Faith and Hope: Paralleling the World of Science with the World of Personal Experience

I wrote this a year and a half ago for one of my last courses in college.  I’m posting it here so I don’t lose track of it. I was really proud of it when I wrote it.  It’s funny because as much depth as I’ve gained since then, I’m still spouting off the same things.  🙂

Faith and Hope:
Paralleling the World of Science with the World of Personal Experience

Chaos Theory and Metamathematics:
An Engineering Perspective on Religion

June 12, 2006

“Hope consists in asserting that there is
At the heart of being,
Beyond all data,
Beyond all inventories and calculations,
A mysterious principle which is in
Connivance with me,
Which cannot but will that which I will,
If what I will deserves to be willed
And is, in fact, willed
By the whole of my being.”
– Gabriel Marcel, The Ontological Mystery

Throughout our recent history, there has been a serious disconnect between science and religion.  It was often felt that science would eventually explain everything, and that religion might fall by the wayside.  But is there something about our existence that eludes even science?  Can science explain, or at least exist in harmony with, not just religion but the human personal experience?  How can we as individuals deal with all of the pain and suffering in the world?  Does science help us or hinder us in this goal?  Or is there some aspect of life that makes its mysteries completely unintelligible?  Is there any reason to have hope in a seemingly meaningless world such as ours?

Most people think of faith as assenting to certain propositions, regardless of the fact that there is no available proof.  If you hold something axiomatically, you hold it on faith.  But this is not the only way to think about faith.  William Lynch has a much different opinion.  We all have a deep, primal urge to trust in something other than ourselves.  Faith is exactly that movement of trust.  In fact, the word “believe” actually comes from the root “to belove.” Faith is a way of imagining the world through the lens of what you have chosen to give your life to.  It is a way of seeing, a paradigm.  Just as science has paradigms, faith does too.  Our lives are greatly shaped by how we view the world.

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” [1]

Annie Dillard describes it as the “artificial obvious,” which is what we construct that allows us to see better certain aspects of the reality which exists.  A geologist sees things in rocks at a glance that we wouldn’t even give a second look to.  Someone who loves cars can diagnose a problem just by listening to the engine.  We see what we know and what we expect, and what we expect depends on the artificial obvious that we have composed for ourselves.

Furthermore, because both faith and science are made up of different paradigms, we can come to a conclusive definition of mystery, given to us by Gabriel Marcel:

“A mystery is a problem which encroaches on its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem.” [2]

A mystery is something that we cannot figure out from inside our paradigm.  It is because a paradigm is so subjective that these mysteries exist.  They encroach on their own data, meaning that he problem cannot be approached from the standpoint of an objective observer.  The observer is part of the problem, he is inseparable from it, and he cannot get out of it in order to solve it.  So it is with paradigms, both scientific and faithful or personal.

One of the most important features of an imagination of faith, according to Lynch, is that it is ironic:

“It is an ironic paradigm.  This is so important that I have chosen irony, the ironic imagination, the irony of faith, the irony of Christ, as the real subject for this book [3]

He goes on to show how deeply ironic the Christian view of the world really is.  He even argues that any faith in the world is necessarily ironic because of the fact that it must reconcile pain with meaning.  This will become very important in our discussion on what science and faith have in common later on.

Science and math used to be considered absolute disciplines.  That is, there was nothing that they chouldn’t find out given the right amount of time and resources.  There was always a certain amount of control and predictability that could be counted on in scientific experiments.  If you cannot repeat your findings, how can they be valid?  Both scientists and mathematicians alike were able (or at least thought that they would be able) to take the world in all of its complexity and label it.  They wanted to section it off and put it into nice neat little boxes, each separated from the other.  Or, even better, find one theory that could explain the entirety of our existence, tying together everything that we know and experience scientifically.

This sort of view we will hereby refer to as “kitsch.” Kitsch is that sort of naïve optimism that we see running rampant in our culture.  From the sappy fairytale endings in many of our movies, to many people’s daily outlook on life.  It is the idea that we can expect things to turn out for the better.  It gives us the sense that we have control over out own lives.  Most of us need it in order to function without being overwhelmed by all of the pain in the world.  It is a world that leaves absolutely no room for mystery.  Every instance of evil of darkness in life becomes a problem that we must find a way to solve.  Unfortunately, many people still think of science this way even today.

