…Percy explains a theory of semiotics, the study of how humans communicate with signs and symbols. Semiotics shows that humans are the only creatures we know of that communicate ideas through symbols. Chimpanzees and other higher mammals can communicate to get responses to stimuli. That’s about as far as they can go. Gee, that’s strange since we evolved from naturalistic, purposeless and blind forces. The modern trousered-ape, upon encountering this conundrum, simply shrugs his shoulders and goes back to eating his sandwich. But some of us raise an eye-brow, maybe two. Some of us begin to breath a little more easily knowing that the men in the white coats appear to be incapable of figuring this one out. (Don’t worry. Just give them 500 years or so and they will eventually set us straight.)
Another idea Percy weaves together is that modern man can be described as either immanent or transcendent. The immanent modern is the consumer. He lives to get all the gusto he can every day while his inner life is hidden away like some back-alley abortion. The transcendent man today is the scientist (or scientist wannabe, you know who you are) and the artist. Both the scientist and the artist can achieve a kind of transcendent view of life through their disciplines. Comically, however, they have difficulty re-entering the mundane world of the present without extreme difficulty. Walker entertains with page after page of examples of aloof scientists and obsessive artists who crash and burn upon re-entry to ordinary life. One of the troubles with being a god, you see, is that not many recognize your greatness.
Tongue in cheek, Percy says that science has relegated all forms of religion to the dustbin of history. More’s the pity. Science has improved our lives but ironically distanced us from anything that can seem to give us meaning, purpose, value, lasting joy, or ultimate explanatory power. The book concludes with a narrative about a space odyssey in which two worlds are contrasted. The first is the brave new world of eugenics and free-love to which we are headed. The second is a free world that includes religion and normal familial life, along with people not always agreeing. Both worlds involve limiting some kinds of freedom and allowing other kinds. Which future would you choose?