The Best Of A Beastly Business

A spelling mistake can be a happy thing. One can feel quite smug when spotting an elementary mistake in a letter written by a great intellectual figure of history. Excerpts from such letters are often reproduced in biographies, and here the mistakes are particularly easy to find on account of the obligatory ‘sic’ that follows them. Sometimes I don’t notice the mistake until my eye scans to the right and sees the ‘sic’. I wish I could read on past that sic without stopping, but my curiosity must be satisfied and I always look back to find the mistake.

I am happy to report that bad spelling is no longer a particular foible of mine. However, like many children, I found the English language a bewildering source of bafflement for many years. An amusing example of my once juvenile abilities occurred in a Sunday school lesson when I was seven years old. We were assigned the task of drawing a domestic scene. Mine had a living-room television, for instance. I’m not sure if there was a pedagogical purpose to the exercise; after all, Sunday school was as much about indoctrination as it was about keeping us quiet and busy while the adults listened to the sermon. In any case, I decided as an added flourish to write the words ‘God is the best’ on the television screen in my drawing. I got stuck on the word ‘best’. It is spelt ‘best’ or ‘beast’? I sounded out the two alternative spellings and concluded that ‘beast’ is the correct spelling. (There is reasoning here: the letter ‘e’ by itself is pronounced with a long-e sound so that ‘best’ might be erroneously supposed to sound like ‘bee+st’; on the other hand, ‘ee+ah’, when read quickly, can resemble somewhat the short-e sound of the e in ‘best’. I had not properly internalised the helpful distinction between short- and long-vowel sounds, so I was especially vulnerable to this type of error.)

When I triumphantly showed my work to a Sunday school teacher I did not get the unimpassioned approval that I had come to expect. Rather, other teachers were quickly summoned to examine my shocking proclamation: God is the beast. By the grace of my teachers, I was not at this point sent with haste to the pastor for exorcism — this was not ‘that’ sort of church. (The congregants, I’m sure, took the idea of demons very seriously, but most of them were sensible enough to believe in demons in a way that made no difference to their actual behaviour.)

The gathered Sunday school teachers agreed that all would be forgiven if I confessed that it was my intention to write ‘God is the best’. I readily confirmed this and the offending ‘a’ was crossed out. God, to my young mind, was the best. I didn’t really know anything about the demon also known as ‘the beast’. Nor had I yet read anything which might blur the lines between God and his frightful antagonist.

“I’ll bet if we met the devil and he allowed us to open him up, we might be surprised to find God jumping out.” Pastor still liked to provoke Jesus with these outrageous remarks. Jesus had gradually learned that the best way to deal with this was to ignore it and say nothing. For Pastor might have gone even further, suggesting that on opening up God one might find the devil inside.
from Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

Returning to God himself and his essential quality of being the best. Indeed, some theologians might define ‘God’ as the ‘supreme being’. This is a bad definition because it is very difficult to think of good ranking systems for which ‘God’ would be at the ‘top’. A naive investigator of this problem (such as myself) might grow concerned that the concept of a ‘supreme being’ makes about as much sense as the idea of ‘the largest integer’. A more pious person than myself might conclude that the nature of God is a profound mystery and use this as a segue to a lesson about the inferiority of human wisdom.

The ideas that are bandied around in Sunday school are rather divorced from any bona fide Christian tradition — Sunday school being a very simple-minded, nonconfrontational sort of place. Occasionally this spirit of befuddling naivety would reach heights such that even I, trusting as I was in those days, grew suspicious. One Sunday it was explained to us, as we well knew, that God had made everything in the world, including, but not limited to, the plants and the animals and such like. The teacher wanted to impress on us the enormity of God’s accomplishment. Designing all the animals, she said, is a very difficult task; a task so challenging that it is completely beyond human ability. To render this idea more strongly into our young minds, the teacher issued us a challenge: try, as hard as you can, to design an animal from scratch without copying any of God’s designs. In hindsight this seems unfair. It is one thing to design something from scratch, and it is quite another thing to be original in this endeavour after seeing hundred of working designs completed by someone else. Somehow the rationale for the task made sense to me at the time, so I gravely set about thinking of new animals. The other students industrially went about drawing chimeras. Donkey-elephants. Zebra-dolphins. But anyone could see that these were just permutations of what God had already done. It couldn’t be called original and it certainly wasn’t better than God’s work.

