hard heads soft hearts
Saturday, August 13, 2005
A while I back I linked to four essays that seemed to me to provide a good conversation between traditionalist and modernist views of life: an essay by John Taylor Gatto, one by JRR Tolkien, one by Richard Feynman and one by Joseph Campbell. Since that time linkrot has struck, and three of my links no longer work. I've previously posted the full-text of the traditionalist essays (Gatto & Tolkien), so now here are the full-texts of the modernists, Feynman and Campbell. Happy Reading! (FWIW, I am a bit more of a traditionalist than a modernist.)
First Campbell. . .
I. The Impact of Science on Myth  (from the book "Myths To Live By")
I was sitting the other day at a lunch counter that I particularly enjoy, when a youngster about twelve years old, arriving with his school satchel, took the place at my left. Beside him came a younger little man, holding the hand of his mother, and those two took the next seats. All gave their orders, and, while waiting, the boy at my side said, turning his head slightly to the mother, "Jimmy wrote a paper today on the evolution of man, and Teacher said he was wrong, that Adam and Eve were our first parents."
My Lord! I thought. What a teacher!
The lady three seats away then said, "Well, Teacher was right. Our first parents were Adam and Eve."
What a mother for a twentieth-century child!
The youngster responded, "Yes, I know, but this was a scientific paper." And for that, I was ready to recommend him for a distinguished-service medal from the Smithsonian Institution.
The mother, however, came back with another. "Oh, those scientists!" she said angrily. "Those are only theories."
And he was up to that one too. "Yes, I know," was his cool and calm reply; "but they have been factualized: they found the bones."
The milk and the sandwiches came, and that was that.
So let us now reflect for a moment on the sanctified cosmic image that has been destroyed by the facts and findings of irrepressible young truth-seekers of this kind.
At the height of the Middle Ages, say in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there were current two very different concepts of the earth. The more popular was of the earth as flat, like a dish surrounded by, and floating upon, a boundless cosmic sea, in which there were all kinds of monsters dangerous to man. This was an infinitely old notion, going back to the early Bronze Age. It appears in Sumerian cuneiform texts of about 2000 B.C.and is the image authorized in the Bible.
The more seriously considered medieval concept, however, was that of the ancient Greeks, according to whom the earth was not flat, but a solid stationary sphere in the center of a kind of Chinese box of seven transparent revolving spheres, in each of which there was a visible planet: the moon, Mercury, Venus, and the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, the same seven after which our days of the week are named. The sounding tones of these seven, moreover, made a music, the "music of the spheres," to which the notes of our diatonic scale correspond. There was also a metal associated with each: silver, mercury, copper, gold, iron, tin, and lead, in that order. And the soul descending from heaven to be born on earth picked up, as it came down, the qualities of those metals; so that our souls and bodies are compounds of the very elements of the universe and sing, so to say, the same song.
Music and the arts, according to this early view, were to put us in mind of those harmonies, from which the general thoughts and affairs of this earth distract us. And in the Middle Ages the seven branches of learning were accordingly associated with those spheres: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (known as the trivium), arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (the quadrivium). The crystalline spheres themselves, furthermore, were not, like glass, of inert matter, but living spiritual powers, presided over by angelic beings, or, as Plato had said, by sirens. And beyond all, there was that luminous celestial realm where God in majesty sat on his triune throne; so that when the soul, at death, returning to its maker, passed again through the seven spheres, it left off at each the accordant quality and arrived unclothed for the judgment. The emperor and the pope on earth governed, it was supposed, according to the laws and will of God, representing his power and authority at work in the ordained Christian commonalty. Thus in the total view of the medieval thinkers there was a perfect accord between the structure of the universe, the canons of the social order, and the good of the individual. Through unquestioning obedience, therefore, the Christian would put himself into accord not only with his society but also with both his own best inward interests and the outward order of nature. The Christian Empire was an earthly reflex of the order of the heavens, hieratically organized, with the vestments, thrones, and procedures of its stately courts inspired by celestial imagery, the bells of its cathedral spires and harmonies of its priestly choirs echoing in earthly tones the unearthly angelic hosts.
Dante in his Divine Comedy unfolded a vision of the universe that perfectly satisfied both the approved religious and the accepted scientific notions of his time. When Satan had been flung out of heaven for his pride and disobedience, he was supposed to have fallen like a flaming comet and, when he struck the earth, to have plowed right through to its center. The prodigious crater that he opened thereupon became the fiery pit of Hell; and the great mass of displaced earth pushed forth at the opposite pole became the Mountain of Purgatory, which is represented by Dante as lifting heavenward exactly as the South Pole. In his view, the entire southern hemisphere was of water, with this mighty mountain lifting out of it, on whose summit was the Earthly Paradise, from the center of which the four blessed rivers flowed of which Holy Scripture tells.
