Here Sleep Dragons

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As a young man, I joined the Peace Corps and served in Morocco for two and a half years. One day I found myself sitting in a café in Rabat, my mind in a swirl, as I looked at the equally swirling street scene. I was trying and trying to figure things out and just couldn’t. I sat there feeling lost and helpless, with a rising sense of panic. Then I began to laugh at the ridiculousness of my situation. Giving up the thought that I could make sense of it, I plunged back into the chaos of the day, no better off than before.

Looking back on it now, I can see that my moment of existential disorientation was inevitable. The child of a politically conservative family, I left my native state of Montana as a champion of Barry Goldwater, the conservative firebrand of the 1964 presidential campaign season. Conservatism was not exactly a booming business on college campuses in 1964, and the comfort of my lifelong convictions began to unravel during my undergraduate years at a liberal eastern college and continued to come undone when I encountered the life and culture of Morocco, so recognizably human and yet, so different from that of the United States. Perhaps what I was trying to figure out in that café in Rabat was a worldview to replace the one I had lost. Although I got through that moment of personal crisis by laughing at the absurdity of my situation, any person’s earnest effort to build a coherent worldview should be respected. Every human needs a worldview, and most of us end up with one. But during that afternoon in Rabat, I discovered a common  truth: There is no universality in any worldview. Every human map is full of gaps marked “Terra Incognita” and chasms labeled “Here Sleep Dragons.”

We want maps because as humans we have no choice but to decide and act under conditions of imperfect knowledge and moral ambiguity. We take all the help we can get. We look in many places for that help: religious guidance, trusted friends, tribal loyalties, credentialed experts, new-age gurus. The map that I want to consider here is the human undertaking we call “science,” which promises undeniable power and apparent certainty. The notion of scientific certainty is the point I especially want to examine.

I am no scientist, but I am a pro-science guy. I have read many books in which scientists attempt to express some of the beauty of their fields of study. Through my reading, I have come to believe that many scientists and science enthusiasts hold a common assumption – namely, that reality is causally determined and therefore, at least in principle, that reality is subject to mapping and prediction through the dialogue with nature called the scientific method.

To the extent that any given scientist does believe that reality is causally determined (or at least the part that he or she is investigating), their belief is readily understandable. The goal of scientific investigation is to understand how nature works, including the mechanisms of causation involved in physical events. That is the very reason that people devote their lives to scientific study in the first place. Further, the frequently dazzling success of science and technology, both in predicting physical events and in changing the face of creation, affirms the validity of the scientific method and the efficacy of its underlying assumptions – at least within the domains of reality being studied.

However, a worldview based on science demands a price. The notion that all of reality is causally determined, that our lives are merely byproducts of physical forces, turns out to be really depressing. Galileo ended up cross-wise with the Catholic Church because his sun-centered universe was incompatible with the drama and meaning of human life in the earth-centered cosmos, with God watching down from the blue empyrean above, and the Devil sneaking up from the nether regions below. When Newton astonishingly laid bare the mechanics of moving objects, including even the heavenly planets, there followed in his wake a widening terror of the empty abyss and contention over the abhorrent doctrine of Materialism, in which all that occurs, including mental phenomenon and consciousness, can be causally predicted by the random collisions of material bodies. 

Closer to our era, existentialists bravely strove to create meaningful lives in an indifferent and meaningless universe, a lonely human effort unaided by divine hands. World religions also changed in response to growing public acceptance of scientific theories such as the evolution of the species and the Big Bang origins of the universe. Within American Christianity, fundamentalist expressions took on increasingly defensive and militant stances, while the less literal expressions of Christianity experienced declining membership, perhaps because they were still too literal for a disenchanted population. Today, with signs of the approaching apocalypse appearing everywhere (at least in movie theaters), neuroscientists are working to lay bare the mechanism of the human mind and to “solve” the annoying problem of human consciousness.

