Category Archives: Science

Science Marches On

A few thoughts about the March for Science in Manhattan over the weekend seem to be in order. To get to the rally in time, from our little corner of New Jersey, we found ourselves on an early train. We arrived at 62nd Street and Central Park West to discover the march was beginning just outside of one of Trump’s unimpressive towers. The area for marchers was clearly marked off by barricades, but a woman walking her dogs, a resident of Trump’s tower, wandered in among the crowd. Like most Trump followers, she seemed clueless that there was an obvious way around the obstacles and had to be helped by the police. Seems to be a theme with 45—police are everywhere watching his assets. Meanwhile the hotel doormen from next door were asking for “Resist” paraphernalia and reminiscing about their shock when the boy next door received the nomination. The mood was jovial despite the spitting rain.

The speeches at the rally were mostly given by children ten and younger. The future teaching the past. As might be expected, the signs were clever, and some took considerable thought to figure out. A few, it seems, felt religion was to blame. Well, they’re probably right about that. One gets the sense that science and religion are like cats and dogs, and nobody has to guess which one’s identified with the cats. Still, the majority of the signs pointed out the benefits of science. Even scholars of religion use the scientific method, believe it or not. Like science, religion (as revealed by science) may be good for people. Who brings religion to a science rally?

I’ve always been a fan of science. Throughout school I learned a lot and did well in physics and chemistry, biology not so much (dissection was never my thing). I still read science and incorporate it into my thinking. Balance, however, suggests perhaps religion also be treated as not evil in and of itself. After all, it is evolved behavior. As the march progressed down Broadway, we passed a church that had a prominent banner reading “Prayer really does work,” or something along those lines. I’d seen enough clever signs already that morning to notice this contrarian voice. Then I wondered, why can’t science and religion seem to get along? Both can (but need not) make exclusive truth claims. What’s wrong with admitting that we just don’t know? Belief is involved in either case. No doubt science is important. I’ve always supported its study and always will. Is it, however, too much to believe that maybe religion can also enlighten, if understood for what it is—a human way of coping with an uncertain world? As science marches on, hopefully it will help us comprehend even the unmeasurable.

Earth vs. the GOP

They used to call her “Mother Earth.” Now she’s simply a commodity to be liquidated into cash at the country club where rich white men play. That’s why I’m spending Earth Day on my third protest march of the year. Of all the things the Republican Party has done to show its true colors the clearest has been to participate in the destruction of the world we all share. There’s only one word that answers the question “why,” and it used to be considered one of the seven deadly sins. Greed. These acts of planetary terrorism are carried out by men who believe lining their own pockets is the highest possible good. Even moderate Republicans have locked in their goose step to keep in the good graces of madmen who want to cram as much lucre into their coffers as they can before they die. When the planet’s a smoldering ruin their grandchildren will surely thank them.

Son, behold thy mother.

Don’t knock tree-hugging unless you’ve tried it. Trees tend to be much better company than Republicans anyway. Never have I had the feeling that I’ve had to celebrate Earth Day with such a blend of angst and anger. That one that your teacher always warned you about—the one who ruins it for everyone—now has control of the country. Immediately he insisted we start dumping coal waste into our streams and rivers. Burn more coal so he can play a few more holes with what passes for a clean conscience in a filthy soul. I march because I must. We can’t sit silently and let the darkness fall. If you can see through the coal dust you’ll understand that the planet weeps. It’s her that we celebrate today.

Matricide used to be considered a heinous crime. Now it’s just good business. If we were an honest species we’d admit it’s been bad business from the beginning. We’d never elect a businessman with inherently conflicting interests to the White House. The goods of the few outweighs the good of the many. The commodification of nature is the worst kind of unnatural selection. Here science and common sense agree—in order to survive we must preserve our planet. I confess that I’m unapologetic in this regard. So, although I’ll be spending this Earth Day in the artificial environment of Manhattan, marching in the cause of science, and if push comes to shove I’ll be the one hugging a tree.

Who Knows What?

Nobody likes to have their shortcomings pointed out. I suspect that’s why many people might find Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters a little uncomfortable. Nichols doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does he claim to be an expert on everything. What he does claim, however, is very important. He shows how America has taken a distinctly hostile attitude toward experts and specialists. Somewhere along the line hoi polloi began to mistake everyone has a right to their opinions for “everyone has the right to be an expert on what they express in those opinions.” This isn’t a new problem, but there’s no doubt that the Internet has exacerbated it. We’ve got people arrogant of their lack of training claiming alternative facts that are “just as good as” established facts. One of them resides in the White House. There’s no arrogance in claiming you have extensive, highly specialized training if you do. It’s a simple, non-alternative, fact.

