Tag: science

Self-operating Napkin by Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg Machine

The other day in school, we talked to King Sturdy about potential and kinetic energy, then showed him an OK Go video to illustrate. Today, he had his heart set on building a Rube Goldberg Machine. After some debate, we decided that catapulting a stone was the work that the machine would aim to accomplish. Here’s how it went.

1. Announcement of the project; catapulting

2. Let’s take a closer look at that

3. Slo-mo. Trebuchet attacks the tracks; no catapulting

4. Slo-mo. Train dancing. Catapulting

5. Not so much

6. Slo-mo. Catapulting with leaping

7. Slo-mo. Catapulting with monster dance

Oldest-known image of a dragon

Myth, Science and Unicorn Mind

In the first chapter of Before Philosophy, Henri and Henriette Frankfort pointed out that the language of myth, which they called “speculative thought,” isn’t so common these days, because science.

In our own time speculative thought finds its scope more severely limited than it has been at any other period. For we possess in science another instrument for the interpretation of experience, one that has achieved marvels and retains its full fascination.

As a result:

We do not allow speculative thought, under any circumstances, to encroach upon the sacred precincts of science. It must not trespass on the realm of verifiable fact; and it must never pretend to a dignity higher than that of working hypotheses, even in the fields in which it is permitted some scope.

Science is cool and I like it a lot. But it’s also sort of monopolized the search for truth, and that’s a problem.

For the ancients, science was no obstacle, because they hadn’t invented it yet. So “speculation found unlimited possibilities for development; it was not restricted by a scientific (that is, a disciplined) search for truth,” the Frankforts said.

Well so what?

If after reading that, you’re thinking “speculation” sounds pretty useless and science is an obvious improvement, take a pause. Any paradigm looks dumb when viewed from the comfort of some other paradigm. After all, you’re judging it by rules it never set out to follow.

Let’s explore a different way to see it. Let’s look at how the author and Archdruid John Michael Greer described the lifecycle of human civilizations. (This is going to come full-circle in about two shakes.)

In Greer’s view, the story of a civilization plays out in three broad phases:

  1. Unicorn time reminds me of what the Frankforts are talking about: a world teeming with elusive, emotionally-charged images of truth, which don’t all fit together, yet compel you deeply: hints of something real but inexpressible.
  2. Phoenix time is defined by the effort to tie up all those loose ends and reconcile the contradictions into a rich, coherent tapestry, where concrete images and abstract ideas interpenetrate in “an exuberant cultural and intellectual flowering.”
  3. Dragon time is when truth is guarded and catalogued in a detailed but rigid system that leaves no room for fresh visions, if they contradict what it’s already confirmed. It’s a time when abstract concepts “dominate human consciousness and suppress magic — for a time.”

Here’s Greer again:

Take a few minutes to think about these three mythological images, and to relate them to the historical periods to which I’ve assigned them; among other things, you might just begin to grasp some sense of the power of emotionally charged mental representations as a tool of thinking.

Which is exactly the Frankforts’ point.

Dragons are a drag for the other magical beasts

We live in Dragon time. I should probably say upfront that there’s nothing wrong with dragons.

In fact, if you’re creative, you probably experience all three phases whenever you’re making a new piece of work. The expansive phase, when inspiration flows freely and new ideas spring up, impalpable and fleeting. The working phase, when you’re bending those ideas toward one another, trying to make sense out of the living brew. The polishing phase, when you’re cementing what you’ve created into a finished piece and doing your best not to kill the original spark in so doing.

Where art is concerned, each phase is useful and necessary. I expect the same goes for civilizations. For worldviews though, I prefer the Unicorn. Maybe a Unicorn that’s moving toward a Phoenix. Or a Phoenix that’s in love with a Unicorn.

In any case, when the Dragon voice of modern empiricism laughs at speculative thought, looks down on ancient and tribal worldviews, and claims exclusive access to truth and knowledge, I find it constraining, dulling. When the Frankforts describe the primitive worldview of the ancient Egyptians, I feel I’ve come home.

I see value in speculative thought. Not in place of science, but alongside it, concurrently and without conflict.

As I said at the outset, science is cool. It’s invaluable. I love how clean and incontrovertibly-elucidating it has the potential to be. But when its fundamentalist disciples — those who treat it like the only thing of value, hammering it into the shape of some weird religion — use science to dismiss and ridicule the speculative thought of primitive mind, I find that just a bit outrageous.

There is extraordinary value to be found in these other paradigms. Bottom line, Dragons are not the only magical beast in the forest.

