Spinach Oatbran Omelet

Spinach oat bran omelet (2 to 4 servings, or one hungry dude):

 1/4 to 1/3 cup oat bran
Add enough water/skim milk to make it thoroughly wet, almost swimming.
Add 1 to 2 egg whites and 1 whole egg.
Maybe add 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil.
Mix (whip) thoroughly.
Put it in 8-9 inch nonstick skillet at medium heat.
Before eggs/oat bran solidify, load on fresh spinach (cut it up a bit) about 2.5 to 3.5 inches high.
Top it with 2 very thin slices of lean ham, cut into 1 inch pieces.
Maybe add shredded cheddar cheese to add some flavor.
Can top also with salsa, or heat diced onion and/or green peppers with a little oil in microwave and throw it on top.

Notes:

1.  “No bread, no potatoes” is the most common advice I give to patients in the Lipid Clinic at Duke. This omelet provides a taste somewhat like bread or a biscuit without delivering a glycemic load.

2.  About 3 years ago, I was very late starting with my last patient of the day, a businessman who lives in 3 different parts of the U.S. depending on the time of year. Apologizing for running so far behind, I took a little extra time and wrote this recipe out by hand along with more routine adjustments of diet and lipid meds. He canceled 2 follow-up appointments, and then I saw him on my schedule a year later. With just a little anxiety, I walked into the exam room. His lipid control had gone brilliantly; it appeared likely that his coronary atherosclerosis would be on the mend. “I tried your recipe about a week after leaving here,” he said, “and I have had it every morning since then.”

3.  My father-in-law Ralph has named this The Concoction. When he is staying with us, we have it as often as possible.

4.  Oat bran lowers cholesterol just a little by binding up bile acids (made from cholesterol) in the intestine. If you use the ham and cheese and keep the egg yolk in the omelet, you may come out even.

Nothing More Natural Than the Trinity

 False depiction of the Trinity4 


See Ephesians 3:16.   …that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit….

There is nothing more natural than the Trinity. Nothing more natural than Trinity

The Beast, A Systems Analysis

My son Morgan Guyton wrote perhaps the longest of his 200 (?) blogs yesterday on the topic of “the evil entities we [are] supposed to fight against.” To explain the demonic in the world and in the Bible, Morgan turns to Michel Foucault’s description of power. Morgan writes, “Power is not a possession that belongs to any one individual in greater or lesser portions, but rather an infinitely complex matrix of subtle pressures and influences within which human community exists. The reason that some people seem to ‘have’ more power than others is because power coagulates into certain synergies and patterns, but these synergies never become the actual possession of individual people.

“It is more accurate to describe a coagulated power synergy as an actual creature in whose body individual people are incorporated to produce ‘a series of aims and objectives [that do not] result from the choice or decision of an individual subject.’-(Foucault) These synergies of power not only develop their own motives that become detached from the motives of the individual subjects who create them, but they remake into their own image all whom they have incorporated.”

I know a fair bit about the Bible, though not as much as Morgan, but I’m a real novice with European postmodernism. My training is in science and medicine. The upshot is that I just have a twinge of uncertainty about his blog, which I’m sure is wonderful if I could just understand it fully.

So I want to attempt a translation back to a once vibrant, now dead language known as Dynamo.

By speaking Dynamo, I will try to convince you that what Morgan calls “a coagulated power synergy” may be more simply termed “a system” and may be understood by analogy to systems analysis – a scientific discipline. We’ll think about systems (plural) and not merely “the system” we railed against in the 60s and 70s. Like Morgan, I’ll try to suggest that systems are powerful, complex, self-organizing, and that they derive their power in part from chaos. When we turn to serve any system with more devotion (or time?) than we serve God, then that system becomes demonic, even the Beast of Revelation.

In case you are unfamiliar with Dynamo, it’s a computer language. In 1973, I presented an M.D. thesis titled “A Mathematical Model of Immediate Glucose Homeostasis” based on using Dynamo on an IBM 370-165 mainframe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It worked, at least well enough to get me a paper in the journal Diabetes while I was still a resident physician.

