Tag Archives: science and religion

Know It All

Perhaps it’s the fact that I had a career malfunction in the middle of my chosen vocation, or perhaps it’s a natural consequence of earning an advanced degree. Whatever the cause, I am convinced that I know less than I used to know. That’s not the same as not having learned—indeed, it is a consequence of precisely that. You see, my education has led me to believe that things I thought I knew were not, in fact what I knew them to be. We all live with false assumptions—the sun rises and sets, the earth holds still, and that we aren’t made up of particles so tiny as to be invisible and that are mostly empty space. There was a time when I believed that science gave “the truth,” but we now think of science as ever provisional—the best theory to account for the facts at this time. It is open to change. And in fact, we know very little.

A deep irony lurks in the fact that many people treat their religion as the locus of certain knowledge. This is a known fact; Jesus resurrected, Muhammad was a prophet, Maroni spoke to Joseph Smith. When confronted with contrary data, such thinking withdraws into itself claiming all the more loudly that it knows the truth already. Learning should, I think, may one more humble. More circumspect. Of course I think I’m right about things. If I thought I was wrong, I would change to the correct way of thinking. What I know, however, is a different matter. As I set out to learn a new career, I find I know less than I thought I did. I know little and I know less all the time.

As an academic I can’t help but to spend my life trying to gain knowledge. I read voraciously, I try to engage in intellectual exchange with others. If I’m lucky, I learn something. And know that much less. That which I learn teaches me that I know less than I did before. The world is vast. The universe infinite, according to our best understanding at the moment. We travel through it all, picking up information and treating it humbly as we go along. I’m moving toward knowing nothing at all. Perhaps that is the true goal of all of this—to get to the point of knowing nothing. Then we shall be truly educated. Except, of course, for the true believers who already know everything there is to know. Of course we are all mostly empty space. I think.

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Monsters of Science

ScienceOfMonstersMaybe it’s the ebola in the air, or perhaps the gas from all the midterm elections verbiage, but I’ve been on a monster run this October. I just finished Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear. It is a charmingly written book, at parts approaching the finesse of Mary Roach. Beginning with the ancient Greeks (and sometimes stepping back into the world of the Bible or the Mesopotamians) Kaplan examines the major categories of monsters and tries to offer scientific explanations for why people came up with them. It is a keen conceit and it is deftly handled. Noting that animals sometimes got jumbled in the fossilization process, he offers explanations for creatures such as the Chimera, Griffon, and perhaps even the Sphinx. Some of the unlikely episodes are quite fun to visualize as well, as when a snake slithers over a tar pit where a goat got stuck and was eaten by a lion that also got stuck. Beast after hideous beast he brings down to analytical size, sometimes convincing even this old monster lover.

One of the problems, however, is that science often doesn’t comprehend the symbolic nature of mythical thought. Quite apart from sheer creativity—and it does exist!—some of the material in Kaplan’s analysis would have benefited from having a mythographer’s look. For example, demons do not suddenly appear as monsters in the Middle Ages. Kaplan knows this, but that’s where he starts. The ancient Mesopotamians knew of them very, perhaps, too, well. And Lilith isn’t even mentioned when discussing succubi. Still, there’s a great deal of interesting conjecture here, and some scientifically, if not mythographically, viable suggestions on whence vampires and werewolves. As expected, modern sightings of cryptids are simply swept off the table, but I almost shouted aloud when I read that he gave credence to Wade Davis’s work on Haitian zombies.

The larger question here is one of approach. Do monsters lend themselves to scientific explanations at all? The case that elephant/mammoth skulls might suggest a cyclops seems reasonable enough, and the occasional dinosaur bone that represented a giant in ancient times is entirely possible. (Who can tell one femur from another anyway?) But the monster is primarily a creature inhabiting the shadowy realms of religion and psychology. Our fears are seldom directed toward science, although, now that I’ve read his chapter on “The Created” I’m not so sure. Constructing backward toward the unknown is always a dicey proposition, as those of us who’ve studied history of religions know. We may be able to find the genesis of modern monsters, but, admittedly, the fun for most of our scary friends is that they are mysterious. Impervious, as it were, even to science.

Literally Biology

In a New York Times opinion piece on a recent Sunday (ironically, always on a Sunday), college biology professor David P. Barash submitted an article entitled “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.” Barash notes that increasingly students come to his class thinking evolution is more or less optional. I found the same thing teaching religion classes. When student presentations at state universities addressed Genesis it was fairly common to have a large number of undergraduates suggesting that evolution is “just a theory” and “intelligent” design was a viable option. I tried to show them in class that the Bible does not support the shenanigans that creationists impose upon it, but the message rolled off like rain from an evolved waterfowl. Still, I do have to take exception to some of Barash’s broad strokes. He feels that religion and science cannot coexist. I wonder, however, what he means by religion.

