Turin Turnabout

Turn about, they say, is fair play.  Turin, on the other hand, is a city in Italy.  Its claim to fame is a shroud housed there that is believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth.  Tests have been done over the years, most authoritatively a carbon-dating done by three independent laboratories, with the results suggesting a medieval origin to the cloth itself.  In case your chronology is a little hazy, the medieval period comes centuries after the time Jesus lived.  Now, some thirty years after the definitive study, some scientists are questioning the results.  They’re being skeptical of the skeptics.  Turn about.  According to a story in The Catholic Register, a Freedom of Information Act request, honored only by one of the three labs (the one at Oxford University) has revealed that the bits of the shroud subjected to analysis were the worst possible parts of the cloth to test.  Herein lies the rub: scientists like to poke holes in credulousness—what do you do when your science is itself the subject of skepticism?

The Shroud of Turin, like Donald Trump, is one of those utterly arcane artifacts that unites Catholics and Evangelicals.  When I was growing up these two groups were the cats and dogs of the theological world.  They united under the umbrella of conservative social causes during the Bush years and have been sleeping together ever since (while both convinced that the other is going straight to Hell when it’s all over).  You see, the Shroud is a Catholic possession and allegedly bears wounds that support the Catholic narrative.  (The Vatican has never declared it an authentic relic, however.)  Evangelicals see it as proof positive that Jesus was resurrected, and so they tend to go further than the Catholics in citing it as proof.  We live in odd times when believers successfully out-skeptic the skeptics.

Since the other two laboratories (the University of Arizona and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) haven’t released the raw data, the grounds for a conspiracy theory grow fertile.  When information is kept secret, that’s a natural enough response.  The conspiracy-prone mind asks why the data isn’t being made public.  They do have a point.  The claims of religion are often hoisted on the petard of “no evidence” and when evidence (such as the lab results) exists but isn’t shown, that suggests somebody’s hiding something.  I have no vested interest in the authenticity of the shroud, but we all should have such an interest in getting at the truth.  The turnabout in this case, however, was completely unexpected.

Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?

Nature’s Bible

When you’re writing a book, many strands in your mind are weaving their way into what you hope will be whole cloth.  Well, at least if you write books the way that I do.  In writing Weathering the Psalms, for instance, one of the threads was the question of science and religion.  I was teaching at Nashotah House at the time, and I read a lot of science.  As I told colleagues at the time, if science is how we know things, shouldn’t what we know of the natural world apply to the Bible?  I don’t claim to be the first to ask that question—back in the days of exploration there were many people (mostly the genus “white men” of the “clergy” species) who went to what is now and had used to be Israel, to find out what the world of the Bible was actually like.  Their books still make interesting reading.

Quite unexpectedly a colleague, Dalit Rom-Shiloni of Tel Aviv University, told me she’d just ordered my book.  She’s leading up a project called the Dictionary of Nature Imagery of the Bible (DNI).  Over a decade after my teaching career ended, someone had deemed my work relevant.  Dr. Rom-Shiloni recently sent me the link to the project website where there is a video of her interviewing three Israeli scientists about the possibility of lions, leopards, and bears living in Israel.  They’re all mentioned in the Bible and no longer exist in the area.  The video is on this link and won’t take half an hour of your time.  It’s quite interesting.

One of the surprising facts to emerge is that leopards, in small numbers, may still exist in Israel.  This assertion is based on lay observation.  I contrasted this with the United States where, no matter how often a cougar (aka mountain lion, puma) is spotted in a state where it’s “known” to be extinct, it is claimed to be mistaken observation.  A departed friend and mentor of mine once saw a mountain lion in West Virginia.  I’d grown up in neighboring Pennsylvania where they are officially extinct, so I wondered if said beasts knew to observe the Mason-Dixon line.  The fact is, despite all our best efforts to destroy our environment, animals often find a way to survive.  Growing up, one of my cousins in Pennsylvania (now also unfortunately deceased) showed me a puma print in the snow behind his rural house.  Now Pennsylvania is a long way from Israel, and this topic is a long way from the DNI, but remember what I just said about how my books are written.  Tapestries only make sense from a distance.

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Quantum Magic

This history of ideas is perhaps the most stimulating of intellectual topics.  At least to me.  The pedigree of an idea tells us something of its validity—its authority, as it were.  I have been reading about the early days of science.  (Even the idea that science is modern is a mistaken concept; the earliest tool-makers were in some sense scientists.)   A book I was reading made the point that in the Renaissance, magic was a proper competitor to science.  Magic was sophisticated, based on much of what we would now call “science”—the belief was that the connections between an interconnected universe were hidden.  All things were tied together, nevertheless.  This presages not only the concept of evolution but modern cosmology as well.  The more I thought of this, the more it occurred to me that oppositional thinking, in some sense, dooms the possibilities of finding the truth.

Quantum mechanics, which I understand only on a lay level, has been puzzling over entanglement for some years now.  Entanglement was characterized by Einstein’s phrase “spooky action at a distance.”  Still, experiments have show that particles that have no way of “knowing” what each other are doing, are nevertheless connected.  That connection is nothing physical, nothing material.  Indeed, it makes materialists quite nervous.  The inert world of quanta should show no tendency towards “will” or “intention” at all.  So we call it something else—entanglement.  As I read about Renaissance magic, I realized that it was suggesting just this.  Of course, they had no means of observing what particle accelerators, such as that at CERN, reveal.  Their “science,” however, successfully predicted it.  Were it not for the history of ideas we could let materialists think they’ve discovered something new.  Historically, though, they haven’t.  (I’m not suggesting that quantum mechanics work on the macro level, but I’m observing that magic supposed some kind of entanglement existed.)

This is some kind of entanglement!

Often I have made bold to challenge Occam.  I wear a beard for a reason.  One size does not fit all in the entangled universe.  Some consider the exploration of spiritual aspects of life to be a waste of time.  Look at any university pay scales and be so bold as to differ.  The funny thing is, science is only now beginning to catch up with what we historically have called magic.  There seem to be multiple explanations to the behavior of the material world instead of a single one.  Once an idea becomes orthodoxy it becomes dangerous.  Reason is very, very important.  But reason sometimes get entangled in a world only revealed in the history of ideas.

Straining Credulity

Ed and Lorraine Warren aren’t easy to figure out.  I realize that for someone who holds an actual doctorate from a bona fide, internationally recognized research university this might be something strange to say.  That’s because the standard academic response is simple dismissal.  Ed, at least, was known to have stretched the truth from time to time, but that’s not the same as never having reported weird things that actually happened.  This is why I’ve long advocated academics at least looking at the evidence—rare though it may be—before the simple hand-waving dismissal.  Part of the problem is that the Warrens’ books were written by credulous followers who don’t question things nearly enough.  Ghost Tracks, by Cheryl A. Wicks, may be the last of this strange genre of hortatory, biographical accounts “by” the Warrens written while Ed was still alive.

Skepticism is very important.  But so is listening to people.  What I find compelling is that similar weirdness—frequently dismissed out of hand—has been recorded throughout the length and breadth of history and across the entire globe.  The problem is that many of these things fall outside current scientific means of testing.  While perhaps not widely known, very reputable universities quietly explore these possibilities with actual science.  Part of the problem of the Warrens, as well as various other “ghost hunters” is that they use scientific equipment and think that makes them scientists.  It doesn’t.  Science requires deep engagement and many years of strenuous study.  And yes, skepticism has to be part of it.  The thing the Warrens have to offer is that they realize(d) that when science does engage the supernatural interesting things emerge.

Sensationalism, however, is the slave of capitalism.  Books sell better when they make extraordinary claims and declare they’re based on true events.  Trying to make a living investigating the paranormal led the Warrens, it seems, to tip the balance a little too far in the way of credulity.  Some of the stories in Ghost Tracks are more believable than others.  Some are just plain frustrating.  Ed’s interview with George Lutz (of Amityville fame), for example, is full of dropped balls.  A good question receives an intriguing answer only to have the subject immediately switched by the interviewer.  Even just a little skepticism and a follow-up question would have done scads to improve the believability of the story.  This is something a scientist would have known.  Someone as smart as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although his Sherlock Holmes generally found  ratiocination led to physical explanations, believed in the supernatural.  If only his Holmes might’ve been brought to this discussion we might possibly have learned something.