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January 11, 2011

6-1-11 Signs and Science

6-1-11

[The dates on these entries lag behind their appearance because there’s always ‘…and another thing…’, sometimes worth adding, sometimes to be put aside as an avenue for later. Despite the way these recent ones have bulked up there are odd paragraphs that became time-consuming skirmishes between brevity and clarity, paras taken out to make room for the revisions so that it doesn’t read too much like a tiresome tirade (no guarantees there). A sense of humour is not helpful either because to find humour in an idea is too close to making fun of the person who relies on it.

Writing out a fraction of the notes and queries that have actually cost me sleep – ‘how do I say this to… [author]’, who in response is quite comfortable about stopping the dialogue dead with the ‘so you’re just making it up for yourself’ clause, has proved quite cathartic.

It took me a long time in my teens to really lose the picture-book Old Bearded Bloke In The Clouds God and graduate to saying ‘of course we don’t believe that God is an OBBITC’ and longer again to realise that the male third-person pronoun was actually an unhelpful convention. Language gets in the way – the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao – and to de-gender God leaves only ‘It’. That pronoun-shift alone amounts to heresy in some quarters: God the protean verb rather than the proper noun.

Parts of these entries are like typing to myself in my teens. I wouldn’t have got it then. There’s one more of the 7 Myths after this that deserves a response but good heavens, Life is at the door asking if I can come out to play…]

“Myth # 3 – I am scientifically minded, so you will have to prove that God exists.

Reply: That is exactly why God sent His son, Jesus. Jesus was God in the flesh. People saw Him, talked with Him and saw how He lived. God HAS shown Himself to us. But what did we do to Him?… we killed Him…what did we do with the evidence that was written down in the Bible?…we think it’s a bunch of lies… because we are really such nice people deep down inside? But, at least now we know what God wants from us and we won’t  have an excuse on Judgment Day. Jesus actually showed us the Truth, because He was God’s Son. Jesus proved that He was God’s Son by coming back to life. Could a dead man change lives like Jesus has?”

I do admit to a preference for rational, structured debate and an admiration for those with the mathematical aptitude to sustain focussed convergent thought. ‘Learning modes’ aren’t a recent education theory though the phrase has gained currency in the past couple of decades as one of our many ‘issues to recognise and address’ in the classroom.

The number 10 is a pure abstract but we know precisely what it means and how it works in percentages, decimal fractions and powers of ten, so unless there are exceptional conditions you should be able to pass it on by description and/or demonstration. If you want to make a child understand the number of ways number can be used to make 10, some will ‘just get it’; others may need to finger-count to see and feel the number; some will respond to musical beats or simple songs. Some gifted children launch lickety-split into equations, so intent on discovering the value of x that their paperwork is a scrawl, others may be drawn in, literally I guess, by the neatness of a well set-out equation on the page, developing their number-forms and strict columns as a form of calligraphy.

You pass it on knowing that unless a child grows into an especially talented mathematician interested in ‘special conditions’ s/he need never question that 10x10x10 and 10×100 will amount to the same result. You can teach the number 10 and its properties in many ways, because we can readily agree what we’re talking about. You don’t need someone on hand to refer to a manual and interpret whether ten tens make a hundred in this case.

Others’ talents are always slightly magical and enviable. I don’t have a ‘number mind’ though on occasions when I’ve had to do a lot of  working calculations I’ve found that it’s like school French: a bit of immersion in it works dormant muscles and pretty soon I can achieve ‘conversational maths’. What begins as a chore becomes a pleasurable burst of left-brain activity. I imagine that working with number at the highest level must feel like writing and ‘hearing’ scores, though maybe the mind with that mathematical aptitude might regard this as merely a metaphorical side-issue.  Note in this context I’m careful not to covet those skills.

This was one of the more interesting of the Commandments to study because of its fine but fuzzy ethical line between Envy, which could be the fuel for aspiration and the motivation to study and improve, and Covetousness: the sense that you can’t be bothered to do the work, you just want what someone else has, often not the skill or object itself but just the attention or status it attracts. Fortunately for me, I never had to worry about coveting my neighbour’s servants, nor his ox nor his ass because we didn’t know anyone who had them. (I notice that this is now translated ‘his donkey’ because of the shift in meaning from the lowliest beast of burden to *fnur!* ‘botty’. What we gain in propriety we lose in meaning).

My friend the Law Professor can construct elegant conceptual houses of cards you could reliably place in a wind-tunnel. They’re held together by the force of congruence; pick a card, any card, and you can see how it fits and supports the structure.

I’d love a day-ticket to that theme-park of a mind. I know my place and quietly congratulate myself for following his de-jargoned dot-to-dot descriptions of the issues and his trial approaches to bringing order to ambiguity. Our Venn diagram overlaps slightly in a common interest in language-representation and how it works; what we write and say, and how, and what it means.