However, the more science has reached for this sort of ideal, the more it has discovered knowledge that undermines it.  In 1931, while trying to prove logical completeness within a formal system, Kurt Gödel was forced to come to the opposite conclusion.  Gödel proved that within a system, there will always be propositions that cannot be classified as true or false without an outside perspective.  These “unprovable propositions” are exactly mysteries in Marcel’s sense.  Unprovable propositions are problems that encroach on their own data.  It is precisely the fact that you are within a system that prevents you from figuring out the validity of a proposition.

As a consequence of Gödel’s proof, math and science became worlds where absolute knowledge will never be possible.  This proof was solidified when Chaos Theory came into existence.  Because chaotic systems require infinite precision to reproduce exact results, we as finite beings can never be certain what results we will obtain from a particular experiment.  It removes the elements of control and predictability that were so present in scientific minds before.

If we put those two together, we find that science now leaves considerable room for mystery.  We have had to acknowledge that we cannot figure everything out, and that we may not have as much control as we originally though we did.  Our kitschy view of what we can know and figure out has been removed.  That is why many scientists had such a problem accepting Gödel’s proof.  They could no longer live in a nice, safe, controllable, and predictable little world.

With the advent of modern physics, we have also been forced to realize that it may not be impossible for two opposing attributes to exist within the same object.  Didn’t Lynch say that faith was an ironic paradigm?

“The common division of the world into subject and object, inner and outer world, body and soul, is no longer adequate.” [4]

Faith, and now science, have the ability to hold together two contradictory things.  Light, and in fact all matter, have been found to behave as both a wave and a particle, depending on the circumstances.  Quantum particles have both spin-up and spin-down, even though only one will appear when measured.  Chaos seems to posit that we may be able to hold freedom and determinism together.

If we can keep all these things together, then it wouldn’t be too hard to see how God’s love and the evil in the world could fit together.  There must be a way to figure it out.  If God really loves us, then he must do so allowing us to freely love him back, or not.  He must allow us to becomes whoever we want to be and to do whatever we deem necessary.  He must give us free will.  And, of course, with free will comes bad decisions, and with bad decisions comes evil.  Evil exists in the world precisely because God loves us so much.  If that isn’t the ironic imagination that Lynch describes, then what is?

This discussion also brings us to a definition of beauty that does not conform to kitsch.  If beauty is only the good things in life, then we hold ourselves to a purely aesthetic view of beauty.  We imagine it as something that can be judged and looked at as an observer.  But doesn’t real beauty mean so much more to us?  It takes more than simple prettiness to really ignite us.  Annie Dillard wrote about just that in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“One late afternoon at a low tide a hundred big sharks passed the beach near the mouth of a tidal river in a feeding frenzy.  As each green wave rose from the churning water, it illuminated within itself the six- or eight-foot-long bodies of twisting sharks.  … The sight held awesome wonders:  power and beauty, grace tangled in a rapture with violence.”[5]

A sight like this seems to touch us in a much deeper way than a cute little bird signing a song ever could.  It seems more real somehow.  It inspires awe, a mixture of fear and respect.

So, now we have found a way to make the pieces of life fit together very nicely.  The worlds of science and philosophy merge and are inseparable.  But now we must proceed with caution.  If we are not careful, we risk falling into a new sort of not-quite-so-naïve optimism.  It will be the mystery itself that becomes kitsch.  Ernest Becker writes of this in Denial of Death:

“It need not be overtly a god or openly stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to the game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center.”[6]

In face, even Dillard herself was wary of this fact.  Years after writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard found herself in a slump.  She didn’t like what she was writing, and so she went back to Tinker Creek to try to recapture the experience that drove her to write her prize-winning novel.  It was there that she realized how she had been fooled.  She had been dealing only with the world of nature.  A world that was outside of herself.  How can we really talk about violence and suffering if we don’t talk about the human aspect of it?  And so she set upon writing another novel, Holy the Firm, which would better describe how we deal with our own personal suffering.

But didn’t we just do what Dillard did in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek?  Didn’t we let the mystery become our new kitsch?  If we don’t consider our own human pain, then we are just drawing on

“…an experience which is not drawn from the most intimate and living part of himself, but, on the contrary, is considered from a sufficient distance to allow certain contradictions to become alternated or fused into a general harmony.”[7]

It seems that earlier we were somehow able to logic away the pain that comes from evil.  We put ourselves at a distance and talked about suffering as a global term.

