Truth with Meaning – The Quest of J. Allen Hynek

Last week’s post, on Jeff Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics, has called forth thoughtful responses from a long-time reader named Ross, and from Jeff himself.  Both took issue with my (very qualified) endorsement of the view expressed by Lester del Rey, that materialist science’s transformation of our physical environment amounts to a vindication of its premises.

In other words, if you want to enjoy the goodies that come out of the laboratory–electric lights and novocaine were the two examples I gave–you’d better give some credit to the materialist paradigm that made that laboratory possible.

J. Allen Hynek in 1964.  Photo from the Denver Post.

J. Allen Hynek in 1964. Photo from the Denver Post.

To which Ross responded:  “Enjoying the material fruits of science does not imply any endorsement of materialism. Practicing science does not require one to be a materialist, which is why many scientists also embrace religion.”

And Jeff:  “I like Ross’s reply to your post and am in basic agreement with it. The problem is that many scientists DO equate science with materialism. Careful ones do not, of course, but it is very tempting to move from the incredible efficiency of modern medicine and science, as David notes, to the materialist suppositions of these practices and methods.”

Do “many scientists also embrace religion”?  I recall Joseph Lewis writing many years ago:  “Scratch ten scientists and you’ll find nine atheists.”  Of course Lewis was a fanatical crusader against religion, author of a book called The Bible Unmasked which argued, with the aid of racy illustrations, that the Bible was obscene and immoral and ought to be banned.  And his figures … well, he made them up.

Charles Murray quotes statistics that seem more reliable.  “When academics who were members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences were polled in 1996, 65 percent responded that they did not believe in God.” On the other hand, “of the academics and scientists in the GSS [General Social Survey] sample, only 16 percent said they had no religion.” And if 65% of top scientists don’t believe in God, that seems to imply 35% who do, or are at least unsure on the question.

But maybe this question, of how many scientists hold religious beliefs or participate in worship, misses the point.

Which is that, unlike in the 17th and 18th centuries when religious belief was often an essential part of the scientific enterprise–you investigated nature, better to understand the Author of nature–a scientist who’s personally devout nowadays puts science and faith in separate compartments.  Can you think of any scientist of the past century whose scientific work was informed by his or her religious convictions?  The Jesuit and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who died in 1955, comes to mind.  Otherwise I draw a blank.

And then I think of J. Allen Hynek.

A little over a year ago, the journal Skeptical Inquirer published an article by John Franch, entitled “The Secret Life of J. Allen Hynek.” It was evidently intended as an expose of sorts, a demonstration that the astronomy professor and Air Force consultant’s celebrated embracing of UFO belief–in 1966, though there were signs of it long before–can’t really be used in support of the UFO.

“In fact,” Franch writes, “the professor’s apparent transformation from skeptic to UFO proponent was not quite the conversion event that it appeared on the surface.  Since his teens Hynek had been an enthusiastic though closeted student of the occult.”

For Franch, this is apparently to Hynek’s discredit.  Yet what Franch tells about Hynek conveys powerfully what an extraordinary man Hynek was, and what a restless, searching, independent mind he possessed.  He was a scientist who was also a spiritual seeker, for whom science was part of the spiritual quest.  Which may mean that he was trying to do the impossible.  But certain impossibilities, as Cervantes knew long ago, may need to be attempted if we’re to be fully human.  Hynek’s quest may have been one of them.

J. Allen Hynek in his cameo role in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 1977.

J. Allen Hynek in his cameo role in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 1977.

“When I was seven,” Franch quotes Hynek as having said, “I had scarlet fever and was quarantined with my mother in our apartment at 15th and Ayers.  There was nothing to do except read, and since I was so young, my mother read to me.  Pretty soon we ran out of children’s books and she started reading textbooks.  Among them was a high school astronomy book.  I guess it interested me the most.”

Astronomy never lost its fascination for him; he ended up dedicating his life to it.  But for him, it wasn’t all there was.

