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.

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.

Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.