What do we learn from failure? What happens when our dogma — whether scientific or religious — turns out to be wrong? Is sin a “moral failure,” or can failure be a saving grace?
These are the kinds of questions that drive Professor Stuart Firestein. Professor Firestein is the former chair of the Columbia University Department of Biological Science, and author of the books Failure: Why Science is So Successful and Ignorance: How It Drives Science, which became a TED talk in 2013. He also has presented for Sinai and Synapses on questions on failure, ignorance and doubt.
Recently, Professor Firestein joined Sinai and Synapses Fellow Tom Wassink on his podcast “Blue Ocean World” to explore questions of failure from both a religious and a scientific perspective. Tom is on the leadership team for a group of churches called Blue Ocean Faith who seek to help people connect with God in a secularizing world. He is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, as well as a staff pastor of Sanctuary Community Church of Iowa City.
Take a listen to this podcast, and ask yourself, “Can you fail better?”Read Transcript
Dave Schmelzer: Welcome to Blue Ocean World. It’s a podcast about anything that interests us in our whole big world and how those things connect with the big questions of life. I’m Dave Schmelzer, also of Blue Ocean Faith and HelloHoratio.com. I’m going to mix it up and I’m going to talk to Val first this week. So I’m joined by Val Snekvik from beautiful Boston, Massachusetts, who’s played a big role both with Horatio and Blue Ocean and is currently teaching piano there. Val, how the heck are ya.
Val Snekvik: I thought you were going to say you’re gonna mix it up and say I’m a psychiatrist in Iowa, which secretly I wanna be (laughs). I’m doing great, you guys. Nice to see you, I’m a little sick, I’ll try not to cough into the microphone.
Dave Schmelzer: Sorry to hear it. And we’re also joined us from Iowa City by an actual psychiatrist, Tom Wassink, who’s a psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa. how are you?
Tom Wassink: I was in Sedona last week, Sedona, Arizona with my wife, traipsing about the red rocks, swirling in the spiritual vortexes there, so I am in a very clear head space, thank you very much Dave.
Dave Schmelzer: OK. Well, this week, we’re going to talk about how we learn things, or don’t, with Stuart Firestein, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, and author of a couple of books, including his new book, “Failure: Why Science is So Successful.” His TED talk “The Pursuit of Ignorance” has been viewed 1.6 million times, which on my standard seems like a whole lot. And we’ll talk about whether there are parallels between how we learn things in science, and how learning things there sets up a whole new level of ignorance, which turns out to be a helpful thing, and how those of us who think about spiritual things try to learn things as well. Tom was recently at a conference with Dr. Firestein, so he’s going to kick us off.
Tom Wassink: So Dave mentioned, Stuart is the chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. His own laboratory at Columbia focuses on the human olfactory system, investigating how simple molecules are transduced through the nose into the brain as smells, which information is then carried forward by Stuart and his colleagues as a general model for how all sorts of signals are converted into meaningful data by the brain. But beyond generating and interpreting data, Stuart has also become a sort of meta- scientist, developing an interest in the process of science, from which have arisen provocative and quite nontraditional takes on how scientific knowledge actually progresses.
In this vein, he’s written two widely acclaimed books, “Failure: Why Science is so Successful” and “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” so, putting failure and ignorance front and center in the scientific endeavor.
I had the pleasure of connecting with Stuart at a recent meeting of Sinai and Synapses, which is a multi-faith group centered in Manhattan that seeks to bridge the religious and scientific worlds, to do a better job at that conversation. I’m a fellow at Sinai and Synapses, and Stuart was a guest presenter whose thoughts were, to me, stirring and relevant, not only for science but also for the whole faith endeavor that’s central to Blue Ocean. So I thought it would be awesome to have him as a guest, and here he is. Welcome Stuart, it’s great to have you here with us.
Stuart Firestein: Well, thanks for having me, it’s great to be here. I had such a nice conversation at Sinai and Synapses, I see no reason not to continue.
Tom Wassink: (laughs) That’s nice. So I’ll kick us off, I was wondering if you could start with maybe two kind-of-related things. First is just a summary on your take on the role of ignorance in the advancement of scientific knowledge, and then if you’re willing, perhaps a bit about why it’s become so important to you to communicate this information. That seems like that might be a good place to start.
