A Fascinating Futility

I love this article, from the Seattle PI, in July 1940, on some “unusual” behavior on the just-completed Tacoma Narrows bridge — the same bridge which collapsed spectacularly 4 months later. I especially love this part:

Although the bridge is said to be utterly safe from an engineering standpoint, vertical movements along the center suspension span are proving “psychologically disturbing” to some users, the engineers admitted.

Of course the engineers and scientists were wrong — catastrophically wrong — and assurances based on the absolute certainty of their science and dismissal of terrified drivers as psychologically disturbed proved wildly and humorously foolish in retrospect.

Some things, it seems, never change: scientists never have doubts — and those who doubt their infallible wisdom must be psychologically disturbed.

In a recent post, I took to task an astronomer who, while presenting a most interesting but somewhat far-fetched explanation of the origin of the universe, also took that opportunity to ridicule those foolish enough to believe in the possibility of a divine creation. In the comments, a skeptic by the name of Mark took me to task for needing to rely on “religious stories” to make myself feel better. A short but interesting interchange took place thereafter, including this, his most recent comment:

“I have instead been transformed by a personal encounter and relationship with a Being far vaster than our paltry imagination and feeble intellects can begin to grasp.”

There \'s no evidence for this encounter at all.

Also, to consider the imagination paltry is to have little understanding of how YOUR imagined “relationship”, unproven as it is, is different from a perceived real. This difference, if not fully considered, may well be so imperceptible to the believer, that a psychologist may consider this experience a form of psychosis.

To say that my one who does not believe as you do has a heart filled with emptiness and futility merely offers the reader your experience of what it is like for you to live a life without these. You should have written “my human heart”, not “the human heart.” I think you have little understanding of individuals who are curious, who love, who contribute, without the need for the great lost and found department.

Your understanding of transcendent apart from your “spiritual and supernatural” is an uneducated one apart from your own experience as indicated in your declaration that this is a “futile feeling” and I think you need to spend time with real scientists who gaze at wondrous things every day.

I had planned to respond with another comment, but as my thoughts evolved, decided the topic would be better served by another post.

In response to my personal transformative experience of faith, which I have discussed frequently on this blog (see here and here), Mark responded as follows:

There \'s no evidence for this encounter at all.

This is an an extraordinary statement, yet not a terribly surprising one. Mark knows nothing of my genetics; nothing of the blessings and banes of my family of origin; nothing of my life experiences in childhood or adulthood. He knows nothing of my thoughts, my experiences, my successes or failures, nor the irrefutable, transformative effect of the power of spiritual relationship in my life. Yet he, presumably a secular scientist steeped in evidence-based knowledge, blithely dismisses all such experiences and evidence, and without even a hint of irony, assures me that there is “no evidence for this encounter at all.”

What is evident, however, is that evidence has nothing whatsoever to do with his statement: it is, pure and simple, a declaration of worldview.

In Mark’s world, there is no God, nor any possibility of God. This is his a priori position, and any and all evidence or suggestion to the contrary, must simply be dismissed, ridiculed, or ignored. The scientific method has nothing to do with this conclusion; there is no postulate to test, no experiments to evaluate, no revision of theory based on experimental outcome, no possibility of an answer other than that already predetermined. This is not science — it is religion — and religion in its worst form: blind faith untouched by reason, unshaken by evidence. The very thing he has accused me of — addiction to absolute certainty — is in fact his own largest blind spot: he is absolutely certain that there is no God, and all other facts, experiences, and contrary evidence in my life, or anyone else’s with similar experience, must be bent, folded, and mutilated into this materialistic worldview. As Chesterton once observed, “Only madmen and materialists have no doubts.”

“Also, to consider the imagination paltry is to have little understanding of how YOUR imagined “relationship”, unproven as it is, is different from a perceived real. This difference, if not fully considered, may well be so imperceptible to the believer , that a psychologist may consider this experience a form of psychosis.

