“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”
Freeman John Dyson (born 1923).
1. THE INTRO
Last week, one of my pupils said something what countless others already said before him, and what countless others will repeat after him – it’s a cultural thing foremost, in our so-called secularized Belgian society:
“I don’t need any theological speculation. I’m an atheist. I don’t need God! I don’t need to go any further than psychology and the social sciences…”
In the same week, on Monday (April 15th, 2013), I read an article in the newspaper about a young professor who had tampered with data and search results (read the article here, in Dutch; for more information in English click here). He allegedly committed large-scale fraud, investigating the causes of epilepsy.
One might ask what one observation has to do with the other. Well, for one, it’s clear that the young scientist was especially interested in the things he needed to promote his career. His desire for recognition and for prestige became more important than science itself. He used scientific research as a means to another end, to satisfy his pride. In the end, he accomplished exactly what he was trying to avoid. Instead of promoting his career and his own future in academia, he ruined it. Jesus points to the tragic nature of attempts like these:
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24a-25).
But there’s more. According to Christian tradition, whenever we are guided by pride we not only tend to ruin ourselves. We also tend to ruin our surroundings. Indeed, the young ambitious scientist violated the scientific truth in order to protect his self-image, next to endangering the career of his co-workers. Once again, the Christian tradition is spot-on: the person who cannot love himself, and seeks comfort in the creation of an admirable image, cannot truly love others, for he is primarily interested in others insofar as they are useful for developing and recognizing that image. Our desire for mutual, social recognition – understood as the ultimate goal of our efforts, which is vanity - often gets in the way of our capacity to perceive what is actually happening. This truth is retold in a magnificent way by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Precisely because we very often approach reality from the perspective of its eventual usefulness, and from the question whether we need it or not, we remain blind for a fuller understanding of reality. This one’s for my pupils:
THE TRUTH DOES NOT PRIMARILY HAVE TO BE USEFUL
(ALTHOUGH IT CAN BE), THE TRUTH HAS TO BE TRUE!
For instance, if we only focus on the aspects of another person that seem useful to us, we might miss out on other aspects that can actually turn out to be more fundamental than the ones we’re focusing on. More generally, we might get a better picture of reality if we not only focus on purely scientific questions and explanations, but also deal with more philosophical issues and questions.
Rationality should not be restricted to scientific rationality. Actually, we never do this on a day-to-day basis. For instance, scientific rationality might explain why we become jealous sometimes, but we need the more philosophical rationality of ethics to discuss whether or not and to what degree jealousy is a good thing.
Another example: scientific rationality might explain how the universe came into being, but we need philosophical rationality to deal with the question whether or not there is an ultimate purpose of “all that is”, whether or not there will be some “perfection” of the universe. Scientifically speaking, there is none, but it’s logically very debatable that the scientific answer is the only meaningful or true answer to this question. The belief that only scientific claims are true or meaningful is known as scientism, which is problematic. From The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.”
Again, in order to understand reality more fully – in its ethical, aesthetic, and mysterious (non-manipulable) aspects -, we might have to go beyond merely scientific concerns, and also go beyond our immediate “needs”. We might even have to pose theological questions. Moreover, it’s not because we can scientifically explain why we pose certain questions that these questions themselves can be answered by science. To “understand” reality is to contemplate it in all its aspects.
It is no coincidence that, from a Christian point of view, there are prayers like the one ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, containing the words:
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand…”
Although some consider it to be a sign of freedom to be able to approach reality from the perspective of their supposedly very own needs, desires and interests, this is actually a sign of enslavement…
FOR THE THINGS YOU NEED OR LEARNED TO NEED
ARE THINGS YOU ARE DEPENDENT UPON
(OTHERWISE YOU WOULDN’T NEED THEM)
2. THE MIDDLE
“Need” is a complicated affair when it comes to humans.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) became famous for mapping our needs in a veritable Hierarchy of Needs - a five-stage model, originally. Once physiological and basic survival needs are met, other needs come to the fore. It is interesting to notice that Maslow characterizes the stages we normally associate with “human freedom” as “needs”. Although we might have the impression that we are free to choose whom we want to belong to, we didn’t choose the need to belong to a group or a person. The same goes for the two highest stages of human needs. We can seemingly choose the things that bring us self-esteem, status or prestige, but we can’t escape the desire for these matters. The biggest paradox, of course, is Maslow’s characterization of self-actualization as a need: we are bound to be free. In other words, reminiscing the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and other existentialist philosophers, we face the command to develop ourselves.
