spring/summer 2006, no. 7

The Argument


by Zachary P. Norwood



Beliefs fall roughly into two categories: the real and the imagined. There are those who believe in fairies and dragons, usually children, and those who believe in death and taxes, usually adults. As for all-encompassing explanations of life, there are those who believe in gods, or some hyperphysical force, and those who do not. Soph was a believer, and she was about to have her beliefs sorely tested.


Soph had always been an exceptional student, so when she received an invitation to join the University Honors Program — or UHP, as it was called — she was not at all surprised. In fact, she was such a good student that she quickly forgot about the invitation altogether. She was already half-way finished with her departmental honors thesis in computer science, “An Interchange System for Browsing Digital Documents,” and thus considered the idea of attending UHP seminars redundant and superfluous. After all, she thought, what practical purpose would come from having university honors and departmental honors — and why should she waste her time loafing around, “contemplating her navel,” with a bunch of arts majors who hadn't a clue about making it in the real world?


Although she was loath to admit it, Soph viewed humanities students — and by extension members of the UHP — as making up the fungible half of civilization; thus, they were naturally predestined to toil away for the greater good, for so-called High Society and the exclusively talented.


Soph's belittling take on the UHP and humanities students changed suddenly after she met Russell in her simulations class. Like her, he was working on his departmental honors thesis, “Stochastic Modeling and Bayesian Computation: Uncertainty Management in Continuum Systems;” unlike her, he viewed the UHP as a necessary complement to his mainline education. Today’s most pressing scientific problems, he explained, could not be solved without a thoroughgoing exposure to other disciplines, even the arts. He lauded the benefits of interdisciplinarity, and after quoting something from Einstein about the profundity of imagination, Soph was sold on the idea: she would sample a UHP seminar. If nothing else, she thought, it would fulfill her last humanities requirement — not only this, but a seminar on “Science and Literature” sounded much more appealing than her original choice, “Music Appreciation.”


Two weeks went by, and Soph's exposure to the UHP gradually began to challenge her assumptions about humanities students. Only about half the students in her seminar were arts majors, and they seemed to her the better half. They were much more forgiving in their treatment of differing opinions, and they displayed greater nuance in their assessment of assigned reading material compared to their engineering and science counterparts. For Soph, this whole experience was truly eyeopening, and the shock of it all projected onto Russell, casting him in an otherworldly light. She could discern, despite her bias, that Russell was intellectually assertive yet uncommonly conscientious when dealing with weak arguments. He would criticize softly, obliquely, bringing his classmates round to his perspective on their own accord, rather than forcing a change.


At the end of the third week, Russell and Soph had arranged a meeting at the local café to discuss in finer detail the topics raised by the week's assigned reading. Soph felt enthusiastic about the arrangement, although she failed to assess the cause of her feelings. To her, their encounter seemed innocent enough, but to Russell, there was more to their encounter than academics.


Soph’s eagerness, Russell suspected, was amorously motivated. He had long been aware of certain behavioral cues which signified attraction, and it gave him great anticipatory pleasure to tally them up, mentally. Her penchant for glibly flirtatious remarks, the affected naturalness behind seemingly innocent physical contacts — a subtle brushing of the shoulder, an almost imperceptible touch of the hand — and her seemingly inexhaustible excuses for spending time together flashed through his internal slide show in rapid succession. Russell had no problem with any of her behavioral displays. From his vantage, Soph was uncommonly attractive, which happened to fulfill the first criterion of his ad hoc formula for romantic relations: not only must a potential mate look good, superficially, he would tell himself, but she must also evoke a strong, conscious sensation of erotic desire. If there was desire, potential existed to satisfy his second criterion: namely, intellectual and dispositional compatibility. Russell rarely fulfilled the first of these two criteria, let alone both at once. Indeed, he was beginning to suspect that his formula was ill-founded — until, that is, Soph rekindled his hopes.


