Category Archives: Science

Come Forth

the_lazarus_effect_2015_film_posterHorror movies provide a strange consolation at times such as this. When evil has overtaken democracy, it’s almost like strategy, watching how fictional characters deal with things that are wrong, things that are too close to real life. The Lazarus Effect has been on my watch list since the last sane presidential administration, but need finally dictated that I watch it. The premise is clear from the title—Lazarus is universally known as the dead man who came back to life. A group of medical researchers at a university in California find a way, through direct stimulation of the brain, to bring dead animals back to life. The idea is that they will give surgeons more time to resuscitate critical patients if they can get the formula right so that it works on people. An evil corporation steals their discovery and they have just a few hours to replicate the experiment to prove they are the ones who perfected it. Predictably one of them (Zoe) dies and her fiancé brings her back to life. Mayhem ensues.

Those who’ve seen Pet Sematary will find many similar ideas covered here. Those who come back from the dead are somehow distorted versions of their former selves. Those who do the resurrecting end up dead at the hands of the modern-day Lazaruses. There’s not much unexpected here except that Zoe, a Catholic, ends up in Hell. There’s quite a bit of talk about religion versus science—what really happens when you die. Zoe, despite being a practicing Catholic, has never been forgiven for her childhood sin of setting a fire that killed some neighbors in the apartment building. Religion and horror sharing the screen is something fairly common, but it is seldom as forthright as it is here.

Resurrection—necessarily a religious concept—is a frightening prospect. Horror films have shown many times that this is a miracle that just shouldn’t happen. At least not on this plane. (Those who’ve watched Re-animator know how bad the consequences could be.) Scientists, generally unbelievers in the cinematic world, just can’t accept either an afterlife or death. Using technology to challenge a godless fate, they inevitably end up losing. So it is in The Lazarus Effect. Some biblical scholars have suggested John’s rendition of the story is a kind of biblical horror tale. I mean, Lazarus had been dead four days in the warm climes of the Holy Land. His resurrection seems to have ended up well, however. Then again, there is an inherent difference between science and religion. Neither one, however, is now really in charge.

Theoretically Speaking

lit-theory-vsiI’ve been brushing up on my literary theory. All writing tends to get classified as fact or fiction, and we don’t stop to think, generally, about what “literature” is. Those of us who write fiction and non know that a well-placed hyperbole might throw us from one camp into the other. Such is the power of rhetoric. So it was that I found myself reading Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Witty and insightful, Culler acknowledges the elephant in the room for many of us—theory, in a literary context, is often impenetrable. I’ve often wondered what one had to do to be considered a theorist, and this little book actually addresses that. Nobody has time to read all the theorists, though, and come up with their own creative things to say. Chose your poison.

The Bible, of course, is literature. That’s one reason I was reading Culler. I found one of his assertions immediately applicable: people in nineteenth-century England saw literature as a unifying principle. The British Empire encompassed the world, and to make diverse peoples a part of it, literature might be used, they thought, to do the trick. Culler suggests that it might have been a substitute for religion, which, he notes, was no longer holding society together. This gave me pause. Religion—at least official religion—began as social glue. The earliest recorded religions were state sponsored and served to cast the monarch in the role of the special appointee of the gods. There’s no arguing with that, right? Elaborate, expensive temples were erected. Financed by tax-payers’ dollars. This worked fine since priests declared the rule of the king as sanctioned by the gods. Nations warring against each other were thought of as rival gods fighting.

When science began to take the universe literally, religion lost its stickiness. How do you hold a society together when the gods no longer exist? You see, scientists didn’t think out the whole picture in advance. Scientists, like most academics, work in silos (that’s a metaphor). The discovery of a scientific truth can dissolve a social epoxy quite efficiently. Recognizing the slippage in the British Empire, theorists (I suppose that’s who noted such things) considered literature the great uniting force of a diverse people. We’re kind of facing that same dilemma today as literature is becoming, for many, as irrelevant as religion was a century-and-a-half ago. At the same time, people don’t understand science well enough to assess it for themselves. What are we supposed to do? Is there a theorist in the house?

Saint Charles

Honestly, I’m not sure where the idea of votive candles started. An educated guess—which will have to do in my state of limited research time—is that candles, like oil lamps, began as a practical necessity in places of worship. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques—these tended to be large rooms and sometimes featured stained glass in their windows. Even if they didn’t, sometimes people want to pray after dark. Especially after dark. In the days before electricity, a lamp or candle was an obvious choice. Over time the practice of lighting votive candles developed. Lighting a candle for someone, living or dead, symbolized saying a prayer for them. The idea is much more common in liturgical branches of Christianity than it is in strongly reformed ones. Still, it’s a comforting idea. The few times that I’ve lit a candle for someone I’ve always felt better for having done so.

