The discussion about exploratory intellect and empirical science in the last post might seem a world away from the standard fare of Christian existentialism. But the thesis I have been inching towards in this series is that existentialism and science are not unrelated even though most existentialists were not scientists and most scientists would not consider themselves existentialists.
Conversely, it’s a commonplace assumption in our culture that the Church has been opposed to science and yet it’s quite clear now that institutionalised science has wound up in exactly the same corrupt state as the Church throughout its history. That is also not accidental.
The Church was not always corrupt, of course. For the first several centuries of Faustian (European) civilisation, the Church was a meritocracy as well as being the conduit for both Christianity and the knowledge of Ancient Greece. Eventually, however, it stopped being willing or able to incorporate new knowledge.
Some thinkers and experimenters had started to realise that the knowledge handed down from antiquity was not infallible. In those days, anybody who wanted to promote a new theory had to go through the Church in the same way that nowadays you must go through whatever scientific journals are accepted authorities in the field in question. But the Church was not in the mood for new theories and didn’t mind ruining the lives of people who it saw as a threat.
The more blatant financial and political corruption in the Church coincided with a more repressive attitude to dissenting opinions. And so Luther’s rebellion against the authority of the Church also opened opportunities for “new science” in the north of Europe which had been closed in the south.
Luther was no scientist and yet his sceptical attitude to authority opened the way for new science. We might put this down to chance. But I suspect there was more going. We can group the distinctions at play as follows:-
|Laws of Nature||Problem of Induction|
|Church (Exoteric)||Mysticism (esoteric)|
|Institutional Science (Exoteric)||Scepticism (exploration)|
When we look at it this way, a historical correspondence with Luther arises which is actually quite funny because the two men in question were vastly different in personality, what they believed, and how they lived. I’m referring to the American scientist, Richard Feynman.
Luther and Feynman were united in their opposition to what I have been calling the doctrine of Necessity and its associated traits including its political and social manifestation in the institutions of church and science. Neither man cared for exoteric authority. They both explicitly rejected the authority of institutions and traditions in favour of the individual.
Luther wasn’t just rejecting the corruption of the Catholic Church of his time, there were plenty of people who objected to that, he was rejecting the whole idea that a Church could have authority over spiritual matters. In this he was famously opposed by Erasmus and this is where things take another ironic turn because history thinks of Erasmus as the free-thinking humanist and yet Erasmus was sticking up for authority while Luther was in favour of (spiritual) rebellion.
Erasmus stated that truth should only be told when it was expedient. This was in keeping with the philosophy of the Greeks and the idea of the noble lie. Erasmus had no problem at all with the State or the Church lying to the public to achieve an outcome and he would have had no problem with modern institutional science doing the same.
Luther, on the other hand, demanded that the truth should always be spoken even where it was inexpedient. Erasmus argued that the common people were depraved and needed to be taught obedience for their own good (basket of deplorables anyone?) while Luther argued that obedience gained through authority led to hypocrisy and inhibited the exercise of individual conscience. Luther argued that there is no authority beyond Christ and that each individual has direct access to Christ which cannot be mediated through an external institution such as a church.
The content of Luther’s argument is very different but the underlying meaning is identical to the one that Feynman would later make in relation to science. Consider this quote:
“When someone says science teaches such and such, he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach it; experience teaches it. If they say to you science has shown such and such, you might ask, How does science show it – how did the scientists find out – how, what, where? Not science has shown, but this experiment, this effect, is shown. And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments…to judge whether a reusable conclusion has been arrived at.”
The last sentence is the crucial one. Feynman states that we as individuals have a right to judge the truths of science. We do so based not on authority but on experiment. We should demand to be shown the evidence, not the conclusion. Feynman had also stated elsewhere that nobody should blindly trust an experiment carried out by somebody else but should reproduce it and see the results for themselves.
Note that this attitude to science is essentially the same one promulgated by Christian mysticism as discussed earlier in this series. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing did not say “here is a set of metaphysical statements about God”. What he said was “here is a set of steps you should take to experience God” just like a scientist lays out the steps to reproduce an experiment.
How many times in the last three and a half years did we hear the opposite of these ideas? How many times were we told to abandon our own experience and trust the experts. I lost count of how many discussions I saw which amounted to nothing more than somebody telling somebody else that they did not have the right to judge whether a truth really was a truth or even to ask the simple questions about how supposed truths had been proven. Science has now become Necessity, authority and, increasingly, tyranny. This had already been happening in Feynman’s time. Another quote:
“I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television words, book, and so on are unscientific. That doesn’t mean they are bad, but they are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.”
Feynman and Luther lived in vastly different times and were vastly different men, but they were both in agreement about one thing: the individual must have the right to judge matters of truth in science and in faith. Real science, just like real faith, only exists in the individual.
Of course, we set up institutions to try and instill the spirit of science or of faith in people. But institutions run on the doctrine of Necessity with its laws and its authority. This tends to snuff out individualism. With no individuals left to carry the true spirit of science and faith, the exoteric institutions become hollowed out shells. Institutions are dead esoterically well before they crumble exoterically.
What is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, about Faustian civilisation is that we have not gone down the usual pathway of stagnation. We have had the Luthers and the Feynmans in our culture who pop up now and then to remind us that only individuals can carry the esoteric spirit that keeps a culture alive. In my opinion, this is a direct result of Christianity. Faustian civilisation was built upon the symbol of the esoteric individual crucified by the exoteric institutions. It was in the name of the esoteric that Luther rebelled against the Church.
It’s seems no coincidence, therefore, that the powers-that-be in our society are not only anti-Christian but also that they have also turned science into nothing more than “intellectual tyranny”. This development has been going on since the time when the nation states of the West began vying to become the Universal State (starting with Napoleon).
And here there is a historical irony because Feynman inadvertently joined the battle on the side of Necessity by signing up for the Manhattan Project. That project was ostensibly run on the basis that the Americans had to make the bomb before the Germans did. Of course, they succeeded and America became the Universal State of the Faustian instead of Germany. It’s arguable that science became moribund at exactly that moment.
It’s also no coincidence that the USA (and the rest of the West) in the post-war years has increasingly become what can only be described as satanic. It seems that if you pursue the doctrine of Necessity, you also destroy real science and true faith. And you get tyranny and authoritarianism into the bargain. It’s a package deal. Buy one, get one free. Special limited offer. Call now while stocks last.
All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational