SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - In Defense of Attacking Science
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A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
Even the most noble paths can lead to hell.
The cool and controlled tool of science that tempts humans with the promise of transcending their imperfect, animalistic nature has never been immune to human failings.
While it’s saved us from ourselves in ways even the most devoted missionary of the scientific method has long taken for granted, science has also been a world-changing weapon. From building bombs to rationalizing prejudices, only amnesiacs and fanatics can forget the role science has played in mass suffering.
Like any tool, science is equally capable of both creation and destruction.
I’m a fan of science. Part of my time in university was spent studying experiment design and interpreting research results. Knowing how something works often makes you equally aware of how it doesn’t.
The last few years have placed many people in positions they never expected to find themselves. I’ve watched lifelong liberals let go of their party with more emotion than Rose flinging that necklace into the sea. I’ve watched soft-spoken, bleeding hearts whisper their support for enforced exclusion of their fellow citizens based on little more than personal preference.
And here I am: someone who grew up reading every citation-riddled science book she could smuggle out of an over-priced book store, now warning about the limitations and dangers of the subject I voraciously studied.
This topsy-turvy world is just another flashing light warning us to advance carefully on the noble but unpredictable path toward what seems like progress.
As our lives migrate onto a character-limited cyber frontier, we’ve become an increasingly slogan-based society. What better specimen to further our understanding of the dark side of science than a slogan that spread like an invasive species, cropping up on yard signs and social media bios in barely a year: believe science.
Pollock himself couldn’t capture chaos more perfectly than the contradiction that is believe science.
Of all the slogans, believe science feels like a splinter—not exactly painful, but slightly too annoying to ignore. The salvation of a secular, rationality-based society supposedly lay in forgoing the bloody history of telling each other what to believe.
Whether it’s Allah’s word or Harvard’s research, compelling other people to believe is a human hobby that can turn atheists into preachers.
Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, c.1619-20 by Peter Paul Rubens
Everything has already happened—it just repeats in worse and more ridiculous ways.
Distrust in a familiar kind of zealousness stoked by science was born long before believe science shoved our nose in it. The magical view of science that demands devotion was already in the crosshairs of famous thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper by the 1970s.
The viewpoint that sees science as more than just a process, but as an all-encompassing, inherently superior worldview was termed scientism. Made popular by Hayek, scientism is the secular version of trying to stop a hurricane with holy water.
Scientism is the morning after that brief cultural moment where some of us were convinced that religion was the only obstacle to a rational, civil future. Instead of a secular paradise, we woke up with nihilism and a new slogan that bids us to believe. Philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr owns the “I told you so” rights for his warning that the West was in danger of adopting modern science, not as a method for understanding, but as a replacement for religion.
If history has shown us one thing that religions rarely tolerate, it’s questioning.
Scientism proves humans can make anything sacred, from cows to lab coats. Yet, there’s a fundamental flaw with these impassioned demands we believe—science doesn’t require belief anymore than the sun does.
Research is a constant cycle of disbelief; one scientist’s doubt about previous research leads to new research and new or confirmed results. The difference between science and scientism is the understanding that science is inherently flawed because everything is inherently flawed. A single error can skew research results into being useless, or worse.
The patron saints of science weren’t the people who didn’t question its limitations and believed every outcome—they were the people who knew their research was but a scratch upon the surface of something deeper. Some of the greatest scientific achievements were the result of the imperfection that scientism makes sacrilege to name.
The best scientific thinkers aren’t those desperate to believe in what science yields, but those with an intense and insatiable compulsion to question everything, including their methods of inquiry.
The deeper loss of those who confuse science with scientism is in how they become the same narrow-minded, irrational figures they criticize.
Science is a tool, nothing more. Even the most rigorously researched facts don’t offer a larger worldview; that’s why research papers end with the most unscientific section in the study—discussion.
Man cannot live on science alone. However robust your research may be, the interpretation and application requires reaching outside the realm of hard science.
The philosopher of science who viewed the scientific method as more in need of anarchy than belief—Paul Feyerabend—would be on every podcast today were he still alive.