They both arrived at the coffee shop together, at around six o’clock. There was a long line, and Russell took this as an opportunity to browse a few magazines while Soph held their place. The magazine section was close by, so Russell didn’t feel as if his browsing was impolite. He figured they’d have a new edition of Ad Busters, which he could use to fill in any conversational lulls. While browsing, he surveyed the other customers at a glance, reaching the usual conclusion: on the whole, by no fault of their own, they were pretentious philistines, riding out predefined lifestyles without considering consequences or alternatives. Nevertheless, Russ privileged this establishment over others. It had the best espresso — its smooth pungency was unmatched — and free access to magazines was a welcome accommodation. He had to admit, additionally, that this particular café drew more attractive females, on the whole, than the more downscale, hippy-friendly venue across from the University. Even though he despised overt pretensions to upward mobility, he preferred exchanging glances with kempt as opposed to un-kempt girls. He knew there was a degree of hypocrisy in his preference for this café, but on the whole, it didn’t matter much to him; real counterculture, as he often told himself, comes from within, not from without. With that thought, it was time to order, so he stepped back into line. Soph ordered first.


I’ll have... let’s see — I’ll have a white-mocha-chocolate-latte, aaand... and a blueberry scone; no, wait, I’ll have a cranberry scone,” said Soph, with pleasant rapidity.


Okay, and for you sir?”


I’ll have a double, twelve-ounce, nonfat latte,” requested Russ, glibly, while signaling with both hands that he preferred the shorter glass. The waitress gave a slight nod and set to completing their order. Everything was ready momentarily. They paid, picked up the tray, and began scouting for an open table.


In the front, right-hand corner there was an ideal spot surrounded by large windows looking out onto the main drag. As they sat down, a slight drizzle started up, dimming the scene with pleasant opacity. They exchanged smiles, sipped their lattes in comfortable silence, and shared a tacit, mutual appreciation for the rain.


I love the rain,” said Russ, breaking the silence. “It always reminds me of nature’s dominion over every living thing.” He wanted to say more but feared sounding rehearsed or stilted, so he paused momentarily. But he couldn’t bear insincerity, even by omission, so he continued on. “The intrinsic chaos of rain and ocean waves battering against the rocks are so comforting and wonderful to me — maybe it’s because they’re beyond our control, outside society and culture. I don’t know.” He noticed Soph’s attention shift to the table next to them, so he stopped short. “Anyway, rain always manages to put things into perspective, don’t you think?”


Soph was scrutinizing the odd behavior of an elderly, tweeded gentleman: he was using a fork and knife to eat a sandwich, which she’d never seen before. “Yeah,” she said, somewhat distractedly. She felt guilty for not paying enough attention. “I’ve always loved the rain,” she said, wishing to say more.


Sensing her unease, Russ shifted to another topic. “So what did you think of the reading this week? I especially liked C. P. Snow, his idea of the two cultures.” He paused a moment then picked up on a triggered association related to Snow's analysis of  literary scholars and their odd aversion to science. “I took a Shakespeare class once, and the professor was outraged with my evolutionary psychological take on Richard III. I didn’t understand where he was coming from — none of his critical comments made any sense — and the rest of the class was inclined to agree with him. Why should they have such a distaste for science? There shouldn’t be such divisions, especially since there is no inherent conflict between science and literary studies. Whatever oppositions exist are based on stereotypes of some sort, or methodological differences.”


I didn’t read all of Snow, but I really liked Gould’s essay,” cut in Soph, trying to change the subject.


Yeah, Gould's a good writer. I’ve read some of his other stuff, too. It’s strange, because I like some of Gould’s ideas, such as his criticism of IQ tests, but at the same time I strongly dislike some of what he has to say. One thing I didn’t like about this particular essay was how he seemed to set up false dichotomies between religion and science.”


What do you mean by ‘false dichotomies’?” asked Soph. She knew what the term meant, but she wanted him to clarify his position. To her, there was nothing contradictory in Gould’s essay, so to suggest otherwise was confusing.


