- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

So it was that Thomas Gradgrind — “a man of realities” — opened Charles Dickens’ novel, “Hard Times,” telling schoolchildren all of life could be reduced to stony, isolated bits of information. What’s a horse? A student gets it right — a quadruped with 40 teeth that sheds its coat in the spring — and some students get it wrong when they think it OK to paper a room with horse pictures. To Gradgrind, that’s stupid — horses don’t walk up and down the sides of rooms.

Gradgrind is with us still in the person of all those many people who think science the only way of knowing, and who bow to the superstition of material absolutism. To not a few of them, human beings are nothing much more than a combination of genes dictating we do whatever helps us survive in a world of stuff that just doesn’t care one way or the other.

I am not against science. I love it. Part of the grandeur of humans, it seems to me, is our conceptual consciousness. We have an understanding of things no other creatures on this planet can rival. We are the universe aware of itself, as others before me have also said. Becoming increasingly aware is one of our chief purposes in life, in my view. Science helps us get there. It is a major tool by which we enlarge our awareness.

But science is not competent in all things. It is extraordinarily powerful in describing physical reality — how things work, how the universe gets from A to B — and because of this capacity, science enables imitation, namely technology that transforms how we live, for good and bad. At the same time, it is obvious there are more ways of knowing than what is gleaned from science and that science itself has severe limitations. It is not just a little obvious, but as obvious as the pull of poetry, the uplift of drama, the sway of music in our lives, the call of beauty in a painting or a sunrise — and the sense of the sacred so many of us experience in worshiping that which finally is a mystery but one that lends us meaning.

I bring all this up now for two reasons: The first is that in ways both subtle and blatant, science permeates our society and our psyches. Though there are far more questions it cannot answer than it can, and though is based on presuppositions not themselves scientific, it tends to chase the nonscientific from the landscape of the validly believable, reducing the marvels of this life and universe to quantifiable calculation.

If we give in to scientism — the intellectually disreputable notion science is the only legitimate arbiter on any topic you can name — we will have mistakenly cut ourselves off from the possibilities of wisdom, of spiritual wonder and life’s fullness .

The other reason is this is Easter, preceded by Holy Week. For Christians, it can be a stretch of days in which they immerse themselves in a reality beyond the here and now, but a reality that informs the here and now. They lose themselves in the story of a man of miraculous goodness who suffered an agonizing death and rose from the dead. From Scripture readings, hymns, prayers, sermons and ritual, they take a revivified understanding of forgiveness, redemption and selfless love. There is sadness and then joy in their encounter, and often the sure knowledge of moral obligation as they rise themselves from the dead parts of their existence.

None of this is scientific, of course, which is different from saying none of this is true. I have friends who don’t get the difference, and have read countless articles by those who dismiss such religious notions as harmful nonsense. They remind me of Gradgrind and of a little girl who challenged him, saying she would be pleased to carpet a room with depictions of flowers because she liked flowers. Flowers were pretty, she said, and the depictions would not wither. Gradgrind was outraged by her imaginative way of thinking, but the little girl was much the wiser of the two.

Jay Ambrose is former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service.

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