But more interestingly (at least to me) a counter-argument is being sounded more and more resonantly by the not-so-straightforwardly religious - those who may believe deeply but not dogmatically - and also by those who feel more-or-less agnostic about the whole thing. They argue that the scientists are claiming to have solved mysteries that they're not equipped to solve, that they're claiming to have tidied up questions with answers that are insufficient or misdirected.
By way of example, B. Appleyard had this to say last month about Evolutionary Psychology (which, according to Wikipedia, 'attempts to explain psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, that is, as the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection'):
[Evolutionary Psychology] assumes we can account for human behaviour and culture on the basis of Darwinism. Unfortunately, since we have no idea how the mind – the creator of behaviour and culture – works, this cannot be science. The mind may have developed according to some non-Darwinian process. It certainly leads us to do things that are unaccountable in Darwinian terms. E[volutionary] P[sychologists] tell stories about how these may be so accountable. They do this because they feel it must be so. This is an act of faith. The stories are only coherent and, maybe, plausible, if the missing link of the mind is somehow included. That cannot currently be done. For the moment they are just stories that generate superstitions.
The most compelling account I've come across of what it is that science hasn't comprehended is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson's very favourably reviewed recent book of essays 'Absence of Mind'. It ends with a rather beautiful passage:
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.
One of her messages is that we can't exclude 'felt experience' in our assessment of mind. I recalled this as I was re-reading a couple of favourite Tony Harrison poems (which I did having referenced one of them here) from 'The School of Eloquence' collection.
They are concerned with bereavement but are witty, even playful. They seem to delight in the creative spark and this - perhaps inadvertently - suggests an expansiveness about the possibilities of creation more generally. He recounts two experiences in relation to his dead father:
James Cagney was the one up both our streets.
his was the only art we ever shared.
A gangster film and choc ice were the treats
that showed about as much love as he dared.
He'd be my own age now in '49
The hand that glinted with the ring he wore,
his father's, tipped the cold bar into mine
just as the organist dropped through the floor.
He's on the platform lowered out of sight
to organ music, this time on looped tape,
into a furnace with a blinding light
where only his father's ring will keep its shape.
I wear it now to Cagneys on my own
and sense my father's hands cupped around my treat --
they feel as though they've been chilled to the bone
from holding my ice cream all through White Heat.
White Heat: a popular Hollywood movie, starring James Cagney.
Marked with D.
When the chilled dough of his flesh went in an oven
not unlike those he fuelled all his life,
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with Heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
light streaming from his mouth to shape her name,
'not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie'.
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there's no Heaven to reach.
I get it all from Earth my daily bread
but he hungered for release from mortal speech
that kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.
The baker's man that no one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person's eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.
What I think is rather peculiar in these poems is how someone who's an atheist provides such powerful indications of some sort of continuation after death, albeit in places implicitly. The second poem is explicitly atheistic ('there's no Heaven to reach'). But it imagines a bodily resurrection (in the course of denying it) with a vividness I can't recall coming across before. His father's ashes are sufficient for 'one small loaf', a measure that can't help but make us think of the Last Supper and the transubstantiation of the Mass. It's as if his art is subtly subverting his rationalism.
These two poems make me recall the sentiment expressed by Larkin, a near-contemporary and also an atheist poet, that 'what will remain of us is love'. Larkin described this insight (from 'Arundel Tomb') as produced by an 'almost-instinct', which I take to be an awareness, sensed irrationally, peripherally and involuntarily, that the material world might just not be everything.
Another 'spiritual atheist' James Joyce described such moments of awareness as 'epiphanies', taking what was originally a religious form of experience and filling it with a more open-ended appreciation of the ineffable: 'A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused' as Wordsworth put it in 'Tintern Abbey'.
These three modern writers - Harrison, Larkin, Joyce - are (or were) atheists; clear-eyed and self-aware strugglers against false impressions, reassuring sentimentalities and idle comforts. And yet their work, perhaps despite themselves, contains reflections of 'felt experience' that trace the immaterial, transcendental, otherworldly.
Human consciousness remains mysterious. Science has no good account of the human mind. But that doesn't mean there are no other ways to explain and explore it as Robinson relates in arguing an alternative to the reductionism of science:
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...
This approach limits the authority and application of science. And surely its inevitable corollary is to re-legitimise literature and the other arts as means to approach a form of transcendent truth, a deeply unfashionable approach for a couple of generations now. If so, if Robinson and her allies are successful in their refutations, forms of creative writing may be looking at a more confident and influential future than the recent past might indicate.