Now I’ve done it. I’ve put the dreaded “God Particle” title on my blog after railing against it in the past. (And yes, I really did write that, even though my identity has been expunged. Another story. Better to be published without credit than to not be published at all, I suppose.)

Here’s my excuse. In his book Smashing Physics, which I just finished listening to, English (very English) physicist Jon Butterworth makes the following statement about the Higgs boson and the Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) field that gives mass to matter particles:

 

If you think this BEH mechanism is correct, then every time you measure the mass of something, you are seeing evidence for it. On the other hand, this becomes simply a matter of interpretation, since the BEH theory has explained the mass, but has made no unique prediction for any new phenomena that you can test experimentally. Maybe some other theory could also explain the mass. In fact, this is pretty much why the draft of Peter Higgs’ second paper on the matter was initially rejected by the journal Physics Letters. He then went and added an equation that essentially says something along the lines of, ‘Well, if this field is there, you can also make waves in it, and this will appear as a new scalar, i.e. spinless, particle . . .’

That is the famous Higgs boson, and that is why we have to see whether it’s there or not. It was this prediction that made it possible to demonstrate whether the BEH mechanism was just a neat piece of mathematics, or whether it really operates in nature.

 

It struck me the contrast between this statement and the ubiquitous proof of God given by believers. God, they say, is everywhere. Everything is evidence of Him.

What they fail to consider is that, as in the case of the BEH field theory, some other theory might explain the world just as well as the God theory. What testable prediction does the God theory make?

 

William Lane Craig, who is supposedly the best the apologists can put up, presents a version of the “evidence for God is everywhere” argument on his web site:

 

1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.

2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

3. Therefore, it is due to design.

 

How does Craig reach point 2, the key point in his argument? I’ll let you read it, but it essentially comes down to, “no one has yet thought of any argument that convinces me. Therefore, design.” That’s just an argument from ignorance, a God of the gaps. I can’t think of anything else, therefore God.

It’s fine to be skeptical of the multiverse, of inflationary cosmology, of the 10^500 possible worlds of String Theory. I certainly am.

Maybe the fine tuning is a physical necessity. Maybe it is chance. Maybe it’s something else, something we haven’t yet considered, including the idea that maybe the fine tuning is an illusion, caused by our incomplete understanding. The best current answer to the fine-tuning problem is, ‘we don’t know yet.”

Yet nowhere does Craig put his concept of God under the same skeptical microscope. And that’s the point I’m making here.

Note the key difference between physicists like Butterworth and theologians like Craig. Physicists are open to the idea they may be wrong. They devise tests that are vulnerable to failure. They don’t make their pet theory the default position.

Imagine if instead the physicists had taken Craig’s angle. They might have said:

 

1. Particle properties are caused by either the BEH mechanism, or by something else.

2. No one’s offered a “something else” that I find compelling.

3. Therefore, particle properties are caused by the BEH mechanism. Done!

 

But this isn’t what happened. Instead, physicists came up with an idea, then put that idea to the test. First, physicists crafted the BEH mechanism, an idea that fit the known data. But they didn’t stop there. Next they found real-world implications of their theory (the Higgs boson). Then they they devised tests. And finally, at the Large Hadron Collider, they performed these tests and examined the outcome.

god-particle

OK, this isn’t nearly funny enough. Somewhere out there is a good God Particle joke. The search goes on.

This is what is so impressive about the discovery of the Higgs. The BEH prediction could have failed. The physicists could have been wrong. At any point the data might have pointed in a different direction. But it didn’t. The Higgs is really there, the BEH field is an accurate representation of reality. We humans have glimpsed something true, and real, and right about the universe. That is what science can do. God particle 1, God (still) 0.

 

I was recently in Hitchcock Hall at The Ohio State University with my daughter. Displayed in the lobby is a jet engine used in the Boeing 737.

hitchcock hall display

To the left and the right of the jet engine were two mounted flatscreen monitors giving information about the engine and its operation. We started talking about these two inventions, which both in their own ways changed the world. My daughter made the point that in fact the flatscreen and everything it represents might be a more important invention than the jet engine, because it is the flatscreen and the explosion of information technology that has truly opened the world. It’s a good point. They’re both such amazing inventions, though, that I wanted to write a little about each of them.

