Bananas (and Duct Tape) for Science! Faith, Science, and “Men without Chests”


So far in this series of blogs, we’ve looked at the problem of faith and talked about how faith is used in contexts that are not necessarily religious, as well as discussing what science tells us about the world.

What is the problem with faith, according to most of its critics? It is that people claim that faith is a means of gaining knowledge of the world. But faith is (highly) suspect, because it arises from a set of values—that is, we might say that the person with faith is looking for something that they really wish to be true. Having such values colors what one sees, even to the point of the person seeing something that isn’t true. That is why “faith” has led to countless divisions and disagreements—from personal problems to religious wars. (Whether faith will, in fact, lead to such divisions is an important question. Perhaps, these divisive kinds of “faith” are not really faith at all?)

Of course, we’ve seen that science too is driven by values. It gets started by the value of world-control (again, note that this control is not necessarily bad, but most often very good), and is used by those who control parts the world for the sake of other values—from caring for the sick to eating lunch to killing someone.

That science can be used for good or for evil makes science appear somewhat neutral. But this neutrality is really just the universality of the human value of control: Everyone wants (some level of) control of their environment/world. But no one wants control alone. We always want control for some other reason, some other goal or value that we hold.

Thus, science is not “objective”—not in the sense of being valueless pursuit of knowledge—nor is the value that gives rise to science, the value of world-control, sufficient for a meaningful human life.

But we can say that science is “objective” insofar as we understand that term to mean “to perceive objects only in terms of how they are controlled and what control they exert (cause-effect).” In fact, we might define “object” as “that which is understood as merely something that is or can be controlled.” Science objectifies the world, and thus helps us to understand causation and control. That is the objectivity that science possesses—useful but limited.

The Head, the Chest, and the Stomach

Given that science is consistently presented as being opposed to faith, I want to look a little more at how science functions in human thinking and motivation. I want to do this by drawing from The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.

Lewis begins this prescient work by critiquing the two authors of what he refers to as The Green Book. These two authors describe the situation of seeing a waterfall and how one would describe the waterfall as “sublime.” They claim that when you say that the waterfall is sublime you are really only describing something about your emotional state in response to the waterfall. Thus, “sublime” does not describe anything objective in the waterfall. The elements of the waterfall contain nothing that can be objectively determined to be sublime. It is merely a relatively quicker elevation drop in the flow of water to the sea.

Lewis critiques this view rather thoroughly in the book, showing some serious dangers that might come with such a view. He first sets out to describe the human person by referring to three parts: the head, the chest, and the stomach. The stomach refers to those desires that we might call instinctual—not necessarily just the body’s desires, but they are those that are connected with survival, reproduction, and so forth (including, of course, the desire to ascend to the top of hierarchies, since this is related to survival).

The head is the capacity for humans to reason: The head is a problem solver. The head has no particular desire, no goal, except that which is given from either the stomach or the chest. The head is merely concerned to figure out how to get from point A to point B—when point B has been given to it by either the stomach or the chest. For example, you might want to get from this side of a large lake to the other, and given that desire to get to the other side, your head would kick in to try to gauge the costs and benefits (given the values fed to it by the stomach and chest) of various routes, whether they are do-able or not, etc. Build a raft? Walk around? Grab a log and swim while holding the log? Perhaps the goal is to get from single to dating-that-person-over-there. Your head may kick in to give advice. (If you’re like I was when I was in high school, your head lacks the requisite knowledge to offer anything approaching useful.) You may also be in a place of ignorance about why things tend to fall to the ground, if unhindered (and heavier than air). You are at point A, a place of ignorance mixed with curiosity, and want to be at point B, a place of knowledge, or at least a recognition of the limits of knowledge.

The question is whether the head has any motivation at all. Lewis says no. I think it might have one motive: To obtain knowledge of the world as objects—specifically, as objects that can be controlled. What is the nature of a thing’s cause, effect, and what can I do to manipulate it? This might be the head’s only motive—a universal motive of humanity.[1] Of course, as I said in the previous blog on this topic, this motive to know-things-as-objects-that-can-be-controlled is not enough of a motive for any meaningful action, let alone a life. One must at least desire to eat and to rest.

Lewis also talks of the chest. He says the chest is drawn to things that the stomach does not desire and that the head is unable to see or analyze. The chest sees beauty, sublimity, glory and goodness. It is how we recognize love and honor, and are drawn by compassion and shame.

Of course, the authors of The Green Book argue that the claims of the chest that the sublime is out there, that “sublime” is a true description of the waterfall, are false or at least misleading. The head, in this case science, gives us the factual description of the waterfall. Sublimity or beauty, they say, are merely subjective emotional responses. That is, it is not that one is lying or deluded when one says that the waterfall is sublime, but one advertently uses the adjective to describe the object, when one should be using the adjective to describe one’s emotional state.

