Reading Journal: Life is a Miracle

This was a good book to follow the other recent reads. Toulmin says we don’t want a science that is based on the expectation of universal truth (and subliminally on controlling the populace). The question then is, what tool do you use to reliably make difficult decisions? Capra proposes to give a new vision of science – it’s built on multiple pillars on knowledge and it uses reduction sometimes but not all the time, and it looks for patterns – but I’m still not clear as to how that helps me in figuring out how to counsel a friend who is skeptical of vaccines. In this book, Wendell Berry does a nice job of honing in on how you figure out what to do in a world without certainty, on where reduction is useful and where it’s destructive, and on how these big ideas apply to quotidian human decisions.
Before I get into that though, I’d like to pause to acknowledge the design of this book. It was such a pleasure to hold, so agreeable to observe.
The cover is some sort of silky material – not slick – there’s just enough grain to give it some substance. It feels a lot like finely sanded wood does before you apply the stain and varnish. It’s just the right size, easy to slip into a jacket pocket, easy to hold open with one hand – and the page design is so clean, understated, classy… The Kindle has a long way to go before it matches this. All of which is appropriate because the pages contain the argument that the component parts of a thing (for instance the sentiment of the words and the way it feels in the hand) cannot be separated without some loss.
In doing this Berry is getting directly at what I’ll call the the crying baby test. If I’m talking to someone about their proposal for a new paradigm or some big new way of thinking, I’ll try and stop at some point and think – this is all very exciting, but does it help me in any way if I’ve got a screaming baby and I want to figure out how to get it to stop crying? It’s a test for science as well as philosophy: You can find over 2000 scientific articles about excessive crying on PubMed – you’ll find broad surveys that talk about how economic status and age correlates with average crying time – and you’ll find narrow studies of a cascade of chemicals may trigger crying in the brain. There are a few semi-useful articles on treatments (swaddling – regular sleep schedule). But then there’s another review showing that it’s impossible to define excessive crying and saying that normality is a clinically useless concept. None of this is likely to help with the crisis at hand. Science can offer some clues – but it never provides certainty.

One of our problems is that we humans cannot live without acting; we have to act. Moreover, we have to act on the basis of what we know, and what we know is incomplete. What we have come to know so far is demonstrably incomplete, since we keep on learning more, and there seems little reason to think that our knowledge will become significantly more complete. The mystery surrounding our life probably is not significantly reducible. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount.

