Darwin’s Eden (18,000 words)
Book One. A Preface: The Curse that This Most Wonderful of Men Bequeathed to Us All.
Part One: As if they had put arsenic in his coffee.
A Preface to a Preface. This is my personal story of trying to make the best sense that I can of the world. I thought it best by beginning with an overall introduction to what I now find I can only accommodate within three books, and I hope, perhaps vainly, that it will at least whet the reader’s appetite to read them. I realise though that this is a dangerous plan, for such a condensation with little preliminary explanation and even less detailed development will only cause confusion and uncertainty in the reader’s mind. But I hope you will bear with that, for I have come to think that this is not merely an unfortunate corollary but a central theme in what I have to say. Confusion and uncertainty is the natural state of human beings although we flee from it. I am very impressed by Wittgenstein’s contention that our powers of comprehension are limited by the language games, to use his term, within which we think and express ourselves. We easily come to think that our particular language game is the only significant one because it is ours. We are easily deluded. But the greatest delusion is that pattern of thought that had previously been his and is still devoutly revered by so many humanists. On this view, only science and logic can tell us ultimate truth because only proven facts are critically unassailable and only logic is rationally irrefutable.
There is a difference in science between facts and meanings. Facts are certain but meanings are not. The history of science tells us that discovered facts have always been enmeshed in imagined meanings that at the time of their discovery were thought to be as certain as the facts, but a later science has always shown to be merely mythical distortions. Throughout its history science at its margins has always dissolved into myth, for at the time of their discovery its increasingly astonishing revelations were only poorly understood and by the time they were comprehended better science had moved on to yet more amazing discoveries, new insights that not only modified their own field but altered whole previous world pictures. There is no reason to think that this dallying with myth at the margins does not apply today just as it always has. But now we are into a new phase that is even beyond our attempts to grasp what is not as yet fully comprehended even through myth. I am immensely excited by the discoveries of contemporary science which I believe is revealing to us that there are areas of reality beyond rational and logical comprehension altogether, realms of uncertainty into which even science itself cannot reach. But we crave for certainty, whether grounded in the proven facts of science or the unquestionable truth of the Bible.
I want to offer you a confusing and telegraphic introduction too because I want to give some blurred sense of overall pattern. But is there inbuilt pattern? Or at the margins are there just Darwinian hazard and accident? Perhaps such questions are unanswerable, yet I cannot quite escape the sense that there has been a providential pattern in my own life and a hankering suspicion, or only wish perhaps, that there is forethought and purpose in the history of the earth and the shape of the universe. Yet I believe too – I haven’t read Darwin and Dawkins for nothing – that we do live in a Darwinian world of unplanned hazard and unintended accident. How can these contradictory thoughts be reconciled? I wrestle with them every day. Yet, strangely perhaps, it is in the unanswered questioning of these conundrums that I find relief. I cannot quite accept the open and shut self-confirming case of reductionist science. It is in confusion more confounded, I have come to believe – for there is no absolute certainty, only the belief code that as individuals we find suits us best – only in the unmapped wandering is it that we are most ourselves. How can subatomic elements be both particles and waves? Not only do we not know, such a proposition escapes the most elementary law of logic that one thing cannot be two different, and indeed in this case opposite, things at the same time? Yet they are. How can two photons communicate with each other instantaneously across the whole universe, thus abrogating Einstein’s most basic principle that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Except light. Alles klar?
Again connected with my understanding of Wittgenstein’s teaching about language games is what I call the narrow slit. Our fundamental predicament is that we have universal minds trapped in local circumstances. We inevitably see what we see through limited apertures, generally based on whatever philosophy happens to be dominant, often only as the consequence of historical accident, in our own culture. The trouble is you can’t know everything, and because of that even what you do know is only uncertainly known. This book is filled with praise for Richard Dawkins who has been such a great influence on me. But I have one great doubt that more than anything else prevents me from signing up to his atheism. It seems to me that despite his detestation of religion he still sees everything through the narrow slit of the Protestantization, and now the post-Protestantization, of science in the seventeenth century, an occurrence consequent on the fear of being burnt alive inspired in Catholic scientists by the execution of Giordano Bruno and the trial of Galileo. I am dismayed by Dawkins’ easy dismissal of Goethe and the Kantian tradition in science (Climbing Mount Improbable Penguin 1997 p.208), Plato (An Appetite for Wonder Black Swan 2014 p.290) and contemporary post-modern philosophers (A Devil’s Chaplain Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2003 pp 47-53). None of these thinkers said anything that is incompatible with modern discoveries about genes that he explains so well. None of them are explained in their own terms or treated fairly. But then what you can’t see out of your own window you don’t see. Yet they hugely enrich our efforts to comprehend what the genetic facts might mean. They deserve better than sarcastic dismisssal and little attempt to grapple with their thinking.
I particularly want to draw attention to the failure, as I see it, of contemporary science to attend to the tradition of phenomenology in continental philosophy. Phenomenology is the kind of word from which many British people would shrink, kicking the stone with Doctor Johnson, as if they had found they were eating slugs. But its fundamental proposition is a simple one. The surface of things, what we experience, is just as much happening in the world and needs to be accounted for as the molecules and the genes. Scientists are so busy looking through microscopes they easily forget to look out of the window. I have come to think, too, that ever since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century we have been led astray by the idea that abstract rational thought is important and reliable, but nebulous irrational feeling is not, at best a relaxing diversion for the exhausted thinker at worst a dangerous delusion. This is a false dichotomy I now believe. Feelings matter. Art can tell us as much about the ultimate nature of ourselves and the world as can science, and indeed should not be separated from it. Our feelings of delight and awe and wonder when we see the natural and beautiful forms that surround us – of which we are indeed ourselves a part although for the sake of pure rational enquiry we frequently do our best to separate ourselves from them and disown this most basic truth – are as important, perhaps more, as our dissections of these lovely things, thereby necessarily destroying their completed loveliness, on the laboratory table.
I want to describe how I discovered Richard Dawkins and how he led me to view the Catholicism in which I had been raised as a child both with amazement that I could have been so naively trusting and horror at my realisation that the Catholic Church has been, and to some extent still is, the most evil institution in the world for its crimes have been so great. Even Hitler and Stalin did not commit their atrocities in the name of the gentle Lamb of God. Yet the quest upon which I embarked under Dawkins’ influence has led me back to the Catholic faith. Whereas before I was no more than a tepid Mass attender, even though I had been a Benedictine monk for many years – that too I presume to wonder even part of a mysteriously foreordained pattern – now I am a fervent believer. Can I really justify this? Can so contradictory an end to so disillusioned a beginning make any kind of sense? Is this anything more than a hypocritical refuge from the confusion and uncertainty that I claim is the native human condition? I ask myself the question every day. I can only hope you find my story and the conclusions I have come to interesting.
The arsenic in the coffee.
My heroes are Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins although it is especially their writings when they were young men that thrill me so much. I mean heroes in the sense that the protagonists of Greek tragedy were heroes, men of exceptional talent and nobility brought low by a fatal flaw, what the Greeks called hamartia. I want to argue that in their case the fatal flaw was the Protestantization and now the post-Protestantization of science. It is a startlingly unusual angle I know, but let me make my case. The young Darwin’s entries in the journal he kept during the voyage of The Beagle are surely amongst the most fascinating and poetic writings about nature ever written in English. But in middle age the exquisitely intense emotional life of this wonderful man mysteriously died. It just died. He could now feel nothing. ‘My mind seems to have become a machine for grinding out facts’ he lamented. None of the glory that he had encountered in the rain forests of Brazil found its way into The Origin of Species. Only on the very last page is there any mention of the wonder of nature, and then it is the consequence of ‘famine, extermination, disease and death’. But famine, extermination, disease and death cause nothing, any more than an accident to his father on the road causes a young man to inherit his father’s business. Natural selection is not a cause but a consequence of whatever force it is in the genes that drives evolution. Darwin projected a metaphor drawn from Victorian capitalism onto nature. He was driven out of the Eden he had found in Brazil and, like Adam, he has passed on this primal curse to us all. This is now the starting point of all my thinking and I want to much develop the theme in the next book. Darwin forgot about, or suppressed, or now found his mind so dismal unable to contemplate – ‘the mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a future & more quiet pleasure will arise’ he had once trustingly written – the ravishing beauties he had experienced in the rain forests of Brazil. And now we have mostly forgotten them too.
Richard Dawkins’ writing, especially his early ones, inspire me similarly. It was his enchantment and wonder, his contagious delight inseparable from the scientific knowledge he so skilfully imparts, that enthralled me so much. He has had a huge influence on me. Deprived of scientific education, I was enthused by his passion for science and became intoxicated. I read every scientific book I could find whose content was within my mental capacity which was by no means all of them, so I think about science as every seeker after truth surely must but write about it only in a hesitant and enquiring way. I’ve had no formal scientific education and I want to learn and open myself to correction. I am no great pundit and I am most ready to receive rebuke if I can be persuaded it is justified. What really thrilled me though was Richard’s love of the nature that he described so well.
These days I have many issues with The Selflish Gene, but, nevertheless, despite that this is a book telling us all the way through up to this last page the precise opposite, he ends it with such a thrilling clarion call to freedom. “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”. But, if we are built by the genes solely to carry out their purposes, how is this? I find myself unsatisfied by the explanation we are given in Richard’s essay “Genes Aren’t Us”. It is as if, he tells us, we were suspended from the ceiling in a blanket held by multitudes of tangled strings. If one string goes missing or gets cut it affects the tension in all the other strings which explains why we aren’t always exactly the robots intended by the genes. I don’t see this as escaping from the tyranny of the selfish replicators at all, but only a slightly less efficient form of servitude. It is only now that I have come to realise how precious our freedom is. May I take the liberty of calling him Richard without too great a degree of impertinent familiarity? I don’t want to refer to him as Dawkins because that is the professional language of the distinguished colleagues he refers to so often, much to my annoyance I must admit. My debt to him, in spite of my now many disagreements, is too personal for that.