I am a pro-science guy, but I dissent from the notion that we live in a mechanistic universe where humans have no moral agency and where everything, even our consciousness, is a byproduct of the interaction of mindless physical forces and nothing more. I dispute the notion that scientists, by mapping the entirety of reality with mathematical formulas, can explain how everything works and can predict everything that will happen. Granted, scientists concede that they cannot actually, practically, do that, but they generally base their work on the assumption that they could do so in principle, if they only had enough data, time, and humongous computers. I dispute that assumption. Replicable experiments are great tools, but if the entirety of the universe is so patterned that it can be reduced to mathematical algorithms and can be made to jump through whatever hoops our technology tells it to, then that universe is inert and dead, a mere lifeless clock, wound up by a Deist God about thirteen billion years ago, and left on its own until it finally runs down or breaks down. I feel no love for that universe.

I have a different sense of things. It comes from my Quaker experience as well as my everyday struggles. My experience is that reality exceeds my grasp, and by the very nature of things, it must do so. There is no mental framework I can put together that will map more than a few square feet of reality, provide a reliable guide to future action, or reduce my mortal vulnerability. Even science has limits in this respect, since its successful mapping of physical reality, via measurement and experimentally verified mathematics, is domain specific and approximate only, as illustrated by the history of science. Rationality, an essential tool, helps us map the underlying coherences of the universe, but rational constructs are only valid when applied to the contexts in which they arise. Take them beyond their domains of origin, and they either become increasingly false or terminate in paradox. Domain specificity also means that valid rational constructs, centered in their domains of origin, are only approximately valid, because their domains of origin are not islands, but parts of a dynamic whole, which is immeasurable in depth and extent.

Rather than a causally deterministic universe, I perceive myself to inhabit a participatory universe. Reality will always exceed my final understanding, but it is nonetheless open to my experiencing it, because I am an expression of it. Thus I “know” reality by participating in it. Furthermore, reality is responsive to my participation, as in a conversation. If the light I send out into the universe is tuned to the frequency of mathematically patterned coherent structures, the universe that will be refracted back to me will be one of mathematically patterned structures. If I engage in action arising from compassion for my fellow humans, the response I elicit will be in relationship to, and partially shaped by, the compassion I brought to the encounter. I am stunned by the beauty of the world. Perceived through the lens of my own mortality, the world speaks to me of beauty, even in the midst of shabbiness and darkness.

This suggests a solipsistic universe, a place where, no matter what you go looking for, that’s exactly what you will find. But that is not typically our experience. Instead, the unexpected shows up continually, like an uninvited guest at a party. Reality bears a quality of stubborn indifference and resistance to our desires. Our inability ever to get reality fully in our grasp is exactly what makes it real. Even though we can never take its final measure, reality has substance and shape. Its multi-fold expressions reveal themselves as we participate in them, often in unanticipated ways.

To the extent that I can stop trying to control everything that impinges on my life, I feel a sense of liberation. I can’t figure everything out. I can’t control how other people will choose to act or protect myself from life’s unpredictability. And as I accept these modest truths, something surprising happens. The world around me reveals itself in increasing animation and power. Reality is mysterious – not necessarily safe, but always open to positive surprise. It is overflowing with life. It calls me to pay close attention.  Most surprising of all, it fills me with an upwelling of happiness.

How do we confront this living world of multivalent potential, this persistent reality that requires our participation but eludes our grasp? We can of course see enemies, opponents, and threats. There is truth in that view. We must see and not avert our eyes from the world’s abundant tragedy and suffering. Yet despite the darkness, I find myself compelled to say yes to life’s redemptive potential for good, the potential that is the most enduring reality, the greatest truth, the fruition of rightness that I believe everything is called to. My faith resides both in action and belief. The belief part, I can always find questionable; but the action part – to knowingly step into the risky undertaking of “Here I stand” – I find irrefutable.

Quakers have many ways of naming the divine. In my case, the word God has gradually dropped from my vocabulary. However, I sense the presence of the divine continuously – in reality’s standing invitation to all creation to participate in its fruition. Everywhere we turn, the invitation beckons. ~~~

Jim Humphrey is a farmland property manager and real estate agent. He is a member of Great Falls Worship Group, Montana Gathering of Friends (NPYM).