Science/Fiction Part 2

In yesterday’s paper there was an article about an anthropologist who argues, “Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than to gorillas or other apes and probably should be included in the human branch of the family tree.” There followed the obligatory conflicting opinions of various leaders in the field regarding  genus and family designations that illustrate the basic truth here: that anthropologists don’t agree on who goes on what family tree. In fact it’s rather arbitrary.

So, as with Elmer’s Bible of yesterday, we are constantly reminded that the Book of Knowledge is also open to interpretation, with these interpretations all too often colored by human limitations: desire for fame, professional competition, hidden agendas, outright mistakes, and the myopia of pride. But we find dogma in science, and like that of religion it can take a mountain of evidence and a new generation of thinkers to alter it.

So what do we know, and how do we know it? The other adherent, to the other Book, would appear to have a view of the universe that is less fanciful, grounded in fact, and supported by evidence. The scientific method, it is assumed, is the best and most reliable means toward knowing anything worth knowing. We examine the available evidence related to a known phenomenon, we create a hypothesis, and we engineer a series of tests to attempt to disprove this hypothesis.

In this way we arrive at “facts,” or those hypotheses that are not disproved. Some are easy – the Earth revolves around the sun – but some are not so easy. The Scopes trial illustrated that–until last year we still had school boards prohibiting the teaching of evolution in schools. And come to think of it, the heliocentric theory took centuries to nail down. So the process by which we arrive at facts, sometimes even the most obvious of them, is in fact an evolution of its own. We “believe” one thing, only to have further study and refinement of methods show us, a few years later, that we were completely wrong. As a result, we alter our belief to fit the new evidence. A good example is our vast universe itself. In the past, various facts were presented about the known universe based on available observations that have since been greatly modified. For example, is Pluto a planet? It used to be, but now we’re not so sure. Uranus didn’t have rings before, but now it does. And beyond simple definitions of characteristics, we have the fate of the universe itself. Will it continue expanding forever until everything is a million light years away from everything else? Will it stop expanding and begin contracting into the so-called “big crunch,” followed by another Big Bang? Did that already happen? Will the universe “hit a wall” at some point and simply waver back and forth along a semi-permanent boundary? Did the Big Bang actually occur? The answers depends on what year it is and whose “prevailing theory” is in favor.

Science finds its limitations most readily in matters of great scale. Right now astronomers are attempting to look to the farthest reaches of the universe, back into time to the very moment of creation. Let me predict right here that they never will reach it. At the same time, they look deep into the atom to find smaller and smaller structures. Who will find that smallest of sub-atomic particles, and how will they know it is the smallest? My prediction: no one will, and they won’t know. Not all things can be revealed to the scientific eye. In fact, much of what it sees at these extremities of scale may be illusion. As Mr. Heisenberg so aptly pointed out: “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known, and vice versa.” In other words, absolute precision in sub-atomic measurements is not possible, because the thing being measured at such extremities of scale will not sit still for it. And for large scale structures such as the universe, we can never be certain of what we see beyond what we call the “known universe.” Some theorize, for example, that our known universe, with its billions of galaxies, may be one of billions of such universes. Fine, but how will anyone ever know for sure? No one ever will. But some, insulated in their laboratories, will believe it is so–or not so–and accept the idea as an article of faith–faith in the evidence derived from their observations, which themselves are derived from the imprecise human eye and interpreted by the fallible human mind. Yet without belief how can facts exist?

Even setting aside all of that, there remains an entire sphere of human experience that goes unaddressed  by the Book of Knowledge. This is the sphere of spirituality, of questions dealing with the purpose and  meaning, as opposed to the history and mechanics, of life. Here we have the very questions which all of us wonder about all our lives, and yet the accepted methodology for endeavoring to answer questions with a universal authority–science itself–will not even attempt an inquiry. Why? For the best of reasons: it is not equipped even to explore the question, let alone answer it. Science would sidestep the question and say, “There is no answer. It is a question all must answer for themselves.” But if there are any facts about the human condition as opposed to the human body – and I believe there are – then it is not that there is no answer but simply that science as devised by man is not able to provide one. It does not have the tools to measure and test the evidence in support of any theory. The evidence is in our minds. It flows among the living community. It is in the very force of life itself, the force behind every spring and every birth. It is unknowable as an observable phenomenon because it is beyond the physical world.

