There was a time during the early twentieth century when Albert Einstein was a virtual celebrity. His work created buzz, his public appearances were characterized by mobs of adoring fans — he was like a rock star before rock stars were even a thing.
Those days have seen something of a resurgence.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a good example of a contemporary celebrity-scientist (his creepy AF groping issues aside). He is a frequent guest on late-night TV programs and popular podcasts, he speaks to packed venues, and his books sell by the thousands. “New Atheist” scientists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are further examples — their books, podcasts, and merchandise are consumed by a loyal fan base in whose eyes these luminaries are revered with a devotion usually reserved for religious cult leaders and self-help gurus.
Science is back, it seems. With a vengeance.
But is a hardline scientific-slash-materialist worldview, one that insists that human beings are reducible to their brains and the physical world is all there is, period, really a step forward?
I would suggest that it’s not.
The very image of the lab coat-sporting scientist with his microscope or telescope and clipboard, calmly observing his subject with detached aloofness and supposed objectivity smacks of a posture that is becoming more and more outdated, especially given the rise of quantum theory over the past century or so.
The worldview that the Enlightenment helped spawn was one characterized by reason, rationality, and the belief that man could finally conquer space and time, exerting his influence over the natural world in virtually every arena. We could now observe the stars, map the earth, subjugate the land, and tame its savages. Thanks to the ever-increasing advances in scientific knowledge, man’s place at the helm of the world would forever be unquestioned and unchallenged.
Time for some irony.
This entire approach to life is inseparable from the dictates of patriarchy and, yes, Christian dominionism. In fact, these ideas feed upon one another in ways that are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
Genesis’s “dominion mandate” — the idea that Adam was charged with exercising a kingly dominion over the material world by subjugating the created order to his own will — is precisely what gives fuel to the fire of Newtonian science: Man-the-Scientist (homo scientificus) stands distinct from the world, a godlike Subject for whom everything else is but an object of study and observation, and with glasses perched at the end of his nose he conducts his experiments, exerting his will upon the material objects from which he is utterly detached and disconnected.
Kinda rapey if you stop and think about it.
I would suggest that a more holistic and sustainable approach to the world we inhabit is the one hinted at by quantum theory, one that rejects man’s patriarchal, I’m-Your-Daddy posture toward creation. Ideas like “quantum entanglement” and wave-particle duality suggest that, contrary to overly clinical Age-of-Reason ideology, the material world is something we participate in rather than merely dominate. In a word, we don’t just exist, we co-exist along with the natural order in an ecosystem that is alive and dynamic, on which we depend for our very survival.
There is mystery hardwired into the very bones of the world (to mix a metaphor). And no, solving all these mysteries is not just a matter of time or tech, as Newtonian physics seems to suggest. The universe defies our definition and dominion by its very nature (and not just because we haven’t connected all the dots yet).
To sum up, therefore, despite our patriarchal lust to dominate and control everything (and to eyeroll and dismiss what we can’t explain), any approach to life in this world that facilitates smugness or cavalier dismissal of what eludes our safe, dogmatic labels is pure hubris.
Science is important, but it’s not all-important. Rockets and smartphones are great, but so are art, poetry, literature, music, and film. And to insist that artists, mystics, and sages have nothing true to tell us simply because their wisdom can’t be lab-replicated in a double-blind, peer-reviewed study is not only a ridiculously reductionistic approach to life, it is also needlessly boring.
Quit slow-blinking at people, is what I’m saying.
We don’t know everything and we never will. Instead of trying to subjugate nature and eliminate mystery, why not just embrace the unknown (and unknowability) of this world, treating earth not merely as an arena for patriarchal domination but instead as a cause of wonder and occasion for wild-eyed humility?
And hey, if nothing else at least it’ll make you more tolerable at parties. . . .