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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“What does God need with a starship?” – James T. Kirk
“I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.” – Jean Luc Picard (speaking to the omnipotent alien Q)
I’d intended to write about Othello and Paradise Lost together, but after the stunning character of Iago, quite frankly Satan was a disappointment. I read the two works together based on Harold Bloom’s claim that Milton borrowed much from Shakespeare’s Iago in creating his own anti-hero. While I see some general resemblance, in all honesty Satan stands out only because every other character in the poem (God, Christ, Eve, Adam, the various angels) is so ponderous.
Perhaps Milton would have done better if he’d had better material with which to work.
Harold Bloom and others have called Paradise Lost an early work of science fiction. True or not, let’s examine it from just such a standpoint. I started this post with three quotes which I think will help frame the discussion about the subject matter of Paradise Lost.
First, let’s do away with the notion of the supernatural. Why? Because I don’t understand it. I don’t know the rules; I don’t know how to make moral judgments about things which don’t obey the laws of our universe. As Clarke points out, though, if the technology is advanced enough, it looks just like magic.
So let’s consider God, Christ, Satan, and all the other angels (fallen or not) as incredibly advanced aliens living in the universe. These aliens are not quite immortal, but might as well be, as their technology gives them the power to heal, regenerate, even back up their own personalities and reboot in case of trauma. God isn’t quite omniscient, but has a huge supply of information with which to predict future events. Worlds are created, not through magic, but through the application of enormously powerful technology, including the ability to create artificial intelligences (angels and, finally, humans)
Given this framework the story of Paradise Lost becomes this: A powerful leader named God rules over other powerful entities – the angels. Satan/Lucifer is one of these entities. One day God decides he needs a right-hand man, so raises up another entity, Christ, to rule at his side. Lucifer is disappointed that Christ has been given this promotion and not him, so he gathers his followers and rebels against God.
Unfortunately for Lucifer, Christ proves to be far more powerful than he, and Lucifer (now Satan) and his minions are cast out of heaven. Satan rallies his troops and convinces them that all is not lost.
Around this same time, God creates a new world containing two adorable little morons known as Adam and Eve, living in a paradise known as Eden. Feeling the sting of the angels’ rebellion, God needs something new to occupy himself with. He wants Adam and Eve to adore and worship him, but he knows that such adoration would be meaningless without an alternative. So he proposes a little test. Into Eden God places a tree, which he cleverly names the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He puts only one proscription on Adam and Eve. They may not eat the fruit of that tree, or else they will die.
This is where things start to get weird (!). God, with his enormous information supply, deduces that of course Adam and Eve will fail his test. He seems rather melancholy about this, so Christ steps in and offers himself as a sacrifice to atone for Adam and Eve’s misbehavior.
This of course makes no sense at all, but more on the morality of it later.
Poor Satan, lacking apparently God’s near-omniscient knowledge, tempts Eve quite easily and causes her to do the one thing forbidden her. God, feigning anger (since, of course, he knew this was coming), reveals that when he said Adam and Eve would die from eating the fruit, what he actually meant was he would kill them by removing them from Eden and preventing them from eating of the Tree of Life – apparently the only thing protecting the two fragile humans from the cold, cold world.
When seen as a science fiction story, there’s so much wrong with this. First, why did God not create Adam and Eve with knowledge of Good and Evil? It can’t be because such knowledge would make them imperfect; apparently God himself, and Christ, too, possess such knowledge. If Adam and Eve had possessed such knowledge, maybe they could have resisted Satan’s tricks. Second, why, once Adam and Eve had obtained such knowledge, did God withdraw the Tree of Life? Third, what’s this crazy Christ story? Why would Christ’s death somehow nullify Adam and Eve’s misbehavior? It makes no sense, but hearkens back to the idea of scapegoating, literally blaming a goat or some other animal for your troubles and killing it. Again, what’s the mechanism? It makes no sense.
And what does it mean for Christ to die and then come back to life? Didn’t we establish that these entities are essentially immortal? If he’s got a regeneration card in his deck, then what did the death even mean?
But the biggest problem isn’t with the plot. The gaping chasm in the whole story is the morality of it. So God created Adam and Eve. Big deal. That doesn’t give God the right to rule them, any more than parents have the right to rule their children (and make no mistake, created artificial intelligences, which is what we have to consider Adam and Eve in the story, are exactly like created children). A parent who wants forever to shield his children from knowedge of the world, knowledge that the parent apparently already possesses, is abusive. In this view, Satan did us a favor by helping us to break free of this eternal prison.
Of course the story (both the original in Genesis and Milton’s poem) is metaphor. Let’s instead look at what really happened in the history of humanity. Slowly evolving from forest apes, our early ancestors experienced a life of constant fear, pain, and death. Natural selection had equipped us only poorly for a harsh environment, giving us few natural assets. But we did have a brain.
Using our brains, we slowly gathered information, and learned to pass it on to our children. Soon humans were living outside of our genes; unlike animals that could survive only in those environments for which they’d been adapted, humans could take their environment with them. We learned to make clothes to keep us warm. We learned to build tools to act as the sharp teeth and claws our bodies lacked. We learned to tame fire. Far from causing our fall, knowledge of the world is the only thing that saved us.
Many cultures have believed in a fall from grace and have longed to return us to that nearly-forgotten golden age. In fact, there was no Eden, there was no perfect, trouble-free time. We are our only hope, and it is only through gathering knowledge, via every tree we can find, that we have any hope of surviving.
Now that would be a poem worth reading.
We’re better now.
Yes, we’re far from perfect.
And in some parts of the world we’re even worse.
But the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment is remarkable.
In my effort to broaden myself beyond just science and Shakespeare, I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book that drives home for me just how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go, and how writers like Hardy, in fits and starts, and maybe despite what they think they’re doing, help us get there.
Briefly, Tess Durbeyfield is a young peasant girl in late 19th century England. Her parents are poor, as are her prospects. Through some convoluted storytelling Tess finds herself involved with one Alec d’Urberville, who proceeds to harrass, bully, and finally rape our heroine.
OK, there’s some controversy, purposely engendered by Hardy, about whether Tess was truly raped. Hardy’s Victorian prose is so fastidiously non-sexual that you’re never quite sure what happened between Tess and her assailant – only that Tess got away from Alec as quickly as she could afterwards, and that their time together resulted in a pregnancy.
Tess never communicates her news to Alec, and soon after the baby is born he dies. Yet that isn’t close to the most tragic event of the book.
All the later tragedy spews forth from one Angel Clare, a non-believing son of a minister. Angel falls in love with Tess and, despite her protestations that she’s not good enough for him, essentially browbeats her into finally marrying him. Then, on their wedding night (after Angel divulges his own checkered sexual past) in a fit of conscience Tess reveals all. Angel is repulsed, declaring that Tess isn’t who he thought she was, and immediately runs off to Brazil. Really.
The rest of the story doesn’t bear repeating, though I have to say the final chapters surprised me as much as if our protagonists had been abducted by space aliens and whisked across the Milky Way (that’s not what happens, but almost as crazy).
Here’s my point. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a book about an immoral society. I’m not talking about a society that allows rape. In fact, for my argument it doesn’t even matter if Tess was actually raped or not (by the way, she was. So stop arguing).
No, I’m talking about a society that condemns Tess for losing her virginity and giving birth to a baby out of wedlock. Of course, many people through history, and sadly even some today, remain confused about what morality is. They think morality is all about controlling behavior based on some ancient book or set of norms. That’s not morality. As Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature:
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me . . . I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special because I’m me and you’re not.
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives . . .
If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it.
TBAoON, pp 230-231
Through the skill of the storyteller, we can all see ourselves as Tess. We can see how we can be thrust by circumstances into unhappy situations, how we can struggle with conflicting pressures, emotions, loyalties, and desires. We can develop empathy. And we can, via this empathy and via our own ability to reason, see that a society that punishes young women so harshly and so unfairly is by its very nature immoral.
Well, any lunkhead can see that. (Though, as Pinker points out, plenty of lunkheads in the past didn’t see it. And as my links above show, plenty of lunkheads who are not children of the Enlightenment still don’t see it today.)
What I find more interesting are the contradictions we see in Hardy’s book – contradictions that bring us closer to the question I’m most interested in – how did we get better?
