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Zeroes

May 11, 2010

We should mend the rift between science and religion, but what’s the point? Better biology classes? More humane end-of-life care? A polite separation of powers, head from heart perhaps? Noble goals all, but science and religion are now both finished as ways that people actually introduce meaning into their lives. Why is the stitching together of two dead husks anything to get worked up about?

I can’t get excited about churches that posit the essential sameness of all world religions. It’s like doing arithmetic with all zeroes. In a similar way, I can’t get excited about the dry deism that purports to reconcile science and religion.

There are two kinds of reconciliation. The first is ceasefire, amicable separation, where the two sides simply need to tolerate each other, even where they cohabitate in a single mind. Each accepts a few limitations in return for a reciprocal guarantee. Boundaries are drawn; internal workings are left untouched.

But there is another, more ambitious kind of reconciliation which says that the internal problems of science and religion spring from the same source. This refuses to accept the impoverished materials, the dead husks, as given. They can be reinvigorated into more than just repositories of knowledge and comfort. They can be something else, appendages of life’s larger meaning. But this requires asking after meaning in a general way, neither scientific nor religious, but in the spirit that animates science and religion at their best, or once did.

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Here’s one view, a common view, about how we make meaning in our lives. Each person is endowed with a certain store of existential energy which he or she is free to invest in different pursuits: collecting butterflies, genocide, knitting, raising children, etc. Returns vary, of course, and often unpredictably—art and science tend to be better bets than youtube watching and thumb twiddling, though—but there is a kind of common currency, the basic game is always the same. There’s nothing fundamentally incoherent about finding meaning in juggling or crossword puzzles so long as they are pursued wholeheartedly. Let a thousand eccentric flowers bloom. This is liberal society as an existential marketplace.

So yes, in this context science and religion are certainly sources of meaning. People still commit themselves. People still get things out of them. But the question is whether this is essentially different from the meaning people get from chess or square dancing. Is meaning in life ultimately something so bland and baseless—a mix of personal pleasure, good relationships, and a sense of contributing to the greater good—that it can be got, with varying success, from pretty much anything at all? Or is this another case where the marketplace produces distortion and alienation?

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