On the Rocks

This universe is indeed a mysterious place. You don’t have to believe in the paranormal anymore to see it. A look at the headlines makes my point. There are those, however, who do look at the genuinely strange, and once in a while this realm crosses paths with that of religion. A friend pointed me to a story on Mysterious Universe about floating rocks. Apparently this story is going to be on the mainstream Travel Channel, so it’s not completely bonkers. It caught my attention because it’s about rocks. While of decidedly poor qualification to be a rock-hound, I have more than a passing interest in geology. Itinerates shouldn’t collect rocks, but I can’t help myself. Anyway, I’ve been known to go to publicly open mines and tap away with my rock hammer hoping to find some not-so-hidden treasure.

According to the story, there is such a publicly open mine in Arkansas. Crystals (I expect quartz) are available for surface excavation, for a fee. Then the owners, the Murphys, noticed the anomalous rocks. Since they are conservative Christians (this is Arkansas after all) they feared what powers might be behind rocks that don’t obey the laws of gravity. The mine didn’t get closed and hushed up because of an unusual source of inspiration. An article by Billy Graham on divine mysteries led them to keep the mine open and to allow for investigation. Once the Travel Channel comes out with its program Crystal Mine is sure to experience an influx of business. Mainstream scientists, one expects, will not be among them.

The universe is vast. We haven’t explored all of our own planet yet (we’re kind of busy destroying it at the moment, so if you don’t mind…) and yet we gleefully claim what’s impossible. I don’t know if there are levitating rocks in Arkansas, but I do think we’ve been a bit hasty about some of our conclusions. We may yet find things that will force the concepts—the laws—to change. Consider gravity, which seems particularly relevant in the case of floating rocks. Sir Isaac Newton (devout theist that he was) ending up having to relinquish the “correct” explanation to Albert Einstein. Some have been so bold as to suggest that maybe even Einstein might not have gotten the whole skinny on gravity. We continue to learn. Levitating rocks are indeed strange. Not so strange, however, as Billy Graham being the one to rescue an anomaly for the world to see.

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.


While out driving one winter evening, the sun was setting below a distant horizon that I couldn’t see. Trees lined the sides of the road and, while creating not exactly a tunnel, they blocked the actual view of the orb itself. The day had been partly sunny with cloud forms shifting between layers of the atmosphere. Even though I had studied weather pretty intensely for a number of years, I couldn’t readily identify the cloud types. Thin, smooth lengths of cloud seemed to be suddenly rising up into cumulus banks, heavy with snow. Not far away, the sky was clear. As the sun was going down, these dramatic clouds were lit with the colors of fire: yellows, oranges, and reds. Further to the west, a high, broken bank of clouds glowed a rosy red against a twilight sky. Since the highway we were on was straight, I had a fairly consistent view of the warm tones of the sun highlighting the impressive clouds. My camera couldn’t hope to catch the intensity of the palette revealed to my eyes. When the sun finally fell beyond the range of the clouds, they appeared gray and prosaic against a darkening sky. They had been alight only moments ago, and now they were dull, and not even white.


What I’d learned of physics reminded me that even these colors were not inherent to the clouds—colors are simply reflections of light rays and the range that we see depends on our eyes. An object’s color, in other words, is a kind of illusion. It’s an illusion we share, and although some people are color-blind, we make the conventions of color part of everyday life. Red means stop, and green mean go, for example. Objective reality is simply the fact that objects reflect different wavelengths of color. Depending on the light source, they appear a specific color to us. While we take colors for granted, they are actually a way of conveying meaning that isn’t entirely real.

Ancient people looking at the colors in the sky could only understand them as caused by the activity of the gods. Bright hues in the clouds suddenly diminished to gray could be the basis for a myth of heavenly conflict. A rainbow, according to Genesis, is a sign that such a conflict is finally over. I don’t know what the gods might have been doing overhead that night, but as the sun disappeared and a full moon rose, throwing soft, but pervasive light from the broken clouds that have only moments before had appeared red, another reality seemed to be taking over. I suspect that we have lost much by no longer watching the sky. My daily work generally involves sitting in a windowless room, and in Midtown the sky is occluded with human attempts to climb to heaven. When I can see the sky for an extended period of time, it seems that the gods are putting on a show, if only we’d watch.

