It is true that the unknown is the largest need of the intellect, though for it no one thinks to thank God. –Emily Dickinson
If one of the greatest attributes of a book about science is its ability to incite readers to think, to argue with its premise, pick it apart, wrestle it down, and inspire new lines of inquiry, then the opening of Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow, which I critiqued and rewrote in my last post, succeeds. Exceedingly well.
After reading his opening, like Jacob wrestling with that angel, I could not let it go till it blessed me.
The problem with Dawkins’ musing on the wonder of birth, the near-miraculous odds that any one of us was born at all, is that he did not take his argument far enough. He stops with our death, as if that’s the end of it. But does the mind-boggling chance that I be born at all preclude the equally mind-boggling chance I be born again? Within an infinite set of possibilities, why couldn’t we, with another roll of the dice, each be born a second time?
I’m not so much interested in arguing that such a thing is possible, as I am wondering why it would be impossible. Improbably, yes. But impossible?
If there is some natural law prohibiting it, I’m sure a scientist will tell me. But she will be speaking from her own limited understanding of the universe as we now know it. There is no ultimate authority on this subject or any other. There are no final answers in an infinitely expanding and evolving universe, or in the science that explains it.
The most wondrous thing I can think of is how miniscule our knowing is, and how huge our unknowing. We’ve touched our toe on a beach of understanding that stretches beyond an endless horizon.
One thing I do commend Dawkins for is his eagerness to show us how a scientific understanding of the natural world, the “unweaving of the rainbow” as Keats put it, need not dampen our wonder and awe of creation. As children we looked up in wonder at those twinkling stars that seemed so magical, and we do so still. Our delight in them is not diminished, but heightened by our knowledge.
Wonder itself is a marvelous thing in the old-fashioned sense of the word (miraculous) and defies logic.
Perhaps humankind’s “need for god” that Dawkins and others so lament, is not so much, as they surmise, to create a super-powerful supernatural being to pin all our hopes and fears upon, but to give a name to our awe and wonder, to whatever wove this amazing phenomenon of creation into existence. The knowledge that our universe was spun out of nothing and is spinning still past anything we can ever hope to grasp only increases our sense of awe and wonder, as well as our need to name that which makes us to bow our heads in humility before it.
If stones can speak, dust shape itself into flesh, and atoms evolve a consciousness, as our current understanding of the universe has proved itself capable, then what not is possible?
Dawkins decries humanity’s need for mystery, as if it were the enemy of science. But I would argue that mystery is the handmaid of science, spurring us to understand what is, and to dream of what is yet to come.
Not what the stars have done, but what they are to do, is what detains the sky. –Emily Dickinson