Scientific Passions

The nerd world felt a slight disturbance in the force a few weeks back, when the hottest new science popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, argued that philosophy yields little value compared to science. The widely quoted statement that drew ire from philosophical types was Tyson’s observation, in response to someone’s admission to having been a philosophy major: “That can really mess you up.”

Anyone who has ever endured a philosophy class recognizes the truth in this claim, but it became a convenient placeholder for Tyson’s more objectionable comments, which amounted to an assertion that philosophy is navel-gazing sophistry which does not contribute to “our understanding of the natural world.”

“Practical men,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” This is doubly true of practical scientists, like the amiable Dr. Tyson, who are enslaved not to economists but to philosophers, even as they pronounce themselves independent of philosophical drudgery.

The amateur philosopher imprisoning Tyson and many of his colleagues is a centuries-dead Frenchman named Laplace, astronomer and mathematician by trade, who in his Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (he was not privy to Tyson’s cautions against philosophizing) expounded a notion that grips most science popularizers today, and a good many social planners as well. It is the notion that if we could capture all the data in the universe, we could understand the past and the present, and predict the future with certainty.

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Crying Ocean

Guest post by Natalie Vestin

In Judith Kitchen’s essay “Direction,” she writes of traveling with a friend in Greece and being asked to step out of her cab on a dark road by a driver she doesn’t trust. She and her friend refuse to get out, not by saying no, but by huddling in the back seat and crying thalassa, thalassa. Ocean, ocean.

Crying direction and saving themselves.

I split this past summer between residencies in Minnesota and Nebraska, writing, thinking about ocean and about salvation. About what’s inside us—how the matter of our origins can save us. About love for the how of creation and a God who deserves to be loved for the how. About crying thalassa, saying “I am ocean and worth saving.”

I was writing about dance and thinking about bones, calcium, carbonate of lime. Calcium comes from water. When mammals were just a dream on a volcanic and shifting earth, bones were made by water. I’m water, carbonate of lime, the memory of a tide. I was formed by wetness and rolling wave. I’m light and breakable as heaven.

I’m taking some poetic license here. I’m also trying to take a little salvation where I can find it.

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Beauty’s Victory

I go on binges. For days, weeks, months—well, usually not months—but days and weeks anyhow, I get taken by something and it will be all that interests me for a while. I’ll plunge into Faulkner for a time, then breach, crest, and fall into Graham Greene.

Things don’t stay all that highbrow, either; I’m as apt to watch Duck Dynasty marathons as I am to read books. Then again, I might forswear all such pursuits and go into serious training to beat the last five folks who’ve registered their bragging rights on the gym treadmill.

I was well into an Anthony Burgess tear not long back before I got pulled off on another line. This time it was Nabokov. It started around Christmas and picked up when the holidays were over.

After Lolita (and the movie version), Pale Fire, The Defense (that movie version too—called The Luzhin Defence) and Pnin—which you have to re-read and ask yourself why you didn’t see X before, or notice Y—I stumbled upon an essay in the March 2014 edition of First Things by David Bentley Hart, entitled Nabokov’s Supernatural Secret.

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Creation, Evolution, and the Over-Active Imagination, Part 2

Guest post

By Jeremy Begbie

In yesterday’s post I had to skip over a lot of detail and nuance, but only to make what I hope is a fair point: that behind much of the polemics of the evolutionism controversy lies an imagination that has got out of hand. The problem is not with the imaginative drive to find and construct patterns, which help us make sense of things, or the fact it often works with metaphors. The difficulties start when the imagination gets over-confident too quickly, ending up with patterns that extend beyond their proper use, and thus distort our view of reality.

How can artists of Christian faith help us here? At the very least, artists can help us imagine the universe as the creation of the God of Jesus Christ.

The Christian imagination is, or should be, in the business of discovery, disclosure—just as it constructs its visions, metaphorical or otherwise. (Just think of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.) It cannot indulge in undisciplined fantasizing, only in disciplined truthfulness to the vision of the cosmos disclosed in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In this light, with limited space, I close with four reflections.

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Creation, Evolution, and the Over-Active Imagination, Part 1

Guest post

By Jeremy Begbie

Much is said these days about the importance of the imagination for virtually every human activity, from mowing a lawn to composing songs. And when it comes to the creationist-evolutionist disputes, it won’t be long before one side accuses the other of lacking imagination. Usually it’s the evolutionist who blames the Bible-reading creationist for a plodding literalism. And this is just where the arts are needed, so it is said, because they help us take myth, symbolism, and fictional narrative seriously—just what we need if we’re going to read Genesis properly.

But matters can’t be this simple. I’m inclined to think that if there is a problem with the imagination in the current evolution debate, it is not so much a lack of imagination as an over-active or over-ambitious imagination, and this afflicts both sides in the debate. If you have children, it’s likely you will have said to them at some point—“you’ve got an over-active imagination.” We’re saying their imaginations have got out of hand, with the result they’re out of touch with the way things really are.

Something similar, I’m suggesting, is evident in the fights over evolution. And if the arts can help us here, it’s not so much to ignite the imagination as to help the imagination operate more responsibly.

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