Words and Transgressions 3 - The Fallacy of Van Helmont's Tree

Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644) was a Flemish chemist, physiologist, and physician and one of his most famous experiments was one which tried to figure out how and from where plants get their mass. He decided to grow a willow tree and he began by measuring the weight and amount of soil, the weight of the sapling and the water he added. After five years the plant had gained 74.47kg (go to the bottom of the page found if you click this web link for the figures) and, since it had received nothing but water and the soil weighed practically the same as at the beginning, he argued that the increased weight of wood, bark and roots had been formed from water alone.

Now, it is vitally important in the telling and hearing of this story to realise that this conclusion, although we know it today to be false, was made on the basis of the most careful experimental methods of the time - methods which were determined to factor out mere human opinion by looking at the ‘facts’ of the matter alone.

Knowing this it should be relatively clear that the fallacy of Van Helmont's tree is that carefully planned and well executed investigations may be completely misleading simply because of a basic ignorance of all the possible factors involved in some phenomenon or set of phenomena.

Faced with this realisation it is clearly necessary in our world, not only to collect scientifically verifiable empirical data but, and it is this matter that I wish to bring before us today, to keep our whole being open to everything that comes our way. If you have been at the last two services you will know that I have been following some examples of this given by the psychiatrist Maurice O'Connor Drury in his book the "Danger of Words" and in the section on Van Helmont's tree he alerts us to the importance of remaining open to anecdotal evidence, saying:

"Not that we should publish these anecdotes; that would merely add to the confusion. But we should have our eyes and ears open, and our pens ready to note down in our case-books, every incident or remark that seems in any way novel or strikes our attention."

Wise advice I think. But with regard to religion the problem has been that it has spent most of its time in anecdotal mode. After all its foundational documents were written at a time and with a mindset that for the most part encountered, and shared their experience of the world with others in this fashion. In the contemporary context - where scientific evidence has become so important and culturally prevalent it should come as no surprise to us that many of us are simply not (in fact cannot be) prepared to give any real, substantial weight to that kind of anecdotal evidence.

But, as the fallacy of Van Helmont's tree clearly reveals, to go solely by current scientific evidence and to draw from it anything like the conclusion that an absolute answer has been obtained, is liable to lead you (perhaps, to some extent, always lead you) to false conclusions - no matter how careful and rigorous you have been in your initial testing and methods. Anecdote, in Drury's account, is best understood as a strategy, method even, of ensuring that we keep our whole being open so we are not led hopelessly and definitively astray. Anecdote is something which can keep us alive to the unexpected and the previously unseen. That means we should take it seriously without, necessarily, believing its accounts to be true.

It seems to me that this is a key way we might begin to offer up to sceptical people one real tangible, understandable practical purpose of a liberal religion. It can be argued that we are offering one way (derived in our case from the Christian tradition) of practising the discipline of keeping our whole being open to the unbelievably complex world in which we live and move and have our being and, at the same time giving us a practical way of living with that openness and not-knowing by following the example of Jesus; a man who did that par excellence. Remember his teaching "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8). Think, too, of his parables of the kingdom which don't answer the question of what it is but always invite the question "How is that like the kingdom of Heaven?" He said that the kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed (Matt 13:31, Mark 4:31, Luke 13:19); what else can you do but ask "How is that so?" and then think.

Understood this way following Jesus can be understood to be a way of training ourselves to remain alert to the presence of God in the world, or, if you struggle with the word God one can simply say it is to be alert to the things unseen via the world of things seen. In saying this *please* realise that this isn't necessarily to posit a supernatural world (indeed I, personally, do not believe in anything that is beyond Nature even as I admit that there will almost certainly things about nature which will remain inaccessible, unseen, and even unseeable, about it); but, even as I, personally, hold a naturalist view of the world I don't seek to exclude the possibility that I am wrong so I do not rule it out absolutely; the example of Van Helmont's tree reminds me of the foolishness of that! All I am saying - as Van Helmont discovered - is that no matter how careful you are, even in the hard empirical sciences, something of vital importance is always going to be missed by us.

Therefore, contrary to much popular opinion, I would like promote a religious outlook that is not so much concerned to discover and articulate truth but rather one which can ensure that truth may continually be sought - that the revelation or discovery of unfolding truth is not obstructed by the creation of fixed dogmatic positions; that unfolding truth is not obscured by religious or scientific dogma.

In my opinion, liberal religion can be strong guardian of a disciplined, practical openness. This clear practical discipline may be one way of interpreting Jesus' statement about the way to life being through a narrow gate.

"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:13-14).

The narrow gate being understood to refer to a disciplined openness to the world in its fullness. The trouble with much contemporary liberal religion is that it has lost a reason to be disciplined - and here is a damned good reason to get it back.

This isn't, of course, to say that the way we in this liberal Christian church have the only narrow gate going, but only to state that it has (or can develop) a practical method of careful disciplined observing - not only of facts but also of religious or spiritual anecdotal evidence that comes from being an embodied creature with all our impressions, feelings, experiences, stories.

As your minister I'm interested in creating a genuine integrated relationship between the methods and discoveries of the sciences and also the open-ended practical insights into how we might live and move and have our being that are possible via a religious practice. The trick is not to mix them thoughtlessly and inappropriately and to think that they are saying precisely the same thing, but to see them as working together to ensure that humankind continues to enlarge and deepen its conception of both the universe as a physical, material realm and also our place in it as beings that understand ourselves to be both physical and spiritual beings.

(Excursus: To say what I have done in the previous paragraph in such a fashion is to risk being seen as still captivated by an essentially dualist mindset – i.e. dividing the world in some way into mind and body – but remember I’m saying this as a non-dualist who has come to the conclusion – via Spinoza read through the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Paul Wienpahl – that old style metaphysics simply makes no sense.)

Anyway, the final aim of this? Well, it is that to which I constantly return - namely that Jesus felt he came, taught and showed what he did so that we "may have life, and have it abundantly." But it seems to me that we can only have that abundant life if we learn the lesson of Van Helmont's tree (which I think Jesus knew intuitively) and keep ourselves alive to the wondrous and beautiful complexity of our world by never believing we have got all the information to hand and can answer anything for all time and all people and to live a finished, perfected life. As Jesus said, even though we should continue to move towards such perfection in truth that possibility is only obtained ‘in’ God (Matthew 5:8).


Yewtree said…
Excellent post.

You wrote: But with regard to religion the problem has been that it has spent most of its time in anecdotal mode.

I agree, and I would add that the problem with revealed religion is that it assumes one person's gnosis is valid for everyone else. That, I would suggest, is why one of the 'gifts of the Holy Spirit' is discernment.

Most Pagans make a distinction between personal revelation and insights which are meant for everyone. Most knowledge communicated by the unseen is taken to be for that moment and that person only. It doesn't get written down. (Just as well, or we'd have revealed religions instead of autocthonic ones.)