And that may be as it should be. In matters of the spirit we often come up against the idea of the ineffable. That which cannot be fully known or expressed in earthly terms.

The mistake of the Biblical literalist is to believe that an old book can provide all the best answers to life’s questions, and that anything it does not address is not relevant . The mistake of the scientist is to believe that if there is no way to answer a question with present science, then the question is not relevant.

Science/Fiction Part 1

Among the press there is a time-honored query applied to presidents and other wielders of power who may have an interest in appearing ignorant of “certain deeds,” who committed them, and the like. “What did he know, and when did he know it?” was, I believe, first asked of Richard Nixon (Watergate), then Ronald Reagan (Iran/Contra), then George Bush 1 (ditto), then Bill Clinton (Whitewater/Monicagate) now George Bush 2 (9/11). The press love these stock scandal-mongering sound bites, because they bestow years of precedent, context, and therefore meaning on otherwise simple statements that mean nothing below the surface.

I think we can assume, for example, that they all knew all of it as soon as anyone else did. These are presidents, after all.

But hearing it again the other day from some talking head reminded me of a more significant phrase that does occur to me so often: What do we know, and how do we know it?

The quick answer from the true believer of either stripe is, “from the Book.”

On the one hand we have the newly revived Biblical literalist. In decline for some time, they are experiencing a resurgence of power and influence due to a number of factors. Chief among these, I think, is what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock,” which, briefly, is the effect on the mind and society of technological and cultural change that far outpaces the mind’s ability to adapt to it. As an example, consider the small-town old-timer, raised in the 1940s, Korean war veteran, in his overalls and seed cap, encountering a tattoo-covered, nose-ringed, green-haired modern primitive wearing a Charles Manson t-shirt (for purposes of irony, let’s say, not admiration). What does old Ernie think of this youngster? Does he consider that the young man is simply adhering to the latest fashions and cultural expressions in an attempt to appear hip and stylish? No, he figures the guy is either insane, a devil worshiper, or both. The pace of change has exceeded Elmer’s ability–or willingness, if you like–to understand and adapt to it. For slightly different but equally compelling reasons, Elmer distrusts the Internet, cell phones and gene therapy.

Anyway, a common reaction to a culture that appears chaotic, out of control and quite likely insane is to cling to simplistic notions of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. Gray areas are simply not tolerated. The Bible serves this purpose well. And, especially these days, there is no shortage of “evangelists” ready to tell you, the confused one, what the Bible thinks of modern society and what it wants you to do to avoid falling into the pit of depravity that is 21st-century America.

So what does Elmer know, and how does he know it? He knows that he didn’t evolve from some damned ape, that abortion is wrong and should be illegal, that a woman is subordinate to her husband, that prayer should be put back in schools, that death is better than godless communism, that adherents to all other religions besides Christianity are misguided at best, that Hollywood and academia are full of amoral hedonists, that promiscuity is ruining the American family, that network television is a cesspool of sex, violence and blasphemy, etc. But he also knows that we should love our enemies; that the meek shall inherit the earth; that blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven; that Jesus loves him.

It’s a hard mix. I’ve often wondered how people merge the angry and vengeful Old Testament God with the kinder, gentler Jesus version. It’s tempting to quote Voltaire here, but for now I’m sticking with an examination of what Elmer knows. And though what he knows is conflicted and contradictory, it is at least authoritative. One can invoke the Bible to justify almost any truth. And such a truth, backed by the power of faith and the communion of millions of like minds, is difficult to assail. Just ask Copernicus.

