Imagine

Apr 1, 2012 by

Colin Hannaford – It is clearly only accident that the sounds of ‘certain’ and ‘Satan’ are similar in English. The OED makes nothing of it. It is not devilish.

Even so, religions and science disagree mainly because they are certain of very different fundamentals: for religions, it is the existence of the supernatural force which inspires them; for science, that reality must be explored and explained by reason alone.

Revelation is abhorred: unless scientific!

Science attempts to be both simple and consistent.  Given two or more possibilities consistent with the evidence, the simplest must be chosen.

This rule was first defined by a heretical 14th century Oxford monk, William of Ockham. It was directed against papal arrogance.

He was excommunicated.

If he had been success, these essays might not be needed.

In contrast, in 1919 the English physicist Arthur Eddington was the first to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. He would not support him, however, until an expedition he led to the island of Principe, near Africa, proved Einstein’s prediction that light would bend in the sun’s gravitational field. Eddington recorded that the stars close to the edge of an eclipse of the sun appeared to move. Either they moved, or their light had been bent. Eddington chose the latter.

Ordinary people did not need to understand Einstein’s relativity; but for much of human history the ‘straightness’ of light described the shortest distance between two points, the inerrancy of logic, even the flight of Cupid’s arrows. Now light could bend.

Eddington made Einstein famous.

He later explained: [In science] observation is the supreme court of appeal. Every item of physical knowledge must be an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure.1

True to this principle, he later refused to believe the young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, then a student at Cambridge, whose mathematics predicted the existence of black holes. At that time there was no observational evidence.

Still later, rather more surprisingly, Eddington declared: “The universe is of the nature of a thought or sensation in a universal Mind. To put the conclusion crudely: the stuff of the world is mind-stuff. 

            It is hard to participate in the world’s mind stuff with our own mind-stuff.

And it gets worse.

In my research in Oxford I have found an often astonishing contradiction between the public belief of a religion and the private belief of its scholars.

This morning, for example, I read a moving description by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth concerning the absolute centrality to Jewish identity of their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt; together with a plea that children everywhere should be encouraged to ask questions.[2]

I am, of course, delighted with the last. But surely any rabbi must know that Israeli archaeologists have searched, with others, for over fifty years for evidence that over two million people left Egypt at any time to spend forty years wandering in the desert. [3]

Their conclusion is that there is no sign, no record, no possibility that it could have happened. At the time it is supposed to have happened, the population of Egypt could not have been more than four million.

The two million leaving, even without ‘a large number of other people, and many sheep, goats, and cattle’ – would have formed, ten abreast, a column nearly two hundred miles long.

The invention of the myth of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is one of the most damaging in history. It is damaging people still.

But, again, when we read that Jesus, whom Pilate called a king of the Jews, was crucified, died, lived again ‘and ascended into heaven’, we should also be aware that Jews in his time had no concept of heaven. They focused their attention instead on improving Olam Ha Ba, the world around them. (See my earlier proposal for Jesus’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.)

But now comes the killer question.

Have I been too certain?  Have I fallen into the same devilish trap?

The American philosopher Willard V. Quine has pointed out, in a mild reproof of Ockham, that a set of facts may have many valid explanations. The most fruitful is not always consistent with other explanations, nor need it be the simplest.

This was the discovery that physicists made in stumbling over quantum theory.

The best explanation does not only explain what is known: it reveals what is not known.

Darwin, for instance, believed all his life that animals pass the characteristics to their offspring that they have acquired in their lifetimes. He had no notion of the role of DNA in communicating forms of life through generations.

His theory allows only the environment to decide which survive. The role of DNA is still being explored. Its potential is still unknown.

I have certainly introduced a supernatural element: but not more supernatural than Eddington’s mind stuff; nor, indeed, than Erwin Schrödinger’s insistence that ‘what we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space.’

My suggestion is that life is prompted to adapt actively; that this impulse is produced by the universe; that it guides evolution; that this is what previous cultures have called God.

