the asymptote of certainty and how we keep moving forward

the asymptote of certainty and how we keep moving forward

Meredith Grey (Voice over)

No one believes that their life will turn out just kind of okay. We all think we are going to be great. 

And from the day we decide to be surgeons, we are filled with expectation. Expectations of the trails we will blaze, the people we will help, the difference we will make. Great expectations of who we will be, where we will go. 

And then…we get there.  

Scene cuts to Cristina eating cereal at the kitchen counter staring coldly at boyfriend Burke, while Burke, Derek and Meredith sit awkwardly at the dinner table trying to make polite small talk.

World-class surgeons stuck in a socially uncomfortable situation.

I chuckle out loud, partly at the surgeons of Grey’s Anatomy, but mostly because I see myself in them – having these grand expectations of the things I will do and accomplish, the discoveries I will make as a PhD student, the articles I will publish as an aspiring writer – then I get to it:

And it looks more like trying to make the stir bar go faster so that the annoying chunk of EDC catalyst actually dissolves in the solution (why didn’t I break it up with my metal spatula BEFORE I purged with nitrogen gas??).

Or sitting at a blank Evernote page wanting to write this post because I haven’t written in a month but distracting myself with the rye bread that has just come out of the oven instead (SO yummy, recipe to follow in the next ‘what I’m into’!!)

In a way, it’s part of the job description. As an academic, you have to write grants that dream big enough to get you the money you need, although you scarcely even know if you will get around to accomplishing half the objectives you set out to do.

But you submit the grant anyways.

As a writer, you have these grand ideas on how this piece will turn out (it will be moving, compelling, authentic and true to all the thoughts that have been swimming in your head these past few weeks), yet the words themselves sort of fall flat.

You acutely sense the gap between what is in your headspace and what has just happened on the screen.

But you keep writing anyways.

These past few weeks, I’ve had to stare some serious epistemological questions in the face, in particular pertaining to science and God.

The questioning of science was sparked from trying to imagine that the body of scientific knowledge we have right now largely came into being from graduate students like me tinkering around at lab benches. A very scary thought, indeed.

It felt like the moment as a child when you realize that your parents didn’t really know what they were doing, but were figuring it out as they went along (“and I just took what you said as categorically true all the time!!”).

Taking into account the fact that we humans are more prone to seeing patterns than not, and that we see whatever we want to see through the blurry screen of statistics, or when reproducibility studies show that 47 out of 53 landmark cancer findings cannot be replicated, my confidence in science only attenuates the more I delve into the issue.

When I dared to voice these doubts aloud to my MD PhD friend, Sam Kim, his response was simply – Viv this is too early for you. What year are you in your PhD again?

I wish I could be more sure – tell you that what you read in the science journals is what is actually happening – but the truth is there are a myriad of variables that are impossible to control (and that the author of the paper just had to ignore).

There are trends that the scientist is straining his eyes to make out (maybe just so he could publish a paper much-needed to graduate, or to meet a supervisor’s deadline), data points he may be omitting because he mistook them for ‘outliers’ when they were in fact meaningful, and plain old genuine mistakes that neither him nor the peer-reviewers had the acuity to pick out.

And in the face of all that uncertainty, what do we do?

Well, we weave a narrative out of the data we do have – and we tell you a story.

One that we want you to believe, but one that we are struggling to make sense of ourselves because we too, desperately want to believe it.

On the topic of faith and God, the inner dialogue ironically precipitated from encouraging my agnostic friend Chris to read “Surprised by Meaning” by Alastair McGrath (highly recommend), as well as the hours spent preparing for the “Explaining Faith” discussions I’ve been leading after church that tackle the big apologetic questions like “How do we know God exists?”

You would think that sifting through the arguments for God would make me more able to point a finger at hard evidence, declare triumphantly – see, that’s how I KNOW God exists.

Instead, the more I read, chat and ponder, the more I come to terms with how hard faith is.

How phrases like “you need to have faith” are indiscernible and vague to someone with no concept of ‘faith’.

How internally frustrating it must be for a non-believer when Christians say things like, “I know God’s real because I experience Him everyday.”

And how mind-boggling that one can “know” concepts like the existence of God, but not in the traditional way one would “know” something – that is, through our senses or logical reasoning.

Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist who documents how evangelical Christians experience God writes in her book “When God talks back”:

The puzzle is how: how sensible, reasonable people, living in more or less the same evidential world as the skeptic, are able to experience themselves as having good evidence for the presence of a powerful invisible being who has a demonstrable effect on their lives and are able to sustain a belief in that presence despite their inevitable doubt.

They believe in some abstract, absolute sense that God exists, but they struggle to experience God as real in the everyday world.

They want to hang on to their convictions in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, and it is sometimes very difficult for them to do so.

At its heart, this is the dilemma of all human knowledge. We reach out to grasp a world we know to be more complex than our capacity to understand it, and we choose and act despite our awareness that what we take to be true may be an illusion, a wispy misperception.

There have been times while reading the book where I have stopped short, because wait, how do I know that my experience of God is not a self-made illusion?

The truth is, I can never know for sure.

To be human, though, is to accept such limitations and move forward anyways.

After all, we are neither infinite nor omniscient and absolute Truth will always be the asymptote we will never cease striving toward.

I wish I had a better answer for non-believers who ask me to prove God to them, or even better language to explain the experience of faith.

At the same time, I wish I could design experiments in perfectly controlled environments that will lead to firmly conclusive statements of how the world works.

But just because I can’t doesn’t mean I stop showing up to lab or to God, because I’m paralyzed by the uncertainty of it all.

When Paul Kalanithi, the accomplished neurosurgeon who wrote “When breath becomes air”, was coming to terms with his terminal diagnosis, he first sought to control his fate by seeking out as much knowledge as he could to make the best decision.

He scoured Kaplan-Meier curves to see what his chances of survival were, researched the latest experimental treatments on clinical trial.

And yet, his search for knowledge and control only ended with him coming to terms with his finitude and mortality.

He writes:

What patients seek is not scientific knowledge that doctors hide but existential authenticity each person must find on her own. Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.

And later, as he reached his last days of his life:

There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living.

We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.

The small, ordinary moment – because this is what we have.

This is all we know.

So, I go to lab and pursue the infinitesimally small piece of knowledge that may have the slightest chance of approximating truth.

And I show up to God each morning, choosing to believe that, in the face of all uncertainty, as Luhrmann posits of the Christian worldview:

the world is good; that love endures; that you should live your life as if the promise of joy were at least a possibility.

Leave a thought :)

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