A perfect book for our times, The Death of Expertise should be—must be—widely read. It’s not likely to change the minds of those who’ve already decided that with the Internet giving them a voice they’ve become the gurus of a new generation of the “Know Nothing Party.” The rest of us, however, should read and ponder. Nichols doesn’t shield himself in his ivory tower—he admits there’s plenty that he doesn’t know. He’s not shy, however, in saying he’s an expert on what he does know. I remember when facts used to stand for something. Winning at Trivial Pursuit was a matter of pride. Now everyone’s a contestant on Jeopardy and Alex Trebek has taken the express train home. All answers are right, for all people are experts. Seems like we have a surplus economy in arrogance these days. And that surplus just keeps growing.

An area where Nichols isn’t an expert is religious studies. He wouldn’t claim he is. I did find it interesting, however, that when he wants to make some of his strongest points he quotes C. S. Lewis. Any evangelicals out there should read The Screwtape Letters again and check what Nichols says. Lewis would not have been a Trump supporter. Not by a long shot. And he uses the word “ass” in his books, even when he’s not referring to literal donkeys. He may have been onto something. We have an anti-expert president who has appointed anti-experts at the head of major government agencies. He anti-expertly launches missiles at Syria illegally. C. S. Lewis was an expert Anglican. 45 may be an expert of the sort Lewis wasn’t afraid to name. We need to be educated. Read Nichols and give our nation a fighting chance. There’s always more to learn.

Universal Growth

Maybe the universe isn’t expanding, maybe it’s growing. Always tinged with a healthy dose of pantheism, I’ve often opined to those who will listen that life might be more than animals and plants and microorganisms. But then again, I don’t have the numbers to back me up. These aren’t just the ravings of a guy who wanted to be a scientist but whose religion prevented him, they’re also pretty close to those of a scientist who became a religious guy. When more than one person sends me the same article I figure I’d better comment on it. Those who used to be professors can’t help but professing, after all. So I read Meghan Walsh’s Ozy story, “Jeremy England, the Man Who May One-up Darwin.”

England spent his education on science only to turn to religion along the way. That’s pretty unusual, according to the standard social discourse, but I suspect it’s more common than we’d like to let on. There’s no clause in science that says you can’t believe in anything. Even Richard Dawkins has beliefs. Many scientists have been suggesting, of late, that perhaps physics and religion are converging. (Some of us from the other side of the equation have been saying so for years, but who believes a religionist?) Before I’m misunderstood, I’d hasten to add that I don’t mean religion as in literal trumpets sounding as a white horse and rider descend through the atmosphere. Nor do I mean in the sense of the minutiae of the Talmud. What I mean is the symbol systems that religion has long used may have been in some sense in line with what science has been trying to tell us.

According to the story, England thinks that matter may be self-organizing. That means life occurs where matter exists. Before I become too close a friend with my sofa I have to remind myself that this doesn’t mean everything’s conscious. Although my reading of Thomas Nagel does have me wondering even about that. You see, religion has historically been one of those disciplines where imagination has had a valued role to play. Those who accuse it of being doctrinaire and evil need to talk to a few more people. Religion has always claimed there’s more to life than what the senses reveal. Science professionally limits itself to the inferences of those senses. And you can get away with paying religion specialists a lot less. What’s not to like about this situation? If the universe is growing, there’s room for us all.

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

All There Is To Know

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude but I just had to laugh. A friend sent me an article from Science Alert titled “A Physicist Just Explained Why the Large Hadron Collider Disproves the Existence of Ghosts.” Intrigued, I read, “there’s no room in the Standard Model of Physics for a substance or medium that can carry on our information after death, and yet go undetected in the Large Hadron Collider.” One of the reasons, I believe, science has trouble among hoi polloi is such arrogant statements as this. I don’t know about ghosts, and for a very good reason. There is no experimental way to test for that which doesn’t exist in the material world. The LHC may tell us all we can know about the world that we perceive (although I doubt it) but it can’t tell us about that for which there is no measure (e.g., consciousness). I don’t mean to get all complex here, but let’s stop and think about this for a moment.

What we know of the universe is what we can perceive and extrapolate from that perception by reason. We, however, don’t perceive everything. Our five senses evolved for one purpose and one purpose only—to survive in this particular environment. That’s a trait, hate to admit it as much as we might, that we share with other animals. It helps to be able to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things clearly. These traits give us valuable information about the world around us—is that plant poisonous? Is this heat going to kill me? Should I avoid approaching that large, angry-looking bear? Things like that. What our senses don’t tell us is the aspects we didn’t evolve to perceive. We understand everything about nothing. Put another way there is nothing that we understand completely. Entire books can be written about the concept of zero and that’s just an abstract. We only experience a small piece of this universe.

That’s the problem with being in the backwater of the galaxy. I grew up in a backwater so I know what I’m talking about. Things might be different if we lived near the galactic hub, where beings with different senses may well exist. We know, for example, that even on our planet some animals perceive magnetic fields. Who knows what kinds of abilities might have evolved on worlds that posed different challenges to survival than our own? Who are we to say that here in our basement on earth we have a machine that can uncover every possible permutation of anything in the known universe? I don’t know about ghosts, but, I suspect, they’re laughing too.

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons