An Essay Against Modern Superstition


Wendell Berry

Counterpoint, 2000, 153 pp.  ISBN 1-58243-058-6

Berry is a Kentucky writer who concentrates on the value of place and community.  He’s one of my favorite fiction writers.  In this book he rebuts the materialistic “superstitions,” – the presuppositions, arguments and implications – in conservationist E. O. Wilson’s book Consilience.


The danger of presuming to “understand” life is that we reduce it to the terms of our understanding it; we treat it as predictable or mechanical.  “To reduce life to the scope of our understanding…is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.”  “Whenever one perceives living organisms as machines they must necessarily be treated as such.” (6-7)


We are using the wrong language.  “The reclassification of the world from creature to machine must involve at least a perilous reduction of moral complexity.  We move from reverence to understanding,... from steward to owner and engineer.  (8)


Life “is beyond us.  We do not know how we have it, or why.  We do not know what is going to happen to it, or to us.  It is not predictable; though we can destroy it, we cannot make it.”  (9)  “To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.” (10)


“The standards of our behavior must be derived, not from the capability of technology, but from the nature of places and communities.” (12)


“My general concern is with what I take to be the increasing inability of the scientific, artistic, and religious disciplines to help us address the issue of propriety in our thoughts and acts.” (13)  “Propriety is the antithesis of individualism.  To raise the issue of propriety is to deny that any individual’s wish is the ultimate measure of the world.” (14)  “All of the disciplines are failing the test of propriety because they are failing the test of locality.” (15)


Government, education and religion have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations. (15)  “Science now functions in society rather as the Church did in the Middle Ages.” (quoting The Marriage of Sense and Thought, p. 16)


Even the most altruistic sciences are deeply intertwined with economics and politics and their motives have become those of corporations and governments. (17)


Faith in scientific methodology “seems to veer off into a kind of religious faith in the power of science to know all things and solve all problems….”  “this religification and evangelizing of science, in defiance of scientific principles, is now commonplace and is widely accepted or tolerated by people who are not scientists.  We really seem to have conceded to scientists,…the place once occupied by the prophets and priest of religion.” (19)


“The media, cultivating their mediocrity, seem quite comfortably unaware that many of the calamities from which science is expected to save the world were caused in the first place by science—which meanwhile is busy propagating further calamities, hailed now as wonders, from which later it will undertake to save the world.” (21)


“Apparently everywhere in the ‘developed world’ human communities and their natural and cultural supports are being destroyed…by a sort of legalized vandalism known as ‘the economy.’”  (23)


Consilience is in effect a scientific credo; its opinions are plainly stated.” (25)


1.  Materialism

“Science is an enterprise of materiality, dealing in empirical proofs, in the tangible, the measurable, and the countable.”  “But as a doctrine of belief, materialism takes him into several kinds of trouble.”  (25)  “A theoretical materialism…is inescapably deterministic.”  (26) 


2.  Materialism and Mystery

“To the moderns scientist as to the great detective, every mystery is a problem, and every problem can be solved.  A mystery can exist only because of human ignorance, and human ignorance is always remediable.  The appropriate response is not deference or respect, let alone reverence, but pursuit of ‘the answer.’”  “When a scientist denies or belittles a mystery that cannot be solved, then he or she is no longer within the bounds of science.” (27)


3.  Imperialism

“The only science we have or can have is human science; it has human limits and is involved always with human ignorance and human error.” (32)  “We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children.  Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark….” (33)


“It is impossible to argue that we can know empirically anything that is beyond our mental capacity.  What we understand has necessarily been limited by the limits of our understanding.”  “We can’t comprehend what comprehends us.” (34)


4. Reductionism

Reductionism has the “tendency to allow the particular to be absorbed or obscured by the general.”  “Between the species and the specimen the creature itself, the individual creature, is lost.”  “The tendency is to equate the creature…with one’s formalized knowledge of it.” (39)  “The uniqueness of an individual creature is inherent, not in its physical or behavioral anomalies, but in its life.”  (40)  “For things cannot survive as categories but only as individual creatures living uniquely where they live.”  (41)


People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.  “The … language of science can, in fact, help us to know certain things….  But it cannot replace, and it cannot become, the language of familiarity, reverence, and affection by which things of value ultimately are protected.” (41)


The idea of the preciousness of individual lives and places does not come from science, but from our cultural and religious traditions.  (42) 


Looking out over the beauty and creatures on his home place, “I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated.  And then is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.”  “We are alive within mystery, by miracle.” (45)


