Monday, August 29, 2005

Guideposts Through A Thicket

In today's edition of, of all things, the Washington Post, Columnist Sally Jenkins takes a (unusually fair) peek at what some of the scientists studying concepts of intelligent design have to say about their subject, and offers a fair middle ground for us to consider:

Athletes do things that seem transcendental -- ... they possess a deep physical knowledge the rest of us can learn from, bound as we are by our ordinary, trudging, cumbersome selves. Ever get the feeling that they are in touch with something that we aren't? What is that thing? Could it be their random, mutant talent, or could it be evidence of, gulp, intelligent design? ....

...[A]thletes also are explorers of the boundaries of physiology and neuroscience, and some intelligent design proponents therefore suggest they can be walking human laboratories for their theories....

...The idea, so contentious in other contexts, actually rings a loud bell in sports. Athletes often talk of feeling an absolute fulfillment of purpose, of something powerful moving through them or in them that is not just the result of training. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuroscientist and research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, "intrinsic intelligence." Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus. He finds Darwinism, as it applies to a high-performance athlete such as Tony Stewart, to be problematic. To claim that Stewart's mental state as he handles a high-speed car "is a result of nothing more than random processes coming together in a machine-like way is not a coherent explanation," Schwartz said....

...Instead, Schwartz theorizes that when a great athlete focuses, he or she may be "making a connection with something deep within nature itself, which lends itself to deepening our intelligence." It's fascinating thought. And Schwartz would like to prove it's scientifically justifiable....

...Schwarz finds little or nothing in natural selection to explain the ability of athletes to reinterpret physical events from moment to moment, the super-awareness that they seem to possess. He has a term for it, the ability to be an "impartial spectator" to your own actions. "The capacity to stand outside yourself and be aware of where you are," he said. "Deep within the complexities of molecular organization lies an intrinsic intelligence that accounts for that deep organization, and is something that we can connect with through the willful focus of our minds," he theorizes....

....None of this is to say that we shouldn't be wary of the uses for which ID might be hijacked. In the last year, numerous states have experienced some sort of anti-evolution movement. That makes it all the more important for the layman to distinguish the various gradations between evolutionists, serious scientists who are interested in ID, "neo-Creos," and Biblical literalists. One of the things we learn in a grade school science class is a concrete way of thinking, a sound, systematic way of exploring the natural world.

But science class also teaches us how crucial it is to maintain adventurousness, and surely it's worthwhile to suggest that an athlete in motion conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature that perhaps isn't explained by mere molecules. Johann Kepler was the first to accurately plot the laws of planetary motion. But he only got there because he believed that their movements, if translated musically, would result in a celestial harmony. He also believed in astrology. And then there was Albert Einstein, who remarked that "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." Historically, scientific theorists are sandlot athletes, drawing up plays in the dirt.

I think Ms. Perkins' approach is one that fairly puts scientific discovery of our origin into proper historical context -- and her use of Einstein's own words to reach the point is lovely. Drawing upon that theme, here are a few other notables who offer some perspective on competitive ideas and the illusory nature of objective truth:

F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. "

Ernest Hemingway, in a 1958 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton discussing great fiction, defined the racing form as "the True Art of Fiction," because all of the facts are there, but they don't add up when you put your money down. [He also said that "the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit-detector," but that is the subject of another post.]

William Faulkner: Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other. The end of wisdom is to dream high enough to lose the dream in the seeking of it.

Ah, so much can be learned when you're not so convinced you already know.

(Hat Tip: B. H. Roscoe)

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