Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman

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 NatureProblem of Induction
Church (Exoteric)Mysticism (esoteric)
Institutional Science (Exoteric)Scepticism (exploration)
The mad monk

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.

The slightly less mad scientist

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

15 thoughts on “Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman”

  1. I don’t really get this concept of “real faith” in Christian Existentialism. I think I understand what real science means: we check hypotheses via experiment, experiments should be replicated, etc. But I don’t get real faith. Basically, you have this one book (the Bible), and then you convince yourself it contains the truth, with no middleman to mediate between you? So, you could just as well take the Lord of the Rings and convince yourself it’s true…? Hmm. I never really got Christian Existentialism. I get Atheist Existentialism (more or less), but Christian Existentialism just baffles me.

    Speaking of science, have you been following the recent Harvard scandal? One of the professors (a behavioral scientist by the name of Francesca Gino) got busted for data fabrication. You can read about it in any number of places, but here’s a nice summary:

    It appears that she was something of a celebrity (TED talk and stuff), plus she was earning over 1M per year from Harvard. Harvard has put her on “unpaid administrative leave,” and she’s responded with a 25M lawsuit against Harvard and (get this) the bloggers who busted her. (The bloggers are professors at other universities, but their busting work was unpaid.) “Real science” relies on experiment, and implicitly, on scientists acting in good faith. What happens if you have no way of knowing who reported actual results, and who simply fabricated data in order to get a “groundbreaking study” published in a fancy journal? It does make me wonder how widespread this actually is. Maybe behavioral science is the way that cycling used to be. It used to be that in order to get to the top in cycling (*cough* Lance *cough* Armstrong *cough*), you had to dope. (They claim they’ve fixed the problem now, but who knows?) Could it be that in behavioral science, it’s not actually possible to get a position at a top research university without fabricating data? After all, they want surprising and unintuitive results, and they want lots of them. Except that if something is surprising and unintuitive, it’s most likely false. (Not saying there are no exceptions. But most of the time, it’s false.) Can anyone produce one surprising and unintuitive result after another without, y’know, “editing” the data? One wonders.

    Which reminds me of something from my undergraduate days. I never took any psychology courses as an undergraduate, but it so happens that a number of my friends were psychology majors, and they had to collect data for experiments for some of their classes and research projects. And their guinea pigs were their friends (obviously). So, I served as a guinea pig a couple of times. Once, a friend experimented on me: she told me to write about a sad event from my life (I wrote about the tragic death of my pet hamster), and then after that I was supposed to perform some other task, and I no longer remember what it was. But that’s not important. The important thing is that I was asked to fill out a form that asked for some basic personal/biographical information, and one of the questions was what my native language was. This seemed odd, so after I was done guinea pigging, I asked my friend why they asked that question. She explained that if someone’s results seemed weird, they would take a look at the information that the person provided, and if there was something odd about it (such as the native language not being English; this was in the States), they could eliminate the data point from the study. Aha. Maybe there’s a perfectly innocent explanation for this, but it sounds an awful lot like “if your results fit our hypothesis, then we’ll keep you as a data point, and otherwise, we’ll use your weird native language as an excuse to eliminate you from the study.” How very convenient. Now, don’t blame my friend. She was just an undergraduate doing what the boss (professor) told her to do. It does make one wonder about the field as whole, though…

  2. Irena – i think one of the key points about existentialism is that it focuses on lived experience over abstractions. So “real faith” is the question of does somebody have the lived experience of faith. That’s basically what Luther was saying although the concept used at that time was “grace”. How do you get grace? Well, you either have it or you don’t. That’s the doctrine of predestination. This makes sense in the Christian tradition. St Paul had his Road-to-Damascus moment. So did Luther, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. Incidentally, I don’t think this is different from science or math. When you’re working on a difficult problem, the solution sometimes appears and then disappears and you have to keep working at it until you “get it”. And then you forget it and have to re-do the work to “get it”.

    Hah, just watched the first minute of that video. Key quote “nobody has taken the time to investigate her data.” So, some academic becomes famous presumably over a period of years and yet nobody has even tried to verify her work. That’s the key problem in science these days. John Ioannidis has been banging on about this for ages. Most academics now don’t even attempt to reproduce the work of others. They are too busy figuring out how to get famous so they can get research grants. So, yes, the whole system needs to be burned to the ground and restarted. Where’s Luther when you need him 😛

  3. Simon: “i think one of the key points about existentialism is that it focuses on lived experience over abstractions.”

    Maybe… Though this business with predestination strikes me as a spectacularly unhealthy overreaction to the corruption of the Catholic Church. That said, I can see how “grace” might be similar to an “aha moment” in math/science. I’m not 100% sure what grace is supposed to be, but I guess it’s some sort of inner peace. But the tyrannical Protestant God seems rather unnecessarily.

