BOOKS: by Brian ComanNews Weekly
'LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay Against Modern Superstition', by Wendell Berry
, April 7, 2001
LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay Against Modern Superstition
by Wendell Berry
Available from News Weekly Books
Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer who ploughs with horses, and who writes both poetry and prose in praise of nature. At this juncture, the reader might suppose that Berry is "just another crazy greenie" who worships the Earth Mother and lives on organically grown mung beans.
How wrong you would be!
Think, rather, of Berry as a sort of modern-day Cincinnatus who leaves his plough to defend his homeland and his cultural and religious heritage against very different enemies - the "global economy", corporate greed, and the materialist society. Unlike Cincinnatus who, we may suppose, defended his country with the sword and lance, Berry is armed with a prodigious intellect. Those readers familiar with his works will testify to his wide knowledge of the classics and of philosophy. He is, like most good poets, gifted with particular insights which seem almost to remind us of some forgotten truths rather than to introduce new ones.
Wendell Berry's latest book, Life is a Miracle,
ranges over a vast field - the use and misuse of technology, scientific reductionism, the value of small communities, the ethical use of natural resources, and the place of humans in the general scheme of things.
Pre-eminently, though, the book is a sustained and brilliant critique of the ideas and values presented in another recent book by the well-known sociobiologist, Edward O. Wilson. In his book, Consilience
(Little Brown & Co., London, 1998), Wilson effectively argues for a resumption of "the Enlightenment Project" so that we abandon all superstitions from the past and turn all of our energies to the advancement of science.
Essentially, Wilson argues that art and religion are simply useful adaptations or ways and processes whereby the human animal has advanced up the evolutionary ladder. The "consilience" or reconciliation that Wilson envisages is, to put the matter simply, a subjugation of religion and art by science which, alone, is the final repository of all truth. Religion and art are simply useful illusions at this stage of our evolution.
Against these notions, Berry raises many important objections. Moreover, in so doing, Berry himself uses that very same logic, that same insistence upon common sense, that Wilson would see as the hallmark of modern science.
Science, as Berry demonstrates, may well answer many questions of the general form "how" or "why" or "what if". However, it is powerless to answer questions of the "ought" type. But, of course, it is precisely the answers to questions of this nature which we urgently need today. Socrates famous question "How should I live?" was never more in need of careful appraisal. But Wilson's theoretical materialism is inescapably deterministic. Everything we do is ultimately determined by our genes and "free will" is, ultimately, only an illusion.
Is the creature simply an elegant machine, as Professor Wilson would have us believe? In an important chapter, Berry looks into this idea and demonstrates the inconsistency of Wilson's thesis. How can the individual mind, operating through brain-as-machine, be the origin of intelligence or truth? If ideas are not material, how can they have a material origin?
These questions, as Berry demonstrates, are not merely of academic interest to philosophers. They concern all of us. "If people are machines, what is wrong with slavery? Why should a machine wish to be free? Why should a large machine honour a small machine's quaint protestations that it has thoughts or feelings or affections or aspirations?"
The political implications of this way of thinking are immense. "Under any political system", Berry observes, "there is always a tendency to expect the government to work with mechanical 'efficiency'."
Embattled Australian farmers will grasp this point immediately. The "global economy" - that great abstract god now ruling us all - treats agriculture merely as a machine of production for which mechanical efficiency is everything. The claims of tradition, religion, local history, family values, etc., etc., simply serve as impediments to the efficiency of such a machine.
In this short review, I am only able to touch on one or two of the many issues raised by Wendell Berry. Life is a Miracle covers a huge range - the environment, the modern university, knowledge and power, attitudes to death, tradition, the importance of a local sense of place, and so on. A few quotes from Berry's concluding chapter might help to convey something of the scope and flavour of his work.
* "In the process that carries knowledge from the laboratory to the market there is not enough fear. And in the history of that process there has not been adequate accounting."
* "The time is past, if ever there was such a time, when you can just discover knowledge and turn it loose in the world and assume that you have done good."
* "I learned from the theologian Philip Sherrard to ask this question: 'If things are evolving, and if human consciousness is evolving along with everything else, where do we find a standpoint from which to understand the whole process'?"
* "In speaking of the reductionism of modern science, we should not forget that the primary reductionism is in the assumption that human experience or human meaning can be adequately represented in any human language. This assumption is false."
In these short, pithy statements, Berry reminds me very much of Blaise Pascal in the Pensées. Pascal, a brilliant scientist himself, recognised the limits of science.
Religion and art are not subject to the reductionist and materialistic assumptions of modern science, and cannot be contained within its boundaries or explained by its explanations. There are higher realities not amenable to analysis with the mass absorption spectrometer or the electron microscope. It is precisely these realities to which we must return if we are to find lasting answers to the pressing problems of our era. This is Berry's overall message.
Perhaps we ought to give the last words to William Blake, one of Berry's heroes:The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton's particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.