Aaah, psychosis — that’s the answer. I’m nuts! Well, I can assure you I am quite sane — even my psychiatrist friends agree. And as a physician, I know something of psychosis: its clinical manifestation and symptoms are well-understood, having seen many patients suffering with this mental health disorder. But for the secular materialist, such standards of diagnosis are moot; psychology and psychiatry are for them both savior and sword. When your secular scientific theories fail to explain human behavior, or evil, or religious experience, it’s time to send in the clowns, wrapping your befuddlement and disdain in psychological terms like “psychosis.” That which scientists are unable to explain in human behavior, they delegate to the psychologists. But psychology and psychiatry have another significant benefit for the atheist: as a weapon to attack and neutralize those who reject their orthodoxy. It is no accident that psychiatry became a potent weapon in the hands of secular totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union. If you are not loyal and enthusiastic about the state and the party, you may well find yourself in a mental hospital, where you will be “treated” until you see the light. A similar fate awaits you for religious impulses as well. What you cannot explain, you must explain away; what you cannot explain away, you must persecute. Mental health services in the gulags were freely available, for all who disagreed.

I have great respect for mental health professionals. But they make far better physicians than metaphysicians. When they are ordained to postmodern priesthood, tasked with diagnosing and healing the soul and spirit of man while denying the existence of both, they begin looking quite as foolish as engineers dismissing bridge ripples.

Your understanding of transcendent apart from your “spiritual and supernatural” is an uneducated one apart from your own experience as indicated in your declaration that this is a “futile feeling” and I think you need to spend time with real scientists who gaze at wondrous things every day.

Our modern Gnostics do love to “educate” us until we see things their way, don’t they? I don’t recall saying anything about “futile feelings” — but I do plead guilty to the charge of ignorance: there are vast swaths of knowledge which I do not possess, vast expanses of information and experience of which I know little. I have far more questions than answers about this life, its origins and its meaning. And I find myself entirely comfortable — excited even — in this very uncertainty.

But as far as “gazing at wondrous things,” well, let’s see: in the past few weeks alone, I have viewed images generated by flipping nuclear protons in high-power magnetic fields, revealing extraordinary detail of human anatomy and pathology. I have marveled at the complex interaction of pharmacological chemicals with cellular physiology, as medications interact with human illness to provide relief and cure. I have sat and listened to the agony of a wife whose husband has Alzheimer’s, who has shared her agony of losing her partner of 60 years, her exhaustion at his care, her frustration with his bizarre behavior, yet heard her irrational but inspirational love and devotion to the man whose life she has shared. I have restored a man’s lost fertility, whose youngest child died at 3 months of age from SIDS — one month after his vasectomy — operating on structures the size of the human hair, using sutures invisible to the eye. I have sat in utter frustration, as every treatment and medication, the very best science has to offer, has failed to stem the progression of an aggressive bladder cancer, as I watch, helplessly, the agonizing hourglass of imminent cancer spread and ultimate death. I have marveled at the irreducible complexity of the human cell; at the infinite number of variables which influence medical treatment, response to surgery or therapy, and clinical outcomes; I have carefully dissected, removed, and cured an aggressive cancer of the prostate, while watching another whose treatment failed die slowly and painfully from the same disease. I have seen men die both with and without God — seen the peace and serenity in the eyes of one, despite almost unbearable agony, and the hopelessness and terror in the eyes of others with no such hope. I get to watch and participate daily in the complexity of life and death, health and disease, the richness of human experience, and the miracles of science applied to making lives better. I live daily with body, with soul, and with spirit — and engage each in its place. I happen to find all these things rather wondrous, and humbling, and yes, transcendent — silly me.

