“Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.” – Salman Rushdie[i]
Those with a poetic bent who cling to the supposed rigidity of scientifically based rationalism have to look for meaning somewhere. In cold world of random causation and non-teleological existence there are many things that somehow escape scientifically satisfactory explanation. For example, our fear of death, our dreams of utopia our nightmares of Armageddon are beyond scientific rationalization.
How to fill in these gaps without some belief in the transcendent? Ignore them because if they cannot be explained by science they must be meaningless; have faith that some day science will be able to make sense of them; or cheat by attempting to locate the transcendent in literature and the arts while calling it humanism?
Many otherwise thoroughgoing scientific types are seduced by the beauty of the human capacity to create and so pick option three. They assert that we can find deep meaning and revelation in literature and the arts. I think this is cheating because such people deny the possibility of transcendent truth while at the same time yearning for and affirming its existence. That is to say they deny the possibility of the divine but contend that writers and other artists can provide us with transcendent truths about the human condition. This is definitely a case of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but if you believe that humanity is the random result of evolution and that there is no supernatural or divine realm, how can artists discover deep, meaningful truths about our existence? If these artistic revelations are to have any meaning there must be more to life than random chance, otherwise they are just talking rubbish.
Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist proselytizer, in his book God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything writes the following to describe his fellow atheists:
We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and literature… Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul.[ii]
Hitchens goes to great lengths to deny the possibility of the divine but cannot shake the idea that great artists have tapped on occasion transcended the ordinary to touch the human soul. He further writes that he sometimes wonders whether the works of Mozart are man made.[iii] Of course, a thoroughgoing scientific rationalist cannot maintain belief in the existence of the human soul. He or she should have discarded that outdated Platonic, Cartesian dogma long ago. However, Hitchens does not seem to be able to let go of the sense of the greater: that some part of our nature is touched by great art – a soul or whatever you want to call it. I suspect that Hitchens and those like him would be saddened and even devastated if science ultimately managed to reduce our appreciation of great art to electrical impulses in the brain – because then we would be truly soulless.
But, if evolutionary biology and all that it entails is correct, there are no such truths and any claim to the contrary is illusory or as Sartre might have put it a “self-confidence trick.” It seems that we cannot escape our need to find some deeper meaning to our existence. Again we return to the nagging sense that there is a greatness and a majesty to human existence that remains stubbornly hidden. If only we could climb to the top of the mountain, sail just beyond the horizon, we could capture it and live as we were meant to.