Between scientism and transcendence

In the last post I referred to the poetry collection A’ Càradh an Rathaid (Mending the Road), published when I was forty-four. From what I wrote, it is obvious that in my thinking I was somewhere between scientism and a yearning for transcendence. Scientism being roughly the idea that only knowledge that can be gained by the application of the scientific method is true or even relevant. So religious ideas, including belief in God, are only subjective myths – archaic beliefs that humankind will outgrow.

At the time I didn’t realise how totally crass such a point of view is, that is, that science is the only true knowledge.  So I could write such things as:

This is all there is

Think about it, there is only this / on this day in Mull. / There is only this – / autumn and the leaves falling, / the cosmic dance / at the base of the tree amidst the dust; / matter dancing / and laughing, laughing / and dancing. (translated)

At the base of the tree of life there is dust and blind dancing and laughter, probably mocking laughter. I was struggling to believe that there was something better than this. I was wanting to believe there was something more, so I could also write:

Stones on Orkney

Photo – Scott Murray

The stone

I grip the purity stone / from circumstance to circumstance, / wave-moving, tide-heaving, / amidst the small and great stones, / I grip it with a deathly grip. / And always the sea / shifting, / polishing it, making us / closer together, splitting us. / I can’t think / of a time when you weren’t there. / But also, at the same time, / I sometimes think you are just a dream. (translated)

There is something in us (or in some of us) – call it intuition or whatever – that tells us that scientism cannot be right. It was this something that I called ‘the purity stone’. I suppose one could also call it a nascent faith, but in my case how minutely nascent it was! Yet, I didn’t want to lose this feeling completely – that there was something transcendent. I studied religions, including Buddhism, so I could write this while on holiday in Skye in the 1980s:



I see a tree, / three feet of the trunk; / I see no more. / It must be high, / the trunk is huge – / o God, it must be high. // I see a ray / coming from the clouds / high up in the cliff / in the shadow of Sgurr nan Strì. / It must be intense; / my eyes couldn’t stand the light / if I should see the sun. // I saw a glimpse of your beauty, / Christ and Buddha, / an intense light / and a blossoming tree / although I saw but a tiny bit. (translated)

It’s instructive that I lumped Christ and Buddha together. I wouldn’t do that now. Now, I look on Buddhism more as a philosophy, no doubt with its useful points for directing human behaviour. But what it lacks for me is the idea of God as agent, something that Christianity has in abundance. And, incidentally, that’s also the great lack with scientism – that it doesn’t and cannot, with its reductionist methodology, take the free action even of the human agent into account. (I’m not talking about science in general but the extreme way of thinking sometimes termed ‘scientism.)

There is a poem in A’ Càradh an Rathaid which is a key text for me from the point of view of my spiritual biography, which is what I’m attempting to write. I’ve highlighted the most relevant part in bold. I wrote this when I was forty:

Looking Back


Forty and still blind / without an answer (and I never will have) / for the universal questions / – despite these being all there is, / although we often deceive ourselves / when we see a day like today / fresh, bright, and the sun gilding the earth, / grass, street and bay. I’d wish then there weren’t such questions, / as the question of death, truth, / or what Love, God, Christ means, /and a thousand other things undisclosed, / until my brain is a whirlpool – / but I return, and return again / in my shell of a boat. I thought once there was an answer, / that fruit would fall from the tree of knowledge / and that I’d eat the apple of wisdom, or that a voice would speak / with undeniable authority / from the pillar of fire. Nothing but silence. / Nothing but miracle after miracle / as anybody must confess / who considers Nature or one atom / of the world’s material, but all natural, reasonable, / to an extent. What I wanted was a trumpet, a fire, / which would prove there was something intelligent / beyond the veil. / The world / or God (whatever kind of being it is) / doesn’t work like that. Nothing but silence – / and a feeling that cannot be expressed / that there are things that want to speak, / and that do, and do not quite reach us / because they don’t speak our language. They will come one day, perhaps, pouring / out of some sky. / But before that happens perhaps we won’t care / not care at all. (translated)


I was asking God, many would say foolishly!, to prove to me in a miraculous way that there was a supranatural side to life. Little did I imagine that many years later the prayer would be answered, but not until I was in my late 50s. Yes, before then I had had hints that the materialist hypothesis wasn’t true, but not the kind of compelling evidence that I was later to have. In the next post I’ll be telling of these hints that I had which started me to doubt the truth of materialism.