Stuart Firestein: Sure. Cut me off when you’ve heard enough, all right, because I can go on. I think the ignorance thing is just a simple recognition of something that we all know, certainly as scientists, and maybe all of us know it in general implicitly, but it never gets said explicitly, and often we don’t operate with this implicit idea, that of course, what’s most interesting in the world is what we don’t yet know about.
And a kind of a corollary to that is that the real purpose of knowledge, of gaining more knowledge, is to increase our level of ignorance – not just our level but the sophistication of our ignorance. That is, we do experiments in science to find things out, but what we do with the things that we find out is use them to frame a more sophisticated, a better question, a question that leads us further down the trail of understanding and explanation. And so we often, I’m afraid, put too much, I think, emphasis on facts, and the accumulation of facts, which unfortunately, science is extremely good at doing, but sometimes leads us to forget that really it’s the questions that power science, not the facts as they are.
And the reason this became important to me was twofold, I suppose. The general feeling that the public had a very distorted view of science that wasn’t doing either them or the scientific enterprise any good, and secondly for me as an educator here at Columbia University, I run a laboratory, as you mentioned, and it’s very challenging and exhilarating to work with graduate students and post-docs, pick up experiments and so forth, and do the experiments, trying to increase our understanding of the mind and the brain.
At the same time, I teach a course on neuroscience here at Columbia to undergraduates, and it’s a big course, it’s got a lot of students in it, we use a big textbook, and I do 25 lectures that are full of facts, because of course I want to give everybody the bang for their buck, as it were. But I came to realize that by the end of the class, the students must have felt that they kind of knew everything there was to know about neuroscience, or that we knew everything there was to know about the brain, which is clearly not true, and that what scientists do as a job is find more facts and put them in textbooks, which these poor students are asked to more or less memorize and spit back up on a test. And that’s not the case either, of course.
And so I thought, well, this is challenging, but not very exhilarating, and what’s the difference? And I thought the difference was, well, we never talk about the questions with students. We never talk about things we don’t know, we only talk about the things we do know. So that was my idea, was to try and rectify that.
Tom Wassink: Do you – if you were to win and you rectified it for your students, for the general public, what do you get out of winning? Do you get students that are then just more inquisitive, or that aren’t just drones trying to memorize facts, but now they’re trying to progress even their limited knowledge of neuroscience and sort of ask interesting questions, even if they’re stupid questions? Or ,what would a win look like for you in this endeavor?
Stuart Firestein: Yeah, that’s a nifty question, actually. I think what a win would look like would be a group of students who, whether they were science majors and going on to have careers in science or not – in fact I’m more concerned, in many ways, with the students who are not going on to have careers in science, and for whom their last formal interaction with science will be some introductory course at university or high school or something like that – for me, it would be a greater understanding of what the scientific effort is about, of how science interacts with the culture and understanding of uncertainty, that things are uncertain, but they’re not unreliable because of that. That unsettled science is not unsound science, as we might say. That the purpose of science is to revise and move on, and that it should be considered in a dynamic way, not just as a pile of facts and something which you can either rely upon completely or not.
That would, I suppose, be a win, like a kind of critical thinking ability of a general public, let alone the scientific students, to see science in that sort of light, to see it as a dynamic process not an accumulation of facts.
Tom Wassink: And I think, I know one thing that ties in with the humans in that I was really struck by, I think, in terms of what you’re looking for at the end of the day, the misconception would be that you’re looking for the correct answer. Which would be awesome, you know, if we could get a correct answer to a specific kind of question, but a part of what you were talking about developing, too, was better ignorance and better question-asking, and I’m wondering if you could just say a little bit more about that.
