Lessons from Van Helmont's Tree for freethinking, rational mystics

READINGS: Edith Hunter quoted in “Freethinking Mystics with Hands” by Tom Owen-Towle (Skinner House Books, 1998, p. 27)

Perhaps we should realize that our need is not to “find something to believe” — but rather to discover what our lives indicate that we believe right now. This is the place to start.

The ‘Fallacy of Van Helmont’s Tree’ from “Words and Transgression” by Maurice O'Connor Drury (Thoemmes Press, 1996, pp. 10-11, 18)

[Jan Baptist] Van Helmont (1580-1644), as you know, was one of the great founders of chemistry. He was the first chemist to realise the importance of the chemical balance; of carefully weighing everything both before and after a chemical reaction. Indeed, it was hugely due to his work that the principle of the conservation of matter became an established axiom. Now Van Helmont performed a certain experiment with great care and accuracy, whose result seemed irrefutable and yet at the same time absurd. It was this.
          He weighed accurately to certain quantity of earth and placing it in a large pot, planted a small ash sapling. Every day he watered the plant with pure distilled water, and in between these waterings he kept the surface of the soil covered to that no foreign extraneous matter should fall on it. In due time the sapling grew to such a size that its weight had increased more than to hundredfold, in fact it had become too big for the pot to hold it. Van Helmont weighed it carefully, and then weighed the original soil he had filled the pot with, finding that this latter had lost nothing. He argued therefore that as the only additions made were those of pure water all the materials in the tree, bark, pith, leaves, etc., were in some way composed of nothing but water. This certainly seemed paradoxical both to him and his contemporaries, but the evidence of the experiment seemed irrefutable. Where did they go wrong? Well of course they did not know that a plant is able to extract carbon from the carbon dioxide of the air by the process of photosynthesis; the very existence of such a substance as carbon dioxide or such a process as photosynthesis was then undreamed of. Similarly how could they have guessed that there were minute organisms in the soil that could extract nitrogen from the air and transmit it to the plant?
           Now the motto of this is that in the early stages of any science when there are still a host of unknown factors at work it can be most misleading to draw conclusions from experiments however accurately performed. The methods employed may be too precise for the data on which they have to work.
          [. . .]
          So I would sum up the fallacy which I have entitled ‘the fallacy of Van Helmont’s tree’ in these terms. Carefully planned and well executed investigations in the early stages of a science may be completely misleading, just because of our ignorance of the possible factors involved.


Lessons from Van Helmont's Tree for freethinking, rational mystics

In 1634 a Flemish chemist, physiologist and physician called Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644) was arrested by the Inquisition for the crime (now astonishing to us) of studying natural phenomena. However, even this nasty turn of events could not quell his intellectual curiosity and, whilst under house arrest, he began to wonder about how plants grew. His own generation had inherited the belief it was by eating soil and so van Helmont devised the experiment which you heard about in our readings in order to check whether or not this belief was correct.

As we now know Van Helmont’s conclusion was wrong because he knew nothing about the process of photosynthesis whereby plants use light energy to synthesize carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate. But it is vitally important in the telling and hearing of Van Helmont’s story to realise that his false conclusion was made on the basis of the most careful, rational experimental methods of the time — methods which were determined to filter out mere human opinion by looking at what were thought only to be the pure ‘facts’ of the matter.

It should be relatively clear that we slip into committing the fallacy of Van Helmont’s tree whenever we fail to remember, as the psychiatrist and former student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice O'Connor Drury reminds us:

“. . . that carefully planned and otherwise well-executed investigations may turn out to be completely misleading simply because of a basic ignorance of all the possible factors involved in some phenomenon or set of phenomena.”

OK, but why do I bring this fallacy before you today, a liberal religious community?

Well, it’s because Drury’s discussion of it helps us see and explore an important creative tension and balanced imbalance which lies at the heart of our own liberal religious movement, one that can be gestured towards in two, two word descriptions that have sometimes been applied to us: “Freethinking Mystics” or “Rational Mystics” In a nutshell, here is why these words have been applied to us.

In the 1540s and 1550s the Italian Renaissance humanist and anti-Trinitarian reformer, Lelio Francesco Maria Sozzini (1525–1562) and his nephew, Fausto Paolo Sozzini (1539—1604) were among many freethinkers who found themselves driven into itinerant existences across Europe as they sought out communities where, finally, they might be free to pursue their rational, reasonable researches away from the dictatorial dogmatic religious strictures of Roman Catholicism or the churches of the Protestant Magisterial Reformation. As it says on the plaque dedicated to their memory in the Sozzini’s palace in Siena: “During ages of fierce despotism, with their new doctrines they awoke the free thought.”

So, there's the free and rational part of things, but what about the "mystic" bit?

Well, in Fautus’ case the community amongst whom he found a safe home was a small anabaptist group called the Polish Brethren (Bracia Polscy). Like all such anabaptist communities there was amongst them a strong propensity to a kind of mysticism because they laid greater stress on the authority of inward leadings or promptings of the spirit than they did on external things such as scripture, ceremonies and tradition. Consequently it was in Poland during the 1560s that freethinking, rational, Renaissance humanist culture first began to mingle powerfully with mysticism and gave birth to our own identifiable and unique religious communities of “Freethinking Mystics” or “Rational Mystics.” The Polish Brethren and the early English Unitarians, as I’m sure most of you already know, came to called “Socinians” in memory of Fautus’ and some of our church communities in Wales are locally still known as “Socins”.

In your order of service (and here on the right) I have reproduced Rembrandt’s famous “Faust” etching which the Dutch art scholar, Henri van de Waal (1910-1972), felt could well be a depiction, not of the obscure Faust of German legend, but of our very own, very real Faustus Socinus. I offer you the picture because in this famous image you have what may be taken as an archetypal depiction of the rational or freethinking mystic at work.  

