Category Archives: Science

Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Changing Times

Demons are an embarrassment.  The typical scholar of the historical Jesus can’t avoid the fact that one of Jesus’ main activities is exorcism.  You can go the whole way through seminary not hearing about that aspect even as you become very well acquainted with the two-source hypothesis.  That’s why I found Graham H. Twelftree’s Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus so refreshing.  Here is someone willing to address the topic generally swept off the table.  If the gospels are to be believed, then Jesus was an exorcist.  And if he was an exorcist, that must imply a thing or two about demons, no matter how embarrassing.  There’s a lot to this question, of course, and things are never as simple as they seem.

Many of those who look for the Jesus of history suggest that the Galilean sage simply accepted the framework of his era in which various diseases such as epilepsy were considered demonic.  As he healed such people—also somewhat of an embarrassment since it implies the supernatural—he understood their maladies in the same way his contemporaries did.  That tidy package, however, doesn’t sit well with narratives that assume a world full of demons.  Things have changed since the first century, of course.  After the Middle Ages demons fell out of favor.  And yet, the gospels remain pretty much unchanged, trying to fit into a new worldview.  This is the uncomfortable place in which those who seek the historical Jesus find themselves.

Twelftree approaches and analyses the text at its word.  The casting out of demons was an eschatological (end-times) act.  It was the beginning of the end for the evil spirits that torment this world.  Of course, two thousand years have come and gone and, according to some, demons are still with us.  The number of requested exorcisms has been on the rise.  The end times have lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated.  It’s beginning to look like politicians can do what God seems reluctant to affect.  Bringing about the end of the world is no matter of clearing the house of demons, but rather letting evil take the helm.  If that’s a mixed metaphor, let’s just say demons are masters of confusion.  Since medical science has given us a great deal of comfort and relief from suffering, we’re glad to let demons go as the explanation of diseases.  But that doesn’t make things any easier for those looking at the first century when, as Twelfree demonstrates, Jesus was an exorcist.

Keypad of Heaven

There are those who celebrate technology, and those who mourn it.  I fall somewhere in the middle.  One of the selling points for our house was keyless entry.  The great thing about it is you never have to worry about forgetting your keys.  The bad thing is that batteries don’t like cold weather.  The former owners of our house seem to have had it even less together than we do,  They had no instructions or emergency keys for these electronic locks.  So it would happen on a cold, blustery weekend morning we would find ourselves locked out of our most expensive possession.  Now, you have to understand that this “well-maintained” house—so claimed by the not-inexpensive inspector—has turned into a money pit.  The list of derelict pieces and appliances grows weekly and we haven’t even paid off the roof yet.  Emergency locksmiths, I now know, earn their keep.

As I stood on the porch in the gusting wind, waiting in a thin jacket (we were not out for a long trip) for someone I would pay handsomely to break into my house, I considered technology.  If you can afford to keep up with it, it must be great.  If, say, electronic keypads were solar, wired to panels on the roof so that the batteries never died, that would be fantastic.  Even a key would be an advance on a day like this.  So once our teeth stopped chattering and we added yet another creditor to our growing list, I thought how that very morning my computer told me it needed a systems upgrade.  “Didn’t you just have one?” I asked, almost out loud.  I know what it is to be a servant.  My thoughts wandered, as they frequently do, to The Matrix.  When the machines take over, their problem is battery power.  Since we scorched the sky, they began using us as wet cells.  

Later in the day, for cheap entertainment, we went to a local parade.  Among the many vehicles on display were old cars and tractors.  Tractors that even I might have a chance of understanding because they were merely open engines on a frame with seats and large wheels.  This was technology that fed people rather than preventing them from entering their houses.  I couldn’t help but notice that they started with keys.  There’s a reason that the key has always been a potent symbol.  Its simple technology leads to hidden wonders.  And on a cold morning those hidden wonders might well include your own house.

“Now, put these where you won’t lose them!”

Look It Up

So my current book project involves addressing The Conjuring universe.  A few weeks back I posted on The Nun, the newest member of that diegesis and one with no claim to be based on real events.  Nevertheless, the film circles back at the end to “Frenchy” and his exorcism shown in the original movie.  One of the frustrating aspects of Ed and Lorraine Warren ’s oeuvre is that documented sources are difficult to locate.  When I found out Satan’s Harvest (by Michael Lasalandra and Mark Merenda, with Maurice and Nancy Theriault) was the “true story” behind Frenchy Theriault’s possession, well, let’s just say working on a book is a good excuse.  Overly dramatized, and somewhat padded, this account may be the closest we can come to this particular demonic encounter.