Janie Dutcher greets wolves

Science Can Be Personal

In an earlier post, I started compiling the passages I like best from the first chapter of Before Philosophy, because there’s something in there that strikes a chord and I want to tease out what it is.

I left off with the notion of “Thou.”

To summarize, when you interact with the world in an I/Thou relationship, you’re participating in a reciprocal connection with a living world whose phenomena are all essentially personal. Which basically how I see things. In this post, I’d like to square that with the worth and usefulness of science.

There’s a conflict here, or at least there seems to be

Because “‘Thou’ is a live presence,” when you’re interacting with the world as such, each phenomenon that you experience is unique — not just another instance of an overarching physical law. Not interchangeable, but individual. While science says, “We have observed this set of humans to behave in this way under these conditions,” the I/Thou way of seeing says, “My Aunt Lida isn’t a statistic.” Here are the Frankforts:

“‘Thou’ has the unprecedented, unparalleled, and unpredictable character of an individual, a presence known only insofar as it reveals itself. ‘Thou’, moreover, is not merely contemplated or understood but is experienced emotionally in a dynamic reciprocal relationship.”

You could say that’s the opposite of science. For example: classing objects into groups and controlling them for variables, that’s an important and useful process. Repeating a study to see if you can replicate its results, that’s a crucial way to test a conclusion. But when you’re interacting with the world as Thou, it’s impossible to treat things interchangeably like that, to construct abstract theories to explain the behavior of an individual whose nature is essentially unrepeatable.

Then again, the problem may be less important than it seems

Your Aunt Lida isn’t a statistic. Still, you can conduct a study on her demographic and learn some things about why her life looks the way it does. You’re not denying her personhood or her individuality. You’re merely respecting the fact that she shares certain things in common with others, that those things are knowable. That there are larger patterns involved.

The Frankforts said that “modern man” views the world primarily as It. They also said that “he” holds science to be sacrosanct. But I’m going to push back against the idea that you’re obligated to treat the world as It in order to do science — that you have to objectify your objects. I think you can respect the life of the world, of existence at large, acknowledge its personhood and treat it as Thou, while also doing science.

Didn’t Jim and Jamie Dutcher do that while studying the Sawtooth wolf pack? Didn’t Jane Goodall, in her 55-year study of wild chimpanzees? Scientists who work and live alongside animals tend to be very level-headed about the personhood of those animals and the respect it takes to get anywhere with them. And no one would suggest that a patient turns into an It when they get on the operating table. Surgeons who treat them as such are generally considered terrible people.

The same goes for any phenomenon one might study, not just humans and animals. I think you can use the tools of science to learn about the world while maintaining a reciprocal relationship with it and respecting all of its phenomena as living, individual and personal.

I think that when you do, you’re more likely to hold onto your humility, less inclined to presume you know everything, to think you somehow possess the objects that you study.

That’s a vibe I think the pop culture of science these days could really benefit from.

Mammatus Clouds in Tulsa

Not a Fib

“The divine name that is explicitly associated with [the Abrahamic covenant] is êl šadday,” said The Oxford Study Bible. “Its sign is the circumcision” (page 154).

Doesn’t El Shaddai mean God with Breasts? According to Harriet Lutzky it does. She’s the assistant psych professor at John Jay University who linked the word Shaddai to the Hebrew word šad.

EL. "God, deity" (Northwest Semitic languages, êl).
SHADDAI. "Breasty, with breasts" (Hebrew, šadday from šad "breast").

Strange that God would give Abraham this explicitly feminine name to call her, then ask him to respond with the explicitly masculine sign of circumcision. Maybe not so strange. It’s a reasonable exchange, a sexual one: she promises he’ll have her breast to nourish him; he dedicates his penis to her.

Anyway, I find this article — “Torah and Covenant” by Richard Elliot Friedman — pretty fascinating. It explores how the three principal covenants of the Hebrew Bible are written in the standard legal form of the day.

In itself, that’s no news to me. Having grown up in church, I’ve heard, I don’t know how many preachers talk about this. Still it lands differently when the actual legal contracts of the day are named and described, set in parallel to the familiar biblical text.

As I read, the thought that I can’t shake is this

They keep talking about the agreement being forged between the deity and his recipients, and I just keep wondering, how?

I mean, when these legal agreements entered the story of human history — when they happened (which they did: at some point in time, something took place and these agreements were made) — what did that look like? Despite my effort to resist making religion handmaiden to science, I can’t help but ask, did someone just make these stories up? Or did a flaming torch actually proceed between the opened halves of the sacrificial animal?

What did Abraham see?