Consider The Greatest Show on Earth. The scholarship, worn so easily and communicated so fascinatingly, is daunting. But it is the love of nature that underlies his knowledge of it, his sympathy and feeling, that move me so much. Consider on page 189 his account of the Taung child, the fossil of the earliest Australopithecus ever to have been discovered. It is thought that at the age of three and a half, he tells us, the Taung child was eaten by an eagle, because the damage marks in the eye socket are similar to those made by modern eagles as they rip out the eyes of monkeys. “Poor little Taung child, shrieking on the wind, as you were borne aloft by the aquiline fury, you would have found no comfort in your destined fame, two and a half million years on, as the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus. Poor Taung mother, weeping in the Pleistocene”. Has anybody since the young Darwin himself ever invested the dry facts of science with such deep and exquisite feeling? You can imagine God, if there is a supposedly merciful God, looking on helplessly at the scene with an abundance of tears. Darwin’s own belief in God dissolved before his horror at the behaviour of the ichneumon fly that penetrates the flesh of its victim to lay its eggs, so that when the grubs hatch they can eat the living flesh from the inside. Have the religions any solution to, even comment upon, the horrors of nature supposedly created by this supposedly kind God? Do the daily abominations all around us wring their hearts as they did Darwin’s, and now Dawkins’. I see little evidence. How can we believe in God when nature is so cruel?
I am still thrilled by The Blind Watchmaker and above all by Climbing Mount Improbable. In the latter the chapters on how the fig wasp turns its flowers inside out in ‘ a garden inclosed’ as he calls it so the wasp is drawn to spread pollen on the inside pf the fig – his love for the poetry of the Bible, especially the Song of Songs, illumines and irradiates the text with surprise – his account of the exquisite delicacy of the radiolaria and how a spider builds her web, these are pedagogical masterpieces. The book shines out with the beauty of these lovely things. Most of all though I was impressed, and still am no less, by his description of armies of ants moving through the forests of Panama in The Blind Watchmaker. Unfortunately I am not able to quote all of this wonderful passage for copyright reasons, although if and when I publish the book I hope to get permission to do so, so I will only quote the first sentence:..
‘As an adult in Panama I have stepped aside and contemplated the New World equivalent of the driver ants I had feared as a child in Africa, flowing by me like a crackling river, and I can testify to the strangeness and the wonder…’
Could you ever match this passage for magnificent writing, the senses quivering, the attention wrapped, the whole person every bodily fibre engaged transformed by the marvel, ‘the strangeness and the wonder’? It certainly wraps and engages me. Yet I just can’t believe that this wondrous phenomenon demanding our attention so imperiously, the eye transfixed, the imagination ‘strained to its limits’, as Kant tells us, is simply the product of little strings of chemicals that have no imagination or intention at all. Yes, the bravery of the soldiers was driven by their genes. Yet, I cannot but think, there must be some still greater source of the strangeness and the wonder driving the genes. My whole enquiry stands or falls by this. Is there some greater source of wonder? And if there is what is it? It is a conundrum with which I wrestle every day.
The greatest effect by far, though, that Richard had on me was in the sphere of religion. I was arrested by his courage and honesty and the searing passion of his attacks. I had been an unquestioning Catholic as a boy, had indeed as a young man joined a monastery where I had resided for years. I had been unhappy as a monk, the devotions and the rituals and the private prayer we were supposed to do each day meant little and as time went on increasingly less, but once you are in a system like that it is hard to abandon it. I slumbered on. In a monastery the truths of religion are so taken for granted they become unquestioned and almost unquestionable. You eat and breathe religion for your breakfast and your tea. It is almost like a lawyer beginning to question the value of the law. It is not only that your livelihood depends on it, but the very shapes and structures of your thinking have become irrevocably and conceptually legal. But in the end I did leave, and my departure was soon followed by my first readings of Richard Dawkins.
I stood aghast at how complacent I had been. When I was a boy at a Catholic school we had believed what we were taught – or anyway I did – without quibble. We were all taught that there is a God somewhere beyond the sky judging all we do, especially our sexual misdemeanours. We were created to love and serve God in this world and be happy with him in heaven in the next the Penny Catechism told us. There was no question of religion making us happy in this world. Because mankind’s sin had been so grievous God was led to sacrifice his own son in the most horrible way. Only so perfect a sacrifice could make reparation for so great a sin. The Eucharistic transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass was an unquestionable miracle. Baptism wiped away the stain of sin on your soul that you had been born with. The natural human condition, unredeemed by religion, was utterly wretched. We knew all this was true because the Pope was infallible. Over it all hung the fear of hell for those who stepped out of line, not that we were likely to go to hell because you could always go to confession on your deathbed, but atheists and Protestants had better look out. Every Lent Jesuits were brought into the school to preach a retreat, especially one Father Hell Fire Blake, who was brought back year after year, as his admonitions were thought to be especially efficacious. I remember once he dramatically threatened that for all we know in five minutes time the world might come to an end and all those boys on the right would go to heaven and all those on the left to hell. To do them justice the ones on the left all cheered. It is only now that I realise it was clean contrary to Catholic doctrine even in those days But we trembled and went to confession just in case. Now, released from the monastery and much influenced by Richard’s attacks on religion I began to question all this. It had also been the time of the Second Vatican Council. Even the Church itself seemed no longer confident in its beliefs. I was all at sea.
I now saw with piercing clarity that the Catholic Church has surely been the most evil institution in history. Even Hitler and Stalin didn’t commit their dreadful crimes in the name of the gentle lamb of God, and the misdeeds of the Church, its countless burnings of people alive and the torturing of so many thousands in the dungeons of the Inquisition for so many centuries – all of these terrible things stood up well to the concentration camps and the gulags in the catalogues of infamy. Nor was it only in the remote past that the Church has been such a malign burden on mankind. I also read John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope when it came out. In !984 David Yallop had published a book, In God’s Name it was called, making the case that the Vatican had murdered John Paul 1st soon after he became pope. It so happened that Cornwell, once a seminarian at the English College and now a journalist, was visiting some old friends in Rome. As a result of a chance meeting he was engaged by the Vatican to answer Yallop. He did so in a book called A Thief in the Night. It is a crushing demolition of Yallop’s case. Cornwell’s picture is of a pope who was already very sick and not surprisingly died of natural causes. But the account of how the Vatican treated him, with a contempt and inhumanity that Cornwell thinks undoubtedly contributed to the Pope’s death, this is utterly dismaying. He was belittled and scorned – a naïve little parish priest from Venice – he was even denied access to a doctor. Cornwell finishes his book by saying that he died through lack of love, ‘they killed him as surely as if they had put arsenic in his coffee’. What a burning sword thrust into the very heart of the Church, almost infinitely more lethal an indictment than any Yallop had launched. A total lack of love in the very heart of the Church! ‘They killed him as surely as if they had put arsenic in his coffee’. The sentence sank into my soul almost as if it were itself the arsenic poisoning the coffee.
The Vatican was so unconcerned about love they never even noticed this deadly and ferocious thrust. They were so pleased that Cornwell had answered Yallop they invited him to write another book, exonerating Pius XII from the charge that Pius had failed to try to halt the Holocaust, and most unusually threw open the Vatican archives. But when Cornwell read the archives he was led to write a book very different from the one the Vatican wanted. So came about Hitler’s Pope. It is mostly concerned with Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pius XII, when he was papal nuncio in Germany during the 1930’s. The background that most concerned Pacelli was the reluctance in the Church to accept the decrees of the code of canon law that had been published in 1917. Up until then bishops had been chosen in a multitude of haphazard and often curious ways. Now the Papacy wanted them all, throughout the Church, to be appointed by the Vatican. But many Catholic preferred the old ways and this was particularly the case in Austria where for a thousand years and more bishops had been elected by cathedral chapters. Catholics were resisting. They were in a minority in Germany, but as a consequence of Bismarck’s attack on them in the Kulturkampf, the Catholic Centre Party was politically very well organized. It was also very hostile to the canon law code of 1917. But Hitler was quite happy to sign a concordat with the Vatican ensuring that the provisions of the code, especially that concerning the appointment of bishops, would be enforced throughout Germany. He was only too happy to do so because he intended to liquidate Catholics when he had finished destroying the Jews, although he did not tell the naive Pacelli that. Hitler’s main contender in the election of 1933 was the Catholic Centre Party, so Pacelli set about emasculating it. He managed to have a priest appointed as its head with secret instructions to make sure that the party failed to compete with Hitler in the election, and surely enough Hitler won. The consequences are breath taking. If Pacelli had not meddled would there have been no Nazi government, no Second World War, no fifty million dead, no Holocaust? It is of course impossible to know, but the very thought of the possibility is shattering. Utterly shattering.
I fell further out of love with the Church after Pinochet had assumed authority in Chile in the coup of 1973. It so happened that Michael Woodward, a priest, was the brother of the scrum leader of my school’s rugby team whom I had much admired when I was a small boy, as small boys will. In the early days of the coup Michael, who had been a prominent supporter of Allende, was tortured to death by Pinochet’s military on a battleship in Valparaiso harbour. Surely the Church would do everything it could to stop the tortures, murders and disappearances that the regime was practising? And indeed the Chilean bishops did. But to every appearance, at least, the Vatican did not. John Paul II appeared shoulder to shoulder with Pinochet on the balcony of the Moneda palace and gave him communion with his own hand. When later on Pinochet was arrested on charges of human rights abuses in London the Vatican moved heaven and earth to have the charges against this favourite son dropped. Perhaps heaven listened, for Pinochet became too ill to face trial. You don’t have to be a Marxist, and I most certainly am not, to be horrified by the atrocities that occurred in South America during the Cold War. If Christ wept over the women of Jerusalem what tears would he have shed for the madres of the Plaza de Mayo? How could a church that claimed to have been founded by Jesus and to be guided by the Holy Spirit bless these horrors, but it seemed that it did, just as it had connived at slavery and sold salvation to build St Peter’s.