5. Creatures as Machines

“People, after all, are just extremely complicated machines.” (46, quoting E. O. Wilson)


“The world is not a machine, and neither is an organism.  A machine, to state only the greatest and most obvious difference, is a human artifact, and a world or an organism is not.” (46)


How can an idea, which is not material, have a material origin?”  “Materialism itself is an idea, just as immaterial as any other.”  “If ideas are not material, how can they have a material origin?  If they are not material in origin, how can their origin be explained by materialist science?” (50)


“It is evident to us all by now that modern totalitarian governments become more mechanical as they become more total.”  “If we were to implement politically the idea that creatures are machines, we would lose all of those precious impediments to mechanical efficiency in government.  The basis of our rights and liberties would be undermined.  If people are machines, what is wrong, for example with slavery?  Why should a machine wish to be free?” (51-2)


“You cannot preserve the traditional rights and liberties of a democracy by the mechanical principles of economic totalitarianism.”


Corporations are thriving at the expense of everything else.  “Their dogma of the survival of the wealthiest (i.e. mechanical efficiency) is the dominant intellectual fashion.” (52)  “The machine is coming.  If you are small and in the way, you must lie down and be run over.”  (53)


“What I am against…is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures….” (54)


6. Originality and the “Two Cultures”

“Our own culture places an absolute premium upon various kinds of stardom [such as ‘heroic discoveries’ in science.].  This degrades and impoverishes ordinary life, ordinary work, and ordinary experience.  It depreciates and underpays the work of the primary producers of goods, and of the performers of all kinds of essential but unglamorous jobs and duties.  The inevitable practical results are that most work is now poorly done; great cultural and natural resources are neglected, wasted, or abused; the land and its creatures are destroyed; and the citizenry is poorly taught, poorly governed, and poorly served.” (57)


Regarding the idol of innovation.  “Can the past be taught, can it even be known, by people who have no respect for it?  If you believe in the absolute superiority of the new, can you learn and teach anything identifiable as old?” (65)


“To escape the ‘cognitive prison’ of religion and mythology, he has consigned himself to the prison of materialist and reductive cognition.”  Consilience “concedes nothing to mystery; it simply rules out or blots out whatever it can’t explain or doesn’t like.” (66)


“Nobody seems able to subtract the negative results of scientific ‘advance’ from the positive.”  (70)


“To learn to write one must learn both a considerable portion of what has been written and how it was written.” (71)


“Ambition in the arts and the sciences, for several generation now, has conventionally surrounded itself by talk of freedom.”  “The hard and binding requirement that freedom must answer, if it is to last, …is that of responsibility.  For a long time the originators and innovators of the two cultures have made extravagant use of freedom, and in the process have built up a large debt to responsibility, little of which has been paid, and for most of which there is not even a promissory note.” (73)


“While some have been confidently predicting that science, going ahead as it has gone, would solve all problems and answer all questions, others have been in mourning.” (76)  “What they feared, what they found repugnant, was the violation of life by an oversimplifying, feelingless utilitarianism; they feared the destruction of the living integrity of creatures, places, communities, cultures, and human souls…”  “What they mourned was the progressive death of the earth.” (76)


There is a wise instinct, an intuition that “some things are and ought to be forbidden to us, off-limits, unthinkable, foreign, properly strange.”  “My own instinctive wish was to ‘stay out of the nuclei.’”  (76)  “When a few scientists decided to go in, they decided for everybody.”  “Adam was the first, but not the last, to choose for the whole human race.” (77)


“The cutting edge for most of the twentieth century has been the dis-covering of the intimate, the secret, the sexual, the private, and the obscene.  And this process of exposure has been carried on in the name of freedom by people priding themselves on their courage.”  “One should not increase one’s freedom by reducing somebody else’s.”  (79)


“Our present idea of freedom in science is too often reducible to thoughtlessness of consequence.  Freedom in the arts frequently looks like mere carelessness in self-exposure or in exposing others.” (80)  “Freedom can survive, I believe, only by being well used.” (83)


“What is the qualitative difference between the man who cold-heartedly shoots another and the photographer who cold-heartedly photographs the corpse or the grieving widow?  Are they not simply two parts of … a failure of compassion and of community life? (87)


“The question for art, then, is exactly the same as the question for science: Can it properly subordinate itself to concerns that are larger than its own?” (88)


7.  Progress Without Subtraction

“As knowledge expands globally it is being lost locally.  This is the paramount truth of the modern history of rural places everywhere in the world.” (90)


