Science or the Resurrection to Beauty

  • THE SPIRITUALITY OF A SCIENTIFIC ATTITUDE

Spirituality or a spiritual attitude basically consists of an interest in reality because of reality itself. It means that you do not reduce reality to a particular need or something that is useful (and, of course, what human beings need is not only defined by nature; we also mimetically learned to desire things beyond merely biological needs – nurture has its way as well in human life). It also means that the question of something’s or someone’s worth is not dependent on the question of usefulness. For instance, in a spiritual sense it makes no sense to ask about a newborn baby what he or she can be used for.

Nowadays we often seem brainwashed to approach reality from a utilitarian or even purely economic point of view. But this means that other aspects of reality and a more complete understanding of it remain in the dark. Therefore, St. John of the Cross writes:

St John of the Cross quote on spiritual understandingIf you purify your soul of attachment to and desire for things, you will understand them spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.

Indeed, if a student no longer approaches a poem merely because of a possible test about it and because of a desire to get good grades, the student can become interested in the poem because of the poem itself – and enjoy its beauty. Indeed, if a physicist does not approach nature from the question how it can be made of use for the survival of the human species (what physicists rarely do, anyway), the physicist may approach the truth of nature more fully – and enjoy its poetry.

carrot and stick methodTruth, in whatever sense, does not primarily have to be useful. Truth has to be true. Nowadays, all too often in science too, research is legitimized by utilitarian concerns. But this is not what drives scientists who are involved in a quest for truth. The following clip may illustrate this. It is about assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo who surprises Professor Andrei Linde with evidence that supports cosmic inflation theory. The discovery, made by Kuo and his colleagues at the BICEP2 experiment, represents the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time. These waves have been described as the “first tremors of the Big Bang.” Note that possible recognition by organizations like the Nobel Prize Committee is a consequence of what these scientists do, it is not a goal that serves as the source of their passion and vocation as “truth seekers” (they are not enslaved donkeys who need that kind of carrot to move). Click to watch:

 

  • SPIRITUALITY IN AMERICAN BEAUTY (SAM MENDES, 1999)

The core of the spiritual attitude is portrayed magnificently in American Beauty (the 1999 Sam Mendes picture that would eventually win 5 Academy Awards out of 8 nominations). Lester Burnham, the main character (played by Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey), “passes from death to life” as he awakens to a fuller awareness of reality. In the beginning of the film Lester is entangled in the preoccupations of a society that focuses on appearances. Clearly he has gradually learned to approach other people and things from the question whether or not they are useful in his pursuit of happiness. Instead of giving him a fulfilled life, this utilitarian approach has left him empty and alienated from himself and others. “In a way, I am dead already,” he says.

Playboy Bunny Carrot CartoonThroughout the film, Lester becomes obsessed with the young “American Beauty” Angela, a friend of his daughter Jane. He mainly fantasizes about her as the ultimate fulfillment of his sexual desires. Angela knows about this male gaze all too well, and she presents herself accordingly in order to gain some sort of (questionable) recognition. Maybe she could have become a playboy bunny in the mansion of the late Hugh Hefner (1926-2017), who knows?

Angela appears to be a sexually very experienced girl. The reality, however, is that she is still a virgin. Lester awakens to this reality when he is on the verge of having sex with her. “This is my first time,” she tells him. This statement literally brings Lester to his senses. After that, he no longer approaches Angela from his particular needs, but he opens up to the more complete reality of the vulnerable angel that she is. In short, Lester becomes interested in Angela because of Angela herself, and not because of the satisfaction of his desires. For the first time he really looks at her more closely. He learns to love the truth and beauty of who she is, and is no longer blinded by who she appears to be. He converts to Love.

Lester has rediscovered a truly spiritual perspective on life, a perspective that is exemplified throughout the film by the character of Ricky, the son of the family next door. Ricky is able to contemplate reality because of reality itself and discovers beauty in all things. He is even moved by a bag, dancing in the wind. As he watches the film he made of it together with Jane, he says:

Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed? It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing. And there’s this electricity in the air. You can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just… dancing with me… like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid… ever. Video is a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.

Click to watch this scene:

These words of Ricky are repeated at the end of the film by Lester, whose voice over is actually the voice over of a dead man, a murdered man. By quoting the words of Ricky, Lester shows that he has truly become alive to reality as a whole. The paradox, of course, is that in the beginning of the film Lester is physically alive but dead spiritually (remember him saying, “In a way, I am dead already.”). At the end of the film he is dead physically but resurrected to a spiritually fulfilled life.

