Immunization Shots

Michael Metzger

Nonsense and knowledge…
“Math is the only language all human beings share,” according to IBM’s new TV ad. “Math can do anything.” Some would say this is nonsense pretending to be knowledge. Others however don’t catch it because they haven’t been immunized against idiocy. C.S. Lewis had an antidote. Here it is – see if you feel the effect within the next two minutes.

Knowledge such as the sciences and math sprang to life in ancient societies that imagined social life ordered by a coherent, comprehensible, and sacred canopy.1 This canopy might have been called fate or faith, but it connected math to a higher language of morality. This meant all human beings shared at least two languages. It’s a connection however that began to corrode during the Western Enlightenment.

On the night of November 10, 1619, Rene Descartes, the father of the Enlightenment, had a life-changing dream. Descartes imagined a “universal science” – the “possibility of applying the infallible method of mathematics to all the phenomena of the universe and every department of thought,” Louis Bredvold writes. It was a dream of mathematics one day establishing human affairs and ethics on a rational and precise basis.2 It wasn’t a rant against religion; mathematics was simply a superior language, offering “a realm of objective facts which are quite sanitized of any elements of subjectivity.”3 Our other language of morality was inferior, suffering from unsanitary subjectivity.

The language of morality fell further out of favor in the 1800s, beginning with Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who founded a school of thought known as logical positivism. Comte maintained that humanity progresses through stages of positive improvements, the first being theological and looking to God. The second stage is mockingly called the “metaphysical,” when theological definitions of reality are replaced by science. Comte believed we were moving past this second stage toward the third – and final – period, which he called the “positivist.” This was the highest achievement in human thinking – a period in which science, including math, is the only language all human beings share.

Comte might have been ignored were it not for an overlapping network of individuals and institutions that took his ideas seriously. Chauncey Wright advanced the philosophy of positivism, influencing the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles S. Peirce. This elite group changed the institutions of jurisprudence, philosophy, literature, and education in the 19th century through an informal network that met in Cambridge, Mass in 1872. They derisively called it the Metaphysical Club. The key was Wright’s insistence that “positivism was, at bottom, an absolute distinction between facts and values. Fact was the province of science and value was the province of what he called, always a little deprecatingly, metaphysics,” historian Louis Menand notes. Wright didn’t condemn religions – they simply couldn’t solve problems because they were so subjective and unreliable. “He just thought they should never be confused with science.”4

It was the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who first called this so-called knowledge nonsense. He drew with inescapable clarity the necessary conclusion of disconnecting mathematics from morality: unimaginable wars without end. Hitler for example did the math and switched from bullets to gas chambers – a cheaper final solution. Mao did the math and figured it was more economically expedient to exterminate 70 million of his countrymen. Bernard Madoff also did the math.

Human beings, “all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it,” Lewis wrote.5 If math is our only language, why are people livid at Bernie? Math alone doesn’t make you mad; but a breach in a moral code does. People believe Madoff ought to have acted in a certain way. Ought is the opening act of a shared human drama known as ought, is, can, and will. All human beings share this moral language. This means IBM’s ad is nonsense.

Two minutes are up. Does the IBM ad still wash over you… or is it now a wake-up call? Did you notice that the antidote was a simple acquaintance with philosophy and history? We need these “because bad philosophy needs to be answered,” Lewis said. “We need intimate knowledge of the past… something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village… and is in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press.”6

Lewis’s antidote isn’t arduous. “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between,” he noted. “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of history blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” For example, after finishing the book you’re presently plowing through, follow up with Tolstoy’s What is Art? Tolstoy said art is a universal language. Huh… another language all human beings share. If you keep reading old and new, you’ll soon be immunized against the great cataract, or waterfall, of nonsense that washes over us everyday – and see the many languages we share.

1 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in christian discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 7.
2 See Louis I. Bredvold, “The Invention of the Ethical Calculus,” in The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature From Bacon to Pope, by Richard Foster Jones and others writing in his honor (Stanford: Stanford Press, 1951), pp. 165-180.
3 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 22.
4 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York, NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.
5 C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 7.
6 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, seventh edition, 1977), pp. 50-51.


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  1. I think the apostle Paul, in a couple of his “old books”, communicated this, that it’s not math, or science, or art or even religion with it’s moral codes which brings coherency and sense to the universe. Rather it is a living person – Jesus Christ, by whom and through whom and for whom are all things and in Him all things hold together whether visible or invisible.
    In essence, nothing, that is nothing makes sense apart from Him.

  2. Tim, that’s not quite what Paul said. There is no “life” apart from Jesus, but certainly there are aspects of coherent thinking apart from him. In Paul’s own words, “Indeed, when Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” The image of God is not blotted out by sin nor is the reality of living in God’s world. Significantly distorted, yes. Completely denied, no. A shared humanity, a common grace, and the structures of reality all people share in common.