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Whenever a practice becomes sacred, parody is shortly to follow. As human beings we seem to be inherently aware that we take ourselves far too seriously far too much of the time. When I go to the grocery store—usually in the aisle with the more “Catholic” ethnic foods—I glance at the large, painted votives for sale. Secretly I’m hoping I might spot one for Santa Muerte, but this far north and east of the border that’s unlikely. Our own version of Saint Death is about to take office anyway. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a Charles Darwin votive candle in my stocking this past month. Intended, of course, as a novelty, there’s nevertheless something a bit profound here. What we’re praying for is the continuity of life. Evolution itself is under threat of post-truth science which is soon to receive official sponsorship. Time to light a candle and hope for the best.

I plan to keep my Darwin candle for emergencies. The idea isn’t that the figure on the candle is a deity. Those painted on the candle are the saints who have some influence in the divine hierarchy of this cold universe. When you light a candle you ask that saint to witness your prayer. I sense that many among my own political party have recently rediscovered how to pray. The beauty of a Darwin votive is that it’s non-denominational. We all evolve, whether we admit it or not. So if you can’t get yourself to a church, synagogue, or mosque on the traditional day of worship, Darwin can shed light at any time. And maybe even support a prayer for light in the coming darkness.

Possessed by Work

Now that I’m safely ensconced back in the daily work routine, I spend some time thinking of the scary movies I had time to watch during my “free time.” Well, I actually thought about them then, too, but I had so many other thoughts to write about that I kept putting it off. That, and the fact that some of the movies were about demonic possession and the juxtaposition of holidays and demons just didn’t seem to fit, kept me from expounding. Why watch such movies at all? It’s a fair question. I tend to think of it as part of a larger thought experiment—wondering what such movies might tell us about being human.

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A few weeks back I wrote about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true tragic story of a young woman who died after a prolonged exorcism. After that I watched The Last Exorcism, The Rite, and The Possession. (I’m such a cheerful guy, as you can see, and this may be why I inhabit an isolated cubicle at work.) This array of movies, held together by the common chord of the reality of demonic possession, also brought together the standard sociological division of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. The Last Exorcism is a Protestant-based treatment of what is generally considered to be a Catholic subject. That connection is affirmed in The Rite. The Possession, however, gives us a Jewish demon and a rare representation of a Jewish exorcism (acted by Matisyahu, no less!). What emerges from watching all of these films together is that demons are an inter-denominational problem, even in a scientific world. Carl Sagan wrote about the demon-haunted world, and it continues to exist, it seems.

But these are movies we’re talking about. Not reality. Nevertheless, The Rite and The Possession are also said to be based on true stories. We do live in a mysterious world. Evolution has developed reasoning as a practical way of dealing with life in a complex ecosystem. It is a survival mechanism. So is emotion. We sometimes forget that both thought and feeling are necessary for survival in our corner of the universe. Neither one is an end in itself. We can’t quite figure out how these two features of the human brain work together. There are, in other words, some dark corners left in our psyches. I suspect that’s why I find such movies so interesting. They’re not my favorites, but they do serve to remind us of just how little we know. And that’s a scary thought, given how we’ve learned to possess this planet.

Build a God

One of the more amusing gifts to find its way under my tree was a Design Your Own Deity magnetic play set. Since I have roughly only this brief holiday break for play in the entire year, I hope to make the most of it. Nevertheless, things like this always suggest something a bit more profound than they were possibly intended to do. The origin of deities is, by its nature, an unresolved question. Partly it’s because regardless of the reality of gods, religions are human constructions. Claims for revelation are frequently made, but the implementation is always our own. We can’t help but think that divinities are motivated by the same kinds of things that people are. I suspect that’s because we make gods in our own image.

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Historically there are few religions that were admittedly made up. We tend to treat with scorn more recent religions since we’ve become skeptical of a make-your-own deity talking to a person in the post-Enlightenment world. It’s much easier to believe if we say it happened long, long ago. Before we had the reassuring uniformitarianism of science, much could be left to the meddling of deities. Once we had a naturalistic paradigm, the door seemed to have slammed shut on supernatural explanations. Gods, who had been persons, now became symbols and symbols seemed to be less important than the real thing. Hadn’t we been designing our own deities all along? Now don’t we feel silly!