Several questions arise here, namely, how do we know who we are, who we want to be, how to gain prestige and self-esteem? René Girard’s answer is quite simple: we imitate others in modeling our desires, ambitions, and sense of self. More specifically those others we’ve (mimetically, i.e. imitatively) learned to appreciate and whose appreciation we’ve (again, mimetically) learned to desire.
As Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) pointed out time and again, we tend to approach reality as a whole and fellow human beings in particular from the perspective of our needs. We’re often interested in other people basically because they are experienced as ”useful” one way or the other (as friends, as suppliers of security and/or happiness, as financial support, etc.). In fact, we tend to reduce others to their “usefulness”, and to apply this as a criterion to decide whether or not someone or something is valuable. Utilitarian ethics are actually an attempt to found morality on the tendency to focus on our needs. For instance, we should help the poor, not necessarily because we love them, but because not helping them could ultimately cause problems to ourselves. We “need” to help them because we – or the majority of human beings - benefit from it. On a collective level, helping the poor could be one of the roads to a more secure and safer world. On an individual level it could perhaps be a way to gain some status or prestige as “hero”.
Levinas fundamentally criticizes the utilitarian approach to reality. The Other, our fellow human being, our “neighbor”, transcends our needs and desires. If we reduce the Other to the question how he can be useful to us, we will never get to “know” anything about the Other. Moreover, before we can reduce the Other to his usefulness, the Other is simply there, and he might in no way answer to the demands of our actual needs and desires. On the contrary, the Other might reveal himself as a burden or even an enemy to our interests.
The same applies to reality as a whole. It is even said that “reality hits us” whenever we are confronted with aspects of it that we don’t need at all! Reality often reveals itself in shapes we failed to foresee or manipulate according to our needs.
The search for truth therefore begins with the question whether or not we can free ourselves partially from our immediate needs, and from the tendency to control our environment. Are we able to honestly face reality in all its fearful as well as promising possibilities? This is especially challenging in encountering the reality of other persons. For only if we become relatively free from our own needs, anxieties, interests, and prejudices, can we allow the other to freely approach us as “Other” – meaning that we don’t mold him according to the contours of our self-image and our desire for recognition.
3. THE OUTRO
It’s important to notice that, although Christianity reveals the pitfalls of our desire for recognition, it is not about sacrificing this desire. It’s about giving it the right place. I often explain this to my pupils by describing two basic types of students:
- Student A is basically motivated by the desire to get good grades, because he believes these are his “ticket to paradise” (i.e. recognition by his parents and teachers, and all kinds of “rewards”). In other words, student A is only interested in his courses insofar as he can use them to gain an admirable self-image – which is his ultimate goal. He is guided by his pride. He has lost the capacity to enjoy many of the things he is doing, and that’s why he generally needs to be compensated for what he’s done. Kneeling to the idol of an admirable self-image, student A is no longer capable of loving himself, let alone love others (it’s the kind of student that will pay his teachers some respect because he expects some reward, but who will also tend to get angry if the reward is not granted - which means that his self-image is stained). He finds solace in the recognition for his good grades. However, while focusing on “getting to paradise” (or, in other words, while focusing on the desire to “save his life” and “get into heaven”), he’ll find himself less and less able to study properly, and his grades will go down (he’ll “lose his life” and “get into hell”).