How does a jet engine work?

What I’ll write here completely ignores the most important parts of a jet engine – the control systems, the sensors, the subtle ways in which we humans get the engine to do our bidding. Just as Wilbur and Orville Wright’s great contribution was not the physics of flight but the control of the airplane, the thing that makes a jet engine work is the way we monitor and control it. But I don’t know nearly enough to write anything about that.

What I do know is the basic physics of the engine. Much like your car’s engine, the jet engine burns fuel. As the fuel burns, heat is released, and gases expand. Unlike your car’s engine, though, the expanding gases in a jet engine don’t push on a piston. Instead, they push on the blades of a turbine, causing the turbine to spin around 1o,000 times a minute. The turbine is connected via a shaft to the huge fan at the front of the engine. This spinning fan pulls in air. Some of this air is compressed and pushed into the combustion chamber to support the burning fuel. Most of it, though, bypasses the combustion chamber and comes flying out the back of the engine, producing most of the engine’s thrust.

Here’s an animation from NASA showing the key pieces:

engineanimated

This air, mixed with burned fuel and air from the combustion chamber, flies out the back of the engine. That’s the action. The reaction is that the engine (and the aircraft it’s attached to) moves forward, into even more air. And the world flies.

OK, what about the flatscreen?

The same caveats apply. Ask me to build, or even fix, a flatscreen, and I’m lost. The true genius of modern flatscreen monitors lies not in the basic physics, but in the control, the logic, the functionality of the screen. And of these details I’m painfully unaware. Again, what I know is the physics.

Not long ago, televisions were electron guns. Electrons produced at the back of the television flew through a tube (the cathode ray tube) and struck the phosphors at the front of the screen, producing light. The technology worked, but the tubes were heavy, expensive, and used a lot of energy.

Today’s flatscreens depend on two technologies that sound similar but are in fact quite different. The light energy emitted from a flatscreen into your eye originates with light-emitting diodes, LEDs. The particular colors produced by the screen come from liquid crystal displays, or LCDs. Here’s a little about each.

LEDs are light bulbs that don’t use a filament. Instead, they use a sort of cliff, over which electrons fall. When electrons move from one material to another inside the LED, they fall into a lower energy state. You can imagine the electrons jumping off a cliff, shouting “cowabunga” or something as they fall, except the “shout” comes out as a piece of light, a photon. The difference in energy between the beginning material and the ending material determines the type of photon released. Phosphors in the LED turn those photons, usually of a very specific type, into a wide spectrum that our eyes see as white light.

band gap cliff

LCDs are completely different. These in a sense reverse the action of the phosphor inside the LED. By absorbing photons of many colors and emitting photons of just one color, each liquid crystal can make a single dot of a single color on the screen.

This is what an LCD flatscreen looks like up close.

This is what an LCD flatscreen looks like up close.

The amazing thing, though, is that each color cell in the screen can be (and is) turned on and off very quickly with just a small electric signal, allowing each tiny piece of the screen to produce a particular color at a particular time. When added together, all these on and off signals add up to the picture. And the world sees.

Two world-changing technologies on display side by side. Ain’t science grand?

 

This weekend I watched and read along with Sir Ian McKellan’s version of King Lear.

This is a big play. Not just a long play (it is listed here as the seventh longest of Shakespeare’s plays – Macbeth, by contrast, is seventh shortest), but a big play. I feel overwhelmed by all that happens.

As usual, Asimov gives me context and Harold Bloom gives me direction in gathering my thoughts on this play, and they both have much to say. And yet after reading them, and many other thoughts and reviews, I still feel that I don’t know this play. Is it just too big?

Love. Love is a central theme of this play, which seems a crazy statement for a play containing so much misery, so much betrayal, and in the end so much, and so “untimely”, as one character says , death. But it is love that makes the betrayal and the misery so painful to watch.