Round the dome of St Peter’s in six foot high golden letters we can read ’Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam’. Six foot high golden letters! No mention, or even thought I guess, of get behind me Satan. I happened to attend a Mass in St Peter’s celebrating the anniversary of John Paul Ist’s death, celebrated suitably enough by Cardinal Angelo Sodano who had been papal nuncio in Chile and a fervent supporter of Pinochet. Far in the distance, on the other side of Bernini’s glorious baldachino, there were rows and rows of cardinals and bishops in their red and purple skull caps. Did they really kill John Paul 1st through lack of love and were now celebrating a High Mass in his honour? How did an itinerant preacher who had nowhere to lay his head come to be worshipped in such grandeur as this? I couldn’t get the six-foot high golden letters out of my head. The place was built on the selling of indulgences. Would Jesus have wanted to be worshipped in so magnificent a building built on such grave sin? As the Papacy’s finances worsened you could even pay to have sins forgiven that you hadn’t yet committed! The Church seems to have missed both the comedy and the tragedy of it. It came to me that the distant red and purple skull caps looked like rows of female chimpanzees begging for sex. It was a vulgar and unkind and misplaced, almost blasphemous, thought I knew. But I couldn’t get this image out of my head either. It was a moment of comic liberation.
Nor was it an entirely trivial if crude image either as I now realise. My theology, as I understand it now under the influence of Darwinian ideas, entirely turns round the only partial evolution of fully humane human beings from chimpanzee-like ancestors. We still share over 99% of our genes with our close apish cousins. When Jane Goodall first went to Gombe she found herself living amongst a peaceful hedonic primate community. But in 1973, almost overnight they turned into genocidal killers. The comparison with so many human groups who have lived peacefully with their neighbours for centuries and have then suddenly turned on them cannot be missed. Nor is it only in these extreme examples that we lapse into behaviour typical of chimpanzees. Most of us are not genocidal killers. But we are often trapped in our only local branch of the forest and think of little but how to gain power and possessions. Looking round at these expensive stones, has the church passed this test, I wondered? I could only think not. The Church needs to disentangle itself from all this. Why doesn’t it sell the Vatican to the highest bidder? It could
conduct its business in a couple of high rise tower blocks at somewhere like Birmingham and commune directly with the faithful through zoom and twitter and facebook? Branson would pay trillions for the opportunity to sell people breakfast in the Sistine chapel. With the money you could give everybody in the world clean water, but I don’t suppose Jesus would have been interested in that. How could one remain a member of such an institution?
Yet I did. The upshot of the quest upon which Richard first set me was that I not only remained a Catholic, but changed from a tepid and half-hearted one into a fervent believer. I can now match Richard’s passionate atheism. But how can I reconcile this with the misdeeds of the Church? How did it come about? How can I justify it? How is it that in spite of everything the Catholic Faith is now so precious to me? Why did I not align myself with Richard Dawkins and the humanists? I want to try to explain it, if only to myself, in the next volume But I Don’t Want to be a Humanist; and in a third one, A Darwinian Theology, I want to try to explain why, in spite of all, I now the love the Catholic faith so much, not its pompous and bemitred leaders who have betrayed it so profoundly but the fundamental practices and teachings of the faith. Despite my admiration for Richard Dawkins I now think he is wrong: no, not wrong but not quite right enough.
So I find myself attempting to write three and possibly four books. This one I see as preliminary. In the second one But I Don’t Want to be a Humanist, I want to try to explain more fully among many other things in the next book my present beliefs that:
Darwin. I want to give a much fuller account of Darwin’s wonderful experiences of nature during the voyage of The Beagle, and how he came to die emotionally in middle age. In Darwinian theory, as it has been developed since he died, genetic mutations that will result in new species occur in only one or a few locations. The new genetic strain exists to begin with only in favoured infants. But infants are especially vulnerable to disease and predation. Are we to believe that in all the millions of small evolutionary developments that led to the appearance of humans, the precious infants bearing the new evolutionary strains survived, apparently miraculously, every time? It seems vanishingly unlikely to me. Yet millions of intelligent people believe this myth. It is a myth because nobody was there when it happened and nobody can claim to know all the attendant facts. As with all things we cannot directly experience we can only imagine them within the framework of the facts at our disposal. There must be some other force at work besides natural selection. Yet natural selection clearly does occur randomly through chance environmental changes co-inciding with chance genetic mutations (though I am aware that genetic mutations are not the only cause of evolutionary change). I don’t believe that a change in the weather that caused chimpanzee like creatures on one side of the rift valley in Africa to remain pretty much chimpanzees and on the other to develop into human beings, was down to divine intervention. Nor that an A happening to change into a G in the genetic code was directly willed by God. So how can we explain it? I’m not all sure that my thinking on this is right, and I look forward to further discussion. But of one thing I am pretty sure. We weren’t there so we can only imagine what happened and nor was Darwin there, and the whole history of science tells us that, as with all of science’s other great discoveries, future even greater ones will cause our grandchildren to alter completely our present understanding of these remarkable events.
Facts and Meanings. Science does not tell us complete truth but constantly misunderstood facts. Its facts always come enshrouded in meanings, for we are metaphor making creatures. The facts are certain but the meanings are not, and the history of science tells us that in every age even the greatest scientists have consistently erroneously mythologized their own great discoveries. Galileo thought the sun was at the centre of the universe, Newton thought his laws of motion covered all forms of motion, Darwin projected a myth drawn from Victorian capitalism onto nature, Einstein never accepted the radical uncertainty of quantum physics (he may still turn out to have been right), Lord Kelvin thought once the problem of black box radiation had been solved physics would be complete and its investigations over even as the young Plank was crying in the cradle. I am at war with the humanist attitude that only science can be trusted because only science rigorously follows rational methods of enquiry, everything else is mythology. I am enthralled by contemporary science which, it seems to me, is beginning to show us realms of reality that it cannot even itself understand, that, anyway, at present stages of enquiry, escape reason and logic altogether. Rationalism is anything but rational because it quite irrationally privileges logic and analysis over other faculties of the human mind.
There is no God somewhere beyond the sky. But there is a creative intellectual force deep within the universe. Most ordinary people like me have at last got round to accepting that the universe began with the Big Bang. It was with astonishment therefore that I discovered that is not what most cosmologists now think. They think the Big Bang itself was caused by what they call inflation. Inflation is the energy that they now think is causing the universe to expand for ever. It is hard to grasp this. Inflation must have existed before the Big Bang but there cannot have been a before the Big Bang because time and space were created in the Big Bang. Inflation is elemental energy. But according to Einstein E=MC2. Energy and light must have involved mass. But, in the doubtless naïve way I picture it, mass could not be contained in the tiny amount of space that was originally created in the Big Bang so there was a vast explosion. We cannot think about this except in terms of before and after, but it must have all happened at once together. How can we understand that?
Galileo is revered by humanists because, they think, he was the first to turn his back on the nebulous myths of Plato and Aristotle, and instead began to do experiments. I want to show that this is a completely false picture. He was not a researcher at MIT but an Italian Renaissance humanist. Plato was his great inspiration. He wanted to demonstrate that there is a fundamental realm of reality that is immaterial, and not present somewhere else, as in the Medieval myth of the music of the spheres and the perfectly harmonious motions of the heavens, but here and now in the matter that surrounds us. This fundamental immaterial realm that guides and animates matter from deep within is, he believed, mathematics. Pythagoras, whose most faithful disciple Plato was, discovered in the blacksmith’s shop that music and measurement are inseparable. The heavenly music isn’t in the spheres. It is in the brass pots the blacksmith was knocking around. Galileo was on a back to basics mission. Mathematics doesn’t just describe things in a convenient language, it is the driving force that moves everything. Aristotle thought that if you threw a ball into the air your hand moved the air and the air moved the ball until the momentum you had imparted ran out. But Galileo now said that far from the air moving things, an object once set in motion will go on for ever because of its intrinsic mathematical energy, until it is stopped by the air as on this earth it always is. The stone moon, not the crystalline heavenly sphere that is the habitation of angels, is moved by this measurement that is also music just as everything else is. There is no division between heaven and earth.
The trial of Galileo was a disaster. Hitherto science had been virtually entirely Catholic, before the Reformation it could hardly have been anything else. But now the threat that scientists might be burnt alive as Giordano Bruno had been and Galileo would have been had he not recanted his heliocentric beliefs, the threat of the Inquisition killed Catholic science (they killed him as surely as if they had put arsenic in his coffee, how could you not but hate those six foot high gold letters round the inside of Michelangelo’s dome). Science moved north into a very different theological environment. Now the Catholic idea that God is not outside the universe but within it (‘God is within the universe and that most innermostly’ said Aquinas) was seen as idolatry. Now, matter is not sacred because it is the dwelling place of God but merely neutral stuff, endless chains of merely material corpuscles (as the seventeenth century called its constituent entities) bumping into each other, moved by laws that are not part of the universe but had been infused into the universe from outside it by God. Now the mathematical beauty that had so inspired the Italian Renaissance humanists is no part of science. At best, beauty is the province of poets, peripheral entertainment for the emotions. For the whole point of science is that it has found a way of purging itself of the white noise of feeling and fantasy.
