Reading the Universe’s Story

I’m halfway through Deeper than Darwin, by John Haught. He embraces the scientific account of evolution, but questions (somewhat like John Polkinghorne) whether it tells the whole story or the deepest story.

Haught makes the interesting point that modern science has discovered, though not emphasized, that the universe has a story. Between the Big Bang and Darwin’s account of the development of life, we have a tale with a beginning, a long and gradual development of increasing complexity and beauty, and (potentially) an ending. From a history-of-science perspective, this is a surprising discovery.

The universe might well be changeless and eternal. It might well show no signs of development, but exist in a steady state. Many scientists, past and present, would feel more comfortable with that. But science really discovers things—and it has discovered a story.

Haught says that stories can and indeed must be read at multiple levels. For example: Moby Dick can be “read” by a four-year-old who sees it as a treasure book of alphabetic symbols; it can be read by an eleven-year-old as a long-winded adventure tale; and it can be read by a college student who begins to grasp its wealth of symbol and metaphor. All these readings are true at one and the same time. Moby Dick works within rules of spelling and grammar, even rules of narrative structure. But it is more than spelling and grammar, and more than narrative. Anyone who suggests that only one way of reading is correct fails to understand the true nature of reading. Reading is multi-level.

Biologists who insist that evolution be read only as a story of mathematics, selfish genes, or strictly “physicalist” forces have failed to read the book of nature in a sophisticated, multi-level way. They are, Haught says, literalists and fundamentalists. On the other side of the fence, biblical literalists and fundamentalists equally insist that the story of Genesis be read in only one way, and at one level.

Haught aims to convince that a multi-level reading of the world’s storybook will enrich our understanding of every level. In other words, a religious reading will enhance a physical reading, and vice versa. I’ll let you know whether I think he manages to show that.

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