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Fast '12: In God we hope, in reason we trust

Brown's motto, "In Deo Speramus," is a vestige of the time of the University's founding, when our collected scientific knowledge often failed to protect us from nature's vicissitudes, whether they came in the form of plagues, floods, earthquakes or whatever else. In that era, it made sense for us to have a motto that acknowledged our near-complete helplessness in the face of the forces of nature and that invoked the divine in the interest of our protection and advancement.

The era of modernity, however, calls not for a motto that announces our passivity before the various threats to our survival, but for one that extols our ability to seek truth through the systematic exercise of reason. In the past century, it has been science, not religion, that has prevented outbreaks of disease, created new agricultural methods to sustain growing populations and generally improved the human condition.

Indeed, to passively hope for divine salvation is to reject in the same moment one's ability to rationally save oneself by forming solutions from observation. We could have hoped for God to eradicate smallpox, but with science we did it ourselves. We could have hoped for God to somehow make the land more fertile so as to avoid famine, but we instead developed a chemical process — now known as the Haber process — to easily mass-produce nitrogen-based fertilizer .

These things were not done — at least not provably — by divine intervention. These feats were accomplished by our ability to forge new understandings through reason, rather than accepting concepts from whatever ancient book one chooses to follow. Our motto should be one that celebrates our University's fundamental quest for discovery and inquiry, not one that expresses our hope that everything will eventually pan out.

Furthermore, our motto should be one that is consistent with the epistemic standards one would expect in academia. No one can say with certainty that God exists or not because the concept of God is inherently unfalsifiable. Reason, on the other hand, refers merely to our ability to draw conclusions about the world without the assistance of divine revelation.

To illustrate the point, suppose you are writing a paper for SOC 1620: "Globalization and Social Conflict." If you were to argue that global disparities in economic development patterns were caused by aliens in an invisible pink spaceship using mind control rays to subtly influence people's economic decisions, you could never be proven wrong, but you probably would not receive as good a grade as you would have had you discussed the role of import-substitution policies.

This is because, in academic arguments, statements must be traced back to some empirical foundation, one that is demonstrably true. In academia, unlike in religion, it is insufficient to have an assertion that cannot be disproven. Indeed, the spirit of free inquiry fostered at Brown demands a falsifiable intellectual basis that can be usefully called into question, since rationality entails not only the formation of new theories, but also the refinement — along with the occasional discrediting — of old ones.

We are reaching a point in our history as a species when our understanding of the world consists not of speculation but of testable theories that provide a reliable framework for the betterment of our condition. These scientific models come about not through hope but through our own perspiration and our willingness to think critically. In placing our trust in reason, we are ultimately trusting ourselves — not outside forces — to improve our world.

If you individually want to hope in God, no one has any right to stop you. But it is not the place of rigorous scholars to sit passively and wait for truth to fall out of the sky. Religion may be comforting in hard times, but reason alone can be relied upon to garner results for a better future. We can hope for solutions to the world's problems, but a simple emotion alone will not give us the ability or the resolve to engineer them. Modernity necessitates an active outlook that seeks to confront global crises and defeat them by use of our intellectual agency.

If we as a University wish to pay homage to ideals that have served us well, then our buildings and our seal should not be emblazoned with "In Deo Speramus," but instead with "In Ratione Speramus" — In Reason We Trust.

Hunter Fast ‘12 will choose a path that's clear — he will choose free will. Thanks for reading!


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