And now it appears that when Columbus set sail across that "ocean blue" which many of his neighbors (and possibly also his sailors) believed was a terminal ocean surrounding a disklike earth, he himself had in mind an image more like that of Dante's world -- of which we can read, in fact, in his journals. There we learn that in the course of his third voyage, when he reached for the first time the northern coast of South America, passing in his frail craft at great peril between Trinidad and the mainland, he remarked that the quantity of fresh water there mixing with the salt (pouring from the mouths of the Orinoco) was enormous. Knowing nothing of the continent beyond, but having in mind the medieval idea, he conjectured the fresh waters might be coming from one of the rivers of Paradise, pouring into the southern sea from the base of the great antipodal mountain. Moreover, when he then turned, sailing northward, and observed that his ships were faring more rapidly than when they had been sailing south, he took this to be evidence of their sailing now downhill, from the foot of the promontory of the mythic paradisial mountain.
I like to think of the year 1492 as marking the end -- or at least the beginning of the end -- of the authority of the old mythological systems by which the lives of men had been supported and inspired from time out of mind. Shortly after Columbus's epochal voyage, Magellan circumnavigated the globe. Shortly before, Vasco da Gamma had sailed around Africa to India. The earth was beginning to be systematically explored, and the old, symbolic, mythological geographies discredited. In attempting to show that there was somewhere on earth a garden of Paradise, Saint Thomas Aquinas had declared, writing only two centuires and a half before Columbus sailed: "The situation of Paradise is shut off from the habitable world by mountains or seas, or by some torrid region, which cannot be crossed; and so people who have written about topography make no mention of it." Fifty years after the first voyage, Copernicus published his paper on the heliocentric universe (1543); and some sixty-odd years after that, Galileo's little telescope brought tangible confirmation to this Copernican view. In the year 1616 Galileo was condemned by the Office of the Inquisition -- like the boy beside me at the lunch counter, by his mother -- for holding and teaching a doctrine contrary to Holy Scripture. And today, of course, we have those very much larger telescopes on the summits, for example, of Mount Wilson in California, Mount Palomar in the same state, Kitt Peak in Arizona, and Haleakala, Hawaii; so that not only is the sun now well established at the center of our planetary system, but we know it to be but one of some two hundred billion suns in a galaxy of such blazing spheres: a galaxy shaped like a prodigious lens, many hundreds of quintillion miles in diameter. And not only that! but our telescopes now are disclosing to us, among those shining suns, certain other points of light that are themselves not suns but whole galaxies, each as large and great and inconceivable as our own -- of which already many thousands upon thousands have been seen. So that, actually, the occasion for an experience of awe before the wonder of the universe that is being developed for us by our scientists surely is a far more marvelous, mind-blowing revelation than anything the prescientific world could ever have imagined. The little toy-room picture of the Bible is, in comparison, for children -- or, in fact, not even for them any more, to judge from the words of that young scholar beside me at the counter, who, with his "Yes, I know, but this was a scientific paper," had already found a way to rescue his learning from the crumbling medieval architecture of his mother's Church.
For not only have all the old mythic notions of the nature of the cosmos gone to pieces, but also those of the origins and history of mankind. Already in Shakespeare's day, when Sir Walter Raleigh arrived in America and saw here all the new animals unknown on the other side, he understood as a master mariner that it would have been absolutely impossible for Noah to have packed examples of every species on earth into any ark, no matter how large. The Bible legend of the Flood was untrue: a theory that could not be "factualized." And we today (to make matters worse) are dating the earliest appearance of manlike creatures on this earth over a million years earlier than the Biblical date for God's creation of the world. The great paleolithic caves of Europe are from circa 30,000 B.C.; the beginnings of agriculture, 10,000B.C. or so, and the first substantial towns about 7,000. Yet Cain, the eldest son of Adam, the first man, is declared in Genesis 4:2 and 4:17 to have been "a tiller of the ground" and the builder of a city known as Enoch in the land of Nod, east of Eden. The Biblical "theory" has again been proved false, and "they have found the bones!"
They have found also the buildings -- and these do not corroborate Scripture, either. For example, the period of Egyptian history supposed to have been of the Exodus -- of Ramses II (1301-1234B.C.), or perhaps Merneptah (1234-1220) or Seti II (1220-1200) -- is richly represented in architectural and hieroglyphic remains, yet there is no notice anywhere of anything like those famous Biblical plagues, no record anywhere of anything even comparable. Moreover, as other records tell, Bedouin Hebrews, the "Habiru," were already invading Canaan during the reign of Ikhnaton (1377-1358), a century earlier than the Ramses date. The long and the short of it is simply that the Hebrew texts from which all these popular Jewish legends of Creation, Exodus, Forty Years in the Desert, and Conquest of Canaan are derived were not composed by "God" or even by anyone named Moses, but are of various dates and authors, all much later than was formerly supposed. The first five books of the Old Testament (Torah) were assembled only after the period of Ezra (fourth century B.C.),and the documents of which it was fashioned date all the way from the ninth centuryB.C. (the so-called J and E texts) to the second or so (the P, or "priestly" writings). One notices, for example, that there are two accounts of the Flood. From the first we learn that Noah brought "two living things of every sort" into the Ark (Genesis 6:19-20; P text, post-Ezra), and from the second, "seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean" (Genesis 7:2-3; J text, ca. 800B.C. ± 50). We also find two stories of Creation, the earlier in Genesis 2, the later in Genesis 1. In 2, a garden has been planted and a man created to tend it; next the animals are created, and finally (as in dream) Mother Eve is drawn from Adam's rib. In Genesis 1, on the other hand, God, alone with the cosmic waters, says, "Let there be light," etc., and, stage by stage, the universe comes into being: first, light; and the sun, three days later; then, vegetables, animals, and finally mankind, male and female together. Genesis 1 is of about the fourth century B.C. (the period of Aristotle), and 2, of the ninth or eighth (Hesiod's time).
