Knowing Less than We Think: Dieting, Global Warming, Morality, Revelation
One of the gravest deficiencies of our modern worldview is that we are completely unaware of how little we know. There are both special and universal reasons for this. One of the special reasons, for example, is the rapid technological advance of the past two centuries, which has tended to give us an illusion of complete dominance over reality. One of the more universal reasons is that material success tends to make people both vain and proud. This has happened over and over again to individuals, families, the upper classes, and whole civilizations. All you have to do is watch television commercials to see that our dominant culture is suffused with vanity and pride!
Nonetheless, it is somewhat startling that this illusion of knowing everything is so easily maintained in our own time. After all, our flawed judgments are exposed regularly even in the areas in which we profess the greatest security. Moreover, we actually live in a self-contradictory culture which tends to insist that there are no universal truths, no order at all in the entire universe. Everything, so we like to preach when it suits our convenience, is random.
Let me offer just two examples of the regular destruction of our certainties, out of a huge pool of possibilities. I will take the problem of proper diet first, homing in on just one vexing little issue, the problem of “fat”. Over the past generation, a veritable war has been waged against the ingestion of fatty foods as the number one key to a healthy diet. Billions of dollars have been poured into new industries to produce food without fats or with fat substitutes or with altered fats. Yet it seems that new studies are being done now which suggest that this fat-elimination effort was based on faulty (perhaps deliberately faulty) research, that (as is quite usual in the world of science) everybody jumped on the bandwagon with little independent research, and that the ingestion of fats plays an important role in human health, including providing triggers that let us know when we’ve had enough to eat. (I am not an expert on nutrition; I am repeating here things that I have recently read.)
A second example is climate change, which perhaps it is now safe to bring up again since the dire warnings against man-made global warming are now almost completely in the rear-view mirror. Once again, it seems that early research was flawed, the majority of scientists jumped on a profitable bandwagon with insufficient independent investigation, faulty models were developed for prediction, and billions of dollars have been demanded for combatting a problem now widely understood not to exist. It may be too soon for some readers to swallow these statements, but I do not insist on the acceptance of any particular example of my overall thesis, since so many different examples of certainty gone wrong can so easily be adduced. But a recent article in the Wall Street Journal will provide plenty of food for thought on this one: Climate Forecast: Muting the Alarm.
In any case, the difficulties we still have in predicting the weather ought to be sufficient to acquaint most people with how complex and varied and interconnected everything is, how difficult it is even through massive efforts to see reality clearly and whole, how fallible is man (even in his most exalted institutions), and how often we are all just plain wrong about so many things that, at various times, we have known beyond a shadow of doubt to be true.
As with science, so with culture as a whole. Very few people, scientists or otherwise, think independently, do their own comprehensive investigations, and fashion conclusions without checking on what “those who matter” are saying. What’s worse, every human being on the face of the earth is prone to a particularly grave weakness: The weakness of asserting his own will to shape the conclusions of his own intellect. When the will is not kept in check through self-discipline and grace, it soon orders the intellect to cease independent investigation of any sensitive question, telling it instead to use its particular genius to rationalize—to support what the will desires to justify. I wrote recently elsewhere that this is actually the interior process by which human nature resists grace. We all suffer from it, very often without knowing that we are doing it. Our minds are relatively dark, and when we are trapped in sin, they are darker still.
This brings us, as you might expect, to morality. A hundred years ago it was certain to nearly everyone throughout the entire world that contraception was gravely immoral; not much more than a generation ago, it was certain to nearly everyone that homosexual activity—however blameless the mere feeling of same-sex attraction might be—was a perversion of human sexuality, and morally abhorrent. Now, nearly everyone in the Western world is certain that the opposites of these things are true. In addition, this certainty includes two totally gratuitous assumptions: First, that the affluent West represents true human enlightenment, and so all other positions can be safely discounted; and, second, that we in the West know these things because they are “obvious”.
But let us be honest with ourselves. It is only immense hubris that always makes us so certain of our current conclusions. For each new idea that we embrace—as these ideas are churned out by our cultural elites—we rapidly become absolutely certain in our hearts that it is perfectly obvious, so obvious that no good and rational person could possibly question it. (And even if we are not convinced of this at first, we say it until we become convinced.) Things are so obvious, in fact, that acting in favor of the latest ideas is rapidly presented as a moral imperative in an age which disdains all morality; again, they are so obvious that those few who disagree may be acceptably dismissed as knaves and fools.
One would think, under such circumstances, that the truly intelligent option would be to look around to see if there is any knowledge we can acquire independently of our own weaknesses, temptations, foolishness and lamentable herd instinct. Such a source of knowledge would, of course, have to come from Outside, that is, from God. But if it could be found and reasonably verified (and even questioned and re-verified from time to time to avoid man’s part in it from getting out of hand), such a source of knowledge would be the most certain of all knowledge. This is because it would be treasured on the authority of God revealing: God is not weak, tempted, or foolish—and His only herd instinct is love.
I admit that this search would have to be a cautious one. The history of the world is full of alleged visionaries, whether religious, scientific or humanistic, who claim to have found the Key to Everything. The truly astonishing thing, however, is not that acquiring a revelation is a tricky business. No, the wonder is that so few are willing to put forth even a minimal effort to find one. Could it be that throughout our culture the will tells the intellect to shut up and support the party line? Unfortunately, our common party line makes no sense. Truly do the Scriptures state that only fools say in their heart that there is no God (Ps 14:1; 53:1).
But why do they say it, and why are there so many fools? The answer follows in the very same passage:
The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one. Have they no knowledge, all the evil-doers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord? [Ps 14:2-4; Ps 53:2-4; cf. Rom 3, esp. vv. 10-12]
Men and women of our age ought to be able to recognize the weakness of their own certainties. They ought to be able to wonder, at least, what is so wrong about giving God a try.
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Posted by: abc -
Apr. 04, 2014 7:52 AM ET USA
It is a pity that the Vulgate's "Numerus stultorum infinitus" was dropped from the Neovulgate. It was one of my favourite biblical quotations. :-)
Posted by: colrose18194 -
Apr. 02, 2014 11:55 AM ET USA
Good summation; think I'll send this one to my graduate school grandson! Gives him a clue as to "what's up" out there when he ends his school "career".
Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 01, 2014 10:38 PM ET USA
I do not look at "the World" and ask "why there are so many fools..?," but rather I look at the Church, even in my own mirror and ask why there are so few "wise men..?"
Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 -
Apr. 01, 2014 5:55 PM ET USA
Indeed, mr. Mirus. Modern man takes pride in having a will of his own and questioning everything. He doesn't worry about being fooled, because he has acquired "critical thinking skills", which amount more or less to "criticize what we, the thinkers, tell you to criticize, and don't criticize us - after all we don't want you to become the kind of people we like to criticize, and neither do you (take our word for it!)".
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Apr. 01, 2014 4:48 PM ET USA
A week ago I presented an oral paper titled "Global Climate Change Data Through 2013" at the Southern Atlantic Coast Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers spring meeting. The talk was based on research I did last year for service on a sustainability panel. The upshot of the talk is twofold: (1) global warming has been on hold since 1998, and (2) spectral analysis of historic and recent temperature data shows that natural cycles can explain much of the recent warming.