Bacon and Locke. The philosophers of the new attitude – look, it must be right, we can prove facts by experiment – were Bacon and Locke. I want to argue that they were both profoundly misleading. Bacon was obsessed with witches. Nature is a recalcitrant witch who must be taken apart by experiments in laboratories to reveal her secrets, as the witches were made to confess in torture chambers. No longer loving female Dame Nature, but the surly and unwilling servant of mankind. My case against Richard’s atheism is that he is still trapped within the mind set with which Bacon and Locke imbued Protestant science, for all his rejection of Protestant theology. Locke’s philosophy was based on (1) there are no innate ideas (2) there are no wholes only bits (3) the things studied by physics – momentum, measurement – are primary qualities and real, things we sense – warmth, colour – are secondary qualities and merely imagined. All of these were unproven mythological assumptions and I believe all of them have been called into question by contemporary science. Yet many scientists still think within this framework of thought. Colours are ‘arbitrary tags’ created by our brains, says Richard in Unweaving the Rainbow. I no longer believe that. Colour is just too wonderful to be reduced to an arbitrary tag. There are other frameworks of thought.
I am greatly influenced by Wittgenstein, at least the Wittgenstein of the second coming when he returned to Cambridge to reject the philosophy of his first incarnation. I’m not sure that Wittgenstein would have put it like this, but as I see it the fundamental human problem is that we have universal minds trapped in local circumstances. There just isn’t time to know everything. As he put it, we all operate within limiting language games. The words we use always have other uses than ours and unravel into other understandings we do not understand. There are always other spheres of understanding that if we understood them would radically alter how we understand what we do understand. That seems to me to put the whole history of science into a nutshell. Always new discoveries are being made which nobody dreamt of before they were discovered, and indeed couldn’t have dreamt of within the world pictures that they had previously had, that not only add to the treasury of knowledge but radically alter the way everything that had previously been known is now understood. Einstein’s discovery that gravity is a field and not long bits of invisible string alters everything. All language games within which people think are limited and mythologized and only partially true. But because the language game within we ourselves think is ours we tend to take it as a touchstone of truth. But it isn’t. But worst and misleading of all is a language game that thinks it is the only valid one because it is based on facts and logic. It alone is rational and true and everything else is mythological fantasy. It was the very one that Wittgenstein himself had previously espoused – It is still the philosophy of rationalism and humanism. If there is a greater disaster than the trial of Galileo it is the Enlightenment But now science itself is expanding into myth, as in fact it always has done. This attitude to nature, as we read it in the philosophies of Locke and Bacon and Descartes, not the loving female Dame Nature with whom we share the beautiful earth but the patient spread out upon the table who must be pitilessly taken apart to reveal her secrets, all this is culminating in the catastrophe of climate change that we have brought upon ourselves. Surgeons open up bodies out of concern for their patients, not a desire to see how they can exploit them, as for so long so many have seen nature. Perhaps you can see why Darwin’s and Richard’s intoxication with nature’s wonder and beauty, as opposed to their erroneous, as I now see it, explanations for them or rather lack of explanation, how much their ravishments by nature’s grandeur and beauty, so compellingly and peerlessly described, means so much to me. And why I regard, as I now do, their finally being overwhelmed by the Baconian attitude to science such a vast tragedy.
Wave/Particle Duality. Richard Feynman said the whole mystery of quantum physics lies in the two-slit experiment. I think the mystery of everything does. How can sub-atomic elements be both particles that are in a particular time and place yet also waves that are outside time and space and everywhere and nowhere? Yet they are. The scientists themselves cannot understand it. But it’s not only sub-atomic particles. Crucial for me is the experiment that showed that fullerenes, not tiny electrons but molecules composed of at least 500 atoms, are also subjects of wave-particle duality. Is the implication that everything is, but upon objects much above molecules composed of more than 2000 atoms it’s impossible to perform experiments, anyway at the moment? I have come to think that if fullerenes do, we all belong to this other wave dimension as well as the particulated one in which we find ourselves. When we die we shan’t go to heaven but awake into the fuller reality in which we have always lived but we weren’t aware of it. Particles are not the corollaries of waves, they are waves. I am entranced by T.S. Eliot’s awareness of the unseen doppelganger who attends all we are and do, and I want to talk more about my infatuation with Eliot.
Genes Does scientists’ mistaken understanding of their own discoveries that has always attended scientific break-throughs, even the greatest, apply to contemporary genetic biology’s discoveries about genes? I do not see why not. Will future discoveries totally alter the understanding of genes – the tyrannical manipulators pitilessly using the helpless lumbering robots to achieve their own ends – that we find in The Selfish Gene? Surely at the very least the history of science suggests it is a possibility. Richard, so humane a person, justifies giving money to Oxfam by saying that sometimes the genes misfire. That sounds quite lame to me. Do they? My limited reading hasn’t shown me any evidence that they do. But I want to be enlightened. Yes, nice guys finish first, but only, in the philosophy of selfish genes, because they gang up to make sure they do finish first. Surely the merest acquaintance with history would tell you that they often don’t. Humane liberals now shun Nazism and theories of racial superiority. But I can’t see why, if you accept that natural selection is a full and only explanation for evolution, that the conclusion the Nazis drew from Darwin wasn’t a rational one. In The Descent of Man Darwin congratulates ‘we civilized men’ for our concern about the poor Irish in Manchester. We build them workhouses and hospitals. But (the thought not directly expressed) not too many. Just as well so many of their children die. Natural selection must be allowed to work. Otherwise we civilized men might be overwhelmed by Irish. Does the ever humane Darwin justify the contradiction? I don’t think so. Or have I got it wrong? How, if Hitler had chosen to go all out to invade England instead of Russia, we might now all be saying nasty guys finish first.
Purpose. I’m constantly confused by purpose. You can’t really talk about genes, the whole point of them being to convey information with the consequence that phenotypes can be built, except in what Richard calls ‘the language of purpose’. They obviously behave purposefully. But if you recognize that they are no more than strings of chemicals that act mechanically and can’t possibly have any sense of purpose, and also think there is no source of purpose in the universe and even we don’t behave purposefully but only think we do because really, as Stephen Hawking tells us, free will is only an effective theory, a short hand for immensely complex mechanical processes in our brains that drive us to do what we do, then you have to say, effectively, when I say purposeful I mean purposeless. That looks like next door to semantic nonsense to me. Humanists are always saying that when they use the language of purpose they are only speaking metaphorically. But metaphors have to be partially like their referents. I don’t see how anything described as purposeful can be wholly purposeless. To my mind Aquinas, considering the question how unintelligent things can appear to behave intelligently, says they do so because, although they themselves are unintelligent, they are guided by somebody who is intelligent as an arrow is guided by an archer. In The God Delusion (page 79) Richard says Aquinas would have done much better to have used the metaphor of a guided missile, because guided missiles seek their own targets. But guided missiles only do so because they are designed by really clever guys. I don’t see that is any answer. Yes, natural selection does produce exact simulacra of designed objects. But that doesn’t prove there is not some purposeful force moving in the genes. Within the Baconian mind set all those passages in The Selfish Gene describing genes trying to get into the next generation via the hapless lumbering robots make a kind of sense, but I see it as a myth. If you think there is no cosmic intelligence and purpose is only a misleading descriptive language, then what else could you say that what appears to be purposeful is purposeless?
Genes just do what they do. They’re not trying to do anything, they are just nucleotides made of chemicals and if they were trying it would be to make phenotypes, not to get into to the next generation. To me this is a myth generated by the Baconian mind set, and it seems to me, in the way that the rationalists put it at least, a peculiarly nonsensical one. Would it be too impertinent to say, put like this, that the selfish gene myth makes astrology look like physics? But it doesn’t have to be put like this.
Who invented the first piston? It is said to be Harold Kosoff. But who has heard of him? More likely the first crude piston was put together by chance in a junkyard. Then by chance it started combining with a crude gas cylinder that also by chance had started to self-assemble in the same junk yard. Dome pistons and flat head pistons started competing with each other as they tried to get into the next generation of better motor cars, not now the first lumbering Daimlers but swift and sleek Rolls Royces and Alfa-Romeos that, little did they know it, were doing the bidding of the pistons. Do we see Harold Kosoff riding along in his Bentley? Nowhere to be seen. This is obvious nonsense. But I’m struggling to see the difference between this and the myth of the selfish gene. What will the neo-Darwinians, as opposed to the neo-neo-Darwinians, as I would describe myself, say in reply?
Yet Richard and Stephen Hawking must also be right. Genes do dictate all we do and survive long after we have gone and what we decide is dictated by the chemistry of our brains. What is the answer to this conundrum? I want to think a lot about this in the next book. But in spite of it all Richard says only we can escape from the tyranny of the selfish replicators. YES YES YES.
Higher Unities. All through nature, as I see it, subordinate entities combine to create indissoluble higher unities that transcend their components. Hydrogen and oxygen make water, but there is more to water than hydrogen plus oxygen. You can divide water into drops but there is as much wateriness in a drop as there is in the Atlantic. All through nature you see these combinations forming to make higher and higher, more and more complex, higher unities. Electrons combine to make atoms, atoms combine to make molecules, molecules make cells, cells working together compose human bodies. There is no God somewhere beyond the sky, I think Richard is right about that. There is no God, that must be our starting point. But I now think that there must be a higher unity of all higher unities. It is the law of nature that things combine to make yet greater things. Is God the highest unity of all the higher unities? It isn’t that God creates the universe, the universe creates God. But I’m happy to think that God creates the universe at the same time because in the first fractional second of time it all happened together and because everything was being driven by inflation, that must itself have been outside time, what was going to happen had already happened? In my end is my beginning as the poet says. Alles klar?
