Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On the Fringes

As advertised above, these posts are my "musings about fantasy, style, symmetry, art, and life." Here is a post about "life."

The other day I was at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, as I mentioned in a previous post. For me, its two really outstanding collections are the minerals and the fossils. The fossils proceed in chronological order from the Paleozoic though the Cenozoic Eras, and the pieces are breathtakingly beautiful. While I was perusing them, a little band of what I took for fundamentalist Christians happened to pass us, and they were saying things like, "It's a good thing the flood came when it did," and, "They're leaving out so much here." So here was an actual group of young-earthers, viewing primeval wonders yielded up by the earth's ancient bosom, completely immune to the evidence set before them. They'd inoculated themselves.

On the long drive home to the blasted wasteland in which we live, the incident came up in a conversation with my lovely and mild-mannered wife. My son had asked her what was the largest star, and this, of course, required some clarification. Largest in what sense? Largest in the universe? Largest that we know of? Largest in the night sky? So we were discussing this, and I mentioned casually that the young-earthers doubtless believed in a small cosmos with painted-on stars (more or less), and, if they had happened to visit the planetarium, probably did so making smug, knowing comments to one another. She expressed some surprise at this, but, you see, dear reader, I have some first-hand experience with such things. More on that in a moment.

Now, let me be clear. These are only theories. There was an annoying news story the other day, saying that such-and-such percent of Americans don't "know" that the earth orbits the sun and that man evolved from lower life forms. I don't know what the wording in the original survey was, but the wording as reported was quite stupid. No one "knows" that the earth orbits the sun. For a brief period during the Renaissance, some scientists held that using a heliocentric model results in a simpler description of various phenomena. This was replaced by Newtonian mechanics, in which the earth and the sun orbit each other, while the system as a whole moves with respect to some fixed frame of reference. In general relativity the situation is subtler. So, if some smart-ass pollster had called me up and asked me if the earth orbits the sun, I would have said, "No." But even if they'd asked the question as though they had some awareness of the march of science since (say) Copernicus, it would still be inadequate, for a theory does not grant "knowledge." It only grants guesses. Observations are the things we feed into the theory; predictions are the things it spits out.

Okay, granted. So these are only theories. But they're theories that were built up by some of the greatest minds in history and are held by virtually all of the academic establishment in our time. Are they inadequate? Most likely, as were the theories they replaced. It's not the rightness or wrongness of the theories that I'm interested in, but the glibness with which young-earthers dismiss them. I've argued with these people. Someone once tried to discredit the Big Bang to me by saying that there's no way we could have astronomical objects spinning both clockwise and counterclockwise if they all came out of the same rotating particle.

But…if you turn the spinning object upside-down… Oh, never mind.

Anyway, those are the kinds of arguments they have. One-liners. He'd gotten his out of a book, and there's more where that came from. If you knock one down they always have another waiting.

Ignoring the argument's stupidity, one might ask how all the scientist types who devoted their entire lives to advancing these theories could have missed something so obvious. But that is the one question one must not ask. It's like asking a person in an insane asylum who thinks they're the rightful King of England why no one else knows it. For, if there were really a conspiracy to keep them in an asylum and prevent them from assuming their lawful office, then of course the conspirators would have spread their lies over the whole world, and of course these wicked dissemblers would deny even the most incontrovertible evidence.

That's the problem with insanity. It's always much more rational than sanity. You have to find a way to cut the Gordian knot. I was listening to NPR a few years ago, and there was a story about an intern at a mental hospital. One of the patients insisted that he was the Terminator robot, and no one could do anything with him. So this intern asked for some time with the guy, and the doctors said, sure, why not. As soon as he's alone with the patient, he asks, "So, are you really the Terminator? Or are you really Arnold Schwarzenegger?" The guy smiles and replies, "You're the only one who's ever guessed." And that began to road to his recovery.

There's a phenomenon that's been noticed, that people who hold one fringe scientific theory – and the young-earth hypothesis is precisely that, a scientific, and not a religious, theory – usually hold a lot of them, as well as an assortment of fanatical religious beliefs, conspiracy theories, and other paranoid delusions. If you meet someone who belongs to a small, secretive sect dominated by a powerful personality, you can bet that they're 9/11 truthers, practice "alternative" medicine, distrust doctors and educators, refuse to vaccinate their children, read up on crank scientific theories, live without social security numbers, and/or stockpile for the end times. Once you get into the frame of mind where one of these is palatable to you, they're probably all going to seem pretty reasonable. Because you've gotten to the point where you tune out your common sense whenever it contradicts the group spirit and are okay with thinking that 99.9% of the world is just dead wrong – a big pack of knaves and fools – and you're part of the tiny, tiny minority that knows what's really going on.