Comparative cultural studies have now demonstrated beyond question that similar mythic tales are to be found in every quarter of this earth. When Cortes and his Catholic Spaniards arrived in Aztec Mexico, they immediately recognized in the local religion so many parallels to their own True Faith that they were hard put to explain the fact. There were towering pyramidal temples, representing, stage by stage, like Dante's Mountain of Purgatory, degrees of elevation of the spirit. There were thirteen heavens, each with its appropriate gods or angels; nine hells, of suffering souls. There was a High God above all, who was beyond all human thought and imaging. There was even an incarnate Saviour, associated with a serpent, born of a virgin, who had died and was resurrected, one of whose symbols was a cross. The padres, to explain all this, invented two myths of their own. The first was that Saint Thomas, the Apostle to the Indies, had probably reached America and here preached the Gospel; but, these shores being so far removed from the influence of Rome, the doctrine had deteriorated, so that what they were seeing around them was simply a hideously degenerate form of their own revelation. And the second explanation, then, was that the devil was here deliberately throwing up parodies of the Christian faith, to frustrate the mission.
Modern scholarship, systematically comparing the myths and rites of mankind, has found just about everywhere legends of virgins giving birth to heroes who die and are resurrected. India is chock-full of such tales, and its towering temples, very like the Aztec ones, represent again our many-storied cosmic mountain, bearing Paradise on its summit and with horrible hells beneath. The Buddhists and the Jains have similar ideas. And, looking backward into the pre-Christian past, we discover in Egypt the mythology of the slain and resurrected Osiris; in Mesopotamia, Tammuz; in Syria, Adonis; and in Greece, Dionysos: all of which furnished models to the early Christians for their representations of Christ.
Now the peoples of all the great civilizations everywhere have been prone to interpret their own symbolic figures literally, and so to regard themselves as favored in a special way, in direct contact with the Absolute. Even the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, Hindus and Chinese, all of whom were able to view the gods and customs of others sympathetically, thought of their own as supreme or, at the very least, superior; and among the monotheistic Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans, of course, the gods of others are regarded as no gods at all, but devils, and their worshipers as godless. Mecca, Rome, Jerusalem, and (less emphatically) Benares and Peking have been for centuries, therefore, each in its own way, the navel of the universe, connected directly -- as by a hot line -- with the Kingdom of Light or of God.
However, today such claims can no longer be taken seriously by anyone with even a kindergarten education. And in this there is serious danger. For not only has it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their own symbols literally, but such literally read symbolic forms have always been -- and still are, in fact -- the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers. With the loss of them there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty, disequilibrium, since life, as both Nietzsche and Ibsen knew, requires life-supporting illusions; and where these have been dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold on to, no moral law, nothing firm. We have seen what has happened, for example, to primitive communities unsettled by the white man's civilization. With their old taboos discredited, they immediately go to pieces, disintegrate, and become resorts of vice and disease.
Today the same thing is happening to us. With our old mythologically founded taboos unsettled by our own modern sciences, there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, shattered homes, impudent children, violence, murder, and despair. These are facts; I am not inventing them. They give point to the cries of the preachers for repentance, conversion, and return to the old religion. And they challenge, too, the modern educator with respect to his own faith and ultimate loyalty. Is the conscientious teacher -- concerned for the moral character as well as for the book-learning of his students -- to be loyal first to the supporting myths of our civilization or to the "factualized" truths of his science? Are the two, on level, at odds? Or is there not some point of wisdom beyond the conflicts of illusion and truth by which lives can be put back together again?
That is a prime question, I would say, of this hour in the bringing up of children. That is the problem, indeed, that was sitting beside me that day at the lunch counter. In that case, both teacher and parent were on the side of an already outdated illusion; and generally -- or so it looks to me -- most guardians of society have a tendency in that direction, asserting their authority not for, but against the search for disturbing truths. Such a trend has even turned up recently among social scientists and anthropologists with regard to discussions of race. And one can readily understand, even share in some measure, their anxiety, since lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenge of a truth and build their lives to accord are finally not many, but the very few.
