The chief weakness of the scientific method

I’m reposting this from last year, but adding a very similar quote from Tolkien.

From Taliesan,

Uncertainty Principal

There is an ancient distinction between the synthetic and analytic operations of the intellect.   The synthetic operation builds parts into wholes, the analytic operation breaks wholes into parts.   The distinction seems to have lost its usefulness among sophisticated people, as thought becomes a mess of mush.  But reductionisms flourish from this amnesia, as minds forget that one mind cannot do both operations at the same time on the same object.

So synthetic assertions always melt away under analytic scrutiny.  This is normal; it says nothing about the synthetic assertion itself.   You can’t see wholes with a parts-instrument; likewise, you can’t see parts with a wholes-instrument.   That wholes are more than the sum of parts is not a confirmable proposition, because you can’t validate decibel measurements with a spectroscope.

You get that? It’s normal for “big picture” ideas to fall apart under an analysis of the pieces. But that analysis may in fact be illegitimate because of this divide in how our minds work. A large idea can still be true, even if some of the pieces are found faulty. Likewise, a bunch of true pieces cannot necessarily be assembled together into a working big idea. To the logician shaking his head right about now – the only thing I can say to you is that even now, you’ve already reduced things down too far and thrown out important information. We are sloppy with this all the time.

Tolkien echo’s a similar sentiment with regards to literary criticism, or even just simply trying to figure out what a piece of story is about:

It is indeed easier to unravel a single thread – an incident, a name, a motive – than to trace the history of any picture defined by many threads. For with the picture in the tapestry a new element has come in: the picture is greater than, and not explained by, the sum of the component threads. Therein lies the inherent weakness of the analytic (or ‘scientific’) method: it finds out much about the things that occur in stories, but little or nothing about their effect in any given story.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, Footnote from On Fairy Stories

I think this puts the finger right on the chief weakness of the scientific method. By it’s very nature, it aims to isolate facts and ideas. But by doing so, it destroys or guts the whole of the thing being studies. You may then have gained new knowledge that may pertain to the whole, but might not. The real world is way more complicated. Science proper cannot, at least honestly, claim to be able to reveal all of these connections and take the whole picture genuinely into account.

There is no new way to judge

This is an excellent passage from The Abolition of Man

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

-C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p.56

Modernism consists mostly of new systems of value that appear different because they are “sollen to madness in their isolation”. Yet they only have any validity because they still appeal the natural law, it least some of it.

Post-modernism is the ridiculous attempt to imagine a new primary color. To contradict itself by using rules about what is valuable/not valuable or good/bad to undermine the definition of good and bad. This can only fail and it only ever does.

Like and dislike what you ought

The aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. – C.S. Lewis paraphrasing Aristotle

In contrast, the aim of much modern education is to make the pupil dislike the idea that one “ought” to like or dislike any particular thing at all. And a pox on the haters who tell them otherwise!


This is at the heart of “diversity training”.

Lewis goes on:

We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.

-The Abolition of Man, p.35

Just this morning, in a cafe, I overheard a man raise his voice to a yelling rant while speaking with some friends. He was very angry that another man had recently broken a promise to him related to a job offer. The thing is, this man (the one doing the ranting) is a militant atheist. Yet here he is demanding that others treat him with high morals so that he may trust their word. You can’t have it both ways. If no God is keeping anyone accountable, than what is wrong with the man lying to him? But he knew, plain as day that it was wrong, in spite of his theology (or lack of).

This underlying idea that there is no objective value, no real right and wrong can really only thrive in a culture with multiple successive generations of relative peace and wealth. Only when the population is sufficiently removed from either starvation or someone trying to kill them can this sort of nonsense survive.

This same day, in the afternoon, I was speaking to a guy I went to music school with. He was lamenting (just as I have) that there were virtually no jobs in his field, yet so many graduates! My comment was that you can only have thousands of art and music graduates a year when there is no war. He has learned to cope by paying the bills working hard in other ways. His classical rep has also slipped dramatically, though not as badly as mine.

It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values: those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked. Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker’s van: peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.

-C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, footnote, p.41

In a culture without hard, distinct values, this suburban comfort becomes the ultimate goal. Eating a nice meal from the deli at Whole Foods and “jeering at colonels” is the way to preserve peace. I’m not here to defend the colonels, but let me tell you, complaining from your armchair never accomplished a single thing in all of history. For a potent example, if you can stomach it, the comment thread on pretty much any Huffington Post article is exhibit A.

