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?


Inescapably moral

“The garden of earthly delights” by Hieronymus Bosch

By Ignacio Gonzalez.

About a week ago I stumbled upon an article published online in “The daily beast” . In it, the author examined a recent scientific study that reached the following conclusion: religious people are not more moral than atheists (nor do atheists have a heavier moral inclination than religious folks). When it comes to morality none of these groups (on average) holds the upper hand.

My first thought about the article and thus about the study itself was, I must admit, rather dismissive: “no big news here” I told to myself, the punchline did not immediately hit me. Perhaps, the reason why the outcome of the study did not precisely “rock my world” was because it portrayed a notion that I have been sternly advocating for already quite a while. Thus, a fastidious flash of self-ingratiation blinded my judgement if at least for some minutes.

Luckily we are all haunted by second thoughts. Soon, I came back to my senses and saw the obvious: these kind of studies are important, they are not redundant and their conclusions do deserve to be launched into the public debate from as many platforms as possible. In good part because moral precepts are (or ought to be…) the foundational cornerstones of penal codes and other behavior regulatory tools that steer (or ought to steer…) the everday affairs of each one of us as members of a modern society. Every step we take towards a robust understanding of how moral impulses come about can in principle be translated into policies that better encompass our human nature. After all, a legislation less alienated and more resonant with human nature could help to alleviate all sorts of conflicts arising from moral dilemmas hatched in our minds. In his book “The blank slate” Prof. Steven Pinker swiftly exposes many of the dangers in which societies may incur if they are to deny or, at the very least ignore the existence of an innate human nature. Acknowledging our nature, in particular the moral side of it, should be the very first step taken by the architects of policy whenever they put themselves to work.

So, where do we get our morals from? as with many other questions religion and science presents us with mutually exclusive answers. First, what has religion going for it?

Unfortunately for the religious cause “to stand in the way” of access to verifiable knowledge about anything in the real world has been among the most prominent talents of religion from its very origin. The quest to gain insights into the roots of morality is not one that has been left untouched by religion, quite the contrary, it is one of the few remaining islands in which the religious attempt to hold their ground while debating against science. I want to contend that this is an island made of fog, much too thin to support anyone’s feet.

What do the three great Abrahamic religions (namely: Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have to say about the origin of moral values? Simple, they are graciously handed down to us by a supernatural, omnipotent and personal God. To deem an action as moral or immoral with impunity is just one among the infinite list of powers assigned to God. Actually I am falling a little too short here. In the religious view, morality itself unfolds naturally as a direct consequence of God’s own existence, or, as the christian pundit Dr. William Lane Craig puts it “if God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist” (my emphasis). By “objective moral values” he means precepts that are “valid and binding whether we believe in them or not”, in other words, they are indisputably absolute. The universe is morally biased and the deeds of every sentient being within it are to be measured against a one-size-fits-all moral yardstick. In this view, the Big Bang was not only the beginning of time and space but also of right and wrong. So, if you happen to follow one of the above mentioned faiths then you have reached the end of the road in the origin of morals quest. What is to be considered good and bad behavior can be extracted from the preaching of a priest, an imam or a rabbi, or if you prefer to play safer, from the pages of an ancient holy book.

Now, the scientific counterargument. Moral precepts do not reach us by divine decree, instead, the seeds of morality have been inoculated into us by natural processes such as evolution by natural selection. Evidence to support this claim comes from a multitude of sources such as the findigns of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, genetics and others. However, one does not need to be a well-trained biologist or geneticist to at least awaken the suspicion that human morals might come from somewhere else other than from religious scripture and its analysis. When reflecting upon the biblical account of the delivery of the ten commandments (the very epitome of morality according to the religious dogma) by God onto Moses’s hands at Mount Sinai, the late Christopher Hitchens raised the challenge that if people would have “believed that perjury, murder and theft were alright” before that event took place, then, “we wouldn’t have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else”. In other words, humans did not need to be told that those hienous acts were better to be avoided at all costs cause we already knew that. A moral sense must have been already ingrained in our ancestors if they had been able to make a living in the merciless African savannas of the pleistocene.

