‘For millennia, humanity has turned to myth and religion to answer our most profound questions, but in this new TV series, professor X uses science to explain…’ A provocative advert for a new cosmology show. The presenter is a talented physicist and gifted communicator and it does make compelling viewing. The thing that struck me most however was the writer's unquestioning confidence in the ability of science per se (a) to explain ‘our most profound questions’ and (b) to supersede alternative explanations.
This claim begs all sorts of important questions. For example, what are the most profound questions in life and what are the limits of the explanatory power of science? By curious coincidence, on the same day as reading this magazine advert, I also read a paper on Gestalt therapy by the late Ernest Becker, international lecturer in psychology, sociology and anthropology. In it, he posed a stark challenge to psychological therapies based on existential questions they cannot hope or begin to address.
‘We have this existential dilemma in the back of everything we do: this terrible anxiety about who we are and what we’re doing on this planet, what it means to have our name and our face; we keep running to the mirror to look at that face – we don’t really know who the person is…so we run back and take a pill or a drink, or we read a book, or we make love or call our mother long-distance or something. We don’t know what we’re doing here, and this is a source of great anxiety for us.’
He goes on. ‘We don’t know how we came to be here. Where do babies some from? ‘Sperm and egg’ I can hear you say. But it’s not an answer at all. We don’t know where babies come from. You get married, you’re sitting at table having breakfast – there are two of you – and a year later there’s somebody else sitting there. They just came literally out of nowhere and they keep growing in your environment. If you’re honest with yourself, you don’t know where they came from. It’s a total mystery.’
I find Becker's challenge refreshing and inspiring, his refusal to allow the totality of reality and meaning in human experience to be reduced to that which can be measured empirically. He challenged the notion that psychological explanations alone can be sufficient to address pressing and persistent questions about human origin, identity, meaning and purpose. Cosmology too explains many interesting and valuable things in the universe, but these are essentially spiritual questions that lie outside its scope.
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.