The Abrahamic covenant is the one I keep coming back to. It’s easier for me to imagine a flaming mountain (the Israelite covenant) or a comprehensive deluge (the Noachic) actually happening. But Abraham was one man, not a nation assembled at the foot of Sinai, not a family struggling to survive a disaster. He was an individual who went outside to talk to God with no natural chaos or social pressure to cloud the moment, and he came back with a contract.

Unless that’s just the story that got told about him. Just the same, where did that story originate? These people didn’t write novels. They weren’t ones to base the integrity of their societal structure upon known fictions. I wish I could look back in time.

But that’s empiricism in me speaking, asking if God is real, if myth is fact, if any of this is history. I sense that the question itself is off. I know I’m dissatisfied with the answer, “No, it didn’t happen, but that’s okay and it doesn’t diminish the importance of the fib.” Because even though that answer attempts to respect the story while disbelieving it at the same time, it still reduces it to a fib.

It’s awfully difficult for us this day and age to swallow the notion that it’s not a fib, that it happened in real life just as the book says. That would require believing that way back when, God interacted with humanity in a way he’s since given up.

I actually like the idea that God isn’t the same person today as she was before. That God is learning and growing. That her psyche is linked to ours, that we’re how she experiences the world. That this is, in fact, why she created existence in the first place, and that our perceptions — of sunlight, stress, subway systems, grief, pancake syrup and all the rest — are thus personally invaluable to the divine.

If, over the millennia, God has been changing, causing his relationship to humanity to evolve as well, I guess it’s possible to say he once had the habit of turning into torches. Still, it’s hard to swallow. As ideas go, it’s a bit of a chicken bone in the gullet.

Again, I think the question is mistaken, but I’m not sure why

It’s not just that I don’t like the only possible answer, right? I’m not intellectually dishonest, am I? Maybe the question is mistaken for the same reason it’s not wise to intellectualize a koan: you can do it, but it misses the point (Zen Ghosts, afterward).

I believe that the stories are real, and that you have to take them on their own terms. You have to suspend judgment and forego the question of fact altogether. I know no better way to participate respectfully with these stories or to place myself in a dialogue with them that opens the door to the great good they can bring.

It’s not fib. It’s story — and in my view, story is an inestimably sacred thing. To ask its credentials all the time is to miss the opportunity to fall in love. It’s like correcting someone’s grammar when they’re giving you directions to the post office, or interrupting someone’s confession to inform them they have a crumb on their lip.

That’s the best I can do for now.

The Oxford may be able to do me one better

“By using the mechanism of known legal forms, and then by setting these forms in the context of narrative, in which the deity and the human beings are pictured in process of making those contracts, the Torah merges story and law. The result is that law is grounded in history. … Law, theology and history all meet in the presentation of the covenants in the Torah, and that meeting is pivotal” (Oxford, pages 160-161).

Maybe that’s why the previous question misses the point. This account is a merging of disciplines: it’s history, but more than history; law, but more than law; theology, but more than that too. In being all three at once, it’s also none of them in isolation, so the standards we associate with each discipline end up being somewhat irrelevant.

Or is that just an interesting justification?

I don’t think so. I think it’s an attempt to reconcile our current epistemology with their ancient one. Something’s always lost in translation. But there is something in their way of knowing that’s worth retrieving, though it can’t be done unless we brave the murkiness of the cognitive dissonance that exists between us.

The Music Man 1962 film

We Want a Boys’ Band

Here again it comes down to this: facts can be verified, but it’s not facts we’re after.

“Archeology is clearly of enormous value in reconstructing the general biblical world. It is far less secure as a means of validating the specific biblical world. Archaeological evidence is more indirect than direct … It may indeed be the case, though perhaps less common than we might expect, that archaeological data do confirm individual biblical passages. Yet what is meant by the truth of the Bible is not in fact subject to the kind of confirmation that archaeology can provide” (Oxford Study Bible, page 53).

What we want is truth, and truth is a function of story.

A story may be challenged or confirmed by the facts it contains. But facts aren’t the goal. Facts are the music man’s credentials, and sure, everyone wants to check his credentials, but in the end what they really want is a boys’ band. The only reason they’re chasing those credentials is that they want to believe he’s the sort of musician who can transform their children into musicians, too.

No sheet of paper can do that work. The credentials are useless without the man. Facts are just a sheet of paper next to the power of story, the truth it embodies, a truth which, if you let yourself believe it, will change your world. Facts can be proven or disproven, but truth is a function of belief. And truth is ultimately the only thing we care about.

“Through the new analytical possibilities… perhaps we can come closer than ever before to reconstructing the life experiences that caused our biblical ancestors to draw their profound and powerful conclusions about the role of God in their lives and to make their compelling assertions about the ongoing relationship between God and humanity” (Oxford Study Bible, page 55).