Stuart Firestein: Yes, well that is the basis of science, of course. I mean that’s what scientists do. When we go to a conference, we sit through a few boring lectures, and then we can’t wait pretty much to get to the bar afterwards, where we sit and talk about what we don’t know, because that’s what we’re interested in. Scientists generally aren’t interested in what they already know, we sit around and talk about what we don’t know and how we might get to know it. And what’s more important to know. I mean, there’s a ton of stuff that’s not known. So the real key is to try and figure out, well, what’s the highest-quality ignorance, what’s the most important thing at this point. What will happen if we know it? What will happen if we don’t know it? And this is kind of what scientists talk about. Sometimes these arguments or talks are called bull sessions, and sometimes they’re called grant proposals, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference, admittedly. But this is really what the conversation is about, this is what animates the whole effort.
And it’s – I find it kind of a shame, in a way, that the general public, even the well-educated general public, never gets to see much of that side of science, that we keep that face hidden, maybe in the sense that, you know, people won’t believe us if we tell them there are things we don’t know, even though they must realize that there are things we don’t know.
Val: Stuart, one thing I –
Dave Schmelzer: Oh, go ahead, Val, go.
Val Snekvik: Well, I found myself wondering about those undergrads you’re working with. As you describe the endeavor you’re doing, thinking about ignorance and asking more questions, I wonder what pattern are you seeing in their response to you and this whole notion of, you know, it’s not to get a controllable set of facts that you can spit out or data that you can control, but to ask better questions?
And I know you said in your TED talk, you know, you love quoting and bringing in other folks who have thought about similar things. I couldn’t help but find myself thinking about “Excellent Sheep” by Bill Deresiewicz. I think you guys are contemporaries, but he was at Yale, you’re at Columbia, these are all elite kids. You know, do you find that these are kids who are resistant to thinking that their goal is to be ignorant and ask questions as opposed to control knowledge, I don’t know, or do you find an eagerness?
Stuart Firestein: Well, that’s a tough one, only because it’s hard to know what motivates the kids who come to places like Columbia, or any place for that matter, but certainly these – you know, I hate to use the term, to give into the term – elite universities. But just for shorthand, let’s say that. I mean the problem is, of course, that in order to get to these so-called elite universities they’ve already endured 12 years of education that have been basically aimed at helping them memorize things to do well on the test. So that’s a hard habit to break, for one, because it’s got them where they are, and of course where they are, Columbia University, as an undergraduate, is not where they hope to finish either. They’re all ideally, they think, on their way to medical school or law school or business school or graduate school or whatever it might be.
And so, they know that they have to score high on tests here and things like that, so the whole system is kind of stacked against that. And it’s a lot to ask them, really, to change their mind and take a chance on saying, “Well, ignorance is what I really want to know about,” or “Questions is what I really want to know about,” when they’re going to be faced with, if not a test at the end of my class – and we do still use tests to some extent – they’re going to be faced with a graduate school entrance exam test or a medical school entrance exam test.
So the whole system is kind of rigged against this, unfortunately, it’s really not – well, it is a little bit clear to me why. I mean I think the fundamental problem, I have to say, is one of evaluation and assessment. We only have what I would say are very blunt and very old fashioned tools for evaluating and assessing students and curricula, and those mostly come down to multiple choice tests, which are, as we all know, silly in virtually every sphere of life. I mean, when’s the last time you had a problem and you had four or five choices, only one of which was correct? That sort of doesn’t really happen, does it, and yet this is what we sort of use as our testing instrument. So I think that’s a kind of the fundamental problem.
Now, that said, I started teaching a course called “Ignorance,” because I thought, well I might not be able to do this in the regular curriculum, because of the demands made on things by the system, but I could teach a course devoted to questions. And I must say, that course has become very popular. I mean, you might expect a course called Ignorance would become popular at Columbia, of course, you know, just as a protest if nothing else.
But that, of course, invites various scientists to come in and talk for a couple of hours about what they don’t know. And over the years, the course has grown to 90 or so students. I’m really gratified to say that about half of them no longer only come from the science majors. They’re history majors, classics majors, philosophy, religion, etc, etc. And so that’s sort of gratifying, to find that there are students out there who really do want to think about the questions.
Tom Wassink: Yeah. I mean, part of the reason that I was stirred by our interaction at Sinai and Synapses was, the whole concept feels so resonant with how I actually experience life, both as a scientist, truthfully, right now as a psychiatric clinician, it’s a teaching setting that I work in here, and so I have students, medical students, and residents who interact with me as we’re caring for patients. They’re preparing for tests, they’re desperate to know the answers.
