My nephew, Henry Johnston, a senior at Grove City College, has posted an interesting reflection on "The New Physics" (March 1, 2007) on his new blog, Reroute To Remain a.k.a. Wings Are Burning.
"I have been thinking recently about the implications of the New Physics (that which has come about in the 20th century) in the realm of philosophy. Of course physics and philosophy are really just two sides of the same coin, and have no business being separated. In a recent discussion over a certain theological point with an acquaintance of mine, I invoked the findings of modern physics in countering his argument. He stared at me blankly. For him, theological Truth sits in one little box and scientific Truth sits in another, and never the two shall meet. Modern physics, however, is confirming the cliché that 'it's all connected.' I am finding that this new paradigm is guiding my thought more and more…"
Henry brings up the point that the findings in quantum physics, that the position and momentum of a subparticle cannot be determined simultaneously was, from the standpoint of classical Newtonian physics, nonsensical or paradoxical. It would seem to undermine the most cherished claim of science, which is to discover and confirm predictable patterns in nature. Unpredictability in nature confronts science with the terrifying possibility that perhaps its methodology is not the infallible key to control that it is cracked up to be.
My purpose in this post is not to explore this particular issue, but rather to zigzag to a larger question relating to the nature of paradoxes. Skeat’s Etymological dictionary defines paradox as "that which is contrary to received opinion; strange, but true." From the Greek, para, beside + doxa, opinion or notion, from dokein, to seem. We may contrast "paradox" to "orthodox," that is, "of the right faith," from orthos, upright, right, true. Skeat’s links the Greek orthos to a cognate in Latin, arduus, meaning "high," from whence we must get arduous.
Orthodoxy is indeed an arduous path for many, especially when it concerns religion. But paradoxy is also difficult, perhaps for different reasons. Orthodoxy appears to be inherently more "sociable," having to do with our membership in a believing community. Paradoxy, on the other hand, suggests that kind of uncertainty inheres to existence itself through our thinking. Paradoxy prods us not to think too much of our own thinking; orthodoxy relieves us – not from thinking – but from thinking that thinking will bring salvation.
Perhaps I have just tricked myself – or you, dear reader. I have just said that, in effect, there is not much difference between the paradox and the orthodox. This is not exactly what I intended to say. What I intend to argue is that the orthodox, -- "rightly understood" – is the true home, haven, and goal of the paradox. The purpose of the orthodox is to free us for the paradox. The purpose of the paradox is to enable us to understand the orthodox.
What a muddle! I assure you, dear reader, that despite this inauspicious beginning, that I have a goal in mind, and a purpose for this post, which goal and purpose will ultimately have a bearing on both science and religion – perhaps even to E=mc2, the Uncertainty Principle, and the Virgin Birth. Well, maybe not E=mc2 . That may be more even I can manage! But at least to the other two. But let us start with the third of these propositions, the Virgin Birth.
Readers of this site should know by now of my fervent admiration of the work of Arnold J. Toynbee, historian, and of my desire to do all that I can to further his work, elevate his reputation, and encourage people to undertake reading his unabridged Study of History –
a massive work of 12 volumes which in my opinion is the most spiritually prescient work of the 20th century and the true flower of the modern Western consciousness. Indeed, the eclipse if not sinking of Toynbee’s reputation is symptomatic of a West that has lost its bearings, its heroes, and sense of purpose. In A Study of History, the threads of all of human history and civilization were joined together into a coherent view of what constitutes human purpose and destiny. But joined-up threads do not yet make the fabric. Threads have to be pulled through the needle’s eye – the ever-difficult task of focussing vision to argument. The task involves the soul as well as the intellect, and that is what we experience as "depth." "Depth" is both personal and universal, particular and historical – the large understanding reflected in the glance of a detail.
Depth is what we are missing today in the life of Western societies. Our life today is merely intellectual – which is to say, shallow and propagandistic. But not even Toynbee was able to maintain this quality of depth in everything that he wrote. In his autobiographical book, Experiences (1969) Toynbee wrote an essay on Religion – "What I Believe and What I Disbelieve." It was for him a way of setting the record straight – that he was, despite his high estimation of religion all through A Study of History – a modern Western "agnostic." He writes – "When I was an undergraduate an Oxford I became an agnostic, and at first I concluded, from my loss of traditional Christian orthodox belief, that religion itself was an unimportant illusion. Now, more than half a century later, I am still an agnostic, as the sequel will show, but I have come to hold that religion is concerned with a reality, and that this reality is supremely important."
This essay is interesting from many points of view, but the section "My inability to pass the tests of religious orthodoxy," is curiously static – although perhaps the same could be said of some of the tenets of orthodoxy that Toynbee was unable to accept. Consider what he says of the Virgin Birth – "I reject[ed] the doctrine of the Virgin Birth because I could not reconcile it with an already established belief of mine in ‘the uniformity of Nature.’"
