Monday, June 02, 2008

Nature, humanity and atheistic awe

Also from Standpoint magazine, and also on the subject of why religion is so very good regardless of whether it’s true, is Alain de Botton:

We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings.

I don’t agree.

First, no technology can hold a candle to an ocean, to thunderstorms, to the Horsehead nebula, to a randomly encountered iceberg shaped like a castle. Casting off the fiction of a creator leaves my awe at these things untouched. In fact, if there’s an all-powerful god, then the existence of these things becomes that much less impressive: omnipotence can do far more than what actually exists (‘couldn’t you have made it bigger, or with more colours, or just a bit more like an actual horse?’)

And in the cases of the nebula and the iceberg, part of what’s astonishing is precisely that the resemblances are natural and unintended.

Second, how can “our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings” not be a tremendous source of awe? Maybe de Botton has let his familiarity breed too much, but I find other people almost constantly impressive: for doing things I never could, for thinking thoughts I never would, for their ceaseless ability to surprise, for their strengths and idiosyncracies great and small.

One of the achievements of religion is that we – or rather, some of us – have been tricked into thinking that the world we live in is less remarkable than it really is, by making it face comparisons with myth and fantasy.

(Norm also takes issue with de Botton.)


Matt M said...

De Botton seems to be committing the egotistical fallacy (I've no idea whether this is an actually fallacy, but it should be), mistaking his attitude towards the universe for humanity's attitude in general.

I personally find the scientific view of the universe far more awe-inspiring than the ignorant view of the pre-scientific age. Knowing (more or less) what goes into creating a sunset only adds to the beauty and wonder of it.

(I originally read his name as de Bottom, and was going to make a hilarious "talking out of his arse" gag)

Anonymous said...

I won't respond to Matt M, whose sense of humour clearly needs some developing. It is absurd to read my article as suggesting that nature isn't in any way impressive. My specific point is that we are uniquely aware of the human capacity to wreck nature - we are for the first time 'stronger' than nature in many ways. We can pollute the skies. Think of how different it is to look at both sides of the clouds, for the first time in history.

Anonymous said...

You brought up the impressive power of human cognition, including pareidolia, I’d like to second that. I’m constantly impressed with how other people ‘see’ the world; figuring out what makes them ‘tick’, what they appreciate and why is typically interesting.

I believe that can stand alone, without wondering if someone’s vivid dream could possibly be attributed to DMT or wondering about an architect’s place cells as they’re cutely wandering the site of Ronchamp Chapel. Which is fine with me, as I tend to muddy up the logical.

As for the scientific view of the universe, it can be more interesting but I still think mythology and religious studies hold an appreciative place in history. One has to admit there is a lot of creativity there, which de Botton covers well. I think the 'search for meaning', to quickly cover Frankl, is something governments lack at inspiring but I don't believe it is their place to do so. The solution also discounts people, like me, who simply aren't comfortable with those who wish to pontificate to groups, be it Dawkins, the government, or a pastor.

It's an interesting concept and relevant with all of the talk about 'New Atheism'. I'd find it really sad if such intelligent people had to instill kindness and virtue via propaganda.

Also, I wouldn't say we're truly stronger than nature. More apt to adapt to it, yes, but technology can only safeguard us so much and can only correct so much damage.

(Damn. I wanted to check and make sure David Miliband, among others, was an atheist, as I thought he was. So yeah…you’ll be seeing that in your search terms- some article came up when I googled my query. I’m not obsessed, I still think one MP may very well wipe the floor with him in a year or two, if Brown leaves now. Not Purnell… At least I name and shame myself.)

Tom Freeman said...

Very true, Alain, that becoming able to fly above the clouds gives pause for thought, as does the damage we can (usually inadvertently) inflict on nature.

But our mastery over our world still pales lamentably compared with, say, the technology we see in sci-fi programmes set centuries into the future (and even that is usually portrayed as sorely limited).

I don't doubt that you can gasp at nature much as I do, but I don't see how the fact that one might do this atheistically leads to the "envy, anxiety and arrogance" that you describe.

I completely agree with you that modesty is worth cultivating, though, whatever metahpysics we might assume. And "putting man into context" is certainly worthwhile - we're a part of nature and not the raison d'etre for the universe.

Using art to promote virtues rather than 'great figures' (of myth or reality) is also commendable. I fear that people's imaginations may be harder to catch with abstractions than with named individuals, but I guess that good art should be able to make abstract values concrete and personal.

Matt M said...

Knew I should've added a smiley after my "arse" comment.

Anonymous said...

Nah, Matt. Then you'll be an emotional buffoon like me, worrying about the feelings of slightly haughty men who commend one another on the possibility of more overbearing religions--that would possibly seek out to restrict art, among other things. At least Brian Sewell remains charming by sticking with the Catholics.