In the famous opening scene (“nothing will come of nothing” which would have made a good subtitle for this play – more on that later), Lear demands public pronouncements of love from his three daughters. Cordelia, the youngest and up until now Lear’s clear favorite, loves her father too much to lie to him as her older sisters have done. In telling the truth, that she loves Lear as a daughter should love a father, “nor more nor less,” she draws Lear’s wrath – and indirectly causes all the disaster that is about to befall the characters of the play.

lear and cordelia

Love also pervades the other plot in this big play. Edmund is the bastard son of Gloucester. In the McKellan play, the pain Edmund feels when his father talks quite inappropriately about Edmund’s origin (“there was good sport in his making”) is almost physical. It’s clear that what Edmund really wants is love, the sort of love his older and legitimate brother Edgar has always received from their father. In fact, the pain and humiliation that Edmund unfairly experiences in this first scene makes it difficult to view Edmund as a true villain, even after Edmund’s betrayal of his father leads to the horrible blinding Gloucester is given by the truly evil Cornwall. In fact, Cornwall pointedly removes Edmund from this scene, and one wonders whether Edmund, supposedly so cold-blooded and cruel, could have stood by and watched this torture.

king lear edmund

After Cornwall is killed by a servant – I think this is Shakespeare giving voice to every audience member who wants to destroy this eye-gouging monster the way you want to smash a bug with your boot – his wife Regan tries tempting Edmund with her love. At the same time Regan’s older sister Goneril (could Shakespeare have chosen a less attractive name?), wife of the “milk-livered” Albany, decides that she, too, loves Edmund. This, and not any dispute over land or power, sets the two sisters against one another, eventually leading to both their deaths.

When Edmund, mortally wounded by his brother, sees how powerful love can be, he has an amazing, and yet convincing, change of heart and tries to save Lear and Cordelia from the death that he has ordered for them. He dies without knowing that this reversal has failed; Cordelia is killed and Lear dies soon after.

In some ways one feels that Edgar, essentially the only survivor in the play, is the unluckiest character of all – left to clean up the mess of all this death and destruction. What good is all this love if all it leads to is death after death and misery upon misery? My only answer is the beautiful scene from Act Four, the scene where Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. Both Bloom and Asimov wrote that it is the most beautiful scene in all Shakespeare, and therefore in all the English language. With the possible exception of Huck Finn choosing to go to Hell, so far I agree. Though  I knew it was coming, the scene brought tears to my eyes. It was played marvelously by McKellan and Romola Garai, and the original words that Shakespeare chose are so incredibly understated that it almost doesn’t feel like Shakespeare. Yet it so, so works:

lear cordelia reconciled

 

KING LEAR

as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

CORDELIA
And so I am, I am.

KING LEAR
Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA
No cause, no cause.

It still makes me cry to read it now. All the death and misery of this play is worth this one moment. And maybe that’s the point.

But back to Edmund, and to nothing. Nothing will come of nothing. I can’t help but think, when I hear and read Lear’s line to Cordelia as she refuses to give him the false love he demands, of Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing. And that makes me think about atheism and the moment many years ago when I first read these lines from Edmund:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

And of course I was hooked. And then Edmund turned out to be the villain of the play. Pretty strong indictment of atheism there, right? Maybe, but maybe not. What I’m struck by in the play is the failure of any sort of real justice. Yes, Cornwall is killed by the “everyman”, but that everyman is then easily dispatched by Regan, and Cornwall’s death actually seems to fit in just fine to Regan’s plans. Gloucester was “blind” to his mistreatment of Edmund, but surely his own blinding was anything but justified by this, and of course neither Edgar nor Cordelia deserved any of the misery they received. Lear, it’s true, gets his comeuppance for his foolish treatment of his daughters, but it doesn’t ever feel like justice so much as the natural and predictable result of a foolish old man’s foolish choices. Is it justice to be burned by a fire when you stick your own hand in? Nothing would have come of nothing, but disaster comes of foolishness.