Well,” he said, leaning back to swish his latte, mixing the finely divided layers of foam, milk, and espresso, “what I mean is that he seems to place religion within its own sphere of existence, as if it were somehow exclusive from science. He assumes that science is only about empirical evidence, and religion is only about values, as if value and physical reality were on different planes of existence or something.”


What’s wrong with that?” asked Soph, feeling increasingly perplexed. “The last time I checked, science wasn’t making claims about values.”


She had said this with a wry smile and playful tone, inviting challenge, but Russ hesitated to respond. He knew this line of inquiry could easily degenerate into regrettable, unnecessary divisions, but more than this, he didn’t want to offend Soph. He felt increasingly drawn to her, despite apparent intellectual differences.


Don’t get me wrong,” said Russ, “I am in complete agreement with many of Gould’s ideas, but I think when it comes to religion, Gould puts on the brakes, unnecessarily. I'm not antireligious, and I have been influenced by many religious figures” — this statement was meant to buffer any negative reaction to the following, and wasn't entirely true — “but I think it’s silly to suggest that science can describe the physical universe but not human nature, as if it’s somehow wrong to turn the scientific gaze inward, pointing our instruments of measurement at the universe within, at our brain and its... its variegated functions and abilities.”


Russ was pleased with his use of the word variegated, which came naturally and sounded right, but for a split-second he was worried that Soph would think he was trying to impress her. He put the idea behind him and continued on. “I mean, what’s wrong with exploring the brain as we would study the stars or planets?  Of course there’s always risk involved when we mix science and humanity, but such is life. I mean, you remember Vonnegut, right?”


Soph nodded.


Well,” he continued, with an animated, rapid tone, “it’s certainly possible that we could create some type of ice-nine, and we may actually be coming close to this with nanotechnology and the so-called gray-goo — you remember from last week’s lecture? — anyway, we could do something similar with our investigations of human nature, and I agree that certain ethical measures should be taken to prevent some irreversible, destructive outcome, but Gould doesn’t talk of precautionary measures. Instead, he contents himself with setting up ideological barriers, sidestepping the issue altogether. Instead of saying ‘we should exercise great caution with scientific exploration,’ he essentially says ‘scientific exploration of the soul is impossible.’ Well that’s just absurd, I’m sorry.”


After this last bit, Russ realized, quite unexpectedly and suddenly, that he’d said something wrong, since Soph’s countenance bore all the signs of vexation. He didn’t quite understand why she should appear so upset, and the change was so incongruent with his expectations. He must have overestimated her intellectual tolerance. He wondered whether she was deeply religious and had inadvertently offended her sensibilities. He would’ve never suspected until now that Soph was religious. She seemed so open-minded. All he could do now, he thought, was try to keep a measured tone and calm countenance, which he hoped would signal a willingness to maintain congenial relations, regardless of any potential philosophical differences.


Unfortunately for Russ, Soph misread his controlled, phlegmatic body language and took it for impassive arrogance.


“So what you’re trying to tell me,” she said, with affected control, “is that you think the soul is like some distant planet, some cold rock, and that we can just manipulate it with our instruments like anything else?”


Well, yes,” said Russ, reluctantly. “Although I would replace the word ‘soul’ with mind-brain, and I would never refer to the mind-brain with a word like ‘cold,’ which to me implies a lack of feeling and immobility, but as we both know, the brain produces many emotions and is quite dynamic.” Russ delivered this last clause with a tinge of haughtiness. It was at this point that he came to adopt an offensive stance, which he would have rather liked to avoid. He knew that with certain subjects, such as the naturalization of religion, an offensive stance invariably produced a reactionary response. Nevertheless, Russ was powerless to act in accordance with his idealized models of conflict resolution. In this regard, he was rather like Shakespeare’s Cordelia — ‘Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel,’ said Romeo, and following the sorrowful advice of Edgar in King Lear, Russ spoke what he felt and not what he ought to say.

