Thursday, February 12, 2009

Of Darwin, Understanding and Human Limitations

I often tell my students that the fact they do not understand something does not mean it cannot be understood or, worse yet, that there is nothing to understand. I have had to learn that lesson myself the hard way, over time.

When I encounter an article, like that I have just skimmed by Joseph Carroll, professor of English at University of Missouri/St. Louis, entitled “From Evolution Comes Literature,” I recognize my limits as a thinker and, ultimately, as a human being. Carroll talks about the “co-evolution of genes and culture,” an idea I simultaneously find fascinating and yet difficult to follow in the argument he offers. I sometimes assuage my bruised ego by reassuring myself that with enough time and work, I could probably make sense of the article. And in this particular case, that’s probably true. But I also know that there are many disciplines of thought ranging from the physical sciences to linguistics in which my best efforts would yield, at the very best, a rudimentary understanding if an understanding at all.

Recognizing that one does not understand something is an admission of one’s limits. It’s also the teachable moment in some cases. Such admission becomes more difficult with the amount of education one has undertaken with the corresponding expectations others anticipate from those little letters and periods one adds to the end of his/her name. The Florida Humanities Council employs people like me to go to events ranging from a public discussion of religion, science and sexuality to a reading program for working class families bearing the title “scholar.” As I often say, it inevitably makes me nervous to be so described since, as I jokingly say, “People will expect me to actually know something.” In truth, what I mean is that some people will expect a “scholar” to know everything, i.e., to have all the answers. I have never even momentarily indulged myself with such a fantasy concerning my own capacities.

The story I often tell my classes is of my work study job at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, a nine seminary consortium combined with several religious studies institutes (e.g., The Institute of Religion and Economic Policy) and the famed Planet Bezerkeley University of California campus just a block to the south. I worked in the library at GTU which also gave me occasional reason to go over to the main library at Cal. It was a wonderful job for a book lover. It also provided me an important lesson about human limitations.

My job was to reshelve books. My habit was to identify certain books I wanted to read, take them down the street to the Krishna Copy Center where for 2.5 cents a page I could copy them, bind the copies and thus take home a copy to read at some identified later date. It was a great job and a great way to become exposed to the wide range of literature in world religions. One day I noticed that the pile of books I had reserved to copy was greater than the pile I was to reshelve. And suddenly the realization came crashing down on me that if I did nothing more than sit on the floor of that beautiful library for the rest of my natural life reading the books I would select to read, I would never finish reading the books on the shelves that day. Moreover, I would never read anything that was published thereafter. I was limited. I had experienced what Buddhists call a sudden kensho, a flash of momentary enlightenment into reality, which brought into painful focus my own limitations, limitations I would have to learn to live with, ending my self-delusions regarding my own capacities. It was a painful lesson but an enormously important one.

Human beings are not meant to know everything. That we desire to know everything can speak to a healthy sense of curiosity. It can also suggest some darker motivations such as security issues informing a drive to control one’s lifeworld. One way such drives play out is the denial of anything which contradicts one’s own existing set of understandings and the absolute avoidance of change. A rather hackneyed criticism of the western church asserts “It’s not hard to have all the answers when one never allows any questions.”

As difficult as it is for people with average intellects and educations to deal with information they find incomprehensible, difficulties that often end in dismissal if not anti-intellectualism (think Spiro Agnew’s “pointed headed liberals,” an unwitting reference to the dunce caps named after misunderstood scholar John Duns Scotus), it is at least that difficult for well educated people. Perhaps it is our hubris that tells us that we are smart, that we are well educated, and that if we think a given way, it stands a much better chance of being correct that what others think. Of course, that reasoning has some merit. But it also readily serves as rationalization for avoidance, denial and dismissal of ideas which run headlong into understandings we hold deemed settled if not sacred.

The article that spurred this reflection comes from a series of articles that Forbes magazine is running on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origins of the Species. It is well worth your time to investigate. Having recently watched the very fine Nova program, Intelligent Design on Trial, on PBS, I have become increasingly intrigued with the ongoing controversy about evolution which I find somewhat incomprehensible. Of course, the fact I don’t get the concerns of the sworn enemies of Darwin doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that they are insignificant, particularly to their holders.

There are many issues that seem to leap from the pages of the Forbes articles and from the Nova program. Perhaps the primary issues are the avoidance of the ongoing change and development that evolutionary theory recognizes and the loss of a sense of specialness of both individuals bearing the image of G-d and human beings as the apex of the chain of being resulting from creation. The former is a security issue. Recognition that human beings do not totally understand their universe, much less control it, is both a blow to our egos as well as destabilizing of our sense of security. The realization that human beings are the outgrowth of a process that necessarily places us among rather than atop if not outside all other life forms strikes at both our egocentrism as individuals and our anthropocentrism as a species. It’s little wonder that human beings seeking existential security and affirmation in the arms of mother church would find Darwin’s contribution to our self-understanding troubling if not threatening.

Admittedly it takes a modicum of self-assurance to be able to say, “I don’t understand this but that doesn’t mean it cannot be understood or that there is nothing to understand.” In my own case, 17 years of higher education has provided some assurance for me even as I recognize that my life history is somewhat of an anomaly – if not a lesson in privilege – vis-à-vis most human beings. But what those years of education in disparate disciplines - ranging from education to law to theology to the social sciences – has taught me is the realization that crystallized for me that day on the floor of the GTU library in Berkeley – how much there is to know, how little of it I actually know and how little of it I could come to know prior to my death- was absolutely true. It is a lesson in humility though hardly humiliation. And if I doubted the truth of that lesson learned in Berkeley in 1994, the last 11 years of teaching interdisciplinary humanities covering understandings taken from the arts to philosophy, from critical theory to architecture and from literature to cognitive science have certainly provided many examples of the limitations briefly glimpsed on that library floor so many years ago.

One last thought on this. That I find something incomprehensible and offer the maker of an argument the benefit of the doubt does not somehow mean that all arguments are, in the end, compelling. An example on point here: it is difficult to take seriously the arguments of organizations like the Discovery Institute or my former instructor at the GTU, Dr. Phillip Johnson from the UC Boalt Hall Law School, that the world is but 6000 years old, give or take a few years, and that the first (of two) accounts of creation found in the Hebrew Scripture’s Genesis are somehow reportorial in nature reflecting actual events. One has to jump through too many presuppositional hoops to get there. At some level, this is both bad theology and bad science. And it’s particularly bad thinking for any number of reasons beyond the scope of this entry. Humility of thought requires neither a blind relativism nor an uncritical search for understanding. For those who would be mindful, figuring out which is which becomes our life work.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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