Lear realizes this in the storm. I looked hard in the storm scene for parallels to my favorite scene in Moby-Dick, but didn’t really find them. Here I see Lear not so much defying the gods as begging them to do him in, to end the pain and humiliation. But as usual the gods aren’t listening. Lear will have to make his own path. And, unlike Ahab, who fails to live up to the promise he shows in the storm, in the end Lear does find his way. And it truly is his way, his and Cordelia’s.

After he is blinded, Gloucester delivers as strong a renunciation of the gods as one is likely to find anywhere in Shakespeare:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

I suspect that Shakespeare saved this line for a play that is pointedly pre-Christian, feeling he could get away with it in that context but perhaps no other. But notice how well this sentiment fits with Macbeth, with Romeo and Juliet, even with Hamlet. There is no supernatural help to be found in Shakespeare – nothing will come of nothing. The only redemption that is ever found is that built, created, invented between thinking, feeling, wise and foolish humans. Nothing will come of nothing, but something – something real, something valuable, something that, for at least a little while, can hold back the howling storm – can come from us.

This weekend I read and watched the St. Louis Shakespeare Company production of The Taming of the Shrew.

The play left me feeling much as I felt after reading and watching The Merchant of Venice, and also brought up some of the same troubling thoughts as did Prospero’s treatment of Caliban in The Tempest.

In this play, a rich nobleman named Baptista is trying to sell off his two daughters, Katherine or Kate and Bianca. While Bianca is sweet and demure, Kate (the “shrew” of the title) is loud, obnoxious, and apparently in need of correction. While several suitors vie for Bianca, only Petruchio, a poor man looking for money, agrees to take on Kate the shrew (and the considerable fortune that comes with marrying into Baptista’s family, of course).

The rest of the play consists of slapstick humor bookended by cruel mental and physical humiliation of Kate by our “hero” Petruchio. In the end, Petruchio wins a bet by demonstrating that of the three new wives at a gathering (his own Kate, her sister Bianca, and a rich widow introduced late in the play), Kate proves to be the most obedient and subservient. Kate’s closing speech shows that her will has been entirely crushed – she offers to place her own, soft hand below her husband’s boot. Lovely.

Immediately I sought some sort of explanation. Both Isaac Asimov, in his Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, and Yale professor Harold Bloom, in his Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, made rather unconvincing excuses for this mess of a play. Bloom in particular seems to utterly disbelieve Kate’s own words. When Petruchio shows up late to the hasty marriage he himself arranged, Kate says,

I must forsooth be forc’d

To give my hand, oppos’d against my heart

Immediately after this passage, Bloom says,”(T)his is not the anxiety of an unwilling bride. Kate (is) authentically in love”

In other words, no means yes.

I don’t think any of this works. I think this play is exactly what it seems to be. It tells the story of a shrewish woman who is abused out of her shrewishness. It is about how a man should rule his wife and force her into the mold he desires. It is a symptom of a society that sees women as property, without a proper will of their own.

I think that later in his career Shakespeare will get better. He’ll learn more about people and he’ll become a more insightful critic of his own, often immoral, society. But here I think Shakespeare is just wrong.

More important, though, is our reaction to Shakespeare. We love Shakespeare for so many good reasons that it’s hard for us to deal with his moral failures, such as those in The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and here in The Taming of the Shrew. How do we deal with those failures? Either we do what Asimov and Bloom do – Shakespeare’s not really saying what you think he’s saying, he’s actually being ironic, he’s showing how Kate is really controlling the relationship, etc. – or we admit that Shakespeare was just wrong. Crucially, never do we say that Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s culture were actually right about women, about Jews, about slaves and servants. Why? Because we’re better now. Again in this play we see that compared to us, Shakespeare in some ways was a moral ignoramus. Compared to us. In other words, we’re getting better. And a moral disaster of a play like The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the progress we’ve made. It’s something to be proud of.

 

 

Father: “Now you can explain to your class how prime factorization works.”

Daughter: “No, they already got it. I’m the only one who didn’t understand.”