  3. After being immunized from idiocy, I began to wonder what other languages we share and if there is one that stands out above all others. I wonder if music isn’t the most basic, primitive and powerful universal language. I think it might be. One only needs to see a little child dance to some good tunes to realize music’s power and influence even over children. Granted, at my ripe age of 24 I haven’t seen that many babies in my day but I’ve yet to see one choose not to groove to some music when it is thumping.

    Furthermore, I remember reading the book “Dead Man Walking” in college and one detail that has stuck with me to this day is what an inmate may and more importantly may not have access to during his final days. Just before the execution an inmate on death row may have his Bible, stationary and an address book, he may even have a television and telephone in his cell, but he cannot have music. No radio is allowed. It’s not the books or the television that moves the man but it is music that most deeply stirs the emotions and so is prohibited.

    It seems Plato understood the importantance of music in society. Regarding Plato’s view of music Kreeft writes, “In the Republic, it [music] is the first step in education in the good society and the first step in corruption in the bad one. Nothing is more powerful to the good society, to education, to human happiness in the world” (The Philosophy of Tolkien, p. 162).

    Perhaps it is music? Perhaps it is morality? Perhaps this is not even a good question. Still I wonder about God speaking creation into existence and the Word being in the beginning. Speaking of the primacy of language, is Kreeft correct in saying “in the beginning was music?” (p. 162).

  4. I saw this commercial for the first time this morning. My first response was, “Really? Too bad for all the people who did poorly at math.”

  5. John and Kevin make outstanding points. First, John is harkening back to common grace, a view that too few modern Christians understand and embrace when they locate all truth in the Bible. The Bible is true, but the Reformers understood that all truth is God’s truth. It can be found everywhere. Kevin’s thinking resonates with Oliver Sacks and one of my earlier blogs (October 13, 2008) where Sacks suggests that music is indeed another universal language all human beings share.

  6. I saw this IBM commercial two weeks ago, and somehow knew that it would be mentioned in your blog. The Lewis quote about reading old books is especially pertinent to the faith community today, as we can get bogged down by the latest christian-bestseller-by-a-current-pastor craze. Thanks.

  7. The IBM ads Down Under are all about creating a smarter, greener planet. Haven’t seen the one you mention yet but I’m sure it will come here eventually even if it is already on Youtube.
    The human condition from a Christian perspective of massive potential weighed down by inherent self destructive practices ie sin only overcome through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross & His Resurrection.
    Any man made philosophy cannot overcome these basic facts.

  8. John,
    What Paul said and what he confirmed from the Scriptures is this, there is absolutely nothing apart from Christ. I did not suggest that the image of God is completely denied from the fall. But I do suggest that coherency cannot be found in moral codes or laws. Gentiles do have a sense of law, but it is so varied and distorted and will never lead a person to the knowledge of Truth – Christ. BUT, the knowing of Christ will is completely coherent.

  9. Well, I hope this doesn’t sound self-serving since we sell mostly newer books at our bookstore. My hunch is, though, that while Lewis was surely on to something (and Mike, as usual, you used him very effectively here in this post) he overstates. That is, you’ve just shown us that old guys can write really idolatrous stuff. Reading old books might immunize from the whims of the “now” but they may or may not help us discern Biblical truth. Does Lewis mean that older guys were closer to truth? I hope not. Does this simple task of just being aware of history keep us from error? I doubt it, or those who read the classics and canon would be righteous. Which is more dangerous, a bad old book or a good new one? What can set us aright, a new prophetic thinker or an old writer who, in fact, had previously set the foundation for the errors of the current day? A rigorous old school thinker who is wrong, or an equally rigorous contemporary who has been shaped by reading the ever so up to date Doggie Head Tilt essays? I’ll go with the author who quotes you, rather than the author that is steeped in any old stuff. This dichotomy between old and new is a bit snobby, I think. I’d rather read five good recent works rather than five old ones that will shape my attitudes and convictions in unhelpful ways. Lewis’ view, and many who quote him, somehow imply that just reading old books is safer, and that knowing the past confers some Godly discernment of the present. I wish it were that easy.

  10. I think Byron brings up a very good point. We should not elevate any set of writers based on their period or their age. We all are subject the good and bad aspects of our own perspectives, based on our experience, reading, etc. That was also true of writers of the past. Just as we gain a broader view of life and hopefully the truth as God intended us to understand it from absorbing the perspectives from different cultures today, we get those different perspectives from past writers. One could argue that we cannot discern anyone as being more aligned with God’s perspective than any other, apart from how they align with scripture. Even then, our interpretations of scripture suffer from the distortions that result from our own world views. I don’t mean to make all truth sound relative, because I believe it is not. The point is that our own interpretations of it are always likely to have some faults in them. God is our only certain source of truth and he is faithful to lead us as we seek to understand truth through reading old and new materials. He even brings out truth in our study and enjoyment of mathematics, art, music, and any other language. The key to understanding and truth continues to be a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. We cannot ever fully grasp truth simply by reading.

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