It is my considered belief that the best answer to this critical problem will come from the findings of psychology, and specifically those findings have to do with the source and nature of myth. For since it has always been on myths that the moral orders of societies have been founded, the myths canonized as religion, and since the impact of science on myths results -- apparently inevitably -- in moral disequilibrarion, we must now ask whether it is not possible to arrive scientifically at such an understanding of the life-supporting nature of myths that, in criticizing their archaic features, we do not misrepresent and disqualify their necessity -- throwing out, so to say, the baby (whole generations of babies) with the bath.
Traditionally, as I have already said, in the orthodoxies of popular faiths mythic beings and events are generally regarded and taught as facts; and this particularly in the Jewish and Christian spheres. Therewas an Exodus from Egypt; there was a Resurrection of Christ. Historically, however, such facts are now in question; hence, the moral orders, too, that they support.
When these stories are interpreted, though, not as reports of historic fact, but as merely imagined episodes projected onto history, and when they are recognized, then, as analogous to like projections produced elsewhere, in China, India, and Yucatán, the import becomes obvious; namely, that although false and to be rejected as accounts of physical history, such universally cherished figures of the mythic imagination must represent facts of the mind: "facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter," as my friend the late Maya Deren once phrased the mystery. And whereas it must, of course, be the task of the historian, archaeologist, and prehistorian to show that the myths are as facts untrue -- that there is no one Chosen People of God in this multiracial world, no Found Truth to which we all must bow, no One and Only True Church -- it will be more and more, and with increasing urgency, the task of the psychologist and comparative mythologist not only to identify, analyze, and interpret the symbolized "facts of the mind," but also to evolve techniques for retaining these in health and, as the old traditions of the fading past dissolve, assist mankind to a knowledge and appreciation of our own inward, as well as the world's outward, orders of fact.
There has been among psychologists a considerable change of attitude in this regard during the past three-quarters of a century or so. When reading the great and justly celebrated Golden Bough of Sir James G. Frazer, the first edition of which appeared in 1890, we are engaged with a typically nineteenth-century author, whose belief it was that the superstitions of mythology would be finally refuted by science and left forever behind. He saw the basis of myth in magic, and of magic in psychology. His psychology, however, being of an essentially rational kind, insufficiently attentive to the more deeply based, irrational impulsions of our nature, he assumed that when a custom or belief was shown to be unreasonable, it would presently disappear. And how wrong he was can be shown simply by pointing to any professor of philosophy at play in a bowling alley: watch him twist and turn after the ball has left his hand, to bring it over to the standing pins. Frazer's explanation of magic was that because things are associated in the mind they are believed to be associated in fact. Shake a rattle that sounds like falling rain, and rain will presently fall. Celebrate a ritual of sexual intercourse, and the fertility of nature will be furthered. An image in the likeness of an enemy, and given the enemy's name, can be worked upon, stuck with pins, etc., and the enemy will die. Or a piece of his clothing, lock of hair, fingernail paring, or other element once in contact with his person can be treated with a like result. Frazer's first law of magic, then, is that "like produces like," an effect resembles its cause; and his second, that "things which once were in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed." Frazer thought of both magic and religion as addressed finally and essentially to the control of external nature; magic mechanically, by imitative acts, and religion by prayer and sacrifice addressed to the personified powers supposed to control natural forces. He seems to have had no sense at all of their relevance and importance to the inward life, and so was confident that, with the progress and development of science and technology, both magic and religion would ultimately fade away, the ends that they had been thought to serve being better and more surely served by science.
Simultaneously with these volumes of Frazer, however, there was appearing in Paris a no less important series of publications by the distinguished neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, treating of hysteria, aphasia, hypnotic states, and the like; demonstrating also the relevance of these findings to iconography and to art. Sigmund Freud spent a year with this master in 1885 and during the first quarter of the present century carried the study of hysteria and of dreams and myths to new depths. Myths, according to Freud's view, are of the psychological order of dream. Myths, so to say, are public dreams; dreams are private myths. Both, in his opinion, are symptomatic of repressions of infantile incest wishes, the only essential difference between a religion and neurosis being that the former is the more public. The person with a neurosis feels ashamed, alone and isolated in his illness, whereas the gods are general projections onto a universal screen. They are equally manifestations of unconscious, compulsive fears and delusions. Moreover, all the arts, and particularly religious arts, are, in Freud's view, similarly pathological; likewise, all philosophies. Civilization itself, in fact, is a pathological surrogate for unconscious infantile disappointments. And thus Freud, like Frazer, judged the worlds of myth, magic, and religion negatively, as errors to be refuted, surpassed, and supplanted finally by science.
