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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

(Dis-)Inherit the Wind--Bridging non-existing gaps

The play Inherit the Wind was premiered in 1955. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, the play takes up, with considerable poetic license, a famous court case of May 1925, in which substitute high school teacher John T. Scopes was accused (and convicted and fined) of having taught evolution in contravention of the law. The play served as the basis for a film (1960) with Spencer Tracy as the star lawyer for the defence, and Frederick March as the star prosecutor, and 1966, 1988 and 1999 TV films with Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley, Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas, and Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott, respectively, as the opposing lawyers.

Matt Chait
A revival of the original 2015 production of Matt Chait’s Disinherit the Wind is currently playing at the Complex Theatre, 6576 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood. Chait plays the main character, Dr Cates, who has gone to court to achieve his reinstatement and compensation after having been fired from a tenured professorship in a prestigious university department of biology. 

The reason for his dismissal is the accusation that he has brought pseudo-religious contents to his teaching of science—in other words, the precise opposite of the case against Scopes (named Cates in the 1955 play!) in the original 1925 trial and the 1955 play from which the 2015 play takes its title. There is a full-length video of the 2015 production online,with mainly the same cast as the 2017 revival. 

At the centre of Chait’s play, set in a court room as Inherit the Wind, is an exchange between Cates and the representative expert witness of the defence, evolutionary biologist Dr Robert Hawkins (clearly modelled on Richard Dawkins). 

Both plays are based on positions of the scientific concept of evolution in Darwin’s terms (and even those terms are controversial, and far from unambiguous, in both plays), and the religious belief that the world was created by God. According to both plays, the positions of evolution and creationism, of science and religion, are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. Cates in Disinherit the Wind seems to formulate a bridge between the two positions, but does not quite get there. 

Here's my position on this. Positions within the frame of subjective monism hold that consciousness is primary, it is omnipresent, it is the source and foundation of everything there is, without exception, and human beings can experience it on its own (as pure consciousness), and together with the contents of consciousness. Taking this position as axiomatic, science can contribute to explaining how human beings experience consciousness. “How” here means what the processes and procedures are that take place in our bodies, predominantly probably (according to current insights of science) in the brain, and that enable the experience of consciousness. In explaining, in this way, how we can experience consciousness, science does not (have to) reduce that experience to brain processes. The experience of pure consciousness together with waking or dreaming or sleeping is an exciting, awe-inspiring, “major”, apparently inexplicable and therefore possibly also mysterious experience that some of us like to describe in terms of religious experience. If we then find out, through science, that this experience correlates with activity in a specific region of the brain, for example, this insight does not take away from the experience itself, it does not somehow (have to) reduce the experience to something less extraordinary than if we do not know which area of the brain may be involved in the experience. On the contrary, knowing about the insights of science adds further to our appreciation of our own complexity, adds to the wonder of life. 

We can then go on to consider the nature of consciousness (how we think, feel and act, why we think, feel and act as we do, and what it feels like to think, feel and act as we do). We can experience it as pure consciousness, and science can seek to tell us how the brain enables that experience. Different knowledge traditions across time and across cultures have sought to capture “consciousness” in their own ways, always as direct experience, and have captured the experience in their specific terminology. Experiences of desirable (altered?) states of consciousness are central to the world religions and philosophical traditions. However, none of these religions and traditions can lay claim to exclusivity, especially not at the expense of other religions or traditions. Neither are, as I have shown above, religious and philosophical traditions at odds with science or vice versa. They can, and should, work together to enhance our knowledge about life. It is far too exciting to be limited to one approach, one religion, one science!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Daniel. Given the current state of affairs in the U.S. at the moment, all of this is quite timely. At my own college last Friday afternoon, there were science department presentations (biology) in one room, and then in another part of the college a Christian Club was promoting Creationism as science.