Hard Hearts, Soft Brains

Political commentator George F. Will makes an important observation in a recent Washington Post op ed piece.  Reflecting on the recent revelations that scientists manipulated the empirical  data in order to bolster their argument of man-made climate change, Will writes:

Consider the sociology of science, the push and pull of interests, incentives, appetites and passions. Governments’ attempts to manipulate Earth’s temperature now comprise one of the world’s largest industries. Tens of billions of dollars are being dispensed, as by the U.S. Energy Department, which has suddenly become, in effect, a huge venture capital operation, speculating in green technologies. Political, commercial, academic and journalistic prestige and advancement can be contingent on not disrupting the (postulated) consensus that is propelling the gigantic and fabulously lucrative industry of combating global warming.

Copenhagen is the culmination of the post-Kyoto maneuvering by people determined to fix the world’s climate by breaking the world’s — especially America’s — population to the saddle of ever-more-minute supervision by governments. But Copenhagen also is prologue for the 2010 climate change summit in Mexico City, which will be planet Earth’s last chance, until the next one.

It is easy to forget that contemporary science depends both on proper experimental method and the virtue of scientists.    While in one sense the scientific method helps us transcend some aspects of human subjectivity–personality, social class and gender come quickly to mind–in another sense (as the Climategate scandal illustrates) it emphasizes other aspects.  Technological expertise is not sufficient; trustworthy science requires trustworthy scientists.  And not only does it demand virtues such as truthfulness on the part of researchers.  There is also a need for a human community that is also committed to a life of intellectual and moral virtue.  Absent such personal and share virtue, science becomes–as Will suggests above–another means of exerting the power.

In Orthodoxy, G. K Cheterton writes that “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own.”  He continues by identifying the thought that stops thought, pragmatism.

This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever. My meaning can be put shortly thus. I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist. Extreme pragmatism is just as inhuman as the determinism it so powerfully attacks. The determinist (who, to do him justice, does not pretend to be a human being) makes nonsense of the human sense of actual choice. The pragmatist, who professes to be specially human, makes nonsense of the human sense of actual fact.

Not only scientists but all of us are tempted (as Chesterton suggests) to pragmatism, to simply dispensing with objective facts when doing so advances our agenda at the moment.   Pragmatism submits truth to human will; it is my desire that must be served not truth.

But whether I bend the truth to my will for reason of science or religion is, in the end, of no consequence.   My will, precisely as mine, is self-defeating.  Again, Chesterton, “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”   But having demand that truth submit to will, we have lost the love of truth and so we have lost that which makes self-sacrifice meaningful–the truth.  Truth highlights for me the limitations of my thinking and my willing; without these limitations I am not more than myself nor even less than myself.  Rather without limitations it becomes meaningless even to speak about human identity.

The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.

What is now under assault in our culture–and again this is true whether that culture claims to be religious or secular–is an appreciation, a wholesome gratitude, for human limitations.  And having lost our love of limits, we have lost our love for each other.  But “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.”  Our brains are soft because our hearts are hard.

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  • Chrys

    Very insightful and very, very important. In our culture’s technological arrogance, we are racing to construct a self-serving world unconstrained by “inconvenient truths” that might inhibit the pursuit and satisfaction of our appetites. I would say that we risk becoming a modern Babel, except that Providence and reality both ensure that such pretensions invariably collapse.

    Of course, this rot is particularly acute amongst a good deal (though not all) of our elites – especially academia, where one might reasonably expect better. The University, emerging as it did from monasteries in the West, was based upon certain virtues: honesty, integrity, disinterest, etc. For a long time, however, such virtues have been ignored or despised among the intelligentsia (so bourgeois!). Unfortunately you can live on a legacy for only so long. While many predominantly left-leaning academics (or is that almost redundant) have claimed that the economic incentives of corporate sponsored research have contaminated the scientific process, they were apparently blind to the enormous incentives of government-sponsored research – which is the primary source of such funding.