Now, the implications of this view are manifold. But let me mention two that are significant, and dangerous.

First, if such claims as to the value of things out there—such as beautiful, awesome, sublime, honorable, etc.—are merely references to our emotional states, then the chest can only be motivating us to have more experiences, rather than to great things. There really is no difference between having a “sublime” experience before a mountain and being, say, synthetically stimulated to feel such feelings. For the mountain is not sublime—you are merely describing your feelings.

I remember my daughter, then in first or second grade, coming to me and talking about having learned in school the difference between fact and opinion. Opinion, of course, included all value judgments, while fact included all…well, facts. So I asked her, “Is the claim ‘murder is wrong’ a fact or an opinion?”[2] She thought for a moment, because, being a value claim, it sure sounded like an opinion. But, after some hesitation, she said, “That is a fact.” My daughter in first (or second grade) was smarter than the (in)famous A.J. Ayer (at least in his Language, Truth, and Logic)!

What she said has tremendous implications, though: My daughter was declaring that the chest also points to realities about the world. And thus the attraction of the chest toward the great and beautiful is not merely a subjective desire for how we think things should be, but in fact a response to what is true and good. Indeed, it includes the claim (stated first in Genesis 1, echoed in Plato, but firmly rejected these days) that reality is in fact bound up with the good.[3]

But if The Green Book is to be believed, then my daughter is wrong, and what is good is unrelated to how things are.

The second bad implication that arises from the belief that value claims are merely descriptions of subjective emotions is that the head can only now be motivated by the stomach. It is emphatically not now free to pursue unadulterated truth, unhindered by silly and childish sentiments. No, the head always acts as a response to a motivator other than itself: either the chest or the stomach. And the stomach never stops motivating the head. The only question is whether you also have a functioning chest. Once the chest is emaciated away by rejecting such value claims as mere subjective emotion, then one is left with a head and only a stomach to motivate that head.

Do I need to make note of how we have become such “men without chests” as Lewis describes? People claim that their true, essential identities are tied to stomach-desires—primarily sexual desire. At the same time, ideas like honor, self-sacrifice, honesty, forgiveness, beauty—these are mocked as silly, exclusive, steeped in traditions that have done terrible things. A banana duct-taped to a wall sells for over $100,000. A man then eats it. Such is a mockery (and was likely intended to be so) of art. But what, we might say, is art but some sort of self-expression? That, indeed, is precisely what a chest-less person would say! Since the chest is only subjective emotion—the object itself has no value at all. And thus, too, I have emotions, spew them on a canvas of some sort, and it is art. That simple little claim in The Green Book announced this trajectory, and we are reaping the potassium-rich results.

The duct-taped banana is in fact a perfect picture: Without the chest to draw us toward real art, we are left with the useful as determined by the head (duct tape) and the stomach to motivate (the banana). The chest can see nothing of beauty or sublimity here. Only the head and the stomach see anything that they desire.

The authors of The Green Book were wrong. And that banana isn’t art. My daughter was right. The waterfall is in fact wondrous. Beauty does exist. We should pursue honor. In the next blog, we’ll bring these ideas to deal directly with faith and science. In the meantime, if you haven’t read The Abolition of Man, do it!

[1] It might be that this desire to control is, in fact, a motive of the stomach, or a motive that the stomach and chest share. I’m not interested in arguing one way or the other at this point.

[2] You astute thinkers out there might say, “Given that ‘murder’ is defined as ‘wrongful killing,’ it is analytically true that ‘murder is wrong.'” Yes, yes. But I was talking to a young child. I could have said, “Is killing innocent people wrong a fact or an opinion?” But that would have been needlessly confusing for her, I think.

[3] That reality is bound up with the good does not mean that “all things are good as they are.” It means something more like, “When things are all made good, they become what they truly are. And, therefore, to see things that are beautiful, sublime, etc., is to see glimpses of things as they are truly meant to be.” This is not as foreign an idea as you might think. We call people “inhuman” or “beasts” or “animals” when they act terrible toward others. And we use the word “humane” (from an earlier English form of “human”) to refer to acts that show kindness and compassion. That is, we think that a human is more truly a human when they exhibit certain virtues. That is, goodness is tied to what we really are. We speak the same way about a variety of other things. “Now, that’s a car!” means the same thing as “That is a very good car!” That is, to say that it is really what it is is another way to say that it is good. To be a good X simply means to truly be X.

Is the Manger a Myth?