An altogether different approach is represented by Carl G. Jung, in whose view the imageries of mythology and religion serve positive, life-furthering ends. According to his way of thinking,all the organs of our bodies -- not only those of sex and aggression -- have their purposes and motives, some being subject to conscious control, others, however, not. Our outward-oriented consciousness, addressed to the demands of the day, may lose touch with these inward forces; and the myths, states Jung, when correctly read, are the means to bring us back in touch. They are telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums. Thus they have not been, and can never be, displaced by the findings of science, which relate rather to the outside world than to the depths that we enter in sleep. Through a dialogue conducted with these inward forces through our dreams and through a study of myths, we can learn to know and come to terms with the greater horizon of our own deeper and wiser, inward self. And analogously, the society that cherishes and keeps its myths alive will be nourished from the soundest, richest strata of the human spirit.
However, there is a danger here as well; namely, of being drawn by one's dreams and inherited myths away from the world of modern consciousness, fixed in patterns of archaic feeling and thought inappropriate to contemporary life. What is required, states Jung therefore, is a dialogue, not a fixture at either pole; a dialogue by way of symbolic forms put forth from the unconscious mind and recognized by the conscious in continuous interaction.
And so what then happens to the children of a society that has refused to allow any such interplay to develop, but, clinging to its inherited dream as to a fixture of absolute truth, rejects the novelties of consciousness, of reason, science, and new facts? There is a well-known history that may serve as sufficient warning.
As every schoolboy knows, the beginnings of what we think of as science are to be attributed to the Greeks, and much of the knowledge that they assembled was carried and communicated to Asia, across Persia into India and onward even to China. But every one of those Oriental worlds was already committed to its own style of mythological thought, and the objective, realistic, inquisitive, and experimental attitudes and methods of the Greeks were let go. Compare the science of the Bible, for example -- an Oriental scripture, assembled largely following the Maccabean rejection of Greek influence -- with that, say, of Aristotle; not to mention Aristarchus (fl. 275B.C.), for whom the earth was already a revolving sphere in orbit around the sun. Eratosthenes (fl. 250B.C.) had already correctly calculated the circumference of the earth as 250,000 stadia (24,662 miles: correct equatorial figure, 24,902). Hipparchus (fl. 240 B.C.) had reckoned within a few miles both the moon's diameter and its mean distance from the earth. And now just try to imagine how much of blood, sweat, and real tears -- people burned at the stake for heresy, and all that -- would have been saved, if, instead of closing all the Greek pagan schools, A.D.529, Justinian had encouraged them! In their place, we and our civilization have had Genesis 1 and 2 and a delay of well over a thousand years in the maturation not of science only but of our own and the world's civilization.
One of the most interesting histories of what comes of rejecting science we may see in Islam, which in the beginning received, accepted, and even developed the classical legacy. For some five or six rich centuries there is an impressive Islamic record of scientific thought, experiment, and research, particularly in medicine. But then, alas! the authority of the general community, the Sunna, the consensus -- which Mohammed the Prophet had declared would always be right -- cracked down. The Word of God in the Koran was the only source and vehicle of truth. Scientific thought led to "loss of belief in the origin of the world and in the Creator." And so it was that, just when the light of Greek learning was beginning to be carried from Islam to Europe -- from circa 1100 onward -- Islamic science and medicine came to a standstill and went dead; and with that, Islam itself went dead. The torch not only of science, but of history as well, passed on to the Christian West. And we can thereafter follow the marvelous development in detail, from the early twelfth century onward, through a history of bold and brilliant minds, unmatched for their discoveries in the whole long history of human life. Nor can the magnitude of our debt to these few minds be fully appreciated by anyone who has never set foot in any of the lands that lie beyond the bounds of this European spell. In those so-called "developing nations" all social transformation is the result today, as it has been for centuries, not of continuing processes, but of invasions and their aftermath. Every little group is fixed in its own long-established, petrified mythology, changes having occurred only as a consequence of collision; such as when the warriors of Islam broke into India and for a time there were inevitable exchanges of ideas; or when the British arrived and another upsetting era dawned of startling, unanticipated innovations. In our modern Western world, on the other hand, as a result of the continuing open-hearted and open-minded quest of a few brave men for the bounds of boundless truth, there has been a self-consistent continuity of productive growth, in the nature almost of an organic flowering.
But now, finally, what would the meaning be of the word "truth" to a modern scientist? Surely not the meaning it would have for a mystic! For the really great and essential fact about the scientific revelation -- the most wonderful and most challenging fact -- is that science does not and cannot pretend to be "true" in any absolute sense. It does not and cannot pretend to be final. It is a tentative organization of mere "working hypotheses" ("Oh, those scientists!" "Yes, I know, but they found the bones") that for the present appear to take into account all the relevant facts now known.
And is there no implied intention, then, to rest satisfied with some final body or sufficient number of facts?
No indeed! There is to be only a continuing search for more -- as of a mind eager to grow. And that growth, as long as it lasts, will be the measure of the life of modern Western man, and of the world with all its promise that he has brought and is still bringing into being: which is to say, a world of change, new thoughts, new things, new magnitudes, and continuing transformation, not of petrifaction, rigidity, and some canonized found "truth."