    The corrective is rooted in your key point that knowing in any meaningful requires certain virtues. As the ascetical tradition has long known and taught, our self-interest and our passions can readily rely on a self-serving perspective that is very prone to delusion. Humility is the essential condition for any knowledge, but especially for self-knowledge. Or, as you so eloquently expressed it: Our brains are soft because our hearts are hard.

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  • Chrys

    Very insightful and very, very important. In our culture’s technological arrogance, we are racing to construct a self-serving world unconstrained by “inconvenient truths” that might inhibit the pursuit and satisfaction of our appetites. I would say that we risk becoming a modern Babel, except that Providence and reality both ensure that such pretensions invariably collapse.

    Of course, this rot is particularly acute amongst a good deal (though not all) of our elites – especially academia, where one might reasonably expect better. The University, emerging as it did from monasteries in the West, was based upon certain virtues: honesty, integrity, disinterest, etc. For a long time, however, such virtues have been ignored or despised among the intelligentsia (so bourgeois!). Unfortunately you can live on a legacy for only so long. While many predominantly left-leaning academics (or is that almost redundant) have claimed that the economic incentives of corporate sponsored research have contaminated the scientific process, they were apparently blind to the enormous incentives of government-sponsored research – which is the primary source of such funding.

    The corrective is rooted in your key point that knowing in any meaningful requires certain virtues. As the ascetical tradition has long known and taught, our self-interest and our passions can readily rely on a self-serving perspective that is very prone to delusion. Humility is the essential condition for any knowledge, but especially for self-knowledge. Or, as you so eloquently expressed it: Our brains are soft because our hearts are hard.

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  • Ronald Devins

    Science on its own is messy and time consuming, but it generally works because it is like an ecumenical council…things are only declared universally valid when the body of scientists can see no flaw in it and no way to refute it.

    The key problem with modern science, i.e. science after Hilter’s eugenics justification, is that it is extremely political and capitalistic. As such, truth often takes a back seat to political agendas and the bottom line.

    IMO, the only good science, is the science that the average person hasn’t heard about since it is more or less free from these perversions.

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  • Ronald Devins

    Science on its own is messy and time consuming, but it generally works because it is like an ecumenical council…things are only declared universally valid when the body of scientists can see no flaw in it and no way to refute it.

    The key problem with modern science, i.e. science after Hilter’s eugenics justification, is that it is extremely political and capitalistic. As such, truth often takes a back seat to political agendas and the bottom line.

    IMO, the only good science, is the science that the average person hasn’t heard about since it is more or less free from these perversions.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Some of us have lived long enough to see the limits of science and the secular apocalypse du jours that they engendered on us. Just in my short time, if everything I’ve seen predicted came true we’d be covered in ice, eating each other, manufacturing “Soylent Green” (which is not soy, is not lenten and isn’t green), out of coal and oil, living underground due to nuclear winter, out of wheat, rice and corn, and burning up in UV rays. Science is more politics than we imagine.
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Moo Sighting at the Ballet =-.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Some of us have lived long enough to see the limits of science and the secular apocalypse du jours that they engendered on us. Just in my short time, if everything I’ve seen predicted came true we’d be covered in ice, eating each other, manufacturing “Soylent Green” (which is not soy, is not lenten and isn’t green), out of coal and oil, living underground due to nuclear winter, out of wheat, rice and corn, and burning up in UV rays. Science is more politics than we imagine.
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Moo Sighting at the Ballet =-.

