Tuesday, June 08, 2010

can science solve life's mysteries?

Guardian | Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts. And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify. William James says data should be thought of not as givens but as gifts, this by way of maintaining an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know. The gifts we bring to the problem of making an account of the mind are overwhelmingly rich, severally and together. This is not an excuse for excluding them from consideration. History and civilisation are an authoritative record the mind has left, is leaving, and will leave, and objectivity deserving the name would take this record as a starting point. In practical terms, this would mean doing as the humanists have done since the building of the library of Alexandria, more or less. Humankind never ceases to express itself in new terms, and the data at hand are inevitably flawed and partial. But the complexity of the object, the human brain, and all associated phenomena are at the centre of the question, inextricable from it. The schools of thought I have criticised exclude the great fact of human exceptionalism, though no one would deny that it is a pure expression of the uniqueness of the human brain. A primary assumption of the evolutionary model behind neo-Darwinism is that development can be traced back through a series of subtly incremental changes. At what for our purposes is the terminus of all these changes there emerges, voila, the world as we know it. The neatness of this argument has always bothered me, but this is no refutation of it, nor am I interested in refuting it. I wish only to point out that there are certain things it should not be taken to imply. For example, it does not imply that a species carries forward an essential similarity to its ancestors. A bird is not a latter-day dinosaur. We can assume the ancestors ate and slept and mated, carrying on the universal business of animal life. Still, whatever the shared genetic history of beast and bird, a transformative change occurred over the millennia, and to find the modern sparrow implicit in the thunder lizard is quite certainly an error, if one wishes to make an ornithological study of sparrow behaviour. On the same grounds, there is no reason to assume our species resembles in any essential way the ancient primates whose genes we carry. It is a strategy of parascientific argument to strip away culture-making, as if it were a ruse and a concealment within which lurked the imagined primitive who is for them our true nature.

Here is another instance of evolution, to illustrate my point. The universe passed through its unimaginable first moment, first year, first billion years, wresting itself from whatever state of nonexistence, inflating, contorting, resolving into space and matter, bursting into light. Matter condenses, stars live out their generations. Then, very late, there is added to the universe of being a shaped stick or stone, a jug, a cuneiform tablet. They appear on a tiny, teetering, lopsided planet, and they demand wholly new vocabularies of description for reality at every scale. What but the energies of the universe could be expressed in the Great Wall of China, the St Matthew Passion? For our purposes, there is nothing else. Yet language that would have been fully adequate to describe the ages before the appearance of the first artifact would have had to be enlarged by concepts like agency and intention, words like creation, that would query the great universe itself. Might not the human brain, that most complex object known to exist in the universe, have undergone a qualitative change as well? If my metaphor only suggests the possibility that our species is more than an optimised ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us, a change gradualism could not predict – if this is merely another fable, it might at least encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are.