Though he dedicated his life to its study, Feyerabend would be repulsed by the growing deification of science in our society:
[S]cience can stand on its own feet and does not need any help from rationalists, secular humanists, Marxists and similar religious movements; and...non-scientific cultures, procedures and assumptions can also stand on their own feet and should be allowed to do so...
Science must be protected from ideologies; and societies, especially democratic societies, must be protected from science...
In a democracy, scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subjected to public control, there must be a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality.
—Paul Feyerabend, in Against Method
To conflate science and belief is to rob ourselves of what lays beyond the reach of a powerful but imperfect tool. Science exists because the unknown exists.
Scientism shrinks the vast unknown and denies the humble truth of our ability to know, denigrating the very curiosity and skepticism that once birthed science.
The most anti-establishment, nature-loving hippie who starts a homestead toils on the land just like a conservative, tradition-loving farmer.
The fanatical anti-fascists don the same anonymizing outfit and employ the same tactics of destruction as the fascists they fight.
The rationalist that sees science as the answer to all becomes as dogmatic in their inability to doubt as the religious person whose blind faith they mock.
If you like horseshoe theory, you’ll love enantiodromia. The idea that a thing taken to the extreme ultimately becomes its opposite has been around far longer than the political version we’ve become familiar with after a few years of counter-counter-cultural change.
While horseshoe theory evokes eye-rolling from those with a taste for extremism, enantiodromia stretches beyond politics and into the earlier parts of world history.
The I Ching itself—an ancient Chinese text thousands of years old—could be transformed into SparkNotes form by the idea of enantiodromia. Yang lines become yin and yin lines become yang when either one reaches its most extreme point.
Daren Thomas Magee
The symbol of yin and yang wasn’t designed solely to point out a problem, but to remind us of the solutions that people long before us found to problems long before ours.
A shift in our culture has pushed many things to their extreme, whether it’s advocates of racial equality espousing racism or legacy media becoming less informative than a comedian’s podcast. When your world feels upside down, enantiodromia may be at work.
Just as the natural world seeks equilibrium, society is ruled by the need for balance. Understanding enantiodromia is like having an extra hint to a question everyone else is guessing the answer to.
It’s not solely extremism that should worry us, but the impending counter-balance.
When we see a push in one direction, the smart step is to consider the outcome of that push—the wise step is to consider the response to that outcome.
Enantiodromia can be found in politics and personalities. Balance isn’t just a new age bumper sticker, but an ever-shifting process that governs everything from intimate relationships to inanimate objects.
Place a pen extending out beyond the edge of your desk and when too much weight goes unsupported, that pen will be balanced by falling to the floor. Give too much effort to your partner without getting much in return and that relationship will be balanced through its eventual decline. Elect an unpredictable, brash, institutional outsider as president and balance may appear in the form of a near-absent, frail, institutional hand-maiden.
Balance will be sought; the error is in believing all acts of rebalancing are positive. The opposite of aggression isn’t kindness, but meekness.
Enantiodromia means viewing the world and the self, not from a single side, but as a balance between sides.
Balance aims for the middle point, not the polar opposite. Yet, when our starting point is an extreme, rebalancing often leads to an opposing extreme.
Being conscious of enantiodromia gives us a chance at aiming for the positive elements in the opposing side. Ending a relationship with a distant partner doesn’t have to mean starting a relationship with a clingy partner. The positive opposite of distant isn’t obsessive, but attentive.
Carl Jung brought the concept of enantiodromia from the East to the West, making it a central part of his theory on individuation. He saw individual growth as a process of obtaining balance. Rather than trying to remove a negative personality trait, individuation requires balancing the trait with its positive opposite. The overly agreeable person benefits, not from losing their agreeableness, but from developing assertiveness.
A society that becomes dogmatically rational doesn’t find positive balance by becoming irrational, but by accepting the limits of rationality and respecting the ever-present unknown.
Yet, history relishes in punishing those who neglect it. Our current collision course with enantiodromia seems to lead us toward an irrationality we still smugly condemn in our ancestors.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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