Improbable leaps of faith

June 21, 2005

On an autumn afternoon in 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was reading a history of China when he felt suddenly ill. He took opium to alleviate his pain and fell into a deep sleep. As he slept he dreamed of a palace built by the emperor Kublai Khan; in the dream he composed a 300-line poem about the palace, which after he awoke he found he could recall perfectly.

He began to write, but had only transcribed 50 lines when he was interrupted by a visitor. After his unwelcome guest departed, Coleridge found he could recall nothing of the rest of the poem.

Forty years later, the first Western version of a certain 14th century Persian history appeared in Paris. It contained the following sentence: “East of Shang-tu, Kublai Khan built a palace according to a plan he had seen in a dream and retained in his memory.”

In the 13th century an emperor of China dreams of a palace and commands that it be built; 500 years later, an English poet, who could not have known that the construction of the palace was a consequence of the emperor’s dream, has another dream in which he constructs a poem about the palace itself.

How are we to explain this? The materialist – that is, the person who asserts the universe is ultimately nothing but particles in fields of force, which obey physical laws that are both ironclad and mindless – must invoke the concept of “coincidence,” or, more elaborately, the existence of a text unknown to Western scholars of China, to which Coleridge had access, and which inspired him to create a fearful symmetry between the emperor’s dream and his own lyrical fragment.

Those of more tolerant metaphysical inclinations can consider other possibilities. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges speculates that perhaps some supernatural architect caused the emperor to dream a vision of a palace, and then, five centuries later, the poet to dream a poem commemorating the building of that vision.

“If this plan does not fail,” Borges suggests, “someone, on a night centuries removed from us, will dream the same dream, and not suspect that others have dreamed it, and he will give it a form of marble or of music. Perhaps this series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one will be the key.”

Materialists cling to a faith that requires them to reject even the possibility of such explanations. And it is a matter of faith, as these unusually candid and intellectually honest words from the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin make clear: “It is not that the methods of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation for the world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and set of concepts that produce material causes, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.”

For my part, I find the claim that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or Mozart’s Requiem, or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, are nothing but the inevitable products of the same physical laws that cause rocks to roll downhill to be completely incredible.

That is, I simply cannot imagine undertaking successfully the leap of faith people like Lewontin have taken. Even the most outlandish religious doctrines, or for that matter Borges’ extravagant explanation for the common dreams of an emperor and a poet, seem to me less improbable.

In any case, the substance of Coleridge’s dream survives in the form of some of the most astonishing lines of poetry in the English language. Of Kublai Khan’s palace, not a single stone remains.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at paul.campos@colorado.edu.

I actually had professor Campos for a semester of property law at the University of Colorado. I’m proud to say that he was one of the strongest influences in my decision to leave law school. Not because he was a poor teacher. For property law, perhaps he was less than great, but we learned about the Clinton/Lewinsky affair and the absurdity of the American legal system. It was for the latter that I fondly remember Mr. Campos. His disdain for the great sham lifted the veil from my eyes and allowed me to get out before it was too late.

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