First, let’s consider Angel Clare. It’s saying something that most readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles hate Angel, mild-mannered and (mostly) peaceful suitor of Tess, at least as much as they hate the rapist Alec. Angel, the child of a preacher and his devout and devoted wife, is probably about as close to an atheist as Hardy could get away with writing in late 19th century Victorian England. While it’s never clear that Angel’s lack of belief is the cause of his immoral treatment of Tess, Hardy makes the point that Angel’s parents, because of their faith-based willingness to forgive sinners, would have advocated for Tess if only they’d known the truth.
I don’t know much about Hardy’s views on religion, though his references to pagan and natural spirituality throughout Tess are suggestive. But I think here Hardy is falling back on old fear and superstition. As religion gradually fell out of favor (a fall that continues to this day), many feared the consequences. I think Hardy is writing Angel’s character as a cautionary tale – without our religious mercy, we are in danger of becoming cold to the messiness of real life. Angel’s lack of belief doesn’t free him – rather, it traps him in a worldview devoid of forgiveness.
(Not that Tess needed forgiven; she was raped! Also, even if she wasn’t, Angel, you just admitted his own infidelity, you hypocrite – so get over yourself! OK, rant over.)
This is hogwash. One of the primary tenets of Enlightenment humanism is that people are fallible. No knowledge is absolute, and therefore no person’s actions are perfect. We all need to forgive one another because we’re all capable of error (again, not that Tess made an error!) If Angel didn’t absorb this lesson, it’s in spite of Enlightenment values, not because of them.
Second, consider the world Tess inhabited. It’s pretty clear that Hardy has strong views about the “old” ways and the “new” ones. Reading about Tess’s experience as a humble milkmaid on a simple dairy farm, one hears the word “bucolic” echoing around as if a thesaurus threw up all over the page. It’s ideal. It’s simple. It’s non-mechanistic. It’s human.
On the other hand, when Tess is forced by Angel’s rejection to take work on a mechanized farm, the images Hardy paints are straight from Hell – fiery furnaces, dangerous, dehumanizing, and exhausting tasks that seem never to end, a heartless supervisor who cares only for profits.
Well, fine. While I suspect that pre-industrial farm life was hardly a walk in the park (the word bucolic always makes me think of catching horrible diseases from animal poop, so maybe I’m biased), there’s no doubt that modernization pressed many workers into harsh and dangerous employment. But what else did it bring?
One technology that did show a precocious increase in productivity before the Industrial Revolution was book production.
-TBAoON, page 219
Pinker then goes on to describe how increased availability of books, due to mechanical and industrial methods of production, let to greater literacy, which in turn led to greater demand for books, which led to more and more reading. And what were we reading? Novels! Novels that put us in the minds of people different from us. Aristocrats read about the lives of the peasants they’d never known. Whites read about the experiences of black slaves. And men found out what it might be like to be a teenage girl in a society that would shame her for being raped and condemn her for bearing the child of her rapist.
Hardy seems to be saying that our modern world, dehumanizing and merciless, is making us less and less moral. I say he’s got it exactly backwards. We were always immoral – judgmental, short on empathy, more interested in codes and obedience than in rights and freedom. It was the values of the Enlightenment, and the advances in wealth and prosperity that it brought, that allowed us our first tentative escapes from the immoral world of our ancestors. No, that world is not perfect. Yes, modernization can feel dehumanizing. But we can make that better. We can reason with our bosses, and with the government, that better working conditions make for more efficient workers. We can argue that, because you = me, we all deserve safe factories, safe food, better health care, universal education, and free public libraries full of books that expand our reason and our empathy. We are getting better, and it’s because of the Enlightenment and the values it engendered, not in spite of them.
I also say that Tess of the d’Urbervilles would have been better with some space aliens.
Next I’ll be reading Shakespeare’s Othello, another tale about the complications of female purity. That will lead me on to a re-visiting of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I faked my way through some 30 years ago. This time, for real.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
And so I am, I am.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I love Shakespeare.
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.
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?
Now that I no longer work at COSI, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me making this story public.
For as long as I can remember, the wearing and displaying of crucifixes has bothered me. Whatever your feelings about the historicity of religions, make no mistake: crucifixion was real, as was a horrible method of not just killing someone but delivering a tortuous, humiliating public death (and is the origin of our word excruciating).