Let me illustrate the idea of computer modeling for systems analysis. A systems diagram for the “glucose sector” of my model is shown below. The boxes represent levels of glucose within various blood vessels or tissues of various organs in the body, the arrows represent movements (fluxes) of glucose between compartments, and the decanters are the rate controllers that govern glucose flux. In the Figure “GH” is glucose in the heart, “GHD” is glucose in blood vessels in the head, “GHDS” glucose in the tissue space of the head, “GK” glucose in the kidney, and so on.

The circulation of insulin can be represented in a similar manner. But in the overall model I was proudest of the simulation of beta cells in the pancreas, which incorporated “the heterogeneous fast pool theory of insulin release.” Here it is. Cool, huh?

What can you do with a computer model of glucose-insulin regulation? You set up the conditions, and then the model does the rest. You can run experiments on the computer just as if you were infusing glucose or insulin into real people in the clinical laboratory. Here is a simulation of giving a 60-minute infusion of glucose at 3 different infusion rates.

The glucose curves (top) and insulin curves (bottom) trace the levels of glucose and insulin that you could measure by drawing repeated blood samples from a real person. Notice the rapid bump of insulin near the beginning of the infusion. That comes from the “fast pool.” By modeling and then performing critical experiments in the real world to determine if the model works, and what its parameters should be, you learn a great deal about the circulation of glucose and insulin and the behavior of all the organs involved. You play God. It’s a lot of fun.

My model of glucose-insulin regulation made it into a prestigious journal, but in the end it turned out to be small stuff. Others developed models much more sophisticated than mine.

One of the most influential of all computer models simulated the human circulatory system, developed by my father, Arthur Guyton, and colleagues at the University of Mississippi Medical School in Jackson over his 40+ year career in physiology. In his early work with this model, my father realized that the kidney, and not the heart, was the organ that controlled blood pressure in animals and humans. It was controversial at first, accepted today. Here’s how the model looked in 1972, about the halfway point in its development.

Now after 40 more years of development, we have “HumMod – The best, most complete, mathematical model of human physiology ever created.” Check it out at http://hummod.org/.

Even the brain can be modeled and studied by systems analysis, although Paul Nunez1 has emphasized how difficult and perhaps impossible it may be to develop a completely accurate model. But we may learn enough to understand schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as examples of systems failure.

I want to get back to the Dynamo computer language. I learned Dynamo from young assistant professor at MIT who was not studying human physiology at all. He was studying the economic system of the United States. Instead of glucose and insulin movement around the body, his models simulated the movements of goods, services, and capital around the country.

In terms of functionality it’s all the same. The economy is a system, just as the human body is a system. Government is also a system. We can model mathematically how bills get through Congress (or don’t) and how federal initiatives might meet resistance in the states, or get transformed through bureaucracy, or how constituencies may develop for various entitlements. Mob behavior in cities, the rise to power of dictators, and even the outbreak of wars around the world have been studied by systems analysis.

Now the third generation in my family, Morgan, is discussing “powers and principalities” that Paul warned us about in his letter to the Ephesians. Can you see the connection? The powers and principalities are systems.

The rise of HumMod helps us to see that an organism is a complex system. And vice versa. I want to repeat that. Vice versa. Complex systems like economies, governments, and every kind of social interaction and pathology can be modeled mathematically as organisms.

In this sense, it’s not unreasonable to think of “powers and principalities” as creatures that bear the functionality of life – that is, as organisms. Or as Morgan says, demons.

Let’s push the analogy a little further. Nobody will dispute that the weather can be modeled on computers. Weather is a system, a natural one, neither biological nor sociological, but we personify hurricanes by giving them names, and we cower in awe at their destructive power.

In modeling the weather, it’s fair game to build into the computer program one or more Random Number Generators. Understanding how this works is called chaos theory. In the classic example, a butterfly flaps its wings in the Brazilian jungle, and this sets off a series of escalating positive feedback events that 5 years later kills hundreds of people in a monsoon in Karela.

Random events. Few things in life are as exciting as gambling, or maybe having the outcome of a big game depend on the crazy bounces of an oval shaped ball, or the swishing prayer of a random heave from mid-court with a second left in the game.

Is it not likely that all kinds of systems – economic, governmental, social, climatic – could have randomness built into them? Then if they gain direction from randomness, we may also have to say that they are not totally determined. At least in some sense, they act freely. They act on their own.

