‘Science is not for scientists, but for the world’

This is an article from a Belgian magazine, Knack – all copyright is theirs. I’m just posting it here, because Hannah Arendt (“The banality of evil“) is a fascinating person and I think this article is important enough to be shared in English.


‘In times of rapidly increasing polarization, it is especially important not to rely on ‘gut feelings’, but to base yourself as much as possible on findings from high-quality research’, write Rectors Caroline Pauwels (VUB), Herman Van Goethem (UAntwerp), Rik Van de Walle (UGent) and Luc Sels (KU Leuven). In this contribution they explain what the Hannah Arendt Institute stands for, after the N-VA and Vlaams Belang called on the Flemish Parliament to stop the subsidies.

‘Science is not for scientists, but for the world’
Hannah Arendt

In the Internal Governance, Equal Opportunities and Civic Integration Committee, in addition to much praise, the Hannah Arendt Institute was hit hard by Flemish representatives Nadia Sminate (N-VA) and Sam Van Rooy (Vlaams Belang) yesterday. During the presentation of the functioning of the institute, a press release was sent out in which Nadia Sminate (N-VA) described the institute as “a glorified communication agency of the left-liberal vision of urbanity and citizenship” and called for subsidies to be stopped. As rectors of the four universities involved in the Hannah Arendt Institute (VUB, UAntwerp, UGent & KU Leuven), we regret this tendentious description of the Hannah Arendt Institute and we believe it is of great importance to clarify what the Institute stands for.

Academic citizenship

Science is not for scientists, but for the world. That is why universities try to actively disseminate their knowledge and insights. With the Hannah Arendt Institute, for example, we want to inspire professionals, policymakers and citizens to get started with scientific insights into diversity, urbanity and citizenship. A solid scientific basis also contributes to a thorough dialogue with such themes.

Science is not for scientists, but for the world.

New scientific insights can offer great social added value. In the behavioural and social sciences, the path from science to policy development and concrete practice is often difficult and long. Knowledge in such disciplines too often remains underused, perhaps because its application sometimes bumps into ideological walls, preconceptions or even prejudices. We consider it our task to draw attention to that knowledge. The Hannah Arendt Institute has this ambition to disseminate knowledge outside the university walls, more specifically on themes such as diversity, urbanity and citizenship. Because that knowledge matters. Because she is important.

Need for progressive insight

Just with ‘difficult’ social themes, there is a great need for progressive insight. In conversations about complex topics such as migration or free speech, disinformation and ideological bias all too often prevent the possibility of arriving at a workable solution. In that case, sound empirical findings are a good basis and an opportunity to find each other. The opposite is also true. A lack of scientific diligence and in-depth knowledge is a breeding ground for toxic polarization. Hannah Arendt spent her whole life trying to understand what is incomprehensible, because we ‘have our noses at it’. She asks us to think about what we are ‘doing’. She passionately advocated ‘thinking for oneself’, sometimes against friends and prejudices. Advances in scientific understanding and permanent dialogue help us do this.

The social need is there. The scientific research results are also there. Together with the Hannah Arendt Institute, we are working on valorisation: making scientific insights valuable for society. At the Hannah Arendt Institute we provide citizens with knowledge and research results through podcasts, videos and events. We reach professionals with targeted training. We address policy makers through reports and round tables, always with an openness to dialogue and respectful debate. Because especially in the hands of those groups, the knowledge becomes impactful.

With the Institute, we expressly reach out to civil society and to citizens who are ‘in practice’ and who want to make a constructive contribution to the development of society. We can learn from their findings and thus respond to their questions for further research.

The Hannah Arendt Institute is a link between university and society. The Institute’s employees are investigating how you can strengthen the social fabric in sports practice. They investigate how polarization, disinformation and hate speech influence our reference and action framework and advise local authorities and other government services to respond appropriately. They pool knowledge about how cities and municipalities deal with today’s complex challenges and help build communities of practice to inspire other cities and let them learn from each other.

