On cosmic fleshy rings and other sensible nonsense

Nasa/JPL/Space Science Institute

“Circumcision of Christ” by Friedrich Herlin









By Ignacio Gonzalez

One of the many cool features of friends is that they have the sensibility to peer into our interests, scrutinize them and then come to us with suggestions, pieces of information or advice about how we can enrich them or pursue them more effectively. Over a month ago my friend Fernando Castillo exercised this sort of kindness in a spectacular manner. He stumbled upon a block of information, picked it up, and quickly realized that it might just fill in a crucial gap in the knowledge of the members of the “Manglaristas” Whatsapp chat group, a group to which I belong along with three other friends from my adolescent years.This was no ordinary block, it was a diamond worthy of a shrine and I will be forever grateful to “Fercas” for having handed it to us. Genuine selflessness!

Without more preamble, here is what all the fuss is about:

Back in the XVII century there was a Vatican librarian that went by the name Leo Allatius. Mr. Allatius was a passionate theologian and had an interest in astronomy, thus, he set up his talents to arrange a rendezvous between both disciplines. The result of the affair? a literary piece titled “De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba” (or for us who are not fluent in dead Latin: “Discussion concerning the Prepuce of our Lord Jesus Christ”, a great example of how the act of translation can immediately strip away all sophistication). Essentially, this work was Allatius’s shot at solving two big mysteries of his age in a single master stroke: Where did the prepuce of Jesus go after his death? and what are Saturn’s ring made of?… I am pretty sure that at this point the reader is able to connect the dots but just for the sake of completeness I will explicitly outline Allatius’s thesis: Jesus’s holy foreskin was lifted into the heavens and turned into the trademark ornament of the solar system’s poster child, or put more bluntly, the annular piece of skin had been enlarged to colossal proportions and placed around Saturn for eternity. The simplicity of the argument is only matched by its wishful naivety.

One last point about this peculiarly bizarre issue. Back in the day the quest over the fate of Jesus’s foreskin was not treated as a superfluous or morbid topic, after all, which among all the alleged holy relics could surpass in holiness an actual part of the savior’s own body? To trace back its whereabouts was a dignified “field of research” for centuries. On defense of those antique persons obsessed with circumcision leftovers, I assume that only a small fraction of  17th century businesses would not look bizarre through a 21st century lens (well, maybe this is not the best example of long-forgotten oddities, turns out that the holy foreskin hunt might not have totally died out after all).

The somewhat more subtle but by far more relevant point of the story has to do with what you might call an “intellectual dichotomy”  very characteristic of the human species: humans are capable of coming up with a “circumcisionist” theory of Saturn’s rings and simultaneously master science and engineering in order to manufacture telescopes powerful enough to observe those same rings in the first place. To achieve the latter you need an accurate understanding of (a set of ) the natural laws which govern the universe, while to conjure the former you need to perform mind-bending intellectual gymnastics so those same natural laws can be forced to conform to preconceived dogmas that have nothing to do with reality. It is even more remarkable to realize that a single person is fully capable to harbor these two essentially opposed methodologies to apply them alternatively to examine the world and come to terms with its workings.

It appears that sensical and non-sensical approaches to get a grasp on reality can cohabit a single brain without generating unbearable amounts of intellectual friction. Remember for example that the same guy that revolutionized the physical sciences by single-handedly inventing calculus on a fine summer, also invested many years of his life trying to turn less precious metals into gold as well as finding hidden messages encrypted in the Bible (I am referring to Sir Isaac Newton and not to Gottfried Leibniz, in case a clarification is needed). It is as if whichever circuitry allocated in the brain and assigned to deal with evidence-based, logic-bound kind of thinking does not make short circuit with the circuitry used for faith-based, superstitious-bound kind of thinking. I suppose that if you hold a compartmentalized view of the brain as composed of several specialized sub-units capable to act independently if so is required, then, the possibility of this chiaroscuro so inherent to the human mind is not quite challenging after all. I however have a hard time comprehending how a single mind juggles between both lands and still holds (or struggles to hold) a cohesive personality. I do not question the viability of humans shifting from a reasonable thinking mode in the morning to a superstitious one in the afternoon, so to say, I only stare mildly aghast at how their brains swiftly accomplish the shift without incurring into an “operative system breakdown”.

The key to understand why it is possible to hold a defined set of superstitious beliefs and not develop a rational/irrational split personality is to realize that this danger does not exist in the mind of the superstitious subject in the first place, instead, it is only conceivable for an observer that acts as a judge of what is rational and what is irrational according to his own internal paradigm. We humans need to make sense of stuff at any cost and it is precisely this universal impulse what forbids the holder of a non-sensical belief to even realize about the falsehood of the belief in question. Whenever you are able to realize by yourself that some tenet or idea does not make sense, you simply stop holding it as true and immediately discard it, but if you gloss over the falsehood of any given proposition then you will most likely find a way to rationalize it and make it true, even if this requires to build an ideological cathedral that defies reality. To “make sense” is as vital for a well functioning brain as water is for a human body.

