Thursday, December 06, 2018

Can Science Save Us in Times of Crisis? A Camp Fire Reflection via Kierkegaard

One question I’ve posed to both my humanities class and science and religion students at
Chico State University is, 
“Can the truth of science save us in these time of the Camp Fire crisis, should we look to the great humanists like Pico, Shakespeare, Kant, and Austen, or maybe all of the above?”
It’s not clear to me that either science or the humanities is perfectly poised to offer salvation. Science—and technology—seem, however, to offer the most immediate solutions. Of course, I want all the best science and technology to fight a massive fire. Drones and helicopters, accurate reports and effective evacuation orders distributed through the web and email… and above all, leaders who listen to the science of forest management and global climate change. 

We need this, but I’m not sure it feels the human soul.
Instead, is the truth that saves, to quote the 19thcentury philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, subjective? This week in my humanities class we arrived at the early 1800s and thus Kierkegaard (or SK). When SK stated that “truth is subjectivity,” he meant that we can’t simply put any truth out there as something simply to observe—especially the truth of authentic religious faith in Jesus Christ—instead it needs to affect us as subject. It has to change us. 

Here’s how SK phrases it through the persona of Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments:
“The problem we are considering is not the truth of Christianity but the individual’s relation to Christianity. Our discussion is not about the scholar's systematic zeal to arrange the truths of Christianity in nice tidy categories but about the individual's personal relationship to this doctrine, a relationship which is properly one of infinite interest to him. Simply stated, ‘I, Johannes Climacus, born in this city, now thirty years old, a decent fellow like most folk, suppose that there awaits me, as it awaits a maid and a professor, a highest good, which is called an eternal happiness. I have heard that Christianity is the way to that good, and so I ask, how may I establish a proper relationship to Christianity?’” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
This, of course, trivializes the profound self-involving truths of Christian faith. Again to SK:
“For an objective reflection the truth becomes an object, something objective, and thought points away from the subject. For subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must penetrate deeper and still deeper into the subject and his subjectivity.” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
And finally, in his conclusion:
“Subjectivity culminates in passion. Christianity is the paradox; paradox and passion belong together as a perfect match, and the paradox is perfectly suited to one whose situation is to be in the extremity of existence.” Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
I find this compelling. Trained as a scholar, I find it fun to play with ideas like a baby who ponders the objects in the mobile above his crib. They entertain, but don’t change, us. 

SK wrapped himself up in the truth of Christianity (as do I), and yet this passionate subjective engagement with truth relates to a wide variety of issues. Like the Camp Fire… And so I ask, Which truth will change us as subjects? Do science, technology, or human thought change us as subjects enough to foster compassion and wisdom and action?

Though I love science and its glorious insights, I lean toward the great humanist thinkers like Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and Pascal—perhaps because they’re all Christian. Thankfully I don’t ultimately have to choose between science and the humanities. But I do have to decide whether the truth I find is subjective. And I wonder what truth you’re finding in this time of crisis—are you engaging with that truth subjectively?

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