A heresy for religions and science.

Eddington would demand to see some evidence in human behaviour. I have suggested it is the impulse to be honest; that this impulse has repeatedly refashioned religions, and is the constant inspiration of science.

But what if it is wrong?

I described my near panic on realising, in France, that it would be more consistent with the truth to present an altogether different explanation.

This would mean abandoning being just an ordinary kind of a guy who got all excited about teaching children to ask questions in school mathematics.

Instead I would have to admit the possibility that I am very odd indeed.

No-one likes to think they are a freak.

Imagine my pleasure on returning to Oxford to find that the week’s New Scientist is titled: ‘The God Issue’, and promises to explain ‘why religion may outlast science’.

I have a soft spot for New Scientist. In 1999 it was the first major scientific journal to support my proposal that school mathematics is teaching the majority of pupils – and therefore the majority of people – to incline to be dishonest.

The NS editors commented in support: ‘Mathematics teaching can hardly be said [any more] to be politically neutral’. [4]

But publication by Britain’s leading scientific journal had no effect on the vanity, stupidity and cowardice of Britain’s educational academics, or the authorities they advise.

When a highly-placed British professor asked to be invited to a conference I had organised for the Qatar Foundation, I and my supporters, all university professors from Hungary, Germany, France, and the United States, were delighted.

To our amazement the British professor proceeded to trash our efforts. Rather than learn from a mere British teacher, or from his supporters, the Qataris listened instead to the highly-placed British professor.

A huge opportunity to affect education – from the Arab world to the rest of the world – was binned. We heard no more from Qatar Foundation.

Remembering that awful time, I feel exhausted all over again.

I confess that my heart therefore leapt at the prospect of others taking the bullet: that the ‘God Issue’ would reconcile religions and science without depending on me.

I have met Dr Dawkins twice. He is uncommonly polite. On the second occasion I told him that his understanding of human evolution would always be deficient if he did not acknowledge the importance of theophanies.

“What are they?”

“The appearances of God to man,”

“Poof!” he responded: and if anyone can say ‘Poof’ politely, Dr Dawkins can: “They’re all fairy stories.”

The ‘God Issue’ contributors all agree.

Justin Barrett, director of the Fuller Theological Seminary, believes that children are ‘naturally receptive to the idea that there may be one or more god which helps account for the world around them’ (p. 410

Ara Norenzayan, of British Columbia, presents a ‘growing view that religious beliefs and ritual arose as an evolutionary by-product of ordinary cognitive functions’. (p. 43)

Robert McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture of Emory University, suggests that ‘religious ideas and actions spontaneously and inevitably arise in human populations’. (p. 46)

Victor Stenger, of the Universities of Hawaii and of Colorado, declares: ‘If a properly controlled experiment were to come up with an observation that cannot be explained by natural means, then science would have to take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter.’ (p.46).

Now, let us imagine accepting this challenge. Imagine that there really is a fairy-story god: a really physical, affectionate, violent, rambunctious God, who drops in on our modest little home (our universe) every thousand years or so to see how his kids (us) are getting along.

Suppose he has found that the majority of us are tearing up the place; cutting down the trees; pissing in the oceans; multiplying like rabbits; and that all the cleverest kids have let him down. They were supposed to keep us out of the hands of that persuasive little bugger Satan.

Now, sure enough, Satan has got us so riled up that all we can think about is how to shit on each other: which really means how to shit on ourselves.

Sorry for the patois. I get excited.

Imagine that he decides to make, from his point of view, a modest, but from our point of view, a striking demonstration that science and religions should both consider very different possibilities of ‘a world beyond matter’.

How do you suppose he might do this?

 

Make your suggestions before my next essay!



[1] Philosophy of Physical Science, Eddington. A. (1934)

[2] Credo, The Times, 24th March, 2012.

[3] Exodus 12,37-38; Numbers 1.46

[4] New Scientist, 28 August 1999, No. 2201.

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