Reduction and Religion

“The general assumption now is that everybody is working in his or her own interest and will continue to do so until checked by somebody whose self-interest is more powerful.”  No one has assigned a value to trust. (94)


Is there knowledge that is not explainable?  Job had knowledge (Job 19:25-26) that rests upon no evidence or proof.  He ‘knows’ that what he says is true.  Wilson [apparently forgetting about the cross and martyrdoms, etc.] says people follow religion, because it is easier than empiricism.  (97)


“One cannot, in honesty, propose to reconcile Heaven and Earth by denying the existence of Heaven.”  “Whatever proposes to invalidate or abolish religion is in fact attempting to put itself in religion’s place.  Science-as-religion is clearly a potent threat to freedom.”  “Religion, as empiricists must finally grant, deals with a reality beyond the reach of empiricism.” (99)


“The walls of the rational, empirical world are famously porous.  What come through are dreams, imaginings, inspirations, vision, revelations.”  (100)


There is nowhere in the Bible a single line that gives or implies a permission to ‘use up’ the ‘natural environment.’  “In the Gospels it is a principle of faith that God’s love for the world includes every creature individually, not just races or species.”  “People who blame the Bible for the modern destruction of nature have failed to see its delight in the variety and individuality of creatures and its insistence upon their holiness.”  “Acceptance of the mystery of unitary truth in God leads to glorification of the multiplicity of His works, whereas … a cognitive unity produced by science leads to abstraction and reduction….  The opposite of reduction “is God’s love for all things, for each thing for its own sake and not for its category.” (102-03)


Reduction and Art

“The truest tendency of art is toward the exaltation, not the reduction, of its subjects.” (114)


Literature cannot be reduced to its meaning.  “The value of Huckleberry Finn is not in its motive or moral or plot, but in its language.  The book is valuable because it is a story told, not a story explained.”  ‘You cannot translate a poem into an explanation….” (116-17)


A Conversation Out of School

“Science and art are neither fundamental nor immutable.  They are not life or the world.  They are tools.  The arts and the sciences are our kit of cultural tools.  Science cannot replace art or religion for the same reasons that you cannot loosen a nut with a saw or cut a board in two with a wrench.”  (121)


“The collective economy is run for the benefit of a decreasing number of increasingly wealthy corporations.  These corporations understand their ‘global economy’ as a producer of money, not of goods.  The goods of the world such as topsoil or forests must decline so that the money may increase.” (123)


“Science” means knowing and “art” means doing, and one is meaningless without the other. (124)


The author’s concern:  “how to change from a culture and a system of agriculture that destroy land and people to a culture and a system able to conserve both.” (126)  “You cannot serve both God and Mammon, and you cannot work without serving one or the other.” (127)


Toward a Change of Standards

“The standards and goals of the disciplines need to be changed.”  “As long as the idea of vocation was still viable among us, I don’t believe it was ever understood that a person was ‘called’ to be rich or powerful or even successful.”  “Now we seem to have replaced the ideas of responsible community membership, of cultural survival, and even of usefulness, with the idea of professionalism.”  “Professionalism forsakes both past and present in favor of the future, which is never present or practical or real.  Professionalism is always offering up the past and the present as sacrifices to the future….”  (130)


Science and the industrial corporations have imposed upon us a state of virtually total economy in which it is the destiny of every creature to have a price and to be sold.  (132)


“The dominant story of our age, undoubtedly, is that of adultery and divorce.  This is true both literally and figuratively: The dominant tendency of our age is the breaking of faith and the making of divisions among things that once were joined.” (133)


“Suppose that the ultimate standard of our work were to be, not professionalism and profitability, but the health and durability of human and natural communities.” (134)


“We should banish from our speech and writing any use of the word ‘machine’ as an explanation or definition of anything that is not a machine.  Our understanding of creatures and our use of them are not improved by calling them machines.” (135)


“We ought conscientiously to reduce our tolerance for ugliness.” (136)


“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an interest in discovery and innovation.  It only becomes wrong when it is thought to be the norm of culture and of intellectual life.”  “Innovation for its own sake, and especially now when it so directly serves the market, is disruptive of human settlement….” (140)


Some Notes in Conclusion

“In the process that carries knowledge from the laboratory to the market there is not enough fear.” (143)


“The time is past, if ever there was such a time, when you can just discover knowledge and turn it loose in the world and assume that you have done good.” (145)


“Science can teach us and help us to resist death, but it can’t teach us to prepare for death or to die well.” (146)


“Applying knowledge—scientific or otherwise—is an art.  An artist is somebody who knows what to put where, and when to put it.” (148)