And so, my friends, we don't know a thing, and not even our science can tell us sooth; for it is no more than, so to say, an eagerness for truths, no matter where their allure may lead. And so it seems to me that here again we have a still greater, more alive, revelation than anything our old religions ever gave to us or even so much as suggested. The old texts comfort us with horizons. They tell us that a loving, kind, and just father is out there, looking down upon us, ready to receive us, and ever with our own dear lives on his mind. According to our sciences, on the other hand, nobody knows what is out there, or if there is any "out there" at all. All that can be said is that there appears to be a prodigious display of phenomena, which our senses and their instruments translate to our minds according to the nature of our minds. And there is a display of a quite different kind of imagery from within, which we experience best at night, in sleep, but which may also break into our daylight lives and even destroy us with madness. What the background of these forms, external and internal, may be, we can only surmise and possibly move toward through hypotheses. What are they, or where, or why (to ask all the usual questions) is an absolute mystery -- the only absolute known, because absolutely unknown; and this we must all now have the magnitude to concede.
There is no "Thou shalt!" any more. There is nothing one has to believe, and there is nothing one has to do. On the other hand, one can of course, if one prefers, still choose to play at the old Middle Ages game, or some Oriental game, or even some sort of primitive game. We are living in a difficult time, and whatever defends us from the madhouse can be applauded as good enough -- for those without nerve.
When I was in India in the winter of 1954, in conversation with an Indian gentleman of just about my own age, he asked with a certain air of distance, after we had exchanged formalities, "What are you Western scholars now saying about the dating of the Vedas?"
The Vedas, you must know, are the counterparts for the Hindu of the Torah for the Jew. They are his scriptures of the most ancient date and therefore of the highest revelation.
"Well," I answered, "the dating of the Vedas has lately been reduced and is being assigned, I believe, to something like, say, 1500 to 1000B.C. As you probably know," I added, "there have been found in India itself the remains of an earlier civilization than the Vedic."
"Yes," said the Indian gentleman, not testily but firmly, with an air of untroubled assurance, "I know; but as an orthodox Hindu I cannot believe that there is anything in the universe earlier than the Vedas." And he meant that.
"Okay," said I. "Then why did you ask?"
To give old India, however, its due, let me conclude with the fragment of a Hindu myth that to me seems to have captured in a particularly apt image the whole sense of such a movement as we today are all facing at this critical juncture of our general human history. It tells of a time at the very start of the history of the universe when the gods and their chief enemies, the anti-gods, were engaged in one of their eternal wars. They decided this time to conclude a truce and in cooperation to churn the Milky Ocean -- the Universal Sea -- for its butter of immortality. They took for their churning-spindle the Cosmic Mountain (the Vedic counterpart of Dante's Mountain of Purgatory), and for a twirling-cord they wrapped the Cosmic Serpent around it. Then, with the gods all pulling at the head end and the anti-gods at the tail, they caused that Cosmic Mountain to whirl. And they had been churning thus for a thousand years when a great black cloud of absolutely poisonous smoke came up out of the waters, and the churning had to stop. They had broken through to an unprecedented source of power, and what they were experiencing first were its negative, lethal effects. If the work were to continue, some one of them was going to have to swallow and absorb that poisonous cloud, and, as all knew, there was but one who would be capable of such an act; namely, the archetypal god of yoga, Shiva, a frightening daemonic figure. He just took that entire poison cloud into his begging bowl and at one gulp drank it down, holding it by yoga at the level of his throat, where it turned the whole throat blue; and he has been known as Blue Throat, Nilakantha, ever since. Then, when that wonderful deed had been accomplished, all the other gods and the anti-gods returned to their common labor. And they churned and they churned and they went right on tirelessly churning, until lo! a number of wonderful benefits began coming up out of the Cosmic Sea: the moon, the sun, an elephant with eight trunks came up, a glorious steed, certain medicines, and yes, at last! a great radiant vessel filled with the ambrosial butter.
This old Indian myth I offer as a parable for our world today, as an exhortation to press on with the work, beyond fear.
. . .and then Feynman:
RICHARD P. FEYNMAN
THE RELATION OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION
Some fresh observations on an old problem
"The Relation of Science and Religion" is a transcript of a talk given by Dr. Feynman at the Caltech YMCA Lunch Forum on May 2, 1956.
In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another. The great problems of the relations between one and another aspect of human activity have for this reason been discussed less and less in public. When we look at the past great debates on these subjects we feel jealous of those times, for we should have liked the excitement of such argument. The old problems, such as the relation of science and religion, are still with us, and I believe present as difficult dilemmas as ever, but they are not often publicly discussed because of the limitations of specialization.
But I have been interested in this problem for a long time and would like to discuss it. In view of my very evident lack of knowledge and understanding of religion (a lack which will grow more apparent as we proceed), I will organize the discussion in this way: I will suppose that not one man but a group of men are discussing the problem, that the group consists of specialists in many fields - the various sciences, the various religions and so on - and that we are going to discuss the problem from various sides, like a panel. Each is to give his point of view, which may be molded and modified by the later discussion. Further, I imagine that someone has been chosen by lot to be the first to present his views, and I am he so chosen.