Keeping all the above in mind we may firstly note that free and rational thinking have powerfully contributed to our own development into a religious movement that today finds the methods and discoveries of the natural sciences absolutely indispensable to the living of any contemporary,reasonable, decent, creative, engaged and intelligent life.

The second thing to note is that the attitude to the world that free and rational thinking have helped inculcate in us has also enabled us to recognize the real danger of slipping into Van Helmont’s fallacy. This means that (at our best anyway) we know we must take great care not thoughtlessly, foolishly come to believe that what the natural sciences currently tell us about reality is, necessarily, the whole and final truth of the matter.

With this thought in mind we may now turn from “freethinking” and the use of “reason” to consider the other word applied to us I mentioned earlier, “mystics.”

Our development over the centuries as mystics has, to my mind, become increasingly related to the aforementioned recognition that our rational, scientific freethinking tells us that we are always liable to be missing some vital piece of information or knowledge that would allow us finally and fully to judge on this or that matter.

Because of this — again at our best  — we have come to understand that it is therefore vital to keep our being appropriately open to everything that comes our way as human beings, including what we call anecdotal evidence and including those experiences we have often called “mystical.”. Here’s how Drury puts this insight. He is, of course, speaking here as a psychiatrist:

“Not that we should publish [the] anecdotes [we collect]; 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.”

I’ll return to Drury’s point about not publishing these anecdotes in a moment because I think it is very important but before that, given all the above, the basic creative tension facing us as a liberal religious movement may now be expressed as follows:

Although on the one hand we have a strong desire to ensure that in our religion we make full use of reason and the results of the natural sciences, because we are aware of its always possible incompleteness, we also know, on the other hand, that we must remain open to all kinds of existential intuitive and mystical experiences. The problem is that what each of them may be saying to us at any given time do not always line up easily or coherently with each other. We are also acutely aware that alone or together neither of them is capable of delivering up to us anything like genuine, absolute and final certainties about the nature of reality. Given this we clearly need to be keeping our free and rational thinking and our mystical inclinations in the most careful of balanced relationships never allowing either of them to over-step their different but very real and significant limitations.

To introduce you to the basic strategy I try to follow in keeping this balance consider the image of going for a walk. Sometimes it is best (or simply more appropriate) to start walking with the left leg; at other times it is best (or simply more appropriate) to start walking with the right leg. By extension this means that under certain circumstances a rational fact may lead off better than a mystical intuition; on other occasions a mystical intuition may lead off better than a rational fact. It depends and it is not always obvious with which leg one should begin and often it doesn’t matter because walking, as well as in a freethinking rational mystical life, the way to proceed is by taking alternate steps — to allow each leg in turn take its appropriate and genuinely sustainable weight. True enough sometimes one must put more weight on one leg rather than the other but, in general and overall, over the course of a whole walk (a whole life) things tend to balance out. What doesn’t happen (except in some bizarre, super-exceptional cases or thanks to a persistent delusional condition) is that we decide to move forward over the long term only by hopping. To walk appropriately as freethinking or rational mystics we do not (in general) overly rely on one leg rather than the other because neither is, can, must or should do all the necessary work required.

That gives us one important way to think about how to keep alive the necessary dynamic relationship between freethinking and reason on the one hand (or foot!) and mysticism on the other. But, this illustration is not entirely accurate in describing the strategy needed to employ in balancing them because, in our own age, science (led by free-thinking and reason) has taught us that, because our mystical intuitions cannot be tested and checked in the way our scientific theories can slowly be tested and checked, it is wise to ensure that our mystical intuitions are always expressed in the most minimal, highly cautious and thin fashion. Here I return to Drury’s point about not publishing the anecdotes we collect because that would merely add to the confusion.

Over the years many Unitarian thinkers have been tempted into publishing a lot of maximal, incautious and thick anecdotes about their mystical intuitions. As we know the early Unitarians developed highly complex and thick Unitarian theistic theologies about the nature of the One God — most notably in the Racovian Catechism of 1605. Later on, often inspired by Spinoza, other Unitarians have come up with some very detailed and thick pantheistic, panentheistic and process-like theologies about the nature of God and the world. Interesting and attractive though some of these theologies were and, perhaps, still are, these days all of them increasingly look and feel to me essentially anecdotal and they have all added to the considerable confusion about what we are (or might be) as a religious community. The basic problem is that in their different ways these anecdotes have all wildly outstripped any available evidence and have been way too speculatively detailed to be anything like the real truth of the matter. It was right that they were jotted down in our own communities’ internal notebooks and pondered by us but this is where they should have been kept.

It seems to me that there is only one basic, hyper-minimalist Unitarian anecdote that should continue to be published and affirmed widely, namely, that over the four and a half centuries of our formal existence we have come strongly to feel that it is right and proper to live by the mystical intuition that there exists something we might call “an interdependent unity of all things.” Nothing more than this should publicly be said. Indeed, I want to be clear that I don’t think we can or should even attempt to say whether or not this intuited interdependent unity of all things is best thought of as ultimately either pluralistic or monistic. 

So, where does this leave us? Well, I think it means that that as freethinking or rational mystics we need to recognize and learn to live with the fact that our left leg (science) is always going to be much thicker and maximally filled out than is our right leg (mysticism) which, of necessity, must remain much, much more thinly, minimally and tentatively constructed. True, this makes our religious gait, the way we as a religious people saunter through reality, a very distinctive and highly unusual one but, I would argue, it is precisely this unusual way of walking through reality that keeps in play the appropriate creative tension and balanced imbalance that Drury saw must be allowed to exist between the current state of the natural sciences and our own anecdotes and mystical intuitions.