Gut feeling or science

Does the confrontation with a new insight sometimes hurt? Yes, and changing your mind isn’t always easy. It grinds and sometimes pulls to adopt a new idea, change policy, or try out a new method. In times of rapidly increasing polarization it is extra important not to rely on ‘gut feelings’, but to base yourself as much as possible on findings from high-quality research. Universities should not sit back and counter disinformation and feed society with the also constantly evolving insights from scientific research.

With an organization such as the Hannah Arendt Institute, we take on that responsibility to bring our knowledge to the world, for everyone who wants to use it. Of course, this knowledge cannot be taken or abandoned. It is the basis for dialogue, debate and practical training. The Institute is, as it were, an academic form of citizenship. We want to look beyond ideological boundaries and come up with solutions together with other social actors. The world needs that more. Not less.


Jesus for Atheists

I’ve re-posted this here: https://shittyphilosophy.wordpress.com/2022/05/19/jesus-for-atheists/

I guess this is not much more than a review of Leo Tolstoy’s book ‘A Confession’ and his other books on religion. I’ve been an atheist as long as I felt that the words in the Lord’s Prayer were ridiculous. I believe the Bible is a work of fiction like any other book that talks of dragons and giants. I find it crazy that rational people can believe that. I find the hypocrisy of the Bishops who abused children and the cover up of the Church unforgivable – but I guess many more worse things have been done in the name of Christ. Greek and Roman Gods are seen as fake but the one dreamt up 500 years later is somehow real. If there’s only one God then only one of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any other religion can be right and the rest of us are damned.

I believe in Science. Lots of things can’t be explained by science yet, but science doesn’t pretend to know things it doesn’t. It remains humble it never believes you get further than a theory, even if you work your whole life on it. Science knows that what we know today is partially right but still very much wrong. Science has it’s problems and the people that abuse it, but it is explainable and doesn’t require tales of fiction to back it up. If Science is right we’re all saved from the hellish after lives, but if science is right there is no after life.

But at the same time, I’m doing like all other thinking people and searching for meaning in life. My father believed that the basic rules of Christianity were good ones to live by, but nothing more. I wonder at the cathedrals built by people looking to worship God. I wonder at the vast amount of good work that Christians do. I wonder at the happiness that my Grandmother had from just doing the flowers and helping at the church. Christians may believe in something fake but their happiness is real. Their good deeds are real. But I can’t ever join that because I know it’s fake. I can’t eat the body of Christ and believe that it’s really his body, or drink his blood and really think it’s his blood and not be put off by the rather disgusting idea of cannibalising God. I can’t bow down to an almighty nothing.

Tolstoy’s Confession is basically talking about the same. But he did much worse things in his life. He killed people in duels, killed people in war. I don’t have the direct blood of anyone on my hands. Just the blood of all the animals that have been killed for me to eat and to safely take the medicines I take. He did all that I have done but much more, he spoke to the great scientists of his day, he knew the Orthodox Church very well, read up way more than me on Buddhism and Islam. He read all that he could searching for meaning. He read all the philosophers he could all the poets, looking for something or anything with meaning.

This is the closest that I have come to someone who feels as I feel. He saw how clearly that science showed that the teachings in the Bible were fake. But his answer was the biggest crush to any hopes I had. He simply put his faith in Christianity but one that ignored all the clearly made up stories but left open the real stories and teachings of Jesus together with the existence of God. Of course the stupid thing is that in my search for the meaning of life, basically the only answer to that is religion. Religion is just all the different ways that people have tried to create meaning in life. So Tolstoy simply returned to Christianity, the Christianity of the poor where a simple, honest life gets rewarded in this life, and the next.

But this then leaves me nowhere. You get to the top of the tower searching for the answer, you open the trapdoor at the top and there’s nothing but emptiness. The meaning of life is religion and there is no religion, so there’s no meaning. Humanists and other atheists try to claim that there still is meaning, that you can lead a good life and that this one life becomes more precious. But that’s not how I feel and it’s not how Tolstoy clearly lays it out.

