Michel Foucault wrote of the medieval madman, confined to live within the walls of the city gates. “He is put in the interior of the exterior, and inversely. A highly symbolic position, which will doubtless remain his until our day, if we are willing to admit that what was formerly a visible fortress of order has now become the castle of our conscience.”
The wrought-iron gates of Columbia are haunted by madmen of a modern kind. You know the usual cast of characters—there are the conspiratorial anti-Semites, the pamphleteering Jehovah's Witnesses, the buskers and the beggars, the canvassers for such and such a charity. By insisting to be seen and heard, they blight the visual and sonic order of our hurried mornings, when we don't have time for them. Or worse, of our evenings, when we do.
And then there's Doug.
I met Doug one afternoon last week as I stepped outside the gates at 116th and Amsterdam. He held a sign that read “HAVE YOU BEEN MOCKED BY PROFE$$ORS WHO CLAIM TO KNOW THE ORIGINS OF THE UNIVERSE BUT CAN'T PROVE IT? I CAN.” Standing dead center at the threshold, he stared down College Walk with a resolved tranquility. He seemed to me like some peer of St. Peter, sent to guard the stygian gates of hell. But everyone else saw him as a leper—something to be marveled at, fleetingly and with hypochondriac revulsion.
I approached him, and we traded cordial introductions. I told him that I was writing about academia, and that I felt motivated to do so because I sensed a kind of insularity and arrogance in the profession. I asked him whether he thought the work of academia was of any value to society.
“Well,” he said, “I guess, to be fair, it would depend on which elements of academia you're talking about.” He professed a “tremendous amount of respect” for the likes of chemists and engineers, but felt that the credibility of these “hard sciences” is often misappropriated to other, less rigorous fields of study. “For instance, the Big Bang is often presented as a settled issue.”
Doug thought he knew better. He countered, victoriously, “But nobody ever observed it happen.”
As a student of science, I could feel my blood pressure rising. Doug was missing a fundamental cog in his understanding of the scientific method—namely, that observation is only a single step. Observation, the collection of empirical data, serves to confirm or contradict (but never truly claims to prove) hypothesized phenomena, which are themselves not directly observable. Nobody ever saw a Tyrannosaurus alive, but the mountainous volume of fossil evidence that they left behind makes the denial of their existence an indefensible position. So it goes with the Big Bang.
But Doug spoke with the sober and impersonal articulation of a man who had engaged in this conversation a thousand times before. So, I heard him out.
He went down a grocery list of cosmological origin stories from the literature of theoretical physics: “Oscillating Universe theory, Multiverse theory, or various forms of Steady State theory—all of these cosmologies are also unobservable, and all fall prey to what's called The Fallacy of Infinite Dependent Material Regress.'”
He chuckled warmly, forgiving me for my naïveté. At this point, I noticed some students loosely gathering around, sneering and taking pictures. I suppose they were dumbfounded by the treason of my diplomacy with the mentally infirm. For a moment, I felt it was my turn to play St. Peter, to insist to the crowd that I did not know the man—that he was not my teacher, nor my friend. But Doug was undeterred, and I knew that I had to keep up.
“The Fallacy of Infinite Dependent Material Regress makes it logically impossible for any system of dependent material events—which the cosmos is, from subatomic to multiverse, a system of dependent material events—to account for or produce its own existence.” Essentially, nature cannot produce itself. So, Doug concluded, nature needs God.
I admitted to Doug that, as a student of evolutionary biology, I accept Darwin's theory alone as a framework for my origin story, and that it seemed absurd to me to necessitate the existence of something supernatural to explain nature. But I conceded that science could never explain the universe except through infinite material regress. I cited the late evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould's concept of “non-overlapping magisteria”: Science is a realm of inquiry which can only ask the how questions, but never the whys. The latter are the domain of philosophy, or for some, like Doug, theology.
“And yet,” he protested, “It is often assumed, a priori, that science is the ultimate arbiter of what is true.”
Herein lies the most valuable lesson from Doug, the man with the sign. We are trained, each of us, to privilege our own way of knowing. We reduce all systems of thought which we have been told are unreasonable, illogical, unfounded, into a monolith of madness, and we confine their adherents to a place of profane liminality. From a comfortable distance, we can mock and belittle them, but by refusing to engage with them, we let our reason—our precious way of knowing—stand on tenuous ground.
Doug told me that he had been travelling the country, spreading his gospel on college campuses for 15 years. His favorite campus, he said, was UC Berkeley, as it was open to him, both geographically and philosophically. He could go anywhere on campus, and he would often meet with professors and students who would challenge him, and, conversely, who found themselves challenged by him. I imagined that these individuals walked away from their conversations with Doug, as I did, not in a state of sacred revelation, but as better scientists and better thinkers.
Perhaps Columbia could benefit from letting madmen cross the threshold. And, perhaps, they might benefit in return. After all, men like Doug are not madmen at all by the estimation of America's popular morals and metaphysics, which are revealed through scripture and confirmed by common sense. We are the madmen, our allegiances sworn to godless empiricism. And we will remain as such so long as we stay within the hermetic confines of our “ivory tower.”
So, I challenge you: While the wrought-iron gates still confine them to “the interior of the exterior” here at Columbia, step outside the “castle of your conscience” and talk to a madman.
Ian Hewitt is a Columbia College senior studying biological anthropology. He works as a teacher's assistant and research assistant in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology. He hasn't done “the twitter” since high school and so cannot be held responsible for anything tweeted by @ian_hewitt. The Cloisters runs alternate Wednesdays.
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