Sea Monsters in A. C. Grayling’s Secular Bible; or, Humanity’s Greatest Endeavor

The receding shorelines of the Sea of Faith betrayed not a spiritual drought but a thirst for knowledge when Matthew Arnold stood on the cliffs of Dover and declared his desperate love for his girl amid humanity’s confusing mission, for the beautiful sea, the moon coming to pieces on its surface, the calm English evening wanting amour, was full of sea monsters. It’s an easy poem to parody, Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Anthony Hecht certainly thought so, when, about a hundred years later, he refashioned it “The Dover Bitch,” thinking of the lot of Arnold’s girl, who, lured by the promise of a weekend tryst at the beach, is forced to listen to Arnold’s God’s not in his heaven, all’s wrong with the world speech. Not much has changed since Arnold’s moonlit vision of sadness. The Sea, though not yet empty, is still losing water to the thirsty scientists, whose promises, in turn, of certitude, progress, or peace, seem as empty as Arnold’s unfurling religious girdle.

If there is no spirit, then nothing is spiritual. The brain is simply a piece of meat, as Jonah Lehrer keeps repeating, and the universe is merely a long fly ball of exploding rock off the bat of a big bang Louisville Slugger. But the nature of the slugger remains unknown, and there’s reason to view with skepticism Dawkins’s and his disciples’ descents. The latest to echo Arnold’s theme appears to be A. C. Grayling, who has written a secular bible, in which he creates a collage from the world canon. Here’s a sample, from Grayling’s “Genesis”: “Thus nature by unseen bodies and forces works; thus the elements and seeds of nature lie far beneath the ordinary gaze of eyes, Needing instead the mind’s gaze, to penetrate and understand” (p. 5). But doesn’t this carry a whiff of dualism, from which the spirit was born? And does he mean “the ordinary gaze of eyes,” or the gaze of ordinary eyes? For just as the Church argues that we need the clergy to explain what we in our ordinary (not to mention fallen) state can’t understand, Grayling posits the scientist as the new high priest who will explain what we in our ordinary intelligence have no way of seeing or understanding: “It is nothing less than science, mankind’s greatest endeavour, greatest achievements, and greatest promise” (p. 11). In any case, Grayling’s secular bible hardly seems an improvement over the sacred Bible. Grayling suggests that his purpose is to get us to think independently, but that’s not as clear as that he wants us to think like him. Anyway, it would seem that much of the writing of the world canon writers he references (Dryden and Milton, for example) would never had been written were it not for the Bible. There are other seeming contradictions in Grayling’s purported purpose.

Grayling comments, in an interview with Matthew Adams, in The New Humanist, “If the sum total of positivity, in some way, outweighed the negativity, in that little moment in one corner of the universe, which was otherwise just a bland, neutral state, then the whole history of the universe is made good by it. But if the negativity outweighed the positivity, then the whole history of the universe is tainted by it. And for that reason, we have a universal responsibility to promote the good.” This sounds strangely religious, and thus contradictory, for it’s religious sentiment Grayling wants to eradicate. It also sounds like some sort of cosmic baseball game. And what is the mind that he refers to? Would that be Lehrer’s piece of meat? Grayling seems to continue the mind-body split, which is what gives rise to ideas of the spirit to begin with. And what is the universe, and why should we feel responsible to its indifference? And does the universe have a history? These seem metaphors and anthropomorphisms, inaccurate and irrelevant. It’s simply not clear why our promoting the good would make any difference in or to the universe. To better understand the universe, we could read again Garrett Lisi’s “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” except that the physics is surely beyond the ability of ordinary eyes. And we are again reminded of Robert B. Laughlin’s A Different Universe, which opens and ends on a theme suggested by Sir Arthur Eddington: “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Grayling, in his introduction, which he calls an Epistle, reaches back to the ancient Greeks when he says that “…every action and pursuit, aims at some good….” But it’s not so easy knowing what’s good. What we value is simply what we want, and what we want is not always what’s good for us. In the end, Grayling’s purpose seems naïve, and worse, for he seems to trap much of the independent thinking in the world canon in a cage with a single purpose, and that can’t be good.

Is the universe free? “They’ll never ever reach the moon,” Leonard Cohen sang, “at least not the one we’re after.” Just so, the physicists attempt to explain the universe in a language most of us will never understand. But then what language are we to use to understand the moon we are after, or the ocean in which we wish to live? The neuroscientists exploring the brain are like the physicists exploring the universe. As Vonnegut illustrated in his short novel Cat’s Cradle, no cat, lots of string. There’s nothing more difficult than creating something from nothing. Science is not, as Grayling would have us believe, “mankind’s greatest endeavour.” Humanity’s greatest endeavor, to return to Mathew Arnold, is love.

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