Temp Prof Complaints Not Heard, Or Understood, Really

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts. In the face of corporate academia, disgruntled graduates have been reduced to levelling a criticism which amounts to saying that they are being treated unfairly as workers in a competitive labour market.

Protest is voiced mostly by those in adjunct professorships and other short-term positions. They offer a correct but uncompelling critique of how they are being treated.

“It’s a rather bad deal,” said one graduate.

Few comment on how the production mindset of academia is detrimental apart from its consequences vis-a-vis themselves.

A man explained that this “self-interested tone is because the majority of recent graduates are millennials.”

“They are overentitled narcissists,” he said.

Not all millennials emphasize their own plight.

“Whether you are a tenured professor or an adjunct, you are working within a metric of productivity that all but guarantees you are wasting your life and whatever meagre talent you may once have thought you possessed,” said one millennial.

This critique is seldom heard by research planning committees — lest anyone suggest that academics are not doing good work, that there is no such thing as academic productivity, or that creativity is not incentivisable.

It is the opinion of this newspaper that the dream of academia in the minds of hopeful adjuncts is not tragic because of their exclusion from the academy: it is tragic because the academia they dream of does not exist.

“Apparently, these are just the facts of living in the real world,” said one person who did not appear to be suffering any heartache at the time.

Inconvenience

She isn’t late. But she says

“God! The traffic is awful this morning.”

Her colleague is pretending to care.

“Yes, it is.”

I noticed it too: I was walking to where I had left my bike. Cars were humming beside me. I looked at the drivers. One wore a black suit and poorly ironed blue shirt; he was picking his nose. He didn’t notice that I could see him. Nor did he notice that the car ahead of him had slowly pulled ahead. When, at last, he saw the pavement in front of him he revved his engine and lurched forward, greedily covering the ten meters before stopping again. I could hear other drivers doing the same. I unlocked my bicycle. There were road works. Big trucks. Orange lights. Obstructed traffic. And so the cars sat still while my bike rattled past. Idling in driveways and at traffic lights: waiting to join the queue of nose-picking professionals. Lurching and braking; abdominal segments of a maggot.

I didn’t notice when a gap opened on my right. I didn’t see the truck turn into it. I heard the hissing of the truck’s brakes. Heat radiated from my hip. I looked at my shoe. The stones of the pavement coagulated. Grey.

I looked up and saw the underside of a van: my head beneath the rear wheels, my body splayed under the tow bar. My side was throbbing. I lay still: my head felt as it does when I wake up at the wrong time — drugged by the full weight of sleep. I looked across to my bicycle and felt affection for it. As if I were waking up in the morning and looking across at a lover still sleeping. We lay there together. I saw that my bicycle’s wheel was kinked.

People gathered to talk to me. My head was still groggy so I didn’t welcome their approach. There were three: the truck-man, the bad Samaritan, and the good Samaritan. The truck-man had parked and was getting out. The bad Samaritan was in a nearby car: he couldn’t decide whether to get out. I heard the truck-man’s enquiry.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

I made my way up to sitting on the sidewalk. The bad Samaritan decided that he really ought to see if he could help.

“Can I help?”

“No, no.”

Truck-man started speaking, quickly, and more to the bad Samaritan than to me.

“He was in the bike lane right behind that van. I didn’t have a chance of seeing him until I was across the turn. I didn’t even see him until I was practically on top of him.”

“Ah. Shame. Can’t be helped, I guess.”

At some point the truck-man and the bad Samaritan agreed that they had done all that was required. They walked away. I didn’t miss them. A man, the good Samaritan, was walking his dog on the other side of the street. He carefully crossed.

“I saw everything.”

“Oh?”

“Really awful. Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Without further questioning, he set about restoring my bicycle’s chain to a fit state. Until then I hadn’t noticed that it had fallen off. He finished his work quickly and sat with me a while. But I suddenly grew self-aware and assured him that he could leave. I got up and walked with my maimed bicycle past the road works. The kinked wheel squeaked as it rolled around. A yellow sign read “sorry for the inconvenience.”

At the hospital, the radiology nurses are still expounding their thesis on how bad the traffic is. The first nurse is unhappy with the second’s lackadaisical response.

“Like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad.”

“I guess it’s the road works… Or maybe the Christmas rush?”

“Oh yeah! Not too many days to go now!”

“Have you done your Christmas shopping?”

“I’m way behind… I’ll have to drive over to the mall after work.”

Two By Two

I saw them from behind. Each carrying a black attache case. The right one had his attache case in his left hand. The left one in his right. A pair of devout souls divided by attache cases; two holy people in the most unholy of places.

They were two orthodox Jewish boys walking through a shopping centre. A garish, dimly lit shopping centre with dirty white walls. The architect had made no effort to cover up the fact that the owners were money-stooges: willing to sacrifice pleasantness for economy. All was bare and industrial and efficient. Shops cowered in the corners selling astonishingly cheap clothes — prices procured from the money-god by sacrificing the rights of foreign children. I was in a shopping centre like any other. A temple of mass consumption. And there they were, walking side by side.

I watched their black hats bob along as they turned their heads. Glancing at everything, but never interrupting their voluble conservation. Did they perceive, as they looked, the extent of secular degeneration? The soullessness of our time? The sadness? Perhaps not. Perhaps they saw only a shopping centre: they had seen it before. They will see others. After all, they are in this world, even while they cherish the idea of being apart from it.

But no one is apart from the world. I am not apart from the world. And I hated the shopping centre. I felt defiled by it, saddened. I envied the Jewish boys: because they have an exit. Like me, they can frown and sigh at this world. But they have the reassurance of feeling separate from it all. They have communities and ideas to which they can readily escape. Will they not soon return to their families and synagogues? To their days of rest and their challah eating? They will have candles and bread and automatically timed light switches. And there will be not an H&M in sight. I was jealous.

Later, I saw a nun. Walking slowly and rigid and bent to the left. She was alone. No one at the convent had offered to accompany her. Or perhaps she had turned down several offers: preferring to walk by herself. She shuffled amongst the hoards of people; she felt the heat of the midday; she heard the cries of children deprived of toys; she coughed in the dust stirred up by construction workers. I wondered if she felt separate from the world.

If I were this nun, I would be compelled to feel a modicum of superiority. I would look at the buzzing crowd and judge myself ever so slightly above them. I would be bustled by people with eyes stuck to window displays and cellphones: ready always to launch themselves towards whatever distraction suggests itself.  I would gaze on, in my nun’s habit, and think, but never admit, that I know better than them. And that I, therefore, am superior.

But the nun herself didn’t think this. She wandered down the large Parisian boulevard just as she had done before. She had walked busy footpaths many times. She will walk others. After all, she too is in this world. She must buy socks and soap and medicine. And so there she was. There was nothing special about that particular outing during that sunny hour on that wide boulevard.

Glistening shops were everywhere to be seen. Glass-steel buildings rose above our heads. Inside these one can find still more rows of shops: layers upon layers of shops containing shoppers. Neither the nun nor myself went inside. We stuck to the boulevard. Picking around road works and jumping out of the way of a fast walking woman who, having just exited one shop, was in a fantastic hurry to get into another one.

The nun and that fast walking shopper-woman. What’s there between them? Are they so different? I suspect that there is little to commend either’s life. Both the nun and the fast-walker will have their happinesses and sorrows. The nun will carefully stoke her life-long fetish for Jesus. The fast-walker will forever itch her impulse to buy things. Viewed from this vantage, both the nun and the fast-walker have similarly unenviable lives.

It could be said of the nun that her life is better since it is more resource efficient. An environmentalist might commend the nun for her frugality while denouncing the fast-walker. But I feel unable to condemn the fast-walker for her excess. Yes, she probably buys clothes that she doesn’t wear very often. But she and her peers are responsible for sustaining the consumer-driven markets that have created the enormous material abundance of developed nations. I depend on this abundance. It is relatively easy for most people to obtain food and water and clothing. These were not always so easily procured by so many. All this development has created human tragedies on a harrowing scale. But the achievement of the consumer-driven markets cannot go unmarked.