Father: “I don’t believe that for a second.”

Daughter: “I believe it for a million seconds.”

Father: “Really? How long is a million seconds?”

Daughter: “I don’t know.”

Father: “Let’s find out.”

Daughter: (looking at calculator) “How do you even write a million?”

Father: “One, zero zero zero, zero zero zero. Now how many seconds in a minute?”

Daughter: “Sixty.”

Father: “So divide a million by sixty. Now how many minutes in an hour?”

Daughter: “Sixty again. Now what?”

Father: “How many hours in a day?”

Daughter: “Twenty-four.”

Father: “So divide by twenty-four. What did you get.”

Daughter: “Woah. Eleven point five seven.”

Father: “So eleven and a half days.”

Daughter: “Wow, it seems like it’d be so much more than that. What about a billion? How do you write that?”

Father: “One, zero zero zero, zero zero zero, zero zero zero. So divide that by 60. 60, and 24, just like before.”

Daughter: “Woah.”

Father: “Wait, we’re not done yet. How many days in a year?”

Daughter: “Um . . . 365?”

Father: “Right, so divide that number by 365. What did you get?

Daughter: “Thirty-one?”

Father: “Thirty-one what?”

Daughter: “Days? No, years!”

Father: “Right!”

Daughter: “Wow. A billion seconds is 31 years, but a million seconds is only 11 days! Mind – pssssh – blown!”

Is there anything better than watching a child get excited about an idea?

OK, this is supposed to be a blog about science and wonder. I find myself more and more interested in other subjects, and so I write about them, too. But this time I do have a connection, of sorts.

What an amazing time we live in! I decided to take up another Shakespeare play, The Tempest. I was able to download not just The Tempest but the entire collected works of Shakespeare to my e-reader in a matter of seconds for the great sum of 99 cents. After reading through the play once (and, frankly, missing a lot of the intended action), I found a performance of The Tempest on YouTube by the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. While following along with the text on my Nook, I watched the entire 2+ hour performance on my laptop, pausing, rewinding, and replaying at my leisure. Has their ever been a better time than this?

Miranda

Miranda

So on to the play. The Tempest is a  troublesome play for a modern reader, mostly due to the play’s most interesting character, the man-monster Caliban. It is so tempting, as a modern reader, to see Caliban with modern eyes – as the misunderstood, abused slave who can and will be redeemed. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the character just won’t allow it. The Tempest is filled with bewitching magic, lovely poetry, burning sexual desire, and some truly funny scenes. But it is not, and cannot be transformed into, a treatise on the evils of slavery. Shakespeare portrays Caliban as an ungrateful slave who turns on his master with an ill-conceived and immediately doomed plan, then has Caliban beg for forgiveness and gratefully re-enter the master-slave relationship. One simply cannot escape the plain meaning of the text.

Prospero

Prospero

Shakespeare’s problem is that he’s just too good. Just as with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, just as with Iago and Macbeth and Edmund and probably other villains that I’ve yet to encounter, in Caliban Shakespeare has created a character who at times elicits our sympathy. Here is Caliban’s most memorable quote (from Act 3, Scene 2)

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

Caliban

Caliban

 

If the man-monster can have thoughts like these, then are we really meant to dispise him? Why does Prospero hate Caliban so? Well, Shakespeare gives the reason – Caliban’s attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and his boasting of it later:

“O ho, O ho! Would’st had been done!/Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/This isle of Calibans.”

I’m beginning to believe more and more that Shakespeare is interesting not so much in what he gives us from the 1600s but in how we interpret Shakespeare today. I’ve written already about the wholly modern, and un-Shakespearean, twist that Patrick Steward gives Macbeth in delivering the Scot’s last line. I love that ending, because it twists Shakespeare’s meaning in a way that is, somehow, still true to the struggle about which Shakespeare was writing, the struggle between the old world of revenge and violence and the new world of ideas and justice. This is the very struggle that Steven Pinker writes about in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and both here and in The Tempest I think we see a glimpse into the very struggle about which Pinker writes.

