Reality Revisited

Archimedes said that he could move the world if he had a point whereon to rest his machine. Who has not felt the same aspirations as regards the world of his own mind?
—William Wordsworth

All of us, I suspect, have experienced the occasional intimation of immortality, the sense that worlds exist out there beyond our powers to perceive them. Religious faith can neatly account for such intimations, but as Wordsworth wrote, this sense of something more is “far too shadowy a notion to be recommended to faith” alone. Those of us unblessed by faith muddle by with some combination of philosophy and science, but we all, presumably, aspire to use our powers of reasoning as a fulcrum for understanding the world we can see and the worlds we can’t. Two essays in this issue of the SCHOLAR place the fulcrum in surprising places, and both urge us to enlarge in radical ways our notions of what is real.

Robert Lanza, a cell biologist and medical doctor who has worked with the likes of Jonas Salk and B. F. Skinner, has a taste for controversy. At the moment he is laboring on the fraught frontier of stem-cell research. His essay for us, “A New Theory of the Universe,” pushes the achievements of quantum mechanics to what he argues are its inevitable conclusions. Physics has established the role of the observer in the behavior of matter. What this means, Lanza writes, is that the logic of the universe is bio logical, rooted most importantly in human consciousness. Reality is, for Lanza, what we create in our minds; it has no independent existence.

Go, Archimedes!

In his own way, Robert A. Orsi, a professor of the history of religion at Harvard, is proposing something similar. A Roman Catholic, he has studied in detail the religious practices of 20th-century American Catholics. In his essay “2 + 2 = 5,” he places their experiences in the historical tradition of what is known as the real presence, the idea that Christ’s body and blood are actually there in the communion wafer. And by extension that presence inheres in other ways—in statues that weep or sightings of the Virgin Mary. Like many Catholics, Orsi grew up in a religious tradition that accepts such phenomena as “really real,” and yet he was trained in an empirical tradition that hews to the natural and rejects the supernatural. Orsi calls for what he terms an “abundant empiricism,” a way of thinking about these phenomena that gives a new level of credence to those who experience them.

My hope is that Lanza and Orsi will read each other’s essay. My guess is they’ll have a lot to talk about.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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