Reality, Relativity, Religion, Revelation… Friends

I’m the kind of guy (nerd) who is really, really bothered by knowing
that my perception of reality doesn’t match up with reality itself.

The first time I became aware of this was when my elementary school
physics teacher was discussing Einstein’s theories of relativity. I had
a hard time accepting it, and after a few iterations of trying to
convince me, my physics teacher moved on by saying “Many people like
yourself, Brian, who have a good intuitive understanding of Newtonian
physics, have a hard time getting *past* their intuitions to see the
reality shown by the actual data.”

Unless you’re of a similar mindset it’s hard to express how
ego-destroying this comment was to me. My intuition had felt rock-solid
to me up until that very moment, but it was wrong, and I knew it; I’d
already been presented with the data that contradicted my intuition, but
I hadn’t been willing to accept it. My ego would not allow me to be so
wrong about such basic things as time and space. I was, though; the data
disagreed with my intuition. I wasn’t just wrong, I was *fundamentally*
wrong. My physics teacher hurt my feelings by saying so, and did me the
biggest favor of my life.

I spent a moody, withdrawn fortnight obsessively reading and re-reading
Einstein’s relativity papers, and commentaries on them, and slowly and
laboriously working through the math of the Lorenz-FitzGerald time
dilation effect (I am not a natural mathematician and I did not at that
time have access to a computer to do the donkey work for me). In the
end, though, I did come to understand it, and again, if you don’t have
the mindset you won’t understand, but it was a moment of transcendent
joy to me when I finally understood relativity. It was beautiful beyond
words, literally; I’d been able to work the math for days, but the
moment when I really *saw* the math working to produce the
counter-intuitive reality, it was like seeing the naked face of God. I’m
an atheist now, as Einstein was then, but to convey the emotional impact
of such a moment to anyone who hasn’t felt one requires the language of
theology; it was spiritual.

I’ve felt that joyful shock a number of times since then, always after
some thorny problem has left me flummoxed, trapped by the banal rigidity
of my thought processes, only to see the answer flume outward in
luminous flame when I learned to see it properly, illuminating not only
the problem itself but any number of other questions, some of which I
wouldn’t have thought related at all. Quantum probability, the Turing
machine concept, Mandelbrotian complexity, Darwinian evolution and its
descendant variations, game theory, economics, behaviorism… It isn’t
that I totally grok every implication of all these (I wish!), but they
have this in common; they were hard to understand because they required
me to think in a new way, and once I learned to do that my world was
simultaneously complexified and simplified, but ultimately beautified.
It needn’t even be a complete or ultimately correct theory, as long as
it is one that explains and illuminates.

I have been in my small way a student of history, of economics, of
sociology, and of psychology. Each of these has offered me this joy of
understanding, though not as much as physics or biology. Religion…
well, religion has always promised me answers, but it never dealt well
with my questions.

I appreciate a good story as well as the next person, and better than
most. I am, for example, a fan of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and
Through The Looking-Glass to an extent beyond what most people would be
aware of as a possibility; I have three versions of the original
works on my shelves, eight derivative novels and three derivative videos
(I had four but the porno version was so awful I had to dispose of it
with a load of kitty litter). Nevertheless, my favorite work by Rev.
Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) is the one he recommended to Queen
Victoria after receiving his honors – _Symbolic Logic_. Though it took
many years to come to fruition, learning to work through a syllogism was
the first step toward freeing my mind from the ridiculous dogmas of
religion. I’ve applied the rules of logic I learned from Wonderland’s
creator to every new problem I’ve seen since, with joy, and the game
never grows old.

I did attempt to play the game with my teachers at Catholic school, but
quickly discovered that, oddly enogh for an organization devoted to it,
they did not know how to play make-believe. The first half of the game –
accept an arbitrary explanation of the stipulated facts – they had no
problem with. The second half – think through the logical consequences
of part one – they failed spectacularly, every time, right from the
presumed start of their chronology. Adam and Eve knew Good from Evil
only after they ate of the Fruit – doesn’t that mean they were punished
for doing something they didn’t (at the time) know was wrong?