Thought and feeling. Basic to the Baconian point of view is the idea that emotions are no part of science. To me that is a grievous mistake. According to Antonio Damasio, the neurologist, the same processes in the brain underly having feelings as having abstract thoughts. According to Pythagoras music and measurement are inseparable. The fundamental philosophical problem is how can we know anything true about the world because what we know are pictures of the world in our brains and we have no way of knowing whether the pictures correspond to the reality they picture. The problem has become yet more intractable in the light of neurologists discovering that the brain does not even take pictures of the world, as we naively imagine, but translates the deliverances of the senses into bizzarely complex codes before turning them into the final pictures we hear and see. A comparison of a previous understanding of the brain and a more contemporary one is like the difference between LPs and CDs. LPs use analogue codes. In an analogue code the code mimics the reality it is coding, as in an LP the waving groove on the disk mimics the ups and downs of the music. But in a digital code an encoder at one end creates a pattern of signs that have nothing to do with what is being coded but can be read, a bit at a time, by a decoder at the other end provided that the decoder knows what the signs mean. Thus, a series of pits on a CD which are just pits that have nothing to do with music, can be read by the decoder, note for pit, as music. Digital coding depends essentially on both the encoder and the decoder being intelligent. Analogue coding would work in an uninhabited desert, engraved in the LP, it’s just that there would be nobody about to hear the music. But a digitally coded CD would be no more than a load of hollows in plastic. Is nature essentially digital? Does it require an encoder as much as a decoder?
Kant’s idea is that we cannot know whether reality itself is as we think it is because we can only know nature in the way we know it so we cannot directly know what he called the Ding an Sich, the thing in itself. His idea has been hugely vindicated, I think, by the discovery of wave/particle duality. We can only know the world in the particulated way we know it but there is another dimension whose existence we have detected but whose realty we cannot directly know. But Schopenhauer thinks, and I believe Kant did too, that we can come into contact with it, if only indirectly, through our emotional reactions to art, especially music, and natural beauty. There is no God outside the universe. But there is cosmic inflation and I want to think a lot about that. When the Big Bang exploded it didn’t just go bang but exploded meaningfully into the fundamental elements that would compose the varieties of the universe. Those elements must have come from somewhere. I don’t think scientists have thought nearly enough about Aristotle’s potentiality. The sub-atomic elements must ‘already’ have been waiting, so to speak, in the inflation. So was everything they were going to develop into potentially in the inflation too, including intelligent beings? I’m wondering whether the inflation itself must have been potentially intelligent. Increasingly I think it must. It must also have potentially contained all the beauty of the universe too. I’m with Schopenhauer and Kant. I believe we actually contact it through our emotions in our experiences of art and beauty. I cannot keep on calling the inflation, that I now think is potentially God, inflation (through us it becomes God, I believe, but I’ll keep that for the third book). But I don’t want to call it God either, so I call it The Tremendousness. We cannot prove this fuller inflation that is potentially awesome and beautiful exists. But can we say Richard’s crackling river of intense sensation that he describes when he saw the ants in Panama was just some kind of meaningless delusion? There is an equivalent to the undisputable proofs of science in the unignorableness of our experiences of the wonder and beauty, ‘the wonder and the strangeness’ of the universe, the awe we feel in the face of The Tremendousness.
Virtual Realities. I’m very unhappy with Richard’s account of experience in the light of what brain science is now telling us that he gives us in Unweaving The Rainbow. He thinks that we inhabit a virtual reality created by our brains. The example he gives is that of virtually walking through the Parthenon wearing a virtual reality headset. Today’s technology is crude but it gives us an idea of what goes on when we know things. The brain creates a virtual reality and this is what we know. I just don’t believe it. I don’t see how it answers Kant’s problem that since we can only know the world in the way we know it how can we know whether it is the same or different, even remotely, from what we think we know. Is it even there? Is Richard really going to say that the microbes scientists can see through their microscopes are only a virtual reality created by the brain? He says colour is just ‘an arbitrary tag’ made up by the brain. Are Van Gogh’s blazing cornfields or Turner’s misty evocations of Venice or, above all in the context, the crackling river of ants in Panama, just arbitrary tags which may or may not actually exist? To me these experiences are too awesome, too unignorable, too present, too vivid, too sensed,to dismiss as arbitrary tags and virtual realities. Yet we know the brain doesn’t take pictures of the things out there but turns the sensations it receives into abstract codes. Is there an answer to this? This is another problem with which I struggle every day. But there may be, must be, an answer and I want to think further, much further, about that in the next book.
Inflation is here. I think now of inflation as the creative energy that drives and sustains the universe. We inevitably think of it as driving things from ‘out there’ as Paley’s God created the world from ‘out there’. We make the mistake all the time. We say electrons HAVE electric charge but they ARE electrically charged. How can you separate negative charge from what you mean by an electron? Despite Einstein we still tend to think of gravity as a force pulling things from outside themselves, an external force. But gravity is a field. Things aren’t pulled by gravity, they are gravitional. Gravity, invisible as it might be and don’t forget it can be an inflationary expansive force as well as an attractive one, is intrinsic to what we mean by a thing. It is like the soul in the body. Inflation underlies, is the soul of things, it is everywhere, making them meaningful and beautiful, expressing itself in the awesome Tremendous that we feel in the natural things all about us. Like mathematics , and surely it is intrinsically mathematica,l it is everywhere: as Plato and Galileo believed and as physicists are now confidently assuring us, invisible and abstract but hidden right in the heart of things you find mathematics, not some useful calculating device infused by God into the universe from outside it but in the basement of things. I think this is why Richard is after all right when he says that genes are trying to get into the next generation and genes manufacture the lumbering robots in order to make them do what the genes want. They themselves are merely mechanical strings of chemicals. But they are not purposeless because they are expressions of the inflation, the soul of the universe, that is itself purposeful and expresses its intentions though them. As the arrow is guided by the archer, although in this case there are multitudes of failed shots before one happens to hit the genetically useful target. Science always operates on the edge of what we know. But since it is on the edge of what we know, we do not as yet know very much about it so we have to imagine it. By the time we do know more about it science has moved on to some yet more obscure and mysterious further boundary. Of course, this is a myth. But then so is the paradoxical, and I would say nonsensical, idea that genes act purposefully but are purposeless. All our thinking about ultimate reality is imaginary and mythical because we have no direct experience of the ding an sich, the wavular dimension that underlies the particulated world we know. We can only imagine it, which is what art does and why it cannot be divorced from science. There is a direct connection between the awesome crackling river of the ants in Panama and the ant dissected on the laboratory table.
The Human Person. The human brain evolved from the small brain of the chimpanzee-like ancestor of both humans and the chimpanzees a mere six million years ago. It is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. I just don’t believe that so momentous a development in so brief a time is wholly explained by natural selection. To say that this was a step change in evolution does not begin to describe how extraordinary this development was. Already by the time of Homo Erectus humans had brains as big as ours, with so many neurons waiting to be connected they were already potentially capable of writing Bach’s and Beethoven’s music and thinking like Einstein. It makes no sense to me to think that this was wholly to be attributed to changing from eating fruit to eating tubers and seeds, and learning to look out for predators over high grass. The energy needed for so large a brain, let alone its development, must have been enormous. Early humans didn’t need to think like Beethoven and Einstein. All they needed was genes that would tell them how to avoid a new set of predators and how to chat with each other (the brain expanded through gossip according to Robin Dunbar) and use tools to dig up roots and harvest grasses. Natural selection is nothing if not parsimonious. Why would it, and how could it, produce so wastefully sophisticated a creature, let alone in such a fraction of time? Am I right?
The essence of the myth of the selfish genes is that genes manufacture humans to ensure that they themselves survive in the species they create. They only value other species in so far as other species minister to their own survival. But here we have a creature that values and loves other species for their own sake, a humanity of which Richard is so noble an example. Above all, we are free. “Only we can escape from the tyranny of the selfish genes”. Yet Stephen Hawking must be right. Everything we decide to do has already been decided by our brains. How can we resolve this conundrum? I am impressed by the continental phenomenologists. Our experiences are as much part of what happens in the world as the processes in our genes. A significant error in selfish gene thinking is the presumption that what you can see through microscopes is real and our experiences that seem to contradict it an illusion. If we feel we are free there must be a sense in which we are free, you cannot have an illusion that you are having an illusion. Freedom for me is not choosing to have a cup of coffee rather than a cup of tea, but becoming a higher unity, transcending the selfishness of the genes. I just don’t believe that the magnificence we see all around us is solely the product of strings of chemicals and natural selection, most especially evolution’s crowning glory, humankind. ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals’. And yet what is this quintessence of dust, or, as we might say, this bundle of chromosomes? We are indeed our genes. Yet “only we can escape the tyranny of the selfish genes”. But how can that be if we are to be entirely explained as lumbering robots created by the genes to fulfil their purposes? How can we be free if we are merely the creatures of the genes? Has Richard ever squared this circle in writings I have overlooked? If he has I am agog to read them.
No, for me a creative force in the universe that underlies everything just as mathematics does, investing the genes with meaning and purpose just as it does everything else – in the case of living things through the genes themselves – what the cosmologists call inflation and I call The Tremendousness, this is far more credible. How does this square with Darwinian chance and accidental survival you might ask? I do not know, it’s a myth. If there is a loving source in the universe, how can we reconcile that with the ichneumon fly injecting its eggs into its victims so its hatched grubs will eat the living flesh from the inside? I have no answer. But then how can protons and electrons be both waves and particles at the same time? The facts science knows and understands always unravel into myths that it cannot understand. My case is not that my myth is correct but that it is better than that of the selfish gene.
