Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Lost in the Cosmos (Walker Percy) excerpts

Percy (141) on science, art, religion, and transcendence: "In the age of science, scientists are the princes of the age. Artists are not. So that even though both scientists and artists achieve transcendence over the ordinary world in their science and art, only the scientist is sustained in his transcendence by the exaltation of the triumphant spirit of science and by the community of scientists...With the disappearance of the old cosmological myths and the decline of Judaeo-Christianity and the rise of the autonomous self, science and art—one the study of secondary causes, the other the ornamental handmaiden of rite and religion—were seized upon and elevated to royal highroads of transcendence in their own right." 

Percy (142-143) on the problem with art (and transcendence), especially for artists: "What is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at 9:00. What to do at 10? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoevski do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book?...The most spectacular problems of reentry seem to be experienced by artists and writers. They, especially the latter, seem subject more than most people to estrangement from the society around them—to neurosis, psychosis, alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy, florid sexual behavior, solitariness, depression, violence, and suicide. Art, like science, entails a certain abstraction from its subject matter, albeit a different order of abstraction. And the better the artist, the greater the distance of abstraction. Thus, writers like Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins are as much in the marketplace as any other producer or seller. But writers like Joyce, Faulkner, Proust are able to write about the marketplace and society only in the degree that they distance themselves from itwhether by exile, alcohol, or withdrawal to a cork-lined room." 

Percy notes the use of sex would be used for "re-entry" (from transcendence)—and at some point, prophetically, that ordinary relationships (e.g., settling down with a spouse) would be insufficient (150), leading to (more) social problems with sexuality. "Suppose the erotic is the last and best recourse of the stranded self and suppose then that, through the sexual revolution, recreational sex becomes available to all ages and all classes. What if then even the erotic becomes devalued? What if it happens, as Paul Ricoeur put it, that, at the same time that sexuality becomes insignificant, it becomes more imperative as a response to the disappointments experienced in other sectors of human life? What then? Does the self simply diminish, subside into apathy like laboratory animals deprived of sensory stimulation? Or does the demoniac spirit of the self, frustrated by the failure of Eros, turn in the end to the cold fury of Saturn?" (186) 

Percy (157) asks "Who is the most obnoxious, Protestants, Catholics, or Jews?" Answer: It depends on where you are and who you are talking to—though it is hard to conceive any one of the three consistently outdoing the other two in obnoxiousness. Yet, as obnoxious as are all three, none is as murderous as the autonomous self who, believing in nothing, can fall prey to ideology and kill millions of people—unwanted people, old people, sick people, useless people, unborn people, enemies of the state—and do so reasonably, without passion, even decently, certainly without the least obnoxiousness. 

Percy on the "evolution debate" (162-164): "As unsatisfactory as the battle lines, as presently drawn, may be, one must nevertheless throw in with the modern evolutionist, if only for the reason that his position, if wrong, is in the end self-correcting, whereas that of the scientific creationist is not. The battle is, in fact, a marvelous waste of energy... 

Question: Why does it make scientists uneasy that it appears to be the case that Homo sapiens, a conscious languaged creature, appeared suddenly and lately—when scientists profess to be interested in what is the case, that is, the evidence? 
(a) Because scientists are understandably repelled by the theory of the special creation of man by God, in Biblical time, say 6004 B.C. at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. 
(b) Because scientists find it natural to deal with matter in interaction and with energy exchanges and don’t know what to make of such things as consciousness, self, and symbols and even sometimes deny that there are such things, even though they, the scientists, act for all the world as if they were conscious selves and spend their lives transacting with symbols. 
(c) Because scientists are uneasy with discontinuities, even when there is evidence of such discontinuity in the appearance of man in all his contrarieties. Revealed religion has its dogmas, e.g., thou shalt not kill. But so does science: thou shalt not tolerate discontinuities. The question is which is the more entitled. 
(d) Because scientists in the practice of the scientific method, a non-radical knowledge of matter in interaction, often are not content with the non-radicalness of the scientific method and hence find themselves located in a posture of covert transcendence of their data, which is by the same motion assigned to the sphere of immanence. Hence, scientists operate in the very sphere of transcendence which is not provided for in their science. Given such a posture, it is not merely an offense if a discontinuity turns up in the sphere of immanence, the data, but especially if the discontinuity seems to allow for the intervention of God. A god is already present. A scientist is a god to his data. And if there is anything more offensive to him than the suggestion of the existence of God, it is the existence of two gods."  

Has the science on this changed since Percy wrote/asked this? (168-169) Yet the most recent assessments by responsible scientists are that the primatologists have either deluded themselves or at least made exaggerated claims. It now appears that chimps are not using language after all but are, rather, using signs and responses in order to obtain rewards (e.g., bananas). The basic elements of language are missing: symbols, sentences, productivity, cultural transmission. Now even some of the most evangelical primatologists have modified their claims. In short, it appears that chimps can’t talk, with either their voices or their hands. Or, as Sebeok puts it, animals have communication but not language. Yet the public perception is that chimps, and perhaps dolphins and the humpback whale, have crossed the language barrier. There are speculations about the mathematical and metaphysical knowledge of dolphins. For example, according to a recent newspaper account, the song of a humpback whale has ten times as many phonemes as does human speech. Question: Why do people in general want to believe that chimps and dolphins and whales can speak, and why do some scientists in particular want so badly to believe that chimps can speak that they will compromise their own science? 

Percy (in a footnote! on p. 201-202) crushing scientism and religious forms of fundamentalism: Sagan's book gave me much pleasure, a pleasure which was not diminished (perhaps it was increased) by Sagan's unmalicious, even innocent, scientism, the likes of which I have not encountered since the standard bull sessions in high school and college—up to but not past the sophomore year. The argument could be resumed with Sagan, I suppose, but the issue would be as inconclusive as it was between sophomores. For me it was more diverting than otherwise to see someone sketch the history of Western scientific thought and leave out Judaism and Christianity...Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula. 

Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan’s side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is — a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth — and when he attacks the current superstitions, astrology, UFO’s, parapsychology, and such, which seem to engage the Western mind now more than ever—more perhaps than either science or Christianity. 

What is to be deplored is not Sagan’s sophomoric scientism—which I think better than its counterpart, a sophomoric theism which attributes the wonders of the Cosmos to a God who created it like a child with a cookie cutter—no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by the present disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six-thousand years ago. It’s enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name... 

It is for this very reason that we can enjoy Cosmos so much, for the frivolity of Sagan’s vulgar scientism and for the reason that science is, as Sagan says, self-correcting. One wonders, in fact, whether Sagan himself has not been corrected, e.g., by Hubble’s discovery of the red shift and the present growing consensus of the Big Bang Theory [proposed by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître] of the creation of the Cosmos, which surely comes closer than Sagan would like to the Genesis account of creation ex nihilo.” 

Again, on the fundamentalists within religion and science (254): "Are these two preposterousnesses commensurate or incommensurate, related in direct proportion or unrelated? That is to say, which of these two propositions is correct? 
    (1) As time goes on and our science and technology advance and our knowledge of the Cosmos expands, the Judaeo-Christian claim becomes ever more preposterous, anachronistic, and, not to mince words, simply unbelievable. 
    (2) As time goes on and our science and technology advance and our knowledge of the Cosmos expands, the gap between our knowledge of the Cosmos and our knowledge of ourselves widens and we become ever more alien to the very Cosmos we understand, and our predicament ever more extreme, so that in the end it is precisely this preposterous remedy [the Judaeo-Christian claim], it and no other, which is specified by the preposterous predicament of the human self as its sole remedy." 


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