April 16, 2014 by Reader's Connection
“And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language . . . The interesting thing, some might say alarming, was that when you take away all human attributions–the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action–that when you take all this away, there is still something left.”
That’s Barbara Ehrenreich, describing the first of a series of experiences she had as a teenager. When this sort of thing happens to a Zen monk, it might be welcomed as a sought-after enlightenment. But Ehrenreich didn’t know what to make of it and kept it to herself. Her parents had raised her to be an atheist–she continues to be one, today–and she has always tried to view the world scientifically.
She seems to have been a pretty good scientist. As a college student, running experiments in a lab, she stumbled across what would later be known as “chaos theory,” but her professor ignored her findings. (“The universe does not reveal itself to undergraduates or fools. This is the entire premise of higher education.”) Her books and essays in the past have dealt for the most part with social and historical issues.
Now, in Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, she looks back on her upbringing, her challenging family, her search for the truth, and the experiences (she might sue me if I called them mystical) for which she had no frame of reference. I’m having trouble with the last chapter, in which she tries pull those experiences into some scientific, historical order. Ehrenreich’s life story interests me much more than her patchwork theorizing. But the book as a whole is a wonder, full of her characteristic wit and anger, and mercilessly honest about herself and her troubled parents.
And even if she believes that nothing is unknowable–another word that annoys her–she’s honest about how spotty her knowledge has been in the past.
” . . . I was . . . an empiricist, and empiricism is one of the great pillars of science. You can and should use logic and reason all you want. But it would be a great mistake to ignore the stray bit of data that doesn’t fit into your preconceived theories, that may even confound everything that you thought you were sure of. I had seen what I had seen–whatever it is that lies under the named world–and I was not going to deny its existence.”