I would start by presenting the panel with a problem: A young man, brought up in a religious family, studies a science, and as a result he comes to doubt - and perhaps later to disbelieve in - his father's God. Now, this is not an isolated example; it happens time and time again. Although I have no statistics on this, I believe that many scientists - in fact, I actually believe that more than half of the scientists - really disbelieve in their father's God; that is, they don't believe in a God in a conventional sense.
Now, since the belief in a God is a central feature of religion, this problem that I have selected points up most strongly the problem of the relation of science and religion. Why does this young man come to disbelieve?
The first answer we might hear is very simple: You see, he is taught by scientists, and (as I have just pointed out) they are all atheists at heart, so the evil is spread from one to another. But if you can entertain this view, I think you know less of science than I know of religion.
Another answer may be that a little knowledge is dangerous; this young man has learned a little bit and thinks he knows it all, but soon he will grow out of this sophomoric sophistication and come to realize that the world is more complicated, and he will begin again to understand that there must be a God.
I don't think it is necessary that he come out of it. There are many scientists - men who hope to call themselves mature - who still don't believe in God. In fact, as I would like to explain later, the answer is not that the young man thinks he knows it all - it is the exact opposite.
A third answer you might get is that this young man really doesn't understand science correctly. I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God - an ordinary God of religion - a consistent possibility?
Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don't believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and whether it is worth attempting to attain it.
When I say "believe in God," of course, it is always a puzzle - what is God? What I mean is the kind of personal God, characteristic of the western religions, to whom you pray and who has something to do with creating the universe and guiding you in morals.
For the student, when he learns about science, there are two sources of difficulty in trying to weld science and religion together. The first source of difficulty is this - that it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.
That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty: "It is very much more likely that so and so is true than that it is not true;" or "such and such is almost certain but there is still a little bit of doubt;" or - at the other extreme - "well, we really don't know." Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.
It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life we don't necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can - and that is what we should do.
Attitude of uncertainty
I think that when we know that we actually do live in uncertainty, then we ought to admit it; it is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions. This attitude of mind - this attitude of uncertainty - is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire. It becomes a habit of thought. Once acquired, one cannot retreat from it any more.
What happens, then, is that the young man begins to doubt everything because he cannot have it as absolute truth. So the question changes a little bit from "Is there a God?" to "How sure is it that there is a God?" This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do. If they are consistent with their science, I think that they say something like this to themselves: "I am almost certain there is a God. The doubt is very small." That is quite different from saying, "I know that there is a God." I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view - that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God - that absolute certainty which religious people have.
Of course this process of doubt does not always start by attacking the question of the existence of God. Usually special tenets, such as the question of an after?life, or details of the religious doctrine, such as details of Christ's life, come under scrutiny first. It is more interesting, however, to go right into the central problem in a frank way, and to discuss the more extreme view which doubts the existence of God.
Once the question has been removed from the absolute, and gets to sliding on the scale of uncertainty, it may end up in very different positions. In many cases it comes out very close to being certain. But on the other hand, for some, the net result of close scrutiny of the theory his father held of God may be the claim that it is almost certainly wrong.
Belief in God - and the facts of science
That brings us to the second difficulty our student has in trying to weld science and religion: Why does it often end up that the belief in God - at least, the God of the religious type - is considered to be very unreasonable, very unlikely? I think that the answer has to do with the scientific things - the facts or partial facts - that the man learns.
For instance, the size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle whirling around the sun, among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies.
Again, there is the close relation of biological man to the animals, and of one form of life to another. Man is a latecomer in a vast evolving drama; can the rest be but a scaffolding for his creation?
Yet again, there are the atoms of which all appears to be constructed, following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it; the stars are made of the same stuff, and the animals are made of the same stuff, but in such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive - like man himself.
It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man - as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.
So let us suppose that this is the case of our particular student, and the conviction grows so that he believes that individual prayer, for example, is not heard. (I am not trying to disprove the reality of God; I am trying to give you some idea of - some sympathy for - the reasons why many come to think that prayer is meaningless.) Of course, as a result of this doubt, the pattern of doubting is turned next to ethical problems, because, in the religion which he learned, moral problems were connected with the word of God, and if the God doesn't exist, what is his word? But rather surprisingly, I think, the moral problems ultimately come out relatively unscathed; at first perhaps the student may decide that a few little things were wrong, but he often reverses his opinion later, and ends with no fundamentally different moral view.
There seems to be a kind of independence in these ideas. In the end, it is possible to doubt the divinity of Christ, and yet to believe firmly that it is a good thing to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. It is possible to have both these views at the same time; and I would say that I hope you will find that my atheistic scientific colleagues often carry themselves well in society.