Religion is an ill-defined word. One of the most pragmatic usages I’ve heard is that religion is what people use to give meaning to their lives. Religions may be theistic or a. Religions may be anti-science or pro. Religion, per se, is no threat to science. Fundamentalism is not religion. Fundamentalists use religion to further their ends, which are often political. Since many religions grew up around sacred writings the urge was there from the beginning to take these holy words literally. They gave meaning in a pre-scientific era. Newton, Galileo, Darwin—and even before them Plato and Aristotle—simply shifted the angle of illumination. The problem is that many religious believers feel they have the answers already. New facts only confuse the issue. Left to their own devices such beliefs quietly go extinct.

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It is only when a conscious decision is made to champion archaic writ against empirical evidence that science and religion join combat. Most religious people in scientifically advanced societies have no problems with evolution or particle physics. They simply show the way the world is. The vastness of the universe should give us all pause, but it does make you wonder which way to point your telescope to spy the almighty. I sympathize with Barash. It is not easy to find many of your students, in either science or religion classes, with their minds already made up. Still, it might help to realize that religion is not the culprit here. Literalism is a kind of mental problem. Until it is rightfully separated from religion we will all be left wasting valuable class time trying to convince students of the facts of life.

Cuneiform Lover

I’m busy. Too busy most of the time. You see, I used to be able to keep my mental files neatly in order. Recall was swift and efficient. I suppose that was back when I was doing the job for which I’d been preparing my entire life. Then a midlife, unexpected career change shifted things a bit. That mental file that you always kept here has now been shunted over to there. I suppose I always knew this was coming, and that’s why I started writing things down. Of course, this led to stacks of papers and a whole series of notebooks that follow varying forms of logic. “Commonplace books” as they used to be called. Then computers. I never used a computer until after my master’s degree. My wife showed me how. And then writing ideas down became pretty easy—who could ever afford more than one personal computer? And since they were as heavy as a small television (cathode-ray tube variety, of course), you always knew where you’d find it. Then laptops. iPads. iPhones. Something called “the Cloud.” A computer on my person at all times and I still can’t find that ruddy file, and has anybody seen my phone?

I wrote an important (for me) paper back in 2012. Just two years ago. I remembered vividly typing it on my laptop, working on it for weeks. Recently I wondered where I put it. I searched my laptop. Not there. I must have backed it up. Checked my backup files, on CD. Not there. Where did I put the thing? Although a Luddite at heart, I don’t delete old files. Please, tell me I didn’t do something like back it up on a floppy disk! I can barely remember when we used those. No, no, it was much more recent than that. Was it on this laptop or the one before? Maybe I stored it on the hard disk of the antiquated one. When you get a new computer (or at least when I do) it is such a rare occasion that you don’t bother backing up every single little loose file on your old machine—there’s too much shiny new stuff to admire. But the file wasn’t there. Finally I attached a terabyte backup, admittedly overkill for someone of my limited mental ability, and searched. Although the icon said it was on the terabyte drive, the file was actually on the Cloud, and since I hadn’t updated my software in a while, I was denied access.

I learned to write with fallible pencil on cheap, lined tablet paper. Back when tablets were paper. Our ancient ancestors started the process by writing on clay. For some five thousand years this pressing stylus unto substrate method worked fine. All of scared writ was scrivener-mediated that way. When computers were new you stored your files on floppies. At least you knew where they were. Now dialogue boxes ask me questions in a language more obscure than Sumerian and quickly shuttle my files off to I-don’t-know-where, assuring me that I’ll be able to get them back. Honestly. As long as I remember to upgrade my system, which will, of course, require periodic outlays of substantial sums of money. You can choose not to pay, but your documents are with us. I’ve still got some clay here, and a sharpened flint taken to a twig will make a stylus, old school. And clay tablets have been known to last for millennia.

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Dark and Stormy Night

LadyAndHerMonstersI miss my monsters, especially when I stay away too long. I had eyeballed Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece nearly a year ago in a busy Port Authority bookshop, and wanted to curl up with it right away. Well, work and the world intervened, but finally I found time for the beast. Although a member of the monster kid generation, as a child I never felt much kinship with Frankenstein’s creation. I think it is because there was so much human intention involved in his origins. Almost ungodly. Too godly. Vampires and werewolves, and even mummies, seemed to have come up on the wrong side of a curse and couldn’t be blamed for being what they were. Frankenstein’s monster had a willful, if neglectful, creator. A human being, and fully so. There was, it seemed, some kind of blasphemy at work here.

Montillo’s book, however, gives me pause to rethink this. I had never realized, foe example, that Shelley’s book unfolds over nine months, and that Mary Godwin Shelley had suffered as her own fate unfolded—or unraveled—after Percy Shelley’s death. Nor had I stopped to consider that in the lifetime of these young lovers scientists and poets were overlapping careers with philosophy holding them together. I also hadn’t realized that Percy Shelley also shared his beau’s enchantment with the fantastic. But Montillo gives us so much more, wandering through the seedy world of body-snatchers and scientists who experimented on the dead, often with an eye toward a secular resurrection.