But I guess I jeer some as well. I recently was compelled to post a pretty negative comment on the Signal Versus Noise blog that I usually enjoy very much. Their recent (surprisingly positive!) post on internet motivational guru and snake-oil salesman Tim Ferriss was very out of character. Along these lines, another disgruntled user stated:

Mr. Ferris keeps referring to the New Rich. Despite all his attempts at creating a new paradigm, it appears that the only difference between the New Rich and the Old Rich is that the old rich are capitalists that actually produce things that society needs, such as railroads and software, while the new rich sell things like unregulated nutritional supplements.

It comes back to the same stuff. What has real value? Do you know what real value is when you see it? A farmer growing food is producing real value. A real estate broker, loan officer, or internet AdSense king… maybe not. Love whoever you want = good right? Ideas like gender differences are old-fashioned nonsense. Let’s abolish all boundaries. Build roads not fences! What could possibly go wrong? Nobody ought to like or dislike anything in particular. It’s so hateful. Oh, wait, I just used the word “ought” in that sentence.

The Abolition of Man is a short book by Lewis. It was written over 50 years ago. It doesn’t sound like’s it’s grown outdated one bit. In fact, the only thing that has changed is that the philosophy was criticizing has grown more mainstream. It was still largely locked in the ivory tower in his day.

Does this post have a point? Not really. It’s just drawing together three anecdotal experiences I had this very day along with some quotes I highlighted in a book last week. Whoopie. Writing it down though, it all seems more related than I realized at first.

The big picture of history and the methods of “doing church”

Reading history lately has made me feel so very very tiny. My life and work is just a very small blip. This is a good thing though. I think it’s a proper humility. I guess all sweeping history must do this to it’s readers. Probably anyway. Nothing in memory has so indirectly encouraged me to look at the big picture!

Churches often make the mistake of imitating what seems at the time to be the natural and inevitable shape of secular society, and allocate resources accordingly. In the sixth century, it was difficult to contemplate a future world that might not always be based on a flourishing Mediterranean trade and the cities it sustained, just as later generations of Christians believed that society would always be founded on agriculture and village life. Matters do, of course, change, in ways that can leave once-great churches struggling badly.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.243

Why you need a bigger picture eschatology

Worldly success was a potent force in the growth of Islam, and in the shriveling of Christianity. That fact may be troubling to Christians, whose faith so often extols the triumph of the meek and humble while rejecting worldly success, and who are so familiar with the concept of defeat as the root of long-term victory. In practice, though, Christians often had used material successes as proofs of their faith. As we have seen, church writers pointed to miracles and healings to vouch for the power of Christ, and such events often explained important conversions. Though such claims continued to be made, they were increasingly outweighed by the obvious successes of Muslim states and armies. At several critical moments, Muslim victories proved enormously damaging to the Christian cause, from the early triumphs over the Byzantine Empire onward. As the early Islamic convert ‘Ali Tabari explained, “[Muhammad’s] victory over the nations is also by necessity and by undeniable arguments a manifest sign of the prophetic? If God had not been on his side, how could Muhammad’s followers possibly have won such stunning victories over ancient empires?

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.223

Islam had the same problem when their conquest of the world was later squashed by western technology and colonialism. Islam doesn’t have an easy time reconciling their theology with worldly failure. We, as Christians should have an easier time with this, but by regularly proclaiming “God will make you wealthy” and “God will always heal you if you have faith” we set ourselves up for trouble and major disappointments. Jesus promised us all sorts of blessings and to (some day!) wipe away every tear. But we’re in it for the long haul. We have to keep the big picture in mind. He will keep all his promises.

A family feud

Reading accounts of the long struggles between Christianity and Islam, and the savagery each religion has wrought upon the other, it is easy to become discouraged, to see this history as the definitive clash of civilizations, which has no obvious ending except in an apocalyptic showdown. For each side, accounts of the destruction of communities add to the catalog of grievances: Muslims lament the loss of Spain, al-Andalus; Greek, Arab, and Armenian Christians recount in nostalgic detail the homelands from which their ancestors were expelled, or where their communities suffered collective martyrdom. Western conservatives parade stories of jihad and dhimmitude. None of these stories are necessarily false: throughout this history, great crimes have been committed. Yet for all this, the histories of Christianity and Islam remain quite inextricable, and repeatedly, even in dissolution, each faith has shaped the other. Underlying the struggle between Christians and Muslims is the fact that theirs is, ultimately, a conflict within a family, and no feud is more bitter.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.206

Girard always says that we fight with each other not because of our differences, but because of our similarities and close proximity to one another.  Virtually no fight has been so passionate as the one between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Even clashes with militant atheist communism has never been as fierce.

