“So, if you want to be Walker Percy, here’s what you do: have a father (whose own father committed suicide) who shoots himself with a shotgun when you’re twelve. Have a mother who might or might not have committed suicide by driving her car off a bridge while her youngest son was in the car (he survived, she didn’t). Embody thus New Orleans Southern Gothic. Move to New York to go to med school at Columbia. Contract tuberculosis from a cadaver at Bellevue mental hospital. Stop reading medical and scientific texts and start reading Kierkegaard. Abandon agnosticism for Catholicism. Publish your first novel, The Moviegoer, when you’re 46. In that novel, write,
‘Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.’”
With his deep insight into the human situation, his knowledge of science and existentialism, and his commitment to Christianity, Walker Percy is one of our favorite writers of all time. There is very little to not like in this man, who (must have) battled demons few of us can comprehend and in so doing created some of the finest prose of the 20th century. He died of prostate cancer shortly before his 74th birthday.
We wrote in our last post about the fact that science and religion cannot belong to independent compartments of human understanding (down with NOMA!). They just can’t; there’s one world here, not two. This insistence of ours recalled for us one of our favorite passages in Percy’s Lost In the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (a book that’s been hailed as “honestly great, or possibly terrible“). Here, Percy deals with this question.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: You are a high-school student. In school, you attend biology class where you are taught modern evolutionary theory. On Sunday, you go to church, where you hear the story of creation from a fundamentalist preacher. Then you go to college and hear a liberal professor-theologian who teaches a class on Science and the World’s Great Religions. You speak to the professor-theologian about the dispute between the preacher and the biology teacher. The professor-theologian smiles and says: Both are right. Genesis is a mythical account of the origin of the cosmos, the origin of life and the origin of man. There is a certain truth in this myth. There are other cosmological myths, each valid in its own way. There is such a thing as mythical truth. Indeed, the neo-Darwinian theory of mutation and natural selection is in fact more impressive evidence of God’s majesty than the notion that God created the millions of species by separate and arbitrary acts of creation like a child modeling a menagerie out of clay.
The student says: “None of you is satisfactory. All of you are unconvincing — and you, the professor-theologian, may be the worst of the lot, satisfying nobody and papering over everything in the name of nothing. How can a myth which you say is untrue in the scientific sense be true in another sense? What is the truth?
“What I want to know is this, and it doesn’t seem to be too much to ask: whatever the time and place of the appearance of man, whether it was the Late Pleistocene, the Upper Paleolithic, whether in the caves of the Dordogne or the Neader River — please tell me, leaving God aside, and apart from Darwin, please tell me, not in detail, but only in the most general and schematic way — please tell me how it came to pass that matter in interaction, a sequence of energy exchanges, neurons firing other neurons like a binary computer, can result in me being conscious, having a self, being able to utter sentences which are more or less true and which you can understand. Please excuse my stupidity, but would someone draw me a picture? Or just tell me in principle how this could happen. Or, if there is a soul, please tell me what evidence there is that it exists, and if it does, how is it connected with this compact mass of billions of neurons which is my brain.”
How do you think his three elders, the scientist, the preacher, the professor-theologian, each of whom claims knowledge of a certain species of truth, would answer him?
How would you answer him?
(a) Stick with the current scientific theory. It is more reliable than religion. Indeed, there may not be any such thing as soul, self, consciousness, and the rest.
(b) God comes first, above all else, therefore above science. Believe in the Bible, and all else follows.
(c) I don’t know the answer. Why don’t you stop complaining and become an anthropologist, a psycholinguist, or a neurobiologist and try to find out for yourself?
We at psnt.net pick (c). How about you?
P.S. For extra credit, you may want to listen to Peter Kreeft on Percy and C.S. Lewis here. Kreeft’s thesis is that “Lost in the Cosmos can be understood as The Abolition of Man in late-night comedy format.”