Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

Science, Ethics and Human Destiny: A Synthesis

JOHN GRAY, Playwright

When I was asked to undertake this task, and then had a look at the size of the topics and the stature of the speakers, I thought I’d been made the butt of some kind of cosmic joke, some form of science humor; you know, get the artist, get him over his head, see what he does.

As someone who works in theatre I happen to know the value of bull-shitting, if you’ll pardon the expression. And if you’re handed something this vast, the only thing for it is to go even vaster.

So at the risk of being perversely idealistic, I’m going to try and put the weekend’s events in the framework of that which we call God. And I’m not talking about playing God, and I’m not talking about the gods and goddesses that were evoked so beautifully by Courtney, or the gods who chained Prometheus to the rock.

I’m talking about the One.

I know I can feel the shudders all around the room, but after all, can you imagine at any during the past 1,000 years having a conference on science, ethics and human destiny, in which nobody specifically talks about God?

The problem is, we always get hung up with the same question: "what do you mean, God?"

When Svend Robinson presents a petition to remove God from the Charter on behalf of the people who don’t believe in God, exactly what is it they don’t believe in?

And when someone with the Reform Party gets up on his hind legs and starts to defend God in the Charter, what exactly is he defending?

Are they both talking about the Big Guy in the sky? That’s what I’m afraid of. I have a suspicion that’s what both sides have in mind, and I don’t want to believe it, because it’s just too depressing to think that in 1999 people are debating the existence of the Guy with socks as big as the Yukon and shoes as big as the Northwest Territories.

But this is the age of information, so I did a web search on God.

I found a rock band called God Rules; a clothing company called God’s Gear, "witnessing sportswear for Christ"; a sex site called G.O.D; and another Christian site, called Awesome God, "when he rolled up his sleeves, he wasn’t puttin’ on the Ritz," but there was nothing on God, per se.

Strangely, a few days ago my doorbell rang and there stood two Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re very handsome people these days and

they wanted to talk about "God’s plan," how our disobedience is screwing things up, like Maurice Strong pointed out so strongly.

The Witnesses warned that terrible things are going to happen unless we pull up our socks. But strangely, even these ardent believers weren’t Interested in talking about God.

I suggested that describing God’s emotions struck me as a form of idolatry; that because God created man in God’s image, it seems a bit presumptuous to create God In ours. And at that point they seemed eager to move on.

Mind you, the Witnesses may get the last laugh when the Vancouver earthquake hits. Standing in all those doorways.

Anyway, when, on our panel on Friday afternoon, Eve Savory bewailed the public’s unwillingness to hear about contemporary science, it occurred to me that there is something science has in common with God: nobody wants to talk about either one. Not only that, in both cases it has to do with our profound uneasiness with the infinite and the unknown.

I remember when this first happened to me. It was in grade six and we were discussing the universe and Mrs. Chapman said, "it’s endless," it just goes on forever in all directions."

I remember sitting behind my desk trying to envisage endlessness. And I had no success. It just wouldn’t compute. So I said to myself ok, fine, let’s say it does end.

Only, I couldn’t envisage that either. In fact, absolute finiteness really amounts to another kind of infinity doesn’t it?.

And you know what? I still can’t do it.

And when John Percy talked about an expanding universe, I couldn’t envisage that either.

Strangely, the Bible itself is no more definite on the absolute than John Percy or the world wide web.

The first reference, the Hebrew word elohim, is in the plural. Figure that out.

Then we encounter yud hey vov hey, which is often misrepresented in English as "yaweh" or "Jehovah," but which is really an arrangement of ideograms. A yud is a tiny speck of energy or matter, what John Percy might call a neutrino; a vov Is like a cosmic ray that is revealed to us and a hey is a door opening to reveal something.

So in yud hey vov hey we have something like, "existence unfolding," or "reality revealing itself." Don’t get the idea I’m a Hebrew scholar, I’m not even Jewish.

And of course yud hey vov hey recalls something John Polanyi said: "you can’t make discoveries where nature isn’t willing to yield them." You can call it nature, you can call it God. What’s in a word? How about calling it the nature of God?

As so many eminent scientists pointed out this weekend, as reality is revealed to us, it appears to have an intelligent, And intelligible quality. In other words, it is the opposite of chaos.