It is in the character of systems that they combine randomness with self-regulation. The most profound example of this is the system of organic life itself – that is, evolution. But economies also self-regulate over time as inefficient practices and worthless processes die away and are replaced by better, or least more dominant, ones. Governments likewise bloom and die away when they lose their power to hold on.

Morgan hears Paul to say we should not bow down to these partially organized, random, self-regulating systems – these functional organisms – the principalities and powers of our world, whether they be one kind of economy or another, or government, or entertainment, or power and conflict. They present themselves as powerful and alive, and invite us to join. Their demonic character has its roots in randomness or chaos hidden within, so that each may flash across our minds as one who “was, and is not, and is to come.” They are as captivating as drugs and gambling, as well as even commendable sports and activities.

The strongest Biblical image for these systems is the Beast of Revelation. The Beast comes from the sea, the source of randomness and chaos in ancient Middle Eastern writing. It organizes and self-regulates, calling forth a hierarchy and a following. It is characterized by number and by many names rather than one.

The Beast is whatever system we choose to serve more than God. It could be the economy. It could be government, or it could be anti-government ideology. It could be science. It could even be football…God forbid.

We must live with systems in our world. There is no other way to feed or cloth ourselves, or to have houses to live in. We work and play in systems. More than that, Christ has chosen to live here with us among the principalities and powers, among the systems good and bad.

It is when we seek profit for self or for tribe by tying our hopes and efforts to one or another system that we go wrong. For personal gain, we serve the economy and have no other vision. Or we call on the government to help us, and at the same time seek to control governmental decisions.

As Morgan astutely writes, an elaborately constructed sense of self could be the system we serve. Or it could be the church. Jesus had no harsher criticism than for leaders of the church in his day. The Sabbath was part of their system, but Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

These systems are things that have the appearance, power, and even freedom to work toward their own self-organizing purposes spun out from chaos. God who made us and them wants all to serve him. In so doing, we also love and serve each other best.

____________________________________________________________________

1 Nunez, Paul L. Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 168.

Questions. Part 1. Students in Detention

Consider a set of questions that might be deemed unanswerable, such as

                            A.  IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B.  DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C.  DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D.  IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Suppose that we agree not to give these questions soft answers – merely that it feels good to believe that love is the greatest thing, or that it is too painful to think that life is worthless. We want real evidence. As the evidence is gathered, however, contradictions come up, and by the usual way of thinking, we face a choice of 2 alternatives: The questions can be dismissed for lack of evidence, or the answers can be proposed and accepted on faith despite the lack of evidence. In this blog I want to present a third choice. It will be a middle way, involving a certain kind of evidence related to these questions.

As an example, consider with me the single question, “Is love the greatest thing?” Upon asking it, immediately I find that the answer is uncertain, and I return to the affairs of daily life. Then after a while something happens, perhaps an extraordinary kindness, which raises the question again, “Is love the greatest thing?” Once more the answer eludes me, and the question fades. Nevertheless, as time passes, the happier events of life bring me to pose the question of love’s supremacy over and over again.

This experience leads to a new, subsidiary question, as follows:

                            E.   DO I KEEP ON ASKING, “IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?”?

The subsidiary question (E.) intrigues me. I think it might have an answer, even if the primary question (A.) is unanswerable. The subsidiary question keeps re-appearing; I cannot get it out of my mind. Like a student in detention at the blackboard, I frame this question 100 times in a day, and even more the next day. It fades, but recurs with full force a week or so later. The subsidiary question becomes familiar. And although I am slow to catch on, eventually I become convinced that

                            F.  I DO KEEP ON ASKING, “IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?”

Do you see? A question of the form, “Do I keep on asking…?” answers itself, as long as you expend the effort of asking it. Therefore, the original, primary question that seemed unanswerable – “Is love the greatest thing?” – may find just a pinch of truth. It is not the answer that is true, but the question. I do keep on asking it.

