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.

Opening the Patient in Open Access Week; or, the Great Research Hoax

At first glance, The Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” by David H. Freedman (November, 2010), about the inaccuracies, contradictions, reversals, and errors in medical and pharmaceutical research, looks like something out of the National Enquirer: can this hoax be, to this extent, true? Alas, Dr. John Ioannidis’s 2005 article, published in JAMA, goes unchallenged – its conclusion: “Contradiction…[is] not unusual in highly cited research of clinical interventions and their outcomes.” What this means is that 90% of your doctor’s advice about what you should or should not be doing health-wise is probably based on faulty or biased research. The timing of The Atlantic article, arriving in mailboxes in the middle of the international Open Access week, couldn’t be better. “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it,” reports Freedman.

Sponsored by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, Open Access week seeks to raise awareness of Open Access initiatives worldwide. It’s possible that the Open Access movement will alleviate many of the pressures on researchers that have led to the problematic results described in The Atlantic article, primarily, as Freedman quotes Ioannidis, because “at every step in the process there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded.” But why? Why would researchers not want to discover what’s really going on? Because, Ioannidis says, “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.” It’s that conflict of interest that Open Access has the potential to cure.

Our friends the physicists have been both dipping into the infinite cookie jar of funding and publishing open access style for some time. It was at the FQXi Community site that we first became aware of Garrett Lisi’s paper “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” But if Ioannidis is right, and as the number of papers on string theory might suggest, most research probably reduces to simply that most everything is wrong. But, no worries, for Ioannidis concludes, at the end of Freedman’s piece in The Atlantic, that “Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor. I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.” Buckminster Fuller was very comfortable with that fact. Fuller thought it was necessary to pay for all the researchers on the bet that one of them would come up with a viable idea to pay for all the others and then some.

If science is a low-yield endeavor, what’s poetry? Still, Open Access holds the potential for improving the quality and honesty of research, publication, access, and discussion of scholarly papers in the sciences and the humanities. The irony of course is the cost associated with behind the pay wall journals coupled with the findings of Ioannidis. And why would the problem be any different in the Humanities? But will Open Access remedy the research problems discussed by Ioannidis? It’s possible, since the peer review process changes – with more eyes on the product, and the strength of closed and biased editorial voices of certain periodicals and coteries of peers is quieted down. What should we be reading? Open Access has the potential to open the walled cherry orchard to everyone with an appetite, for is 90% of our poetry critics’ advice about what we should be reading also based on faulty and biased research? Ioannidis and his meta-researchers have uncovered a hoax, one that’s been a long time in the making and continues to sicken the patient.