After all, if I’m walking on the beach and I see a watch in the sand, my first thought is not that it was assembled by chance; nor is it adequate for me to assume that the watch occurred through a process of natural selection.

Of course the wild card in the deck, the loose cannon, as Margaret Somerville and so many others pointed out, is us. We’ll get to that later.

First I want to sum up God with the situation so far.

We inhabit a universe which is either finite or infinite, yet both scenarios are inconceivable to us. We spend our lives hovering between impossibilities, carving out minuscule areas of knowledge, but ultimately knowing nothing for certain; aware that, though we may have come out top dog on the food chain, in a fundamental way we’re not with the program.

We just don’t get it. As Dr. Murchland put it, "we’re on the wrong track."

Is it any wonder in 1999 people get nervous talking about either, God or science?

The problem is not, as Bartha Knoppers put it, "the end of certainty," so much as the realization that we never were certain, not ever. We just thought we were.

There’s a line in a Kabbalist text, called en sof that has something to do with this. It goes, "the essence of faith is an appreciation of the vastness of infinity."

To that we might add today: "the essence of consciousness is an appreciation of the vastness of the unknown."

When it comes to discussing science, ethics and human destiny, what may be required before anything else is a kind of humility you don’t find much these days; the ability to accept the possibility that what we are experiencing at the close of the millennium isn’t new at all. There’s something very ancient; that we are part of a continuum that goes way, way back; that we no more significant than they were back then, that things are no more urgent than they ever were.

Which brings me to Adam and Eve.

I like Bible stories, I really like Bible stories. It’s not just because I grew up with them; that’s a big part of it, but it also to do with the amount of freight that they can carry.

In the oral tradition, when you couldn’t actually tabulate things and write them down, stories were used as a way to pass on accumulated knowledge in a way that would survive a dark, ignorant age. All the storyteller had to do was remember the story. Sooner or later somebody would figure it out again.

That’s how it is, I think, with Adam and Eve.

But here we run up against the problem of language that Mark Kingwell talked about, which is that languages tend to be conceptual domains that don’t necessarily translate accurately from one to the other.

So we think of the word "Adam" as being somebody’s name, as being a male when, in fact, it is kind of an amalgam; it contains the Hebrew words for "blood," "Earth" "alike," and "imagination." It really is a creature of blood, that are alike, creatures of blood that are alike; they have" imagination," they are of the Earth.

The male aspect is quite secondary. Similarly, "ye-heva," which is "Eve," means, roughly, "life."

So in the division of Adam into Adam and Eve, it isn’t a fable about the origin of the sexes so much as it’s a metaphor for the fundamental transition from unity to duality that gives you history.

Put another way, we go from aleph, the first letter of the alphabet which stands for number 1, to bets, whose number is 2 and which is, incidentally, the first letter in Genesis. The human race finds itself in the binary world of opposites, of synthesis and antithesis, the world of cause and effect.

Faced with this situation of transformation, of becoming, Adam and Eve must now determine their participation in it.

Will they participate consciously in their evolution, or will they ride through history passively, no questions asked, obeying the rules of natural selection, like their fellow creatures in the garden, or on Mars, perhaps?

This is a little like the decision whether to go to a movie or stay home and channel-surf. But this was before cable TV, and so the central symbol of conscious choice isn’t called the Home Shopping Network, but the tree of knowledge.

The Creator made it clear that, Sir John Maddox notwithstanding, the choice here is not "ethically neutral."

Adam and Eve are told that If they eat from the tree of knowledge, if they take it in, then they will die; at any rate a version of themselves will die. In a world in which nothing has died yet, it may be no easier to envisage than infinity.

Now the plot thickens. Here comes the serpent.

The thing about the serpent is that he doesn’t lie. Well, Not exactly. He’s like any advertiser or propagandist; he obeys the letter, if not the spirit of the truth, and he emphasizes only as only those details that support his case and he just kind of shovels others under the table – a little like cell cloning.

Thus, the serpent tells our curious couple that, should they eat from the tree of knowledge they will become as God. Note that he doesn’t claim they will become God. He says they will become as God. You’ve got to watch this. You’ve got to get the details from these guys.

This is a bit like the promise that, if you use Calvin Klein’s new fragrance, you will become like the beautiful young couple in the photograph. Calvin Klein doesn’t say that you will become them; he just says you will smell like them.

