Choose Your Paradox

I was riding with my daughter in the back of a friend’s car the other day, heading home from a music festival. My wife was up front. My friend, who is weird and fun and loves everything quirky and new, put on the latest They Might Be Giants CD for children called Here Comes Science. The sing-along melodies and catchy hooks were just what you would expect from the nerd rockers.

My daughter liked it immediately. The songs were little lessons about things like the scientific method (“If there’s a question bothering your brain that you think you know how to explain. You need a test. Yeah, think up a test.”), and what various scientists do (“I Am a Paleontologist”).

Then the song “Science Is Real” came on. They sang that they “like the stories about angels, unicorns and elves,” but, “when [they’re] seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract, the facts are with science.” They set up Science against religion and the arts as having a surer claim on reality, on “the facts.”

My friend and I are both products of extremely conservative religious homes—I remember sitting in Sunday school as a child, swinging my feet to the rhythm and belting out, “I’m no kin to the monkey. The monkey’s no kin to me. I don’t know about your grandpa, but mine didn’t swing from a tree”—and we both chuckled a little as TMBG poked fun at some of the beliefs we have left behind.

Then I noticed that at the end of the song, TMBG switches from “the facts are with science” to “the truth is with science.” With this, they go from offering science as a paradigm for trying to understand reality to holding up Science as reality itself.

The song is staking a metaphysical claim.

From the Symphony of Science worship videos http://youtu.be/1PT90dAA49Q praising Science, to Richard Dawkins calling Science “magic” in his book for children, to “Science Is Real,” it appears that some are trying to fill with Science what Albert Camus calls “an appetite for the absolute and for unity.”

It’s understandable, but their problem is this: the metaphysical claim made in “Science Is Real” is a claim that cannot be proven by the method they admonish young listeners to use. They sing, “If somebody says they’ve figured it out. And they’re leaving room for doubt. Come up with a test.” But “science is real” is a claim which lies outside the bounds of any empirical test, which is the price of admission into Science; using their own rules they cannot verify their most basic truth claim.

I think Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is pertinent here. According to the theorem, every system is either incomplete—there are true statements which cannot be contained within it—or it has internal inconsistencies or paradoxes (antinomy is the word they used in theology class: two assertions that, if true, negate one another, and yet are both still held to be true)—places where things do not fit.

Though Gödel is referring to formal mathematical systems, it is worth applying this to religious and philosophical systems because none that claim universality are without paradox.

There is, for example, for Christians the problem of evil: how, in a world where evil exists, can there be a God who is all good and all powerful both? To believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God in a world where evil doesn’t just exist but flourishes, is to hold on to a paradox. It is perplexing and troubling, these places where we are drawn up short, where we cannot go any further logically.

Some cultures are more comfortable with paradox. In The Bhagavad-Gita the warrior Arjuna despairs that if he does his duty and kills his kinsmen in battle he will bring evil upon himself. He asks Krishna “how can we know happiness,” which is his heart’s desire.

Krishna tells him he must do his duty, but “relinquish attachment.” He instructs Arjuna that he can achieve his desire for happiness, “when he gives up desires in his mind, is content with the self within himself.” When Arjuna can act without desire, when for him “suffering and joy are equal” his actions will not affect his happiness. You want your heart’s desire, Arjuna? Give up desire and you will find it.

Believers in Science make an absolute claim, one that cannot ever, even in theory, be subjected to their own empirical method. It is beyond the realms of science, is a paradoxical truth claim that must be accepted on faith.

It seems to me that where we find these paradoxes are the very places something major is at stake. These aren’t minor glitches that can be ignored; they are the load-bearing points, the capstones that hold the whole structure together. The deep places of mystery.

It is no good to throw up your hands and say you are finished with the whole game, all of them are equally nuts, retreat into relativism. As Rush sings, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice,” and absolute relativism has its own glaring paradox right up front.

You simply cannot believe in a system that is not held together by paradox, a place beyond logic and reason—a place of mystery. My friend Beth Bevis said to me, and I believe she is right, that we want that sense of mystery, we’re hard-wired to seek transcendence.

Does it come down to which paradox, which mystery, you can to live with?

 

This post first appeared on the “Good Letters” blog, Thursday October 27, 2011.
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