This process can be applied not only to (A.), but also to (B.), (C.), (D.), and similar primary questions. The subsidiary question in each case looks like this:

                            G.  DO I KEEP ON ASKING _____________ ?

and it has an answer in this form:

                            H.  I DO KEEP ON ASKING _____________.

 An obvious warning: Not every instance of (G.) will result in (H.) Here is a primary question that won’t work:

                            I.  IS IT TRUE THAT THE MOST FUN THING IS TO SPROUT WINGS AND FLY?

This question has an answer: No. It proposes a biological impossibility.1 Therefore, every primary question that we put into the formula must be checked to be sure that it has a possibly true answer.

Okay so far? But we must now deal with 2 pressing concerns: Is this only trivial word-play, a game for Friday nights in front of the computer? Or is it solipsism – mere internal theatre?

Perhaps you will agree with me that the questions (A.-D.) are important, not trivial. I’ll grant that it is a matter of personal choice. You may assert, along with a number of brilliant thinkers, that any question deemed unanswerable – for example, by a lack of falsifiability – is thereby rendered meaningless. My rebuttal is that the issue of exactly how we determine what is meaningful or meaningless is itself a question very similar to the questions (A.-D.) .

But, someone interjects, to pile questions upon questions is just an academic exercise. People will not be satisfied with questions; they want bold assertions and exciting proclamations. I tend to disagree, because I think that questions can provide meaning profoundly, but I am sympathetic. Consider then that each of the questions (A.-D.) can be rewritten as an intuition, an intimation, or a proposition followed by a pang of doubt. For example, the first question (A.) may be more completely understood when it is written as

                            J.  LOVE IS THE GREATEST THING! IS IT TRUE?

and likewise each of the primary questions can be rewritten similarly. The intuitions and the pursuant doubts express feeling, motivation, joy, and despair; they are not just dry academic aims. Therefore, I invite you to agree with me that these questions are important ones for our lives, neither trivial nor academic.

The danger of solipsism seems more substantial. The subsidiary questions thus far have been expressed in the first person singular voice. But we are social creatures. Our culture requires communication among individuals.

The escape from solipsism is already in progress. You are reading the paragraph that I have written. You can redeem me from solipsism, if together we move from the singular –

                            G.  DO I KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

 to the plural –

                            K.  DO WE KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

again, if you join me, then we two students in detention can answer –

                            L.  WE DO KEEP ON ASKING ___________.

and the danger of solipsism is avoided.

To summarize, we have considered a set of nontrivial questions related to values and motivations. While those primary questions may not have clear answers, a corresponding set of subsidiary questions of the form, “Do we keep on asking __________?” appear to be answerable. The answers take the form, “We do keep on asking _________.”

In the next post, we will take a close look at the properties of the subsidiary questions.

 


1 No, as long as we discount imagination, dreams, and hang gliders. I read somewhere that approximately half of people surveyed in the U.S. have experienced bodily flight in their dreams.

Questions. Part 2. Rules of the Game

We have looked at a set of primary questions, as follows –

                            A.  IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B.  DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C.  DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D.  IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

– and we have asserted that these questions are neither trivial nor academic. These questions are not restricted to individuals, but may also be asked by groups of people or even entire cultures. But questions like these have often been deemed unanswerable. In response, I have proposed that a set of corresponding subsidiary questions of the form –

                            K.  DO WE KEEP ON ASKING ___________?

have answers, given by –

                             L.  WE DO KEEP ON ASKING___________.

as long as we keep on asking.

Now the meta-question is – what good are these subsidiary questions? What value do they have, and is it positive or negative? To pursue this line of thinking, let me propose several characteristics – one might say, rules of the game – for the subsidiary questions and their answers:

    1. They relate to specific people asking the primary questions.
    2. They do not aim toward universality.
    3. They are rooted in actual time.
    4. They are best expressed in the first person voice.

Point #1. Specific, particular people must ask the primary questions. This is in contrast to the anonymous and interchangeable observer in scientific research. The primary questions are not scientific. Importantly, however, and emphatically this is not the old distinction between empiricism and faith. Whether or not the primary question keeps on getting asked is a matter to be judged on the basis of observation, not faith. We do not have to decide whether to believe without evidence; we simply ask, “Are we still asking that question?”

