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The Mystery of the Gecko

Geckos abound in these parts during the summer.  It’s a wonder to observe their ability to walk on virtually any type of surface.  Until recently it was one of the mysteries of nature.  We didn’t have a very good idea of how they climb like Spiderman.  The science section in Tuesday’s edition of The Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihao Hu, who has figured out how it works.   Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with any surface.  Amazing.  The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder.  It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.

Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith”   A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity– God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.”   One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.”   Theologians even write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity”  and the ” immanent Trinity”  (or “ontological Trinity.”)   The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all.  None of this means anything.  While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something real we observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any observation or empirical evidence of any kind whatsoever.  You can’t watch the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw.  There’s nothing to go on.

Religion misuses the term mystery.  You just can’t make stuff up and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery.  In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “real presence” of Christ in bread and wine,  and then feel like they are sub-standard believers because they can’t fathom the theologians’  supposedly profound insights.   It’s nuts.

Leaving the crazy metaphysics behind doesn’t make the world any less wondrous.  Quite the contrary.  Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could possibly dream up.

Let me close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Dan Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell,” where he talks about developing an “awestruck vision of the world.”

“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both it’s glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” (p.303)

 

 

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  1. June 28, 2012 at 12:24 am

    Another great read! Your essays are just refreshing. I wonder if you have any plans to write a book about your experience. I think it would be a best seller! It could be the thing that most closeted theist need to finally make that leap of “un-faith”.

  2. Alan
    June 28, 2012 at 4:17 am

    You have excellent timing mentioning geckos. The blog Not Exactly Rocket Science had an article about them today as well.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/06/27/geckos-evolved-sticky-feet-many-times

  3. John Stutzer
    June 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Superb! Thank you for choosing the Dan Dennett quote – he gets right to the heart of it all for me.

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