According to Harold Bloom in Invention of the Human, Caliban has become the politically-driven focus of many modern versions of The Tempest, and it is unfortunate.

“(Caliban) has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at this view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.”

I understand what Bloom is saying here, but I take a different meaning from this need to actually follow Shakespeare’s words. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare creates a deeply interesting character in Shylock, but any reading that papers over the blatant antisemitism of the play misses something crucial.  In the same way, the interesting character of Caliban cannot cover up the fact that Shakespeare, a man of his time, had an unfortunate view of race, station, class, and slavery. To try to cover that up that error in Shakespeare’s morality misses something crucial.

Shakespeare was an amazing writer, but his morals were in many ways the morals of late 16th-early 17th century England. Just as we have made scientific and technological progress since those times, as Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we’ve made moral progress. as well. Just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants to see further into the natural world, we stand on the shoulders of those who made slavery, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia the moral wrongs we recognize them as today.

We know the forced conversion of Shylock is a great evil; we know that the continued enslavement of Caliban is a great evil. We can look back now and see that even a writer as talented and sophisticated as Shakespeare didn’t know, yet we do. We’re getting better, one small step at a time. And that, maybe more than anything else, is the positive message to take from the troublesome play The Tempest.

Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell in a famous series on PBS. I’ve listened to these interviews again and again, and I’ve quoted them many times in this blog. While Campbell’s philosophy was the point of the program, I also got to know a bit about Bill Moyers via these interviews. He’s a religious person, but isn’t afraid to explore his vision of God. I respect that, at least a little.

I recently caught Moyers interview with Neil de Grasse Tyson. Tyson does a great job. Frankly, I wish he’d been able to capture some of this improvised energy in his version of Cosmos. Tyson is at his best when he’s teaching – not reading from a script, but actively teaching another human being, as he is here with Moyers. And Tyson is a great teacher.

moyers tyson

But that’s not what I want to write about here.

In the second part of the interview, I think Tyson misses an opportunity.

Moyers – “But do you have any sympathy for people who seem to feel, only feel safe in the vastness of the universe you describe in your show if they can infer a personal God who makes it more hospitable to them, cares for them?”

Tyson – “In this, what we tell ourselves is a free country, which means you should have freedom of thought, I don’t care what you think. I just don’t. Go think whatever you want. Go ahead. Think that there’s one God, two Gods, ten Gods, or no Gods. That is what it means to live in a free country. The problem arises is if you have a religious philosophy that is not based on objective realities that you then want to put in a science classroom. Then I’m going to stand there and say, “No, I’m not going to allow you in the science classroom.” I’m not telling you what to think, I’m just telling you in the science class, “You’re not doing science. This is not science. Keep it out.” That’s where I, that’s when I stand up. Otherwise, go ahead. I’m not telling you how to think.”

Of course. Certainly we want no thought police. Think what you want. But thoughts have consequences. As Robin Williams’ character says in Dead Poets’ Society, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Here’s an idea: We’re not safe. A religion that makes us feel safe is dangerous.

The universe is a dangerous place. Worlds collide. Planets are wiped out. Disasters, both natural and human-made, can and do happen. Problems are inevitable. But, as David Deutsch says again and again, problems are soluble. The next disaster is already out there, coming our way, and the only thing between us and that disaster is our knowledge. Not God. Not some cosmic safety net. Not even a security blanket. We, and we alone, can protect us from the very real dangers that are out there.

We need more knowledge. We need to understand the universe better, so that we can control it better. Otherwise it will, without a doubt, kill us. It isn’t pleasant. It isn’t uplifting. But it is crucial information.

That’s what I wish Tyson had said.

 

 

I love Shakespeare.

I’ve been having a great time reading and watching plays, reading and listening to Yale professor Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, and reading Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.

Reading Asimov’s chapter on Hamlet last night, I came across the passage in which Hamlet compares Polonius, father of Ophelia, to Jephthah, a character in the Old Testament Book of Judges. How had I missed this story before?

