A furry flurry of fully furrowed brows: my beef with Freeman Dyson, part II


My previous post revealed the furry fury of the fully furrowed Kohout brow, especially when a flurry of furry brows furrow in unison. I’m a Kohout by marriage, not birth, and therefore, perhaps, I do not wield the full power of the brow, but I’m no slouch, either.

The source of my current furrow fest is this: a month after taking on Freeman Dyson—and clearly knocking him out—I’m still struggling with his assertion in the introductory essay of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010 that environmentalism has “replaced Marxism as the leading secular religion of our age,” and that it “doesn’t have much to do with science.” Although he says he’s hopeful about the future because of the environmental movement, it’s hard to ignore the comparison with Marxism, which by most standards was a dismal failure when put into practice, however exalted its intentions in theory.

I agree with the assessment that environmentalism is a secular religion; what annoys me is the implication that scientists sit on a higher rung of the ladder of knowledge than environmentalists, who are somehow contaminated by their quasi-religious fervor and therefore need to be quarantined to a lower rung. Scientific ways of knowing trump religious ways of knowing.

I also got an email from a friend of mine, a formidable public theologian, who reminded me that the natural world is no replacement for the most amply understood Christian God. He wrote: “I do have a theological quibble (probably more than a quibble) with your view that nature in some way reveals God. If it does, I’m not sure I like this god very much.” As Robert, our redoubtable ranch manager, is prone to say: well, hell. I’m aggravated by the implication that an abstracted theological way of knowing trumps experience of and reverence for nature.

So where’s a huffy environmentalist Christian (or sometime Christian) supposed to stand on the ladder of knowledge, especially if she’s wearing a skirt? Well, any eight-year-old with playground experience can answer that one: get off the ladder and go play somewhere else.

I’m setting up an opposition that’s perhaps unreasonable: from what I’ve read, Dyson honors the mystery and gravity of the natural world, as I know my theologian friend does. But I can’t quite shake the feeling that two of the magisteria of human knowledge—science and religion—tend to regard the natural world as a mere springboard to a more important kind of knowledge: science seeks to control nature and its processes, Christianity to transcend them. Environmentalism at its best requires that we seek understanding of the endlessly changing framework into which we as a species have been born, and that we work for the short- and long-term flourishing of both framework and species. Environmentalism demands a recognition of limits. I think it can be a vital safeguard for both science and Christianity for just that reason.

In his book Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, Roger Shattuck, late professor of modern languages and literature at Boston University, examines the vexed borderlands between constructive and destructive human knowledge, first in myth and literature, then in the case histories of the atomic bomb, the human genome project, and the Marquis de Sade. In a chapter entitled “Knowledge Exploding: Science and Technology,” he examines the boundary between pure and applied science and wonders if there really is one. Science operates on the assumption that scientists can safely move between two distinct realms, but Shattuck concludes that there is a lawless and often unacknowledged no-man’s-land between the two: “The knowledge that our many sciences discover is not forbidden in and of itself. But the human agents who pursue that knowledge have never been able to stand apart from or control or prevent its application to our lives.” Scientists, Shattuck believes, are often unable to move cautiously when they enter the realm of forbidden knowledge.

Freeman Dyson, who later came to work with most of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project and who now heartily disapproves of nuclear weaponry, said this in 1980:

I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands. To release the energy that fuels the stars. To tell it do your bidding. And to perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky, it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles, I would say, this what you might call ‘technical arrogance’ that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.

And yet in his book The Scientist as Rebel, published in 2006, Dyson writes: “Science flourishes best when it uses all the tools at hand, unconstrained by preconceived notions about what science ought to be. Every time we introduce a new tool, it always leads to new and unexpected discoveries, because Nature’s imagination is richer than ours.” “New and unexpected,” however, does not necessarily lead to flourishment for all. Dyson’s prediction that we can technologize our way out of the depredations of excessive carbon emissions has a hollow ring for those of us anxious about the lawless borderlands around forbidden knowledge.