    As for scientific fraud: ultimately, I think science has to be high-trust, or it collapses. Basically, scientists trust other scientists to be honest. Honest mistakes happen, and you should be on a look-out for those, but you’re supposed to assume everyone is acting in good faith, unless there’s strong evidence to the contrary. But what if people start abusing the high-trust environment and start cheating? You can try policing them, but it just seems so costly, not so much in terms of money (though there’s that, too), but in terms of highly educated people’s time and energy. So instead, the system just collapses.

  4. Faith = life-changing lived experience, sure, but also, by their works ye shall know them. I think there’s a pretty good analogy there between this Harvard professor and the Pharisees of the bible. If you’re doing the “good works” to get famous, to earn popularity points, to climb ever higher up the ladder, then they’re not really good works, are they? Or at least, certainly not motivated by faith. Those acting out of faith mostly lead private lives, serving the poor, sharing their gifts “with one hand, while the other hand doesn’t know”… Real scientists get their hands dirty gathering real data, whether it leads to a breakthrough understanding or, more often, just identifies yet another species of peacock spider or whatever… yawn.

  5. Irena – As I understand it, grace can only be “given” by God. From a human point of view, grace can only be received. Luther’s doctrine is quite perplexing on this score because he basically says that it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are or how hard you try, God either chooses you or not. On the other hand, because grace is not bestowed by people but only by God, we also have to assume that anybody can receive grace at any time. That gives you the Christian principle of “charity” which holds that anybody can receive grace and should be treated as such.

    Feynman was quite adamant that you should “trust but verify”. It’s not a question on honesty. If you have not reproduced the result, you have not experienced it. That’s why I think there’s an existentialist element to Feynman’s ideas. Anything you haven’t experienced directly is not “known” in the same way as a written-down “truth”. Of course, we all have limited time and resources and so it’s just a fact that we can’t know most things experientially. Nevertheless, we all trust that the plane we are getting on will not fall out of the sky. That trust is based on experience because we know there are thousands of flights every day and we know we would hear if a plane crashed. So, another problem with modern science is that it’s an echo chamber based on all-talk-and-no-action.

    A – I suspect most scientific breakthroughs are also “overnight successes” hiding the fact that the scientist was labouring away for years or even decades. Peacock spiders are pretty cool, you have to admit. What happens when you allow specifies identification by mathematical analysis rather than field work. Something like this I suspect:-

    no of viruses

  6. Yes, when peacock spiders finally caught the public eye it made for a pretty cool mass phenomenon, and certainly there were years of hard work by certain individuals behind that. But then it takes years more to identify that species A in area X has four brown spots rather than two and that makes them Totally Different to species B in area Y… but that doesn’t get you another giant inflatable spider on top of the museum, does it? Hence the yawn factor (for the masses, not necessarily for the scientist doing that work). And I suppose that’s the appeal then to turning it over to the machines to do the grunt work. But once we’ve thusly “identified” 10000000 species of peacock spider, what do we “do” with that info? To me, this has the flavour of dogmatists who are obsessed with being seen to have All The Answers by virtue of being able to spin big numbers… but it’s all bluff in that many of them likely couldn’t pick out one of those spiders in the real world if their lives depended on it. So what is the point of tallying up all those numbers, and insisting everyone believe in them, in the first place?

    The hard-earned experienced-based “data” (grace) has a certain meaningfulness to the individual by its very nature, but without that direct application, theories handed down from on high (dogma) easily become catchphrases to be recited at the proper time, detached from real meaning (even if they are actually true!). Which is basically where I’m at with my kids being quizzed at school on things like various species of peacock spider or dinosaurs or whatever, but definitely are not encouraged to put in the effort to identify the kinds of trees or beetles they might actually find in their own backyard. Maybe it sounds smart to rattle off factoids, and it is easy to test, but… what do you *do* with it?

  7. A – this is exactly what Feynman talks about in his speech to a room full of science teachers. You can read it here if you haven’t already. It’s the essay called What is Science?

    There’s actually a mystery about what is and is not a species and how we can know it. I suppose you could mate the 4-spotted spider with a 2-spotted spider and see how many spots the child spider had. That would certainly be more interesting but would take a lot of time and effort. If you’re lucky, the female will eat the male after the mating and then the teacher can explain that to the children 🙂

  8. Dear Simon Sheridan,

    I have greatly enjoyed this stimulating series (as I have previous ones). I have been asking my interlocutors the question, ‘What does our society do, once it has thoroughly undermined all of its most cherished tenets?’ for some time now, and your series here offers much food for thought.

