Life is a miracle

 

Several years ago I read E.O. Wilson’s Consilience. Wilson is one of the world’s foremost biologists, and had already inspired me, in terms of his fervour for conservation and his invention of the term “biophilia” which refers to the innate love for nature that we are all born with, but often seems to fade with adolescence. So I picked up the book with great interest!

However, Consilience was a challenging read for a Christian biologist like myself. I did not read Wendell Berry’s book-length rebuttal Life is a Miracle until a couple weeks ago. Of course, within a Christian worldview, clearly life is a miracle, but Berry delivers a poignantly potent polemic on the topic!

Here are some nuggets from Life is a Miracle.I am sure you can fashion your own thread (but read the book to know I’m not just stringing you along): 

“I am aware how brash this commentary will seem, coming from me, who have no competence or learning in science.  The issue I am attempting to deal with, however, is not knowledge, but ignorance.  In ignorance I believe I may pronounce myself a fair expert.” (Berry p. 10)

“Mr. Wilson’s scientific ‘faith’(as he sometimes calls it) is in the ultimate empirical explainability of everything – that is, the ‘consilience’ of all the disciplines ‘by the linking of facts and fact based theory…to create a common groundwork of explanation’ (Wilson p. 8).” (Berry p. 30).

“Mr. Wilson is, to begin with, a materialist.He believes that this is ‘a lawful material world’ (Wilson p. 8), all the laws of which can be explained and understood empirically, and are subject to scientific proofs.He holds that ‘all tangible phenemona, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible…to the laws of physics.’(Wilson p. 266)” (Berry p. 25)

“There is a reduction, by now more formulaic than procedural, that seems endemic to modern science, and from science it has spread everywhere.I mean the definition or identification of the world and all its creatures as ‘machines.’This is one of the fundamental assertions in Consilience.” (Berry p. 46)

“A machine, to state only the greatest and most obvious difference, is a human artifact, and a world or an organism is not.But Mr. Wilson, like many others, is fond of this error, and he carries it further.He says, first that ‘the brain is a machine’ (Wilson p. 96), and then he says that ‘the mind…is the brain at work’ (Wilson p. 98)…The proposed theory of human mentality, then, is a simple formula: mind = brain = machine.” (Berry pp. 46-47)

“The highest art, as William Blake said, is able

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

(Blake’s Complete Writings, p. 431)

To paint a convincing portrait of the Virgin is to realize that for Christ to be born into this world He had to have a human mother.To write believably of a pilgrimage from Hell to Heaven, or of the transfiguring destitution of Gloucester and Lear, is to require time to remember eternity.Mr. Wilson’s science, on the contrary, cannot see a world in a grain of sand.It can classify, name, and (within limits) explain a grain of sand, and divide it into ever smaller parts.There is no reason to say that this work is not admirable, valuable, or useful.But there is a reason to say that it is not equivalent to, and it does not replace, the imagination of William Blake.Blake’s lines remind us again of the miraculousness of life.The news has been delivered to us time after time in our long tradition.It cannot be proved.It can only be told or shown.”(Berry pp. 114-115)

As a scientist, I am supposed to defend my discipline, and maybe even show how it informs other disciplines.But as a human being, and not a machine, I should be able to appreciate art for art’s sake, without the mechanistic, reductionist explanations imposed by the consilience project.

Likewise, all of us in today’s society (scientists or not), are often caught up in the worship of science, voicing a faith not too unlike Wilson that everything can be reduced to a scientific explanation, whether a painting, a molecule of chlorophyll or a human mind.Where does that leave mystery?Wilson would banish mystery from our world, but can he?

I think the “expert on ignorance” Wendell Berry has ably pointed out that life is a miracle because life is a mystery.How can we know life is a mystery?Sometimes just “contemplating life” can do it – try contemplating the caterpillar that was roaming Trinity Western University’s Salt Spring Island Crow’s Nest Ecological Reserve a few weeks ago…

 


Photo by Victor Clements, August 2009

References

Berry, Wendell (2000) Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition.Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.

Wilson, Edward O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

 

Last updated Aug. 31st, 2009 at 4:07pm by David Clements