If you’ve followed my writing, you know how I feel about the much more famous story of Abraham and Isaac. The story of Jephthah is in many ways even more horrible, and sheds new, horrible light on Abraham. Jephthah goes off to war, promising that if God grants him victory he will sacrifice to God the first thing he sees upon returning home. Any fan of Greek tragedy knows what will happen next; Jephthah indeed is victorious, and who should greet him upon his return but his only child, a daughter who remains unnamed. I’ll call her Pam.

Pam dances out the door to greet her father, but remembering his vow to God Jephthah instantly rips his clothes in agony. Seriously, whom did he expect would greet him at his door? A goat? The neighbor’s kid?

Jepthahs Daughter-640px

Pam, being the dutiful daughter, quickly learns of her father’s rash vow, and tells him he must keep it. She asks for two months to go off into the mountains to “mourn her virginity.”

Um, OK. I’d be using that two months to find myself a new place to live. But that’s not the O.T. way. Pam returns and Jephthah does what he promised to do. So long Pam.

Upon reading this story I instantly went to the apologists’ web sites. Surely there must be some other explanation. Why would God have made such a big deal about outlawing child sacrifice only to have it practiced here? Sure enough, the apologists were on the job. Parsing language and finding double meanings in words (and really means or and so on), they’ve decided that Jephthah didn’t sacrifice Pam. Instead, he simply forced her into a convent for the rest of her life – hence the “mourning her virginity” bit.

Well, OK. Though the Jewish interpretation is the straightforward one – Jephthah killed his daughter – and the Christian interpretation was the same for over a thousand years, sometime in the Middle Ages someone decided to start whitewashing the event. OK, fine. I’ll give it to you. If you really, really insist, Jephthah didn’t kill his daughter. Instead, he forced her to give up any sort of life she might have wanted. Later in the chapter, it is stated that the women of the area mourn for Pam’s lost liberty four times a year. That doesn’t sound like someone who lived a happy, well-adjusted life. What’s lost in the whitewashing of this story is that even the sanitized, sacrifice-free version is a terrible, terrible story of someone who, through no fault of her own, had her life destroyed by someone who was supposed to love and protect her. Way to go, God.

Once again, we see two contrasting views of life. In one, we are free agents. We make our own choices. We find our own truth. In another, we’re playthings of a capricious and bloodthirsty deity who cares more for rules and regulations than individuals. The story is one of obedience over free expression. Isn’t Pam wonderful to give up all Earthly pleasures just for the sake of fulfilling her father’s poorly thought-out vow? Isn’t it great of Jephthah, who later would be celebrated as a man of integrity, to live up to his promise to God, no matter the cost to anyone else? In the same way that Abraham passed his God test by proving his own spinelessness, Jephthah passed by demonstrating that nothing and no one matters in the face of a meaningless promise to an invisible sky-daddy.

We humans can do better than this.

Shakespeare, of course, turned the story on its head, showing Ophelia utterly destroyed by the three men in her life who mattered to her – her father Polonius, her brother Laertes, and of course Hamlet himself. While in the O.T. the story is some sort of triumph of servile obedience, in Hamlet the story is the saddest of tragedies, in which the only decent character in the play is reduced to a lifeless corpse over which a dumber-than-rocks brother and a self-absorbed ex-lover can shout at one another.

ophelia's funeral

I love Shakespeare.

I was in college when I first saw Robin Williams’ Dead Poets’ Society. I was struggling with my future. Did I really want to become a teacher? Why would someone who so hated high school willingly return – not just for four years, but for life? What was a teacher, anyway?

John Keating awoke something deep inside me. “When you read don’t just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think.” I knew immediately what kind of a teacher I wanted to be.

Later I discovered John Dewey. Lev Vygotsky. Jean Piaget. Teaching would never again be about the passive transmission of knowledge. Teaching would forever after be about creation, discovery, significance. It wouldn’t always be easy. It wouldn’t often fit into the standard curriculum. But it would be what mattered. It would be what they would remember.