    I have been reading a (very) long essay by N. S Lyons, on his Upheaval blog entitled, ‘The China Convergence’.

    It is also illuminating (probably the best summary of the state we’re in, I’ve read in a long time), and I thought you’d like it to, all the more so as it contains the following sentence, ‘The regime becomes a devouring mother, projecting weakness onto her children in order to keep them attached and under her sway.’

    Kind regards,

    Yves-Marie Stranger

    Ps: another ‘Christian Existentialist you may enjoy , is Gabriel Marcel. There are a few snippets of conversation of his available on Youtube.

  9. Simon: “As I understand it, grace can only be “given” by God. From a human point of view, grace can only be received.”

    Ha. I redefined grace to make it more palatable to myself. 😛 Seriously, though, I find it hard to think of Luther as anything other than a villain. He was really messing with people’s heads.

    Simon: “I suspect most scientific breakthroughs are also “overnight successes” hiding the fact that the scientist was labouring away for years or even decades.”

    Exactly! Which is why if someone keeps coming up with a surprising, counterintuitive result once every few months, there’s an excellent chance something fishy is going on.

    Incidentally, I’ve now watched about a half of this conversation with one of the professors who busted the Harvard star (will watch the rest later):

    The main thing I got out of it is that the reason people get caught for data fraud is because they’re too greedy (my words, not his). Basically, they get suspiciously strong results, which raises eyebrows. If someone chooses to start digging, the fraudster may get caught. The Harvard star left some incredibly obvious traces. I assume she did that because she didn’t expect anyone to ever look. (It really is very, very obvious when someone explains it to you. You really don’t need to know any statistics to realize the stuff is fake.) So, if I were an aspiring data fraudster in the social sciences, my main take-home message would be that I should cover my tracks a bit better. Get good results, but not too good. When adding data points, don’t make the fake stuff stand out in a glaring way. And how many people are doing just that and getting away with it?

  10. Yves-Marie – thanks. And thanks for the link to Lyons. I’ll read it when I get the time. The tag line is something I have been worried about for quite a while now. China has shown us what we need to do to become totalitarian and our elites do not hide the fact that they are jealous of Beijing. Thanks also for the Gabriel Marcel reference. I haven’t read any of his work but it looks like most of it can be found in English translation.

    Irena – messing with your head is exactly what Christian existentialism is all about :). “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”

    I think the data fraud thing is a classic race to the bottom. You have to remember that the game here is to get research funding. If you lie just a little bit, you’ll be beaten by those who lie a little bit more. You increase your lying, but so does your opponent. Eventually, the only thing that wins is the most bald-faced lie. Pretty good description of society in general nowadays ?

  11. Hi Simon,

    Hmm, you know that there is moral hazard in: “This was in keeping with the philosophy of the Greeks and the idea of the noble lie.”? As a commentary to that assertion, suggesting that the ends, justifies the means, is a bit of a dodgy bit of thinking and is a sure sign of tyranny. But you probably already knew that.

    Seeking out the individual experience of a deity, didn’t really end so well for the Gnostics, who promoted that. The call to authority argument (i.e. the reliance on the ‘expert’ claim) is another bit of dodgy thinking, as you point out. Easily countered by asking the hard question – is this thing you’re saying true? Basically the argument has always sounded like a ‘get-lost and stop bothering us’ assertion. 😉

    Interestingly I read a book on logic which is very good, and also very practical. It was titled: Straight and Crooked Thinking. I highly recommend it.



  12. Chris – i’d say it’s a problem that is faced by every politician. Once you realise you can get away with lying, where do you draw the line? There has to be some pushback from the “real world” otherwise you’ll just keep lying since it’s the easiest way to make any (political) problem go away. Of course, the flipside to that is that a great many people want to be lied to. “tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies”

    Yves-Marie – thanks!

  13. Simon – I’m interested in your use of the word ‘satanic’. Partly because a friend has been updating me for years now on the elite global satanic conspiracy. One thing I’m not sure about is how satanism can exist w/o Christianity, & the folk I know who are preoccupied w/ how to identify satanists don’t (openly) identify as Christian or even religious. My response to them is to take ‘satanic’ as a metaphor, because from an archetypal perspective it doesn’t make sense to attribute evil to, for instance, one planet, i.e., Saturn. 🙂

  14. Shane – I also think of satanic metaphorically. I think it works very nicely to symbolise the inversion of values. For example, I define “real science’ as scepticism founded in recognition of the problem of induction but also requiring rigorous empirical testing and verification. What we call “science” in general culture nowadays is the opposite of this. It requires blind faith in experts who claim to have absolute truth. That’s what I call “satanic” (an inversion of truth).

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