It’s really interesting that at this stage of my career, in my helping take care of patients, I’m profoundly comfortable with not knowing the answers, and with being aware that so few of our patients actually fit into the categories that we try to fit them into. And there’s just tremendous freedom and ease with that, and it’s no longer unsettling in the way that it used to be. But it feels kind of liberating. And so that’s what I think of, like I imagine, you know, yes, so go ahead, say more about that.
Stuart Firestein: Well no, I think you’re absolutely right, but how long does it take a person to get to that stage or to that place? And does everybody get there, or can we find ways of bringing people to that place, as you say, you know, the residents that work with you are not in this kind of – you know, there is this wonderful phrase by the poet John Keats called “negative capability,” which he felt was the ability of a person to stay in the state of mystery and ignorance, as it were, without any irritableness, without anybody, without any reaching after a fact or reason, but to just sit in that state and understand that state and be at peace with it, and he felt this was the most creative state for the literary mind. I think it’s true for the scientific or any other mind, that when we gain comfort with this state of mystery and obscurity to some extent, then this is where we become most creative. And we don’t stay there, you know, we don’t get stuck there, but the way out of that is, I think, the way of creativity, intuition, inspiration, things of that nature.
Dave Schmelzer: So the thing I find myself thinking about with your Keats quote is that on the one hand, you’re addressing a specific problem of students who come to an excellent university, who’ve been trained to become fact drones, and you’re trying to kind of bust them out of it.
But you’re also, it seems like, trying to go a bit broader and just say, almost describe, a way of being, or way of learning or way of growing. And the word that comes to mind from a spiritual perspective – which I suppose it’s not uniquely spiritual, but it’s not like wonder, or something – where, as I’m trying to put together, like, what’s the good in terms of just being a human being, it seems like if I’m understanding you, what you’d say is, well – obviously, learn as much you can, find friends in that endeavor, have friends, partners, learn all this stuff, and then wonder together. It’s the bull session kind of as the ideal, where you figure out what you don’t know, live in Keats’s negative capability, learn some more stuff, wonder some more stuff, ask more questions, and that’s sort of a view of what life is, and what learning is. Am I right or am I missing you?
Stuart Firestein: No, I think you’re precisely right. I think learning to be in that sort of state, to engage the world in that way, is precisely correct. I don’t think there’s any reason why being a scientist should separate you from the rest of the culture that’s also concerned with these sorts of questions: how to live a good life, what it is to exist in this universe, what we do with knowledge, why we want knowledge, what makes us human particularly. I mean all of those questions are as legitimate to the scientist, it seems to me, as to anyone else.
I mean, and to sort of drive our scientific students into a corner, where they seem to feel that, well, “the important thing is to know stuff, I just have to gain a lot of knowledge or I have to get a lot of facts,” that does them a great disservice, really, in the end, because of course they’ll never get enough facts, or even the facts they get change. So, you know, finally, this can’t be the final goal of being a scientist.
Now, I mean, that’s not to say that you don’t need to know a lot of stuff to be a scientist, you do. You need to know a lot of stuff to be a lawyer, to be just about anything. I mean, nothing comes without knowing something. But what do you do with those facts is the important thing. Not just – we don’t just want a work force, as it were, we want something deeper than that, we want something more compelling than that, for people, for a good life. That’s sort of what you were saying, I hope? Am I agreeing there? Because I meant to agree with you.
Dave Schmelzer: Yeah, I think so. Could you give me just a couple of words on your take on failure, because obviously we’ve been majoring on your take on ignorance, but you have a whole other book, a related book, no doubt, on failure. How does that tie in?
Stuart Firestein: And I never thought that I’d write one book and that book did well enough that Oxford Press said, “Would you like to write another book?” Another? What was the only other thing I know about? Failure. So, right, I guess I should write about that.
My take on failure, though, is perhaps a little different than the sort of typical self-help or high-tech version of failure, you know, fail hard, fail fast, failure is a way to learn, et cetera, et cetera. I’m less interested in this notion of retrospective failure, that is, failure is OK and even good, and so on, because it eventually leads to success. That’s fine, but that only means it’s good in retrospect if it led to success. I would say that there’s a kind of failure, there’s a quality of failure, that’s actually endemic to the process, that needs to be there all the time.
