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.
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.
“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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