My own page was blank. I couldn’t think of anything. Where does one start?! After a few minutes of inaction I was admonished for not participating in the lesson. To appease my teacher I perfunctorily drew some three-legged mammalesque creatures. But I didn’t have much confidence in my creations. It seemed to me that they would find it difficult to run. God’s faster, four-legged animals would easily be able to catch and kill my animals. They would soon die out! (I added spikes, but this didn’t silence my concerns.) Happily, after examining our work the teacher was able to definitively conclude that God’s intelligence is much, much greater than our own. Of this conclusion I had never had any doubt, but it was reassuring to see an empirical demonstration.

History repeated itself eight years later in junior science class. Junior science is the gateway to the standardized testing that pervades senior science. So we spent a lot of time learning immutable facts and recalling these when asked. ‘Describe how igneous rock is formed.’ ‘Write down Newton’s second law of motion.’ I often found this very easy. (An exception was the names of Chemicals. I spent hours trying, unsuccessfully, to learn Chemical names and the related nomenclature.) I only ever got into difficulty when my thoughts about things didn’t fit nicely in with the sayings and proclamations of class. I once made the uncharacteristic decision to sit at the back row of the class and talk with the rebellious scallywags who like to sit in such places. The teacher was discussing mechanics — how things move. Unfortunately, I hadn’t mastered the art of volume control (not a fine point of my abilities even today) and was probably irritating my teacher by my incessant chatter. To shut me up, the teacher asked me a question: what, besides the second law, determines the motion of objects? I launched into a discussion of how stresses on objects lead to deformations. But this was not the answer the teacher was looking for! The lesson went on to describe Newton’s first law. I was doubly irritated: stresses do lead to deformations, and besides, the first law is a consequence, not an addition, to the second law.

I do not want to give you the impression that junior science was exclusively about rote memorization. For it was not. On one occasion we were assigned a creative, open-ended task that I found eerily familiar. We were asked to invent a fictional animal. The challenge was to describe, in detail, how the physiology of our animal helped it to survive and participate in its ecosystem. We were to make use of all we had been learning about ecosystems and animals in recent weeks. Eight years had wrought an enormous increase in my fine-motor skills, but my fictional animal was not much more impressive than the creatures I drew in Sunday school almost a decade earlier. (Although, this time I boldly adopted God’s four-legged motif.) Unlike Sunday school, I was surprised to see the variety of well-considered and thoughtful ideas produced by my peers.

Besides the physiology of fictional animals, we also studied human physiology. During the lesson on sexual reproduction we were given a black and white diagram showing the outline of a woman on her back with a man and his genitals positioned appropriately on top of her. This was the first visual representation of vaginal intercourse that I had ever seen, and I studied it carefully, with grave detachment. In the evening I followed up these studies on the internet, but soon lost interest in the matter. If my brain was developing quickly, the rest of me lagged noticeably behind. Indeed, I sat through my state-sponsored sexual education class well before reaching puberty. On one occasion we were shown a short film about the bullying of gay teenagers in high schools. I rebuked the film, proclaiming that whilst bullying is wrong, so is homosexual sex.

Besides reproduction, we also spent time examining a black and white diagram of the lower digestive system. On one particularly sunny afternoon, my teacher was explaining diarrhoea and constipation. But she made a slight mistake. Constipation, she said, was the consequence of excess water in the large intestine, and diarrhoea resulted from a deficiency. This seemed counterintuitive to me — I had always (correctly) assumed that runny stools would be the consequence of too much water. But I took my teacher’s word as reliable, and I made a special note in my workbook to prevent me from forgetting this counterintuitive fact.

In the following week I spent a lot of time pondering the question of how a dehydrated bowel might produce the liquid stools that characterise diarrhoea. My mother is a physiotherapist with some experience in this area, so I put the question to her. She promptly told me that my science teacher had made a mistake. However, I was suspicious of my mother’s authority in matters of science, and so, for one month, aged thirteen, I became vaguely agnostic on the question of whether diarrhoea is the consequence of excess water in the large intestine.