It has nothing to do with “it eventually makes you successful,” although I think if you do enough, if you have enough failure around you, you will wind up being more successful than if you try and prevent failure, which makes you do things in odd ways, I think. We could talk about that in a moment, but the notion is that failure is endemic to the process, and in the sense that, you know, if you hit the target too often, the bull’s eye is simply too close, it’s not really interesting. One of the ways you know you’re doing something interesting, I think, especially in science, is that you fail quite often. And if you don’t fail quite often, my guess is you’re really not doing anything you didn’t already kind of know about.
Dave Schmelzer: And does that also tie in to kind of a general theory of the world? Because clearly, as a scientist I definitely can see it, and, you know, just for some listener here, who’s, as you say, doing whatever professional job or whatever nonprofessional job, how does that view of failure tie in? They obviously don’t want to lose their job, they can’t fail too much vocationally and keep a job. Is it just their own risk-taking in life that this would tie into, or what would be the parallel?
Stuart Firestein: Well of course, I guess it varies from profession to profession, to some extent, but I think a lot of it is that once again, creativity comes out of failing. It’s when you expect something to happen a certain way, and then you say “ah, it didn’t happen that way, so what is it that I don’t know about it, what is it that’s different here? Now I have to go back and rethink this.”
And I think that’s where people in the end get most creative, especially where groups of people get most creative, when they try and figure out what it is that went wrong here, how are we going to fix this in a way – is a way to engage people beyond their simple, sort of day-to-day activities. Now, how much can you fail? I mean, that’s a very good question, of course, and all I can say about that my suspicion, from things that I’ve – various things I’ve looked and things you can compare it to from my own work – is that we can fail a great deal more than we think. That we have a bad – we’re not good at estimating the amount of failure that’s actually acceptable, and that will still make things work.
Tom Wassink: And it’s mean it’s interesting, just as, again, as I hear you talk, the pressure is so much to succeed that most failures, they’re cast as successes. The targets that we put in front of ourselves – so again I’m thinking specifically of the scientific world, you mentioned grant writing, grant proposals, the way we write papers, the way we analyze data, the pressure is so much to produce positive findings. We identify targets that are easy targets, we cast our failures as successes, you know, it seems to me that what you’re describing, again, would be tremendously freeing and liberating, both intellectually and creatively, but would really require an embracing of this by the system in some way.
Stuart Firestein: Well, I think you’re right, but you know, let’s look at what the system is producing. I don’t think any of us are particularly happy with where it’s gotten to. We’re not happy with funding levels that are so competitive, because they’re so low, that they require people to essentially propose truly incremental things.
You know the N.I.H., the last several years – almost in recognition of this, the N.I.H., which funds, of course, health research – has this category called high risk, high impact. So things that are likely to fail, but if they work they’d be really great, they’d have great impact. Well last year, that was 1.5% of the N.I.H.’s budget that was devoted to high risk, high impact.
That sounds great, but then what does that mean about the other 98.5% of the money they’re giving out? Is it just incremental crap that nobody really cares much about and it’s barely pushing the ball forward? So that doesn’t really make any sense. I don’t think that’s what we want. Now, I’m not saying that incremental science isn’t important, and there is an important role for that, there is an important role for measurement and moving things along incrementally, but it can’t be only one point, it can’t be 98.5% of the project. It seems to me that’s a mistake.
Dave Schmelzer: So we’re going to let you go shortly, Stuart, but I want to give Val the final questions if you like. I feel like Tom and I have sort of dominated your time. What’s on your mind, Val? Take us out with Stuart.
Val Snekvik: Oh. I mean it’s the beat you were just saying, Stuart. 1.5%. I mean, do you feel like you are a fish out of water? Because I think what you’re doing is amazing, it’s fascinating, do you think – my nosy question is – do you feel like you’re swimming against the tide, or is there momentum among colleagues and recognition that this is utterly smart?
