It seems to me that the most casual survey of the current White House, or of commercial television, or of development patterns around, say, Houston, Texas, would cast doubt upon the theory of intelligent design. But then, the smug certitude of the evolutionists is off-putting as well. Creationism, which is intelligent design without the secular costuming, may be literal-minded – and not, I would argue, what the Judeo-Christian Scripture actually means.
But at least, in its own ignorant way, it broaches a kind of question that many of us brooded over as children but then buried in what we euphemistically call our “adult minds.” Where does it all come from? How could something come from nothing? How could time have a beginning? If something came before time, then wouldn’t that be time too? Beneath the pseudo-science is an inkling of things beyond ordinary cognition that even Einstein took seriously.
If Creationism is dumb, is it not equally dumb to assume that the human sensory and conceptual apparatus is co-extensive with the ultimate truth of things? Wasn’t it Montaigne who observed that truth is not bounded by the limits of his own understanding?
I’m not defending Creationists. I don’t want to give them license to inflict their catechism upon my son. But evolution has become a catechism in its own way, and the result has been a conflict that is all too typical of the public realm today – the mental commons that we share. There is little attempt to understand the other side. Instead everyone just hurls the stones of their hardened orthodoxies and – if they hold the upper hand – beats the other into submission.
We do this on race, gender, everything. It isn’t just the Left and its political correctness. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which brays into the night about leftist PC, has a correctness of its own – Economic Correctness – which it asserts with no less rigidity and indignation. To question the omniscience of the market on the Journal editorial pages is like questioning the suppressive power of patriarchy in the Berkeley Women’s Studies Department, and gets a similar response.
Science is supposed to about asking questions, and looking at everything with a quizzical eye. It is supposed to focus on what we don’t understand, not trumpet forever what we do. One thing we can say about evolution – the theory, that is –is that most likely it will be seen one day as at best a partial truth. People will understand more, and will take more into account. I am fairly certain that this larger understanding won’t lead to Creationism. However, the realm of questioning that lies beneath it might provide some clues.
What if people come to realize, for example, that the human cognitive apparatus really doesn’t grasp the whole of reality. What if, that is, they become aware of a certain solipsism in the conventional view of reality itself? We know this about the visual and auditory spectrums, for example, so why not more? What if slowly, people find ways to cognize these dimensions that previously were off the radar, and to work with them.
And to shift to the religion side, what if it turns out that what the Scriptures call “God,” and what the fundamentalists conceive of as a kind of Big Guy in the sky, turns out to be something very different: another dimension or dimensions of reality, that the prophets had an intuition of, and described in the best way that they could? In that case, what we call science and religion would start to converge, because both would become different.
Okay, I’m speculating, and in a way that will not increase my standing in some circles. But I for one think we need more such speculation. We are stuck on a mobius strip of materialist assumptions, and you don’t have to be a fundamentalist to hold that view. Jacob Needleman, the philosopher, calls us “metaphysically repressed.” If we could just loosen up a little the public debate would be greatly enriched.
What’s wrong, for example, with encouraging teachers to raise the metaphysical issues without offering a doctrinaire answer to them? There really are questions of origin, aim and purpose that evolution doesn’t answer, and can’t. Kids crave real questions to chew on, not formulas and pablum. If parents want to provide their own answers to such questions, fine. (A curious part of this whole controversy is how people who usually thump the tub for parental responsibility, now want the public schools to do their religious teaching for them.)
The enclosure of the mental realm does not come just from corporations. It comes from bigotry, opinionation, and academic authority as well. People are drawn to such theories as Creationism not just by religion per se, but also because these stick it to the experts who think they know everything. They are a form of claiming back the capacity to understand and define our own experience and world.
Those who call themselves “progressives” increasingly fall on the wrong side of this instinct. They identify with and invoke the authority of experts; people who did well in school themselves, they bring the authority structure of the schools into the political realm. From nutrition to global warming, we are supposed to do what the experts tell us, not what meshes with our own narratives about the world and our place in it.
This tendency bites them in the heels where the commons is concerned. The biggest single impediment to commons thinking and practice, apart from corporate appetite, is the economic theory that justifies that appetite, and disparages the commons in the process. This economics is entrenched in the schools and on the editorial pages. It bears the mantle of science, because it couches itself in a metaphor of mechanism, and proceeds by arcane math. It is professed with a certitude similar to that with which clerics once maintained that the sun revolves around the earth.
A public arena that is a little more rambunctious and a little less subservient to expert authority – the Greenspans of the world – would help to unseat it. At least it’s worth a try.