Environmentalism at its best can provide science with a prophetic voice, a voice that looks back to a time of equilibrium and harmony within a community, assesses present troubles in light of that ideal, and outlines the consequences of continued disequilibrium. (At its worst, of course, it just sounds condemnatory. There are plenty of stiff-necked literalists in the environmental movement.) In these times when technological advances come so quickly that it’s hard to know what their long-term effects might be, environmentalists can act in the way an ethics panel in a hospital might act, looking to a wider context for particular cases than the science (or business) at hand. Given scientists’ track record of falling in love with the glitter of their tools, the prophets of the environmental world can provide them with a corrective slap.

At the other end of my furrow, environmentalism can provide Christianity with what Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis calls “a wholesome materiality.” (Or it can if the scientists in the movement don’t look down their noses at the part of environmentalism that draws its power from the subjective realms of art and religion.) Within Christianity is a powerful riptide pulling its followers away from the material world, a tide that runs through misreadings of scripture as well as tradition. In her wonderful (really!) book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Davis proposes that the Bible takes the health of the earth very, very seriously. When Israel remembers both its covenant with God and its place within the intricately interconnected creation of Genesis 1, then the land drips with milk and honey and everyone is fed. When Israel forgets its covenant and its place, its sin results in devastation of the land. This devastation is not a poetic image: it’s meant quite literally. Thunders the prophet Jeremiah:

I have seen the earth, and here, [it is] wilderness and waste;
And [I look] to the heavens—and their light is gone.
I have seen the mountains, and here, they are wavering,
And all the hills palpitate.
I have seen, and here, there is no human being,
And all the birds of the heavens have fled.
I have seen, and here, the garden-land is now the wasteland,
And all its cities are pulled down,
Because of YHWH, because of his hot anger.

The well-being of the earth is inseparable from human behavior: if we remember that we are meant to be stewards of all the creation (including humans) in a way befitting us as the images of a creative, just, and merciful God, then all will be well. When we forget who we are, our forgetting is made miserably visible on the face of creation, like Dorian Gray’s portrait. Our forgetting is not merely a matter of personal misbehavior, as many Christians seem to think; we forget the enormous scope of creation and delicate balances within which we have our being. In trying to stand on top of creation, we often crush it.

I agree with my theologian friend that it’s dangerous to assume that you can observe the natural world and thereby know the full nature of God. In some ways, that would be like thinking you can reliably deduce knowledge of parents through the behavior and character of their children. Yet the mark of the parent is inevitably found on the child (in this case, both human and non-human creation): expunging God from the operations of nature that are distasteful or terrifying to human sensibilities (by, for example, killing all alpha predators despite their vital place in the biotic community) is as troubling to me as the insistence of some scientists on wandering in the borderlands without a map. Environmentalists in the scientific world can help restore human awareness of the “wholesome materiality” of creation, to look for the intricate and hidden relationships that bind us to one another and make us family—or neighbors, in the salutary command that we love God, neighbor, and self without separation.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, I declare that the era of furrowing is officially over.

What we’re reading
Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography
Martin: Stephen Harrigan, Remember Ben Clayton

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2 Responses to A furry flurry of fully furrowed brows: my beef with Freeman Dyson, part II

  1. Adrienne Rivers says:

    Heather, your writing is the most beautiful amalgam of theology, art, science, and care for our human and broader environmental concerns. PLEASE keep sharing your intellectual and literary gifts. You bring me hope. (Please excuse the sappiness factor.) Adrienne

  2. Ash says:

    I don’t think there is a disconnect between Dyson’s eloquent words about “technical arrogance” and his urging scientists to use all the tools at their disposal, since the two statements seem to refer to two separate aspects of the scientific and human enterprise. The technical arrogance which he mentions is the tendency of the physicists to divorce science from moral decisions and to indulge in their technical proficiency for the sheer scientific pleasure that they get out of it.

    The second statement is really about scientific discovery. I think here Dyson is simply saying that we should use all tools at our disposal to get the most out of Nature. Developing tools to understand Nature and thinking about the moral implications of using the tools before indulging in them- two different things.

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