Let historicity be the assist … let truth be the goal.

Egg-shaped opal looks like the sky at sunset

God is the Egg Shell, God is the Sky

In the ancient Near East, religion was the standard by which pretty much everything was understood. It was the unquestioned, unquestionable root of reality, and however fantastic its suppositions may have been, they were not metaphorical. The serpent spoke. Ladders descended from heaven. God walked in the garden. It’s hard for us to imagine what a worldview like that would be like. Easy to look down on. Hard to imagine.

Today, science has taken religion’s place as the lingua franca of reality. As change goes, this is revolutionary. It’s a downright Copernican revolution.

It’s reoriented everything, not the least of which is our relationship to religion, which has become, effectively, a hobby: something to humor as long as you have the luxury to pretend. Of course no one who believes would call it that. Yet society-wide, science has superseded faith as the measure of what’s real. “If the Bible says it, I believe it,” but if a study proves it, it is so.

For example. Prayer is important in many traditions. People are taught it has the power to heal. But if a parent tries to heal a child through prayer instead of medicine, and if that effort fails, they might reasonably be put in jail. If a medical provider fails, it’s a tragedy, but not a scandal. As a society, we hold that prayer is nice but medicine is real, and when the shit hits the fan, you have a societal obligation to make a real effort to save your child.

Science has revolutionized the way we interact with information, the way we take in knowledge and judge it, the way we make decisions about what to do. In many ways, these are changes for the better. But not in all ways. There are things religion can do that science can’t. But here’s the rub, now that science has unmade religion, can it still?

If religion isn’t real — if its claims aren’t actually true — what is it worth?

Having hatched, we cannot return. We know more of the material reasons behind things than we ever have before, and while this in no way diminishes the stirring of thunder or the force of love, it does compromise one’s ability to believe in the literal reality of a River Styx.

We live in a world now unlike that ancient egg. As good and lovely as it may have been, we have exited and cannot rebuild the fragments. I do not know where God exists in this new world. I would like to think that God was the egg shell as well as the sky.

On another note

It’s interesting that science hasn’t erased our religious needs. In fact, there are some who’ve invited it to step into religion’s shoes and answer those needs itself.

There is some overlap. Like a religion, science offers a set of myths: fundamental stories that explain the world, on which we rely to make sense of things. It’s also a source of comprehensive life guidance. When in doubt, we look to experts as the ancients looked to priests to tell us what to eat, how to heal ourselves, how to change our fortunes or manage our emotions.

I love science, but as religions go it’s not a very good one. Science has a limited scope of inquiry. It deals with questions like how does it work, what is it made of, when did it happen, why does it do that. But the whole scope of human inquiry is not contained in those questions. Empirical study can tell us much, but only so much. It can hold us accountable to facts in some invaluable ways, but it can’t and doesn’t even try to go beyond that.

Some would disagree: some would say that science covers all the bases, that it’s a vessel for spiritual impulses as well as empirical inquiry. I have a couple friends who call themselves practitioners of quantum mysticism. That’s a category mistake. When you conflate science and spirituality, you’re no longer practicing science.

Some would say that if science doesn’t explain a thing, then that thing doesn’t exist. That’s a mistake, too, throwing out whole dimensions of the human experience. I have no time for scientismists.

We humans have many mysterious faculties, many ways of knowing. We interact with many kinds of reality. In this landscape there must be a role for religion yet. What, then? We can’t ask science to stop verifying the facts; that’s what it’s here to do. Still, as long as we make science the ultimate standard of true and false, religion will be an ornament only.

I guess the answer would emerge somewhere in the effort to flesh out the non-empirical facets of life that science can’t touch, stand them side by side with it, and allow each discipline to speak its own language. There must be a new importance to be found in the old answers and images of religion, one that can be translated into even our enlightened world … not just for our amusement (“Oh yes, dear, unicorns exist — but only in stories”) but in some larger way that holds water alongside all the things that science has revealed to be true. 

And not just in the Joseph Campbell sense, where one more specialist seeks to frame our religious feelings in a scientific context, reducing mythology to the psychological. In that case, we haven’t stepped outside of science-as-religion at all. I don’t want to redefine religion. I want to rediscover it.

The ancient cosmos was surrounded by water; so is the fetus in the womb. It appears the water has broken. The old rules make no more sense now. The wind is on our skin, and we can no longer get our oxygen from the umbilical cord. We’ve taken on a whole new means of interacting with air. Now that science has remade the questions, we have to develop new relationships with the answers.