I was no longer the trusting Sunday school student of my childhood and I was beginning to distrust authorities whose opinions I had hitherto not questioned. In 2007 I chanced upon a small reference to the revolution in biblical scholarship of the 18th and 19th centuries — the so-called ‘new criticism’ of the bible. My analysis-loving mind was attracted to the essential idea of studying the bible in a systematic and analytical fashion. Inspired by this spirit I did some close readings of the Old testament. The creation story, for instance, contains two narratives (the 6-day poem and the other story involving rib surgery and snakes). The story of noah is also written in a compilatory style. (One can find two or three narratives by noticing the verses that double up and the incongruent shifts in word usage.) I wondered whether Genesis might have multiple authors and not be solely the work of Moses. This, in turn, challenged my notion of divine revelation. My original view had been that God effectively authored Genesis himself by exploiting his influence over the hand of Moses. Since I now knew that the authorship was much messier than that, on what grounds could I claim that God had anything to do with the book? This, in turn, raised an even more troubling question. Genesis contains ‘fantastical’ stories that bear the character of myth. Without the comforting reassurance of divine authorship, how could I be expected to believe that these stories are more than myths? Without the divine seal of the creator, how could I believe any of it in the literal sense?

Curiously, my religion was briefly saved from complete destruction by my interest in science. I read a book on cosmology and I decided that the six-day poem of Genesis Chapter One could be thought of as an allegory for the early universe as understood by modern cosmology. This concordance offered Genesis a new legitimacy in my mind. I quietly forgot my (rather fundamentalist) obsession with the historicity of the bible and took interest instead in  doctrinal and theological thought. I especially liked thinking about the doctrine of creation. I felt I had grounds for believing in the creation event: the laws of physics.

But Christianity is empty without the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection. So I had to be careful not to let the laws of physics exclude the possibility of miracles (and Jesus’s resurrection). The determinacy of the natural laws seems to preclude miracles. But I found a way around that. I observed that the laws of physics determine the evolution of the universe (modulo quantum effects) at every moment after the first ever moment — the creation. In my cosmology, I imagined a God with complete control over the configuration of that first moment. Then, since he is also omniscient, he can choose this moment in such a way that, through the deterministic evolution of physics, Jesus’s body would be resuscitated 14.3 billion years later. After all, resuscitation does not violate the fundamental laws, it is merely statistically improbable.

My conception of God was a chimera formed from the two demons of Laplace and Maxwell: God uses his perfect knowledge to predict the evolution of the universe, in the manner of Laplace’s demon. God then uses this knowledge to cause thermodynamically unlikely events, like Maxwell’s demon. An important difference is that Jesus’s corpse is not an isolated system; so the corpse could, in principle, have its entropy locally decreased — an event so thermodynamically unlikely some people would feel inclined to call it miraculous.

Within this framework, I got along quite nicely building up a system of ideas about ‘God’. It was in this framework that I had my first thoughts about free will. Perhaps, if I had managed to stay religious, I might have been able to spin these humble ideas into a long, quiet career of philosophy and theology. But this career was never to be. I had a system of thought which allowed for the possibility of Jesus’s resurrection: but that didn’t imply that it actually happened.

Even when I read the resurrection narratives with the most faithful heart, I couldn’t but feel uneasy with the talk of zombies in Jerusalem, or supernatural darknesses, or walking through walls. They seem like contrivances. The gospels don’t give a doubting Christian much reassurance that these stories are true. One cannot but suspect that they are slowly added embellishments from archaic authors who mistakenly believed such things were possible.

When my trust in the gospels was lagging I liked to turn instead to prophesy. Here my mind’s fondness for patterns could find endless entertainment. I dreamed of a mystical system of ideas, based on the ancient prophetical books, which made Jesus’s resurrection into a logical necessity. Something in the spirit of mathematics, perhaps. I was particularly fond of a book called ‘Jesus in all the scriptures’ which listed a great many analogies between the passion story and other parts of the bible. The large number of such analogies convinced me that an analytically rigorous system of prophetical ideas must exist. The book was filled with carefully listed cross references. If only I could find a formal system in which to organise all these patterns. Alas, I could find no such system. So on I went: struggling with prophesy, theology and the gospels.

Anglophone fundamentalists have been using very much the same rhetoric about the gospels since the frightening growth of rationalism in the 19th century or so. Some of this rhetoric is not wrong. The synoptic gospels, for instance, report sayings of Jesus that have a distinctive style that sets them apart from the surrounding text. Moreover, some of these sayings may have been discordant with the rhetoric and style of the early Christian movement (e.g. phrases like the ‘son of man’, and the discovery of Jesus’s tomb by women.) This suggests that the gospels contain vestiges of earlier sources connected to a real historical figure. Such observations, when taken up in evangelical pamphlets, are used bolster the ‘undeniable fact’ that ‘an historical resurrection of Jesus is the only explanation of the gospels’.