“…evil which is only stated or observed is no longer evil which is suffered; in fact, it ceases to be evil.” [8]

Without our own pain, can we really call life a mystery?  Doesn’t this element of our own suffering make the problem encroach on its data in a whole new way?

It’s one thing to talk about suffering on a global scale, where you are a passive observer of it.  However, things become completely different when you are the one in pain.  I don’t just mean physical pain, although that has its problems as well.  What I am talking about is existential pain.  The pain you feel when your deepest love and trust have been betrayed.  It’s not hard to come up with an example of this type of anguish.  Most have experienced it before.  When you are really, truly suffering in this way, the explanation we gave before that our pain is a consequence of God’s love just doesn’t seem to satisfy you.  Not only that, but it almost infuriates you.  When you are really hurting, anything with a hint of kitsch reminds you of the love you lost.  You get mad because you know how futile it was to believe in such a greater harmony.  You yourself had believed it until it was violently ripped away from you.  You look at everyone’s life and feel like you know something they don’t.  Like they are just going about their stupid, superficial lives but you know better.  You know that whenever you put your trust in something or someone, that trust will ultimately be betrayed.

How can God let us hurt so badly when he has the power to stop it?  It doesn’t make sense.  There is no logical reason for it.  It sucks.  It hurts.  There’s no way to prevent evil from causing pain.  But that does not mean that something good can never come from it.  Violence and suffering have a way of causing paradigm shifts.  Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic fiction writer, articulates this very well:

“…in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.  This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned to at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader…” [9]

We convince ourselves that we have control over our lives.  That kitsch isn’t so bad.  We get so stuck in our ways of thinking that almost nothing else but violence will do the job of waking us up.  Peter Godfrey-Smith also has something to say about paradigms and what can change them:

“In this way, a paradigm is like a well-shielded and well-designed bomb.  A bomb is supped to blow up; that is its function.” However, “A well-designed bomb will be shielded from minor buffets.  Only a very specific stimulus will trigger the explosion.” [10]

Violence and pain are often the specific stimuli that we need to make our paradigms blow up.  But let’s not forget that this process of blowing our old world view to shreds is not easy.  It hurts.  We spend so much time and effort trying to gain a sense of mastery over our world that when it is ripped away, we feel completely and utterly betrayed.

But even here, there are two levels of suffering.  There is a difference between an accident, where the pain comes from without, and what Jerome Miller calls a “tragic reversal.”  We usually construct our lives in such a way as to avoid something.  What the thing is depends on the particular person and their history.  A tragic reversal happens when these very avoidances set you up to invite the exact type of pain that you were trying to run from.  It is the realization that:

“I have set in motion my own disintegration insofar as I am responsible for grounding the whole structure of my life on avoidances which the very realities that I excluded from my life are now undermining.  … Such an experience upsets the ego in a profoundly intimate and humiliating way.” [11]

With an accident, you can always blame some external force.  However, with a tragic reversal, most of the blame lies in you.  It is so upsetting because you caused your own pain.  You set yourself up for this.  Everything you had thought was true and safe and good was a lie.

Miller himself has a very illuminating example of a tragic reversal.  It is the story of a man who loves to welcome people into his home.  He feels he has built a good atmosphere in his house, based on his wonderful relationship with his wife and son. When people go over to his house, they feel at home because of how loving and perfect the household is.  But it is precisely this striving for perfection that causes his son to feel that he has to hide his homosexuality.  The son imagines that the father would be perfectly fine with some stranger being gay, but how can his son be gay?  How could they have lived all this time together and keep such huge secrets from each other?  He does not want to shatter his dad’s image of the perfect home, and so he starts to feel like the one stranger who cannot be welcome in the house.  The haven becomes a prison.  One day, his father finds him hung from the ceiling in an act of suicidal despair.  To the father, it will seem that his son’s death came from out of nowhere. But if he really thinks about it, he cannot help but realize his part in all of this, as inadvertent as it was.  It was by his very generosity that he unwittingly set up a dynamic that led to his son’s suicide.  Acknowledging this fact would probably be the most painful and horrible act of the father’s life.  It would shatter his world even more entirely that the death of his son on its own ever could have.  How can you live in a world of kitsch after that? The father’s imagination has been completely destroyed.

But even the pain won’t necessarily change a person’s imagination.  Whenever pain is involved, there is a huge temptation to just gloss over it and to convince yourself that you had nothing to do with it.  But in order to get past your defenses and shift your paradigm, you need to enter into crisis.  Allow the bomb to really blow up and deeply hurt you.  Otherwise, you go back to your normal life with your normal kitsch and never fully awaken yourself to the terrible, uncontrollable thing that is your life.

