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.

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17 thoughts on “A Fascinating Futility

  1. I understand what you are saying Doctor, but I think you are expressing your frustrations at the wrong target. After all, the good book does say that judgment begins with the house of God, right?

    I say that partially in jest. After all, you have to deal with the argument that is on your doorstep. But if you look around, I think you will find that most Christians use the same kind of reasoning as Mark. So why not direct your ire at your fellow Christians as well?

    Mark’s fundamental problem is that he thinks that anyone who does not accept his a priori beliefs is unreasonable. Most Christians think the same way. They typically argue that if anyone operated on pure reason without any biases then they would be forced to agree with the Christian position.

    This is the same faulty logic that is used by Mark. People like to think that their a priori beliefs are required by reason. But reason does not require any particular a priori and it can never prove that any a priori is true. To think that reason will provide proof for your beliefs is a fool’s hope for both the Christian and the Atheist.

    Philosophers have tried to get around this problem by arguing that if your system is of thought is complete and consistent then that proves that your a priori beliefs are true. Even that idea is an a priori belief that can never be proved by reason. But regardless, Gödel proved mathematically that you can never have complete and consistent system of thought. (Technically he only proved this for systems of thought that were sufficiently mathematically powerful, but that is only because you can’t prove anything without having a system of thought that meets Gödel’s minimums).

    I have dealt with this issue in great detail here, though my essay is more philosophically involved then most mortals can tolerate. But what it all boils down to is that reason depends on revelation. It does not matter weather the revelation is what you see with your eyes or what you feel in your heart. It is all the same as far as reason goes. And the choice of what revelation you chose to accept as a guide to truth is made by the desires of your heart, not reason.

  2. This comment reminds me of one of my deepest chasms of ignorance, my failure to grasp the intricacies and implications of boolean logic. I waded faithfully through the sea of words and even checked the essay linked…way, way out of my depth.

    As I re-read that last sentence I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that anyone advancing such a transparently wrong idea is at some level as ignorant as I. Choosing among revelations is the logical equivalent of choosing never to have been born.

    Are you and Mark cousins or something?

  3. Uh, ahem…
    Was that a response to my comment or an amendment to your earlier diatribe attacking Dr. Bob?

  4. The absurdity of the example, that the faulty bridge design somehow means scientists are somehow ‘psychologically disturbed” and “never have doubts” should not go unnoticed. Your post is a powerful example of the power of projection, in which individuals attribute their own undesirable traits onto others.

    As one small example from your current post, you say, “when they (mental health workers) 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,” you have a monstrously incorrect understanding of what mental health workers do. Your statement is overflowing with misdirected cynicism and is Karl Rovesque in its flawed assuredness. Now that’s projection.

    The fact that your personal experience, your faith, lacks a certain degree of truth is marvelously evident to anyone who demands more from say, the UFO hunter, who sees UFOs and produces not a lick of sensory evidence. Yet, someone like yourself would agree that UFOs can exist because said individual has a life filled with blessings, spirituality, and even , as you say,genes, that you cannot know.

    You stated that you had a “personal encounter with a being” that has led to the conclusion that to feel the transcendence without recognizing the spiritual and supernatural is to manifest the very futility of intellect detached from transcendence.

    This argument from personal experience is fallacious. Citing personal experience is seldom enough to make a truly compelling and convincing argument. If personal experience is all we have to go on, your argument could be dismissed as being merely anecdotal or idiosyncratic. Personal experience may reinforce an argument, but it is not entirely persuasive in itself.

    Obviously, I think that your personal experience which has led to your curious statements about science and the scientific method has serious flaws which would lead anyone steeped in the scientific method to question your experience, and most of all, your motive.

  5. Hey Mark,

    Thanks for the comment — I think.

    It does not go unnoticed that you utterly missed the point of the bridge engineers statement. Hint: it has something to do with intellectual arrogance. Doubt you would get it even if it were explained.

    And how foolish of me think I understand what mental health workers do, what with working with them all the time, and talking personally with psychologists and psychiatrists who are appalled at the devolution of their field into postmodern foolishness and futility.

    And thank you for making my job sooo much easier. I generally tolerate even heated disagreement on a topic here, as long as it is rational and civil. However, the mention of “Hitler” “Nazi” “Bush”, or “Rove” in a discussion of religion or philosophy indicates that the commenter has unilaterally surrendered the intellectual playing field and entered the world of irrational, vituperative flamethrowing. Life’s too short and too valuable to waste time on such fools.

    You will be in my prayers, Mark — but not in my comment section.

    Take care — and God bless.

  6. Hoots,

    I actually enjoyed the Chieftain’s comment (the essay caused a few brain cramps, although I think I got his main thrust). Despite some disagreements with the Chief, the difference in tone from our buddy Mark is striking, is it not? I may well use his comment for some additional thoughts; it’s Van Der Leun’s “Brain Jazz” at work, I think…

  7. A fascinating post, Dr. Bob, and well-written. We experience the presence of the living God, and are convinced that he exists and is a relational being. But we can’t prove any of this.

    2,000 years of theologians and philosophers brilliance hasn’t proved or disproved the existence of God. I think Chieftain gets it wrong — I don’t know any Christians who insist that their faith is beyond question. We know God is in the same way that we know a child’s love — how would you go about proving such a thing?