However, consumer-driven economies cannot go on as they have been. It will become increasingly difficult to sustain this way of life. Change will come. How will people respond?

Jehovah’s witnesses visit in pairs. One rings the doorbell; the other stands back holding a bag full of pamphlets and smiles lugubriously. The doorbell-ringer launches into an animated explanation about how he or she is looking forward to the coming of an age of peace: in which the world is restored to a state of splendour. The trees will be magnolious and burdened with fruit. The rivers will run clear. The children will play nice games and not swear at each other. They ask me, don’t you want this too?

I send them away. And they walk, side by side, on to the next house, and to the next rejection. Here, my imagination fails me somewhat. I can almost peep inside the minds of young hasidic yeshiva students, or of nuns, or of busy shoppers. But what could possibly be inside the minds of these fervent Jehovah’s witnesses while they unsuccessfully proselytise?

I know this much: they feel separate from the world. Just like conservative Christians or Hasidic Jews or the wives of Daesh fighters. And, like these, they anticipate an apocalypse. They salivate at the thought of the end of the world: the coming of a messiah; the burning of the earth; a cleansing fire from heaven (or, perhaps, their own rocket launchers). And I wonder whether, in coming decades, they will only redouble their fervour as they watch the secular world struggle to protect its swollen populations from plagues and droughts.

As much as I wretch at consumer culture — and pine to leave — I refuse to renounce my citizenship. I am just as much a member of this society as the fast-walking women. As the children who cry for toys. As the pedestrians whose faces are glued to cellphones. And we will all, together, bear the weight of the coming decades. If it means the demise of consumer-dominated economies, I will be there to bemoan the consequences alongside everyone else.

And I will be there to watch those who think that our pain and our suffering is prophecy of an impending divine massacre. I will watch those who wish for fire and death. I will watch as they walk: their two feet on the same ground as my two feet; their minds ensnared in myth.

Proselytisers @ Paris

Image

rouault christ en peches

One of history’s more successful proselytisers (judged by absolute numbers) is shown here in conversation with two fishermen who appear to be only mildly disinterested. Georges Rouault’s Christ et pêcheurs. 1937. In the Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris.

Unborn Again

Samuel Butler’s Erewhonians believe that, upon their birth into the physical world, the minds of unborn spirits are wiped clean. This explains why newborn babies (each possessing one spirit) have no memories of their former life.

I could sympathize when last week I opened my eyes to find myself looking up at a strange and unrecognizable face. How horrible and frightening — no wonder newborn babies cry! I screwed up my face and passed out.

Later, I was looking at the faces of two paramedics. This time I didn’t freak out — their attentive looks of calm concern were vaguely reassuring. I was, however, very confused. I couldn’t recall a past and I was struggling to remain aware of the present. ‘What day is it?’ ‘How did you get here?’ ‘What is your last memory?’ I asked to be told what year it was. “2015,” they told me. “2015?” I questioned. Astonishing.

And then I lost my grip. I slipped back into a timeless stupor. By the time I regained consciousness I had completely lost my way. I once again asked to be told the year. (“2015,” just as before.) I asked this question many times during the short ride to the hospital. The year 2015 seemed very much like it should be in the future. If they had told me that it was 2010 I think I would have felt much less surprised.

Amidst all this bewilderment, I asked something to the effect of “what?” or “why?”. The paramedic helpfully informed me that I was waking up from a seizure. This word, or the way he said it, gave my situation a concreteness which consoled me greatly at the time. It gave me something to cling to. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘a seizure… a seizure…’

Somebody asked me my name and I was quick to tell them. “Hadleigh Frost.” My voice was strong and sure. I was proud to be so good at saying my name on request: that seemed like something not all post-seizure epileptics would be able to do. Some vestigial part of my brain felt proud that, even in an ambulance, I might be outperforming my peers.

I remembered my name (and my hubris) but I didn’t remember enough about life to worry about whether this seizure would have ramifications. I didn’t ponder the implications of having an epileptic head. I didn’t worry about the fragility of my mind. I didn’t have any deep feelings at all. I was existing on the surface of the moment. On the faces of the paramedics. On the soft purr of the ambulance engine. On the damp orange shadows of the passing sodium lamps. I was only in the present. I gave no thought to past or future.

And this turned out to be a wonderful way to exist: I was happy; I was comfortable; and, by the time I was settling into the emergency department, I was euphoric. I was on the surface of every sentence — buoyant and jolly. The slightest thing made me laugh. I confided to my friend that “I don’t think I’ve been this happy in months!”

It is hard enough to know whether one is happy or unhappy now, and still harder to compare the relative happiness or unhappiness of different times of one’s life; the utmost that can be said is that we are fairly happy so long as we are not distinctly aware of being miserable. — Butler

Indeed, having a seizure was one of my least distinctly miserable experiences in April. My post-seizure mind was bathed in a warm chemical afterglow, and I spent most of my hospital stay feeling grateful for and awestruck by the world around me. ‘How amazing our civilization is!’ ‘How wonderful it is that hospitals exist!’ ‘How clever that registrar was just then!’

I was also very pleased that, with very little effort, I was able to alert my parents to my situation. Incidentally, those messages left my friend’s mobile phone travelling at the speed of light: which brings me to Albert Einstein, whose theory of gravitation was published one hundred years ago.

Before Einstein, the universe was thought to evolve according to the laws of physics with reference to an absolute background of universal time. Everyone, it was thought, experienced the same “now” — the same “present moment”. This seemed sensible enough. But, even in the 18th century, the nature of time was still confusing for physicists and philosophers. For instance, the classical laws of physics are reversible, so why do we observe things progressing (entropy increasing) in one direction of time only? Why can we recall the past but not the future?

Einstein’s work only exacerbated people’s trouble with time. General relativity necessarily does away with any notion of the “present moment”. What one considers to be “the present” completely depends on where one is in the universe and how fast one is travelling. This does not mean that physics is subjective. It was Einstein’s great triumph to show that everyone’s disparate experiences of time can successfully reconciled by a sophisticated structure called spacetime. The catch is that this structure, spacetime, is unchanging — it is timeless. (Einstein’s theory is not controversial. It has been confirmed by all hitherto conducted experiments. Most commentators consider it to be physics at its most elegant and refined.)

“The present” is not a well-defined notion. Nevertheless, in our subjective experience of life it feels like there is a present moment happening right now. How does this experience emerge from a timeless universe? Why does it feel like one moment in time, the present, is being picked out as special above all the other moments? Some philosophers call this the ‘problem of the now’. Indeed, according to one philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, this is a problem that troubled Einstein. It troubled me following my seizure.

Before I fell onto the floor, I was sautéing courgettes. And I was listening to my friend. While he spoke I was looking around: at the plates, the greasy spatula, the speckles on the bench top. Then the speckles blurred; the plates grew in size. And I listened as my friend said a sentence two times over — the exact same way each time. All the while the massive dinner plates (oscillating in size and shape) dominated my attention.

“Did you say that twice?”

“No?”

I didn’t see his face because I was still looking at the plates. For a moment, my mind had become an echo chamber and the echo of reality had felt as real as reality itself — a deja vu.

What do these experiences tell us about our brains? Our conscious perception of time (and the sequence of events that make it up) is dependent on underlying neurological processes. Since time can seem to pass at different rates, I am forced to conclude that the time-scale of these processes (as measured by an external observer) is variable. Further, it seems that it must be possible for these processes to feedback on themselves to create repeats in the signal that explain the “echo” I experienced. These hypotheses are not unreasonable, but the details are difficult to fill in (even given the progress of contemporary neuroscience).

However, a more beguiling problem is raised by the “problem of the now”. An objective description of physics spurns the “present moment” in favour of Einstein’s spacetime. The problem is to explain how, in spite of this, our subjective now arises out of our brains. But how could we ever verify such an explanation? The very act of having an experience and forming a memory is intimately connected to our perception of the present moment. Would a test subject who is not experiencing the present moment ever be able to report this?

One might imagine a theory that predicts how to precisely modulate our subjective experience of time with drugs or electrical stimuli. That way, we could directly test whether our experiences are in accordance with the theory.

Of course, this sounds much very much like something that billions of people do all the time. N-methyl-D-aspartate is a protein found in nerve cells that controls the flow of charged ions through the cell membrane. The movement of ions into and out of nerve cells is a key mechanism underlying the whole nervous system: and it is easily tampered with. Substances that interfere with the behaviour of NMDA include ketamine, dextromethorphan, and ethanol. All of these substances have interesting effects on one’s subjective experiences. Indeed, ketamine is a common anesthetic, and we are (most of us) familiar with the amnesic effects of alcohol. The blocking of ion channels directly interferes with one’s conscious perception of time.

Dextromethorphan is particularly interesting. Commonly found in over-the-counter cough syrup, DXM blocks ion channels and also increases serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) concentrations in synapses (by inhibiting its re-uptake into other cells away from the synapse). At sufficient doses, recreational users of DXM become euphoric and experience feelings of dissociation from their bodies and environment. They may experience changes in their perception of time (events occurring faster or slower than normal) and even lose their sense of time altogether.

Hallucinogenic drugs solve neither the problem of consciousness nor the problem of the now. As I said earlier, one difficulty is that we don’t know the details. Precisely how do modifications to the behaviour of ion channels affect our subjective experience? Billions of neurons are involved in giving rise to consciousness, and we are only beginning to understand how they are wired up to achieve this.

But even when scientists do report a complete map of the human brain, will it explain our experience of time? Will it make sense of consciousness? Probably not. Our sense of time is something that taints and biases every single thought that we have: conscious thought and our sense of time are likely much the same thing. In order to understand why ‘now is happening now’ we will need an insightful new way of talking about ourselves and our experiences. I can’t imagine what such an insight might look like.

*

Why do you Samuel Butler’s unborn babies (living comfortably in timeless eternity) freely choose to have their brains wiped and enter into our temporal world? Butler tells us that they do this because they get bored with eternity. The underlying truth to Butler’s parable might be that one cannot be aware of one’s existence unless one is experiencing (and has experienced) the present. That, in fact, conscious awareness and ‘the present’ are one in the same thing.

Perishables

I recently found myself putting out chairs in preparation for an evangelical church service. I was an alien from a universe of material composition with a cosmological history. And I felt rude; I felt like an intruder. I had been invited, but I couldn’t displace the feeling that the polite thing would have been to decline. After putting out some chairs I chose a back corner seat where I could be easily ignored and there marinated in concerns over my rudeness. We had put the chairs out in a school hall replete with the shiny walls of a gymnasium and laminated pieces of coloured paper (one was entitled “physical education and the word of God”).

Before long, a man with a kindly, sensitive voice took up behind the lectern whence he would soon lead us in worship. But before this he tried to justify the act of singing to God by placing it within an ancient tradition. He read aloud the words of Elihu from the book of Job. In particular, he read verse 24 of chapter 36:

“Remember to extol his work, which people have praised in song.”

The worship leader told us that the book of Job was written around 4,000 BCE, which may or may not be true, depending on what you mean and who you ask. In any case, the point is that singing songs to God is a very old practice. And if it ain’t broke…

We then commenced a medley of songs that the congregation knew well. Everyone stood up and happily began singing about how amazing God is, and about Jesus, and about his death.

After the songs, it was time to for some practical notices. The congregation was reminded of two upcoming bible studies: one for the men, a separate one for the women. They were also urged to think about attending this year’s impact bible conference which, in addition to quality bible teaching, will have a children’s program and food trucks. Finally, congregants were prompted to register and pay for the church camp: they needed precise numbers in advance for catering purposes.

Business concluded, a man rose to the lectern to lead us in prayer. In opening his prayer to God, he remarked that the gathered congregants are separate in God’s eyes and are privy to special knowledge of God’s plan for humankind. He then thanked God for bestowing this immense privilege on the congregation. This was in contradistinction, I presume, with the possibility that God might have given this privilege to a different group of people — leaving the present congregation out in the cold.

The prayer leader now turned his attention to the freedom of religion. He thanked God for this freedom to worship which, he said, “comes from you, Lord.” This was a remarkable thing to say. Religious freedom is enforced by the secular laws of the New Zealand government. And yet the congregation seemed well disposed to the idea that secular statehood is, in fact, a gift from God himself.

It was time to pray over more specific concerns. One congregant’s mother was going to be changing her blood pressure medication soon and God was humbly asked to help the doctor choose a drug that would “work well for her.” Somebody else had recently started a trial medication which, amongst other successes, had apparently alleviated an inveterate cough — an outcome for which God was praised.

The preacher that Sunday, Bryan, was a handsome dark-haired man with a deep sonorous voice whose flattened vowels reeked of New Zealand masculinity. Bryan was most definitely the main event. He spoke well and his many-faceted sermon (based on the parable of the rich fool) echoed the age-old Christian call to abandon worldly riches.

I describe it here as ‘his sermon’, but Bryan was quick to remind us that God himself was ministering to us through the holy spirit indwelling within Bryan and within the words of scripture. Thus, Bryan’s message was also God’s message and, he told us, we should respect it accordingly.

The first thing Bryan included in God’s message was a quote from John Rockefeller who, in response to the question “how much money is enough?”, is said to have replied “just a little bit more.” This witty riposte firmly established the foolishness of John Rockefeller, and so Bryan turned instead to the (comparatively wise) words of Jesus. His reading began:

Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them,“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” — Luke 12:13-15

Be on your guard; do not chase after wealth!

This message ought to be well familiar to Evangelicals. The problem, says the preacher, is that if we are putting our time and energy into chasing wealth, then we are not putting our time and energy into worshipping God. This is tantamount to worshipping wealth instead of God, which is idolatry. And idolatry is a sin. In other words: we are made to worship God, not money.

On the subject of worshipping God, Bryan now took a rather dramatic segue. He reminded us that in God’s throne room in heaven there are angels called seraphim that fly around God and sing him songs of praise without ever stopping. It is impractical for humans to sing songs of praise constantly: so we humans will never be quite as awesome as the seraphim! Indeed, in our earthly life, we will always be a little bit evil because our hearts are inherently sinful and will always be leading us astray. The only solution to this frightening affliction, Bryan reminded us, is being saved by Jesus Christ. Curiously however, being saved by Jesus doesn’t necessarily prevent you from committing sins — one has to work on that one’s whole life. Thus, being saved by Jesus seems at best a temporary solution which takes care of things until you die … which is when you stop committing sins for good.

Having reminded us of God’s merciful gift — that of Jesus’s torturous death and resurrection — Bryan then went on to inform us that, without this amazing gift, life is basically meaningless. After all, the scriptures do say:

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. — James 4:14

Your life is no more than the steam the floats from the top of a cup of hot coffee: there is basically no point. Bryan further read to us from the Psalms:

Do not be overawed when others grow rich, when the splendour of their houses increases; for they will take nothing with them when they die… — Psalm 49:16-17

The lesson is clear: there is no point chasing after riches; the only thing we should put our time and effort into is Jesus.

Unfortunately, just because we should do something does not make it easy to do! Bryan understood this. As an example, he turned our attention to yet another wealthy American entrepreneur: Bill Gates. It turns out that, as far as Bryan is aware, Mr. Gates is sadly not a Christian. So why did God bless Bill with all that money? God could have given that money to a nice Christian man who could have used it for doing some good Christian things (as opposed to the evil secular things that Bill does with it). So what was God thinking? The truth is that we don’t know exactly what God is thinking. But Bryan neatly explained the anomalous wealth of Bill Gates by invoking the doctrine of common grace: namely that God will “bless who he will bless” according to “his own purposes.” This means that God will sometimes even bless wretched souls like Bill Gates for reasons that we simply cannot fathom (but which, in Gates’ case, may have something to do with alleviating the pain of the world’s poor and malaria stricken populations).