I once harboured hopes that I too could use these contextual clues to give myself a strong faith like that of the pamphlet-writers. So I pondered the gospels. And I thought about the inter-gospel contradictions, about the proliferation and subsequent censure of early gospel writings, and about the artificial attribution of apostolic authorship to the canonical gospels. These thoughts were not alone terminal to my faith, but they painted a picture of early Christianity that didn’t sit well with the absolute self-assuredness of puritanical faiths like mine. I grew disheartened. I was particularly annoyed that almost no major gospel events made it into the historical record. Even the figure of Jesus made no detectable impact on the historical record in the early part of the first century, which suggests he was of dubious political importance during his own lifetime.

Around this time I chanced on a translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu. Das Leben works through the consequences of a literal reading of the gospels until the absurdity of it is clear. Several chapters of this (huge) book were sufficient to reveal to me the folly of taking the gospels in the literal fashion I had been accustomed to. And thus it was that I became a deist of a very philosophical and scientific bent. Indeed, it didn’t take me long to realise that the deity in my cosmology was completely redundant.


On that sunny afternoon as I stared at a diagram of the large intestine and pondered constipation, it was still a few years before my fatal and decisive encounter with Das Leben. But whilst I had not yet lost all of my faith, I had already learned to be distrustful of certain authorities. Already I knew not to trust those who dogmatically riled against the big bang theory, for instance. As mentioned earlier, I had read a cosmology book and discovered how it is that we know so much about the big bang. Deniers of the big bang claimed to be sure of themselves since their belief was based upon the bible. And yet they were wrong. That discovery revealed to me that one needs more than the bible alone in order to arrive at theological and spiritual beliefs. (Many protestants continue to deny that this is so, ignorant of how their own ‘direct reading’ of the bible only acquires meaning thanks to the ideas and practices passed down via tradition.)

Merely reading the bible is not enough to determine whether or not the big bang happened; one needs to add some interpretation of the bible. By the time I found myself sitting in junior science I knew that people could interpret the bible wrongly. And I knew that some of these mistaken people would speak with authority. And I knew not to trust their words. And I grew suspicious of people who talked on religious matters with such assuredness.

The troubling thing is this: I had not learnt my lesson! My science teacher was an authority, to my mind, on matters of scientific fact. As revealed by the diarrhoea story, I was all too ready to accept everything she said on the weight of her own authority. Even when she said something that did not make sense to me, I would attempt to internalize her statement rather than interrogate its validity. I might have been in junior science class, but I hadn’t yet been infected with the spirit of the scientific revolution — the spirit of going beyond authorities and interrogating the facts. (Arguably, a similar spirit can be found in the some of the protestant reformers.)

Most protestants do not talk about doubt in moralistic terms. Rather, doubts are ‘struggles’ which warrant the ‘support’ of the church family. Words of doubt can be found strewn throughout the psalms and evangelicals like to talk sympathetically about those times when God feels ‘distant’ or ‘mysterious’. But some doubts are beyond the powers of even the church family: one must be careful not to let one’s doubts accidentally morph into ‘irreverence’, or ‘pride’ (the number one sin). Thus, the dissent and systematic questioning that grew in my religious thought, though not outwardly lambasted, was implicitly frowned upon. It was not the sort of thing I felt comfortable telling anyone.

Contrast this with my time in school science where inquisitiveness was encouraged and I felt welcome to express doubt if something seemed hard to believe. My questions in junior science class did not advance science in any way. But this is an apt moment to reflect on how science rides on the waves made by dissenting voices. The words of Newton, Galileo, and Einstein challenged the status quo and generated immense progress. In their dissent, these scientist questioned the axioms and constructed arguments for their ideas. This is an essential part of making progress, and we mustn’t let it die. Theoretical progress has rarely been made by conformity. One worries that strings can only be motivated by hindsight and that dark energy is but an epicycle on a cosmological model that fetishizes nonexistent symmetries.

I hasten to add that the ‘dissent’ of the creationists is quite another thing — one cannot mount an intellectual attack on an idea that one has not even taken the time to understand. Perhaps the creationist movement is too busy wrapping up its cause with antiquated moral fervour and an interest in apocalypses.