I always wondered what people would think if some group began wearing electric chairs or guillotines as ornament.
In the mid-90’s, in perhaps my second year as the first floor volunteer coordinator at COSI, I convinced the powers-that-be that we needed an area-specific award for volunteers who had gone above and beyond the call of duty. I suggested calling it the Hypatia award, explaining only that Hypatia had been a female scientist who had given her life to science. The PCness of an award named for a woman was irresistible, and the Hypatia Award was born.
Of course, those of you who know the story of Hypatia know what i left out.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had an enormous influence on me, and I always remembered his story of Hypatia:
Whether the details of Hypatia’s story are historically accurate, and there is controversy about that, it is certainly a lovely story, and Sagan told it with a passion and intensity that burned into my 12-year-old brain.
A decade and a half later, I still remembered the story. I was allowed to select the symbol for the Hypatia Award, and I of course chose a seashell, the symbol of Hypatia’s martyrdom at the hands of Saint Cyril’s murderous mob.
The funny thing was, the Hypatia Award became wildly popular with COSI volunteers. They prized it, and worked hard to impress me and the rest of the team in order to earn it. The recipients wore their seashells proudly on their hour ribbons. Eventually, the other areas at COSI adopted similar awards for their volunteers.
It always gave me great pleasure (yes, I admit it) to see volunteers, some of them homeschoolers from rather fundamentalist religious backgrounds, proudly sporting this symbol of Hypatia’s martyrdom. Of course I generally kept this part of the story to myself. Until now.
I know, I know, I’m a terrible person, tricking people into wearing a pagan crucifix. I feel bad about it every day.
OK, if you read my last post you maybe think I’m insane. Maybe you thought so anyhow. But consider . . .
My radio really did turn on all by itself. That’s not all that surprising, even though it’s never done that before. It has, on many occasions recently, switched from Aux to broadcast right in the middle of a great audiobook passage, causing me to, well, not be kind to my native tongue. So clearly there’s some electrical trouble a-brewing in my onboard communications system.
So here’s my question: what if that had happened at a different moment? What if, instead of gooey, cheesy, pepperoni-ey 😉 pizza, there was an ad for Jesus? (What, Jesus doesn’t buy radio ads? Doesn’t he believe in free markets?) Or a Billy Graham crusade? (What, he’s retired? Well, his son’s still at it, right?) Or some such thing? Would I have been shaken to my core?
I’d like to think not. I’d like to believe that I’d stick to my ideals. Supernatural explanations are always bad explanations. It has nothing to do with odds. It has to do with the nature of explanation. Unlikely things have to happen sometimes – otherwise they wouldn’t be unlikely, they’d be impossible.
Something caused my radio to turn on. That something certainly has a physics explanation – most likely a pretty boring one. The easiest person for me to fool is myself.
So play on, 97.1 The Fan. Anybody else hungry for pizza?
I’d like to tell you about what you might call a mystical experience.
Tonight I was driving on the freeway to get Chinese takeout for dinner. I was in a philosophical sort of mood, so instead of listening to an audiobook, as I usually to, I was talking to myself. The topic was the following: Is it a logical truism that the supernatural cannot exist?
(Like ya do)
The argument, which isn’t crucial for the story, briefly is this. If something exists, it is real. Therefore it has properties (at least the property of existence) that can be characterized. This makes it part of the natural world, and therefore not supernatural. Maybe I’ll write more about this later, but back to the story.
These thoughts got me thinking about God. It seemed to me that the way to think about God was not in the abstract, but inductively, in a practical way. In the same way we can know there is no technological civilization on Venus, we can equally know that there are many gods that do not exist. The sorts of gods, for instance, that suddenly appear before us and say, “I’m God. Worship me.”
Unless, I thought to myself, I’m so blinded by my unbelief that such gods are all around and I just don’t notice them.
The moment I had this thought, my car went over a bump on the freeway. Suddenly my radio turned on all by itself.
What was on the radio?
Are you ready for this, all you unbelievers? It was . . .
a Donato’s commercial!
Mine eyes hath been openéd.
All hail pepperoni and cheese!
OK. Maybe it was a near-misstical experience.
Oh, oh. Didya see what I did there?