The question is then: “is it feasible that a mindless process such as evolution by natural selection can produce organisms with a sense of right and wrong?” and if so “how?”. The hopes seem to flicker almost to a vanishing point when we take into account that the majority of modern evolutionary theorists look at evolution though the so-called “neo-darwinian” lense. In this picture, the central role in the evolutionary drama is not played by the organism but instead by the genes contained within it, and, the gene’s deeds are better understood if one bestows upon them with a selfish personality as did Richard Dawkins in his 1976 benchmark book “The selfish gene”. (Please keep in mind that genes cannot be in fact selfish – or funny, or merciful, or anything else – as obvious as this may seem Dawkins himself has been forced to go to great lengths to explain that the term “selfish gene” is purely metaphorical). Put in the most simplistic terms a gene acts as if  it had a single purpose in mind: to successfully transmit copies of itself into the next generation of organisms in which it inhabits. This seems problematic if we seek to dig out the foundations of a biologically-based morality… how on Earth an organism programmed by selfish little demons which only care about their own survival (in the form of copies) could ever behave altruistically towards a rival organism with equally selfish little bastards operating its “control room”?

To understand altruism from the gene’s perspective it is only necessary to grant either of two things: organisms can be genetically related to each other (as in siblings, parents and offsprings, cousins…) and/or the organisms happen to be inescapably engaged in the kind of relationships that a game theorists would call “non-zero sum games”. In the first case we are talking about the theory of “kin selection” (largely put into rigurous genetic grounds by W. D. Hamilton). Although the mathematical underpinnings can be laborious, the idea behind the theory is quite familiar to us all: it is okay to behave altruistically towards your kin even at the expense of your own fitness, because, while doing so you are increasing the fitness of an individual who carries copies of a fraction of your own genetic material. From a given gene’s point of view there is a good chance that fitness is not created neither destroyed during a kin altruistic transaction, it is merely transmitted from one body to another.

What about non-zero sum games as a suitable scenarios for altruistic behavior? for starters, what the hell is a non-zero sum game? a non-zero sum game is set whenever the players are better off when they decide to cooperate, converesely, they end up all worse whenever they decide to defect. These kind of games are of the uttermost importance in evolutionary biology because it turns out that nature just loves to play them with all kind of creatures. An hypothetical example of our own evolutionary past: even for the most self-centered and independent member of the Homo habilis crew it is more convenient to band up with his pals to hunt for large preys. A group of Homo habilis working in conjunction can hunt a much larger prey that any of the individual members would be able to take down on his own. Through cooperative hunting the food share for each individual can easily exceed whatever is obtainable by any member of the gang left to its own devices (provided that the gang is not that numerous). When hunting our ancestors were faced an undebatable truth: cooperation pays off.

Thus, with only a couple of strokes we have sketched a feasible, if paradoxical, framework in which via the interaction of self-iterested agents qualities regarded as moral such as altruism and cooperation can naturally emerge. Reciprocity is yet another moral feature that can be explained along these same lines, unfortunately (or fortunately for the reader) I am running out of time (and the reader out of patience) and will have to let this one pass.

True, human morality is much more complex than altruism, cooperation and reciprocity, but the point that must not be missed is that neo-darwinistic reasoning (putting all its misinterpreted social and political overtones aside) has been very successfull at assembling a comprehensive picture in which moral tendencies stand on purely naturalistic grounds. Once again, as it happened when Pierre-Simon LaPlace put up his “celestial mechanics”, the God hypothesis is not needed.

So why do we have a sense of right and wrong? well, it seems that natural selection left us with no choice but to have it. We do not have to worry about looking outside the window and contemplate our fellow humans engaged in an all-out nihilist carnival as it was the concern of Hieronymus Bosch when he painted “The garden of earthly delights” (on top) if divine moral edicts were suddenly found to be hollow.