At this point, many get lost in the depths of despair.  What good is a paradigm shift if it is a shift into darkness and nihilism?  However, it absolutely crucial that we rid ourselves of our kitschy preconceived notions in order for us to be able to see clearly what true hope is.  You can only really see the light if you are in darkness.

“Hope is situated within the framework of the trial, not only corresponding to it, but constituting our being’s veritable response.” – Marcel [12]

There comes a moment, not as quickly for everyone, where somehow it is through the pain that we come to see something deeper.  Something that touches the most genuine parts of ourselves.  All of a sudden we see how complex and terrible and beautiful our lives really are, and we are filled with awe.  With wonder.  But we cannot force this moment.  It is not something we alone can cause:

“…hope is always associated with a communion, no matter how interior it may be.  This is actually so true that one wonders if despair and solitude are not at bottom necessarily identical.” – Marcel [13]

It is through our ties to other people that we will find hope.  Not just in what others can do for us but in the very obligations that our relationships demand of us.  It’s not someone else’s love that will bring us through; it is our love for others.  It is the acknowledgement of all of the shit in the world and the fact that there is not easy way out of it.  However, at the very same time we must recognize how much love there is in the world and how it all ties together, the good and the evil, to make a horrible, beautiful picture.  But again, it is not something we can just will to happen.  It is something which requires a certain relaxation.  A willingness to go wherever life takes us.  But when it finds us, the only reaction possible will be that of complete and utter awe.

And then, after this experience of hope, we inevitably construct new walls and defenses around ourselves.  We create new kitsch, and we begin to fool ourselves again.  And we will never know that we are doing it until the moment that it betrays us.  However, Marcel says it best when he writes:

“…it is never a simple return to the status quo, a simple return to our being, it is that and much more, and even the contrary of that, an undreamed of promotion, a transfiguration.”[14]

Even though we are endlessly repeating this cycle of avoidance, pain, and hope, the repetitions are not meaningless.  Each time we reach the hope it fundamentally changes us and how we view the world.

Now that we have more clearly defined the mystery, can science or mathematics really have anything to say?  I’m not convinced that it can.  It is no fault of scientists or mathematicians; it is just a difference in subject.  Math can never really focus on such a personal, data-encroaching pain because

“The business of a science is to concentrate on similarities, not differences, to be general, to omit whatever is not relevant to answering the severely delimited questions it sets itself to ask”[15]

Scientists have a certain amount of control over the objects of their study, and we have come to the conclusion that there is no such sort of control in the personal and religious spheres of life.  In addition, even though science and math have been proven not to be completely objective, they still tend to require the scientist to be in the mindset of an observer, not a participant.

So maybe science doesn’t hold all the answers, but I seriously doubt that anything or anyone actually does.  Perhaps we all have parts of the answers to varying degrees.  But whatever we do, we can never think we’ve got it all figured out.  That is precisely when we fall into the worst kind of kitsch.  We even have to be careful that, even allowing for mystery, we don’t let that mystery become kitsch as well.  Go where life takes you; be willing and relaxed.  And when darkness comes, invite it in.  It will hurt, and it will tear you apart.  You will tear yourself apart.  Life will not be merciful, and it does not take requests.  But somehow, find a way to trust in the world, and to fully invest yourself in it.  Marvel at the complexity and the interconnection all around you, and believe that there exists in the world, at the very heart of being, a mysterious power that cannot but will with you whenever what you will deserves to be willed, and is in fact willed by your entire being.


[1] Werner Heisenberg
[2] Gabriel Marcel, The Ontological Mystery
[3] William F. Lynch, Images of Faith
[4] Werner Heisenberg
[5] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
[6] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
[7] Gabriel Marcel, “Sketch of a Phenomenology and a Metaphysic of Hope”
[8] Gabriel Marcel, The Ontological Mystery
[9] Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work”
[10] Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality
[11] Jerome Miller, The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis
[12] Gabriel Marcel, “Sketch of a Phenomenology and a Metaphysic of Hope”
[13] Gabriel Marcel, “Sketch of a Phenomenology and a Metaphysic of Hope”
[14] Gabriel Marcel, “Sketch of a Phenomenology and a Metaphysic of Hope”
[15] Isaiah Berlin, “The Concept of Scientific History”

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