Material to Ponder

EndOfMaterialismFrom my youngest days I remember wanting to be a scientist. This desire was tempered with a real fear of Hell and wish to please. In my career, it seems, the latter won out. Well, mostly. I never planned on being an editor, but it was clear that I missed the hard-core science courses and would always lack scientific credibility. You see, I believed what scientists said, and that included science teachers in high school. To this day I still believe in the back of my mind that you can’t really see atoms with a microscope. One of my teachers had said it was impossible, and although electron microscopes were still a long way off, it was clear that atoms were just too small. The force of materialism first hit me in ninth grade physics. If what I was hearing was true, then if you had enough information, you could figure out the whole universe. But what of Hell?

I read Charles T. Tart’s The End of Materialism because of my need for reassurance. Materialism leaves me cold. To find a scientist who feels the same way is a bonus. Not all authorities agree that we’re just excited atoms that can be seen. Tart is willing to consider the spiritual as part of what the evidence reveals. He explores it in the context of psi rather than in the doomed attempt to test religions empirically, but he does make a case for more to this universe than Horatio’s philosophy ever dared dream. And some of that more is decidedly not physical. It’s what we know from our experience of the world. We don’t only reason, we also feel. I have to wonder if reason is really the friend of materialism after all.

You can’t walk across Manhattan without seeing an ambulance most days. Often they’re called out to collect some unfortunate homeless person who collapses from our collective neglect. If we are only matter, then why do we bother to assist those in distress? It’s just a little electricity and some chemicals in a biological organ, right? Consciousness is only an illusion, after all. Unless, of course, the person suffering is a prominent scientist. Then we should all make way for the ambulance lest we lose an asset of great value. Materialism is insidious in its take-no-captives mentality. Feel what you will, there’s nothing more to life than physical stuff. You can make a good living believing that. Why is it that I’m suddenly thinking of Hell again?

Quantum Uncertainty

Physics has moved beyond the point of comprehension for the average citizen, if I might be permitted to class myself as that. I got the concept of the atom, although I always wondered about the spaces in-between. No god-of-the-gaps there, but it didn’t fit with experience that everything was full of holes. An article my wife sent me now has me wondering if I’m a hologram. Physicists began to lose me with quarks—I can understand atoms being made of something, but what of ups and downs and leptons every way to Sunday? Then string theory. Then those particles that can be two places at once, until you look. And now I’m being told that The Matrix may be more fact than fiction and quantum uncertainty rules the day. Indeed. Physics tells us what we’re really made of. Religion used to tell us what it all means. That precarious balance seems to have tipped and religion has no other role than to motivate violence and science will save us. Help me, Neo!

I can’t even figure out my taxes any more, let alone what the universe is made of. How we could all be jittery two-dimensional particles is unclear to me. Well, the jittery part I get. I was never really satisfied being limited to three dimensions of motion. Is it ever clear which way is really forward? Height and depth seem terribly geocentric, and even a circle could be divided into more than 360 degrees, a legacy of our Mesopotamian forebears. Spheres—my primitive view of atoms—only touch at the edges. I think there must be something more. Then comes the math. The truth is in the numbers, it seems. Glad I have a calculator.

Although I don’t have the weak nuclear force at my disposal, I have tried to build with marbles many times. You can’t build upward without the bottom row rolling away. Perhaps in our world spheres just don’t balance that way. They don’t hold together. Pixels, however, have edges. They seem to fit together more fully, but leave the universe full of jagged edges. That fits much better with my experience, I guess. Shards of reality lie all around me. Religion used to be the way of putting the pieces together, but, I’m told, that’s all a myth. Instead we have a universe that the average person is incapable of understanding, and that seems to be held together by forces that are fully explainable only by math. Once upon a time, Hell was a mythical, fiery place underfoot. Now it is a universe of formulas and equations that are held together only by quantum uncertainty.

"HAtomOrbitals". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png

“HAtomOrbitals”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png

Floaters and Swimmers

Noah seems to have found a renewed audience these days. Nothing like a major motion picture to make even one of the most famous biblical characters even more notable. And the spin-off stories are now considered news as well. One of the many impossible stories of the Bible, the ark, as scholars have long known, would not have been a physical possibility. Quite apart from the building in days before metal smelting was invented, there was the problem of volume. Since evolution is ruled out de rigueur, each separate species had to have been represented, since no changes are allowed from that time to this. The sheer number of them, especially since new ones are being discovered even now, was deemed impossible to fit on an ark of even biblical dimensions. Add in the food necessary for 150 days, especially considering the carnivores, and the human-power required to care for all those beasts (only eight are permitted by Genesis, and Noah was 600 years old at the time) and you get the picture. Then Mesopotamian flood stories even older were discovered. It was quickly recognized that this was a myth with a larger message to tell.

Now, according to geobeats, and to the relief, I’m sure, of Russell Crowe, physics students at the University of Leicester have calculated that the ark could have floated. The story, in a one-minute sound bite, is a little shy on details. The students used the biblical cubit, and figured there were 35,000 distinct species at the time. I’m not sure where that number originates, but it doesn’t take into account how Noah got the koala’s to swim from Australia. According to present evidence, the earth is home to about eight-million-seven-hundred-thousand different species. And since they can’t evolve, that’s an awful lot of swimmers.

According to the university website, this was not intended as an exercise in biblical literalism. “The aim of the module is for the students to learn about peer review and scientific publishing. The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and find ways to apply basic physics to the weird, the wonderful and the everyday,” according to Dr. Mervyn Roy, the instructor. The students, working the math angle, didn’t expect the results to work. That they did surprised everyone. Except Noah, one presumes. The story makes clear that the number of animals was used to calculate mass, not dimensions, so squeezing all the beasts in might have been quite another chore altogether. Miraculous, one might say. As for me, I am waiting to see that pair of koalas swim from Darwin to the Persian Gulf, and then back again once the waters finally recede.

Don't forget to see the movie!

Don’t forget to see the movie!

AP Physics

AP Physics. Few words strike terror into high school students like these initials and scientific surname. As a student I didn’t really comprehend AP, and never took any Advanced Placement courses, but I enjoyed physics. It was by far my favorite science class. Even as a Fundamentalist, I saw that here was the explanation for the entire universe, as we knew it. Laws deduced by people far smarter than I could even dream of being could explain everything. But then Heisenberg. And Schrödinger. And quantum mechanics. I remember being taught that nothing was smaller than an atom. (Primarily school teachers in the early ‘60s can easily be forgiven the generality.) Still, on my own I read about protons and neutrons and electrons with wonder. When physics and chemistry brought these to the level of reality, it was like we really understood that each atom was like a solar system and boy didn’t it look intelligently designed! But then we looked closer. Quarks, in a Life-Saver array of juicy flavors, string theory, and the God particle itself, the Higgs boson, coyly showed their elusive faces and physics got weirder and weirder.

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

When my daughter told me about AP Physics recently, I was reacquainted with this world where apparently conscious beings have their choice about reality. The observer bends the results of the quantum experiment. And yes, particles can be two places simultaneously. When a friend pointed me to an article on Quantum Reality in The Waking Times, I was ready to throw open the doors of perception and celebrate life in a universe so strange that the very concept of reality itself is up for grabs. Some physicists now believe the entire physical universe is constructed of energy and that it flashes into and out of existence at a staggering speed that makes me feel a little perpetual-motion sick. Reality is, literally, what we make it.

I have to admit just a little bit of pride on the part of having chosen to study religion here. The more we learn about the quantum world, the more religious it becomes. There will be hard-core reductionists who dispute this, I know. Those who’ve spent any time among the mystics, however, will know what I mean. Back beyond the singularity the laws of physics are so stretched and protracted that even Stephen Hawking can’t sort them all out. And we find ourselves daily living in a world that we help create, on a sub-atomic level. Reality may not be what it seems. I learned this in high school physics. Now that my brain has ossified into patterns that don’t admit much of calculus or accounting any more, I’m beginning to realize that physics is suggesting that reality may be consciously constructed after all. Only this time we’re the gods. And that’s a really weird concept.

Explanatory Value

The dividing line between superstition and religion is thin and growing more effaced all the time. Nowhere does this become clearer than in studies of the history of religion. One of the critiques early made between “true religion” and superstition is that the latter involved magic, but today anthropologists find that line difficult to discern as well. Many religions are defined by their insistence on supernatural occurrences. The world as is, is by definition, secular. That’s one of the reasons Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250—1750 is so interesting. Cameron, an historian with a precise grasp on theological nuance, traces Christian responses to the world of the supernatural through the Middle Ages. Various theological responses are then explored as the author searches for that elusive distinction that makes one belief religious and another superstitious. It is really a matter of perspective.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the late Middle Ages. As Cameron notes, physics, to the mind attuned to God’s direct intervention in the cosmos, looks like the occult. How could a person seriously believe that two physical bodies, such as the sun and earth, or earth and moon, could attract each other? If you put God back into the equation just to take him out for an instant, this sounds extremely occult. Does not attraction imply volition? How can physical objects attract one another? Thus scientists such as Galileo and Newton often found opposition for their ideas based on the fact that science and superstition can also bear a passing resemblance.

As science’s superior empirical evidence became clearer, the God who’d stepped out of the room temporarily was eventually locked out. This vast universe could be explained without the supernatural at all. What was needed was better glasses. Microscopes and telescopes, and now cyclotrons and space telescopes, provide a consistent and ever sharper image of a universe that gets along just fine without the divine. But what of superstition? Has it gone away? We still routinely construct buildings without thirteenth floors. The sigh of relief from the worker or guest on floor fourteen seems never to be obviated by the fact that they are really on a renamed, empirically thirteenth floor. Your daily newspaper (although quickly growing extinct) will still offer you your horoscope before you hurry off to the lab. Call it what you will—superstition, religion, occult, magic—as long as we’re human no scientist or theologian will ever convince us that there’s not at least some whisper of a ghost in the machine.

Determinism to Succeed

I’ve been watching some episodes of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole, the recent Science Channel sop to the masses to explain what scientists are thinking. I always appreciate when scientists (and other specialists) are willing to abandon argot and talk to the rest of us in plainspeak. Even if the implications are a little scary. The episodes I watched this weekend shared a near determinism. The physicists interviewed stopped shy of saying that all is ordained by the rules of science, but the implications still rang loudly in my ears. This concept is at home in the church.

Back as a college student attending a Presbyterian school (I have never ascribed to this particular flavor of Christian thought), I first chanced upon predestination. In fact, the subject was well nigh unavoidable. Students of all majors and backgrounds ended up discussing it around dinner tables as well as in the classroom. The instigator, instead of physics, was John Calvin. His theology suggested that mere mortals had no say in their destinies; God created some to be saved, the rest to be damned, fairness be confounded. I sat through many classes where the professors would argue with erudite words that all this had been foreordained. Some, “double predestinarians,” went as far as to argue that every firing of every synapse, every motion of every muscle, had been predetermined by God before the creation of the world. When I asked “why?” I was told that God has his (always “his”) reasons, and that I, a non-Presbyterian, should simply accept my fate.

Four years of wrangling and no one managed to convince the opposite party. One of my more intelligent professors once told me after class, “you free-willers always win on philosophical grounds, but we predestinarians always win on scriptural grounds.” He seemed to think that solved it. Perhaps he was predestined to conclude that. I disagreed. No greater monster could exist than a deity who predestined the horror we’ve created in our world. To see all this human suffering, much of it pointless, and simply shrug and say “God has his reasons,” is to implicate the creator in a cosmic Nuremberg. For me, I’d feel safer with the physicists saying it is all a matter of unfeeling cosmic laws. Perhaps I’m predestined to write this, but I still think they’re all wrong.

Was Calvin predestined to wear that hat?

Physics of Religion

As an observer on life’s sidelines, I rarely participate in the action. The subject matter is more important than the critic, so I tend to respond in this blog rather than create. Once in a great while, however, someone I know shows up in the media. A number of years back Neal Stephenson introduced me to George Dyson. I instantly felt an affinity for him, and found his book Darwin Among the Machines a great triumph of intelligible science writing. It was no great surprise, then, when George was mentioned in an article in December’s Atlantic magazine, comparing his outlook to that of his father, physicist Freeman Dyson. I was intrigued by physics in high school, but my overwhelming supposition that religion explained life overruled this predilection and so I’ve ended up an unemployed religion professor than a scientist. In the article, however, author Kenneth Brower brings these things together.

Brower asks a pointed question: how can a physicist as brilliant as Freeman Dyson hold factually inaccurate and apparently misguided ideas about global warming? The story contrasts Freeman with his son George as exemplars of two different religions. George represents the environmentalist religion while Freeman represents the belief in humanity’s ability to solve any problem. The use of religion as a means of distinguishing these views again raises a question of definition. I don’t dispute the use of the word – it is entirely apt in this context – but the functional definition here is that religion equates to something deeply believed. I am a little troubled by this. Not because no gods or deities or supernatural forces enter into it, but because for years many evangelicals have boldly declared that science itself is a religion. That idea has been used as leverage to get Creationist ideas equal time with those of science because it comes down to purely a matter of one religion against another.

Belief is a phenomenon that is not well understood. Most people have no difficulty accepting the truthfulness of factual data. Seldom do even religious zealots doubt two plus two equals four. At a more theoretical level, however, facts become formulas incomprehensible to most of us and critics are quick to call this “religion.” Faith in human ability to solve the riddles of the universe. Where is the line with religion crossed? In the year 2000 Freeman Dyson received the Templeton Prize, an honor reserved for those who make significant contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, often with a scientific component. It is the dream of every religionist to be considered for this great honor. Once again, however, the further out we peer into our universe, the more the lines become blurred. That does not worry me. What concerns me is how such ambiguity will no doubt be used by Creationists and their Neo-Con supporters who are only too glad to have a scientist of Freeman Dyson on their side. When religion trumps science not even 2 + 2 = 4 is secure.

Hubble's ultra deep field has yet to detect any deities

Alternate Realities

Shutter Island and Inception share more than just Leonardo DiCaprio. Both films blend the conscious and subconscious worlds in such a way as to question what reality is. To many this issue is answered by what some philosophers label “naïve realism;” the world that our senses perceive is the world as it really exists. During a guest lecture this past week, a student repeated raised the question of how we know what we know. More than simply an attempt to get the teacher off the subject, this seemed to be a legitimate existential angst. Religious studies has a way of doing this to people.

Even physicists of the twenty-first century are increasingly forced to what looks more like science fiction than apparent reality to explain our world. The quantum world is a surreal environment and as scientists close in on a theory of everything, those of us who live in the macro world wonder where reality begins and fantasy ends. Perhaps the concept of reality itself is flawed. We live with many ineluctable truths; we function biologically, live, grow, and die. Beyond that we have no way of knowing, but we believe. And during that lifespan we experience both conscious and subconscious input. The closer we look at reality the more it appears to fracture.

Perhaps that is why movies such as Shutter Island and Inception have been so popular. Scorsese and Nolan have widely differing styles, but both are relegated to a world where apparent reality doesn’t seem to be enough. Only so much of life fits in a laboratory. The vast majority of it is simply experienced, whether wakefully or while asleep. Each at the time feels like real reality. Inception seconds the question raised by Shutter Island: what is reality, and, perhaps more importantly, what will we choose to do with it?

Religion in the Underworld

One of the unspoken truths of the study of religion is that it has an unacknowledged, problematic sibling in paranormal studies. There are many obvious differences: for one thing, religious study is respectable, if not really considered essential, whereas paranormal study is suspect and not generally acknowledged by established scientific or mainstream research institutes. Nevertheless, both religion and paranormal phenomena deal with unquantifiable experiences, aspects of human perception that cannot yet be measured. So it was with a large grain of salt that my wife signed me up for a year’s subscription to the TAPS Paramagazine. I’ve posted on this particular magazine before, but a new issue arrived just yesterday that contained so many references to the Bible and mainstream religion that I thought it worthy of reiteration.

In general I am skeptical about supernatural claims. At the same time, I am aware that we understand only a fraction of the universe and some aspects of theoretical physics are more bizarre than your average ghost story. When the magazine arrives I read through it with my salt-shaker within easy reach. Nevertheless, a feeling haunts me that at some deep level my specialization is connected with paranormal activity. The first article in the current issue concerns the Underworld. The author suggests that biblical and Mesopotamian references to the Underworld may be supported by the findings of ghost hunting investigators.

I’m all for a couple of working guys (plumbers Jason and Grant) daring to tread where scientists fear to go, but the problems of using ancient materials to bolster ghost-hunting claims are legion. Just a glance at the popularity of Zecharia Sitchin books warns against a simplistic reading of complex, ancient civilizations. We don’t need ghosts in the machine to explain the Sumerians or Babylonians. At the same time, we don’t have many academic options for uncovering the many, many ghost claims that have made throughout history. Mass neurosis is less believable than occasional hauntings. So although I have to disagree about the viability of a literal Underworld – a good understanding of ancient mythology helps to clarify that one – I do reserve some space for wondering if religious studies might not end up in the same final resting place as paranormal studies once science is able to penetrate the veil.

My all-time favorite ghost photo