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  • Chrys

    s-p: Exactly. The dire predictions of the 70’s (a decade that provided endless examples extrapolation gone awry) went a long way toward cultivating a hard cynical view in my then soft teen-aged heart. I remember each of the claims you noted. It was in 1978, as I recall, that we heard widespread warnings about a new Ice Age. (I recall cover stories on it in various national weeklies.) That combined with the population explosion (I like the riff on “Soy”-“Lent”- “Green”), the Oil embargo, revelations of corruption in the upper echelons of power (not just Nixon, but Johnson and Kennedy, too), social unrest, “runaway inflation” (to be solved with a “Whip Inflation Now” button), an energy crisis with gas lines around the block — well, the world DID look like it was falling apart. The sham is that our “experts” merely extrapolated the same, painting a future that looked just like that present only WAY more so. Predicting the future should be left to carnival acts (who can’t) and prophets (who can, as God directs).
    Thus, as Ronald points out, science never “proves” anything. The scientific process proceeds by disproving alternatives until only those things remain that can not be dis-proven. These coalesce into a “consensus” among scientists as the most likely case. The fact that the scientists in question quickly advocated a consensus about a prospective cause and then claimed that this “proved” anthropogenic climate change should have alerted folks that something other than science was going on here. There was no widespread effort to disprove the impact or test the significance of the myriad variables that might affect climate. Instead there is a rush to certainty – despite the fact that the models have failed to account for past changes, let alone current changes. When people jump to conclusions, it is usually because it serves their purpose to do so. There is much to admire in the effort that transformed this into a movement – but it isn’t science, it’s salesmanship.

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  • Chrys

    s-p: Exactly. The dire predictions of the 70’s (a decade that provided endless examples extrapolation gone awry) went a long way toward cultivating a hard cynical view in my then soft teen-aged heart. I remember each of the claims you noted. It was in 1978, as I recall, that we heard widespread warnings about a new Ice Age. (I recall cover stories on it in various national weeklies.) That combined with the population explosion (I like the riff on “Soy”-“Lent”- “Green”), the Oil embargo, revelations of corruption in the upper echelons of power (not just Nixon, but Johnson and Kennedy, too), social unrest, “runaway inflation” (to be solved with a “Whip Inflation Now” button), an energy crisis with gas lines around the block — well, the world DID look like it was falling apart. The sham is that our “experts” merely extrapolated the same, painting a future that looked just like that present only WAY more so. Predicting the future should be left to carnival acts (who can’t) and prophets (who can, as God directs).
    Thus, as Ronald points out, science never “proves” anything. The scientific process proceeds by disproving alternatives until only those things remain that can not be dis-proven. These coalesce into a “consensus” among scientists as the most likely case. The fact that the scientists in question quickly advocated a consensus about a prospective cause and then claimed that this “proved” anthropogenic climate change should have alerted folks that something other than science was going on here. There was no widespread effort to disprove the impact or test the significance of the myriad variables that might affect climate. Instead there is a rush to certainty – despite the fact that the models have failed to account for past changes, let alone current changes. When people jump to conclusions, it is usually because it serves their purpose to do so. There is much to admire in the effort that transformed this into a movement – but it isn’t science, it’s salesmanship.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Chrys, “…predicting the future should be left to carnival acts.” Too bad the National Enquirer went out of business… now I have to buy “Scientific American”. :)
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Moo Sighting at the Ballet =-.

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  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    Chrys, “…predicting the future should be left to carnival acts.” Too bad the National Enquirer went out of business… now I have to buy “Scientific American”. :)
    .-= s-p´s last blog ..Moo Sighting at the Ballet =-.

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  • Michael Bauman

    Crys says above: “Of course, this rot is particularly acute amongst a good deal (though not all) of our elites – especially academia, where one might reasonably expect better.”

    I am curious Chrys why we should expect better from academia? The universities emerged from a monasticism that, according to Archmandrite Zacharias, had forgotten the need for salvation and instead wanted to maximize the human intellect on its own. The unbridled human intellect seeks only one thing, power. The ultimate idolatry (self-worship) is the end result.

    God is at first distanced, then disolved and the true nature of humanity is perverted from a creature wholly dependent upon a loving, Incarnate God for our existence to a the ‘measure of all things’. We are no longer creatures but self-willing rulers (supermen if Nietzche is to be believed).

