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Foolishness to the Greeks – 2

November 30, 2019 - Saturday 4:11 AM by E.R. Nartatez

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Last week I wrote about the conflicted belief of a student named Trinity (not her real name). She says she still believes in God, but not as a claim to knowledge. Why? Because she can’t back up her belief with a “concrete or scientific basis”. Her belief then is more of a gut feel and a desire. 

Trinity—and many young minds today—has been taken in by an extremely popular but fallacious notion that it’s only science that can deliver true knowledge. It’s thought that if something can’t be verified on scientific grounds, then it can’t be known and can never be knowledge. Ergo, it’s either wishful thinking or mere illusion, or simply not an issue worth taking seriously. This is the dominant narrative peddled by modernist intellectuals today, and uncritically embraced by those applauding the progress of aggressive secularism (an ideology based on a naturalistic worldview) at the expense of traditional religion. 

But there’s something terribly skewed about this modernist narrative. 

I recently read ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi. Paul lived a short but fascinating and inspiring life. Born Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi, April 1, 1977, an Indian-American, his intellectual giftedness was evident in his stellar academic accomplishments. 

Graduated valedictorian in high school. At Stanford University he earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in English Literature, and a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology. In Cambridge (Darwin College) he earned a Master of Arts in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine. Then graduated cum laude (2007) at Yale School of Medicine (where he met Lucy Goddard, later Mrs. Kalanithi) and won the Dr. Louis H. Nahum Prize for his work on Tourette’s syndrome. Paul was then received into the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society.

He then went back to Stanford for his residency training in neurosurgery and for a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience at Stanford’s School of Medicine.

He grew up in a Christian home but then wandered away from the Faith in his teens and twenties. Paul explains, “Although I had been raised in a devout Christian family… I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes. I spent a good chunk of my twenties trying to build a frame for such an endeavor.”

Receiving solid training in the sciences, Paul’s young mind was enthralled by its power to give clear, empirically verifiable knowledge. Unlike faith. He writes, “During my sojourn in ironclad atheism, the primary arsenal leveled against Christianity had been its failure on empirical grounds. Surely enlightened reason offered a more co­herent cosmos. Surely Occam’s razor cut the faithful free from blind faith. There is no proof of God; therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God.”

However, while in the process of constructing a formidable scientific edifice as his intellectual life-project, he was struck by two logical and existential realizations that severely shook its foundations.

First, Paul took seriously the fact that scientific knowledge is always provisional. He wrote “scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity.”

The knowledge we gain through science can never be 100 percent certain; there’s always a tentativeness that remains. The history of science shows that scientific knowledge is never set in stone, never final, complete, or absolute; it’s always open for adjustments, improvement, revisions, or even total overhaul (Thomas Kuhn talked about ‘scientific revolutions’ when a reigning scientific paradigm is either replaced in part or in whole by a new, incompatible paradigm; another example is when quantum mechanics severely qualified classical Newtonian physics, i.e., it was discovered that what governs the macro world of classical physics does not necessarily govern the micro quantum world).

Being intellectually perceptive and honest, Paul saw through the logic of this; his ‘scientific’ reasons for rejecting faith in God can never be a settled matter. Science is always engaged in ongoing investigations, which will either confirm or disconfirm today’s knowledge. 

The second problem Paul discerned was the inability and inadequacy of science to deal with those aspects that make human life uniquely human. Following the logic, Paul slowly realized that “to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning — to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.” 

To force all reality into the scientific mold would lead to what C. S. Lewis called, ‘The Abolition of Man’. It will remove the ‘human’ out of humanity, dehumanize the human person as a mere biological machine, reducing us to meat computers. 

Logically, “if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge.”

When studying matter and energy, science is the gold standard. But it’s “inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable.” Science “may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” Such phenomena can only be entered into by deep and intimate personal relationships and experience, not by the cold metrics of science.

Many don’t realize the fact that science itself is not established by science. For science to even begin, certain pre-scientific axioms are necessary: 1) we have to trust that our senses give us a true (not perfect or complete) information about the world, 2) we have to put confidence in our cognitive capacity to truthfully (not perfectly or completely) comprehend the data we’re getting from our senses, and 3) we have to take for granted that our use of abstract tools of logic and inference reasoning is indeed alethic or truth-directed (an assumption that runs contrary to the Darwinian conception that survival—not the search for truth—is the very raison d'être in the struggle for life and why humans evolved minds).

These are not established by science; in fact, science is completely dependent on them, i.e., must assume them to even begin science. And any attempt to prove them by science commits the fallacy of a vicious circularity.

Sir Peter Medawar (Nobel Prize winner in Physiology/Medicine) admitted the limits of science in its failure to address the most fundamental questions of life, e.g., “How did everything begin?” “What are we all here for?” “What is the point of living?” 

Such questions are the forte of faith, not science. As Francis Collins (physician-geneticist) points out, faith asks “a different set of questions… (They’re more) in the philosophical realm. Why are we all here? Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God?” 

These are not properly scientific questions, rather they’re metaphysical (covering philosophical and theological disciplines). Science can indeed be useful in providing data that may contribute to the search for better, more coherent metaphysical explanations. But the explanations will not be confined to the rigid, empirical constraints of hard science.

To be continued.

Short film on Paul Kalanithi https://youtu.be/1Rg0TJPX_eM