In the words of the great and late Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the situation of student A can be characterized as follows:
“The moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education. It is no longer a world in which the souls of all are equal before heaven, but a world in which the mind of each is bent on achieving unequal advantage over the other. There begins to be a mere vanity in being educated whether it be self-educated or merely state-educated. Education ought to be a searchlight given to a man to explore everything, but very specially the things most distant from himself. Education tends to be a spotlight; which is centered entirely on himself. Some improvement may be made by turning equally vivid and perhaps vulgar spotlights upon a large number of other people as well. But the only final cure is to turn off the limelight and let him realize the stars.”
- Student B is basically motivated by the desire to know and understand his courses. As a consequence, he’ll often get good grades (“get into heaven”), but this never was his primary goal. Precisely because he considers his courses as ends in themselves, he’ll eventually get and enjoy recognition. Of course, being proud of an achievement is not a crime. It becomes malicious, though, when it is the goal and not the consequence of one’s actions.
Whenever Jesus talks about heaven or hell in the Gospels, he presents them as possible consequences of one’s actions and not as goals. He even says that we shouldn’t do good and help our neighbor in order to gain some kind of heavenly reward and to avoid hell, but that we should help our neighbor because of our neighbor (as end in himself). Then we’ll get “heaven” as a quite unexpected reward, as a logical consequence. The same reasoning applies to his approach of reality as a whole.
False prophets or false messiahs (in religion, politics, health care, etc.) are people who try to tell us what we need to get to paradise (a nice house, a good career, a healthy body, a safe but entertaining life etc.), and also scare us with the evil dangers that could send us to hell. They are doctors who constantly produce the disease they supposedly liberate us from. But, of course, they never really liberate us, for they are dependent on the disease to be able to manifest themselves as “liberators” or “messiahs”. They produce one self-fulfilling prophecy after the other. For instance, the more a gun lobby convinces us that we should protect ourselves with weapons to keep safe in an “evil, ugly world”, the more people will get killed because of gun fire, the more we will feel unsafe, the more the gun lobby will be able to convince us of “the unsafe world”, the more we buy guns, etc.
Jesus, on the other hand, points out that “Satan cannot cast out Satan”. We cannot free ourselves and the world if the means we use to make this world a better place actually (and tragically) continue the diseases we try to cure the world from. Contrary to all kinds of false prophets, he advises us – as a fundamental attitude towards life – “not to be afraid” and “not to worry” too much.
I guess he is right, also in the case of the two types of students.
- Student A becomes a SLAVE of an ambition he has learned to aspire for himself. The system of ”getting good grades” is more important to him than anything else in class. Everything, including himself, is subjected to this GOAL. Student A might become a scientific investigator who uses scientific research to promote his career and thereby satisfy his pride.
- Student B remains FREE. The system of “getting good grades” is not important in itself. It is a means to check whether or not the studied courses are sufficiently understood. Student B might become a scientific investigator who really gets a better scientific understanding of reality, and therefore gets his academic career going as a logical CONSEQUENCE.
Student B imitates Jesus’ approach to all kinds of laws and regulations (more specifically the Mosaic Law in the case of Jesus). Jesus says that he didn’t come to abolish the Law just like that, but that he came to fulfill it, meaning that rules should always be relative to the end they help to accomplish. A system of rules and laws should never be an end in itself. It should be considered a means to another end. What counts for Jesus is love for one’s neighbor, and if rules become obstacles in accomplishing this goal, they should be adapted or even suspended.
Student B uses the grade system to get more information on his knowledge of the courses he’s presented with, because he tries to respect what the courses are saying (without, however, automatically agreeing with their statements). This indeed is analogous to Jesus’ approach of the Mosaic Law. Jesus tries to create mutual respect between fellow human beings, thereby constantly evaluating if regulations allow others to live fully. Jesus criticizes any use of the Mosaic Law that justifies the sacrifice of others to satisfy one’s (or a group’s) pride or self-image.
Mark 2:23-27 puts it this way – and I’ll leave it at that:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”