A mathematician once told me that he could spend a happy evening trying to work out whether a particular value should be inside or out of a set of brackets and seeing how the calculation diverged in either case and the properties of the reciprocal relation ‘across the top of the triangle’ between the two results. In linguistics, especially as applied to formulating Law, similar nitpicky semantic attention to word order can crucially affect meaning. Times this by 10 when framing international laws and probably another 10 if the territory is the internet, an idea more sprawling than the sum of its nodes..

I like to arm-wrestle with Telegraph crossword-compilers, professional obscurantists who take wicked pleasure in exploiting assumptions we make about words and the sense they carry in everyday conversation. Approached correctly, the solution when it comes to you often comes with a ‘Doh!’ – obvious really, it was all laid out for you.

Some people like more hard-core logic puzzles, while this year I had to look at the – doh!obvious! – solution to a Christmas cracker Q.: “If Jim and Anne are 5 and Helen is twice that, it follows that her twin, Samantha, is…?” (Answer at the end in case it’s not, er, obvious).

In this ongoing discussion of faith it seems only fair to acknowledge that intelligence comes in many forms and it’s sensible to take account of your aptitudes and their limits. I don’t look for ‘proof’ in the sense that mathematicians use it – no Pythagoras has emerged to describe The Trinity – simply an inner consistency in the proposition that people who believe that God speaks directly to them are able to do so because they use His proper name, gender pronoun and capitalisation. To use other names or suggest that God might be so unimaginably greater than their vision that names might not be more than grammatic convenience is apparently to court damnation. How do we know this? Because it is written. Apparently.

It’s been said that Poetry resides in all that gets lost in translation. You can get the sense of a song-lyric in translation but in the process you realise how much of the meaning takes for granted the culture and customs of the native language and the time in which it was written.

Dickens wrote contemporary urban fiction in parallel with Mayhew’s accounts of The London Poor and Clarence Rook’s survey of Victorian gang-culture, Hooligan Nights. We now read Christmas Carol, with its visions of the workhouse and the meagre dog-eat-dog existence of the London slums, as colourful costume-drama couched in charming, to our ears ‘ornate’ English. We can still invoke Scrooge and Cratchett as character-types but the immediacy is lost 150 years on. It’s as impossible to unimagine the technological developments of the intervening century and inhabit the gas-lit steam-technology world of Victorian Britain as it is to decide to be illiterate for a day. You can’t uninstall the character recognition software – an analogy I couldn’t have used in general conversation thirty years ago, which now makes a ready metaphor.

Some mobile phones pack more computing power than than NASA’s Houston Control. Market-driven popular familiarity with the pc and a design imperative to make the interface more ‘intuitive’ has created both a mirror and a model of how our brain works. The tailored fit is so comfortable that you have to occasionally step back and remember that as much as our brain and the mind it generates may be ‘like’ a computer – and in some respects a very slow low-spec model – ‘we’ are not.

I find it hard to think back beyond the early stirrings of the domestic computer, when I delivered illustrations exclusively hand-drawn on art-board to the train-station to be collected by courier and taken to editorial addresses in London to arrive … oh, rather less than 8 hours after dispatch.

The phones we used plugged into the wall; brick-sized walkie-talkie mobile phones were rare and novel status-symbols. When it became clear that the fax machine was becoming part of the furniture I remember that thrill of receiving bitmappy design-roughs. Gosh, we were so 20th Century! I still occasionally forget that we’re now well into that province of The Future, the 21st Century. The last century was probably the most densely documented in history but even in my own memory I struggle to remember what it felt like to be there, not knowing how much the everyday customs and assumptions would change.

Can you interpret the recorded Word without reference to our remoteness from the time and location of the mission? This would be a given in any other study of historical texts and in very particular those contemporary non-partisan fragments of records which are cited to support the reliability of the Gospels.

It’s a matter of historical conjecture whether references to the Jewish history and tradition of the promised Messiah, the mighty rectifier, were embedded in the Gospels to reassure first-century reformist Christo-Judaic converts that the message hadn’t been diluted to facilitate His late adoption by the pagan imperial Romans, who’d executed the troublesome anarchist Jew as an administrative chore in a distant province. It’s an article of faith that the signs foretold in The Old were fulfilled in The New.

Parables about farming and fishing and miracles still have mythic power, as do Greek myths and Shakespeare (though you’re not obliged to believe that Apollo actually ran a futile race with a tortoise nor that Bottom the Weaver actually suffered temporary genetic modification), but they don’t mean the same to us as they did to the listeners at the time. In fact it seems clear from the fragments of the Christ-inspired Gnostic Gospels that proliferated in the decades before the approved versions were written that there was surprising diversity in interpretations of the teachings among those who claim to have heard them first-hand.

