Friday, November 7, 2008

Meditations on the First Snow

This morning, we awoke to snow. The snow was still gently falling at 7:00, but I expect it will be gone before the morning is over. The chimney sweep is coming this morning to clean the chimneys of the two woodstoves, and I'm looking forward to sitting and reading in front of a fire in the evening.

Last night I went to a lecture at Carleton by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead. As is evident in her fiction, Robinson is a deeply religious person, deeply influenced by Calvinism, but she is also a self-described humanist. She protests against the heavy-handed Darwinism of Richard Dawkins, which denies the spark of the divine in human beings, but she would also reject heavy-handed religious fundamentalism that denies nuance and imagination in the human relationship to the divine. It was revealing to learn that she came to the works of John Calvin through Melville's Moby Dick. Having caught the unmistakable theological inflections of that novel, she decided to read it side-by-side with Calvin's Institutes, as if Melville and Calvin were engaged in a kind of theological conversation about whales and predestination.

Darwinian evolution can tell us quite a bit about whales—that they evolved from land mammals, for example—and about human beings as well. Perhaps science can even explain the obsession of a man like Captain Ahab. But for Robinson, such explanations are insufficient—not so much, I suspect, because they deny the hand of the Creator, but because they deny the profound mystery and beauty of life as it is lived and apprehended by the creative human mind. She pointed out that written language can't be accounted for by evolution; it only appeared about 4,000 years ago, after the evolution of modern homo sapiens. If anything gives evidence of a divine spark, it is the ability of humans to write.

Of course, I accept the theory of evolution as scientific truth. It offers the best description of the physical world. It may be that human consciousness—what we call the human soul—is simply a byproduct of evolutionary processes, as Richard Dawkins would claim. But I think Marilynne Robinson is right: we cannot live our lives as if that were the case, as if everything we think and feel and are capable of doing is simply the result of a successful accident. Pascal, hedging his metaphysical bets, concluded that human beings are better off living as if God exists. Although I accept evolution and no longer attend church regularly, I tend to accept Pascal's wager. For purely selfish reasons: not so much because I need to believe in God, but because I need to believe in human beings, and in myself.

It was lovely to wake up this morning to the first snow of the winter. Each snowflake falling from the sky was unique and transient. The earth was as white as an imaginary whale against the gray sea of the sky. This evening I'll sit in front of the woodstove and read about fictional characters in an imagined world, and I will surrender completely to a belief in something that exists only in the human mind.


Rob Hardy said...

Clara, when she read this, immediately disagreed with the premise that we cannot live as if our lives and consciousness were simply the results of a successful accident. This, she says, denies the wonder and beauty of accident. Evolution relies on variation, which is inherently creative. And even if consciousness is simply a system of electrical impulses in the brain, there is something wonderful in the fact that those impulses are so varied and so unpredictable in their results. She entirely lacks my religious/mystical temperament. Yet we manage to live together quite successfully.

Rob Hardy said...

A comment from my sister-in-law, who is a biology professor:

"Evolution is simply not a "theory of everything". I frequently quote Dobzhansky's "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". Thinking about it in relation to your post, I realize that we often emphasize how bold his claim was, and, in its boldness, his claim has been amply borne out, but we rarely think about the restriction implicit in the words "in biology". He didn't say "Nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution". Of course, literature, music, philosophy have been developed by biological entities, but I wouldn't say evolution explains their existence, even though evolutionary change produced minds that are capable of doing this."

Bleeet said...


Robinson's argument seems to be anti-intellectual, or, at least, anti-science. Learning the nearly-impossible intricacies of the human brain, for example, should leave one more in awe of the spark of human life, than a simplistic "God did it" reduction. Isn't knowledge the creator of wonder; ignorance the creator of fear?

Rob Hardy said...

Brendon: One thing is clear from reading and listening to Marilynne Robinson——she is intimidatingly intellectual. I think Robinson would agree with my sister-in-law: evolution isn't a "theory of everything." And I like to pretend that I'm a spiritual being, even if I'm really only an assortment of chemicals.

Bleeet said...

But isn't your spirituality part of a thought process by your brain?

Tough question, I know, but don't you need a brain to be spiritual? Do you need to be aware of spirituality to be spiritual? Is it concept with no home or a product of human rumination?
Are animals spiritual, for instance?

I think intellectual people can embrace anti-intellectual arguments precisely because, ironically, they have the capacity to do so, but that doesn't make the argument they're embracing any more intellectual. There's still the occasional scientist who thinks the Earth is flat.

Anonymous said...

I just like the snow pictures!

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .