Trained Witnesses

The problem with lying is that it generally doesn’t hold up. Eventually people will figure out that a falsehood is exactly that and the liar will be scorned. In other words, truth is determined by witnesses. This is tested and confirmed every day in our legal system. The witness is invaluable (except in the hands of lawyers). Since no one person can see everything, we rely on others to help us fill in the blanks. Think of it; when you see something unusual don’t you ask whoever’s with you “did you see that?” We witness the world around us, and unless we’re untruthful that observation becomes part of the collective narrative of what the world is like.

A story from IFL Science! sent by a friend describes “Ancient Legends And Myths That Were Later Proven True By Science.” Apparently this is part of an annual series. What the article lays out are recorded myths later confirmed by science. Scientists are trained witnesses. Taught to silo information, they separate belief (so they say) and eschew non-natural causation. They peer into the mirror each morning with Occam’s razor firmly in hand. Then everybody seems to be surprised when non-scientists have actually observed something correctly. This is the ancient bickering between religion and science—you can’t have it both ways, the reasoning goes. This is a zero-sum game. The winner takes it all. Reality, we observe, is seldom so simple. Articles like this one express surprise that non-scientists can get it right once in a while. The fact is, we’re all witnesses to what happens on this planet. Some of us are just taken more seriously than others.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating religion and science. Nor am I suggesting that all people are equally good observers. It’s just that sometimes things happen when there’s no scientist in the room. Or if there is there’s no time to wire everything up appropriately. The events in the IFL Science! piece are all like this. Observed by people before science was invented—some of them before civilization was invented—events were called myths until scientists came round with their notebooks and validated the long-departed witnesses. The problem with occasional phenomena is that they don’t come on cue. The universe isn’t here to please us or satisfy our curiosity. It’s just that sometimes we see things that don’t match up with the textbook. Whether you call an exorcist or a scientist depends entirely on your point of view.

Deep Web Religion

The bases of truth are ever shifting, it seems. What was once decided by spiritual tests now finds technological solutions. A friend sent me a story from IFL Science (which, surprisingly, often focuses on religion) concerning a nun in seventeenth-century Italy. What makes this nun stand out is less than she had a mental disorder but more that she wrote that it came from the Devil. Her letter, however, was written in an indecipherable script and has only just been decoded. How? By using decoding software on the Deep Web. As someone who’s still lost on the surface web, I’m not sure whether diabolical possession or this mysterious sub-web is scarier. An even more profound question is why someone in this scientific age would resort to the Deep Web to diagnose the illness of a sequestered religious long dead.

Like Manhattan, which, I’m told, has many layers underground, the web has places you shouldn’t go. Computers linked promiscuously together have an amazing power, and apart from those of us who can while away hours looking at photos and videos of cats, there is a darker, more sinister area that can’t be accessed with Google. Down there, according to IFL Science, resides powerful code-cracking software that might be profitably turned to Linear A or Hurrian, but is used to decipher the centuries’ old note of a woman who believed she was possessed. I’m not knocking the achievement. Decades of research have apparently solved the conundrum of the Voynich Manuscript—we can’t stand having the ancient talk behind our backs—and yet try to get funding to hire an Assyriologist at your school. The vast majority of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets remain untranslated in cellars as dark as the Deep Web.

There seems to be little doubt that Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione suffered from some form of mental illness. Even today some psychologists are starting to suggest that “possession” should be considered a viable option for diagnosing some cases that otherwise defy satisfactory resolution. This isn’t medieval superstition, but it is our understanding of a materialistic universe shoved up against a wall. We can’t stand not to know. Mental illness is as old as mentality. We can’t comprehend the vastness of this world, let alone this galaxy or this universe. Even very interesting stuff gets lost on the world-wide web. I don’t even want to think about what goes on in the infernal regions below it.

One Size Fits All

The divide between religion and science is often artificially widened by one side or the other. Of course the divide’s artificial—both science and religion are human constructs, after all. This is illustrated well in the sense of wonder in an article titled “True Story Of Volcanic Eruption Told By Aboriginal People For 7,000 Years” by Robin Andrews on IFLScience!. The very concept that a scientifically verifiable event survived in oral tradition for thousands of years completely unbalances those accustomed to think that the ancients were superstitious dupes who looked to the gods to explain everything. What’s often not realized is that the gods were an early version of science. Think about it—ancient people observed their environment for cause and effect. They couldn’t use the empirical method because it hadn’t been invented yet. That didn’t mean they were unsophisticated.

We look at the pyramids and wonder. How could such archaic people construct such advanced monuments? The rudiments of science actually begin to appear in the human record very early. Our species is a curious lot. The explanations for the close observations tended to be mythological. Gods are great for filling gaps. What we don’t see is any conflict between knowledge acquired by reason and ideas conjured by imagination. They fit together nicely. Human brains evolved that way. Belief is a strange thing—it influences reality, at least on a quantum level, but somehow it must be denigrated when compared to “pure science.” A large part of the blame, of course, has to go to those who had learned to take the Bible literally, particularly beginning in the eighteenth century.

The Bible had a disproportionally influential role in the founding of European empires. From the regular Roman under Constantine to the Holy Roman under Charlemagne, what became Catholicism informed political structures. In the British Empire, ever vacillating between Catholic and Protestant, the Bible played a major intellectual role. Real problems developed, however, when the idea of science alone took over. This was after Newton, Galileo, and Darwin. None of these lights suggested religion had no place. The real issue isn’t vanquishing, but finding proper balance. No matter how well calibrated our instruments may become, until we learn to detect “spirit” we have to admit that science can’t replace religion. Such harmful ideas as eugenics and behaviorism indicate that we need a balance and not a slam dunk. Who knows? Some of even the Bible may be true. Unless we learn to admit we don’t know all, those sitting around the fireside telling stories should be given credibility regarding what they’ve seen.

Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

Loving It

Given my remarks on occasion, some readers may conclude I dislike science. Nothing could be further from fact. Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by science and secretly—or not so secretly—wanted to be a scientist. Complex mathematics, however, has always been beyond me. My brain simply doesn’t think that way. My gray matter is more inclined towards literature and abstracts, ideas. I am, it is true, distressed by a type of science that starts making philosophical claims as dogma: materialism. Those who make this claim have no scientific basis for doing so—it is a belief. They are entitled to their beliefs, of course, but to belittle those who suggest that maybe we don’t know everything there is to know about the unseen world seems poor sportsmanship to me. Case in point: IFL Science is a fun website. I enjoy the articles I read and it is refreshing to have those who stand up to creationists and other posers get such limelight. Interestingly, a recent article strayed into the uncanny valley.

Clown

Leading with the questions “Why Are So Many People Afraid of Clowns?” the article is categorized The Brain. Or psychology. This is one of those fields where we’re really out of our depth. We don’t understand the way that we think, and even raising the question of clown phobias seems a little odd. History can help to answer some of the questions, but IFL Science does a nice job of suggesting a scientific approach. Historically clowns were outcasts. They are liminal figures who create unease by their very existence. Those who didn’t feel accepted came to do what those who don’t feel accepted often do: try to get others to laugh at you. Sad comedians are more than a stereotype. Those who’ve clowned already know that.

Since I was a clown in college, I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the craft. Clowns were a way of laughing at misery, but also of gaining some sympathy. By exaggerating human features, they become caricatures. We aren’t allowed to discriminate against those who are different, but clowns exist to be excoriated. And deep inside, I think we all know, that those who are ill treated will eventually demand payback. It is a lesson that the world could stand to learn even today. Of course, we don’t want to be told that those who are different share something as personal and important as human feelings. Clowns make natural targets for our fears because they represent something that we know shouldn’t exist—inequality. If you can’t get accolades through hard work, making others laugh provides its own reward. The phobia may arise, I suggest, because we know that every laugh comes with a price.