The Tremendousness. On the very verge of Paradise Dante finds he is trembling with excitement – Men che drama/ di sangue m’e rimaso che non tremi/ conosco I segni de ‘antica fiamma: ‘No drop of blood that was not trembling now: I felt the traces of the ancient flame’. He turns to Virgil but Virgil has vanished. Virgil, dulcissimo padre, who had brought him so far and guided him through so much! I feel a bit like that now. Richard – dulcissimo padre – has brought me so far but I now feel I want to go further. Fifty years ago I started keeping bees. It was always mysterious and fascinating. But now, having read about the crackling river of ants in Panama and deeply touched and inspired by the passage, I feel the wonder and the strangeness of the bees as I never did before. With their guard bees willing to sacrifice their lives – if a bee stings you she loses her own – and the boiling frenzy round the queen I am reminded of Richard’s passage irresistibly. And now I feel this Tremendousness in so many aspects of nature. Not just a beauty that charms but an awesome presence that is unignorable once you feel it. I sense this Tremendousness in waves lapping on the shore, blackbirds singing in my garden, the harsh cries of geese as they fly overhead, the songs of thrushes ‘strike like lightning when they sing’. Not sweet melodies. Lightning! Hopkins too must have felt the Tremendousness. Why did I not feel like this before? Above all, these days, in contemplative prayer. There cannot be one Tremendousness in the birds, and another in the tides coming gently to the shore. Hosts of golden daffodils, beside the shore beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze, are lovely. But it is only when on my pensive couch I lie that I feel even closer – feel I am beginning to penetrate to its source – to the strangeness and the wonder. Within my brain. A delusion? A virtual reality head set? Every day I seek to come into contact with this elemental force, the primal energy that drives the universe. In the monastery prayer meant nothing, but now no drop of blood that is not trembling now, or if not quite that something along those lines anyway. How strange that the seed sown by the monks and then so little regarded should at last have come to flower, diligently tended by Richard Dawkins of all people. I am not interested in the question of whether God exists. At least Richard has released me from the tyrant of my childhood. Nor do I think it impossible that the value I now attach to contemplative prayer is some kind of illusion. It might be, there is no proof. I just don’t care. How could I abandon so meaningful an experience? I find within myself a thirst for the immeasurable that now means everything. Just don’t call it God, the term has been debased too much. You can’t have a delusion that you are having a delusion.
Richard, you have done so much for me but now I need to move on.
* * * *
The Narrow Slit
I keep coming back to this thought of Wittgenstein’s, as I interpret him. We have universal minds trapped in local circumstances, in the particular language game that is ours. There is not enough time to know everything. Our minds have been shaped in a particular way and if it had been shaped differently we might interpret the facts we know very differently. Suppose Darwin had not been the scion of middle class entrepreneurs living and educated in England. Suppose he had been brought up a Hindu. Would the endless creation and destruction of species be evidence for the actions of Shiva and Vishnu in creation? Would the parade of so many living things through time, the constant springing of the effervescences of life, tell us of the divine play of Brahman? We are trapped in self-confirming language games. What can we do about it? Well, first we should eschew certainty. There is no certainty when it comes to the meaning of life, or science, or religion. If you start off with the unquestioned belief that the only truth is to be found in reductionist science, then continental philosophers who talk about freedom are talking obvious nonsense. If you believe that every word in the Bible is literally true, then for what other reason could God have implanted fossils in the archaeological record that are falsely claimed to be millions of years old, other than to test our faith? People trapped in a language game always have an answer that is in itself nonsensical but makes sense to them within their framework of thinking. So what can we do about it?
In the second part of this first book, Opening the Curtains, I want to try to introduce a few ideas that might widen the narrow slit within which we all inevitably think. I’ve probably misunderstood at least some of them because you can’t know everything. The important thing is to lay yourself open to correction from people who know more about that particular line of thinking than you do, for we are all of us right about a little and wrong, or at least less than well informed, about so much. My efforts are all the more unsatisfactory if not directly misleading in that I have tried to eschew technical language and write in terms that most people might readily understand. You would hardly write about the Higgs boson in the words you might use in a sports report. But the alternative is to communicate nothing at all to people who don’t understand what is going on at Cern, that is most of us. We all catch sight of truth in glimmers, not in vast technicoloured panoramas: Eliot’s moments in and out of time, Wordsworth’s spots of time, Virginia Woolf’s moments of being, Proust’s madeleine, Hopkins’ inscape, Joyce’s epiphanies, Eliot’s time future and time past contained in time present and only apprehended in hints and guesses, the wild thyme unseen and the winter lightning. There is too much to know and feel, and, science now seems to be suggesting – wave/particle duality, dark matter, an infinity of universes – too much to know even beyond what we can, anyway at present, understand. We just have to do our inadequate best.
I’m also thinking of taking in the second part of this book the unusual step of separating the abstract ideas with extracts from a kind of diary, although I haven’t assigned dates to them. Part of my purpose is to make the book more attractive topeople who might not otherwise read it, a base motive you might well think. But I also have more serious aims in mind. I want to at least suggest the possibilities of contact between science and ordinary experience. I keep coming back to the phenomenologists. Ordinary experience matters. Going out into the yard to put out the rubbish is just as much a wonder and needs just as much attention paid as do the genes that shaped us to do it. And more than that. Genes make phenotypes, including us, and phenotypes are the end product, the children you might almost say, of the genes. The two are intimately connected and inseparable. Parents are only parents because the they have children and children only because they have parents. You damage both if you try to separate them, as books like The Selfish Gene constantly do. It is this kind of thinking that leads you to think of freedom as no more than being suspended from the ceiling by intricately entangled genes. Do I feel that is all I am? No, I don’t. Do my feelings matter? Yes, they do. Biology very properly employs methods that locate and analyse genes. But if there were a realm of explanation outside that remit very properly biology would not find it. For biology, the question is unasked and unanswered. But that doesn’t mean that there is necessarily not another realm of explanation . How rational is it to say I’ve looked through the rules of association football and can’t find a reference to the LBW law anywhere?
All through history ordinary people have framed their experiences of life within the scientific world pictures of their age. When Shakespeare writes ‘the fault dear Brutus is not in the stars but in ourselves’ he was marking a change from the Medieval world picture in which earthly lives were ordered by the unchanging crystalline perfection of the heavens to one in line with the new science of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, a change that his audience would have well understood. In the middle of the nineteenth century everybody understood that the planets were kept in their courses by gravity. The idea that the same force moved the apple falling from the tree as moves the heavenly bodies is not difficult to understand. But modern science is difficult to understand. You can’t grasp M theory or wave/particle duality or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle without specialized training or a good deal of effort. This is very, very serious. It is why in a supposedly scientific age conspiracy theories abound and it is getting harder and harder to think rationally. The distinction between truth and fake news has become blurred. When there is overwhelming scientific evidence that the world is facing horror unparalleled if we don’t take climate change more seriously there are plenty of people who just don’t believe it, with what terrible consequences we have yet to bear. I can’t do much about it. But at least I want to bring the stuff of our ordinary lives and abstract ideas from science and philosophy closer together. I want to suggest that The Tremendousness, the inflation of the cosmologists, is not only in the Victoria Falls and the Grand Canyon and the installation at Cern but in your back garden
I also hope the diary extracts will be quite comical. The word comedy comes from the Greek komos, which was the drunken phallic procession celebrating the resurrection of Dionysos after he had been torn to pieces and eaten by the Titans. Thus comedy is essentially related to tragedy, and the Komos survived in the Greek theatre in the form of the satyr play which was regularly performed after the usually tripartite tragedies. Comedy is one of nature’s greatest gifts to humankind. It is essentially a double take, a comparison with an unseen doppelganger. When Basil Fawlty is asked by a resident if they can have a better view out of their window he should be patiently explaining that not all the rooms can have the best views which is why more is charged for those that do. He shouldn’t be saying what do you want then, a herd of wildebeests. When Sybil upbraids him in the abrasive condescending tones only that most amiable of actresses Prunella Scales can muster, he should be saying of course dear, I accept your criticism and will try to change my behaviour. He shouldn’t be muttering under his breath interfering old sow. It’s his bloody mindedness, his struggle to be himself. But that is precisely why we love him so much. Only we can escape the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
Every human being is genetically unique because each is a product of a unique mixture of genes from their two parents. But the genes themselves aren’t unique in each case, they are the standard genes assembled uniquely, as every time you shake a kaleidoscope you get a different formation of the same fragments and every blade of corn is a different blade of the same corn grains. But human beings are not like that. They constantly buck the trend of the slightly different version of the standard issue that the selfish genes dictated. They are uniquely themselves, not just assemblies of genes, they mock what they are supposed to be, burst out of their shells, are funny because they won’t do what the invisible doppelganger expects, are larger than life, become higher unities, which is why we love Basil for not being the standard Torquay hotel owner he doubtless set out to be. Comedy is to do with what no other species can do. It is looking at ourselves over there from here, a kind of resurrection into a higher order. Do I catch in some of the extraordinary people I have known a hint of the komos? The higher unity that emerges from the configurations of the genes and goes beyond them? I believe I do and I hope I have managed to convey it.
In my second book But I Don’t Want to be a Humanist I want to emphasize the disjunction of feeling and thinking in science – the disassociation of sensibility that began in the seventeenth century T.S. Eliot called it – and closely connected with that I want to ponder on the relation of human experience to what science has discovered. It may be the case that when we look at a tree it doesn’t look like the mostly empty space that science tells us it is. Are we wrong then? I don’t think so. Our sense that this is a solid object composed of trunk and leaves and branches is as much part of reality, perhaps even more so, as the empty space. Not that space is empty anyway. How can we resolve this conundrum? We dwell too much on our sense that we are material particulates in space and time, too little that we are also immaterial waves not only existing in space and time. Or so I have come to believe.