So this is what I understand from ‘A Confession’. Life is either finite or infinite. Scientists believe it’s finite, but God and the Universe is infinite. Religion simply matches up our finite life with an infinite afterlife. Science can never explain this like we can never count all the way to infinity. So if science is right, then us, our children, our grandchildren and all the people and animals and insects and bacteria that ever live on this planet ever are pointless. Without meaning to be forgotten. We’ve been going for 14 billion years and in 1,000 billion years everything will be gone. An infinite of nothing. That’s it there’s no way round it, there’s no hope that science will find an answer. There’s no experiment to trial, no thought experiment to see it more clearly. Newton and Einstein won’t save us. They’ll be gone and forgotten, so will we.

Tolstoy wrote that all you could do if you believed there was no God, was to either kill yourself or limp on like a coward.

But Tolstoy carries on about what his version of the real Christianity should be. He views it above all other religions because it puts love as the only rule. “Love thy neighbour” is the only commandment. Thou shalt not kill isn’t needed if you love the one you want to kill. But this is not the jealous love that we think of where a man murders his wife because he loves her too much. The love taught by Jesus is a love that conquers all. You must simply turn the other cheek if someone strikes you. The law of love comes before the law of violence. There is no space for violence, bullying, hatred, jealousy. The law of love is available to all, you don’t need money, talent, beauty, fortune, family. You just need to love those around you.

I understand this kind of Christianity. I can understand why it is so powerful. There’s nothing to laugh at when you see the power of what love can do. The impact that Gandhi managed to have through getting independence for India without resorting to war. That was love. I don’t see humanists or atheists talking about love when they talk about the meaning of life. It’s just a small part in what they believe. I also agree with how he explains that Christianity has more meaning than Paganism because it puts love as the one and only law.

The only trouble I had with Tolstoy’s discussions about religion was the conflict between “non-resistance to violence” and “non-violent resistance”. You can’t resist if you believe in non-resistance. But I’m happy to live with that conflict. I’d see it as never using violence to resist, but if someone is violent to you then you don’t resist them. But you can resist them as long as they don’t turn to violence.

This love at the centre of Christianity is something that I’ve never heard before. “Thou shalt not kill” comes up, “forgive us our trespasses” and so forth. Jesus talks about love, but I’ve never heard it expressed that love is the only thing that matters. But what I see is that this line of thinking is open to all. You can be an atheist but follow the guidance of Jesus and put love above all else. You can love your family more, love your partner more, love your children more. Forgive them for when they are angry, apologise for the things you say and do. You can love your fellow neighbour and check how they are doing and what you can do for them.

I’m not saying I do these things, but I see it as perfectly valid that an atheist can follow the teachings of Jesus where he speaks about love. There is no church required. There is no afterlife required. But if you do choose to dedicate your life to loving others it will be a happy one. You can believe in science, think God is a fraud, limp cowardly forward without meaning, but still find happiness with Jesus and Love.

Headspace is better than coffee

More generically this would be meditation is better than coffee, but the only meditation I do is via Headspace.

My central point is that it’s better to give up on coffee and replace it with meditation. I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee for years. I guess 4-5 mugs of coffee per day plus at least one mug of tea. But during these years my ability to concentrate has been terrible. So I’ve been slowly ever increasing the amount of tea and coffee. I do IT and avoid any kind of management – so the only thing I rely on is concentration for long periods.