Bryan understands that it can be difficult not to envy Bill Gates. But it is ultimately much better to just do what Jesus says. After all, everyone who does not follow the Lord’s instructions will perish and suffer. To quote again from Psalm 49, God will “cast them down to ruin” and “destroy all who are unfaithful.”

Looking up from his lectern, Bryan told us, with a tinge of sadness floating on his voice, that “God really doesn’t want anyone to perish.” However, the fact remains, he said, that most people are “unprepared for eternity” … which ranks as a most understated euphemism for despotic, industrial-scale torture.

The utterance of this sad truth cast a quiet, somber feeling over the shiny school gymnasium walls. But Bryan was quick to deflect our attention to more uplifting thoughts. He told us that those who trust in God have a rich inheritance waiting for them in heaven. These riches completely transcend all imaginable earthly riches. And these heavenly riches will exist for all eternity, never fading away.

“May we never rest until they are ours,” he said. “The true Christian is the only person who is truly rich.”

Hearing his sonorous voice ring out with this proclamation, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus: “be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

Imitations

I count myself among the scores of people who have come to admire Alan Turing as a captivating figure of the twentieth century and as something of a martyr for the secular cause. However, I dislike Turing’s ‘imitation principle’. The source of my discomfort is that I can’t help but associate Turing’s principle with the (overwhelmingly flawed) design arguments for the existence of God.

Turing insisted that if a machine is capable of reproducing intelligent behaviour such that we cannot distinguish the answers it gives from the answers of a human, then it is unreasonable not to describe that machine as ‘intelligent’.

Turing seems to get at this idea on account of the following line of thought. He asks: how is it that you know that other humans are conscious and intelligent? Turing claims that we infer this belief by studying the actions and words of other humans. We notice that people say and do the same things as ourselves. Thus it is reasonable to think that other people also think and experience the world the same way as ourselves. This, Turing might say, is the reason we believe other people are conscious. Extending this idea to machines we might conclude that if a machine says the same things as a human, then it must experience the world in a human-like way and ought to be considered intelligent.

But this is not the whole story! We certainly do observe our peers and note the essential similarity of their behaviour to our own. However, we have the additional knowledge that other humans also share physical similarities with ourselves: the physical structure of their brains is essentially the same to that of our own brains. This empirical fact is essential: without it we would not be justified in interring that our own subjective consciousness is also experienced by others. In order to draw a strong analogy between the internal life of a machine and human intelligence it is thus not sufficient to observe behavioural similarities. One must additionally demonstrate that the internal functioning of the machine has essential similarities with the functioning of the brain.

Suppose a machine whose operations are demonstrably different from those of the human brain was to successfully imitate intelligent human behaviour. To my mind, it does not seem reasonable to call such a machine ‘intelligent’ — in the sense that we employ this word when describing ourselves. It seems far more reasonable to say that such a machine is ‘imitating intelligent behaviour’.

In rhetoric, it is easy to argue by analogy whilst brushing over details that apply in one case but not the other. We might call this the fallacy of a false analogy and it is my objection to the imitation principle. This pattern of deceit is also found in intelligent design arguments. The parallel with Turing’s line of thought is hard to miss.

Before we proceed to intelligent design, it behoves us to mention that, in his writings, Turing only ever went so far as suggesting that we should use the word ‘intelligent’ to describe clever machines. He never, to my knowledge, made assertions beyond this suggestion. Sadly, the apologist for intelligent design does not wish merely to suggest that we use the word ‘designed’ to describe the universe.

In an intelligent design argument the writer might began with a man-made object like a book (which contains information) or a watch (whose precise movements serve a coordinated whole). We all know that books have authors and watches have watchmakers. But, like Turing, they ask the question: how do we know that? The apologist claims that we infer the existence of an intelligent author from the nonrandom information contained in the book. We infer, they say, the existence of an intelligent watchmaker from the fact that all the parts work together for one purpose.

But this is manifestly not how I have arrived at my belief in authors and watchmakers! I know that humans exist. I have observed people writing. I have seen people write things that have subsequently been printed. I have met people who have claimed to have written books. And so on. It is for these reasons — and not the book’s ordered contents — that I have empirical grounds to inductively infer the existence of an author when I see a book. And it is this type of direct empirical evidence that also means I am justified in believing in a watchmaker (or, these days, a watch manufacturing corporation, a team of watch engineers, and a whole slew of managers, accountants, lawyers and marketers). Books do contain ordered letters and watches do contain working parts: but these facts are incidental, and they are not the grounds for our empirical beliefs about books and watches.

Our apologist, however, does not recognise this error and will be quick to push false analogies with the natural world. Regard the DNA molecule, they say. (Or the eyeball. Or the laws of physics.) The DNA contained in living cells contains nonrandom, ordered information — just as books do. So, as for books, we should, they say, infer the existence of an author for this information.

If they are particularly bold, they may even plead that this ‘author of DNA’ must, in fact, be God himself. By this stage we are several fallacies deep. Even so, let’s drive home the point: I’ve seen people writing books, I’ve not seen gods writing DNA. Nor do I have any reason to suspect that gods were engaged in making DNA. In fact, all the evidence suggests no gods were involved. This is because one can say a great deal about the precise processes through which DNA is replicated and mutated. Moreover, we have every reason to believe that DNA has a non-intelligent origin on account of the common origin of the species. For instance, consider the very fact that all living organisms share the DNA machinery in all of its idiosyncrasies (right down to the chirality of the damn amino acids!). This is almost inconceivable were it not for the common ancestry of all organisms. In this way, the empirical details of biology point strongly to a biological narrative, just as empirical details about books point strongly to their human authorship.

On these grounds, then, we have found no reasonable grounds to presume that the universe has a ‘universe designer’ — whatever that means. It is laughable that some have the temerity to claim special knowledge about the nature of this designer. Even so, these fallacious arguments seem doggedly persistent. Why do people repeat them? Likely it is because they are invested in the conclusions. Apologists desperately want justification for their religions, while Turing desperately wanted to witness the birth of true artificial intelligence.

I can empathise with Turing. So let me close by returning to his imitation principle and suggesting an adapted version in light of the above criticism. In order to say that a machine possesses “human-like intelligence” or “consciousness” let us require the following two conditions:

  1. The machine must be behaviourally similar to humans: its responses to prompts are indistinguishable from human responses &c.
  2. The machine must be structurally similar to humans: the machine’s physiology should bear a certain resemblance (definition needed) to human brain systems.

The second condition is what needs further development. Perhaps we could find a macroscopic statistical quantity that characterises the ‘informational sophistication’ of a physical system. This might similar to the way that physicists use entropy to characterise how ‘jumbled-up’ a system is. I am thinking here of the spirit one finds throughout Max Tegmark’s paper on consciousness. A successful attempt at formulating a ‘strong imitation principle’ of this kind might suggest new strategies for building truly intelligent systems that go beyond the present design paradigm of imitating human behaviour.

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.

Income’s It

Imagine a board meeting in the 1960s: an executive with a square chin and narrow black tie gapes at an out-of-breath, garrulous presenter who is jabbing his wooden presenting stick at a chart on a display board. “But what’s the point, Frank?” asks square-chin to the presenter, whose name is ‘Frank’. Frank’s name has, from birth, tied him, in the minds of others, to the virtue of frankness — so square-chin thinks that Frank ought to have a point. Square-chin is not interested in the nuances and distracting details. He just wants to know if his car company is going to pay out a dividend this quarter.

In any business meeting or technocratic political melange one finds difficult moral thought conveniently missing. Thoughts of what is right and good and worthy have been quietly shunted out of the way and replaced with an expedient, an almighty and easy-to-follow governing principle of society: make more than your neighbour. Sell more cars than that other company. Make more money from exports than that other country.