In my third book A Darwinian Theology I want to take as my starting points first Darwin’s discovery that all living things are interconnected by descent, and now even more so by the discovery that they are unified in a single network of genes. Living things share genes. And all things share atoms. We live in an interconnected world. Second, Darwin’s intense experiences of natural wonder and beauty. Natural beauty has been banished from theology as thoroughly as it has been banished from science. Theology has become stranded in abstractions just as has happened in science. I want to try to explain why, despite the Church’s failings, the Catholic faith satisfies my thirst for the source of The Tremendousness in nature, that we feel rather than analyse, as nothing else I know.
Faith. Faith by definition is to commit yourself emotionally while intellectually uncertain. Otherwise it would be certain knowledge. Theology, also by definition, is a merely speculative science, for, as Aquinas tells us, it has no direct knowledge of its own subject matter. But at the margins that is true of all science, for science itself is now telling us there are regions of reality that, at present anyway, logic and analysis cannot grasp. Ultimately, we are not dealing with certain scientific facts versus uncertain religious myths, but which kind of raids on the unknowable are most personally useful and satisfying to us. Because it is a matter of faith, theology by definition is rooted in emotion (though looking at the dry abstractions of so much theology you might not think it). Theology therefore is always personal and highly speculative, there is no objective theology but only my theology for only individual persons have emotions. My case is that a belief in a creative force at the heart of reality expressing itself in cosmic inflation, based on my personal emotional responses to the awesomeness of The Tremendousness in nature and the deep spiritual refreshment of contemplative prayer is, for me, a more satisfying uncertainty than an ultimately black nothing into which the universe is endlessly expanding.
Before the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century nobody believed in a God outside the universe. Aquinas’s God within the universe innermostly, the Polynesian mana, the Iraquoi orenda all flowed from a sense of a wonder in nature so wonderful it cannot be fully explained by the physical manifestations that contain it. I once saw Brian Cox on the TV talking about some ancient Peruvian temples. He explained that these people worshipped the sun and moon because they were their gods. I found myself shouting at the television. Brian you’ve got it wrong. These people didn’t worship the sun and moon as such but because they were manifestations of a creative force in the universe. Nobody misunderstands religion so much as those who don’t believe in it, not that I know what Brian Cox himself believes.
God. Christianity tells us that we were created to love God. But love can only occur between independent equals freely giving their love to each other. Yet through most of history people have pictured God as an irrational tyrant who needs to be appeased by endless sacrifices of first fruits and beasts. The Catholic God of my childhood was by no means exempt indeed it was the very worst, for the sacrifice that the bloodthirsty tyrant demanded in this case was that of his own son. If we are to love God we have to escape from this tyrant and become an independent lover. This is why we have to live in a Darwinian world that is no part of God’s empire, but has evolved on its own. This is why Richard’s The God Delusion is so important because it has done more than any other influence of our time to release us from the tyrant God. It is a book that, nevertheless, enrages me it is so full of theological errors. The only God Richard seems to have heard of is the Protestant God of his own childhood. He shows no sign of acquaintance with the Catholic theology of the Second Vatican Council. This is particularly so in relation to the Redemption. God did not impose a terrible vengeance on mankind in the person of his own son, and then as a reward allow him to be resurrected. In the theology of St John’s Gospel the passion and resurrection are one, a single movement through death to resurrection, opening through example a passage from the unredeemed life (the particulated I would say) to the greater life of the further dimension that dwells hidden within all of us. I want to show that sacrifice has been fundamental to human society because biologically males compete with each other. In nature, most species are reined in by appeasement mechanisms but as we grew bigger brains instincts weakened in humans, including this one which is why humans are far more aggressive towards each other than any other species (I got these ideas from Burkert and Girard). Humans survived from the sexual enmity of males towards each other by agreeing to collectively kill the most desirable female, so competitive libido was converted into outwardly projected aggression. Christ went beyond this essential component of human civility by going beyond the sacrifice of beasts, that were standing in for the sexually desirable females, and replacing it with a communion of love which is what the Eucharist is all about.
Christ. The gospels have been highly fictionalized. The synoptic accounts were largely put together out of fragments that had been handed down orally in the early Christian communities and we don’t know how distorted the stories had become during the transmission. The literary genres of the time included fictions that sounded as if they were factual much as we accept that novels are written as if they were describing real events, but nevertheless we do not think they are worthless. It is hard to know what really happened therefore. Some biblical theologians think that even the Resurrection account was meant to be accepted as a fiction. Nevertheless, these accounts have a gritty realism and don’t read like fairy stories. Some kind of a monumental explosion in human experience must have happened to inspire people so much. We don’t know whether Christ was God. But we do know that genetically we are only a few genes away from chimpanzees and often behave like them. Being fully humane is difficult and we need heroes and role models to inspire us. I can think of nobody in either history or fiction who is more fully human than Jesus was. Not frightened and dominated by the alpha males, remarkably compassionate, got angry (I love that bit where he quite irrationally curses the fig tree because he’s hungry and the figs are not yet ripe) loved women, spell-binding to listen to as Wittgenstein and John Wesley must have been. For me forgiving his persecutors on the cross is the ultimate non-chimpanzee behaviour. Christ’s kingdom of God is not about obeying the rituals and commands of a cult but behaving in the way all humans should behave, escaping engulfment by money, generously sharing, siding with the underdogs, forgiving our enemies. Nobody did it like this man. We should all be Christians in some sense and become his followers. There is no other hero or role model so completely and so fully human.
The Church. Catholic means universal and the Church therefore must be open to and include all humanity. But it has become a cult pre-occupied only with its own specialized rituals and weird sounding dogmas. The Second Vatican Council tried to reverse this but the bishops went home and left the implementation of measures meant to reduce the importance of the Vatican curia to the curia. Asking turkeys to vote for Christmas springs to mind, and the inspiration of the Council has largely been lost. The Church should include what is best in all religions. The basic human decency of so many humanists, the intensely spiritual mathematical tiling of Islam, the enlightenment of the Buddhists, the advaita of the Hindu mystics. The Church puts us into living contact with other Christians, and it should be other people, all over the world, enriching ourselves through absorbing some of their inspirations. But we don’t want the Church to fragment either. Which is why in spite of all its failings we need a central authority.
Original Sin. Original sin, as the name suggests, is to do with origins. What were those origins? They were the chimpanzee-like creatures from which we evolved. We profoundly misunderstand the story of Adam and Eve. In the popular version of the story God created Adam and then took one of his ribs and made woman, which explains why she is inferior to man. She not only sinned herself but prevailed on Adam to sin too, and God punished both of them by expelling them from Eden. But this is not how the liturgy sees the story. On the contrary, it greets it with cries of joy: O felix culpa,O happy fault. Nor is it the way the Bible tells the story either. Adam was not created by God first at all. The first human creation was ha-adama,literally ‘the earth creature’ that had no sex. Because the earth creature was lonely God sent it into a deep sleep and turned it into two, while mysteriously still remaining one. Man and woman were created at the same time. ‘In the image of God s(h)e created him, male and female s(h)e created them.’ Male makes no sense, Genesis tells us, except in terms of female and vice versa. They have moved from a biological entity, a thing, into a higher unity, a community of sexed persons. In the Sumerian mythology in which the story originates the serpent god Ningizzida is consort of the goddess who dwells in the garden of immortality. In the garden there is a tree from which hang the two fruits of immortal life and immortal knowledge. Any initiate who wishes to eat of these fruits can only do so by first approaching Ningizzida. One of the most striking but rarely noticed features of the biblical version is that, on the face of it, it is not God who is telling the truth but the serpent. God told us quite clearly, Eve tells the serpent, that if we eat of the tree of knowledge we will die. But they don’t. The account almost makes it look as if God’s prohibition was a ruse on his part to make sure that they dideat the apple, which is exactly what it was. We can only understand this when we appreciate that the story has an initiatory structure. Telling the initiands untruths to test them is a common feature of many intitiation rituals. In ancient Lydia, where the cult myth was descent from wolves, initiates were given wolves’ flesh to eat and were told it was human. In New Guinea, the older men shout through bullroarers and tell the initiates it is demons coming out of the forest to get them. But it turns out that these apparent untruths are actually expressions of a greater truth that the initiation itself has created. There were indeed roaring demons, but they were within the unconscious minds of the initiates and the whole point of the initiation is to strengthen the self in order to deal with them. The Lydian boys were sharing human flesh, but it was their own, within a confirming bond that the initiation was designed to create. Here the serpent, the instrument of the initiatory test, -which the candidates passed with flying colours – was indeed telling them a truth but it was only a limited one. Within the longer perspective of the biblical story God’s untruth held a truth that ironically held a still greater truth. In the end they did die, but death turned out to be the gateway to a greater life that the initiation itself – O felix culpa – was making possible. So God’s consort, the serpent, got it right. If you think of original sin as collapsing back into apelike algorithmic behaviours, eating the apple precisely wasn’t the original sin. Blaming each other was. They were behaving as irrational creatures – ha’adama the earth creature thing – are programmed to do. But they weren’t apes any more. They made a free choice. They became subjective persons. They felt shame.
The eucharist is the sacrament of unity. It is the communal feast of love that replaced appeasing a vengeful God through primitive sacrifices where beasts stood in for the most desirable female. Transubstantation is a misleading misnomer. The Mass is not a miracle but a sign of the unity in the depth of all things that science now assures us is the case. It is a real presence because that deep unity of all things is a real presence. Now I re-read the scriptures with a Darwinian eye I am astonished how they concur with science. ‘He set forth his purpose in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him (in the two-slit experiment separate particles, and all things including ourselves I believe, are particulated but are also shown to form an inseparable unity, they interfere with each other as scientists say) things in heaven and things on earth.’ The bread and wine remain bread and wine just as they were. But on another level they are the body of Christ, just as everything else is. Darwin and Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking have got it right. They just haven’t gone far enough. The Catholic doctrine is rooted in the idea that this universal unity is rooted in Christ’s passion and resurrection. But that is a further leap of faith of course. ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this pasch with you before I suffer’. For me theology has brought feeling to the dry science. How can I give up something so precious?