But I can’t concentrate, so I need to change something. The first article that got me thinking was the BBC health article on waking up earlier:

  • Wake up 2-3 hours earlier than usual and get plenty of outdoor light in the morning
  • Eat breakfast as soon as possible
  • Exercise only in the morning
  • Have lunch at the same time every day and eat nothing after 19:00
  • Banish caffeine after 15:00
  • Have no naps after 16:00
  • Go to bed 2-3 hours earlier than usual and limit light in the evenings
  • Maintain the same sleep and wake times every day

The one that was easiest to implement was “Banish caffeine after 15:00” – so that was easy enough to stop coffee after 3. The next trigger was a Quora post saying that when waking up we need water and not coffee to help our kidneys get going.

For kidneys is very important that you go sleep on time, before 10pm if possible, and that you do a lot of exercises in the morning or afternoon (but not in the evening, our body should rest at that time of the day). Avoid any stimulants like coffee and alcohol which directly influence on our kidneys, making them dry and slow. When you wake up the first thing you should do is drink loads of warm water, this will warm up your kidneys and put them in work.

Obviously this is from a random stranger on the internet, so trust it less, but it’s easy enough to try drinking water first thing in the morning. However I don’t do this consistently – drinking water is boring, coffee tastes nice. I was doing this and not much was changing. Drinking no coffee after 3, but drinking quite a lot in the morning. Stopping regularly with my work to go make some more coffee or re-heat the coffee pot.

In the past I got into Headspace for doing meditation. I kept it up for about 2 years, but I stopped about 18 months ago. I hadn’t noticed any productivity increase during that period so I didn’t see the benefit, but looking back I realised that I managed to spend a full 18 months learning Machine Learning and Deep Learning through Coursera and also learning about Category Theory – almost entirely in the evenings. So it does seem like meditation helps – but maybe I’m just making up the link, there’s lots of other factors involved. So I tried to restart doing Headspace 6 months ago, but I would do it maybe one or two times and then stop for weeks on end, nothing changed. In an attempt to get myself to get Headspace done in the morning I came up with this phrase:

“Headspace is better than coffee.”

My main idea behind it is that Headspace does something similar to coffee – it helps me concentrate but it also has long term benefits. Coffee does bugger all except make you run around like a headless chicken for 30 minutes until you get the next ‘fix’ of caffeine. This statement is all well and good but it still didn’t change my habits. I had similar ideas about apples, that it’s better to eat an apple than drink coffee – but not sure where I heard that from.

I have finally though come to the conclusion that coffee is completely ineffective. It doesn’t work, it doesn’t help, so the only thing left to do is stop taking it completely. I might as well be completely unproductive without coffee than completely unproductive with coffee. Instead, in the mornings, I have switched to drinking green tea with a slice of lemon squeezed into it (and sometimes with local honey added too). There’s lots of benefits to green tea, so at least it’s useful. Then on top of that I take some grapes or fresh pineapple up with me as I start work.

Further to this I have added that I spend 5 minutes doing yoga and then the 15 minutes it takes to get Headspace done. The irony is that by stopping making coffee, I actually save about 15 minutes a day from the time I spend faffing around brewing and re-heating the stuff, so I now have time for Headspace. I’ve been doing this for 3 weeks now and the turnaround has been fantastic. My mornings are now almost totally focussed and I get a full morning’s work done.

Aside from that I also make sure to leave my phone outside the room that I’m working in and I also stopped going for walks in the morning. Walks are nice but they added too much pressure from the hour I lost going for a walk. I hope to start walks again in the afternoons because I know they’re good, but for now they’ll have to wait.

Update (Feb 2022): I wrote this a while ago now, and it didn’t carry on indefinitely, but I’ve come back to it with a bit more balance. I easily fall back to just drinking coffee and stop with Headspace, especially as time pressure mounts.

But this post helped me to come back to Headspace, things that ring true:

  1. The time spent making coffee tea can be used for Headspace
  2. You don’t need coffee, but it’s nice and you don’t have to stop it
  3. You can work without coffee
  4. Headspace has long term benefits, caffeine has none that I know of

So I’ve changed my thinking slightly:

Headspace before coffee

Keep your coffee, but use the coffee as a trigger to remind you to sit down to Headspace first.