This is a wonderful system and it should be praised for two reasons. Firstly, we have now organised the available resources of Earth to such an extent that there is an awe-worthy amount of excess. We have never before had more food, or more advanced machines, or faster means of transport, or better pain relief medication. There may be some problems with how this excess is distributed amongst ourselves, but even the most anti-capitalist pre-modern fetishizer must see these developments for what they are: amazing and unprecedented.

The second reason to praise the system is this: it generates activity without needing any real reason. The auto executive only wants to make and sell more care. Perhaps, in the recesses of his mind, he assumes that society is ultimately benefited by his actions. After all, if there are more cars then more people can get around faster; this, in turn, will make it easier for other businesses to compete to sell the most of whatever they’re making.

And this is how we organise billions of people to go about their lives helping to create all the excesses of modern civilisation. This is how we keep everyone so busy. And we are very clever to cut off the question of ‘why?’ at its root by replacing its meaning. When executives or technocrats ask ‘why?’ they want to know how an action is going to increase sales or exports. Thus, paralysing questions such as ‘what ought we to do?’ have been replaced by the manageable arithmetical task of calculating which actions optimise revenue. Indeed, more revenue means more activity. And more activity is good.

But, to use that lazy and commonly misappropriated phrase, what is the point? Why should we occupy ourselves in this way? What ought we do with the excesses we are producing? Genuine answers to these questions cannot be found in the many hymns of those who worship economic activity!

In case you did not yet know, there is no point. That’s what makes the pursuits of higher leaning so bountifully fun. Some of us are curious about the origins of the universe; or how cells differentiate in the body; or the astronomy of the ancient Greeks. There is no homogenising ‘point’ to ever silence these enquiries. These pursuits of the mind do not sit within a calculus of maximal revenue, and so they will never cease to be various and interesting.

Most people do not have the privilege and luxury of the higher pursuits — what of them? The example of industrialised civilisation suggests that society functions most impressively when there is some base principle to orchestrate everyone’s activities. People once pointed to God — civilisation organised itself to build cathedrals, strained-glass windows and the printing press. People pointed to economic activity — we organised ourselves to rape the Earth of all its resources; and inadvertently raised living standards. Despite its flaws, the industrialised world is doing very much better than feudal Europe, but many of us are not content with the society we have created.

So we ask: what society do we want? And what principle, what organising motif, can we imbed in civilisation to achieve our aims? These questions are beyond the expedient of economic reasoning — one must ask oneself what one wants. The astonishing thing is that, even though there is no ‘ultimate point’, the human heart still has a habit of wanting something. We must never stop arguing about what that something might be.

Bad Faith for a Good Cause?

I am not a scholar of irreligious trends in the west. But I am very aware of the professors and scholars who write books and give speeches propounding the incoherence of religious beliefs. They are right to point out that religious thought is incoherent and at odds with our best understanding of the universe. They are right to point out some of the terrible behaviours committed within religious contexts and by religious people. And so, with a deeply-felt moral ferocity, these academic atheists take to the stage to repeatedly explain why God isn’t there. They are right to do this. But what of their personal motivations?

Some academic atheists motivate their fight by making claims about religion. They say: religion encourages conflict; religion encourages immoral behaviour; and, religion perverts the progress of science and technology. It follows, they might claim, that reducing global religiosity will make the world less violent and encourage technological progress. This conclusion is probably wrong. Conflict, for instance, can be inflamed by many different social identities: e.g. political identifications, nationalistic feelings, and class divisions. Merely removing religion would not eliminate these other troubling sources of bad behaviour.

I further complain that ‘religion’ is poorly defined. We often give this word its meaning through a Christian lens. Christian practice commonly includes an assertion of beliefs  — the existence of God, for instance. So, it is generally felt that one should attack this belief in God as the root cause of all religion and its ills. But not all religious practices include the idea of God, and not all religious practices emphasise declarative beliefs in the way that Christians do. So, to attack belief in God is not at all the same as attacking ‘religion’ — which comprises many different phenomena and defies a simple creedal understanding.

Even Christianity itself is clearly not just about the creed. Belief in the deity (and its son) is given lip-service in all the appropriate ways, but Christians spend their time doing much more than merely asserting this belief. A foreign visitor who does not speak the local language would observe that Christians are intent on singing, creating artworks, building feats of architecture, huddling together with their eyes closed, drinking wine from a cup, and so on. Indeed, for many centuries, most people experienced Christianity in precisely this more tangible way.

For most of Christian history, discussing theological beliefs was not important to laymen (nor were the words of the bible accessible to them). (Though, theological divisions were, however, extremely important for politics.) For the common folk, Christianity was imperceptible: it was a part of every aspect of culture. In particular, the moral conventions of that time were reinforced culturally through the propaganda of Christian ceremonies and rituals. Just as our own normative cultural expectations are reinforced through the media. Thus, to look at Christian Europe and say that ‘religion encourages immorality’ is to ignore that there was no causal separation between Christian practice and moral practice. Whatever moral feelings emerged from culture, the church institutionally reinforced them — just as we have (even more powerful) institutions to enforce our own moral doctrines.

We find medieval morality repugnant not because of its relationship to belief in god, but because it doesn’t meet the higher standards of our twenty-first-century morality. The bad morals of the past were not the direct consequence of belief in god, or even of religious practice itself: they were simply bad morals. Coming up with good morals is a difficult task, and merely removing belief in god from a population does nothing to guarantee the creation and maintenance of good moral discourse.

So why is it so difficult to maintain nonviolence, good morals, and a commitment to scientific knowledge? Perhaps one of the most prominent difficulties is group think, the herd instinct; that temptation we have to eagerly adopt the identity of a group that shuns all outsiders.

Groups, and the conflict they promote, are not always evil. Political alliances, for instance, promote conflicts. But if the ‘correct’ political group wins a conflict and enacts policies that improve society, then that, ultimately, might be worthwhile. One of democracy’s best qualities is that it allows precisely these political conflicts to proceed without violence. However, the adoption of democracy itself against reigning totalitarianism is ultimately a violent, conflict-ridden opposition of two group identities. I support decisive moves to democratic rule. But, concerned about the possibility of sustained and harmful violence, I can easily understand that it is not always a good time for a democratic uprising. Higher humanitarian ideals must sometimes outweigh our desire to see the rise of fairer political governance. Indeed, without the wealth and richness of the West, many countries find it understandably difficult to set up and run the complicated and resource-hungry democratic governments that we enjoy.

I think the same restraint must be employed in the transition to secularity. Just as I support the adoption of democracy, I support the adoption of atheism. I want to live in a world with more democracy and more atheism because I can see that such a world could ultimately be better than what we have now. Religious thought is unhelpful and extraneous to scientific discourse. Religious alliances do create yet another pointless source of group-driven conflicts. However, the world is a complicated place, and I don’t accept that there is a simple relationship between god-worshipping and how bad the world is. Indeed, as with the introduction of democracy, I think that the loss of religion is contingent on other, more important concerns. Not all societies are privileged enough to have sufficient wealth to eliminate hunger and disease, let alone maintain powerful institutions of justice and education. In lieu of these institutions, surely religious practices are of immense value?

In this way, religion can be a humane apparatus of control. I mean this in two senses: firstly, civic control — the enforcing of good civic laws that punish bad practices like murder and encourage social cohesion; and secondly, psychological control — the mental structures to provide resilience to cary on in a difficult world. It does not seem wise to remove these controls until societies have sufficient resources to erect more sophisticated institutions and ideas to manage their civic and psychological lives.

It seems inevitable, then, that much harm would come to an impoverished society that tried to secularise too fast or too early. I would love more people to enjoy the fruits of science instead of the smoke of dogma — science is better. And I am delighted to live in an overwhelmingly irreligious society. But religion performs a social function. Indeed, for many societies, religion is inseparable from the society that ‘practices’ it. Religious behaviour is social behaviour; and the evolution of social behaviours takes time.

