Saturday, November 21, 2009

Conversing with the Snout

Loren Eiseley was a philosopher, writer and naturalist who questioned often our views on nature and reality. In his essay "the Snout" he paints a picture of man's evolutionary ancestor, a bog-dwelling fish in the sludge and grime who in a desperate need for oxygen, took to land. The main focal points of the essay are man's fear of change, our assumption that we will be here for eternity looking like this, thinking like this. His last line is "We are one of the many appearances of the thing called Life; we are not its perfect image, for it has no image of life except Life and life is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time." I do a disservice trying to summarize his work, for it must be read, and read with attention and an open-minded heart.

“The Snout” is frightening at first, as it itself so rightly points out. There is something unnerving about the idea that life as we see it, is not how it is. We as humans wish to keep the world as it is, for it is all we know; and thus Eiseley's essay on life unsettles us. The idea that life as a force, constantly changing and growing, is startling when one realizes that humanity and any likeness to it has existed for a very small period of time. For me, the realization that things are still coming ashore, that creatures very much like what man's ancient evolutionary ancestor looked like is no concern or threat to me. That only one creature's brain has evolved in the way that man's has is evidence enough of God's guiding hand for me, and that man's current form may not be his final is no hindrance either. Eiseley briefly references a man's accusation that to say that man is not the pinnacle of creation is to deny God, or rather, the Christian tradition of God. Indeed, to deny this is heresy, but is this what Eisely is doing? The Catholic Church says that man is made in the image and likeness of God, but what does this mean? Does it mean physical likeness? Of course not, for God has no physical form. As Augustine says, we were made in the spiritual likeness of God, which is to say that we were created with an immortal soul. Our dignity as humans, and our place as the pinnacle of creation has nothing to do with our evolutionary prowess or state along the evolutionary path, but rely solely on something which no creature can attain through physical means, but is given them, the likeness of their creator. Of course man has only been around for a very short period of time, and mayhaps he will not continue in the life stream of this planet, but I am constantly curious as to what happens to consciousness. Philosophers have made no significant ground recently in regards to consciousness, and until they do, I am convinced that personhood survives whatever evolutionary tangles the physical form may go through. Where the debate and question comes into my mind is “when along the evolutionary road did man gain a soul?”. What does it mean for man to be completely a body and completely a soul, if his current form is not the pinnacle? Or is man's body, like the rest of nature, meant to continually change? The poet Wallace Stevens penned "Sunday morning" condemning our view of nature and eternity as a forever unchanging equilibrium. For him, the death of all change is a death of all that is human, all that is beautiful. How could we enjoy the seasons? What on earth (or off it) would a paradise look like in a constant heat-death of change or newness? Thomas Aquinas, Copelston, Augustine, and all Aristotelian theologians have no trouble saying that the universe is infinite, and neither do I. I for one could not imagine an eternity without change, without the Mandelbrot set, which continues to spiral on and on, ever changing, and yet ever patterned, or without chaos theory. There is beauty and splendor in this view of life, and a tribute evermore so to He who came up with it in the first place.

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