Soph sat back in her chair, pursed her lips, squinted slightly, and peered at Russ for a fraction of a second; then she turned her head and gazed out the window in silence, biting the nail of her index finger, contemplatively. She was disgusted with herself for having been so purblind as to overlook the obvious signs: Russ had always been pretentious and arrogant, he always spoke out of turn with obtrusive assertiveness, and he would pretend to knowledge he did not possess. All these signs were there, she thought to herself, so why did she allow her charitous nature to gloss over obvious defects of character? On this reflection, a strong urge to leave welled up within her. As it seemed to her, Russ had finally shown his “true self.”


I have to go,” said Soph, still gazing out the window. The tone suggested finality.


Russ was taken aback by this radical, sudden transformation — Soph had seemingly changed from a playful flirt and urbane conversationalist to a reactionary conservative in the span of fifteen minutes. He hadn't known her that long, this is true, but never had he witnessed such a rapid reversal. Perhaps on account of his limited social exposure, Russ took it for granted that the well-educated, sophisticated types would learn how to distinguish between particular beliefs, on the one hand, and general character, on the other. And this assumption, however naïve, was not without evidence: Russ had several friends who “agreed to disagree,” even on points of religion, yet still managed to sustain intimate friendships over extended periods. But in this case, what was he to do?


Somewhere in the background, operating well below the threshold of consciousness, Russ’ mind busily worked out a plan of action — he would try to persuade Soph to overlook their differences as trifling and unworthy of lasting disagreement. He sought out that magical combination of reassurances, that perfect series of lines, that would, by force of implicit logic, place the whole conversation into perspective.


You don’t have to go,” said Russ, calmly and affectionately. “Look, if my views on religion bother you, just tell me — we don’t have to talk about it.” Soph shifted her gaze back to Russ and gently folded her hands back into her lap. Russ took this gesture as a sign to continue. “Of course it may come up inadvertently at some point, but so what? I’m perfectly capable of maintaining friendships with people who are religious. My dad’s deeply religious, and we get along grandly! Just because I don’t agree with someone’s particular mythological framework — and I mean this in the positive sense; I have a mythology, too — doesn’t mean we’re somehow fundamentally incompatible.” That was all he could muster. He knew it wasn’t perfect; it was too jargon laden and lacked stylistic embellishment, and the slip about “mythology” was unfortunate. But at least it was genuine in tone and manner.


For a fleeting moment, Soph was pacified. Reflecting on what he'd said,  she recalled her father's early preparations for just such an encounter: he had told her, in various ways and on different occasions, that there were people who did not believe in God or anything related to Christianity. “I know you won’t believe me,” he would say, “and I know it sounds silly; but trust me, they’re out there. They believe there is no God-given soul, that morality is something to be created or destroyed by human beings, not God Himself. To these people, there is no eternal order, there is no right or wrong. It’s all just what we make of it. These people cannot be saved, sweetie, even though I know you’ll want to try. Just trust me when I say this: the harder you try, the further away they get from salvation. It's best to let them go.” Father was right: she didn’t believe there were such people, but now it stood before her, unmistakably. She would never doubt her father's wisdom again. And with that, Soph regained her center. She was  again fixed in her belief.


I have to go,” she repeated, this time with haste, and without saying another word, she left. The timing, for her, was perfect. The rain had stopped, and she felt reinvigorated by the fresh scent left behind. She knew she did the right thing.


Russ slowly worked at finishing his latte, reflecting all the while on what happened. For some time he grappled with the sort of sadness that comes from comparing the real to the ideal. In this regard, he felt no sadness for the loss of Soph, however insensible the loss seemed. Rather, his sadness came from having to admit a new, ineluctable reality: he must now admit, for some and possibly for many, that religiosity was a closed, self-sustaining, self-reinforcing system, an acquired combination of memories and consonant emotions that worked in tandem to filter out anything that may threaten internal consistency, the semblance of order.


Thinking of the rain again, he smiled to himself. What else can one do but find humor in such things?




Zachary P. Norwood graduated from the University of New Mexico with degrees in research Psychology and English literature. Come this fall, he is pursuing his PhD in literary studies, most likely at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His dissertation will explore the relationship between affective neuroscience and literary semantics.





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