Trembling on the Brink . . .

April 16, 2009 at 4:38 am (By Amba)

. . . of huge changes, we are.  Will we make it across this threshold?  Will we fall back into comfortable darkness, still warm and smelly and shaped to our bodies like a dog’s nest?  Will we disintegrate trying to cross the threshold, like a spaceship shuddering apart under the stress of approaching the speed of light?

Science has everything to do with it.  Working with science is making me perpetually uneasy.  First of all it is disorienting.  And humiliating.  Finding out how infinitesimally tiny and limited we are.  We’re just big enough, and just smart enough, to have found out how tiny and dumb we are, in a teeming, swarming universe that doesn’t need us and that we’re too short-lived and body-burdened, with our brief window of negentropy before we fizzle out like Roman candles, even to get a tiny little piece of.  We were better off when we were as myopic and as obsessed with our own blown-large biological affairs as ants, or rutting deer.  (Maybe I’m only speaking for myself and how fearful it is to lose the rosy blinders and the purpose of sex.)

With science comes terrifying power that we’re not wise enough to wield, and . . . and a loss of orientation that is expressed both in the unwarranted cockiness of atheists whistling in the dark and in the head-in-the-sand atavism of all kinds of fundamentalists.  We’re going over the threshold into an understanding of the cosmos and the gene that will require that we throw out the horse-and-buggy metaphysics that got us this far and almost start over from scratch.  Anybody — New-Ager, “Bright,” or traditionalist — who thinks there’s a quick, easy, comfortable answer to that is in denial.

How to stay open, yet to have some guidance . . . what a challenge.  You see it in this post at Althouse about Sharia, and you see it in these recent notes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

Even more tha[n] in Hayek’s days, the ecology of the real world is becoming too complex for Aristotelian logic: very, very little of what we do can be safely formalized, meaning asymmetries matter more than ever. Which puts the Western World today at the most dangerous point in its history: unless we get the Bernanke-Summers crowd out of there, it will eventually be destroyed by the machinery of arrogant, formal-thinking civil servants, and Ivy-league semi-retards.

Finally, beyond the current mess, I see no way out of this ecological problem, except through that tacit, unexplainable, seasoned, thoughtful, and aged thing crystalized by traditions & religions –we can’t live without charts and we need to rely on the ones we’ve used for millennia. Le 21e siecle sera religieux, ou ne sera pas!

Is that so?  Can religion handle this?  Can anything aged handle this, anything that was built on the snug foundation of our ignorance?  Can the moral parts of religion withstand cosmology’s assault on its myths?  Isn’t religion a willfull staying childish?  And isn’t atheism just braggart adolescence with zits?  Aren’t all bets off?  Can religion’s knowledge about us, what we are, what we need, survive stripped of the myths?  Or are the myths part of what we need?  If so, then we cannot evolve beyond our current condition, we should never even have gotten this far, and we’ve hit a wall.

Economic lack of confidence coming at the same time is a double whammy.  Boom times make people feel manic and optimistic and anticipatory.  It’s like those pirates chewing qat for courage.  Bust times make us feel shadowed and threatened and like no good can come of this.  We’ve swum out too deep, it’s cold and the drug is wearing off.

~ amba, at 4 A.M.

Afterthought: Maybe we must cling to the comforting husk of religion for a while (a century?) the way a butterfly or moth clings to the chrysalis it has just crawled out of while its wings expand.  (I’m not saying religion’s knowledge of human nature isn’t deep and wise.  I’m saying that scientific discoveries are shattering the myths and explanations that were among religion’s major mechanisms for managing that nature.  Of course, I think those discoveries are also shattering the assumptions of mechanistic atheism.  So again, all bets are off.)


  1. rodjean said,

    Reading this post brought to mind a century ago, when our comfortable sense of ourselves bgan to fall apart, and Yeats wrote this poem.