I speak from experience here, because when I left home as a very troubled, socially awkward, borderline suicidal autistic eighteen-year-old, I immediately fell prey to just such a sect. I was lured by a pretty and kind nineteen-year-old girl with hazel eyes and short, elfin blonde hair; it wasn't all bad, you see, since (a) that girl is now my wife of thirteen years, and (b) we no longer belong to that sect. Apart from her, however, I regard it as the darkest time of my life; the pastor's in jail now, I heard. It took years – years – to rehabilitate my mind, tortured as it had been to fit in the requisite frame.

One thing that led to my recovery, oddly enough, was the arguments I had with the ardent young-earthers of the sect. I grew so frustrated at one point that I went out, changed my major to mathematics and my minor to physics, and started trying to teach myself general relativity. I eventually undertook a year-long conference course in semi-Riemannian geometry with the one lonely geometer on campus, went on to graduate school to study under an eminent geometer who specializes in applications to particle physics, and learned the basics of quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, string theory, and the rest. Now I'm…well, I live in a blasted wasteland, driving my little pickup truck from one isolated campus to the next, thinking beautiful thoughts while listening to Bach, Stravinsky, and the Doors. C'est la vie!

At some point I realized that any of these fringe scientific theories could be demolished with a mere word or two from anyone who actually knows something about science. The problem is that the fringers keep carefully away from such people, and probably wouldn't understand the word or two, anyway. Confronted by a longer argument with simple logical steps, they quickly lose the thread and retreat to their original assertions. Psychologically, I think, the real goal for them is not to know the truth, nor even to shore up their beliefs, but to be right where everyone else is wrong, to be able to dismiss everything without the trouble of argument. Deep down, in their heart of hearts, perhaps what they really hate is the burden of being human – the grief, the insecurity, the fear; even the joy and the glory that come with their own special weights and duties.

This applies to the cult members. The cult leaders are in a special camp of their own. You can always spot the aspiring leader because he finds being part of the herd completely odious, makes a general nuisance of himself, and eventually ends up being driven out, dropping out voluntarily, or founding his own group. He lives for the day he has his own flock, and drifts from sect to sect until he acquires one. Crank scientists have much in common with these types, though they tend to be more openly misanthropic. What they share is a disordered desire to be the One. The crank scientist doesn't happen upon his theory in the course of investigation. No, he decides to cook up his own theory from the outset. What's central for him is having his own theory that he and he alone discovered, and he knocks about until he finds something. Similarly, the sect leader's overarching desire is to be the supreme head of a movement; rather than receiving a call from circumstances or a divine voice in the course of his ordinary life, he sets out to manufacture his own mandate and acquire followers. Such a person will never, ever willingly relinquish any control of their movement to others (unless suitably conditioned) or allow themselves to step into the background.

Novelists who know of such things only by hearsay often portray these people as rapacious hypocrites. I personally think hypocrisy is quite rare in such circles; it's more likely to be found among the priests and scribes of established religions (and political movements), who can schmooze their way through a comfortable life while making the believers jump through hoops for them. No, cult leaders, sect leaders, and the like really believe what they preach. They make themselves believe. If they didn't, most people would eventually be able to tell. But you can brainwash yourself, most certainly, and that's what they do. They arrive at an attenuated view of reality, a form of madness in which they see outside objects and persons only as they relate to themselves. The universe shrinks down to the one bright spot of their own ego.
"Behold yon miserable creature. That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality; for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing. Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn this lesson, that to be self-contented is to be vile and ignorant, and that to aspire is better than to be blindly and impotently happy. Now listen." 
He ceased; and there arose from the little buzzing creature a tiny, low, monotonous, but distinct tinkling, as from one of your Spaceland phonographs, from which I caught these words, "Infinite beatitude of existence! It is; and there is none else beside It." 
"What," said I, "does the puny creature mean by 'it'?" "He means himself," said the Sphere: "have you not noticed before now, that babies and babyish people who cannot distinguish themselves from the world, speak of themselves in the Third Person? But hush!" 
"Can you not startle the little thing out of its complacency?" said I. "Tell it what it really is, as you told me; reveal to it the narrow limitations of Pointland, and lead it up to something higher." "That is no easy task," said my Master; "try you." 
Hereon, raising my voice to the uttermost, I addressed the Point as follows: 
"Silence, silence, contemptible Creature. You call yourself the All in All, but you are the Nothing: your so-called Universe is a mere speck in a Line, and a Line is a mere shadow as compared with–" "Hush, hush, you have said enough," interrupted the Sphere, "now listen, and mark the effect of your harangue on the King of Pointland." 
The lustre of the Monarch, who beamed more brightly than ever upon hearing my words, shewed clearly that he retained his complacency; and I had hardly ceased when he took up his strain again. "Ah, the joy, ah, the joy of Thought! What can It not achieve by thinking! Its own Thought coming to Itself, suggestive of Its disparagement, thereby to enhance Its happiness! Sweet rebellion stirred up to result in triumph! Ah, the divine creative power of the All in One! Ah, the joy, the joy of Being!" 
"You see," said my Teacher, "how little your words have done. So far as the Monarch understands them at all, he accepts them as his own - for he cannot conceive of any other except himself – and plumes himself upon the variety of 'Its Thought' as an instance of creative Power. Let us leave this God of Pointland to the ignorant fruition of his omnipresence and omniscience: nothing that you or I can do can rescue him from his self-satisfaction." 
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by E. A. Abbott
And I suppose the group spirit of the fringe sect – religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise – is really just a milder and more distributed form of this madness.