Stuart Firestein: Yeah, well, I mean the gratifying thing is that yes, there’s general recognition that this is clearly the way we go. I mean, I always start a talk off by saying, you know, “I’m not really going to say anything here that I think you don’t already know, in your heart if not in your mind, and probably in both places,” but again, we don’t make it explicit often enough, we don’t think through it deeply enough, to make it explicit, and to make something out of it.
Now will it change, is it easy to change? No, I don’t think so, although I do think you can change things incrementally and have considerable effects. You don’t have to come up with the 100% solution right from the beginning. I think there are things that can be done to make changes happen, and oddly enough I’m very optimistic about the fact that, I think, change can happen actually more quickly than we think.
You know the example that comes to my mind, actually, is gay marriage in America. I mean, five years ago, nobody would have imagined that was even vaguely possible, not even vaguely possible. And now it’s kind of the law of the land, and in a matter of five years, opinions have changed and people don’t even seem to be all that upset about it. I mean a few here and there are, but for the most part, people are not generally upset about it, “OK that’s fine,” and that change – that was like a huge sea change in a matter of a relatively short period of time, so I think in some ways, you know, when an idea whose time has come is here, or when the crisis is strong enough, things can change surprisingly quickly, I think. Or I hope.
Dave Schmelzer: Well Stuart, thank you so much for joining us, this has been just nothing but fun to talk with you about all this stuff. We couldn’t appreciate it more.
Stuart Firestein: My pleasure, absolutely my pleasure. It’s the best part of my day.
Dave Schmelzer: Woo! Best part of your day.
Tom Wassink: I really appreciate it too. It was great meeting you in Manhattan and so wonderful to have you as a guest on our podcast.
Stuart Firestein: Yep, well, we’ll do it again, I hope, sometime, yes? So when you’re in Manhattan again, you let me know. Val, you and Dave as well. I ’m happy to sit down and have a cup of coffee, a beer, or whatever you’d like to do and talk some more. It would be great.
Dave Schmelzer: That sounds fantastic
Val Snekvik: Sounds great.
Dave: All, right bye bye Stuart, thanks. So let’s take a few minutes before we’re done and chat about our responses. So what was on your mind as you heard Stuart talk?
Val Snekvik: I think, as a mom, I’m thinking about our issues in the schools and how much what he’s saying affects younger kids in education. You know, I mean this is a huge, huge, huge, topic. What kind of knowledge do kids need? How do teachers spend their time? How are disciplines integrated? How much should be discussion-based? How much creativity is allowed in the classroom? I mean these are vital questions, and that’s why I was kind of probing him on the front of how much pushback is he getting? Does he feel like students – you know, I mean it’s so anti-American, on the one hand of what he’s saying, but maybe what he’s saying is the idea, you know, an idea whose time has come, is true, just because there is a little bit more humility now, with job availability or lack thereof for college grads. I don’t know, I just think it is a an idea whose time has come, again as I mentioned, William Deresiewicz, who I heard out at Stanford. You know, he’s basically saying kids and young adults don’t know how to think. So I think it’s all linked in my head. I don’t know, what’d you guys think?
Tom Wassink: Yeah, I was interested in a couple of those things that he said. In his TED talk, and then at Sinai and Synapses, he really presses into this notion that kids, you know, at a pretty young age, are really interested in science. Most kids are inquisitive and interested, they want to do experiments, they think the world is cool, the natural world is really super interesting. But by the time they finish high school, most of them, the vast majority of them, hate science. You know, not only “well, I want to do literature,” or you know, something like that, but they have an active antipathy towards science. And so you know, his question is, we are very efficient at dispelling interest in science through our current educational system. Something’s gotta change.
Dave Schmelzer: I thought, too, it was interesting to hear him, at the end, be somewhat optimistic about the possibility of a sea change in the way that we do support for science in the country, through N.I.H. Because it’s absolutely true what he’s describing, the grant mechanisms reward a certain type of scientific endeavor, which is incremental advances that are really likely to produce what we would call positive results, but that aren’t necessarily that interesting or that meaningful, in terms of what we’d like science to do for us. So to hear him have a sense of, “Well, actually, things can change pretty quickly,” I thought that was interesting.
Val Snekvik: Do you find that in your work, too, Tom, in clinical work?
