Minds made by priests, shamans and scientists

A Chaos of Delight
December 9, 2005

This book's title, A Chaos of Delight , is taken from Charles Darwin's diary. It describes the naturalist's state of mind in 1832 as he tried to take in the splendour and diversity of life in the Brazilian rainforest. For Geoffrey Dobson, the phrase sums up the kaleidoscope of explanations produced by different cultures to account for one and the same world. His aim is to explore this range of interpretations - from the mythopoeic to the purely physical - so as to provide his readers with a history of Western ideas into which they can fit and better appreciate their own world-view.

He presents each element in his subtitle - myth, religion and science - as a different dimension of human experience, each an attempt to "demystify"

the world. They have much in common, and central to each is a correspondence between the external world, experience and language. Without that correspondence, Dobson says, the goal of finding meaning in the world could never be achieved. But he sees differences, too. Myth and religion tend to be prescriptive, with absolute truths handed down by authoritative figures, while Western science is descriptive, with provisional truths hypothesised on the basis of operations that can be repeated and their results verified or falsified.

Dobson turns this distinction into something of a talisman, and because he draws the parallels between science and religion in a flawed way, this skews elements of his book. He is adamant that religious faith must not be equated with a scientist's attitude to a hypothesis, because "for the believer, God is absolute and unwavering, whereas a scientist's attitude to a hypothesis, theory or law is most definitely not". That may be so, but it misses the essential similarity between a commitment to religion and a commitment to reductionist science. Here the comparison is very apt and entirely justified. The materialist can be every bit as unyielding in his allegiance to a causally closed physical universe as a theist defending an interventionist deity. Revisable hypotheses should properly be compared with particular interpretations of doctrine, and these are constantly being debated and reformulated.

The book is a valiant attempt to track, in Dobson's words, "the succession of ways human beings have constructed order and meaning over the past 5,000 years". You sense that he really wants to give an impartial account of the intertwined mythical, religious and scientific explanations of human life and the world in which it is played out. But he is hampered by his personal commitment to relativism and constructivism - he quotes with approval both Jacob Bronowski's "we have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge" and Socrates' teaching that wisdom lies in "knowing that we don't know" - combined with his misleading contrast of science and religion.

Ten chapters chronicle the development of Western thought from the cradle of civilisation to the present day: two on the ancient Near East, two on ancient Greece, two on Christianity (early and medieval), and four on the post-Enlightenment age of reason and science.

The chapters on Mesopotamia and Egypt are titled "Life among the gods", and Dobson characterises the experience of these societies as highly mythologised, with the world understood as a grand society constructed and animated by the gods. The cultures succeeded because they delivered at the practical level: they had a genius for problem-solving. This Dobson puts down to the development of writing, counting and a standardisation of weights and measures.

The "I-Thou" relation with nature provided an essential coherence for the Near Eastern civilisations, but it was also a constraint that discouraged innovation. Progress was opened up by the Greeks' concept of an objective "I-It" attitude to the physical world, and the application of logical argument to question received traditions. As an example of this, Dobson applauds the pre-Socratic Xenophanes (who died in 480BC) for insisting that the Olympian gods were socially constructed rather than divinely revealed, and indeed that all humans created their gods in their own image, so that Ethiopian gods are "snub-nosed and black" while the Thracians' "have blue eyes and red hair".

The shift from antiquity to the Middle Ages is marked by the rise of Christianity in Europe, and what Dobson labels "the historical road to One God". Dobson follows Paul Helm in treating Christianity as the result of applying Greek powers of reasoning to the revealed truths of the Jewish Scriptures and first-century writings that in due course became the New Testament. The chapter on medieval Christendom is titled "Faith and reason", and it quite rightly extends the discussion to include the tussle between these two in Islam and Judaism.

As we might expect, Dobson gives a sympathetic account of those such as Peter Abelard, whom the Church ever viewed with suspicion, but the great 16th-century reformers are referred to only in an aside in the chapter on "The triumphant rise of Western science". Here more than anywhere the author's misreading of religion damages his account, for his dismissal of the Reformation as no more than a "complication" in the Church's response to Copernicus is a travesty. Dobson's book invites comparison with Richard Tarnas's similarly comprehensive overview, The Passion of the Western Mind (1991). Tarnas gets the Reformation's significance just right, giving it a whole section between those on the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, all within a chapter titled "The modern world-view".

Dobson is a physiologist and the founding director of a biotechnology company, so it is unsurprising that he really gets into his stride in the last third of his work, where he celebrates the triumphs of science, with entire chapters given over to each of the Big Bang, the origins of life and human evolution. But having paid due attention to the science of the periods dominated by religion, post-Enlightenment religion is ignored, with no theologian of any weight even mentioned. This is a significant failure in a volume that has much else to commend it.

The Reverend Anthony Freeman is managing editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies .

A Chaos of Delight: Science, Religion and Myth and the Shaping of Western Thought

Author - Geoffrey P. Dobson
Publisher - Equinox
Pages - 478
Price - £65.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 84553 018 7 and 019 5

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