I don’t think of the Bible as a buncha lies but its meaning must necessarily be interpreted, and is, even by the literalists, so I look for interpretation that takes into account otherwise uncontentious observations about the effects of historical changes in culture and language.

The small print in the anti-coveting Commandment was once read as sanction to keep slaves – so long as you didn’t covet your neighbour’s slaves. Philanthropic Christians led the movement for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century because they’d altered their understanding of scripture. Were they radically wrong, flying in the face of The Word, or were their forbears actually more faithful and thus worthy of heaven or exploiting the authority The Word to their advantage? If  you decided to keep a couple of slaves, who could deny that you had that right, enshrined not in some obscure verses of the Epistles but right there in the Commandments?

Jesus did a brilliant job of reducing the message to two positives that between them covered all the Shalt Nots. Language again generates ambiguity but for me the ambiguity of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ encompasses ‘as much as yourself’ and ‘as not-separate from you’, Tat Tvam Asi -Thou Art That – difficult, counterintuitive but profoundly true. And who is my neighbour? Again, Jesus doesn’t dictate Terms And Conditions or draft a municipal by-law, He appeals to the heart and the imagination and asks you to recognise what at some level you already know.

That last sentence will just be hippy crap to those who recognise that the Real World demonstrably runs on wealth, status and ownership.

[more Myth]“…By the way, science cannot prove the existence of things like love, compassion and mercy. Does that mean that they do not exist? There are some things that numbers cannot measure, but yet we make use of those things every day. What I find is that people who take this line of thinking would not become a Christian even if Jesus stood right in front of them. God does not want just your mind, but also your heart and will. This seems to illustrate that there is more to man than just his mind and logic. We are all looking for something more.”

I’d like to see the results of these experimental programmes that have been conducted to prove the existence of love, compassion and mercy. I think there might be some difficulty finding those researches. I don’t think that scientists are by definition less capable of love and compassion or indeed that other very human capacity, a sense of humour, than adherents to faith groups.

Einstein said that everything that can be measured doesn’t necessarily matter and everything that matters can’t be measured.

Carl Sagan talked about the sum of human knowledge being like a balloon whose increasing volume is proportionate to an increasing surface-area of ignorance; ever more tangents to explore. Science is pretty vigilant about its limits.

There are sociological and psychological surveys investigating common factors in the experience and behaviours associated with the subjective feeling of love or the impulse to altruism. The experiments may produce data about behaviour; the sensations themselves though are notoriously challenging to trap with words even by gifted poets. This isn’t to argue that science is the better description. The attempt to ‘put it in words’ is another of those characteristically human impulses, which often demonstrates how wretchedly inadequate language is as a system of representation when you need it most.

A problem with this footnote to the Myth is that although grammar treats ‘love’ as a noun, a thing, as if ‘it’ can be studied, emotions more closely resemble verbs. You might as meaningfully ask: what does it mean to love someone enough? Enough for what? What unit of measurement could you apply?

Similarly, how do you quantify faith? The profession of faith is no guarantee of enlightened virtue even amongst those who make faith their profession. Just as there is bad slapdash science, there’s bad cosmetic faith.

The scientific approach – looking for verifiable, demonstrable, repeatable results – seems to work.

I peer at the computer monitor through mass-produced reading lenses, watching letterforms appear ‘as if by magic’ . At the top of the screen there’s a clock that keeps better time than the pocket-watch I keep blue-tacked to the wall (I prefer the analogue picture of the time to the digital readout) and it concurs with time-signals broadcast via the radio. This standardisation of time is a relatively recent invention, a direct result of the need for a consistent measure to regulate the steam-powered travel made possible by 19th century engineers. I’m warmer than I might be because of industrially-assembled double-glazing units in the windows and on this overcast day I see more clearly by the electric light-bulbs.

All of these are a tiny fraction of the everyday products of scientific, ordered thought, inference and deduction that are so familiar that we tend to forget that at one point they were only an itch on an inventor’s chin. The very useful thing about this kind of step-by-step reasoning and experiment is that if the initial findings are sound, the results can be developed, refined and extended. If they’re not, you can retrace the processes to see where the logic broke down.

Regarding the limits of scientific ‘proof’, you might be for example fairly confident of reliable data in the study of luthiery – instrument construction is a distinct form of empirical research. You may take several angles on the science rather than the art of playing the instrument. Results will become more speculative as you enter the palpable effect of ‘feeling’ in the performance as player or as audience and even seasoned players might find it difficult to describe why the ‘feel’ of one instrument is ‘instinctively’ right for them; it’s quite possible to measure precise physiological responses in the listener but yes… the point is made, science is probably not a good measure of the profound subjective emotional responses which we struggle to articulate.

In contrast, two thousand years of, let’s call it, evolution in theology produces such memorable arguments as that given to us by my grammar school RI teacher (it was Religious Instruction then).

We’d been learning about the power of prayer and why it was selfish and impertinent to pray, say, for a new bicycle but good to direct our prayer toward others close and far from us and to give thanks to God. He was there to listen to our problems.There was general agreement: don’t confuse God with Santa.

‘God,’ he told us, ‘always answers our prayers.’ There was a barely audible collective intake of breath before he added ‘…Sometimes He says ‘No’’. At this point the response was clearly that ‘tuh!’ reserved for teachers’ bad jokes. On reflection, this practised rhetorical flourish and pause-for-effect relied on his faith that the initial proposition sounded preposterous and that no-one in the room really believed that prayer was much more reliable than sending a wish-list to Santa. Sometimes we get what we wish, sometimes we don’t. Our prayers are answered, QED.

The answer to the Myth is in the question and the mistake is to attempt fisticuffs between faith and science to prove that faith is the mightier. The existence or otherwise of God doesn’t help the calculations on the one side, but I wonder why there isn’t more widespread enthusiasm in the faith communities for God’s invitation to take a real close-up look at the elegance, depth and complexity of His Creation, sketched out in Genesis.

Hardcore rationalists will recoil at this apparent ruse to sneak metaphysics in by the back door; the faithful can keep God in the picture but may be moved to ire by my enthusiasm for a body of knowledge that suggests that the things that you’re li’ble to derive from The Bible ain’t necessarily so.

Unfortunately there’s no single instance the writer of the Myths can cite of a living skeptic’s reaction to Jesus standing right in front of them so I don’t understand the ‘finding’. True, if certain politicians and celebs were right in front of me I might well think ‘I still don’t believe in you,’ but that’s another kind of belief.

(A: Samantha = 15: 5 points per syllable. For me, a ‘doh!’, for some of my friends, I suspect, a ‘well, du-urh!’)


  1. I’m afraid the author of the booklet doesn’t even try to answer his or her own ‘myth’ here: ‘prove God exists’, is apprently the ‘Myth’. (Where is the ‘myth’ in that not-unreasonable request?) The opening paragraph which you quote does nothing but restate the writer’s faith in the divinity of Jesus, in a judgement day, and in the resurrection. This is nothing like a ‘proof’, either in the special scientific usage or as is commonly meant. And to answer the only real question asked: yes, there have been other people, now dead, who have changed lives. So we are no further forward yet.

    “…By the way, science cannot prove the existence of things like love, compassion and mercy. Does that mean that they do not exist? There are some things that numbers cannot measure, but yet we make use of those things every day. What I find is that people who take this line of thinking would not become a Christian even if Jesus stood right in front of them. God does not want just your mind, but also your heart and will. This seems to illustrate that there is more to man than just his mind and logic. We are all looking for something more.”

    I’m quite happy to accept that there are things not easily quantifiable by mathematics or capable of sensible scientific investigation. However, I discovered that trying to remain a believer with heart and will alone was not enough. My mind kept having to carefully ignore awkward evidence and avoid thinking about certain subjects in order to keep my faith – it was only a matter of time before the strain started to tell. To be afraid of questioning, afraid of honest doubt and afraid of one’s own thoughts is not conducive to peace, love and joy. When, after many years of trying with all my heart to maintain my faith, I finally admitted to myself that I simply did not believe in magic or in an afterlife, I could start to find what I genuinely valued, listen honestly to my own conscinece, and come gradually back into balance again. I, for one, don’t feel the need to look for ‘something more’. I am no longer afraid of being who and what I am, and I am willing to accept the consequences of my free-thinking.

    Comment by Sue Jones — January 12, 2011 @ 9:59 pm
  2. You remind me of a quote from D.H.Lawrence ‘Thank God I am not free, any more than a rooted tree is free.’ I hear what you say while I’m aware that what I *think* is largely formed by contemporary culture and custom, and consciousness-studies – Daniel Dennett is detailed here – suggests that ‘free will’ is itself a slippery concept.
    However, I also remember a passage in Alan Watts (‘The Supreme Identity’, I think) when he says that on Judgement Day, the question he’s most likely to be asked is not ‘Why were you not a better follower?’ but ‘why were you not a better Alan Watts?’ – if you were made that way, and believe it must be for some purpose, a unique lens through which God can experience the world, then be that authentically. Those who’d claim that this is license to behave disgracefully rather give themselves and their own suppressed urges away. Oh flip. Now I want to dig out a relevant passage from Marcus Aurelius. Next time maybe…

    Comment by admin — January 13, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

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