Not filling a bucket, but lighting a candle. Inspiration – the power that comes not from following an algorithm, but instead finding your own way, making your own discoveries, coming to your own understanding. Building castles in your mind.

We lost Robin Williams today. John Keating was not Robin Williams. He was a character in a movie. But he made a difference to me. I will miss him.

“Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

dead-poets-society-reelgood

 

 

 

I’ve posted in a few places that I consider myself to be both an atheist and an anti-theist. I think that deserves an explanation.

By atheist I mean I am aware of no evidence for the supernatural, neither a god nor fairies nor magic spells. In fact, it is my sneaking suspicion that the supernatural by definition cannot exist. The mere fact of existence simply means what we think of as natural is incomplete and in need of revision. If, for instance, fairies were demonstrated to be real, that wouldn’t make them supernatural. We’d simply need to expand our laws of nature to admit fairies. I’m not holding my breath, though.

Note that atheism as I’m defining it doesn’t say “there is no God.” It simply says that if evidence for a being fitting the description were to one day show up, we’d need to redefine our notion of the natural world to take such a being into account.

Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I actually disagree. I think, when confronted with so-called “magic”, we humans would investigate it and find out how the magic works, making it part of our understanding of the world.

Not only, then, is there no evidence. There in a sense can be no evidence. This sort of atheism is, frankly, kind of boring.

Much more interesting is anti-theism. In doing some digging, I’ve found lots of negative reaction to this word. For instance, people compare it to anti-Semitism, which carries connotations of hatred toward particular people.

I want to re-define anti-theism and anti-theist for my own purposes. So first let me state what anti-theism is not. My anti-theism does not involve a wish to impose a non-religious mindset on others by fiat. Freedom of thought is perhaps the greatest freedom of all; I would not (even if I could) make religion (or anything else) a thought-crime.

I would also not restrict the practice of religion (except as it infringes on the rights of others – your belief in your god should not keep me from buying wine on Sundays).

Finally, my anti-theism does not mean wiping religion from history. We need to understand ourselves, where we come from and how we got here. Understanding the way religions have molded and shaped societies, for good and ill, is a part of that learning. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is a masterpiece, even if it is a portrait of two beings who never existed.

the-creation-of-adam

What I do mean is this. While I see no evidence for God (that’s my atheism), even if I did, I would not worship such a being. It’s almost a shame that the God of the Bible doesn’t seem to be there, because I believe to oppose such a bully would be a worthy way to spend one’s life.

And while I don’t ever want to impose thoughts on others, I do believe that if through gentle persuasive argument I could convince others to become anti-theists (maybe even more than atheists), I could help make the world a little better.

Not that most people who believe in God are immoral; quite the contrary. I think, though, that their morality comes from someplace deeper than their belief in God. Consider that a much greater percentage of people believed in God in the Middle Ages, yet we as a society are far more moral today.

I do think, though, that belief in God keeps some otherwise very good people from making a few obvious leaps. Gay marriage is a clear example. Stem cell research is another. Pressure on our friends in Israel to stop taking land that isn’t theirs and blowing up children when their parents complain is a third.

So here’s my effort at gentle persuasion. Suppose we discovered that the stories of the Old Testament were true. Abraham really was commanded to slaughter Isaac, then was stopped at the last moment and richly rewarded for his blind obedience. The Angel of Death really did, on God’s orders, kill all of Egypt’s first-born. God really did mess with Job, really did confound language at Babel, really did all the other horrible things attributed to Him in the Bible.

Now imagine we discovered the “God” of all these stories to be a space alien using advanced technology (Clarke’s “magic”) to control and manipulate us. How would we feel about such an alien?

I think we’d not only judge this alien to be an immoral psychopath, we’d see this false god as a threat to humanity’s very survival. We’d fight back.

Now, if this is so, what changes when we imagine God to lie outside the laws of nature? If the concept of a powerful space alien somehow manipulating and killing us raises our ire, then why shouldn’t a powerful but supernatural God do the same?

When faced with a bully, aren’t we better off standing up for ourselves? Even if, later on, we discover the bully’s not really there at all?

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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