. . . Well, not a bar: They actually walked into the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for a discussion hosted by the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry and broadcast on the radio show “On Being.” The novelist was Marilynne Robinson ( Gilead , Housekeeping , Home ); the astrophysicist, Dartmouth’s Marcelo Gleiser.

Their conversation with show host Krista Tippett covers (among other topics) science, religion, creation stories, and the much-sought Theory of Everything. Marilynne Robinson speaks about our loss of a sense of origins:

I think, frankly, that as modern people we struggle under certain prejudices against ourselves, that there are ways in which we have lost contact with . . . the earlier intuitions that actually described themselves in culture and in literature and so on. But . . . everyone wants to have a narrative of personal origins. Most of us want to have narratives of what you might sort of call tribal origins, you know: where did my grandparents come from and why and that sort of thing, you know.

I think that our bond with humankind is felt as a sort of very much enlarged family narrative of origins in that sense . . . There’s some sort of a feeling that if you know where you came from you would know who you are. You would know what you should do. We lack definition of ourselves, which is an incredibly haunting feature of human life.


Later in the show, Marcelo Gleiser says that for him, science and spirituality are not at odds:
To think of science as separate from spirituality to me is a big mistake. You know, there is nothing that says that science should be dispassionate about the spirit or the life of the spirit. And to me it’s quite the opposite. It’s exactly because I feel very spiritually connected with nature that I am a scientist. And to write equations on a blackboard and to come up with models about how nature works is, in a sense, a form of worship of that spirituality.

As the conversation drew to a close, the two had a particularly revealing exchange on scientific discovery:
Dr. Gleiser:  When you find the solution or something that looks like a solution [in scientific research], you get emotionally moved to an amazing extent, especially when it’s a surprising thing. You know, it really is a spiritual emotion. Like, I’ve had this a few times — not many . . . . But when I have this, it really is something transcendent.

Ms. Robinson:  Do you think that, for example, teleology might be an inadequate way of articulating what you’re talking about? You know, I mean, teleology is sort of forbidden, but you can feel the shape of something pulling you toward something that you don’t intend and it’s as if the shape is somehow intrinsic and the conclusion is somehow necessary?

Dr. Gleiser:  That’s funny because you phrased it in the negative. But that’s very smart. Maybe? I am always afraid of teleology. You know, teleology has so many different traps. And so the question is always if it’s teleology who’s in control? And I don’t know.


Gleiser’s comment about teleology’s “traps” put me in mind of Thomas Nagel’s attempts to account for nature’s apparent teleology without God. If you’re interested in more on this topic, John Haldane  wrote about Nagel’s new book  Mind and Cosmos  in our December issue and Edward Feser discussed it last month On the Square.

The full “On Being” show is available here  with this transcript .

h/t Fare Forward

Articles by Anna Sutherland

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