Let us now turn back to Western, secular society itself. Just as religious and developing nations need civic conventions (that can be religiously enforced), I see see an immense need in the West for better ‘rules of society’ — rules that go far beyond the law and govern how we conduct lives with each other. I think that a troubling problem of our age is finding the identities and conventions that will allow people to live lives that they find fulfilling and interesting. Indeed, it is easy to be sympathetic to those many people who make (profitably) use of identities and conventions that are dredged up from religious tradition. Religious identities and conventions help to make people feel happy and optimistic in the face of illness; they build emotionally close bonds outside of the family; and they can turn immense suffering into ‘strengthening experiences’, rather than destructive ones.

One might observe that, in the consumerist world, we have replaced many of the conventions of piety with conventions of material ambition. However, it is (almost certainly) impossible to give the ‘gift’ of a consumer life to the entire world population, especially within our present day economic system. And besides that, many of us find consumerist culture ugly and uninteresting.

In place of material gain, I imagine a slide towards new social conventions and institutions that encourage individuals to participate in things larger than themselves. Conventions that encourage the fulfilment of our (one might say ‘vestigial’) emotional needs, and that encourage us to take an interest in thought and the history of ideas. That is, I imagine a society of people who take pride in our collective consciousness. Such people exist already. But these people are the subjects of immense privilege — wealth, university education, western citizenship — and, moreover, one observes that they too are ruled by many of our society’s unhelpful conventions (like gender roles and the ultra-moralisation of monogamy).

It is difficult to conceive of how we might form the social infrastructure — the words, practices and ideas — that will facilitate a world where more people can feel fulfilled and engaged. I think we must look to poetry and psychology and history to reimagine society. We ought to consider the societies of the past, and contemplate how the institutions of society relate to our psychological lives. We ought to find ways to talk about ourselves and our connections with each other in an age when relationships look as bedraggled (if enormously desirable and fetishized) as ever.

It is silly to think that the death of God in our collective consciousness will be sufficient to bring about these new social customs. Academic atheists and other secular thinkers should continue to explain, with compassion, why religious thought is wrong. But we must do more than just expound on the nonexistence of God. We must give serious thought to the social institutions of our society. We must help people imagine the possibilities of secular life. And, in less privileged parts of the world, we must admit that there is a good cause for people to hold on to their bad faith.

Painting the Moon Red

For the longest time, the sole purpose of society was to paint objects red so as to please an onlooking alien emperor. Early humans were quite unsophisticated in their attempts. They would paint things red by slaughtering farm animals and smearing the blood on bronze statues and door posts. Some humans discovered ways to use the bark of some trees to colour things red. However, for most of human history humans did a terrible job of painting things red.

Then we discovered how to synthesize large amounts of red ink. After this discovery, we commenced applying ink to all manner of objects using brushes. Over time we refined the brush technique of painting by making faster and more dexterous brushes. These developments built on themselves, and the coverage of the earth in red paint jumped dramatically. The emperor was pleased. Eventually — thanks to the development of spray-painting drones — we managed to paint the whole planet red. Unfortunately, our supply of the necessary materials for the manufacture of red ink was completely devastated. (We had not invested in a long-term recycling plan; weathered red paint was simply touched up with fresh paint made from non-renewables.) Most priests, however, did not think that our ink-shortage was a big problem. After all, we have painted the Earth red — the emperor should now be satisfied with us and we will have need for more red ink.

But our inky story did not end there. On a quiet Friday afternoon the world was sent into turmoil when the priests announced that the alien emperor, not sufficiently satisfied by our effort, was demanding that we paint to moon red too. At first, our best minds protested this commandment. After all, there were many technical obstacles. Our spray-painting drones would not work in the atmosphere-free environment of the moon. And besides, the ink reserves were terminally low!

Over time, the world’s geniuses started to think of solutions. World governments worked together to start new think-tank groups with new names. Research scientists started including paragraphs about “applications to the red pigment problem” in their grant applications.

Over decades, we discovered more efficient methods to synthesize ink. A prototype spray-painting moon-buggy was built and tested. The moon-project was still a daunting task, but unreasonably handsome people on the television were optimistic that with continued investment in moon-buggies (and one or two unforeseeable scientific breakthroughs) the moon would be painted within the century.

Of course, no one questioned why we were painting the moon in the first place. No one dared to suggest that we choose a different goal. No one ventured to consider that the emperor did not actually exist. And so it was that we did begin painting the moon red. And we did run out of red ink. And so we had to stop painting things red. And the moon looked rather silly — being only half red.

In those days, humankind was dazed and confused. But, in a helpful turn of events, the alien emperor died of complications following a surgery to remove his inflamed alterior plexiflob soon after the ink supply was exhausted. At least, that is what the priests told us to explain why we did not get punished for our indecently-uncovered moon. No longer under the shadow of the emperor, mankind was finally free to put some thought into determining its future endeavors.

The priests recently suggested that we might be interested in putting our efforts into the attainment of happiness via the careful selection of furniture.

No College, No Kids

P1 Society has access to an unprecedented amount of resources per capita.

P2 Many people do not directly contribute to resource production and manufacture.

P3 In fact, most people do not.

P4 We can still feed these people.

P5 People obtain subsistence through their participation in the consumerist economy which allows people to be employed in the management of goods and services extraneous to our needs and catering only to the desires that we instill in ourselves using financially incentivized propaganda.

P6 To successfully procreate is to be responsible for the creation of a conscious being.

P7 Society produces a surplus of the resources necessary for child rearing and survival.

Corollary 1. Society encourages successful procreative events.

Corollary 2. Genuine participation in society promotes society’s resource production and effectiveness.

Corollary 3. All genuine citizens are responsible for the creation of conscious beings.

P8 Conscious thought is the awareness and comprehension of a world distinct from oneself.

P9 Conscious beings are unique in their ability to undertake conscious thought.

P10 It is good for a conscious being to be allowed to make maximal use of their ability to think.

Corollary 4. It is good for conscious beings to be given an opportunity to reflect on how they could use their conscious thought.

Corollary 5. It is not moral to deny a conscious being the opportunity for reflection if you have the resources to allow for it.

P11 College spaces, and their attendant activities, are conducive to self-examination and self-reflection.

P12 The economic pressures to professionalize and consume are not conducive to reflection.

Corollary 6. It is not moral to create a conscious being in a world dominated by consumption and commerce without also providing college spaces.

THUS, do not breed (or encourage breeding by participating in society) unless college spaces exist and your offspring (or your compatriots’ offspring) will likely be allowed to use them.

What’s the Meaning of Christianity?

The meaning of life is a subject that has drawn a significant amount of commentary — from Hellenistic ethicists to twentieth century British satirists. In my experience, none of the wretched souls that drape this earth can give a very interesting ‘meaning’ for life. It is perhaps odd, then, that ‘the meaning of life’ is waved around by zealous evangelicals like some locked away treasure to which only they have the key. Of course, when you ask to see their treasure they have nothing but a few decontextualised philosophies and several centuries of dust. So why do they make such grand boasts?

Religious faiths have been making boasts for as long as people have had the time to listen to them. Christians have been boasting of the resurrection for a long time indeed. The resurrection story is the central Christian motif. It can nowadays be found packaged as an intensely psychological, vaguely sexual, somewhat bestial narrative about Jesus’ blood-drenched love for mankind. This motif shapes the songs, carves the hearts, and adorns the necks of billions. It is perhaps one of the few common threads uniting Christians across this ever diversifying world.

This is an impressive feat of sociological evolution: the story of how one man was tortured at the hands of the state has been processed into a deeply personal and intensely real experience for billions of people (adults and small children, alike). Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jesus is a stunningly mediocre story for uninitiated heathens.

A scholastically experienced reader of the gospels could be forgiven for not finding the disciples’ resurrection testimonies overly convincing. The accounts contradict each other and were written in less incredulous times. Even the majority of Paul’s credulous contemporaries were not convinced by the story of one man’s unlikely resurrection. And those guys were otherwise able to believe all kinds of stuff.

