehend – the realm of the sublime.
Half a century earlier, Saul Bellow asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that "only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world." But however beautiful his sentiment, the reality he meant was "reality" in David Bohm's sense of human-constructed belief systems – a distinction Randall delineates elegantly:
Art allows us to explore the universe through a filter of human perceptions and emotions. It examines how our senses access the world and what we can learn from this interaction – highlighting how people participate in and observe the universe around us. Art is very much a function of human beings, giving us a clearer view of our intuitions and how we as people perceive the world. Unlike science, it is not seeking objective truths that transcend human interactions. Art has to do with our physical and emotional responses to the external world, bearing directly on internal experiences, needs, and capacities that science might never reach.
Science, on the other hand, seeks objective and verifiable truth about the world. It is interested in the elements of which the universe is composed and how those elements interact... Practitioners of science attempt to keep human limitations or prejudices from clouding the picture so that they can trust themselves to obtain an unbiased understanding of reality. They do so with logic and collective observations. Scientists try to objectively figure out how things happen and what underlying physical framework could account for what they observe.
Illustration from the picture-book biography of Persian polymath and trailblazing scientist Ibn Sina
A generation after Richard Feynman's meditation on the relationship between science and religion, Randall considers how the two address our quest for understanding:
The key distinction between science and religion might well be the character of the questions they choose to ask. Religion includes questions that fall outside the domain of science. Religion asks “why,” in the sense of the presumption of an underlying purpose, whereas science asks “how.” Science doesn’t rely on any sense of an underlying goal for nature. That is a line of inquiry we leave to religion or philosophy, or abandon altogether.
But an unconcerned universe is not a bad thing – or a good one for that matter. Scientists don’t look for underlying intention in the way that religion often does. Objective science simply requires that we treat the universe as indifferent.
Rather than disempowering, this notion of cosmic indifference is a vitalizing antidote to our human solipsism, at once grounding and elevating in reminding us that the universe doesn't exist for our satisfaction and that we are, after all, a cosmic accident – an awareness that puts even our most tumultuous existential throes into perspective. But truth and meaning, as Arendt memorably argued, are crucially different beasts, and confusing the respective questions each asks is the seedbed of trouble – a confusion at the heart of the friction between science and religion.
Randall considers how calibrating our questions can resolve that millennia-old conflict:
Science aims for a predictive physical picture that can explain how things work. The methods and goals of science and religion are intrinsically different, with science addressing physical reality, and religion addressing psychological or social human desires or needs.
The separate aims shouldn’t be a source of conflict – in fact they seem in principle to create a nice division of labor. However, religions don’t always stick to questions of purpose or comfort. Many religions attempt to address the external reality of the universe as well, as can be seen even in the definition of the word: The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that religion is “belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshiped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe.” Dictionary.com says that religion is “A set of beliefs concerning the causes, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observations, and of constructing a moral code governing the morality of human affairs.” Religion in these definitions is not only about people’s relationship to the world – be it moral or emotional or spiritual – but it’s about the world itself. This leaves religious views open to falsification. When science encroaches on domains of knowledge that religion attempts to explain, disagreements are bound to arise.
Despite humanity’s shared desire for wisdom, people using different methods to ask questions and find answers or people with different goals haven’t always gotten along and the pursuit of truth hasn’t always neatly separated along lines that would avoid controversy. When people apply religious beliefs to the natural world, observations of nature can push back, and religion has to accommodate these findings.
Francisco de Holanda envisions the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator. Painting from Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson
With an eye to Galileo – that patron saint of critical thinking, whose revolutionary confrontation with the church ushered in the Scientific Revolution – Randall argues that the real conflict is not over science or religion as such but over authority:
Faith requires active questioning, and many religions demand it of the observant. Yet at the same time, many religions ... call for a rejection or suppression of independent will. In Calvin’s words: “Man by nature inclines to deluded self-admiration. Here, then, is what God’s truth requires us to seek in examining ourselves: it requires the kind of knowledge that will strip us of all confidence in our own ability, deprive us of all occasion for boasting, and lead us to submission.” These particular words applied primarily to moral questions. But the belief in the necessity for external guidance is unscientific, and it can be difficult to know where to draw the line. The struggle between the desire for knowledge and the mistrust of human pride reverberates throughout religious literature... Similar warnings appear in the writings of John Milton. Although he firmly believed in the necessity for robust intellectual inquiry, he nonetheless has Raphael tell Adam in Paradise Lost that he should not inquire too curiously into the motion of the stars, for “they need not thy belief.”
Maybe the question of whether people can access truth on their own is the real issue at the heart of the religion/science debate. Is it possible that the negative attitudes toward science we hear today are partially rooted in the admittedly extreme beliefs expressed by Herbert and Milton? I’m not sure we are arguing so much about how the world came to be as about who has a right to figure things out and whose conclusions we should trust. The universe is humbling. Nature hides many of its most interesting mysteries.
Art from A Graphic Cosmogony
Randall, whose ample and effortless allusions to the canon of art clearly show that she cherishes humanity's creative legacy of meaning-making beyond objective truth, suggests that the greatest gift of science – as well as its greatest point of contention with religious authority – is a kind of intellectual self-reliance which invites us to figure things out for ourselves instead of settling for easy, ready-made answers. And that, she reminds us, is an immensely emboldening experience:
Most people want to feel empowered and to experience a sense of belonging. The question each individual faces is whether religion or science offers a greater sense of control over the world. Where do you find trust, comfort, and understanding? Do you prefer to believe that you can figure things out for yourself or at least trust fellow humans to do so? People want answers and guidance that science can’t yet provide.
Nonetheless, science has told us much about what the universe is made of and how it works. When you put together all of what we know, the picture scientists have deduced over time fits together miraculously well. Scientific ideas lead to correct predictions. So some of us trust in its authority, and many recognize the remarkable lessons of science through the ages.
Among those lessons is the idea that, as Richard Feynman put it, "it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong" – something essential given our propensity for self-deception, which Faraday famously lamented. But our hunger for asking these questions, even if their answers are constantly evolving, is what defines our very humanity. Randall captures this beautifully:
People’s curiosity and the ability to make progress toward satisfying this hunger for information make humanity very special indeed. We are the one species equipped to ask questions and systematically chip away to find the answers. We question, we interact, we communicate, we hypothesize, we make abstractions, and in all of this we end up with a richer view of the universe and our place within.