One last story. As a graduate student I received a large fellowship for minorities from a prestigious foundation. I went to one conference for said fellowship, and nothing ever reminded me so much of the retreats we'd had in that sect of mine. Scientists were few and far between; departments of race and gender studies, social science, and ethnomusicology were well represented. I naively signed up for the group e-mail, and my inbox was immediately flooded with crackpot political alarums and hoax forwards. There was one delightful hoax e-mail that told the recipient their computer had been infected with a virus that had forwarded itself to everyone on their address list. It instructed the recipient to first forward the message to all their contacts, and then to delete a certain file on their computer, which was actually a crucial program whose absence would cause the computer to crash. This little gem spread among my credulous colleagues like wildfire. A wave of warnings, panic, and anguish followed. That was when I decided I could do without being on the list, and asked to be removed.

I had already belonged to one sect, and wasn't about to become enslaved to another.


  1. A mild defense of young-earthers, from a relatively new reader (perhaps a month or so):

    I am not a young earther myself. Given the apparent impossibility of coming to a definite conclusion and the fact that reaching a conclusion on the age of the earth seems to me of relatively minor importance, the question has on the whole failed to spur me to a rigorous investigation.

    I am, however, what might be called a young earth sympathizer, and furthermore have a tendency to play Devil's Advocate on most questions almost regardless of my actual position, and so wish to say a few words in their defense.

    Essentially, my point is this: the majority of people for the majority of beliefs, true or false, have little more than one-liners to defend them. That a gaggle of tourists who hold an opinion are not well versed in natural philosophy or mathematics is an argument that could apply just as well to those who hold to much older universe. Given that nearly all of the arguments I have seen for the primary opponent and nemesis of the young-earth theory, namely, the theory of evolution by natural selection, also consist of one-liners and broad statements made on little evidence, I have some sympathy for those who conclude that those who are against God are probably wrong about quite a few other things as well. Take into account the modern idolatry of science, the myriad of other topics where the authorities, that is, academics or "experts" or perhaps "a consensus" seem to be rather horribly wrong (or at least far more certain than the evidence warrants), and last but not least the fact that the majority of people take the majority of things on faith, is it any wonder that large numbers of people should have concluded that a thing so reviled by the same "experts" that have shown themselves to be manifestly unworthy of the trust I would give my dog must have something to it? And even if science as a method of knowing the material world, Science!!! (which most people have trouble distinguishing from it) has proven roughly that trustworthy in recent decades.

    It has also been my experience, though I find this fault harder to excuse, that many young-earth hard-liners have fallen into the trap of believing that young-earth creationism and TENS are their only options, and further into the fallacy that even if TENS is true (of which I am personally skeptical) it somehow disproves God. To be fair, many of their most famous opponents seem to have fallen into the same trap.

    For my part, I would rather live in a society of ignoramuses who acknowledge the sovereignty of God than geniuses who do not. If there really were a conflict between Christian faith and reason, it would seem to me that the virtuous choice would be faith. Young-earthers seem to me to be those who have bought into the one lie, but not, as the followers of the movement that spawned them (for indeed, the adherents of TENS spread that lie, without which Young-earth creationism would not exist as a movement), but not the lie that would damn them, so like the Protestants (for not all young-earthers are Protestant; it is also perhaps worth noting here that I am a recent convert to Catholicism), I call them brothers, and welcome their help, even if, I think, misguided and often ineffective, against our mutual foes the atheists. In other words, I object not so much to the belief that they are wrong as to the widespread contempt for them.

  2. I am also Catholic, though I'm not a convert, exactly, having been raised as such. That being said, I confess that I feel a closer kinship to honest atheism than to glib anti-rationalism, however theistic, and I don't view atheists as foes. There's a country or garden variety of anti-rationalism, represented by young-earthers and the like, and then there's the ornamental or academic variety, which I alluded to at the end of my post. They both tend toward the same thing: rejection of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And they're both susceptible to the same follies. Anti-rationalism takes effort. Atheism...well, some people, even very religious people, have a hard time not being atheists. I myself am one of them.