Tom Wassink: Well that’s a whole other conversation. In psychiatry, particularly, there’s a strong sense that research has not really yielded much that’s helpful clinically. So all the research in genetics, for example, which is my field, or in trying to develop medications, we just haven’t developed anything truly advancing, in terms of how we care for patients, for a long time. We don’t really have new medications, we just have slight modifications of old ones. Genetic data hasn’t really helped. It’s helped us understand, to some degree, causes, but not much clinically. So there’s a sense there, too, that we’ve got to do something different in the research endeavor to help our patients.
Dave Schmelzer: As I know you guys are also thinking about, as a non-scientist and though I am a parent and I’ll watch how education happens, it’s not driving me to kind of think about educational questions, but what does drive me is thinking about, like, the meaning of life, and all the things both Horatio and Blue Ocean talk about. So I found my mind drifting in that direction, as I know it has with you, Tom, I know, and even being so eager and super eager to get Stuart on the show, I think it was even around some of those questions, about how do we think about God, how do we think about theology, how we think about church, everything about things like that, and that there’s intrinsic pressures, in religion in particular, not to do what Stuart’s talking about, like to do the exact opposite, to be the fact drone.
Because the stakes seem so high, right, if we start with saying “I’m ignorant, I’ve got all the facts, I’ve done all the work, I’ve done all the reading, I know everything about facts, whatever, but now we’re doing bull sessions about what are we ignorant about and how do we go,” well, that ignorance, we can fear, drives people to hell, if we say we don’t know, if we’re wrong, we’re going to damn humankind, you know, so we’d better not think new thoughts. All the good thoughts have already been thought, that’s why Augustine existed, we don’t have to do anything new.
So I find myself thinking about the bull sessions that I’m in, what people think about these deep questions, and whether what Stuart is talking about is the method of how we grow spiritually, and grow as church people, etc. Those are on my mind.
Tom Wassink: Well, I know that’s one the reasons that I really liked him at Sinai and Synapses, because the press of 20th century modernism in the religious endeavor, particularly the Christianity endeavor, was that we can know all the facts, we can organize them systematically. If we just work hard enough and long enough, we have all the data accessible to us, so we can know everything that needs to be known.
So there was a real anxiety if you ever came to the edge of a precipice of not knowing. It felt like you were jumping off in an abyss or you were being unfaithful or untrue or in some way violating a core premise of faith. But what he’s saying about the scientific endeavor, I think, is absolutely true about the religious and spiritual endeavor.
So the failure idea, for example, that in science we recognize every so often that, wow, most of what we have taken as dogma actually turns out to be completely not true, and we need to head in a new endeavor – I think religion and Christianity is pretty darn close to that. There are centuries worth of thought that have evolved over time, that at some point somebody comes to realize, “you know most of that’s wrong, I think we need to head in a new endeavor,” or in a new direction.
And so the sense of humility, and there’s so much more that we don’t know than what we do, and that a real expert is somebody who is aware enough of their ignorance to ask the right questions, that just feels like it – I was surprised, you know, we create this dichotomy between science and religion. I was surprised at how much this way of thinking about science maps very nicely onto how I like to think about religion and advancement of spiritual knowledge.
Dave Schmelzer: So Val, yet again, take us out on this one, because I think we’re going to spend the entire next podcast episode expanding on this thought, but what’s on your mind right now? And then we’re going to close this out.
Val Snekvik: Well, I was really glad you brought up failure, Dave, because when he commented, when Stuart said “we’re so interested in talking about failure reflectively as a road to success,” I know that’s just such a deep, deep point from God worldview, from a spiritual worldview, from a Christian worldview.
Like so, for me, what it says is, wow I mean it’s so fresh, I just have to sort of sit with that, honestly, because failure, I mean, I’m success-driven naturally, so it’s like OK, how can failure not be just a road to success, but how is it fundamentally – you know, the way I would phrase it in Christian terminology is like – a saving grace. You know, how is it not – how does it save us from triumphalism, and you know, that notion that it’s about our ego, so I don’t know, there was something so deep in that point. That’s what I’m sitting with now.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum — a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series, “Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things?”).