    This God we claim to experience is immaterial and immortal — all of us are unfortunately boxed in by our materiality and by death. We all go around wearing welder’s glasses, at night. And yet, in our darkness, some of us get the distinct impression that we are not alone. Experience matters, but it isn’t proof

    Christians are also convinced by the claims made about Christ, which if true mean that the immaterial God reached into history and made himself known. Christ’s claims were rejected, too. Remarkably, despite persecution and slaughter under Roman opposition to Christianity, the faith spread. I think that’s interesting. It isn’t proof, but it’s a significant data point.

    I believe it all, but that isn’t to say I don’t have doubts. I’m open to being convinced that there is no God, but I haven’t yet heard a convincing argument. Meanwhile, my experience tells me that God is real and is transforming my life. I can’t prove it, but I’m certain I’m not crazy.

  8. Writing is process that is supposed to enable you to communicate. But somehow it never works out all that well for me. Part of the problem is that I can not write as well Dr. Bob.

    But I think that there is more to it then that. I like to deal with ideas in the abstract, but Dr. Bob deals with ideas in the context of his everyday life. I think that Dr. Bob’s method makes his ideas easier for most people to handle even if causes those ideas to lose some of the rigor that so near and dear to my heart.

    With that idea in mind let me try to re-express what I was trying say in the last comment in a more personal style.

    Now you may or may not have already realized this, but I am not very well educated. In fact, I don’t even have a high school diploma. After I had been working for awhile I did pick up a GED in order to satisfy some bureaucratic requirement at the place where I worked. But a GED is pretty meaningless these days.

    As you might guess, I don’t earn a living by using my brains. Instead, I make my living by doing menial labor. And while I am on the subject of what I do for a living, I should point out that a lot of the menial labor that I do is pretty disgusting. For example; on Friday I was cleaning exhaust vents in a 7 story institutional building. During that process the nasty stuff that is growing/collecting on the sides of the vents falls down all around me. It’s not a clean job.

    I am not telling you this because I want you to feel sorry for me. I made my choices in life and I don’t regret them.

    But tell me, how would I respond to a guy like Mark? Look at all the accusations of ignorance and sloppy thinking that he hurled at Dr. Bob and then read Dr. Bob’s defense. Tell me, could I defend my faith the way that Dr. Bob did? Could I say “I have seen wonders and I hang out with smart people” like Dr. Bob did? Could I defend my intellectual credibility the way that Dr. Bob did?

    I don’t think so.

    So is my testimony less valid then Dr. Bob’s? Does Dr. Bob’s greater intelligence and education make it more likely that he knows the truth? I don’t think that Dr. Bob would make that claim.

    But if Dr. Bob does not claim that his greater education and intelligence gives him a leg up over me in terms of discovering the truth what does that say about his views on truth and reason?

    After all, understanding things often requires that you follow a complex reasoning process. The blunt fact of life is that not everyone has the intellectual capabilities to follow such complex reasoning process. Thus, if you hold that reason is a path to truth you must admit that the smarter person has a better chance of understanding the truth.

    So are back to saying that Dr. Bob’s testimony is more valid then mine because he is smarter?

    I don’t know how Dr. Bob would respond to that question. But this ignorant hillbilly would respond by saying that the question of man’s capabilities misses the point.

    Let us say that there is a really smart man who is born blind, and there is a really dumb man who is born with sight. Can the really smart man ever truly understand the concept of color? Certainly the dumb man would never be able to explain color to him even though the dumb man can see. I don’t even think another smart man would be able to make the blind man truly understand color because to really understand the concept of color you have to be able to see it.

    Now let us say that the really smart man engaged the dumb man in debate about whether color exists or not. Who do you think would win the debate in front of an audience of blind men? Heck, even if a smart man engaged in a debate on those terms he would probably lose.

    The only man a seeing man could win such a debate would be if his audience would admit both that they were blind and that the seeing man could truly see things that they could not. But if they would admit that, there would be no need for the debate.

    Now hopefully you can see how this applies to our everyday search for the truth. It does not really matter who is the smartest or who is the most reasonable. The only thing that matters is what we can see.

    I have gone on too long as it is. So I will skip going into how I think this concept should apply to apologetics. I am not really on a campaign to convince anyone of anything anyway. I just wanted to see if I could clarify my thoughts as an exercise in trying to write clearly.

  9. I’m still reading all of this, but I wanted to make a point. Although it is obvious that Dr. Bob is intelligent, education is not a requirement for intelligence. Seriously. I hold a MBA, and I’m not super intelligent, yet I know many folks much smarter than I am with nothing more than a high school diploma. Obviously, exercising a person’s brain is a requirement, but one doesn’t need a formal education for that . . . *wink*

  10. Mrs. Difficultpt,

    I know that intelligence does not nessearly correlate with education. My point was that Mark was using man’s intelligence and learning as the definitive sources of authority in regards to the truth. More to the point, he was using his own intelligence and learning as the definitive source of authority. In Mark’s eyes then, I am prejudged as having no authority on the matters of truth. I am automatically one of the deluded.

    My point was that Christians should not concede that man’s intelligence and learning is definitive. Rather we should point out that all men, no matter how intelligent or learned, are dependent on revelation for what knowledge they have of the truth. Even if you don’t admit to a God, you still must admit that you depend on the mercies of a random universe for your knowledge of the truth.

    Put it another way, intelligence/reason/learning are always subjective. They are never objective. The only question is what are they subject to?

    But that is getting into the philosophical territory that causes the readers of my essay so much mental pain.

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