The Virgin Mary. I spent some years in the British Library studying ice age art. There is no sign in the paleolithic caves that these people believed in a God who created the universe. But there is plenty of evidence that they had a vivid sense of The Tremendousness which they expressed in their art. They were attempting to get at an inner reality through abstraction, some of the wonderfully portrayed animals only have elongated heads and legs so thin they wouldn’t have been able to stand up. Above all they had a sense of a female creative principle in creation. Highly abstracted venus figurines have been found from Siberia to Spain. Why so abstracted? The caves are decorated with images of female vulvas. The nearest I can get to a living tradition of the divinised female is in the Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary. It’s not so much I think it’s true – who knows – as my life would be greatly impoverished without it. Although I would prefer images of the female reproductive organs on pedestals rather than the simpering virgins.
Hell. It is important to understand Christ’s words about hell within the context of the literary genres in which he expressed himself. He didn’t mean you should literally cut your hand off or pluck out your eye. In the wavular dimension, the beyond state, there can be no place called hell or demons with pitchforks because it takes time to toss somebody into the flames. In the further dimension there is neither space nor time. God does not create hells but we do: the First World War, Auschwitz, some people living in grinding poverty while others are bored with their riches. Why this is hell nor are we out of it. We do this for evolutionary reasons because we are only a few genes away from the chimpanzees we so very nearly are. Stop wondering whether Christ was the Son of God, or still worse rejecting the idea altogether because nobody has spotted it under a microscope, we don’t know for certain and never will. But we should be Christians because nobody has set an example of how to be a fully humane human being rather than a super-chimpanzee as Christ did. Our predicament is so grave we should clutch at any straw. Humanists who despise doom pictures in churches as examples of Medieval superstition are themselves utterly naïve. These were extremely sophisticated works of art. We have lost the Medieval habit of thinking allegorically which was why Dante put real people in hell. He knew it wasn’t his place to condemn them to hell, they were images of the human condition. The Divine Comedy wasn’t a kind of Tolkein for the Middle Ages, it was a journey through himself and he is telling us that the capacity for hell is in all of us and we live in its shadow as the doom pictures also tell us. I had not thought death had undone so many. Millennia later Freud called this brutish cellarage that exists in all of us the id, and recommended the talking cure as a way of escape from it. Christ also used the talking cure, although in this case it was the doctor rather than the patient who did the talking. He warned us of hell and spoke in parables. Just as Dante did he drew pictures in language, the faculty that most signally differentiates human from beast. The Good Samaritan not passing the stranger by, the king enraged at the injustice of the unjust steward, the old father welcoming home with joy the prodigal son are all behaving not in the way an animal would but as humans can and do.
Purgatory. As a boy I was taught that after death the soul which was always separate from the body leaves it and goes to purgatory where the sins that had been committed in this life are expiated. You could shorten the sentence of someone you knew by praying for them. There was a tariff. One decade of reciting the rosary could reduce the punishment time by a hundred days, for example, reciting two decades two hundred. I can no longer believe in it. It was a triumph of marketing. But I now believe in purgatory with a devotion I never felt before. If I am right in thinking that wave/particle duality doesn’t just apply to subatomic particles but to all things, including human beings, then there must be an aspect to us that is outside space and time and in some sense we must survive death, that most characteristic aspect of the particulated. I’m thinking of what for me is the most astonishing teaching of contemporary science, nonlocality. Electrons and photons can communicate with each other instantaneously across the whole universe. I’m thinking too that science is now speculating that there may be billions of planets in the universe that may sustain life. I’m wondering whether after death we will find ourselves still existing but on another planet living a further life before we finally become absorbed in Christ – ‘He set forth his purpose in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’. I’m now a believer in the karma of the eastern theologies. This may all be nonsense of course. But what a precious thing if there is even a possibility that the dead are not lost. I don’t think we ought to pray for the toiling souls. Aren’t I generous, I’m doing you a good turn, soul. If they are existing at all they are further on the road towards God than we are. But to feel that we are still in contact with those we thought lost! What a wonderful thing. It may all be untrue, but I so want to be a Catholic just in case it isn’t. Can I do without it? I don’t think so.
Infallibity. To think that when the Pope declares something to be infallible it is certainly true with the kind of certainty we find in the laws of physics is obvious nonsense. In Latin infallibilitas means something more like trustworthy. But to believe that an institution that has misled mankind so often and so gravely is trustworthy is equally naïve. It would be like entrusting your money to a money laundering bank (and indeed there is much evidence to suggest that that is what the Vatican Bank was before Pope Francis was put in to try to clean it up). Yet I find infallibility one of the most inspiring of the Church’s doctrines. For Protestants, the Church is the creation of the Scriptures, for Catholics the Scriptures are the creation of the Church. The New Testament was written by the early Christian communities to whom the evangelists belonged. They were written by people, with all the sophisticated literary understandings, fictions, delusions, dishonesties, even lies but also inspirations, hopes and loves we find among people. In other words, they are not bank statements and legal documents but living texts that continue to convey to us what inspired the early followers of Christ so much. The Church is not a solid rock as some Catholics who don’t like being disturbed like to think (Jesus the Great Disturber) ) but a living organism that grows as living things do, albeit precisely because it is alive subject to diseases and pests as living things are. The Church is the living continuation of those early communities and seeks to understand Christ’s legacy more fully just as they did. Infallibility is not saying you must now believe on pain of excommunication that the Virgin was assumed into heaven. It is an invitation to believe that we should accord to the Assumption the kind of grave delight and reverence we give to the Scriptures themselves. The Scriptures are not dead, they grow and live on. I find that deeply enlivening and inspiring. Could the doctrine of the Assumption even be assuring us that women matter? Not that the Vatican seems to have noticed.
Contemplation. Humanists like to think that they only accept objectively certified data but of course they don’t. They only accept as valid data what they can see through their own narrow slit. All down history millions of people have had mystical experiences. Are we to say that all these people were charlatans and how can we, on the other hand, be certain that they were deceiving themselves? I’m particularly interested in the Hindu saccidanda, bliss, attained through experiencing advaita. Advaita means non-dualism, losing your individuality and becoming absorbed in the one, the all, and yet in this life a human being by definition is separate from other human beings. It sounds remarkably like the wave/particle duality of quantum physics to me. It is the same mystery that Christianity celebrates in the Trinity. Richard thinks that three being one at the same time is obvious nonsense, and of course logically it is. But is there a reality beyond logic? Yes, surely there is. It is this that the mystics claim to experience.
Sex and marriage. The Church’s attitude to sex when I was a boy was almost entirely negative. It was all mortal sins and going to hell if you broke the rules. For many Humane Vitae, the encyclical forbidding contraception, was the supreme example of the Church’s irrational intransigence. Many of the laity rebelled and now, dismayed, the clergy seem to have gone quiet on the subject. I am very unhappy about the Church’s rules on marriage. Christ didn’t condemn divorce, he said marriage was indissoluble. You can have an indissoluble relationship with more than one person, you do with your two parents after all. But, nevertheless, underneath it all I think the Church is right about sex and marriage. In a Darwinian view the sexes are trying to exploit each other. Men are unfaithful to wives because males want to spread their genes as widely as possible. Women leave husbands for a new man who might have better genes to contribute to future offspring. This is a complete disaster, introducing the chimpanzees into the most intimate part of our lives, and I believe underlies the sexual chaos and unhappiness we see all around us. Fidelity is not native to most animals, although it is to some, but it is absolutely central to human nature. According to Kant rational creatures, unlike other animals, should never break solemn promises precisely because they are rational. I have come to believe that the central truth about sex is that it is a holy thing. Conception is participating in God’s creation of the world. Sex is a most particular aspect of our experiences of The Tremendousness and if there is anywhere we can encounter a happiness that goes beyond all others it is in sex. The vagina is a temple of creation. Of course, the Church has turned this invitation to a fuller and greater and happier sexual life into manacles and prohibitions. Use a contraceptive and it is a mortal sin. But life is complex. Are we really to say that a couple living in a small flat already with three children, the husband working abroad and on his rare leave home it happens to be her fertile time, cannot have sex? Surely even that slave driver Jesus would have relented. Nevertheless, I am now a fervent supporter of Humanae Vitae and the Church’s teaching on marriage. It can’t be right in itself to nullify the wonder of the temple of life with bits of rubber and chemicals. Jesus didn’t have much to say about contraceptives, although the harlots of the period must have been using animal intestines smeared with crocodile dung all the time. But he did say a lot about mercy and love and forgiveness and the dangers of wealth. Are we really to say that a rich man who doesn’t give all his money to Oxfam because it would mean sacking his cooks and gardeners should be denied communion? Life is complex. We can only do our best in compromised circumstances. But the principle remains. Sex is a holy thing. For Darwinians, there is natural sexual attraction because nature wants you to mate, but after about two years the pleasure of sex with one person diminishes and eventually you move one. But this is less than the fully humane experience. Through mutual love as faithful as we can make it in this world full of tangles and bitter stones, each partner gradually brings out of the other that greater person that dwells deep in each of us. As love grows the joy of sex does not diminish but over a lifetime becomes ever greater. Only we can escape from the tyranny of the selfish repicators. . Underneath it all and despite itself the Church is right.
I want to explore these themes and others too in the third book.