But perhaps Mark is right: maybe I should hang out with a “real scientists” who look through telescopes, and with their tunnel vision, star-gaze their way to meaning and purpose in cosmic clouds and compact dimensions, caressing their theoretical physics in orgasmic intellectual onanism. Perhaps then I will learn the real meaning of life, discovering thereby their secret to transcendence without God, with mysteries hidden deep within their superstrings or dark matter or tachyons. That such things are fascinating is doubtless true; that they may be true is doubtless fascinating; that they seek to explain why we love, or are curious, or contribute — or to what purpose we exist in space and time — is fascinatingly futile.

Or perhaps instead I will remain at the vortex of a unified field of truth, with God both sovereign and merciful at its center, immense as the universe and intimate as the heart. For from where I stand, the universe really does look quite wondrous indeed.

17 thoughts on “A Fascinating Futility

  1. OK, now that I’ve read more thoroughly . . . ;o)

    I feel the need to comment on faith. My faith. I don’t like blanket statements about groups of people–Christians, in this case.

    I feel comfortable in my faith (I am a Catholic Christian) because I feel like God allows me to question–everything. I’m not afraid to question my faith. There are some people who feel that they lack faith if they question it in any way. Not only am I not afraid to question my faith, but I believe that questioning has strengthened my faith . . . I’m more interested in knowing the truth than proving I am right–how does one find the truth if one is afraid to question one’s own beliefs? In my humble opinion, God gives us this freedom.

    I could say much, MUCH more, but this isn’t really the place. I do know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without my faith in Christ, in God.

  2. I’m a little late to this party, however, in truth the heart opening experience of the presence and true knowledge of God and His Son is a supernatural experience, not a rational one.

    It finds us, rather than the opposite.

    In the end, there is no reasoning with the likes of Mark, because he’s in the nether regions of C.S. Lewis’ s The Great Divorce, and appears to want to stay there.

    Prayer is a wonderful project for him and anyone in need of the Supernatural experience of Christ.

  3. “There’s no evidence for this encounter at all.”

    I suspect Mark either forgot — or never knew — that experience is acceptable evidence for something. It might not be conclusive evidence. It might even be questionable evidence. But it is legitimate evidence. If that were not the case, there could be no science — since science rests on intersubjectively verifiable evidence.

  4. Thanks Paul,

    Mark’s point is valid in part: personal experience alone (particularly of a single individual) may or may not be valid testimony to a fact or reality. Hence his point about UFO spotters. However, unlike UFOs, personal transformation and change may be a powerful piece of evidence of something not easily quantified in the physical world — witness the effect of AA on millions of alcoholics who could not stop drinking by any other means. When such experience is widespread and longstanding (spanning 2000 years of experience, in the case of Christianity) and the belief system which is the basis of this change is strongly supported by material evidence — the historicity of Christ, the compelling evidence for the accuracy and evidential reliability of scripture, etc., etc.), then the evidence becomes not only legitimate, but compelling. Unless, of course, your worldview refuses to accept it…

  5. “Mark’s point is valid in part: personal experience alone (particularly of a single individual) may or may not be valid testimony to a fact or reality.”

    I believe I see what you’re saying, Dr. Bob, but I would suggest that any experience is evidence of some sort. However, it need not be strong or good evidence. The reason I suggest that might be the case is because all evidence ultimately can be reduced to experience in one fashion or another, can it not?

    By the way, great blog!

  6. Thanks, Paul.

    My caveat is based on those whose experiences are delusional, for example the psychotic who hears voices or sees hallucinations. In a sense, that experience is also evidence — of mental illness. And of course, our secular fundamentalists think all religious experience is delusional, and that they are the only sane ones. Scary thought, that…

  7. The notion that all religious experience is delusional is extremely problematic. I wouldn’t want the chore of defending that thesis. The few times I’ve seen someone try to seriously advance it, their efforts were underwhelming. But mostly, I’ve seen people toss it out as if it were a given — which it most certainly is not.

    Suppose, though, it were true. Suppose all religious experiences were delusional. Even so, wouldn’t it remain true that some religious experiences are also beneficial and even life-affirming? Just a thought.

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