Consecrating Science

Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World

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Lisa H. Sideris
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , August
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520294998.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Lisa Sideris’s Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World is a rich and deeply insightful analysis of a family of ambitious historical narratives, each of which is vying to become the new myth everyone lives by. Through careful textual study, Sideris convincingly argues that despite their stated goal of promoting a deep respect and care for the natural world, these narratives may inadvertently undermine development of the environmental ethic they seek to foster.

The stories on which Sideris focuses are a range of large-scale histories of the universe that have been appearing in English since the 1970s, although, as historians have argued, the genre to which they belong has its origins in nineteenth-century Germany and England. They go by various names—Big History, Universe Story, the Great Story, the New Story, the Epic of Evolution, and others—and they share the conviction that twenty-first-century human beings need a new story. We moderns, it is claimed, no longer have a communal story, founding myth, or orienting narrative that tells us which way is up or what we should cherish. Where religions once provided what we needed in this regard, the justification goes, modern science has exposed the bankruptcy of religions and their associated stories of origin and meaning, so their stories can no longer satisfy our deepest needs. The new cosmologies (as Sideris calls them) claim to do a better job by capitalizing on science and deploying it in the service of a new universal history, one that will give our lives the significance and purpose that we long for. In place of the old backward-looking stories, proponents of the new cosmologies consecrate science in the pursuit of a new and forward-looking myth, one that tells us—finally—the truth about what human beings really are, what is genuinely real, and what is actually valuable.

Consecrating Science demonstrates how misguided, and potentially dangerous, these efforts are. In the central chapters of the book Sideris looks in painstaking detail at the writings of a slew of the new myth-makers—E.O. Wilson, Loyal Rue, Ursula Goodenough, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd, Connie Barlow, and two of the movement’s major influences, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry—and finds many aspects of their respective projects seriously wanting. Chief among those shortcomings is the very thing that supposedly gives the new cosmologies great advantage over the old religious stories: their mythopoeic appropriation of science, by which Sideris means their “recasting of scientific information as a consecrated narrative or poetic vision” (5). By elevating science to the extent they do, the new myths either conflate science and religion or turn science into a kind of religion. This sacralization of science is troubling because it can lead to unwillingness to grant legitimacy to other disciplinary approaches to knowledge. It is dangerous because contemporary science’s technologically mediated and heavily theorized engagement with nature might replace direct, sensory engagement with nature of the kind Sideris believes is crucial for sustaining an environmental ethic that supports nature’s flourishing.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the book is Sideris’s perceptive criticism of the new cosmologies by viewing them through the prism of wonder. Sanctified science directs wonder not at science’s object—nature—but at other things: at science itself, at the human mind (for having the power to scientifically work out how the world operates), and at scientists (for being the ones who have worked it out). By lauding science to the extent they do, proponents of the new stories exalt human beings and human abilities to understand and control nature at a time in history when precisely this exaltation of human powers—and of our scientific and technological means of controlling nature—have led to the precarious environmental situation in which we find ourselves. Asking where the new stories direct our wonder allows Sideris to expose their profoundly anthropocentric biases. Attending to their descriptions of the experience of wonder similarly reveals the impoverished forms of wonder that the new cosmologists—along with one of their chief influences in this regard, Richard Dawkins—peddle. Dawkins’s wonder is the momentary kind that is cured by curiosity: one wonders at a phenomenon only until one’s curiosity prompts one to secure a scientific understanding of the causal mechanisms responsible for it. Such short-lived wonder aggrandizes human knowledge and the human knower at the expense of sustained attention to, and reverence for, nature itself.

Throughout the book Sideris instead encourages a ceaseless, deep-seated kind of wonder such as one finds in the writings of Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, and other naturalists. Their recognition of the limits of science, of the complexity and unpredictability of nature, and of the contingency of the world is accompanied by a durable existential wonder that Sideris judges to be far superior to anything the new cosmologists seem able to imagine. Crucially, Carson’s wonder is accompanied by a range of other attitudes—“compassion, generosity, vulnerability, openness, empathy and respect for otherness, and … humility” (172)—that together Sideris thinks are much more likely to generate positive attitudes and behaviors toward the environment.

Consecrating Science is not a quick read, but it is a rewarding one. Sideris’s analysis of wonder is extraordinarily illuminating, and it provides a valuable angle from which to critique what might otherwise seem to be projects whose environmental goals match her own. The lack of empirical data about whether the new cosmologies have actually generated real anti-environmental attitudes or consequences makes the urgency of the specific problem against which Sideris is fighting unclear. But even if these new myths never become especially prominent or generate on a large scale the kinds of attitudes Sideris criticizes, the penetrating insights offered in Consecrating Science, and the tantalizing glimpse of a better way of life—a life soaked in wonder—it contains, make the book well worth the time and effort.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Jordan is Research Coordinator at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lisa H. Sideris is associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University, where her research focuses on religion, science, and environmentalism. She is the author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection.

Comments

Lisa Sideris

Thank you for this careful and generous reading of my book. The question raised near the end regarding the lack of “empirical” support for my claims is one I have considered and one that other readers have raised as well. I do not conduct empirical work myself regarding environmental values and behaviors and I hope others might pursue it, in regard to the claims made in my book. However, I have a couple of thoughts about the issue you raise. Here’s one: Suppose that one were to present evidence (contrary to my concerns) that the new cosmology does positively orient its adherents to nature and even encourages concrete environmental behaviors that can be documented. I would still remain doubtful that the narrative itself is the key motivator because, as new story enthusiasts often admit (see especially my chapter on Barlow and Dowd) they arrive at their environmental values not through the story itself but through some experience that bonded them with nature or created concerns about its destruction. Only later—dissatisfied with traditional faiths or lacking any religion--did they seek out a cosmology to match those values. The cosmology did not necessarily produce the values (and the behaviors, assuming they exist) in any obvious way. If this is the case, and it often is, it undercuts the evangelizing mission, which seems to assume that others, if they adopt these cosmologies, will somehow begin to bond with nature. It makes the focus on teaching the narrative to children particularly odd, and problematic.

For some additional thoughts I have about the way in which these narratives actually generate anti-environmental attitudes (and indeed how the orientation to the cosmos generally may do so), see my forthcoming essay in the Journal for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture, a special issue on “Religion, Science, and the Future” (Vol 11.4). There I have an essay, “Biosphere, Noosphere, and the Anthropocene: Earth’s Perilous Prospects in a Cosmic Context” that touches on how enthusiasts for interstellar travel and a quest to leave earth behind have taken up the Universe Story as their “functional cosmology.” In other words, these would-be starfarers (correctly, I think) understand their quest to wholly align with the values of the Universe Story in which human identity with the cosmos is paramount and the imperative to escape the earth’s embrace is our ultimate destiny. Clearly, this is not a narrative that binds us more intimately with earth. It suggests that we belong to the universe at large.

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