Scotland the Evolved

Imports and exports are the stuff of international commerce. Nations import what they require or desire from nations that have a surplus. One surplus that the United States has is Creationism. The origins of the movement share some culture with England, but there is no doubt that the idea of Creationism is a distinctly American one. Histories of the movement have been written, and it has proven itself remarkably resilient and tenacious. The leaders of the various forms of Creationism (yes, of course there are factions) tend to be very good at fund raising and political maneuvering. Once Creationism has been safely laid to rest in one form, another arises in its place like the heads of a hydra. The United States has been exporting Creationism for years now. I recall talking with colleagues from the UK many years ago and they were asking what this thing was that was showing up in their classrooms. The Brits tend to be sensible people and they were unacquainted with this blatantly faith-based approach to “science.”

A recent piece on IFL Science! declares that Scotland, at least, has banned Creationism from science classes. As a form of religious or cultural belief, of course, it may be studied. I have a feeling that in the future our generation will be regarded with wonder as that which experienced a massive delusion that science is whatever you want it to be. Don’t get me wrong; I understand Creationist concerns. Indeed, up through my sophomore year in college I shared them and could not see how evolution would fit into a biblically informed worldview. This was not discouraged at Grove City College. The serious study of religion, however, does bring many truths to light. Religion can be studied empirically. When it is, ideas such as Creationism can be objectively assessed. When they are, mene mene tekel upharsin.

We will not see Creationism going away. With the conviction of righteousness that is fueled not only by monkey business, but also fears of social changes, it gives a verisimilitude of respectability. Science has eroded systematically such ideas as homosexuality as an aberration, gender being fixed and defined at birth, women being inferior to men, races as being different species. It used to feel like a safe world to those who felt the Bible supported their right to run the place. Creationism feels like science and tries to cast doubt on a worldview that has relegated the Bible to a quaint place on a dusty bookshelf of Weltanschauungen. It would be naive to suppose that it is about to go away just because it is banned. If we would take the time to understand it, and to try to address the insecurities it effectively assuages, we might see different results. Making fun, however, seldom leads to conversion. We’re simply too evolved for that to work.

Pillars of Science

I sometimes wonder if science would have the appeal that it does, if it didn’t have religion to shock and awe. I’m thinking of not only the fact that The Humanist magazine quite often has a focus on religion, but even websites, irreverently named to make the sensitive blush, frequently use it as a foil. My wife likes the site now more commonly known as “IFL Science!” Web acronyms have taught us what the second of those letters denotes, but perhaps because making the name more family friendly leads to more hits, it’s been muted a bit. In any case, the most recent post I’ve seen has to do with that marvelous Hubble image of interstellar gas and dust columns where stars are being born, know as “The Pillars of Creation.” Apart from the stunningly beautiful images, I’ve always been taken by the way that implicitly or even subliminally, concepts of deity lie behind this scene. When the image was first published, I remember staring at it in rapt fascination—here we had stolen a glimpse into the private chambers of the universe. We were seeing what, were we in the midst of, would surely prove fatal. It is like seeing, well, creation.

Eagle_nebula_pillars

Creation is enfolded in the language of myth. Reading the description of this great, gaseous cloud, we are told of the tremendous winds in space (what I had been taught was an utter vacuum) where dust is so hot (I was taught space was frigid) that it ignites into stars, like a silo fire gone wild. It’s like witnessing the moment of conception, although Caroline Reid tells us the dust will be blown away in 3 million years. Perhaps ironically, scientists are scrambling to study it before that happens. Or before that will have happened. At 7000 light-years away, it will have been gone as long ago as Sumerians first put stylus to clay before we know of it. We still have a couple million years for a good gander. And the Sumerians, the first writers of which we know, were writing stories of creation.

It is really a shame that science has, in general, such an antipathy towards myth. As scholars of biblical languages, indeed, nearly any language, know, the language of myth and poetry is especially useful when standard prose breaks down. “Wow!” is not a scientific word. Nor is “eureka!” What other response, however, can there be to seeing the act of creation with our own eyes? Meanwhile there will be those who use science to belittle the worldview of the myth maker and and thinker of religion. Our world, it is widely known, is that of superstition and ignorance. We are those who think only in shallow pools and deny the very reality that is before our eyes. That reality can be full of stunning beauty, but were we to describe it in terms empirical, we might have to keep the interjections and useless adjectives to a minimum.

