It has been a very busy week digging out from under the pile of work that accumulated while I was on vacation (think of the Bride digging out of the grave in Kill Bill 2). Earlier I had time only to post a link to Mollie Hemingway’s take down of Frank Bruni’s genuflection before the alter of “science.” Today I want to revisit that topic. Before I do, a couple of definitions:
Reify: to regard (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing
Fealty: the obligation or the engagement to be faithful to a lord, usually sworn to by a vassal.
The money quote from Bruni’s piece:
And with the right fealty to science, this next Congress would be forced to accept the overwhelming consensus on climate change and take action.
Bruni reifies an abstraction called “science” and bids Congress (and presumably everyone else) to give “fealty” to his reification. It is one thing to honor a particular scientist, but Bruni urges us to genuflect before “Science” with a capital “S.” Why? Because, he feels an overwhelming need to serve something larger than himself, to place his life in a larger context, and to find meaning in his life. What in the world is going on here? As it happens, Bob Dylan has a keen insight into this phenomenon. He writes:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Gotta Serve Somebody. As another song goes, “ain’t Bobby so cool”?
The idea that our life is completely meaningless, that the universe is indifferent to our existence, that literally nothing we say, think or do has any ultimate significance, is unbearable. No one is able to stare into the abyss without flinching. Even those who insist there is no meaning feel compelled to seek meaning. Consider these two quotations from Richard Dawkins:
[In the universe there] is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.
In the first quote Dawkins stares into the abyss, and in the second he flinches away. Why? Because an intense longing for meaning is at the bottom of every human heart. Everyone, from fundamentalist Bible thumpers to militant atheists, searches for a greater context in which to situate their lives.
For theists the explanation for this longing is easy:
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
Confessions, Augustine of Hippo
The materialist insists there is no meaning to life. Therefore, he cannot admit that our longing for meaning is a response to the existence of real meaning. Like so many things (consciousness, the overwhelming appearance of design in nature, libertarian free will), he is forced to argue that the impulse to find meaning is the product of an illusion foisted on us by our genes, which in turn resulted from some evolutionary adaptation.
It is not my purpose in this brief post to argue for one view or the other. I only point to the reality of the impulse. Bobby is right. Ya gotta serve somebody.