If you have an obnoxious coworker, it is not too much work to ignore them and go on with life. If you have an obnoxious mother-in-law, it’s much more difficult. When Muslims and Christians fight, it’s a family feud.

Churches on the city skyline

Historically, much of that advantage involved the control of the built environment, of the cityscape. Under Muslim rule, churches were tightly constrained in their ability to project their presence physically into the landscape, by the public display of icons and images or statuary, by bell ringing or public processions. It was no longer possible to use the liturgy and the spectacular external decoration of church buildings to offer believers a taste of the ultimate. Even today, the lack of prominent structures or pageantry contributes to the Western neglect of Christian traditions in the Middle East: when painters or photographers or filmmakers wish to portray the region’s cities, they focus on dominant Islamic imagery—mosques and minarets. By implication, any Christian presence must be extraneous.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.215

This is pretty obvious of course – who is in control politically will suppress the positive visibility of the minority. In the middle ages, in fact, throughout most of history, there has been no mass media, television, etc. Religious symbols and monuments were a big deal. The tolling of the church bell throughout the town was absolutely LOADED with meaning.

I guess this can be seen as a defense of cathedral building. They are very durable and proclaim, well, that at the very least Jesus is pretty important. Highly utilitarian buildings, such as has been common practice in evangelicalism in the past 50 years are cheap to build, but does any memory of them last? Do you really even notice them as a church when you drive by? When I visit any large city, my eye is always drawn to the grand church buildings. Up north of where I live, in Spokane, there is a beautiful Presbyterian church from the turn of the century. I can’t help but see JUST IT on the skyline. What does the rest of the world see when they see America? Hollywood. The skyscrapers and New York. Lots of material wealth. But they aren’t likely to see a church. Our architecture nor our artwork is really that prominent. I am all for efforts to reform some of that! On the other hand, Jenkins also mentions the downside:

The strength of early and medieval Christianity was that it created a sanctified landscape in which Christian institutions were visible everywhere. The weakness of being so heavily invested in real estate was that it left an almost infinite abundance of tempting targets for plunder and destruction, and once these were gone, so were many of the forces that kept believers attached to the faith.


2010 in Review

I felt that writing something like this might bring a little bit of closure. What happened last year? I’m not sure. Let me think about it for a minute…

Family related:

  • Wifey and I have now been married 8 years!
  • Our fourth child, our second adoption and first international adoption (Ethiopia) is finally well underway. Virtually all the paperwork is done and we are waiting for final approval and a date to travel. (Late Spring 2011)
  • Daughter turned 6 and is growing much more independent. So enjoyable. Homeschooling her.
  • Son turned 4 and is in preschool. Loves numbers. An introvert like myself.
  • Baby son turned 1 and is a whirlwind. Woooooshhh!!!

Books Read in 2010 (in chronological order):

  • I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, Rene Girard
  • Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, David Bently Hart
  • The Chestnut King, N.D. Wilson
  • Poetic Knowledge, James Taylor (partial)
  • No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton (reread)
  • Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, James Alison
  • On Being Liked, James Alison
  • Oedipus Unbound, Rene Girard (partial)
  • The Ball and the Cross, G.K. Chesterton
  • Young Man Luther, Erik Erikson
  • Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris
  • Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton (partial reread)
  • Battling to the End, Rene Girard
  • The Path to Rome, Hilaire Belloc
  • The Genesis of Desire, Jean-Michel Oughourlian
  • The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter
  • That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis
  • For Rene Girard, various authors
  • The Oresteia, Aeschylus (audio book)
  • Who Will Deliver Us?, Paul Zahl
  • All Hallows Eve, Charles Williams
  • Between Noon and Three, Robert Capon
  • The Lost History of Christianity, Philip Jenkins
  • The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis

Happenings at work:

  • Wrote lots and lots of code (C#, SQL, Javascript, HTML/CSS), most of it tedious, but some of it clever
  • Didn’t get fired or laid off, despite large cuts to higher ed
  • Finally have a new coworker, after the vacancy was held up by red tape for over 2 years
  • Started working a couple days a month assisting a local coffee roaster
  • Wrote a moderately complex web app for a local non-profit using all new (to me) languages and frameworks (PHP 5.3 + Yii)

Music related:

  • Have now officially forgotten all of my classical guitar rep
  • Started playing guitar or bass regularly at church (simple song leading)
  • Took Jazz Theory again and learned so much
  • Discovered most of U2’s music and why it is so great. Also listened to a lot of Lunasa.