Truth Fully

An article on science reporting on the BBC has me thinking about truth. Again. Truth is, of course, a philosophical concept. What it means is a matter of debate, and always has been. The way that it’s used, however, is reflected in the debate-oriented situation in the story. According to IFL Science’s Lisa Winter, the BBC has been tasked with tightening up its science programs to avoid the dilemma posed by the “two sides to every story approach.” While not denying that debate is the lifeblood of science, assessing the strength of the debate is essential. For example, there is a true scientific consensus about global warming. Those who deny it are generally backed by either corporate or religious causes that motivate them to claim the truth lies elsewhere. Truth is a very slippery term. And anybody can use it and claim it. In philosophy there’s no answer key in the back of the book.

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Science, which I’ve admired from my earliest years, has a really, really strong track record of describing the physical universe accurately. Truly enormous paradigm shifts are rare in science and must be accompanied by stringent evidence. Sometimes critics grow frustrated at the slowness of science to accept something that seems obvious, but scientific thinking is nothing if not careful. Enter religion. The claims of most religions lay far beyond the reach of science. And yet, religion too has a really, really good track record—not of describing the physical universe (at which it often does abysmally poorly), but of providing meaning to human lives. Scientists have actually studied this. Religion, like it or not, does help. When it makes a claim on truth, however, a religion often comes into conflict with science. And the problem is that policies based on faulty scientific outlooks can have catastrophic consequences.

So what is truth? If we define it as what really, physically describes the material universe, science is onto it. In fact, science has the best chance of giving us an intellectually honest answer. If we define truth as what a certain deity declared law about a particular aspect of human life, science can’t help. Science doesn’t concern itself with gods or their putative decrees. Religion, however, does. And a vast part of the population votes for leadership based on religious beliefs rather than on scientific principles. And most have not taken too many classes in philosophy. In a democracy we both benefit and suffer under the weight of public opinion. And right now, it seems, public opinion considers philosophy as waste of time and would prefer the truth shrink-wrapped and ready for easy consumption.

Global Warning

“Sticks and stones,” the childhood wisdom goes, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We were taught that little mantra as a response to being teased by bullies. But words can and do hurt. They can even be lethal. Although I’ve come to realize that specific words are inherently neither good nor bad, I’m still a little shy around some of them. The website known, euphemistically, as “IFL Science!” contains an f-bomb that sometimes makes me wary—what’s wrong with just regularly loving science? In any case, perhaps this adverbial use of the most versatile swear word is intended to make the website a bit of racy fun. The posts are often very good. So it was that I recently read a story about “Friends of Science.” This group, it seems, is paying good money to convince the scientifically illiterate that global warming is natural, caused by the sun and not emissions, and so we should just chill. IFL Science! points out that the group, however, receives money from petroleum companies. Sticks and stones.

450x436_q75

On my way to work this week, I noticed how many of the ads in ebullient, affluent Midtown Manhattan reflect dark shows and movies. It’s summertime, when we expect bright colors and sunny weather. Has it, perhaps, been too sunny? The best selling non-fiction book over the past few weeks has been on economic inequality and how it will lead to a good, old-fashioned primate crash. Going ape-crap on the bullies. Our species doesn’t tolerate radical unfairness for long. Those who suck money from under the ground may not fracking care about the rest of us, but they sure pull in the big money. Big enough to buy the truth. Our emissions, they seem to say, don’t stink. And that weird weather you’ve been noticing for the past decade or so? That’s normal. Words will never harm me.

Global warming is a reality.

Oligarchy comes in many forms, the most insidious of which is the benign overlord. The implied subtext is “if I am smart enough to make all this money, I must surely be smart enough to decide what’s best for everyone.” Call it the gold standard of hypocrisy. In an increasingly secular society where the rewards of heaven devolve to what we can grab on earth, this might even be called a kind of theology. We all know that public policy and federal laws can be purchased, if we call it lobbying. Or election fund donations. The truth it seems, is up for sale. Call it Friends of Science—the name says it all. And if we’re tempted to add our own epithets, it might pay to ask what harm can words really do?