In the absence of the people (and books, and churches, and television programmes) obsessed with Jesus’ blood, it would be difficult to make a reading of Mark into an arresting spiritual experience. (Especially given the wealth of literature and poetry available to the modern reader.) Nevertheless, one hears stories of born-agains who have felt ‘something special’ whilst reading the gospels. These Christians are, on the whole, not experienced readers of Greco-Roman literature. Instead, their expectations of the bible are formed by a full inoculation of contemporary Christian language and songs. A new member of a Christian community can expect to encounter a full cocktail of such motifs and imagery. They should also expect to meet countless individuals who have felt something special from Jesus and are more than happy to talk about it.

This effect goes both ways: not only do Christian communities coerce people to believe God is risen, the boast of Jesus’ resurrection also helps to make Christian communities strong. The resurrection is a far-fetched claim — it’s the sort of thing one could not believe without reinforcement from others. As such, if you do somehow manage to believe it in the resurrection, this ferments an incredible social bond between you and other believers.

More than that, belief in the resurrection defines outsiders: variously known as ‘the heathens’, ‘the unbelievers’ or ‘the pagans’. These are all the people who don’t believe in the Christian boast (and, depending on who you ask, they might be going to Hell). In other words, Christianity has managed to moralise the mere act of believing in the resuscitation and subsequent levitation of a first century Jewish man tortured at the hands of the Roman state.

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; (1 Cor 1:22-23)

Why did the Christians push to make their resurrection boast so important in the first place? Well, as Paul instructed the Corinthians, “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” No matter how unreasonable the gospel narrative may seem to the modern reader, at the time of Paul’s writing, belief in this narrative had an immediate and stunning value: access to the power and wisdom of God. By believing Paul’s story, second century seekers could imagine themselves as beyond the wisdom afforded to even the most intelligent Greek scholars. What an opportunity! And this is to say nothing of the most pernicious promise of all: never dying.

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain […] (1 Cor 15:13)

To the pagan, it often seems as if Christians seek their biblical assurances because of fear or solipsism: they do not wish to die. This account would make Christianity into a pathetic system whose sole purpose is to allow the faithful to deceive themselves into ignoring death. However, God fearing people tell me that Christianity is more than just a macabre deal with heaven’s gate-keeper. They claim that Christianity is about something deeper. There is something in there that gives Christian lives meaning. So where does meaning enter the picture?

I recently attended a Christian outreach evening called “does life have meaning?” As you might expect, the evening concluded with the assurance that God gives our lives meaning. But how does he do that? And are there any reasons for why God decided to give our lives meaning in the first place? Or was his choice arbitrary? (In which case the meaning that God gave our lives is not ultimately very meaningful.)

The speaker (himself a learned and compassionate man) tentatively suggested that God gives our lives meaning by asking us to fulfil his commands. He recited that famous verse from Mark:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. (Mk. 12:30-31)

It hardly seems to me that this verse, this paltry and uninspired commandment, is enough to allay the crippling problem of what life ‘means’. Earlier in the evening we had been repeatedly assured that no product of philosophy or science has ever managed to find a meaning for life. The meaning of life was paraded about as if it was the ‘question everyone wants to know the answer to’. After all that hype, all they can produce is Mark 12?

Many people have searched their souls and worried about what to do with their lives. I can’t imagine that Mark 12 would be a particularly satisfying consolation for these people. “What are you going to do with your life?” Asks Sarah. “Well, I’m going to love God and love my neighbour,” replies Jim. Sarah frowns, “sure … but what are you going to do with your life?” It’s hardly a satisfactory situation.

Nevertheless, let us pause to consider this command. God wants us to love our neighbour. If our neighbour is gay, loving her may involve giving her a Christmas present, or, perhaps, a 50% off voucher to a local ex-gay conversion therapist. The faithful are divided on this issue: what does God think about your lesbian neighbour? Nobody seems to know for certain — God’s voice gets a bit muffled behind the clamouring and yelling of all those pious sheep of his.

Some Christians would prefer you didn’t drill down to these sorts of details. In their attempt to legitimise themselves in front of a secular audience, liberal Christians are keen to point out how progressive God’s commands can seem. “Love your neighbour.” How could God be any more progressive than that?

Unfortunately, the bible says a little more than “love thy neighbour.” Just before that Jesus commands us to “love thy God with all thy heart.” What could that possibly mean? Once again, opinions vary amongst Jesus’ flock. From the secular perspective, however, this commandment looks ridiculous. God, on all empirical counts, is less ‘real’ than a rock — and it is very difficult to meaningfully love a rock. But rock-love is not impossible. One of the best ways to love a rock is to personify it: talk to the rock a little bit every day; take it with you on trips; be mindful of what the rock might be thinking and feeling. These are the lengths to which you must go in order to love thy rock. Unsurprisingly, this is the sort of thing Christians do all the time — except that they do it with Jesus and they do it in their heads (they leave rock-loving to the Amalekites).

Once you include all the non-biblical Christian writings, the church services and the ecclesiastical authorities, Christianity becomes much more than just “love thy neighbour.” However, I can discern no gain in meaningfulness. The impression one gets is that Christianity is a big, unjustifiable claim adorned with countless distracting ornaments (both physical and mental) that hold people’s attention. At the end of the day, what is actually meaningful about this big Christian cacophony?

It doesn’t seem to me that following a commandment is, of itself, a more meaningful act than anything else. Following rules only matters if the rules mean something — if they are there for a reason. This was the position taken by a friend of mine. He thought that our lives have meaning not because of God’s commands, but because those commands make us a part of God’s plan for humanity. Unfortunately, opinions differ about what precisely God’s plan entails. And, more pressingly, why did God decide to enact his plan in the first place? Is there any reason for any of it?

I asked my Christian neighbours why they thought God had made the universe in the first place. Did he have any choice? Did he simply want the fun of playing with us? Was he lonely? For non-Christians, these are just silly questions and not worth asking. But for Christians, these posable questions are unanswerable. For all we know, God might have a sadistic reason for making the universe. Or a very sad reason (perhaps the only way for God to commit suicide necessitated the creation of our universe). It seems, then, that the Christian is left with a story about the universe that is just as arbitrary and random as any other. A Christian can certainly ignore their existential angst by pouring their efforts into following a commandment, but it might be that this is all for nothing. God might not have had a reason for making you: He loves you very much, but you are the product of His unhinged and pointless whims.

Robbed of the illusion that Christianity makes life sacred and meaningful, the philosophical Christian may wish to abandon the contortions of their faith and seek enlightenment elsewhere. Such a person may find themselves gravely disappointed. If you merely want to know what to do with your life, I’m sure I could cook you up a few ideas. Ask around, read some biographies: there are lots of things you could do with yourself! But don’t ask me what it all means. Frankly, I’m not sure it even makes sense to ask that question. You may be discouraged by this (I think it profoundly saddening) but at least I don’t deceive myself into thinking that I have an answer.

That sort of deception is the business of contemporary evangelicalism. In fact, if there is any common purpose to Christianity it might be in the maintenance of this deception. After all, the best way to rid oneself of existential questions is to pretend that one already has the answers. Christians are very much sure that life has a meaning. They might not know what it is, but it is quite reassuring to know that it’s there. In any case, they’re too busy praising Jesus and fetishising his blood to worry about it.

Many Parallel Universes


This article was originally published by Vantage Point Media. Vantage Point is a new publication for University of Canterbury students that values informative, well-researched writing on a wide variety of subjects. Read their stuff and contribute your own work at their website.


It is a popular and oft-repeated idea that there may exist universes other than the universe we see around us. These are often called parallel universes and scientists do not know whether they exist. Even so, parallel universes have proved an important plot device in such venerated entertainment as Groundhog Day and certain episodes of Futurama. So could parallel universes actually exist? And should scientists be spending their time thinking about it?

