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Astonishment

I suppose itís that way in life generally: we alternate between tedium and delight, ennui and astonishment, in a kind of sea change of consciousness that reflects both our inner, perhaps hormonal, activity and the chance variances in our environment. Our skies go from blue to gray and back again. Some people manage to live on the edge, gulping joy until it comes out of their ears, while others of us seem to sit and wait for the weather to stimulate them into actionóor at least into thought.

Those unfortunate people who have to earn an income by doing what other people want may not have enough time in their days to sense the swelling and ebbing of affect. Itís only in the past few decades that I have noticed it in myself. On those days when Iíve passed a peak of good feeling, I become nostalgic for my youth, when it seemed that the world was always exciting. Thatís not the same as the artificial excitement of the typical workday world, when every moment seems to promise a new challenge or two. Those lucky individuals who have found work that provides them with stimulation and reward in a satisfying balance may never notice the sea change, for itís incorporated in the flow of their days and the natural flow of their energy.

Even as I anticipate the next surge of intellectual or emotional stimulation, I recognize that itís also important for me to breathe, to just be here now, as Ram Daas admonished us to do. To be always looking forward to my next high robs me of too much of my life.

I became aware of all this as I finished reading Lewis Thomasís The Lives of a Cell, his award-winning book from 1974. An eloquent essayist, Thomas stimulates us with his own enthusiasm for life and discovery. One of his favorite words is "astonishment," and Iíve come to like it myself, for it captures the delight and wonder of learning and insight, which for me suggests the flavor of my cyclic highs.

I was half-way through this reading of the yellowed pages of his book when another book arrived from Amazon.com: The Language of God, a recent book by Francis S. Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and one of the worldís most renowned scientists. I had been intrigued by a review of that book, which is about one personís integration of science and faith. So when the book arrived, I set Thomas aside for the moment and began a new exploration.

I was not astonished. Here was a writer whose prose, although clear enough, plodded along. Here was a first-tier scientist, able to explain the Big Bang and the evolution of DNA, who described his religious convictions in terms familiar to me when I was in grade school. Here was a teacher who used catechism-level pedantry to address some of the most profound questions to perplex the human mind.

I donít want to make too much of my disappointment in Doctor Collins. He wrote the book to tell about his own path from atheism to agnosticism to theism, as an example for others who might be wondering if oneís spiritual yearnings could ever be reconciled to the intellectual discipline of natural science. I had no such doubt before I picked up his book, but Iíve wondered how others might view it. No doubt we all prefer to read things that support our own prejudices, at least most of the time.

I think that my problem was more a matter of taste, like following a glass of fifty-dollar pinot noir with a California merlot. Lewis Thomas was inspiration; Francis Collins was "Oh, come on, thereís more to it than that!" And I felt my mood go down the drain.

Any argument, to influence someone, needs to start from where the audience is, intellectually and emotionally. The difficulty a writer has in building an argument (even if itís couched in first-person terms) is that the reader is seldom known. Back in my days of writing advertising and commercial material, the chant was always, "Know your audience!" These days, I simply write for myself. What other people think or feel when they read it is less important to me than whether it says what I want to say. Probably Francis Collins feels the same way. After all, heís not a career writer. He has done well in his chosen field, and I congratulate him for that.

Maybe itís that he didnít convince me by his main argument. I already knew, before reading his book, that the proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design are wide of their mark. To me, thereís no conflict between science and a belief in Somethingóby whatever nameóthat must have started it all. For Collins, God did that, and is still present for those who seek Him. The Intelligent Design-ers insist that there are things that could not have been brought about by "unthinking" evolution. Teleologyóthe study of the evidences of design or purpose in natureóis based on some pretty definite assumptions. True science is always tentative about its assumptions. Collins, in straddling the fence between science and faith, is not as clear as Iíd like him to be about where that fence is for him. He wants to allow for miracles, for example, as well as for the effectiveness of prayer in changing the course of the universe. To me his arguments are thereby vulnerable to future discoveries by scientists or others. Einstein is famously quoted as saying, "God does not play dice with the universe!" And that was in connection with the findings of another great scientist, Werner Heisenberg, who had concluded that at a certain subatomic level, some physical states were indeterminable. Einstein later changed his mind, allowing for the new revelations of quantum physics.

But all that wasnít the reason I was disappointed in Collinsís book. I have in my library a book of essays by world-famous physicistsóEinstein, Heisenberg, Eddington and othersóall of whom acknowledge that there is something beyond what science can ever teach us. They donít fill in the gaps in our knowledge with self-made certainties, but simply admit the existence of gaps. They donít tie themselves up in contortions to explain how their beliefs might allow for the earth to revolve around the sun rather than the other way around, as everybody knew was true just last week.

Francis Collins doesnít communicate to me how he feels about all this. I would have liked to share in his discovery with him, to feel the thrill of having disparate things come together to answer his deepest questions. But then, there are only so many Lewis Thomases in the world. Itís sad that heís no longer around to astonish me.

August 4, 2006

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