One of the common misconceptions of modernity is that ancient people weren’t very smart. We believe that because they lacked our technology. Looking at the way technology now demands most of my time, I wonder if that’s right. In the light of gadgets, deities have been squeezed out. I’m quite aware that the career choices I’ve made—involved with thinking about gods in some description—are hopelessly outmoded in the technological world. Still, as I look at the political landscape I see that we are still in the process of making our own deities. My play set includes some pretty exotic divinities. One that it seems to be lacking is Mammon. Of course, it’s best not to offend the currently reigning god, even if it is just a symbol.

American Possession

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Exorcism seems an especially appropriate trope these days. Embedded evil has to be faced squarely and forced out before it kills its host. I recently rewatched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a most unusual horror film in that the story is born by a courtroom drama over whether the priest overseeing the ritual was responsible for the death of Emily Rose. Famously based on a true story, the movie raises a more basic question than whether it “really happened”—what is the viewpoint through which we view the world? We see from the very beginning that the case is actually a contest between two powerful law firms. Each wants a lawyer that can shred the case of the other. The prosecutors engage Ethan Thomas, a very religious Methodist, against the defense’s Erin Bruner, an agnostic. Believing Emily’s case to be purely medical, Thomas asserts that had she stayed on her medication Emily would’ve remained alive with the prospects of a healthy life. Fearing a complete loss, Bruner takes a risky counter-approach: what is Emily really was possessed?

The obligatory scary scenes are shown, of course. They are flashbacks inserted into the course of the trial, but nevertheless disturbing for all their calm, rational framing. The real question, as the story plays out, is can a supernatural worldview be allowed in a court of law. Ironically, such a worldview is already present when a witness swears on the Bible. This particular movie doesn’t show those scenes, but it would’ve been a fair point for Ms. Bruner to make. Clearly the court can’t decide if demons are real, but it can allow that possibility. It’s a classic case of science versus religion. Nevertheless, both sides make use of science. The anthropologist on the stand is dismissed by the religious Mr. Thomas. He has no time for Catholic, or any other religions’, superstition.

Many strange choices were made for this particular cinematic piece, but the story works nevertheless. Those who believe in spiritual realities are allowed to live them out only to a point. The legal system decides if a religion has gone too far. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in a post-truth world, any clear standard of rationality can possibly hold. But questioning universally accepted truths and subverting them to personal preferences its almost if we’ve actually reached the stage of “all those in favor of general relativity say ‘aye.’” As I say, the film was more timely than anticipated. Demons, after all, often appear in the guise of an angel of light. Especially for those motivated by fear.

Somewhere out There

If last month’s election taught us anything it’s that nobody really knows anything. For many years now I’ve been saying that the sign of an educated person is s/he admits how little s/he knows. Socrates may have beat me to that idea, but there are still people whose intellect appears so great that we should pay attention. To my mind, such as it is, Stephen Hawking is one of those people. I don’t understand his formulas, but some of the concepts I can grasp. So when Prof. Hawking says we have approximately 1000 years before we make our planet unfit for human life, I think we should take notice. In just a decade we’ve gone from a Wall-e White House to a Dumb and Dumber one, and old mother earth is due to take a beating. Hawking, according to a story in The Washington Post, advises us to look for another planet to colonize.

 Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Colonization seldom ends well. I wonder how the rest of the universe feels about us moving into the neighborhood. We dump our waste into anything pristine enough to carry it away so that people can make some of their number wealthy so that they can feel better about themselves. We can’t go one year without a war somewhere in our world and we kill one another just because we look different. We can’t even elect a president who’s smarter than any random undergraduate. Not exactly the kind of invasive species you want living next door. Any system can be gamed—capitalism most of all—and if it were up to me I’d prefer to have thoughtful neighbors. Perhaps the universe is politely saying to Dr. Hawking, “not in my backyard.”

What I find truly amazing here is that religion gave us the entitlement. Believing that the gods are like us, or that one deity made us in his white, male image, we’ve figured out this world’s ours to destroy. Just like entitled kids with too many toys. Daddy can always buy you another. So now we’re in the market for a new planet. One that’s not too hostile, but easily exploitable. A capitalist planet, but one that doesn’t mind a bit of help from former communists. You see, once we’ve figured out how to exploit another planet, there’ll be no stopping us. I have great admiration for Stephen Hawking. It’s just this time I think that we need to set our own house in order before we start inviting ourselves to somebody else’s home.