Whilst speculative, a number of prominent physicists have endorsed theories that postulate parallel universes. Brian Greene, a physics professor at Columbia University, has helpfully written a book on the topic for the interested layman. In an interview Greene described how

[…] in physics, we’ve come upon the possibility that what we’ve long thought to be everything may actually only be a small part of something that is much, much bigger. The word “multiverse” refers to that bigger expanse, the new totality of reality, and our universe would be just a piece of that larger whole. [1]

In point of fact, the word multiverse was first coined by William James in an address to the Young Men’s Christian Association at Harvard University in 1895. In his speech, entitled Is Life Worth Living?, James described the multiplicity of moral perspectives one can have by talking of a ‘moral multiverse’. To a modern physicist, however, the word no longer has any ethical connotations.

Discovering Island Universes

Putting aside questions of parallel universes, we would do well to remember that humanity has not always known very much about the universe that we can see. Indeed, perhaps the first scientific discussion of ‘multiple universes’ was the discovery of galaxies in the early twentieth century. At that time it was not known whether the milky way galaxy was the entirety of the universe. Until last century it was not unreasonable to think that the milky way is everything in existence: after all, the milky way contains over a hundred billion stars and is spatially humongous (it takes a ray of light one hundred thousand years to traverse it).

In the eighteenth century astronomers started observing small clouds in the sky that they called nebulae. But were these nebulae part of the Milky Way? A daring hypothesis was forwarded by Thomas Wright (an English mathematician, astronomer, and garden designer). He conjectured that “the many cloudy spots, just perceivable by us, […] [are] in all likelihood [of] external creation, bordering upon the known one, too remote for even our telescopes to reach.” [2] Wright’s idea proved popular among astronomers and writers. Could those tiny nebulous clouds be entirely new Milky Ways? People had to stretch their imaginations to conceive of a much larger universe: a massive conglomeration containing millions of ‘island universes’ of which the Milky Way is just one. Despite the enthusiasm of some scientists (and the popularity of the idea amongst science fiction authors) the matter was still undecided two centuries later. In 1919 one astronomer reported:

The problem of the [nebulae] is at the present far from solution; and judgement on their exact status must be suspended until we are in possession of more detailed knowledge. [3]

More detailed knowledge did arrive soon thereafter thanks to the work of skilled astronomers like Edwin Hubble. In the 1920s Hubble was able to resolve individual stars in the nebulae. Through a careful study of these stars he determined that the nebulae are millions of light years away, and thus separate from the Milky Way. Modern astronomy has since revealed that the (observable part of) the universe contains over one hundred billion galaxies — that corresponds to over one ten billion trillion stars.

Many Hyperdimensional Branes?

It has now been almost a century since Hubble’s discovery of other galaxies. In that time people have proposed plenty of ways to make the world even bigger using parallel universes. One way to imagine parallel universes is to picture our universe as existing inside a higher dimensional space. That may sound like science fiction nonsense, but it is actually a garden variety piece of mathematics. Imagine pieces of paper floating around a room. If you existed ‘inside’ the paper you would only be able to move in two directions, oblivious to the room ‘outside’. The universe we see around us seems to exhibit three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension. However, it so happens that gravity exhibits some nice mathematical results in five dimensions that it doesn’t exhibit in four. Consequently, some physicists suggest that our universe is merely a four dimensional ‘brane’ (think ‘membrane’) inside some higher dimensional space — like a sheet of paper inside a room. In this scenario it seems perfectly sensible to posit that other universes (other ‘sheets of paper’) may also be floating around in hyperspace with us. But would we ever know?

Theoretically, these ideas are described by string theory. Physicists typically envisage the fundamental particles (electrons, quarks, etc.) as infinitely small points moving about in space. However, as suggested by the name, string theory describes these particles not as points but as small strings that are allowed to vibrate in different ways. We can then think of different particles as different ways for the strings to vibrate. This innocent idea has some very peculiar consequences including the prediction of extra dimensions.

These extra dimensions are not without consequences! Physicists predict that gravity would be anomalously strong at small scales. Also, every now and then a little of bit of energy might manage to escape from our brane into the hyperspace. Whilst these phenomena haven’t been ruled out by experiment, they haven’t been observed either — and until such a time as they are, we will not know if we are trapped on a brane in hyperspace.

Many Quantum Mechanical Worlds

String theory is not the only tool physicists use to create parallel universes: Quantum mechanics also does a fine job of it. According to quantum mechanics, we cannot know the future, only the likelihood of different possible futures. Traditionally, this has been attributed to the probabilistic nature of quantum events.

A nicely morbid example is of a cat in a box with a glass vial of poison that is randomly broken by a hammer. Suppose we leave the cat in there for an hour. It was alive at the start, but after an hour is might be dead. Or it might still be alive. In quantum mechanics we say that the cat is both alive and dead. Then, upon the event of opening the box, we force the cat to ‘choose’ whether it’s going to be alive or dead. This might sound a little ridiculous, but it is the language commonly employed by physicists to build everything from MRI machines to transistors in your phone. However, there is an alternative way to view quantum mechanics.

It’s called the many-worlds hypothesis. Perhaps, when we open the cat’s box, the universe splits into two universes: one in which the cat is alive, and the other in which it is dead. The outcome that you see depends on which universe you just happen to find yourself in. That is, instead of asking “how likely is it that the cat will be dead?”, you could instead ask “how likely is it that I will find myself in the world where the cat is dead?”.

It is not yet clear whether the many-worlds hypothesis is at all different from ordinary quantum mechanics. However, some authors recently claimed that the many-worlds hypothesis is experimentally testable. [4] If the idea is confirmed, then there would exist, right now, all different possible versions of ‘you’. This raises some tricky questions about what it means to be ‘you’. (Although, we might never need to answer these questions — it being difficult to meet a ‘you’ from a different world.)

Should We Speculate?

Many paths lead to the multiverse. Theories with extra dimensions allow us to envisage the universe as one of many branes floating around in hyperspace. Quantum mechanics hints at the existence of all possible worlds. (Including the world where you think cuffed pants are cool.) Of course, you are perfectly free to take this further and imagine a ‘multi-hyper-verse’ containing all quantum mechanically possible hyperspace braneworlds.  However, should theoretical physicists even think about these speculative things at all?

Isaac Newton, a veritable science god, famously declared “hypotheses non fingo” (‘I contrive no hypotheses’). With this statement Newton crowned the findings of experimental science above all speculations. Should we follow Newton’s lead and stop dreaming of the multiverse?

Probably not. On the one hand, Newton often broke his own dictum (at least privately) and speculated wildly about the fundamental nature of things. Like most scientists, Newton was driven by an insatiable curiosity to know how the world works and his ideas stretched far beyond the tragically limited technologies of his day. (For instance, he speculated that light is comprised of particles and that space is infused with an ‘ethereal’ material through which things move.) Driven by curiosity, and by the speculations of scientists, science has since progressed to understand what Newton could only speculate about.

On the other hand, speculations about string theory have helped make tangible advancements in mathematics — the consequences of which mathematicians are still working on. Mathematics is humanity’s most sophisticated and useful language for solving complicated problems; it is a momentous achievement of which we should be proud. Advancements in this valuable part of our culture should be welcomed; including the progress made on the back of speculation about strings and extra dimensions.

Today, the multiverse has caught the imaginations of our science fiction writers in much the same way as island universes caught the fancy of 19th century authors. The island universe idea was confirmed by experimental science two centuries after its conception. Likewise, perhaps physicists of the 23rd century will finally discover evidence of a parallel universe. Until that time the multiverse remains a possibility; an idea that, whilst hypothetical, can still entertain our imaginations and spur us on to continue exploring our universe(s).


[1] Quote from Brian Greene, 2011. See: http://phys.org/news/2011-03-elegant-multiverse-professor-brian-greene.html [2] Quote from Thomas Wright, 1750. [3] Quote from Hector Macpherson, 1919. See: The problem of island universes, The Observatory, September 1919, No. 543. [4] Some authors have recently suggested that the many-worlds hypothesis makes testable predictions. However, this remains an area of contention amoungst the physics community. See: Sebens, Charles T., and Sean M. Carroll. 2014. Self-Locating Uncertainty and the Origin of Probability in Everettian Quantum Mechanics. arXiv:1405.7577, May. http://arxiv.org/abs/1405.7577.