Frankenstein’s monster has, of course, become an instantly recognizable fixture in our society. Indeed, it is almost the definition of monstrosity: the ultimate mischwesen while being technically only one species. A creature that crosses boundaries and is both dead and alive, a miracle and a curse, innocent and evil. Morillo places this creature in the context of a world where galvanism was thought to bring life and medical schools scrambled to find corpses to dissect and on which to experiment. A world where the Shelleys would visit Lord Byron and Polidori, literally on a stormy night, and give the world both Frankenstein and the prototype of Dracula. Where the three men of that night all died prematurely and tragically, survived by a struggling Mary who lived only to fifty-three and who gave the world one of its most memorable nightmares. Horror fiction was, and is, considered lowbrow entertainment, but there is something profound here. And we are richer, if more unsettled, for having it.

Religion, Technically

Technology World HistoryOne of the truths of history is that technology has always been with us. Reading Steampunk stories always boosts my historical sense of the interaction of technology and civilization. Civilization, to the best of our knowledge, coalesced around the idea of religion. Kings rule at the behest of gods because, if it came down to just a matter of swords and games of thrones, there’s always somebody who’s willing to die for the sake of challenging authority, or taking it over. Unless the gods give it to someone. With this in mind I read Daniel R. Headrick’s Technology: A World History, a brief exploration into how we progressed to a hive mind (not his word) through smartphones from an initial band of scared apes two-footing it across the savanna with pointy rocks. The whole trip may have taken millennia, but once we reached a couple of flash points (the “Big Bang” of about 70,000 years ago when abstract artifacts began to appear, and then the birth of civilization about the time Sumer was organized) things sped up at a dizzying pace. Despite the anti-science rhetoric of the Religious Right, there’s no denying that we’re not in Eden any more.

We are accustomed to think of technological development as being cold and rational. Trial and error, based on brute mental power willing to bully through the dark forest of superstition, leading us to new heights. But from the early technology that led to Stonehenge and the pyramids to the coded message “What hath God wrought?” religious wonder has stood behind technological development. Indeed, in reading Technology it became clear that up until very recent times scientists got along with god, and sometimes even shared the credit for the devices they created. Reading about the Antikythera mechanism had me thinking along these lines: if someone had invented a kind of computer millennia ago, why didn’t it transform society in the first century before the Common Era? The answer can’t be that it sank beneath the Mediterranean, because other such devices likely existed. Why no Roman Empire Industrial Revolution?

Headrick makes it clear that early societies sometimes did not promote technologies. Technology was not just a matter of what we could do, but it was a means of social control. Those who charted the flow of wealth and power would have interest only in technologies that enabled the continued growth of that system. All the rest was just icing. People knew the basics of electricity long before a practical use was found for it. Petroleum products were known even to the Sumerians. The wheels of industry, however, are greased by more than just oil. We construct worlds, and gods used to direct our efforts. Now we let our technocrats call the shots. We write blogs wondering how religion fits into a nano-tech world. There may be some logic in it, but once we’ve left our footprints on the moon—who used to be a god—we’ve replaced the deities in the celestial sphere with those in our own heads. And there’s no going back.

The Truth about Elves

We are nothing if not certain. We know that there are no such things as intelligent non-human entities anywhere in the natural realm. We may reluctantly nod toward some animal intelligence, but that’s as far as the head inclines. Humans are the acknowledged and absolute top of the chain of command. Until you try to build a road in Iceland.

The story of how the road crews were called to a halt because of fear of infringing on elf territory hit the internet months ago. An article in the BBC News recently revised the scene. Emma Jane Kirby traveled to Iceland to see just how seriously this was being taken. I, for one, am glad that mythology survives on the surface in at least a few small places in the world. According to Kirby, surveys suggest about half of all rational adults in Iceland at least hold open the possibility that Huldufolk exist. The Huldufolk, or “hidden folk” are not diminutive, but human-sized and invisible. Who’s to say that invisible people don’t exist? Show me.

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Rationalists are quick to jump out with the accusation that witch trials and other superstition will soon follow should we allow that perhaps the angelic, demonic, or folkloristic beings exist. Of course, it was the rational authorities of the day—often the church—that made those trials possible. Without religion, though, we never would have had science. I don’t think the invisible beings had anything to do with it. Human, all too human, hatred was the real culprit. Fear can lead even the most well-adjusted to the precipice on a dark and stormy night (with apologies to Edward Bulwer-Lytton). People are inclined to mythology to give meaning to a world that, no matter whether scientifically described or not, must make sense to us. Sometimes the elves seem to be the most likely explanation.

The only thing really lost by catering to the belief in elves is money. It might take a little more time and a bit more effort, and empty the coffers just a bit more, but in the end both elves and humans are happier. This worldview has a sense of wonder that a money-padded saunter through Manhattan simply lacks. When faced with the choice between mean money or disgruntled elves, I know the path I would rather take.