Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Reality 101: The fat between our ears

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 02, 2014

I had my annual physical exam today, always a pleasant experience for an old man who looks (or perhaps I mean acts) as if he is 25. In the examination room, my doctor pointed out the June 23rd issue of Time magazine, the one with the cover story entitled “Ending the War on Fat”. It carried the intriguing tag line: “Eat butter.” (The entire story is online, but it is not free.)

Basically, the medical establishment has now decided that it was wrong in making war on fatty foods. My doctor wants to read more of the learned responses to this conclusion, which he said depended largely on studies published in medical journals in England, before he dramatically changes his own recommendations to his patients. But what interests me is not whether this is a genuine advance. What interests me is the invariably provisional nature of all conclusions based on scientific research.

I’m not speaking about my own understanding of scientific research. Heck, I even got a pneumonia shot today, something which yesterday I would have supposed did not exist. Nor am I blaming science for its provisionality. Even the greatest scholars and researchers know only a fraction of what might be known in any scientific field. Mankind as a whole has only scratched the surface of its understanding of reality. As our knowledge grows, we must inevitably find that many of our previous conclusions were based on incomplete or even misunderstood information.

Sometimes even the best scientific conclusions will prove imprecise or inaccurate enough to be later dismissed as just plain wrong. This has been laughably true in the matter of diet, as even casual observers have had ample opportunity to notice. It would be wrong, of course, to credit each dietary fad with the label of science. Still, changes in dietary recommendations do provide a convenient whipping boy. Moreover, because most of us are fairly familiar with the latest findings in this area, these changes can serve as a kind of cautionary tale against making facile assumptions about the inerrancy of the empirical.

Tunnel Vision?

Modern Western culture is rooted in complacency about being in control. We have lazily set aside difficulties posed by conflicting conclusions about reality as a whole, and about non-material reality in particular, for no better reason that that it is easier to find broad agreement in the pursuit of material well-being. When it comes to the material, we feel we know where we are, that we are on safe ground. Moreover, the emphasis seems justified by its success. All of this leads to self-satisfaction.

In a rather predictable dominant cultural pattern, we have become habituated to ignoring the less tangible yet more personally demanding questions of life. What is even worse, we regard ourselves as superior for doing so. We raise our eyes on high and give thanks that we are not like other men—narrow, bigoted, preoccupied with sins that no longer exist. We congratulate ourselves on keeping to our diets. Like clockwork, we support all the right causes.

What we do not do is lament our weakness with downcast eyes. We do not beat our breasts. We do not say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (cf., Lk 18:10-14)

But there really are countless events, both public and private, to give us pause. Certainly the periodic reversals of scientific command and control ought to do so. For example, the monstrous misuse of our material discoveries to both inflict pain and dominate others (of which war is but the most dramatic example) ought to suggest that there are serious aspects of reality which remain unexplored. And even this latest peace accord with fat ought to tell us that we are far from mastering the knowledge of the material world. One day we may come of age, I suppose, but this remains a long way off, and it cannot possibly happen by restricting our vision to the means most prized in our current culture.

More and Better Questions

All human knowledge is provisional. We have a marvelous capacity to be wrong about everything we think we know, and also to misuse each piece of knowledge about which we are not at the moment wrong. That capacity alone is well worth studying. But to study it (and many other things), we must realize our need for different disciplines, different tools, and even different aspirations when it comes to exploring reality. We even need to ask ourselves which aspects of reality we currently refuse to explore, and why.

One would think that such reflection would be a pre-requisite for the exploration of any given discipline, as a hedge against restricted vision and exalted claims. To anyone possessing even a modicum of intellectual breadth, nothing is more ludicrous than to see somebody pontificating about philosophy because he knows something of paleontology, or lecturing the world on metaphysics because he happens to have studied physics.

In any case, this opening of the mind to the broader nature and implications of reality, and to all the means necessary to probe it with understanding, will also raise the question of whether there is any knowledge at all, expressed in words, which we can trust to be totally accurate. Clearly, if all human knowledge is provisional, then nothing we set down about reality by ourselves can partake of this infallible character. The only expression of knowledge which could have such a character is a Divine utterance. So here we have the last question, though it should be the first. Is there anything that is totally reliable? If God exists, has He revealed Himself?

Now I admit that our present cessation of hostilities with fat does not amount to much by itself. To be sure, we can eat more butter. But what if we use it to engage our minds and hearts with the real issue? What if we seriously attend to the fat between our ears?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: gary.brisebois1104 - Sep. 03, 2014 2:34 PM ET USA

    Thank you Dr Mirus for this essay, it rings out like an OT prophet. I am also reminded of Pascal's complaint that our indifference to the supernatural and eternal while we live preoccupied with the trivial and mundane is so outrageous a gulf that it must itself have a supernatural explanation. On the subject of fat and heads, I would recommend the documentary "Fat Head" by Tom Naughton.