I don’t pretend to be certain about many things, so I reserve judgment about what actually might’ve happened to Maurice Theriault.  Unlike portrayed in The Nun’s storyline, he never lived in Romania.  He was physically abused by his father and was made to participate in unwanted sexual acts.  His was not an easy life.  Still, when Lasalandra and Merenda try to explain the origin of possession they go back to the same source as the original movie—Salem.  Credulously claiming that the Devil was behind what happened in 1692, they believe that demonic possession accounted for that unfortunate miscarriage of justice.  It’s difficult to say if they considered that such speculation implies that the innocents killed there were actually witches.  (They state that the Devil asks people to sign his book.)

Herein lies part of the problem with academics and the supernatural.  Sensationalized claims don’t help since academics are all about being taken seriously.  At the same time it’s clear that conventional explanations don’t always fit.  Neither credulousness nor extreme skepticism will lead to solving such mysteries.  This is why we need the monstrous.  That which falls outside the parameters of what quotidian experience leads us to expect.  Science can make everything fit only by leveling off the exceptional.  Academics won’t risk exploration of the anomalous.  This leaves the curious few means of finding out what happened beyond simple dismissal or overly gullible popularizing accounts.  Satan’s Harvest contains information that calls out for explanation.  Perhaps a hoax was involved, but that doesn’t add up when all the evidence is in.  Beyond that, we’re left to guess.  And some things it feels better to be sure about.

Goblins out There

From Wikimedia Commons

You step away from the telescope for a few months and see what happens.  That may sound like a recipe for some kind of cosmic soup, but as we find ourselves so busy with earthly matters it’s hard to keep up with the heavenly.  I’ve just been reading about the discovery of “The Goblin”—appropriate as we tiptoe into October.  The Goblin is officially a dwarf planet named 2015TG387, which falls trippingly off the tongue.  For those of us who never even saw Pluto before it was demoted as a planet, the distance of this planetoid boggles the mind.  It also makes space feel somehow less empty.  In fact, our solar system’s much more crowded than it was when I took astronomy class in college.

The universe—space—is close kin to our ideas of religion.  “God,” however defined, is “up there.”  As Galileo encouraged telescopes turned outward we began to discover mundane, if complicated, ways of explaining the universe.  Nobody looked through the eyepiece and saw the deity waving back.  Space was cold, dark, and largely empty.  Then the idea eventually grew that it was full of dark matter which, like spiritual entities, can’t be seen.  Unlike spiritual entities, however, it can be hypothesized.  Calculated, even if not measured.  And since it isn’t supernatural, it’s just fine to keep in our cosmic soup.  The problem with any recipe, however, is that it seems that each time you make it the results are slightly different.

It’s somehow appropriate that our new space neighbor is called the Goblin.  The idea of a cosmos devoid of any intelligent life—supernatural or no—is somewhat scary.  Looking at the headlines of what we’re doing to one another down here, and nobody willing to take the reins of reason, we increasingly hope for something beyond mere nature in the cold, dark reaches above.  And that we’ve found such a thing as a goblin—a supernatural entity if there ever was one—is telling.  In fact, all our planets are named after gods.  We can blame the Greeks and Romans (and even the Mesopotamians) for that.  Still, the tradition continued onto the worlds they couldn’t see: Neptune and Uranus and, for a while, Pluto.  We can’t escape the idea that what’s up there is more powerful than our minuscule human troubles.  Our slowly eroding atmosphere is all that keeps us alive down here.  And now there’s a goblin circling all around us, so far away that few will ever even catch a glimpse.

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

Just the Fax

Like most people I have a cell phone.  If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap.  It works that way with scanned documents as well.  Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it.  Except fax.  That I cannot do.  The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax.  Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation.  The company had no email; it had to come by fax.

Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home.  We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work.  The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent.  I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax.  You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring.  They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said.  Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax.  I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps.  They suspiciously wanted my credit card info.  Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal.  I had to send a three-page document.  I checked to see if my laptop could do it.  The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear.  Who insists on faxes any more?

This is the dilemma of mixed technologies.  It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.  The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian.  My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax).  Ours is a telephone relationship.  Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap.  I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets.  This was in the days before the internet.  To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly.  Yet somehow we survived.  I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign.  The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives.  Unless, of course, you need to send a fax.  Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.