So the primary and subsidiary questions are matters of observation and evidence, but are distinct from science. Does that mean they are incompatible with science – that is to say, incompatible with a viewpoint of natural realism? By no means! Humans placed in a natural world do ask primary questions like (A.-D.) repeatedly. There is no contradiction with nature, and no conflict necessarily arises between natural realism and the answers to our subsidiary questions.

Some will say that the repetition of the primary questions…and thus the answers provided to the subsidiary questions are phenomena likely to be explained by some evolutionary advantage which has fixed those questions into our genetic makeup. But this begs another primary question:

                            M.  DO I SEEK A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION FOR EVERY PHENOMENON?

And (M.) has no more validity than (A.-D.).

It is tempting to think that the answers to our subsidiary questions might serve as the entrée to a system of pure logic dealing with values and moral imperatives…a system similar perhaps Kant’s transcendental idealism or to Hegel’s absolute idealism. Might they not function, to use a science fiction metaphor, like a wormhole to a parallel, metaphysical universe? The temptation can be resisted by remembering how we get answers to the subsidiary questions. “Flesh and blood” and some degree of sacrifice – at least the sacrifice of repeatedly allocating mental resources to ask the primary questions – are required. The answers to the subsidiary questions are neither absolute nor even marked by probability. Instead they are concrete for the present, indeterminate for the future, and contingent upon personal activity.

Real specific people must keep on asking the primary questions. As a consequence, a sense of responsibility may develop. Others will not necessarily help to keep on asking. Our own activity is necessary for the maintenance of answers to the subsidiary questions.

Point #2. The subsidiary questions and their answers do not aim toward universality. Only some of the student pranksters get caught and find themselves in detention. Only some people cannot help hearing the voice inside asking the primary question over and over again.

The goal of universality must be given up. This is extraordinarily difficult in several ways. The primary questions with their themes of love, joy, discovery, perseverance, and thankfulness seem so important that we want them to be universal. But our desire to make them universal just becomes another primary question – unanswerable in itself.

We recognize that mathematical and scientific progress depends critically on the widespread applicability of theoretical and experimental results. The novice in science is drilled in a methodological rigor that produces general rather than particular conclusions.

But the primary and subsidiary questions of value and spirit must remain particular. We do not discover truths which every reasonable person must recognize. In consequence we ourselves must remain humble – not an easy thing for humans. Alone as individuals or in groups of varying size, once in a while we may discover a pinch of truth in the persistence of a moral question. The group may be as small as two. As hubris escalates, the group may be proclaimed as large as a civilization… or even the entire course of human civilization up to the present. But we should never presume to have discovered truth in this way for everyone, always, and everywhere.

Often people seek to establish and disseminate unprovable moral suppositions and their subsidiary questions of persistence. Consider this example, which is similar to the initial four primary questions – an intimation followed by a pang of doubt:

                            K.  EACH PERSON SHOULD HAVE ONE VOTE. IS IT TRUE?

In ages past, the proposition of one person/one vote would have elicited blank stares or condemnation. In some cultures even now, this position will be deemed unrealistic, morally naïve, or stupid. Yet in the context of liberal civilization and open societies today, the proposition of one person/one vote as an ideal is widely accepted. How did this happen? I submit that it can be derived neither from mathematics nor from pure reason. Even less does it arise from natural science. The doctrine of natural selection describes a competition for dominance among individual packets of genes.

Supposing that you agree with one person/one vote, how can we together promote it? In my view we cannot appeal to science, to human self-interest, or to any kind of universal law or truth. Human self-interest, if it is really smart, gives lip-service to the ideal while seeking to subvert it in the interest of self.

But we can ask people to choose. Are you willing to align self-interest with the idea of human equality? Will you agree to seek your identity at least partly in the common condition of humanity? At least to the extent of voting equally? The task is essentially political in the best sense of coming together to form the polis – a community of equals. Nothing in the realm of philosophy, nor any law of human nature, compels us to see universal suffrage as something good. The laws that our civilization provides for free and fair elections owe their origin to a complex genealogy of human choice.

