Science

How To Get Rid Of Faith


“What those ancient Greeks (who also had some understanding of philosophy) regarded as a task for a whole lifetime, seeing that dexterity in doubting is not acquired in a few days or weeks, what the veteran combatant attained when he had preserved the equilibrium of doubt through all the pitfalls he encountered, who intrepidly denied the certainty of sense-perception and the certainty of the processes of thought, incorrigibly defied the apprehensions of self-love and the insinuations of sympathy–that is where everybody begins in our time.

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be. . .going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days of weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . .except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

The present writer is nothing of a philosopher, he has not understood the System, does not know whether it actually exists, whether it is completed; already he has enough for his weak head in the thought of what a prodigious head everybody in our day must have, since everybody has such a prodigious thought. Even though one were capable of converting the whole content of faith into the form of a concept, it does not follow that one has adequately conceived faith and understands how one got into it, or how it got into one.”

– Soren Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio), excerpt from the Preface of Fear And Trembling.
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This sarcastic little preface starts one of the key works of existentialism, a book that champions faith. It turns out that Kierkegaard is, contrary to his claims, capable of presenting very dense philosophical concepts. His goal in this preface seems to be to validate self-doubt in a culture of self-presumption and faith in a culture that assumes it can discover all that there is to know. Doubt and faith exist as check and balance that should last a lifetime, keeping us honest about the nature of the things we believe and helping us to more deeply trust what we have recognized as reliable truth.

The interesting point here is that “our day” for Kierkegaard was the early 1840’s. It is sometimes hard to remember that the troubled ideas of a modern age brimming with scientific discovery are not new. Just because we are only recently making rampant “discoveries for discovery’s sake” does not mean we are the first or second or fifth generation to assume we can get somewhere based on discoveries alone. Humanity has eternally presumed and desired a mysterious completion of (or in) discovery rather than faith in anything. But isn’t that a form of faith in scientific discovery?

Kierkegaard is humble enough to assume that he will never be able to Systematize existence. Just as he calls our implicit faith in sensory-perception and process-of-thought into question, he questions whether faith itself, even if we claim to understand what it entails, can be pulled out and set aside from ration.

When I read this piece I immediately think about how ready we are to hurl a slew of random statistics and scientific studies at problematic points to prove our emotionally-based opinions. There are studies and statistics available to validate nearly every opposing viewpoint available to choose from today; so much so that, though we haven’t created self-presumption and human omnipotence, our generation has nearly perfected the use of them.

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Related reads

The Tragedy Of Having A Baby

What Christians Can Learn From Athiests

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

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Author Quotes: Science, Religion, and Vonnegut’s Disrespect


PROTEIN
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“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

“Who was?” I asked.

“Dr. Hoenikker – the old man.”

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t show up.”

“So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

“Oh, we got one. Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said. She didn’t see anything funny in that. She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her. She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.

“He said, the trouble with the world was …”
She had to stop and think.

“The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly,

“that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”
“He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned.

“Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

“I missed that,” I murmured.

“I saw that,” said Sandra.

“About two days ago.”

“That’s right,” said the bartender.

“What is the secret of life?” I asked.

“I forget,” said Sandra.

“Protein,” the bartender declared.

“They found out something about protein.”

“Yeah,” said Sandra,

“that’s it.”

 

– Kurt Vonnegut, chapter 11 of Cat’s Cradle, titled “Protein.”

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I recently reviewed Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on the blog, and everyone shouted loudly that I must read Cat’s Cradle, which I am happily diverting from my 55 List to indulge. As I mentioned before, Vonnegut gets us comfortable, speaks to us disarmingly and then makes a silly character of all of our presumptions and standards. He says, “look, I can show you the epitome of our social normalcy, and I can damn everything about these religions and this science and this culture. It’s all rotten.”

That’s what I like about this tiny chapter. It makes a perfectly poignant, stand-alone social commentary on how easily we can assume that science can replace religion, which can replace engagement. Apparently if we understand the “how”, we need not understand the “why”.

Religion is, by definition, systematization and lifestyle adherence to a standardized philosophy. It often gives us answers which have been pre-reasoned for us. We are asked to simply concede their apparent truth. Science often attempts to walk a similar line, replacing the “here’s why” with a “here’s how.” Just because something is presented to us systematically does not invalidate it, but there is always paradox and apparent holes.

Vonnegut’s constant hostility toward these forms seems to come almost solely from his perspective on their complete lack of moral sustenance. Surviving WWII, his confidence in the integrity of most social institutions was utterly destroyed. He is able to look at Christianity and democracy and science through the lenses of Hiroshima and genocide, and his arguments are pretty convincing. Humanity is implicit in evil, Vonnegut is a grinning rebel against responsible parties, and his claim is that your religion and your scientific discoveries are worthless without moral bearings to reel them in.

Do you object?

 

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Further reading

What Christians Can Learn From An Atheist

Masanobu Fukuoka And The Philosophy Behind The Science

Wendell Berry On Paths V. Roads

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Author Quotes: Masanobu Fukuoka and The Philosophy Behind The Science


“Before researchers become researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. . .

Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts tests that conform neither with natural law nor with practical experiences. The results are arranged for the convenience of research, not according to the needs of the farmer. To think that these conclusions can be put to use with invariable success in the farmer’s field is a big mistake.
Recently Professor Tsuno of Ehime University wrote a lengthy book on the relationship of plant metabolism to rice harvests. This professor often comes to my field, digs down a few feet to check the soil, brings students along to measure the angle of sunlight and shade and whatnot, and takes plant specimens back to the lab for analysis. I often ask him, ‘When you come back, are you going to try non-cultivation direct seeding?’ He laughingly answers, ‘No, I’ll leave the application to you. I’m going to stick to research!’
So that is how it is. You study the function of the plant’s metabolism and its ability to absorb nutrients from the soil, write a book, and get a doctorate in agricultural science. But do not ask if your theory of assimilation is going to be relevant to the yield.”

– Masanobu Fukuoka, from the essay “Limits of the Scientific Method” in “The One-Straw Revolution.” Translated from the original Japanese.
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I have spoken briefly about Fukuoka here before, but the man really deserves a greater deal of credit for the things he revealed in his lifetime. A trained scientist and researcher himself, his contributions came not in any scientific field but through over half a century of rehabilitating fields and orchards that had been utterly sapped.

Fukuoka realized, simply, that when we live outside of the order and systems of nature, which replenishes its own resources, we are building a false reality. Based on this premise, he quit his scientific research and went to discern how to cultivate the land while altering nature as little as possible. He learned to do less alteration than any other form of farming while producing comparable or increased harvests. The only requirement was to spend a few years getting to know the land, weather, and the nature of the plants being propagated.

I usually read his work with my mouth hanging open. The man worked hard in his fields and orchards for around 70 years, devoting his old age to researching solutions to fight desertification. In his lifetime he perfected completely natural farming of all kinds of grains, vegetables, and citrus. Yet somehow, his work goes unnoticed by those who don’t seek it out.