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  • Michael Bauman

    Crys says above: “Of course, this rot is particularly acute amongst a good deal (though not all) of our elites – especially academia, where one might reasonably expect better.”

    I am curious Chrys why we should expect better from academia? The universities emerged from a monasticism that, according to Archmandrite Zacharias, had forgotten the need for salvation and instead wanted to maximize the human intellect on its own. The unbridled human intellect seeks only one thing, power. The ultimate idolatry (self-worship) is the end result.

    God is at first distanced, then disolved and the true nature of humanity is perverted from a creature wholly dependent upon a loving, Incarnate God for our existence to a the ‘measure of all things’. We are no longer creatures but self-willing rulers (supermen if Nietzche is to be believed).

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  • Fr Gregory Jensen

    A number of interesting comments here. Thank you to all of you for taking the time and care that you clearly put in.

    Chrys I think raise the most important point in his first comment. The modern university is itself the fruit of monastic life. And not just Western monastic life but Eastern monasticism as well. While the autonomous university did not exist in the East on anything near the scale that we see in the West, an argument could be made that the first university properly so-called was the University of Constantinople founded in the early 5th century. You can read a brief history of it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Constantinople.

    I would, with reference to Michael’s comment, be hesitant to say that Western monastic life has forgotten the need of salvation. While I have read only a little of Archmandrite Zacharias’ work, and have not read anything he has specifically written on this point, I would nevertheless have to reject such a characterization of Western monastic life. Are there bad monks and worse monasteries? To be sure. But this is hardly something unique to the West. To assert that Western monasticism has forgotten about the need for salvation is simply false.

    S-P & Ronald offer us some interesting ideas about the limits of science. It does seem that the more popular the science becomes the less likely it is to be true. The concern about global cooling (and the whole in the ozone layer) is a case in point. Science proceeds, ideally, through a process of falsification in the service of a growing consensus (as Chrys points out). This is what makes the Climategate such a unsettling event–it reflects the willingness of some in the scientific community to exempt their own research from criticism.

    This is, in its own way, as serious as Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme or denominational official turning a blind eye to sexual or financial misconduct by clergy. These are moral crimes that undermine the very social mechanicsms by which we care for each other.

    Anyway, thank you all for your comments.

    In Christ,

    +FrG

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  • Fr Gregory Jensen

    A number of interesting comments here. Thank you to all of you for taking the time and care that you clearly put in.

    Chrys I think raise the most important point in his first comment. The modern university is itself the fruit of monastic life. And not just Western monastic life but Eastern monasticism as well. While the autonomous university did not exist in the East on anything near the scale that we see in the West, an argument could be made that the first university properly so-called was the University of Constantinople founded in the early 5th century. You can read a brief history of it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Constantinople.

    I would, with reference to Michael’s comment, be hesitant to say that Western monastic life has forgotten the need of salvation. While I have read only a little of Archmandrite Zacharias’ work, and have not read anything he has specifically written on this point, I would nevertheless have to reject such a characterization of Western monastic life. Are there bad monks and worse monasteries? To be sure. But this is hardly something unique to the West. To assert that Western monasticism has forgotten about the need for salvation is simply false.

    S-P & Ronald offer us some interesting ideas about the limits of science. It does seem that the more popular the science becomes the less likely it is to be true. The concern about global cooling (and the whole in the ozone layer) is a case in point. Science proceeds, ideally, through a process of falsification in the service of a growing consensus (as Chrys points out). This is what makes the Climategate such a unsettling event–it reflects the willingness of some in the scientific community to exempt their own research from criticism.

    This is, in its own way, as serious as Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme or denominational official turning a blind eye to sexual or financial misconduct by clergy. These are moral crimes that undermine the very social mechanicsms by which we care for each other.

    Anyway, thank you all for your comments.

    In Christ,

    +FrG

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