Next: Science/Fiction 2: the Other Book

She Who is Loved

I suppose it’s inevitable, this intense admiration for one’s own and only child. Still, I’m amazed at how often I think about her. I am unable to find fault with her; even her transgressions are endearing. Any hint of meanness or selfishness I chalk up to the influence of her peers. Stubbornness or laziness I assign to heredity. Her words are profound, her art inspired, her singing–well, I do love her.

To each devoted parent this must occur. I remember one day, picking her up from her elementary school, standing self-consciously by the little benches on the sidewalk, as a sea of children emerged to find their way home. They all looked alike, a school of fish with backpacks, until this bright face emerged from the shoal–I spotted her the instant she came through the door. I heard her excited voice, “There’s my daddy,” yelled at her crouching teacher as she ran through the little crowd, a starlet in sharp focus shouldering through the extras, the “other children.”

She is a diamond in a wall of coal, Venus at the fall of night. She brightens the world as she walks through it; she defines the world as she discovers it. She peoples the world with smiling creatures who want harmony, safe adventures, and limitless love.

I’ve lived in two worlds now: the one before her, and the one after. The first moment I held her, I felt the world change. I saw everything in it take on a new bright aspect. The new world was in her bewildered face. The sun rose on it and spread its light on it and then I could see.

And it just happens that at the moment I’m reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner. In a passage I read today the miser Silas comes to recognize his gift. His hoarded gold has been stolen, and in its place an orphan child has wandered into his cabin, and he has claimed the child.

“The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward, and carried them far away from their old eager pacing towards the same blank limit — carried them away to the new things that would come with the coming years, when Eppie would have learned to understand how her father Silas cared for her; and made him look for images of that time in the ties and charities that bound together the families of his neighbours. The gold had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded more and more to all things except the monotony of his loom and the repetition of his web; but Eppie called him away from his weaving, and made him think all its pauses a holiday, re-awakening his senses with her fresh life, even to the old winter-flies that came crawling forth in the early spring sunshine, and warming him into joy because she had joy.”

And so it is with me.

Interlude with Clouds

Out here on the Plains the big blue sky can take on the air of a deity. Lately the cloud god has been angry betimes. Last night we walked again on the wet streets after a brief rain. It was one of those when it might be raining in the front yard but sunny in the back. The sun threw a stark bright line dividing a wet tree into shadow and unreal, oversaturated color, the clouds bunched and rolled and came and went. We spent a lot of time looking up, until the dog pulled toward a jaded lawn rabbit.

Today the god’s black face rolled in just after lunch, killed the shadows, and rained big drops on us for a little while. E-mails flew back and forth to assure that loved ones were aware of the tornado warnings. As is the habit of the office worker, a number of us obeyed the irresistible urge to step out on the patio and watch the heavens roil. Then, just as quickly, the darkness was gone, and the big blue bowl of cotton balls returned, and the sunlight glistened on the long wet grass.

Our god is a schizophrenic god.

The Plainsman with a bent for the written word will often take up his pen and try to decipher the sky in descriptive phrases. We get such a variety up there that we don’t get below.

Walking in the urban landscape sparks its own interest, providing  an ever-changing perspective on a three-dimensional, accidental design. You feel yourself walking through it, as through a canyon or a forest.

But out here the art is on canvas, bowed but still flat to the earth-bound eye, a wash of blue or gray or white either brilliant light or dull shadow, or both at once. The dimensions are shaped by the clouds, if there are any. They might tower up a thousand feet like great mounds of soft serve ice cream, or streak across the sky flat and high like a staccato of white charcoal on steel gray, or mar an otherwise clean slate with mere smudges of a darker gray. They might wander lonely or in little bunches seemingly just out of arm’s reach, buzzing the city like fluffy barnstormers. Or they might form a huge herd, shoulder to shoulder, stampeding across the sky toward the horizon and some new grazing ground, brawny, edged with black and blown on strong high winds.

Such does Nature muse on these lonely Plains.

Got Justice?