Biblically speaking, Lester went from being like Cain to being like Abel (see Genesis 4). Apparently, Cain’s goal in life is the recognition of others. He desires the affirmation of a certain idea of himself, and thus does not love himself nor others (he is not interested in others because of themselves, but because of his desire for recognition). Abel, on the other hand, approaches others because of a love for those others themselves. He presents a gift to make someone happy, not to gain some sort of status or prestige. Of course, the possible consequence of love is recognition. Cain, in contrast, presents a gift to get attention. That’s why he becomes jealous of his brother Abel when he sees that Abel’s gift is noticed and his is not. If Cain’s goal would have been to love the other, he would have been happy to see the other happy, even if it wasn’t with his gift. Cain’s deeds, however, clearly are not inspired by love. That’s why he becomes mad and that’s why he is unable to feel gratitude for the attention he does receive when the other he presented his gift to asks him, “Why are you so mad?” Dead to himself, Cain is dead to others as well. Eventually, Abel is also physically murdered by him. Indeed, if you’re associated with others who become obstacles to a desirable social image, you run the risk of being banned, eliminated or killed. Concerned with socially acceptable images, people tend to be in a constant state of transiency (“eternal life does not reside” in their identity, as they constantly have to change it to what’s popular), which, like Cain, leads them to hate themselves and others. In the New Testament, the first letter of John summarizes all of these insights (1 John 3: 11-15):

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

In American Beauty, Lester becomes one of those victims of people who want to protect their self-image. However, instead of mimetically responding to the lack of love and the evil that he had to endure by seeking revenge, he focuses on the love he did receive. That’s why he does not stay mad. That’s why he is eventually fulfilled with gratitude. Filled with grace, he becomes merciful – a forgiving victim (see James Alison’s theology). These are his final words:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… You will someday.

Click to watch more scenes and their analysis:

 

CLICK HERE TO SEE SCAPEGOATING IN AMERICAN BEAUTY

Things I say… allegedly…

The secret to creativity (Albert Einstein)

Well, Einstein isn’t the only one with quotes :). Through several years of teaching, I’ve developed some expressions myself. Of course, it’s only my attempt to transmit the ideas of others. Anyway, hope to make you think. Enjoy!

about Jesus and Christianity

Jesus is often called a leader whose words and deeds are too otherworldly to be imitated. Indeed, our world produces one illusion after the other, and Jesus is too much of a realist to aspire to be a king of this world.

There are some whose ultimate goal it is to be loved, and they are willing to suffer in order to get to their paradise of happiness. There are others whose ultimate goal it is to love, and they are willing to bear suffering as a possible consequence of their refusal to sacrifice others. The last ones can be considered followers of Christ. The first ones can be considered masochists.

It’s better and healthier – maybe more ‘Christian’ even – to discard Christianity because of a lack of understanding than to accept an untruthful, unhealthy version of it.

quote on Jesus (Albert Einstein)

about truth and lies

Although you might have the opposite impression, as long as you have to take medication, the disease you’re suffering from is not cured. Any doctor who makes you think you are cured by taking drugs is selling pharmaceutical lies. In the case of chronic, still incurable diseases, scientific progress is needed to prevent the pharmaceutical industry of becoming an end in itself. The economics of the pharmaceutical industry, and the medications it produces, should serve the ultimate goal of medicine: cure people, which means making them independent of medications.

One aspect of truth is like a real gift. It’s not immediately necessary are necessarily useful, but it opens unexpected possibilities. The truth has the potential to set you free because you don’t need it.

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).

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift (Albert Einstein)

One aspect of truth is like love. It can hurt, for it does not flee when aspects of reality strike that you would rather do away with.

Truth does not have to be useful. It has to be true.

Some people are primarily interested in what they need. Others are primarily interested in gaining knowledge and finding truth.

There are only two ways to live (Albert Einstein)

about education

Education begins where one’s primary interests and certainties end. It’s a call to adventure.

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education (Albert Einstein)

Some people think they know what’s true by pointing out what’s false. It’s the illusion of a man who dares not criticize and educate himself, afraid he’ll find out that he’s not a god.

The only sure way to avoid making mistakes... (Albert Einstein)

about scientism

Some give the impression that modern science will eventually answer all questions, thereby characterizing as irrelevant those questions science cannot answer. Well, that’s easy. If I can marginalize all questions that I cannot answer (by calling them “irrelevant”), I’ll be able to solve “all” questions immediately.

The important thing is not to stop questioning (Albert Einstein)

Strict scientism makes perfect sense, right? In the end, it considers “Butterflies evolve from caterpillars” a meaningful statement, while it considers “Butterflies are beautiful” meaningless. Should make perfect sense, but somewhere down the road, something apparently went wrong, nonetheless…

about desire and needs

If you desire to be everywhere, you end up being nowhere.

“I don’t need God!”, the atheist said, “I’m perfectly happy without Him!” – “I don’t need a house with electricity!”, the caveman cried, “I’m perfectly happy in my cave!”

[=> Okay, this one’s quite lame :); and of course, to love someone doesn’t mean that a desire for happiness drives you – love is ultimately concerned with the well-being of others, and we’re all unhappy if our beloved others are harmed; still, most of us won’t suppress love because of the possible sadness it provokes – meaning our desire to feel good and happy is less important than our desire for the well-being of the beloved others…].

about love (and utilitarianism)

If you love others, you’ll get hurt when you lose them, and feel sad when they suffer. Still, you will not stop loving them. Not because you enjoy sadness or suffering, but because you are willing to accept that your own happiness can only be a consequence of the happiness of others, and never an end in itself (contrary to utilitarianism).

I never said half the crap people said I did (Albert Einstein)

I don’t need God!!

“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

I don't need youLast 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:

It is a strange desire... (Francis Bacon)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.

Ian Hutchinson on ScientismAnother 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.

Science is but an image of the truth (Francis Bacon)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.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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”).

G.K. ChestertonIn 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.

gun lobbyFalse 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.

In short,

  • 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:

Jesus Lord of Sabbath (grainfield)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.”