Communism and the scientific viewpoint
I would like to remark, in passing, since the word "atheism" is so closely connected with "communism," that the communist views are the antithesis of the scientific, in the sense that in communism the answers are given to all the questions - political questions as well as moral ones - without discussion and without doubt. The scientific viewpoint is the exact opposite of this; that is, all questions must be doubted and discussed; we must argue everything out - observe things, check them, and so change them. The democratic government is much closer to this idea, because there is discussion and a chance of modification. One doesn't launch the ship in a definite direction. It is true that if you have a tyranny of ideas, so that you know exactly what has to be true, you act very decisively, and it looks good - for a while. But soon the ship is heading in the wrong direction, and no one can modify the direction any more. So the uncertainties of life in a democracy are, I think, much more consistent with science.
Although science makes some impact on many religious ideas, it does not affect the moral content. Religion has many aspects; it answers all kinds of questions. First, for example, it answers questions about what things are, where they come from, what man is, what God is - the properties of God, and so on. Let me call this the metaphysical aspect of religion. It also tells us another thing - how to behave. Leave out of this the idea of how to behave in certain ceremonies, and what rites to perform; I mean it tells us how to behave in life in general, in a moral way. It gives answers to moral questions; it gives a moral and ethical code. Let me call this the ethical aspect of religion.
Now, we know that, even with moral values granted, human beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It gives inspiration not only for moral conduct - it gives inspiration for the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well.
These three aspects of religion are interconnected, and it is generally felt, in view of this close integration of ideas, that to attack one feature of the system is to attack the whole structure. The three aspects are connected more or less as follows: The moral aspect, the moral code, is the word of God - which involves us in a metaphysical question. Then the inspiration comes because one is working the will of God; one is for God; partly one feels that one is with God. And this is a great inspiration because it brings one's actions in contact with the universe at large.
So these three things are very well interconnected. The difficulty is this: that science occasionally conflicts with the first of the three categories - the metaphysical aspect of religion. For instance, in the past there was an argument about whether the earth was the center of the universe - whether the earth moved around the sun or stayed still. The result of all this was a terrible strife and difficulty, but it was finally resolved - with religion retreating in this particular case. More recently there was a conflict over the question of whether man has animal ancestry.
The result in many of these situations is a retreat of the religious metaphysical view, but nevertheless, there is no collapse of the religion. And further, there seems to be no appreciable or fundamental change in the moral view.
After all, the earth moves around the sun - isn't it best to torn the other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing still or moving around the son? We can expect conflict again. Science is developing and new things will be found out which will he in disagreement with the present?day metaphysical theory of certain religions. In fact, even with all the past retreats of religion, there is still real conflict for particular individuals when they learn about the science and they have heard about the religion. The thing has not been integrated very well; there are real conflicts here - and yet morals are not affected.
As a matter of fact, the conflict is doubly difficult in this metaphysical region. Firstly, the facts may be in conflict, but even if the facts were not in conflict, the attitude is different. The spirit of uncertainty in science is an attitude toward the metaphysical questions that is quite different from the certainty and faith that is demanded in religion. There is definitely a conflict, I believe - both in fact and in spirit - over the metaphysical aspects of religion.
In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever?advancing and always?changing science which is going into an unknown. We don't know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here.
Science and moral questions
On the other hand, I don't believe that a real conflict with science will arise in the ethical aspect, because I believe that moral questions are outside of the scientific realm.
Let me give three or four arguments to show why I believe this. In the first place, there have been conflicts in the past between the scientific and the religious view about the metaphysical aspect and, nevertheless, the older moral views did not collapse, did not change.
Second, there are good men who practice Christian ethics and who do not believe in the divinity of Christ. They find themselves in no inconsistency here.
Thirdly, although I believe that from time to time scientific evidence is found which may be partially interpreted as giving some evidence of some particular aspect of the life of Christ, for example, or of other religious metaphysical ideas, it seems to me that there is no scientific evidence bearing on the golden rule. It seems to me that that is somehow different.
Now, let's see if I can make a little philosophical explanation as to why it is different - how science cannot affect the fundamental basis of morals.
The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First - If I do this, what will happen? - and second - Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value - of good?
Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen? is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see. Then you put together a large amount of information from such experiences. All scientists will agree that a question - any question, philosophical or other - which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment (or, in simple terms, that cannot be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen?) is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science.
I claim that whether you want something to happen or not - what value there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result (which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?) - must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens - in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think that there is a complete consistency between the moral view - or the ethical aspect of religion - and scientific information.
Turning to the third aspect of religion - the inspirational aspect - brings me to the central question that I would like to present to this imaginary panel. The source of inspiration today - for strength and for comfort - in any religion is very closely knit with the metaphysical aspect; that is, the inspiration comes from working for God, for obeying his will, feeling one with God. Emotional ties to the moral code - based in this manner - begin to be severely weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.
I don't know the answer to this central problem - the problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of strength and of courage to most men, while, at the same time, not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects.
The heritages of Western civilization
Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure - the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it - the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics - the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual ?the humility of the spirit.
These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one's heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God?more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?
I put it up to the panel for discussion.