Sunday, February 8, 2009

The New Saints

O Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.
Our age is fond of demystifying our traditions. It’s a movement, in part conscious, in part collectively unconscious, ultimately culture-driven. The leaders of this movement, seconded by a cynical press, view this activity as progress. But, alas, it is just part of a cycle of change. In wave after wave of revelations we’ve been told that we are first cousins to the apes. Later our prophets have issued a correction: No, we are mere carriers of selfish genes. Our heroes were cruel and greedy exploiters, our old saints certifiably schizophrenic.

Amidst this rising chorus of progress, it’s easy to overlook that another process has been taking place alongside the debunking. It is the glorification of science and the exaltation of its leading figures. Some have been elevated straight to Olympus (Einstein, Darwin) while others have only been sainted. Among these are the Big Bang’s father, Hubble, and the holy pair of DNA, Watson and Crick. Heisenberg (Uncertainty), Schrödinger (his cat), and Freud (his Id) are other saints of note.

I’m putting this vividly to make a point. The past is by no means innocent, and science is full of merit. But what interests me in the current context is the way in which powerful cultural contents have come to use the substrate of mundane science as a carrier of values.
The process of mystification is neatly on display in a series of popular books on physics that appeared during my years of maturity. I read them all with a great deal of attention. Some reveal their interesting take in their titles, like The Dance of the Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics, The Looking Glass Universe. Others are simply intriguing or praise our happy times: In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, The Symbiotic Universe, Coming of Age in the Milky Way. These samples are largely concerned with Quantum Mechanics, but there is a similar literature centered on our Holy Father Einstein and his twin theories of relativity, General and Special. The pop literature on string theory is thinner—perhaps because the theory is rather obscure and thus far lacks achievements. To this literature we must add the Augustinian “confessions” of actual practitioners, of whom Stephen Haw­king (A Brief History of Time) has been spectacularly successful, perhaps because, severely handicapped and wheel-chair bound, he touches our neo-medi­aeval intuitions of what it takes to be a saint.

In addition to the two halves of physics (classical and quantum), biology (as evolutionary theory) and cosmology (as the theology of the Big Bang) have developed similar haloes of tendentious literature. This would not be a counter-movement to the debunking of tradition if we left it at that. There are endless variants and combinations. We have new popular theories of consciousness based on quantum uncertainty. We have adherents of the Anthropic Principle who see the laws of nature designed to produce humans. We have the Many Worlds interpretation according to which every choice made spawns another full-fledged cosmos with copies of ourselves. We have vast clouds of complexity rising out of Chaos in some mysterious way that only expert manipulators of quadratic equations and fractal graphics can hope to understand—and much more along these lines. Thus far I have stuck to subjects considered to be genuine science and have left such words as “synchronicity” and “paranormal” out of this paragraph. Words like that, to be sure, are wormholes by means of which we can escape from the new faith of scientific righteousness, tunnels back out to the old time religion.

Truly, we live in a religious age.

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