President Bush pledged today that those responsible for suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia that left dozens dead would “learn the meaning of American justice.”

Let’s explore that for a moment.

What I know of American justice can be boiled down into a few basic precepts. This is strictly off the cuff, you understand, but see if it doesn’t ring true.

If you want a big trial with all the trimmings, you have to think big

This observation comes from a number of recent “spectacular” crimes that have resulted in big-budget defense teams or unheard-of indulgence from the court for the accused. For whatever reason, it seems the amount spent on the trial is in direct proportion to the amount of damage you do. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was provided a crack defense team and a trial that dragged on for months. Several million dollars later, he was convicted and executed, to no one’s surprise. The trial of the D.C. snipers promises more of the same. Accused 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui has enjoyed every amenity in his never-ending trial, including numerous breaks and advice from the court in spite of his regular digressions into delusional nonsense and anti-American screeds, coupled with his complete lack of expertise regarding court procedures. His lawyer (himself) may have a fool for a client, but the joke is on the taxpayers who are funding this big-budget fiasco.

Contrast this to the regular Joe who guns down his wife or co-workers. He gets a sleepy public defender and the thing is wrapped up in two weeks.

If you’re famous, you can’t be jailed for drugs unless you really want to

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of entertainment types being dragged into court for serious drug crimes, only to be sentenced to ‘”community service” and fines that are meaningless to millionaires. Eventually, after their fifth or sixth arrest, the judge gets mad and “threatens” actual jail time. But it rarely comes to pass. (Exception: Robert Downey Jr..)

But don’t try this at home. Non-famous people are regularly thrown in the pokey for simple possession.

Murderers are more important than their victims

Some ancient–and modern– justice systems, when dealing with murderers, prescribed restitution as a first remedy. Sometimes the killer was allowed to work in order to pay the family for the loss. The entire tribunal revolved around the wrong done to the victim’s family (acknowledging that the actual victim was beyond such concerns). The family was often consulted for their judgment on what should be done with the guilty party, and their wishes carried out.

Now, the victims’ kin are allowed to sit in the courtroom and watch, but that’s about it. Murderers no longer commit crimes against people – they commit them against “the state.” And the trial is centered around the accused, who is the subject of all aspects of the trial and the main focus of the state’s efforts.

After the trial and sentencing, the killer becomes of even more concern to the state. They house, feed and clothe him. They monitor his behavior. They provide endless appeals. They stage elaborate parole hearings that concentrate on the killer’s progress, the killer’s behavior, the killer’s future. When he’s finally released, they have other folks check in on him, monitor his progress, help him “assimilate.”

The family of the victim gets a letter once in a while.

Some murderers get famous for their inventive crimes. They get clever nicknames like “Son of Sam” and “The Preppy Killer.” Books, movies, cults sometimes follow. I recall that Ted Bundy, who may have killed dozens of young women, supposedly received a bulging bag of love letters and marriage proposals every day in prison. Over time, a killer’s “evilness” can be all but washed away and replaced by a kind of pop culture icon status (as with Charles Manson).  But I can’t recall any victims ever being immortalized or lionized, I guess because being killed doesn’t make you interesting. Just dead.

If you’re a lucky killer, Norman Mailer will find you “intriguing,” and he’ll write a book about you. Then they’ll let you go and you can kill again. Yeah, it happened.


Actual innocence of the condemned is not sufficient reason to stop an execution

This was one of the Supreme Court’s shining moments. Back when I did research for a living, I came across  this nugget, which involved a man in Texas who was convicted of murder in your standard non-famous-person trial (see above). The appeals process was exhausted, but new evidence came to light that appeared to exonerate the man. The prosecution, on seeing the new evidence, agreed. So there was really no one in Texas who wanted to carry out the execution anymore. But the “process” took over, the governor refused a stay, and the Supreme Court, answering a final emergency appeal, refused to halt the execution  because “actual innocence is not sufficient reason for this court to delay the timely carrying out of the sentence,” or words to that effect.

So they executed him.