Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen

Robert Sapolsky is professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. Below is a video of a talk he gave to the graduating class on June 13, 2009. It’s very interesting, as Sapolsky explains how various human traits (empathy, perception of other minds, etc.) exist in other animals, but merely as shadows, meaning that we remain unique in our ability to express these traits at a much higher level.

The talk is 38 minutes long, but you can skip the first five minutes. If you don’t have the time, I highly encourage you to watch the last five minutes, starting around 33:40. I’d like to discuss this below the fold.

Did hear see that? When it comes to the trait that is “most defining of who we are,” it is this:

Gaining the strength and will to do X from the irrefutable evidence that X cannot be.

As examples, Sapolsky quotes Kierkegaard and cites a Catholic nun who has devoted her life to serving those on death row.

Sapolsky didn’t use the word that describes it for what it is – faith.

Sapolsky describes himself as a “strident atheist,” yet can’t help but note that faith is both irrational and magnificent. It is “most defining of who we are.”

But it gets better. Carefully note the “moral imperative” Sapolsky invokes as he sends the graduating students of Stanford into the world. He notes that all their secular education has taught them an inescapable rational message – “it is really impossible for one person to make a difference.”

So the “strident atheist” sends the students into the world by encouraging them to deny this rational conclusion and do what it is that most defines us humans – go into the world with faith. One should exert every effort to make a difference precisely because it is impossible to make a difference.

It is thus highly illuminating to step back from all this. An extremely intelligent scientist speaks to a group of intelligent young people who have received a cutting-edge education. Knowing this education leads to nihilism, the scientist invokes faith and calls upon the students to practice faith in their lives. Education, science, philosophy leave off where religion has always begun.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let’s contrast this to the New Atheist Movement in upcoming messages.

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5 Responses to Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen

  1. Tim says:

    Upon watching the last part of the video, my sense was that it was an attempt of taking what is found in discussions of modern philosophy, that of contradictions, and places it into a mathematical formula and gives it the authority of science. Also, I percieved a direct contradiction to Christianity as he legitimizes sin. He says it is our moral duty to do what can’t be done and that is what makes us uniquely human.

    Adam and Eve were not sinners after all they were just following there human nature and this is science.

  2. Michael says:

    Hi Tim,

    I was not trying to imply that Sapolsky had some Christian message. What I am noting is that when it is time for the rubber to meet the road, and a “strident atheist” sends the educated class into the world, what wise words does he have to offer? The exact opposite of the New Atheist movement – Go ye into the world with great Faith.

  3. OrwellianThoughtPolice says:


    “go ye… ”

    Indeed, he resorted to a Mother Teresa of Louisiana – sort of speaking. Yet even this example is not as complex or bold as – love your enemies – at least for me at one time, it was a struggle to comprehend, let alone believe in.

    I’m glad he was open minded enough to recite a Christian’s example of redemption for the most abhorrent in society. Indeed, what Christians do in our jails systems around the nation is not duplicated in numbers by secular systems.

    Angola has lifetime inmates whose lives have been changed since the message of Christ was allowed into their cells. I saw a special on it not long ago.

    But, there is something else Sapolsky states which eludes most people I think in the educated secular non-believing classes. He makes the good point about opportunity for college students to boldly strike out and have faith in their abilities given their education, that the impossible is possible if they but have the will or faith in themselves. But he is still only teaching about a small faith for this world, not the next.

    But what he fails to teach; at least in 5 minutes I watched, is how many believers or non-believers started off from poor beginnings without a college education who did change the world. Some of the worlds greatest sinners, least educated “structurally” by society, have been some of the worlds greatest redeemers, leaders and scientist.

    He latched on to a quality about the human will – that immeasurable spirit of being – that equip some to go where few fear to tread. But he failed to recognize it was first an inspired word that led to that conquering spirit.

    One cursory look at biblical verses or stories will note that it is indeed this boldness of will and faith in both Testaments that shows believers or readers how to persist despite all odds in this world. It is much more than a book of laws that some argue, oppress the spirit of freedom. It is the story of how freedom in Christ from the world allows one to overcome any circumstances in this world. He tries to reduce it to a contradictory statement. Yet, Christ says it is we who contradict Him with little faith. Far from being a contradiction in the Christian faith, it is this singular truth of understanding that has allowed followers to boldly go where no civilized men have gone before(sorry, Star Trek reference). It explains missionaries to Africa and all points around the globe. To Christ, this is not a contradiction, but evidence of His glory and of the Fathers.

    David against Goliath, Gideon against the Mideonites, Moses against Pharoah, Joshua, Jesus against the Pharisees, Peter, Paul…. the eventual rise of Christianity against all oppression in Rome. The rise of tens of millions of Christians in China today, in Vietnam, Cuba, Sudan, Iran, Iraq all to hear and be called to the story of a Risen Savior.

    By the word we are created, by our tongue we proceed, by our thoughts is our heart known, in Christ our every deed.

    Our constant human endeavor is a struggle to overcome the mediocre of human systems that stifle creativity and reject the Creator either by tyrants or other failed social systems, including false gods and even scientism today.

    The physical prison on earth is filled with the failed recognition of God the Creator’s rules for successful living under His guidance. Or the failure to recognize the evidence of things unseen(Design).

    Sister Helen knows this about prisoners. She is not simply living out a command by Christ, but she understands all people can be redeemed. Prison is due to many problems, but being extranged from the Creator, either through darkness of a dysfunctional families, other circumstances, or outright rejection of Christ is highly correlated to the prison population.

    She knows that if their mind is open to hearing the truth, they will be redeemed and changed even locked up in prison, despite their past sins. It is the “substance of things hoped for”, even by the lowliest of us, that we might be loved and have purpose.

    But the secular educated that he teaches to cannot instill value as the same level of Christ’s followers. All attempts have failed. Because in the end, it is not the material world that makes us happy. It is our relationships with people. And when all others cannot forgive, their is one who still reaches out his hand through his faithful body.

  4. DATCG says:

    Ooops, last post was me :)…

    This reminded me of Corinthians, Pauls letters, specifically about how God uses the foolish to confound the wise of this world.

    1Cr 1:17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
    1Cr 1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
    1Cr 1:19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
    1Cr 1:20 Where [is] the wise? where [is] the scribe? where [is] the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
    1Cr 1:21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
    1Cr 1:22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
    1Cr 1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
    1Cr 1:24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
    1Cr 1:25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

    1Cr 1:26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, [are called]:
    1Cr 1:27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

    1Cr 1:28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, [yea], and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:
    1Cr 1:29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.
    1Cr 1:30 But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:
    1Cr 1:31 That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

    The major difference is Siser Helen did not set out to change the world, she sit out to redeem the lost. While Sapolsky see’s this as contradictory, maybe even foolish, he still recognizes its power while remaining blind to the real truth behind it.

  5. Bilbo says:

    The video kept starting and stopping every two seconds, so I gave up.

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