Given the purely physical facts of purely physical reproduction and a purely physical Nature, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth sounds absurd. It is, at the very least, a paradox – Virgin Birth, Virgin Mother.
I would like to suggest that the doctrine of Virgin Birth is a type of formulaic paradox – which, just because it was so paradoxical, had to find a home within orthodoxy if orthodoxy was to remain dynamic. Christianity, in fact, may be a religion of "formulaic paradoxes" precisely because of the momentous nature of its teaching: that is, the spiritual or the symbolical becoming actually historical. Christianity as a whole is a "Virgin Birth" in this sense.
But to begin to understand the precise doctrine of the "Virgin Birth" it is necessary to take yet another step.
We live on the physical plane; we speak and think on the symbolical plane. These two realities are so intertwined that we do not give them much thought, and the tendency of modern society for the past several hundred years has been increasingly to "collapse" the awareness of the symbolical plane into the literal dimension. We forget that, in every examination of the facts of the physical world, we are wielding symbolic concepts, judgments, living or dead metaphors, habits, assumptions and presuppositions.
The awareness of the symbolic dimension in which we think, speak, and understand, was certainly present to a much greater degree among the medieval and earlier societies. The human participation factor was part of the game. Yet it was not called the "human participation factor" – in the dry language of modern abstract thought. Rather, the world was a dynamically interconnected enterprise of spiritual agency or agencies, and human beings participated in this dynamic nexus by virtue of their cognizing consciousness. It was a world "within and without" – as the Book of Revelation puts it – and the withinness and withoutness were not so clearly marked as they are in post-Cartesian times. Thus, in the New Testament, pneuma means both "wind" (without) and "breath" (within). The dynamic principle was perceived – but it took form in both the outer as well as the inner world. The "spirit," which is yet a third meaning of this word, encompasses both the inner and outer meanings – "it goes where it wills." The Holy Spirit moves in the heart as in the world - in the inwardness of man and in the outwardness of events.
But to return to the Virgin Birth: I think that this doctrine can be accepted as "literally true" only in the symbolic, participated sense of reality. Whereas, if one sees the world in purely literal and physical terms, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth could not be understood except in a symbolic sense.
This gloss on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth may not be exactly orthodox in the strictly Catholic sense of the word – or it may be slightly to the paradoxical side of that orthodoxy. For I too understand in some sense the "agnosticism" which Toynbee confesses to be his default position. I was raised in anything but a religious environment, and the conversion to Catholicism would not have been predicted – to use that word – for one of my background. Yet, for me, accepting the truth of the Virgin Birth in its literal meaning has not been an obstacle for me – because my understanding of the world is highly charged with symbolism and participation. I have always been highly aware of words, and of the uses and senses we put to them, as well of their histories and connotations and the social and intellectual circumstances in which they came to birth, and thus I never could glide over the significance of using words to "get to" the literal truth of anything. "Literal truth" in that sense becomes a mere superstition, which is being entangled up in words without being aware of it – that is, without being aware of our own participation in them. Superstition, after all, is only the most enduring form of determinism – the view of the world with no freedom.
Science will devolve into mere superstition in the end unless scientists return to a sober study of philosophy and perhaps as well to the use of real, as distinguished from mathematical, language. There are already many dangerous signs that this regression into fatalism is occurring. The "Uncertainty Principle" may have been an early sign that modern science sensed this danger of fatalism – but in characteristically modern (i.e. nonparticipated) terms this insight was confined to the behavior of particles in the "outer" world. But of itself I do not think this is enough. The retreat into a mathematized, as distinguished from a real and participated, world, is a luxury we can no longer afford, because the effects of the mathematized science on the real and participated world have become acute, destructive and deleterious. But it only the real and participated world, and all of us who live in it, who can put some limits to the "will to power" which has become the trademark of modern science. The relationship between the will-to-power and the regression to fatalism have not been sufficiently explored – Lord Acton’s famous saying, "Power tends to corrupt" notwithstanding.
It was Toynbee’s great purpose in A Study of History to remind Western man of his religion and thus renew the possibility for new beginnings from within. It was thus he hoped to forestall what he saw as signs of sclerosis and fatalism in Western society. True, in his autobiographical essay he missed seeing the participatory-dynamic hidden within religious orthodoxy-paradoxy. But Toynbee’s failure in this instance should not cause us to allow his achievements to sink into oblivion. If anything, it should spur us to attempt to complete what even in twelve volumes he was unable to say.
We need to re-dynamize ourselves – by remembering the paradoxy in orthodoxy.