04/02/2013 01:36 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Materialism: A Failure of Imagination?

The selfish gene is not only the name of a best-selling book by Richard Dawkins; it is the prevailing meme of the new atheism and of much of science. It is also, in America, nearly one half of the language of popular political parlance. Ayn Rand, herself an anti-religious atheist (she called religion a psychological disorder) trumpeted her idea of the morality of rational self-interest in her book, "Atlas Shrugged," which was published in 1957. It now sells 400,000 copies a year, far more than it ever sold while Rand was alive. It is the philosophical underpinning of the Tea Party movement and the most recent Republican candidate for vice president, Paul Ryan.

So here we are today, in the latest era of the Wall Street Raiders. If it has always been thus, then our notion of progress seems to be missing something. For all our technological sophistication, there are ways in which we seem to be no more morally or ethically wise than humanity ever was. Yet the neo-Darwinists and the acolytes of Ayn Rand together would brush the moral argument aside. In their view, the unfettered activity of the market will let the fittest survive, while the less agile will gradually be discarded like so much junk DNA. This, they believe, would lead to the progress of society in general.

The gaping hole in the middle of this argument is there in plain view: it assumes we are no more than pieces of animated meat bent solely on our own survival and on that of our species. Yet the laws of the observable universe and of evolution do not apply to the invisible world of being. If you deny the existence of such a world, how do you account for the fact that something is born and eventually dies? What is this extraordinary something that animates a bee or a dragonfly or a human being?

And when it comes to human beings, what is it that makes them sacrifice themselves for each other as much they kill each other? What is that comes out of their hands onto a canvas or a blank page? That prompts them to ask questions and explore the unknown? To question even the substance of their own existence -- who or what we are, finally? In the face of questions like these we can only bow down and confess our perplexity, just as our forefathers have done since the beginning of time.

Science itself is founded on our desire to solve the riddles of the observable universe. Science itself was born on a wave of wonder and astonishment which prompted, not comforting beliefs, but questions followed by more questions. The philosopher Karl Popper said that science tries to refute rather than confirm its own theories, so keen is its genuine search for the truth. But surely Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, was closer to the truth when he showed in his book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," that in fact the last thing scientists seek to do is to refute the theories embedded in their own paradigm.

The last thing anyone seeks to do is to refute the beliefs embedded in their own world view.

We are all so enclosed in the way we see the world that it takes a major paradigm shift to enable us to see through a different lens. For most Buddhists, it is impossible to imagine that rebirth may not exist. For most cardiac surgeons, it is impossible to imagine that someone may consider alternative treatment to by-pass surgery. For scientists, it only stands to reason to apply methods of research that have a proven track record in investigating the material world to every sphere of human activity.

A materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all. It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.

Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of presences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away.

It is the imagination that allows us to be susceptible to the unknown; to the mystery of possibility. It is the whetstone of every creative artist. What happens in creative, fresh writing, for example, happens in life. There is a direction that life's energy is taking us, but not necessarily the one we think; not even one that we can articulate for ourselves, even as we can feel the pulse of it in our blood. I may not know the outcome of my sentences from the start, but I look to see what is on the page and they lead me to what is coming next. Writing is like life. You need to show up, and then, well, you just never know.

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