In any case, I will now return to junior science where I was encouraged to conduct my own investigations and experiments. I soon began making more serious enquiries into mechanics and electromagnetism. I wanted things to make sense and be consistent. In this I was well prepared by my theological system building. New scientific facts had to be put against old facts, justifications sought, and so on. Thus it was that the embers of theology lit the fire of a scientific spirit. When I could not predict a phenomenon (often because of insufficient mathematical knowledge) I took to doing experiments. I was led, for instance, towards experiments with superconductor in 2009 and the refraction of polarized light the year after. By this time science had featured in my life for a period of time that was substantial for someone of my age. The persistence of my interest led me to even more interesting investigations — my work on optics took me to the university where I was graciously allowed a small place to work.

It was a wonderful place, with a wall of neat cabinetry concealing countless items of machined steel. The wall opposite the cabinets featured a large but presently unused ring laser, which, in spite of its redundancy, still added to the impressive sense of technical advancement that imbued the lab. The room was dominated by a large steel-topped table supported by huge drum-like legs. These legs were designed to isolate the table from an vibrations in the floor and the gave out hissing sounds whenever one inadvertently leaned against the table. It was my habit to get lost in thought only to be shaken back to reality by an angry hiss from the table.

The table supported a complicated mass of lasers and mirrors and such; each optical component was secured to small holes in the surface of the table via all manner of rods and mounts. In order to conduct an experiment one has to screw the appropriate rods and mounts into the table and then carefully align the mirrors and lasers on top.

Never before had my scientific interests been rewarded with access to such expensive, specialised equipment — I was flattered. Unfortunately, no one told me that the lab had two different types of component. Each type had a slightly different screw thread: one was according to a metric standard, and the other for an imperial standard. The imperial components were marked by a small line. But this was the type of thing one can only see if one is looking for it. So I dutifully went about screwing screws into steel rods, occasionally noticing an anomalous amount of resistance. I discovered my sin when I went to remove these screws and found them completely stuck.

And so it was that I ruined the screw threads of a good number of components in an optics lab to which I, a high school student, had been graciously admitted. And I was angry: why, I asked, can’t we all use the same damn screw thread?!

Fundamentalists, and even some moderate Christians, pine for the day when everyone will believe as they believe, when “every tongue shall confess” and “every knee will bow”. In practical matters I can feel sympathy for this fundamentalist ‘spirit of uniformity’. My troubles in the optics lab would have been prevented if I lived in an age when every industrial manufacturer bowed to metric standard for screws and threads!

Spelling is another example of this. Earlier, I generously exclaimed that a spelling mistake can be a happy thing. But, without wishing to contradict myself, I confess that part of me would rejoice if everyone wrote rightly. How much easier to understand everyone! But English would never have come to exist without constant mutations and disagreements. Indeed, wherever we look in today’s world, the spirit of uniformity — whether religious, ethnic, or nationalistic — looks repugnantly evil when viewed from the comfortable vantage point of diversity and intellectual freedom. The painful lesson of our age is that the freedom to dissent is worth protecting. But, important as this principle is, neither is it sufficient.

When I sat in junior science thinking of diarrhoea, I had complete freedom to question the teacher’s words. But I didn’t ever consider exercising this freedom. It wasn’t until I was actively encouraged to question and challenge that I began doing so. It is not enough to allow for dissent: one must actively encourage participation in it.

This is one of the more impressive virtues of democracy, when viewed from afar. Modern democratic ideals not only enshrine freedom as sacrosanct, but also encourage the participation of all those people affected by the political process. Whatever changes about democracy’s implementation, the principle of encouraging people to participate and offer a constructive voice must not die.

I say this as one who regularly rails at the culture of the canaille. But the principle of dissent and participation has been too hard-won — opposed as it so often was by God and king — for us to give it up for the sake of privileged university students’ condescension towards mass culture.

Having listened to such lofty sentiments, you, dear reader, gesture at the world and ask ‘but what of all this?’ There are many problems. We encourage our citizens to participate in the political process through voting, but the engines of mass-media ensure that voting is, at best, half-participation. And many citizens choose not to vote at all (as, indeed, our laws give them the freedom to do). Moreover, western democracies have encouraged a terrifying amount of consumerist thinking and activity — the consequences of which now pose truly international problems that seem intractable without any system or incentive to encourage global cooperation. One also looks to the developing world and the ills — both economic and social — faced by the people there.

The political governance of billions of people is always going to be a troublesome task. Democracy, at least in principle, and somewhat in practice, seems to make the best of this beastly situation.