Point #3. The subsidiary questions of persistence and their answers are rooted in time. Specifically, they exist in the present moment. To be sure, they recall the past, and they point toward continuation in the future. But the past is inadequate and the future uncertain. Everything hinges upon an active voice that asks the primary question once again. In contrast, mathematics and science deal with unchanging, eternal laws of logic and physics. To be sure, physical events have trajectories that move from past into future. Yet if the very word “trajectory” refers to something real, it must refer to something that transcends time, not to something in the grip of time. Often the answer to a problem in physics does not even require knowing the direction of time: future to past may work as well as past to future, cases of entropy or cosmic expansion being exceptional. In scientific discussion, the present moment serves as a point of reference, and generally nothing more than that.

In clear contrast to the answers provided by mathematics and science, our subsidiary questions of persistence and their answers are inescapably tied to the present moment. As with previous points of consideration, this has an important consequence. By tying the answers more or less tightly to the now, we leave the future open and undetermined. Only the frail reins of hope and persistence (in continuing to ask the primary questions) are available to guide the future. This means that the future remains free – an extraordinarily difficult concept.

Point #4. The primary and subsidiary questions are most clearly expressed in the first person voice. I am tentative in raising this point. Confidence is confounded, and I am not sure whether the reason lies in the limitation of language, the ubiquitous sprouting of the seeds of universal rationalism, or my own inadequate thinking.

(I recognize that the primary questions (A.-D.) at the beginning of the post are not written in first person voice, for reasons of brevity and impact, but even these statements will be expressed more clearly by prefixing each with “Do I/we think that…?”)

Let me amplify the point just a bit. It is not just any real specific person or group who “keeps on asking the question.” It must be me or my group. The primary question must be asked with first person voice.

What’s the problem? Just this – all questions and all answers, without exception, originate with first person voice. What? Would that not invalidate the second and third person voices – you, she, he, it, they – entirely? Let me explain. It is always possible to add “I/We judge that…” to any declarative statement, “I/We ask whether…” to any question, “I/We exclaim…” to any ejaculation, and so forth – without changing the meaning of speech at all. Within the statement, question, or exclamation, the second or third person voice will often appear, but the first person prefix can always be applied. This is the sense in which all questions and all answers originate with first person voice, either explicit or implicit.

Here is a turn toward subjectivity! Yet the whole burden of science has been to remove traces of subjectivity, so that objective truth can be learned. Is this an attempt to erase the progress? Even in science, I propose, every question and every report originates with first person voice. In science, a special case of “we” applies. Charles Peirce spoke of the community of philosophers (scientists) as the context in which we seek the ultimate philosophy (scientific truth).1 This is a highly developed “we” that aims to approach universality, conceived as the community of past, present, and especially future rational, trained observers who seek to reproduce and refine knowledge by framing questions to be answered by nature.

The philosophical question is not whether all sentences are first person. They are. The philosophical choice is whether to regard this point is (a) a trivial truism arising as an accident of the way we communicate, or (b) a profound insight into our existence as rational beings engaged in observing and responding to the universe – an insight embedded so deeply in language that it has escaped notice repeatedly in the history of philosophical inquiry. I think (b). But we have neither time nor space to develop this further here.

________________________________

1 Peirce, C.S., Some consequences of four incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1868; 2:140-157.  Reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Wiener, P.P. Dover, New York, 1958.

Questions. Part 3. A Pinch of Truth

Let me summarize briefly the themes we have covered thus far: Primary questions of a moral, aesthetic, spiritual, or intentional nature are often deemed unanswerable by the program of science. Nevertheless, against the positivists, I assert that these questions are not devoid of meaning. They bear a meaning given by the persistence with which they are asked. What kind of meaning is it? How can we recognize the pinch of truth gained through the answers to the subsidiary questions? This pinch of truth has four characteristics: 1) it requires that actual, specific people keep on asking the questions, 2) it does not aim toward the universal, 3) it is rooted in time, and 4) it is expressed in the first person voice (either trivially or profoundly). These characteristics sharply distinguish the meaning of persistence of moral questions from the truths of rationalistic philosophy and of science. Nevertheless, the meaning of the persistent questions is not a mere matter of wish or belief without evidence; it is rather a matter of observation. We do keep on asking the questions.

