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Faith in the Postmodern World
by Harold Williamson
July 25, 2004

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From Man or Angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scann’d by them who ought
Rather admire; or if they list to try
Conjecture, he his Fabric of the Heav’ns
Hath left to thir disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at thir quaint Opinions wide
Hereafter, when they come to model Heav’n
And calculate the Starrs, how they will wield
The mightie frame, how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appeerances, how gird the Sphear
With Centric and Eccentric scribl’d o’re,
Cycle and Epicycle, Orb in Orb:

-- Raphael in Paradise Lost by John Milton

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void . . . .”

-- Genesis 1:1,2

“What part of this work is committed to us?”

-- Seneca

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” This line from As You Like It is but one example of what was William Shakespeare’s creative genius to transform a few words into profound metaphors of the complex human condition. Ever since entering on stage without a script, we have overcome the physical limitations of our species by specializing in a superior brain capable of improvisation. All that we have constructed has been accomplished by making do from available materials, our progress being constrained only by our inability to successfully cope with Uncertainty – an influential character that cloaks in a shroud of mystery the theme of this exciting drama that includes us. Not the least exciting is that we know as much about it when we are asleep as when we are awake.

Conformity results from the interplay of Uncertainty with the human intellect. We organize our ignorance with orthodoxy, and as a social species we cope with Uncertainty by seeking identity and security with groups holding selfsame beliefs and opinions. Mark Twain once wrote about a wise young philosopher, a black slave, who said, “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ’pinions is.” Twain said, “Broadly speaking, there are none but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, Corn-Pone stands for Self-Approval. Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is Conformity.” There are corn-pone opinions from Washington to Moscow, from Mecca to the Vatican, and from Cambridge to Cornell.

Conformity breeds intolerance, and human history is hardly anything more than chronologic tribalism. We do the wrong things for what we tell ourselves are the right reasons, even though we can’t be certain we really know what time it is. And if there is a moral to history, Henry David Thoreau said it best: “It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.”

But what suffices proof? We should always be willing to challenge our current assumptions. Choices and values guide our actions, although they are based on knowledge that is incomplete. Knowledge stems from investigation, and knowing when enough investigation is sufficient is based in turn on corresponding choices and values, whereas only one more investigation could lead to new knowledge on which to base new choices and values. In order to minimize the dramatic and destructive influence of pride, prejudice, and passion, we must recognize the constructive influence of Uncertainty that is intrinsic in the universe and pervasive in knowledge. Recognizing Uncertainty is not a new idea in a rational search for Truth. It was borne to us from the Age of Reason.

Conversely, Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French scientist and philosopher, stated in his Pensées that reason alone cannot satisfy one's hopes and aspirations, and religious faith was necessary for this purpose. Where material evidence of the exact cause has not been found, the collapse of some ancient cultures such as the North American Hopewellian culture (2nd century B.C. to 4th century A.D.) could be attributed to this. Creativity and art flourished because the time for these things was made available to them by their success in agriculture. But the culture may have explored and discovered all that was possible with their limited technology, and without anything else that would provide adequate substance and meaning to their lives, their world became a tired and worn-out place. With the loss of hope and aspirations for anything new and better, the people may have slowly descended into barbarism as they ended up grubbing for food near the monuments built by their ancestors, without a clue as to their significance.

Are we following a similar course to an intellectual dead end? By relying solely on science, do we run the risk that a final theory of everything will have no meaning whatsoever in human terms? What do we stand to lose by recognizing that only a delicate balance between faith and doubt will allow this human drama of ours to have any semblance of meaning or purpose? What would human life be like otherwise? Let’s suppose that sometime in the future the pioneers of science will have invented the ultimate technology needed to admire the “blueprint” of this marvelous universe, and at long last all of the secrets of the great Architect will be revealed. At this extraordinary time: What part of this work will be committed to us? What will we do? What will happen to our hopes and dreams?

Western philosophical tradition is a history of debate rather than consensus. The 20th-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that the true philosopher is not a member of any community of ideas. He influenced a philosophy that views ordinary language as being representative of what is real, thereby placing the limitations and ambiguities of language as the cause of philosophical disagreement. But the problem is not in the language; it is language. There is no certainty in our perceptions, and our senses are the only direct means of passing information about phenomena to our brains. What we sense as reality is relative to each of us, and we can only attempt to communicate our own unique experience through symbols and language that have their own logic. This uncertainty is fundamental and cannot be ignored or removed. As a result, postmodernism has taken the extreme measure of rejecting the entire Western philosophical tradition as much ado about nothing.

The central tenet of postmodern philosophy is counterproductive to education because it denies our knowing anything with certainty. There is, however, merit in the principle that all knowledge is provisional by being less certain than what can be known in the future. This does not leave us lost and rudderless in a stormy sea of nihilism where we must abandon all reason for hope. Instead it provides for a voyage of discovery that promotes and celebrates an enriched perspective of diverse ideas that only intolerance would subvert.

We have seen changes in human perception of how the universe works. Time and space had formed a mechanical framework within which events ran their course. The universe was an inanimate stage production, scripted by the Fates of classical determinism, and viewed from a seat in the theater balcony. Today there is no such view from the balcony since mankind is no longer a casual observer, but an active participant in an evolving animate universe that is more organism than machine.

If a “theory of everything” is finally realized by science, it cannot exclude the fundamental quantum indeterminacy of nature that precludes, even in principle, anyone from knowing enough about the present to predetermine with certainty anything about the future. I much prefer the adventure of being uniquely human with the free will and creativity that this prospect allows. It is also unlikely that a “theory of everything” will ever be able to explain the initial condition that preceded the formation of the universe, and we will continue to dream about that which is behind the scenes of our world. But if Shakespeare were here now, I think he would wink and remind us of his words from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Harold Williamson is a Chicago-based independent scholar. He can be reached at: Copyright ã 2004, Harold Williamson.

Other Articles by Harold Williamson

* Remember Who The Enemy Is
* Obscenity, A Sign of the Times and the Post
* Thinking Anew: A Do-It-Yourself Project
* America's Blind Faith in Government
* Think Tanks and the Brainwashing of America
* Bully for the Bush Doctrine: A Natural History Perspective