    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

  2. Melinda said,

    “How is it we are here
    On this path we walk
    In this world of pointless fears
    Filled with empty talk
    Descended from the ape
    The scientist-priests all state
    Will they save us in the end?
    We’re trembling on the brink…”

    Sorry, the first response this provoked in me was to quote obscure Moody Blues album tracks.

    And I wish I could get my mind around what the hell is gonna happen to the human race, but right now I’m having trouble just deciding what to put on my business cards for the Job Fair.

  3. Callimachus said,

    I take an evolutionary approach to religions, which is likely to offend many theists. As a freethinker, I have to treat religions as human constructions, whether there is a kernel of the divine in them or not. They spring originally from a radical and world-transforming mind or milieu, and over time, slowly, they come down to the level of making people incrementally better in The World as It Is.

    Thus I find the oldest religions do the least harm and rely the least on shattering force and absolute truths of scriptures, and rely the most on ritual and tradition and human perspectives.

    Islam is a very young religion (from a very backward and violent milieu).

    Science is younger than Islam.

  4. amba12 said,

    Rod: that poem hit such a nerve, that’s probably why it is the single most pawed-over source of book titles per line in all literature. (Somewhere there must be a list; I’m too deadline-ridden to play well with others just now. Things Fall Apart, The Widening Gyre, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, for starters.) It stlll makes shiver.

    Melinda: thanks for the necessary pop culture references to keep us in touch with reality! I had no idea I was quoting the Moody Blues.

    Cal: you have the best punch lines. “Science is younger than Islam.” POW!

  5. Callimachus said,

    “… that’s probably why it is the single most pawed-over source of book titles per line in all literature”

    You’re probably right, but I’m willing to nominate Gray’s “Elegy” (“Far from the Madding Crowd”) and Keats’ “Ode on a Nightingale” (“Tender is the Night”).

    Yeats’ cosmology of interlocking and opposing “gyres” and ages that turned about in calendar cycles used to strike me as goofy, but the more 2000 looks like a watershed, the more this poem looks like a premonition of the 21st century, the less goofy Willie’s prophetic visions seem.

  6. rodjean said,


    I was a Moody Blues fan in college. These lyrics strike me as appropriate:

    Be it sight, sound, smell, or touch,
    There’s something inside, that we need so much.
    The sight of a touch, or the scent of a sound,
    Or the strength of an oak, with roots deep in the ground.
    The wonder of flowers, to be covered, and then to burst up,
    Through tarmac, to the sun again, or to fly to the sun
    Without burning a wing; to lie in a meadow
    And hear the grass sing; to have all these things
    In our memory’s hoard, and to use them,
    To help us, to find……

    The last word sounded like “God?” spoken ironically, breaking into a laugh, and the song, “Ride My Seesaw.”

    Most quoted 20th Century line? Elliot’s “not with a bang, but with a whimper?”

  7. rodjean said,

    My favorite poem was written much earlier by a man who had lived through a plague and a fire which nearly destroyed London. I thought it corny when I was 16 and one of my favorite song lyrics was, “I am a rock. I am an island.” I found it; deeply moving and profound in my 50s.

    No man is an island

    No man is an island entire of itself; every man
    is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
    if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
    is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
    well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
    own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
    because I am involved in mankind.
    And therefore never send to know for whom
    the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

    John Donne

    The message is richer and sadder each time the bell tolls in my life.

  8. amba12 said,

    Words for ever. There is no generation they don’t speak directly to, though probably each generation needs to be knocked around some before they can hear it.

  9. amba12 said,

    eecummings is underrated:

    pity this busy monster manunkind
    not: progress is a comfortable disease …

  10. amba12 said,

    Another great 20th-century line, and one that I think describes what we’re doing right now: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

  11. rodjean said,

    Irony? Bravado? Sincerity?

    A possible anthem for an edgy time.

  12. amba12 said,

    How the heck did you find that?!?!?!

    The way she sings it, it’s like being forced to smile in front of a firing squad. I can see the anti-Obama right making use of it.

    What talent, and what nerve, though — like her or not!

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