There are many examples from philosophy, history, and literature that can serve to illustrate these points. I will cite only one from the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, concerning 2 brothers. Sergey was a highly esteemed thinker, well known in the drawing rooms ofMoscow for his conclusions about the natural laws of social interaction, especially regarding the virtues and advantages of peasant life. He enjoyed visiting the estate of his half-brother Levin in the country, where Levin sometimes worked alongside his peasants, adjudicated their quarrels, and admired some, disdained others. This is Levin’s reaction after his brother’s visit.

Levin regarded his brother as a man of immense intellect and culture, as generous in the highest sense of the word, and possessed of a special faculty for working for the public good. But in the depths of his heart, the older he became, and the more intimately he knew his brother, the more and more frequently the thought struck him that this faculty of working for the public good, of which he felt himself utterly devoid, was possibly not so much a quality as a lack of something – not a lack of good, honest, noble desires and tastes, but a lack of vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse which drives a man to choose some one out the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one. The better he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Sergey, and many other people who worked for the public welfare, were not led by an impulse of the heart to care for the public good, but reasoned from intellectual considerations that it was a right thing to take an interest in public affairs, and consequently took interest in them. Levin was confirmed in this generalization by observing that his brother did not take questions affecting the public welfare or the immortality of the soul a bit more to heart than he did chess problems, or the ingenious construction of a new machine. (Anna Karenina, Part iii, Chapter 2)

Notice that in the last sentence of this famous passage, Levin makes an observation about – in other words, derives evidence from – the questions that his brother asks. Contrast the universalism of Sergey, identified by a repeated phrase, “the public good,” versus the particularism of Levin, driven by an “impulse…to choose some one out of the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one.” In the novel, Sergey’s path of life goes nowhere. Levin marries, grows with the joys and terrors of family life, and continues to mow the fields with his peasants. Sergey has the answers, while Levin keeps on asking questions.

Look again at the 4 primary questions posited at the beginning:

                            A.  IS LOVE THE GREATEST THING?

                            B.  DOES DISCOVERY BRING JOY?

                            C.  DOES WHATEVER CREATED US CARE ABOUT US?

                            D.  IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Suppose with me now that these questions are answered with absolute and universal truth. Moreover, suppose that all of the great questions such as these are answered, at least in general terms. Is this heaven?

Some may join Plato, other rationalists, idealists, and even positivists, as well as a number of saints from all religions in longing for the day when Truth takes command of our lives. I do not long for that day, because I think that universal answers to the great primary questions might crowd out freedom. I cherish the opportunity to say “Yes!” or “No!” to each of these great primary questions. I also cherish the pang of doubt that follows immediately, asking, “Is it true?”, because it gives me the opportunity to ask the question again. But recognize that even “I cherish….” presents itself as another primary question. “I cherish…is it true?” Will I keep on cherishing the opportunity and experiencing the doubt – inspiration transformed into a repetitive question? The future is unknown, but as for the present, yes, so far… up to now, it is true. I do keep on asking.

We have talked about the primary questions and the subsidiary questions. The implication from the start has been that the primary questions are the important ones. The subsidiary questions tend to be viewed as adding something, but not much. Now upon reflection, I choose to think that the reverse is true. The primary questions may indeed be unanswerable, not because answers are impossible, but because answers make the questioner disappear.

So the subsidiary questions are the real ones for us. They have answers compatible with human life and freedom. The answers do not provide truth for everywhere and always, but just a pinch of truth for here and now. If the pinch is hard enough, then we should remember to keep on asking.

Why I Am Not a Positivist. Part 1. God and Leprechauns

A small hand-lettered sign appeared one day in the 1980s in a medical research lab in Houston–

My esteemed senior colleague wanted his students and post-docs never to accept the first intimation of data, but always to do the hard work that would make interpretation unquestionable.

In the same place, a friend told me that she had decided in college against spiritual belief partly due to lectures pitting evolutionary biology against religion by a venerable professor, an Englishman who had studied directly under Thomas Huxley.

Scientific materialism, logical positivism, and philosophical naturalism are variations on a theme, a philosophical stance that relies on science as the only arbiter of real knowledge. To name it with a single word, positivism gained adherence from many leading scientists and thinkers in an era extending from the mid-19th century through most of the 20th.