As a teenager, Franch tells us, Hynek invested over $100.00–a huge sum in the 1920s–on a book called An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy.  This massively learned tome was the creation of a passionate young autodidact named Manly P. Hall, with whom Hynek might well have identified.  One writer has called this volume “the only serious comprehensive codex of its era that took the world of myth and symbol on its own terms.”  The great historian of religion Mircea Eliade, according to this same writer, “confided to friends that as a young man it was Hall’s book that awoke in him the love of myth and symbol.”

Hynek was particularly fascinated by the Rosicrucians, a secret religious society of the 17th century.  These Rosicrucians may or may not have actually existed. But either as reality or as myth, they and their much-publicized “manifestos” helped inspire the founding in 1660 of the Royal Society of London, which was and remains Britain’s foremost scientific society.

They inspired Hynek as well.  In the late 1960s, when he’d come to believe that UFOs were an important scientific problem that science simply refused to notice, he used the Rosicrucian term “invisible college” for those mavericks like himself who were willing to look and to think outside the conventional boxes.

He may well have wished himself back in the 17th century, before science and spirituality had parted company, when Rosicrucian mystics might morph into the scientists of the Royal Society.  (And back again?)  “The whole thing had a sort of mystical quality,” Franch quotes him as saying about his time working on his doctorate at the Yerkes Observatory in the 1930s.  “One shouldn’t say that in connection with science, I guess, but I was so utterly absorbed in the life of the observatory that I had hardly heard of Hitler.”

Franch is almost certainly right.  This mystical tilt of Hynek’s, and his fascination with UFOs, are surely related phenomena.  From Franch’s point of view, this is enough to discredit them both.  I imagine it would have impressed him more if Hynek had been and remained a materialist without any yearning for something beyond the material universe, and nevertheless came to believe that UFOs are part of that universe.  But would such a stance have been even possible?

Franch concludes, rather smugly:  “For the professor, UFOs represented the ‘beyond,’ that point where science could not reach.  Having become an astronomer in order to discover the limits of science, Hynek wanted, maybe even needed, to believe in UFOs.  It was a case of wishful thinking.”

Maybe.  But there’s another way of looking at it.

When I visited the Gray Barker Collection in Clarksburg, West Virginia, almost ten years ago, curator David Houchin said to me something I’ve never forgotten.  The quest for truth and the quest for meaning, he remarked, take us in two different directions, for true reality usually is not meaningful.

(At least, that’s what our materialistic culture tells us, and like all cultural biases it feels from the inside like simple common-sense realism.)

Reflecting on David’s words, I found myself thinking that perhaps one function of mythology is to overcome this split, either by denying or by transcending it.  The UFOlogists seek a truth with meaning.

As, perhaps, did J. Allen Hynek.

Which may indeed be wishful thinking, and the search for truth with meaning a quest like Don Quixote’s–hopeless.

Which perhaps we have to undertake, if we’re to stay human.

by David Halperin
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Engraving from Henricus Khunrath, "The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom" (1609).  "The symbolic engravings ... are worth pondering over as a visual introduction to the imagery of the philosophy which we shall meet in the Rosicrucian manifestos" (Frances Yates, "The Rosicrucian Enlightenment").

Engraving from Henricus Khunrath, "The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom" (1609). "The symbolic engravings ... are worth pondering over as a visual introduction to the imagery of the philosophy which we shall meet in the Rosicrucian manifestos" (Frances Yates, "The Rosicrucian Enlightenment").

6 Responses to “Truth with Meaning – The Quest of J. Allen Hynek”

  • Ross:

    Why do you refer to our culture as “materialistic”? Most people in our culture hold religious/spiritual beliefs, and so are not philosophical materialists. The idea that “true reality is not meaningful” hardly qualifies as “common-sense realism” in our culture; instead, it’s the minority view. (I can tell you from my work as a counselor/therapist that it is only a minority of people—usually atheists–who believe that life has no inherent meaning. Most people find that view offensive.)

