The title of this post comes from a passage I liked a lot in Adam Gopnik's terrific New Yorker piece, Bigger Than Phil: When did faith start to fade?
“Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds,” John Updike wrote, a decade ago. “The power of materialist science to explain everything—from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms, and their sub-microscopic components—seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind.
"On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires, and—may we even say—illusions composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize, and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.”
Does religion alone address the reality of our subjective sensations? It’s perfectly possible to believe that there are many things that will never be subjects of science without thinking that they are therefore objects of faith.
Human beings are unpredictable. We can’t know what songs they will sing, what new ideas they will come up with, how beautifully they will act or how badly. But their subjective sensations do not supply them with souls. They just make them people.
Since Darwin’s starting premise is that individual variation is the rule of nature, it isn’t surprising that the living things that are able to have experiences have them in varied and individual ways. The plausible opposite of “permanent scientific explanation” is “singular poetic description,” not “miraculous magical intercession.”
It's amusing when people leave comments on my blog posts accusing me of being all hyper-rational, intellectual, unfeeling, unwilling to embrace the mysteries of the cosmos. When I read crap like that, I think, What the hell are you talking about?
Today, in my churchless frame of mind, I am just as attracted to irrationality, intuition, flights of fancy, and mind-blowing experiences as I was back in my religious days.
The only difference is that now I don't believe some supernatural entity is at the root of my subjectivity, or that my personal awareness is anything other than that: personal.
I still look up at the night sky on an evening dog walk, while listening to owls hooting in Oregon fir trees, and feel a sense of awe that this, wherever it came from and however it will end up, is just so amazingly freakingly wonderful I'm astoundingly thankful to be a conscious life form able to perceive it.
I'm not a person who has, or is, a soul. I'm just a person. Here today; will be gone tomorrow. Just like everything else on Earth, though "tomorrow" has a different meaning for gnats and Giant Sequoias.
Adam Gopnik got a lot right in his extended book review which is so much more than that.
Yet I did feel unsettled while reading parts of his piece. In the course of Googling his New Yorker article, I came across Jerry Coyne's "Adam Gopnik on atheism in the New Yorker." This helped me understand where those feelings came from.
Coyne is mentioned by Gopnik. He knows and respects Gopnik. He also disagrees with Gopnik on some important points. Such as:
Throughout the piece Gopnik errs, I think, in mistaking instinctive likes and dislikes with religious faith. Yes, both are “irrational,” but they’re irrational in different ways.
Our penchants and loves are the result of our experiences and genes, and often not the result of reflection but simply instinctive feelings, while one can indeed reflect on whether the tenets of one’s faith are correct.
It’s possible for me to reject (often influenced by others) the tenets of Judaism, but not my liking of a Chateau d’Yquem or the music of Smokey Robinson. In fact, I can’t even defend my love of Sauternes against someone who simply doesn’t like sweet wine.
Coyne's essay makes so much sense, it'd be futile for me to try to add anything to his critique of what Gopnik said. Coyne articulated my reservations about Gopnik's article way better than I could ever have.