Monday, April 14, 2014

Creation and Meaning

Philip Johnson's Reason in the Balance is a classic of neo-creationist or "intelligent design" literature. Having (at least according to the jacket blurb) "demolished... the scientific case for Darwinism" in an earlier book, he sets out in this one to explore its moral and social consequences.  "Darwinian evolution", he announces near the beginning of his first chapter, "is important not as a scientific theory but as a culturally dominant creation story."  And he continues, "If we want to know how to we ought to lead our lives and relate to our fellow creatures, the place to begin is with knowledge about how and why we came into existence."

Whether or not one agrees with the rest of his book, I think that Johnson is on to something here.  It is a huge misunderstanding to think of "creationists" as persons committed simply and inexplicably to a literalistic reading of Genesis (indeed, Johnson is no literalist). Rather, creationism's passion stems from a sense that meaning is under threat: that an elite group is at work undermining (whether knowingly or not) the narratives that make ordinary people's lives morally significant.

But the past ("how and why we came into existence") is not the only locus of these meaning-making narratives.  Like Gatsby's green light, the future also draws us on - opportunity, prosperity, success, achievement.  This narrative has long been especially potent in North America: Lord Dunmore wrote in 1774 that Americans "for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled...if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west."

I suggest that the fairest way to understand the antagonism generated by climate-change science is as a reaction to a similar perceived threat to the meaning-making narrative of the future. The IPCC can easily fit the perception of an out-of-touch elite whose dictates undermine the narratives by which ordinary people guide their lives.  Moreover, I doubt that any amount of calibration of climate models will change that: the science itself is not the threat, but its assumed ideological implications.  (Would such intensity be aroused by a discussion of the climate on Venus or Mars?  The question answers itself.)

To be continued...

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