Auguste Comte proposed a “philosophie positive” or “positivisme” in 1842, declaring that science would supercede religion and rationalism. The decisive conceptual shift came a bit later in 1859, when Darwin published The Origin of Species. Darwin founded his theory of natural selection with wide-ranging inquiry, detailed observation, and elegant writing.  Since then, every educated person has faced the question of whether he or she thinks that evolution is true. Sadly, too many believe that a single answer on evolution can define a person’s whole stance on philosophy and religion – a disaster for believers and freethinkers alike.

The most fervent exploration of positivism happened between the world wars among members of the Vienna Circle. A collection of their work along with some later additions was compiled by A. J. Ayer under the title Logical Positivism, exactly 100 years after The Origin of Species. The collected essays exude confidence and surety, as if the final course for human philosophical endeavor has been defined, and all that remains is to fill in the details.

By the mid-20th century, positivism seemed to nourish the thoughts of the brightest and best, especially leaders in science and medicine. It defined the intellectual climate from which my education sprung. And against which an emerging sense of self sought to differentiate. Each new generation must declare its own path.

My grandfather, raised in the red clay hills of northeast Mississippi, was the first in his family to become a medical doctor. I never asked him directly what he thought about God and Darwin, but I think I know roughly what he would have said. The germ theory of infectious disease had been proven shortly before his birth; he was so impressed that he declined to eat cheese. He broke gently from the Baptist faith of his parents and became engaged to a strong-willed Methodist girl, just before she left for 5 years to serve as a missionary in China. To ease the wait for her return, he left a job in banking to go to medical school. Later as dean of the 2-year medical school in Mississippi, he traveled the state persuading legislators to back academic freedom against the bullying tactics of Governor Bilbo. My grandfather gave donations to both the Methodist and the Unitarian churches in Oxford, Mississippi, the latter secretly so as not to disappoint my grandmother.

My father, an accomplished physiologist, was a bit more open. His children knew him to be agnostic, but we also recognized that he did not want the outside world to know. Our mother was a community leader and churchgoer. Questions of science and religion were rarely discussed at the dinner table. Instead we heard about the PTA, the latest discovery in space or in the ocean, new movies, or the musicals they had attended in New York– complete with singing renditions for our ears – or the chances of the Ole Miss football team.

Science or faith? Would I follow in the path of my father, making the same turn his father seemed to make, or would I accept the faith of my mother, likewise of distinguished though less triumphant lineage?

But where in the scientific realm of positivist thinking was the mechanism that allowed me to make a choice at all? Are we only observers of the events that describe our lives, events that answer only to reproducibly defined stimuli, responses, and genetic traits? I pushed back against that thought. Science, I pondered, might not be the only way to gain knowledge, especially the knowledge of who I am and what I want.

I began to think that the deepest feelings and commitments that steer the course of our lives are mostly unscientific. My father would have said that evolution put the feelings and commitments inside of us. In his absence now, I ask a different question and observe that the process by which each learns about his own passion is not scientific at all.

If the process of self-discovery is unscientific, should I count the result unsubstantial?  William James contrasted the “tough-minded” empiricist with the “tender-minded” rationalist.[1]  What young man would not choose to be “tough-minded”?  Religious as well as secular thinkers have distinguished the rationality of science from the irrationality of faith. If so, what kind of foundation can be built on irrationality?

Now roughly 50 years beyond adolescence – quick decisions were never my style – I have settled on a position that I consider both rational and tough-minded. Positivism, scientific materialism, and philosophical naturalism are wrong. They represent immature expressions of hubris from a past era arrogantly dubbed “modern” as if it would never be superceded. Looking back, positivism may well be judged a colossal stupid mistake.

My philosophical birthright is too narrow, leaves out too much. I regard the case against positivism and its kin to be decisive. Decisive, yet neither logically compelled, nor universally evident, nor manifestly probable. If it were any of these, it would be scientific or mathematical, and would fit neatly within the frame of positivism, canceling the case. In this brief series of blogs, I shall try explain how I find positivism to be demonstrably, though not scientifically, wrong. I contend that the falseness of positivism is an eminently arguable position. But you will see no attempt from me to marshal a preponderance of evidence that compels you to agree. My hope is that you will break free from evidence that compels. And choose.


[1] William James.  Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Harvard University Press, Cambridge,Massachusetts, 1978, p. 13.

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