Culture provides the answer, according to Berry. But in this era where innovation has far outstripped the development of culture, we have resorted to acting on the basis of incomplete knowledge as if it were complete – or at least with the assumption “that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust ‘progress’ or our putative ‘genius’ to solve all the problems we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion.”
Superstition, as defined by Stevie Wonder, is when you believe in things you don’t understand. The problem is, if you only believe in what you do understand you are left with very little to go on – it fails the crying baby test. So scientific fundamentalists find themselves in the position on having to fill in the area between our points of accepted knowledge with theory, supposition, and faith. Berry’s subtitle is “An essay against modern superstition” and he’s pointing out that the faith in science (to solve all our problems) is itself a belief in something we don’t understand.
I should say that this is essentially a book-long rebuttal of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, a book I liked when I read it – but one that left me with questions. Mainly – Wilson was saying that eventually science will explain everything, an effort I’m happy to support, but what do I do in the meantime? (There’s also the issue of Wilson’s language – he, like a lot of science writers, appeals to overblown tropes to help lift him over the thin ice. Berry characterizes it perfectly: “he is elatedly confident that he is right.”) Consilience is a pretty idea, but again, it fails the crying baby test.
 So how do we act in ignorance? That, Berry says, is the function of culture. In this age we honor the conquistadors of new territory, new ideas, the people who bring us new innovations – and as we do so we end up forgetting our cultural inheritance, our literature, our art, all the wrestling with angels that our ancestors have done for us. “The new must come from the old, for where else would you get it?” Culture both widens the scope of knowledge and offers ways of dealing with unsolvable problems. Widens the scope: There are other ways of knowing beyond the scientific method – imagine if you limited your actions to that which had been validated in peer reviewed journals. You wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning (though it would also be impossible to justify staying in bed). “To define knowledge as merely empirical is to limit one’s ability to know; it enfeebles one’s ability to feel and think.” (103) Art stands at the opposite end: “Works of art communicate feeling directly from mind to mind, with no intent to explain why this impact occurs. In this defining quality arts are the antithesis of science.” (105) And I would say that’s true of arts broadly defined – there’s no need to explain the process by which a father teaches his son to throw a baseball, or to cook. On this Sunday a friend described the futility of exactitude in the art of pie-crust making, “it doesn’t matter if it’s six tablespoons of water or 12,” she said, “what matters is getting it to the point where it feels right between your fingers.” Adam Gopnik made the same point in last week’s New Yorker. Ask the Australian Aborigines how they discovered the method for leaching the poison out of cycads that have killed people in Guam and Japan and Papua New Guinea, and they will tell you that it “comes from the dreaming.” Clearly there are other forms of knowledge that we should take seriously, even if we don’t understand them. Culture also offers ways of dealing with unsolvable problems like death and suffering. The poets offer better advice than the scientists here (remember Gary Greenberg’s essay). Berry also hints at something else – that we might “make work our answer to despair.” (I think he means that if we have a clearly directed moral purpose in the things we choose to do, that simply living and doing our thing another day is helping the common wealth).
I was struggling with this on the last book; Berry gives an elegant answer. It’s a tool – like a hammer and in that capacity it’s a wonderful thing. It’s only when you begin to believe that you can only use the hammer for every job (the baby?) that you begin doing damage.”Reductionism legitimately belongs to science; as an article of belief, it causes trouble.”
Berry quotes the great biochemist Erwin Chargaff who compares culture to a tapestry, which scientists pull apart thread by thread until “even the memory of the design is lost.” (75) It misses the point to pick out each thread and say, “Okay the results are in: 63.7 percent are red, 13.5 percent are golden…”
Looking at life strictly through the lens of evolution reduces living to survival. (110)
Scientific freedom
Scientific freedom, he says, demands scientific responsibility – the ability of culture to ask if new knowledge will really make our lives better. He goes further – releasing knowledge into the world is sometimes worse than not ever looking for it. (70, 77, 145) This is a hard one for me to accept. Suppose God handed you an apple shaped cask and said, “Inside are the materials that will lead you to new revelations about your biology, a great leap forward in the human understanding of how bodies work. But it also contains information that could be used to manufacture a virus that could cause immeasurable suffering if it fell into the wrong hands. Wanna open it?” It would be hard for me not to – and I’d use all the legitimizations – maybe the information with a little more work will allow us to vaccinate against the virus (ie science will solve the problems it causes), and maybe the sicknesses we cure with this will outweigh the cost (ie progress is always good – Berry talks about us losing the ability to subtract). Sure, some bells can’t be unrung, some nuclei cannot be stitched back together, but restricting pursuit of knowledge is still tough for me. If we had the moral culture to deal with it I think we could cope with dangerous knowledge while letting scientists explore as they see the opportunity. The problem seems not to be the pursuit of knowledge, but the fact that application is driven by money. It takes a lot of money to get a new idea, a new drug, a new method of raising pigs, up and running. And once it’s going its hard to say, well, the experiment failed, let’s throw out this innovation. (There are some mechanisms for that in medicine…) “Suppose that the ultimate standard of our work were to be, not professionalism and profitability, but the health and durability of human and natural communities.” (134) Innovation should be based on a local need and built for that particularity – it should ask “What will this do to our community?” (Which, I think is what Berry is getting at with the metric of propriety as well).
Other stuff
“The radii of knowledge have only pushed back–and enlarged–the circumference of mystery.” (135) Which is why I love science! It opens the horizon of awe.
“We ought conscientiously to reduce our tolerance for ugliness.” I love this. True progress shouldn’t result in more ugliness. But it also can be read as elitist: What does it matter if my English manor becomes a coal mine if the net effect is hundreds of happier lives? I think though, that humans with good lives tend to make their surroundings beautiful. Ugliness is usually a sign of destitution and as such it can be an indicator for how we are doing with development.
“We should value familiarity over innovation.” Go deep rather than wide.
“Science can teach us, and help us to resist death, but it can’t teach us to prepare for death or die well.”
Science applied only by a government or a corporation is tyrannical. “The use of science by or upon people who do not understand it is always potentially tyrannical, and it is always dangerous.” Which explains the conspiracy theories in response to the vaccines. (148)
“Perhaps the most proper, and the most natural, response to our state of ignorance is not haste to increase the amount of available information, or even to increase knowledge, but rather a lively and convivial engagement with the issues of form, elegance, and kindness… the problem is not primarily one of mass [total knowledge]; it is a problem of form.” Partake in the wholeness, in the holiness of a thing even if we don’t understand it. (back to Unsettling for a moment, 103 heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy.)

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