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Stern riposte to scientific atheism

22 November 2013

Laurence Sterne uses humour to expose the flaws of determinism, says Nicholas Turner


Smiling argument: Laurence Sterne, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1760

Smiling argument: Laurence Sterne, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1760

ONE of the problems with scientific atheists (and why they seem so convincing) is that they take themselves for God, and describe the world as though they were outside, looking on. It was the Revd Laurence Sterne who taught me this most vividly.

The 300th anniversary of his birth falls on Sunday, in anticipation of which I have returned to his admired masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Praised as a picaresque work of satire, it should be better appreciated as one of the great ripostes to atheism. We should celebrate it, and its author (News, 18 October).

Sterne was born in Ireland, and his was an itinerant and uncertain childhood, until he found stability at school in Yorkshire; from where he went to Cambridge, and then back to Yorkshire as a clergyman. He added minor skirmishes in local politics and satire to a conscientious life as a rural parson.

His sermons no longer make good reading, although two collections sold well during his lifetime. They are, however, intensely humane: this still does not make them a good read, but there are glimpses of his genius and tolerance.

Nothing, however, prepared people for the appearance in 1759 of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. It is a remarkable novel, incredibly modern in style - in its episodic narrative and constant digressions, the moving back and forth in time, and, above all, the use of self-reference, whereby author and reader move in and out of the story.

IN THE mid-18th century, the English-Scottish Enlightenment was at its height: a score of philosophers, of whom David Hume is the best known, were arguing convincingly for science and determinism, and for the illusory nature of both God and free will. For a while, it almost seemed that there was no one of stature to oppose them. This is the milieu in which Sterne devised his riposte.

The starting premise of the novel is exactly that of determinism itself - that if one can give a complete description of all the initial conditions, one can, using the laws of nature, predict any future circumstance. This explains why, as is so often remarked, it takes the narrator, Tristram, four volumes just to get to the moment of his own birth. As his father laments: "My Tristram's misfortunes began nine months before ever he came into the world."

Every event, in other words, can be pre-determined, if one only has enough information, and no choice or intervention by God or man can change that.

This is Sterne's genius, that he took the claims of determinism at face value, and then set about devising a set of impossible questions that no determinist could possibly answer. He does this by subverting the form of the novel, introducing a host of self-referential tricks, from the sudden "Shut the door" in chapter four, to the completely black page after the death of Parson Yorick, or the absurd squiggle to illustrate the mark made by Uncle Toby's stick, to the blank space allowing "space" for the reader's imagination, and the extravagant punctuation.

All these are now commonplace in avant-garde fiction, but in Tristram Shandy they were strikingly original. Sterne's purpose was not amusement, but a cheerful challenge to the serious scientists and philosophers. Determinism absolutely requires the observer to be outside what is observed: both subject and object of this novel are absolutely inside the book.

WHAT difference did it make that Sterne was a Church of England parson? It was the incarnation that revealed the multi-layered unity of life here on earth. If God, who is entirely other, could be fully present here and now, then we, too, are both in the world and apart from it - not one or the other, but both.

When the determinists described the world as if they, like God, were outside it, then they were wrong. Their description might be neat, coherent, and powerful, but it can never be complete, and so cannot, in the end, be true.

The sheer muddle of it all reveals the wonderful complexity. Writing it like this makes it all appear dull and unconvincing. This is exactly what Sterne did not do. The riotous confusion of his novel and its endless humour on all sorts of different levels is what carries conviction: the world is more muddled and immune to logical description than ever we imagined. And no novel has been as inventively muddled as Tristram Shandy.

In his failed marriage, haphazard care of his daughter, and his earnest flirtations, Tristram is no saint, but he is a most ingenious philosopher. The description of his own baptism and the mistake over his name, in the midst of a chaotic household and as his young life is hanging in the balance, is a wonderful description of contingency in a fully determined world - the perfect scientific description. Yet, of course, it is nothing of the sort, as we instantly recognise, even if we cannot say why.

Best of all, Sterne recognised the smile as the human expression most impossible to describe in scientific terms. As he said in his preface: "Every time a man smiles, but much more so when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life."

The Revd Nicholas Turner is the Rector of Broughton, Marton, and Thornton, in Bradford diocese.

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