The rationalization of otherwise non-sensical beliefs can be an extremely demanding mental exercise. Despite of being so there is an eagerness in many people to push their conscious minds to square the circle (an impossible geometrical feature), I believe this universal impulse can be traced back to a fundamental property of brains: to create or to complete patterns. The human brain is remarkably good at patterning, and that is alright, if it were incapable of doing so then we would have long perished as a species. Ironically the problem might be that the brain is actually too outstandingly good at this task that it quickly “sees” patterns where none are there (take for example how easily we are fooled by optical illusions). Rapid pattern recognition it is just one among many evolutionary traits with a double edge; while it enables us to make quick life-or-death decisions with incomplete information (especially important when your habitat is a predator-packed grassland) it is also to blame  for distorting our perception of the real world out there. Needless to say that our brains carry out a good deal of this sort of automatic “photoshopping” behind the plane of your awareness, i.e. subconsciously. In my view, rationalization can be seen as a conscious effort to make propositions about reality to conform to preconceived patterns or cannons, in other words, it would be like the conscious counterpart of the subconscious patterning labor that our brain performs so well.

As with patterning, rationalization is a double-edged tool. On the one hand it is essential for assimilating ideas and on the other  it vindicates false propositions by nesting them within a true, or at least more reasonable, framework. Perhaps the widest and simplest mode of rationalization consists of creating a mental bucket, label it as “fundamentally incomprehensible” and then drop all those facts and/or ideas that are deemed as impossible to understand even after only the slightest scrutiny. I apologize if it sounds condescending or unfair, but it is quite common to see how a fair amount of people do not seem bothered in the slightest degree when they regard entire domains as to be fundamentally beyond comprehension, as if enveloped in an impenetrable halo of mystery. Common examples are the beliefs about the existence of ghostly entities, wandering spirits, and all kinds of otherworldly creatures as well as with witchcraft, curses and the like. It is even worse when some domains are considered to be even beyond all scrutiny or questioning as it may happen with the literal interpretation of sacred books or religious mandates. These types of rationalization seem so lazy that it is even hard to concede that there is a process of reasoning behind them, nevertheless they definitely require a deliberate act of classification or categorization in order to separate matters that can be ultimately comprehensible from those over which any kind of inspection is meant to be futile. But do not be deceived by the ingenuity of this apparently mindless classification process, after all, it is not hard to see how to abandon all lines of inquiry over a whole class of issues can easily lead to the erection of taboos, which of course is a highly toxic practice.

There are of course much more ingenious attempts at making sense of all sorts of grandiose claims, some of which I find incredibly curious. Generally, this other kind of rationalizations consist of very  delicate intellectual constructions where many times the original propositions end up so distorted as to be essentially unrecognizable. But why the need of such a stupendous act of intellectual contortion to rationalize the unreasonable? it is necessary because the final goal is to create a map that can accommodate unfounded claims onto facts supported on as much evidence as possible. This map is solely built upon analogies, metaphors, interpretations, code-talking and other devices to strain or straightforwardly misuse language. No surprise then that once the task is accomplished we end up with and undecipherable knot where we can hardly discern the original content of whichever proposition we wanted to make sense of.

One of my favorite cases of “extreme” rationalization is Frank Tipler’s interpretation of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). You see, Tipler is a physicist and as such he took over the improbable task of reconciling Christianity with theoretical physics. Do not believe me? well, he is author of a book which is actually titled “The physics of Christianity“… there you go. There he goes away with “explaining” the virgin birth of Jesus, his ability to walk over water and even his resurrection, none of which I will touch here, instead I will elaborate a little over how he found the three Holy persons of Christianity lurking in disguise within an important cosmological concept: the singularity.

An example of a singularity is that which is thought to occur at the center of a black hole where the gravitational force has an infinite value and the laws of physics (as they are currently formulated) simply break down, this is, we do not yet know how to apply them to predict what would occur to a test particle under such extreme conditions. Other singularity is thought to have taken place at the beginning of the universe when space and time themselves suddenly arose from this singular state. Well, it is precisely the latter type of singularity the one which Tipler identifies as God (the Father) himself. Not metaphorically speaking, the point of infinite mass-energy from which the universe sprung into existence is God in Tipler’s view… alright fair enough. Then comes a second “present singularity” in his sanctified physical model and here things start to get weird(er). First of all Tipler assumes that we live in a universe contained within a much larger multiverse and then justifies the multiverse’s existence on the validity of quantum theory which he interprets as a “theory of possiblities”, this is a bold move but not yet a completely implausible one (although this is not the most popular approach to the multiverse). Then, if the number of universes living within the multiverse is infinite then there are infinite copies of ourselves inhabiting an infinite set of those universes. Each one of us (as well as our copies) are of course limited to exist within the confines of a single universe and cannot jump from one to another (no odd encounters with your own self from another universe are allowed), however, this mysterious “present singularity” can travel between universes at will, after all what good is a singularity for if it needs to surrender to physical laws? and oh, yes, I almost forgot, the “present singularity” is Jesus Christ, hopping across the multiverse to make sure that no one, absolutely no one is deprived of the chance to be saved. The third and last singularity is the point-like end of the multiverse, the final singularity created when the whole multiverse faces its death. This final singularity is only possible if you assume that the multiverse happens to be a “closed multiverse” since only this kind of multiverse will collapse back onto itself in a big-crunch style. If you are counting then you already know that this final singularity must be identified with the Holy Spirit according to Tipler’s scheme, not many options left anyway. Unfortunately for Mr. Tipler almost all theories involving closed universes and big-crunches have lost a great deal of credibility in modern cosmology since it is now known that far from contracting, the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate and there does not seem to be enough matter-energy within it in order to drive an eventual re-collapse. So, in three strokes of truly cosmic proportions Tipler merrily announces that he has proven the existence of the Holy Trinity. But again, you do not have to believe me, you can listen to it yourself.

There you have how the human hunger for sensibility has driven a man to speculate that heavenly bodies can be adorned by huge rings of flesh and another to summon a universe-hopping Jesus, better to have an explanation that none at all… right?