The joy of science lies precisely in its willingness to play
make-believe properly. You take a set of observed facts, presumed to be
true – if there’s any doubt, you re-verify the facts by independently
observing them. You make up a story to explain them. (So far it’s the
same as religion.) Then you come up with a way to prove yourself wrong.
(No religion does this.) You check yourself against reality by
performing experiments. If the resulting data doesn’t contradict your
theory, you win this round…. so you try to come up with a more
stringent test. You never win, you never ‘prove’ your theory, but if as
time goes on your theory is the simplest, best explanation that fits
*every* available observed fact, it will become accepted as the champion
theory, until it fails and is altered or replaced.

Compare this to the way just about every religion operates; they all
have a story (not a theory) to explain the world as it is, but not one
of them makes any effort to falsify their own story. If anyone else
comes up with evidence to contradict the story, they deny the data or
they retreat to “it’s a metaphor”. not to be taken literally.

In many cases the accepted holy scriptures contain data which turns out
to be falsifiable anyway – an example would be the Judeo-Christian
genealogical chronology, which would logically set the age of the world
at less than 10000 years. It’s hard to come up with a metaphorical
interpretation of “…and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud;
and Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat
Jacob; and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born
Jesus, who is called Christ.” I’ve tried, but there’s no metaphor in
there, any more than there is in ” Jesus himself was … the son, so it
was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of
Levi, the son of Melki” blah blah blah. You don’t have to go beyond
Joseph’s Dad to see the problem. If you can come up with a metaphorical
reason for saying Joseph’s Dad was Jacob one time or Heli the next then
you’re better at metaphors than I am.

I’m only picking on Judeo-Christian texts because I know them, and the
likely readership of this piece knows them. Other scriptures don’t do
any better. Name me one and I’ll find internal inconsistencies in it.
I’ll go you one better, I’ll find internal inconsistencies in accounts
of the assassination of a public figure in front of multiple living
contemporary witnesses, and cameras both still and motion, plus reams of
independently sourced textual reporting, plus an autopsy. You’ll
probably agree there’s room for interpretation of the historical record.

Let me take away the ‘living’ qualifier for witnesses, though, and
indeed “contemporary:” at that, and all the cameras, and all textual
descriptions other than those of people with a vested interest in a
single version of the event, and all forensic evidence, and let’s say
the event itself purportedly took place almost two millennia ago.
Convinced? Or are you still willing to admit there’s room for
interpretation of the historical record?

Look, the immediately implausible I have no problem with, and haven’t
had since that long passed moment when my 13 year old self discovered to
my shock that I was fallible and bluntly not as smart as I thought I
was. You will have to show me some evidence, though, before you expect
me to belive in something as silly and counterintuitive as an
omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent superbeing with a personal
interest in my welfare. So far the preponderance of evidence suggests to
me that I’m on my own, plus or minus the friends and enemies I
accumulate in in this, my (as far as I can tell) one and only life.

If belief in a powerful invisible friend gives you comfort, well, I’m
not against comfort. I have to warn you, though, that the comfort of a
false belief lies in its falseness; and the odds are pretty good that
sometime on your life you will have to confront the cold, hard fact that
you do not in fact have such an invisible but remarkably powerful friend.

The only friends you truly have are the very corporeal, real friends
you’ve made among your fellows. by being decent to them.


~ by B.T. Murtagh on May 18, 2009.

3 Responses to “Reality, Relativity, Religion, Revelation… Friends”

  1. Wow! This is a powerful piece, B.T. I’m at a loss for words, really, but I wanted to let you know that I feel deeply touched by it.

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. Thanks Lottie, I really appreciate the feedback!

  3. This piece was great, it resonated with me, saying things I had felt but not crystallized explicitly. Thank you. The best writing tends to do this to us: say things we vaguely felt and that we’d never properly seen put to paper.

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