    • You make an excellent point, Ross. It’s forced me to reconsider why I feel–as I do feel, strongly–that the overarching mental tone of our society is materialistic.
      Perhaps it’s from reading things like the science page of “The Week” magazine, where articles explaining human behavior do so in evolutionary terms, as if it’s a shared premise of the writers and readers that we make our choices as part of a blind impulse toward species preservation, without any meaningfulness involved.
      Perhaps from the terms on which Jonathan Haidt defends religion from the attacks of the “New Atheists,” on p. 272 of “The Righteous Mind.” “If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it. You’ll see those beliefs as foolish delusions, perhaps even as parasites that exploit our brains for their own benefit. But if you take a Durkheimian approach to religion (focusing on belonging) and a Darwinian approach to morality (involving multilevel selection), you get a very different picture.” Notice how “you” is assumed to be an atheist, capable of valuing religion only in functional terms.
      Or the last words of David Guterson’s bestselling novel “Snow Falling on Cedars”: ” … he understood this too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”
      All this is the equivalent of anecdotal evidence, justifiable mainly through the popular appeal of the writings in question. I agree with you that most people in our society do hold religious or spiritual beliefs. But I would suggest that these are evolved as reactions to the culture’s dominant secularity. Human beings need meaning, and if the culture doesn’t provide it, people will work out some meaning for themselves. This seems to me very different from the religious cultures of the past.
      Your experience with your clients is an important datum, which can’t be ignored. But I would ask: does it seem to you that your clients take their sense of the meaning of life as something given, which they can comfortably accept? Or as something that has to be worked out and struggled for, possibly because the alternative is so “offensive” (to use your word) to our human sensibilities?
      I’m grateful to you for your challenge.

  • Ross:

    David,

    Sorry, I just (belatedly) read your response.

    I think your reference to our culture’s “dominant secularity” would surprise many militant atheists, who generally see themselves as fighting an uphill battle against what they perceive as our culture’s dominant religiosity. I agree that secular materialism may be dominant among academics and intellectuals, but their worldview is not necessarily representative of our culture as a whole. I am not convinced that most people hold religious beliefs as a reaction against secularity; I think it’s simply the case that most people are raised within religious traditions and come to accept them. (That isn’t to say, of course, that religious believers are unaware of the secularist challenge.) Also, why would people react against secularity if they didn’t already hold (at some level) religious/spiritual beliefs?

    With regard to my clients, I would say that few are absolutely complacent in their acceptance of a religious system of meaning, but a sense of meaning, whether religious or secular, is usually maintained with some effort. Atheists put a lot of effort into maintaing their worldview.

    I don’t want to dichotomize too strictly. People can hold religious beliefs and also hold beliefs consistent with materialism (for example, popular biopsychiatric theories explaining psychological conditions in terms of “chemical imbalances,” etcetera).

    For the record, since I’ve mentioned atheism, I’m a Buddhist (though I was raised a Protestant) who is not convinced of the existence of God, but not convinced of God’s non-existence either. I was an atheist when I was younger, so I’m very comfortable with atheists. My favorite writer is Friedrich Nietzsche.

    • David Halperin:

      Ross, you make very strong points. In particular, you’ve reminded me that our “culture” is an agglomeration of cultures, each of which feels like THE culture to those inside it.
      An Israeli friend, who’s spent a long time living in France, tells me something that would confirm your position. She watched the TV coverage, in this country, of a particularly thorny and painful end-of-life decision, involving a woman rendered comatose. She was struck at how often religious leaders and thinkers were interviewed, to weigh in on the question. This is distinctively American, she said. In France, the opinions of such people would not have been sought.
      Thanks for posting.

  • terry the censor:

    > explaining human behavior do so in evolutionary terms, as if it’s a shared premise of the writers and readers that we make our choices as part of a blind impulse toward species preservation, without any meaningfulness involved.

    A tale often told by anti-evolutionists but untrue:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expelled#Charles_Darwin_quotation_issue

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