Saturday, April 25, 2009

Other Transitional Figures

Emerging as I did from a Jesuit education—which I value, incidentally—one of the amusing paradoxes I encountered was that some famous authors of my youth were labeled heretics by both sides—my teachers as well as the Pundocracy of Unbelief. I use that ponderous term in order to signal a difference between science and scientism. Practitioners of science—physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology—are too busy to be ideological. They tend to be confident—but only too aware of their own and of their craft’s limitations. To have a dogmatic spirit must be a special cross to bear. It is a temptation to exercise power rather than a yearning for truth. I’d rather suffer from the latter. But the point is that any system of belief, religious or atheistic, will have those who yield to the temptation and thus morph into irritating busybodies.

The authors I have in mind, those who didn’t fit the orthodoxies on offer, I call transitional figures, believing (maybe with an excess optimism) that what comes around goes around, hence no curve ever just goes up. There will be seasons. And if rationalism (however much I value it) goes too far, it will be corrected by intuition. And vice versa.

I’ve mentioned two of these figures recently—Carl Jung and Teilhard de Chardin. The first began as a Freudian and then reintroduced the West to God in the form of the Collective Unconscious. The other began in Darwin’s neighborhood and produced an evolutionary theory which gradually forms a sphere of mind straining towards Omega. Both of these terms are nicely ambiguous. Both thinkers clung to naturalism when you get right down to it, but of an antsy sort. It’s a naturalism clawing away at veils and trying to break free. Messy, too. Over against it a stolid, Stoic atheism appears downright noble—but, alas, the Stoic must eventually confess that pop culture is its lineal descendant, and it ain’t pretty, much less noble. Slimy wiggle-things: are they new birth or corruption?

Other figures I think of as transitional are William James, Pierre Lecompte du Noüy, and David Bohm. They were a psychologist, a doctor, and a physicist. James influenced me greatly with his book entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience; du Noüy wrote on evolution. David Bohm strayed from physics enough in his late years to commit cosmology.

James was one of the first of those who almost touched the transcendental in his writings—and certainly did so in his actual life. He keenly felt the constraining limits of naturalistic science but was a modern man rooted in empirical soil and resistant to the older practice of “natural philosophy.”

Du Noüy’s book, Human Destiny, lay waiting for me a-mouldering on the shelves of the Grosse Pointe Library; written in 1947, it must have been enormously popular to make it to these shelves. Grosse Pointe is an auto-baron’s sleeping quarters (although I live, so to say, in the servant’s wing of it). The Library here is the worst I’ve ever had to call my own. By the time I was fully grown, the name had disappeared, but de Chardin, who had a similar take on evolution, was all the rage. De Chardin saw evolution is cosmic terms, du Noüy under a moral sway. He saw the triumph of life as “conscience” and pictured morality as the future path of evolution. Conscience will somehow lead to another leap forward in some remote future time. He offered very meager hopes for individuals in that he seemed to doubt that “souls” exist and thus continue beyond the grave. His focus of admiration was “human dignity.” He also embraced the piety that seems to have come down to us from the nineteenth century—held by scientifically inclined but well-meaning people (like my Mother)—that we “live on” through our deeds and contributions. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, etc. The man must have been a moral paragon to think that such a view could possibly inspire humanity to heroic self-denial; at bottom his vision offers no hope for the individual. But du Noüy was clearly not an intuitive, poetic type and therefore missed a whole dimension of his theme. He thought that the miracle—at least the last miracle—was the human brain—which tells me that he never pondered the paradoxes of consciousness or the mysteries of inner life. The book has a distinctly nineteenth century flavor. The New Age was still aborning…

David Bohm wrote the definitive textbook on quantum theory, under that very title. It is still used in teaching the subject—and a copy of it is on sale at my local Barnes & Noble. His claim to fame, however, is an alternative hypothesis to quantum theory; when applied it explains the same phenomena giving the same physical results, but the underlying theory requires a new cosmological view. The theory is laid out in a book, written with B.J. Hiley, titled The Undivided Universe: An ontological interpretation of quantum theory. His take on intelligence—as the manifestation of what he describes as an “unconditioned order” in the cosmos—is developed in a much more accessible work (almost no equations), Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order; it is available in trade paperback from Amazon.

One is tempted to include in this listing Henri Bergson as well, but he does not fit my criteria. He was not a scientist by avocation or profession. His poetic élan vital was the product of a philosophical intuition, not a diversion from a narrow scientific path forced on him by intuition. And ultimately the famed élan is the assertion of a “it is what it is,” thus “life is life.”

There are probably other important figures I just failed to come across, notice, or remember. But these five individuals have been important in forming my conviction that we are in a transitional period. Thought always leads. What I see around me contradicts that which I feel, but then the present is always a drag on the future. And the Renaissance dreamers were also surrounded by the mediaeval inertia, and its corruptions, visible all around them.

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