Nevertheless, Adam and Eve bought the pitch. They chose knowledge over innocence.

And what did they get for their money? What did the tree of knowledge actually consist of?

In English we think of the tree as providing the knowledge of "good and evil," we give it a kind of a moral spin, but this isn’t how it translates. A literal reading of what we call "knowledge of good and evil" translates more like: "knowledge of that which is complete and that which is incomplete."

In other words, the gift of the tree of knowledge was what Sir John Maddox referred to as, "what we know that we don’t know."

That’s the funny thing about knowledge, isn’t it? As soon as a question is answered, a whole pile of questions come to take its place. The Information explosion we talked so much about this weekend is really an explosion of questions.

Just like we did on Thursday night, Adam and Eve stood, under the night sky, heads swimming with questions, and they looked up. Meaning that for the first time they viewed life from a point of view outside their snug envelope of animal necessity. Just like us. And on Thursday night we were informed that astronomers still don’t know what 90 per cent of the universe is, so we’re not that far ahead of Adam and Eve, really.

Late on a starry night at the Couchiching conference, you step outside, you look up, and you become aware of how much you don’t know, how far you haven’t been and how far you will never go.

It’s easy to imagine Adam and Eve looking up at that same sky, feeling their stature and worth diminish in proportion to – if you’ll excuse the new-age term – the expansion of their consciousness.

That’s what happens when, as Mark Kingwell put it, we place unassimilable knowledge in human hands. But that was our choice. And we choose now, we choose it every day.

The Almighty was quite correct when he warned that they would die if they ate that fruit, because with each new acquisition of knowledge something in us does die and we never know what will be reborn to take its place.

That’s the problem with history. We think we’re in such an urgent situation. We treat the Second World War as though it were scheduled to be over in 1945. They didn’t know it was going to be over in 1945. What makes our time unique is, unlike other times, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

That night, Adam and Eve experienced the world’s first anxiety attack, and the first case of insomnia.

It says so in the Bible: "They became painfully aware of their nakedness, their vulnerability, standing under the night sky."

I don’t have to tell you that the most common anxiety dream is being naked in public.

So what did they do?

They hid in the bushes, of course. Giving us the first instance of the cocooning trend so prevalent today. And you can be sure that they weren’t about to tune in to the Discovery Channel. They’d had quite enough discoveries for one day, thank you very much.

Next morning, the first thing Adam and Eve heard was this voice, asking: "Adam, where art thou?" Now we can assume that the Creator wasn’t asking for information; he had the information. When you get closer to it, you put the emphasis on thou, where art thou?.

This was the first question of the conference: where are you now, smart guy? Now you have all that information you wanted so badly, can you locate yourself?

The next thing the Creator did was to curse the serpent: "upon your belly you will go, and dirt you will eat."

There’s a punishment: condemned to the life of a journalist.

But, as for Adam and Eve, they could no longer occupy current lodgings. Eden, unlike Couchiching, perhaps, wasn’t designed as a think tank for self-conscious neurotics with minds full of terrifying questions. Now that they were as Gods, they were going to have to create their own world.

Whether they were thrown out of the garden, or out of Mars on an asteroid fragment, their fate was sealed.

Adam would work day and night, with no job security and flexible hours. Eve would become pregnant. Women would live in a state of incomprehensible subservience to men for millennia. Family values were born.

Only here’s the amazing thing: when Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden, God didn’t stay there, he didn’t stay behind. God went with them.

The intelligent and intelligible order of the universe continued to be evident. All they had to do was look up.

So let’s review the situation, so far.

"In the beginning God created light In the midst of darkness. And darkness was all around."

In other words, there is no way to sneak around the darkness. You have to go through The darkness to get to the light.

And so these frightened, confused, guilt-ridden, environmentally-conscious people set out on their long journey through the dark, to get to the light. And they were going to have to stick together. Survival of the fittest was for animals, and they were now responsible for the animals.

To sum up, science is the study of the nature of God. Adam and Eve were the first scientists. Adam and Eve are us. We are all scientists. We choose knowledge over ignorance. We choose to be aware of what we don’t know. We choose to opt out of the natural selection process, as Sir John put it, and to embark on our own journey through the dark to get to the light.

And as with Adam and Eve, as mysterious and inconceivable as that which preceded the universe, God is with us.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference