Tag Archives: religion

Heraclitus and Parmenides time joke

From Existential Commics

From Existential Comics; Parmenides believed that nothing changed, nor could it.

For those who don’t remember, Heraclitus believed that change was the essence of life, while  Parmenides believed that nothing ever changes. It’s a debate that exists to this day in physics, and also in religion (there is nothing new under the sun, etc.). In science, the view that no real change is possible is founded in Schrödinger’s wave view of quantum mechanics.

Schrödinger's wave equation, time dependent.

Schrödinger’s wave equation, time dependent.

In Schrödinger’s wave description of reality, every object or particle is considered a wave of probability. What appears to us as motion is nothing more than the wave oscillating back and forth in its potential field. Nothing has a position or velocity, quite, only random interactions with other waves, and all of these are reversible. Because of the time reversibility of the equation, long-term, the system is conservative. The wave returns to where it was, and no entropy is created, long-term. Anything that happens will happen again, in reverse. See here for more on Schrödinger waves.

Thermodynamics is in stark contradiction to this quantum view. To thermodynamics, and to common observation, entropy goes ever upward, and nothing is reversible without outside intervention. Things break but don’t fix themselves. It’s this entropy increase that tells you that you are going forward in time. You know that time is going forward if you can, at will, drop an ice-cube into hot tea to produce lukewarm, diluted tea. If you can do the reverse, time is going backward. It’s a problem that besets Dr. Who, but few others.

One way that I’ve seen to get out of the general problem of quantum time is to assume the observed universe is a black hole or some other closed system, and take it as an issue of reference frame. As seen from the outside of a black hole (or a closed system without observation) time stops and nothing changes. Within a black hole or closed system, there is constant observation, and there is time and change. It’s not a great way out of the contradiction, but it’s the best I know of.

Predestination makes a certain physics and religious sense, it just doesn't match personal experience very well.

Predestination makes a certain physics and religious sense, it just doesn’t match personal experience very well.

The religion version of this problem is as follows: God, in most religions, has fore-knowledge. That is, He knows what will happen, and that presumes we have no free will. The problem with that is, without free-will, there can be no fair judgment, no right or wrong. There are a few ways out of this, and these lie behind many of the religious splits of the 1700s. A lot of the humor of Calvin and Hobbes comics comes because Calvin is a Calvinist, convinced of fatalistic predestination; Hobbes believes in free will. Most religions take a position somewhere in-between, but all have their problems.

Applying the black-hole model to God gives the following, alternative answer, one that isn’t very satisfying IMHO, but at least it matches physics. One might assume predestination for a God that is outside the universe — He sees only an unchanging system, while we, inside see time and change and free will. One of the problems with this is it posits a distant creator who cares little for us and sees none of the details. A more positive view of time appears in Dr. Who. For Dr. Who time is fluid, with some fixed points. Here’s my view of Dr. Who’s physics.  Unfortunately, Dr. Who is fiction: attractive, but without basis. Time, as it were, is an issue for the ages.

Robert Buxbaum, Philosophical musings, Friday afternoon, June 30, 2017.

Abraham ROFLed; Sarah LOLed.

Something is lost, and something else gained when the Bible is translated into modern terms. Some grandeur is lost, some weight, but what is gained is a sense of intimacy, a personal relationship to the events and people.

Consider, for example, Abraham’s reaction when God reveals that he will have a son (Gen. 17:17). The King James translation is “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” There’s grandeur, but the event is distant from me.

Similarly, The Living Torah, “Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. ‘How could I become a father at the age of 100?’ he thought. ‘And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?'”

I don’t find this translation relatable either. To me, it would be better to say that Abraham did the first ROTFL (Roll on the floor laughing): “Abraham ROFLed, how grand to have a son at 100 years…” It brings up a pleasant image: of Abraham as a man of red face and good humor, a hearty companion, and a good host. Someone you’d want to visit, not a stick-in-the-mud who you visit because he owns the last hotel on the road to Sodom.

Not totally the way I see it: Sarah looks stunned, but at least this captures a jolly Abraham.

Not totally the way I see it: Sarah looks stunned, but at least this captures a jolly Abraham.

And the same with Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Her home is full of dusty tourist guests, and she feeds them steak. Do you see a silent martyr, or a jolly sort who genuinely likes guests. This is important because we are to learn from these stories, Too often the doctors of the religion seem to want martyrs, but my read of Genesis is that sh’s jolly.. Sarah listens to the tales of her guests, and when one says she will have a child at 90, she LOLs (laughs out loud, Gen. 18:12) “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘I’m old and my husband is too, will I have fun!” If God wants something weird Sarah is up for it. To her, it sounds like fun. And after that, “Will I nurse a child?!.”

I note that these are the paradigms of humanity, individuals that God loved, and spoke to at length. So lets do the same, be open to the positive, weird future, wherever God takes us. Let’s behave as God himself does. For, as we find Psalms (2:4), “He, who sits in the heavens, laughs; He mocks those who plan against HIm.” Now, ask the doctors of your religion, why are you so serious, when “He, who sits in the heavens, laughs”

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 12, 2016. This is my third essay on religion, all of them, I guess on the lighter side. In the first, I note that science and religion are opposites, In the follow-up, that secular philosophy and religion are uncomfortable competitors, and now that God likes the jolly (you probably prefer the jolly, too.)

Sept. 11, 1683, Islam attacks Vienna.

In the US, September 11 is mostly known for the attacks on the World Trade Center, 2001. But world wide, I think, it’s mostly known for the Battle of Vienna, 1683. Based on his interpretation the religious command to take over the corrupt western world, the Dar al-Harab, for the world of Islāmic peace, the Dar al-Islam, Caliph Mohamed IV, broke the Treaty of Vasvár in 1682, and sent his army to attack Vienna, something Suleiman the Magnificent had tried in 1526. They besieged the city and attacked unsuccessfully on September 11, 1683, a day that would live in infamy.

The forces of Mohamet IV surround Vienna, September 11, 1683.

The forces of the Caliph surround Vienna, the city of good wine, September, 1683.

Mohamed IV’s army was 150,000 strong, led by Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa Pasha. The army spent a year getting to the city while they conquered, or subdued Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary. During that year, Emperor Leopold I and Charles V, Duke of Lorraine left Vienna nearly defenseless, and scoured Europe for allies. Vienna was left defended by just 24,000 under command of Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg. By the time Kara Mustafa arrived Leopold had gotten a pledge of financial support from the pope, and signed a mutual defense treaty with the Polish-Lithuanian League, and with Saxony, Baden, Bavaria, Swabia and Franconia, a good years’ work (Louis XIII of France said no).

Kara Mustafa reached Vienna on July 14 1683, but did not attack. Instead he laid siege to the city, and to nearby Perchtoldsdorf (Petersdorf). Perchtoldsdorf surrendered, but Vienna did not. Kara Mustafa then massacred the entire Christian population, perhaps as many as 30,000 people in the city square, and took their booty. This move may have pleased the Caliph, but did nothing to encourage the Viennese to surrender. Vienna held out until September, 1683 when the liberating armies of Leopold, Charles V, and John III Sobieski (Poland) arrived. Kara Mustafa attacked on September 11, but it was too late. In the counter attack, the Islamic army was defeated and put to flight. Kara Mustafa was put to death by the caliph for his failure.

Cavalry fighting at the Battle of Vienna, 1683

The Polish cavalry at the Battle of Vienna, 1683

The loss at Vienna was the beginning of a long retreat for Islam. Over the next century, Hapsburg rulers captured Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary; Russia conquered the Ukraine. The victorious Viennese built churches, established a feast day (Day of the Holy Name), and created crescent-shaped rolls, breads in the shape of the Moslem crescent symbol (or so the legend goes).

My reading suggests that, to this day, believing Moslems find the churches, breads, and festival offensive at some level. My guess, too, is that Osama bin Laden picked September 11, 2001 as his response to the offense. As a teen, Osama traveled in Europe, and his bookshelf included, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Paul Kennedy)”, and similar titles suggesting he would have known about the date and its significance. It seems likely (to me), that the date of the US embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya, September 11 2012 was similarly planned to match the earlier Sept 11’s, and not, as Ms Clinton claims, a response to a Jewish-made, Hollywood film.

It is clear that not every Islāmic thinker understands the obligation to battle our Dar al Harab to be one of armies, swords, and bombs. Even the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has explained that the popular slogan, “Death to America,” does not mean “death to the American people,” but “death to U.S. policies and arrogance,” That is, a war of ideas. He claims this struggle is “backed by reason and wisdom,” i.e. by the Koran, and he should know.

"Muslims against Crusaders" chanting during the two minutes of Remembrance Day (Armistice Day) silence, 2010.

“Muslims against Crusaders” chanting during the two minutes of Remembrance Day (Armistice Day) silence, 2010, “Our soldiers are in paradise, yours burn in Hell.”

However it is fought, the aim of the war is fought for our benefit: to save us from eternal Hell, and make our present world better, a part of the Dar al Islam, the Moslem world of religious peace. Even at our best, our infidel Dar al-Harab is considered evil because we go about independently competing in a world of chaotic commerce. Each infidel (as they see it) trying to wrest wealth from his fellow in an economic struggle that can only be ended by Caliphate-controlled charity. That the Dar al-Islam has been in turmoil for the last 1000 years is considered a slight embarrassment. To me, it seems more like Aesop’s fable of the toad physician who could not heal himself.

I note that many religions have the same jaundiced view of commerce, and have fought over it. What I find somewhat humorous (ha ha) is that Islam = Sholom = peace, and that there is a pattern of war being used to enforce peace on the unwilling.

If you find errors in my thinking, please tell me; I’m an engineer, not a historian or a theologian (Islāmic or otherwise). What little I know of Islam comes from my meagre translation above, from some history, and from public comments, e.g. by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Just so you know my biases, my sense is that a world of economic chaos is a better, more satisfying world, than any world of statist religious rule. I’d say that G-d likes entropy in all its forms, and that chaos is a gift. Let us thank God for Wine (Wiine = Wein = Vienna).

Robert E. Buxbaum, Friday, November 13, 2015.

Republicans vs conservatives

Most of the great divides of the 1800s pitted conservatives against Republicans. This was the Divide in the Mexican civil wars of the 1800s, and there were several; it is the divide in the South American wars of Independence, and in much of the US and European political debate of the 1800s as well.

Ned Flanders, cartoon conservative from "The Simpsons" He's generally well meaning and helpful, but also a bit creepy.

Ned Flanders, cartoon conservative from “The Simpsons” He’s generally well-meaning and helpful, but also a bit creepy.

In general, the difference between conservatives and republicans is that conservative governments favor religion, and religion-based leadership, while republicans favor individual liberty. In 1800s Mexico, conservatives backed two emperors (Maximilian I and Agustin I) and Santa Anna, the ruler who suspended all personal rights an ignited the war of Texan independence. Conservatives generally favor the religion of the majority: Protestantism in England, Catholicism in Central and South America, Judaism in Israel, and Islam in most of the Muslim world. This tends to annoy the irreligious and minority religious populations, who tend to become republicans. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the 1862 victory of Mexican republicans over the French-backed, conservative Maximilian I, at the battle of Puebla. The US Civil War, in essence, pitted the irreligious, industrial, republican north against the conservative, evangelical South; slavery is in the Bible so it must be good.

Conservatives usually favor government actions against sin in all it’s forms: miserliness, drunkenness, drugs, pornography, wild music, money-making, and freedom as such. Conservative-ruled countries have generally had anti-blasphemy laws and enforced “blue laws”, restrictions on business on holidays. Republican governments have few, or none of these. In pre-revolution France, the penalty for blasphemy was death, just as the Bible mandates. This changed when the republicans came into power. In England, private blasphemy was prosecuted as late as 1977. Similar penalties are still in force in Iran and other conservative Islāmic countries. Many US states still restrict the sale of alcohol on Sunday, for similar, conservative reasons. Conservatives usually favor sexual morality laws, putting strong restrictions on homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. In England, amicable divorce wasn’t legalized until 1930, and homosexuality was illegal until 1970. In the US, sexual laws are a fairly bizarre mix, in my humble opinion, the result of republicans, liberals, and conservatives making inelegant compromises.

In republican democracies like modern-day France, Holland, and Germany, sexual immorality laws are more lax than in the US. Republican governments strive to protect the rights of the individual; among these their right to property and to a fairly unbridled pursuit of pleasure. Republican countries tend to suffer from (or benefit from) significant income inequality. People can become rich due to hard work, talent, luck, or birth. And they very often become arrogant and obnoxious after they become rich — and sometimes before — to an extent that bothers conservatives and liberals alike. People can also become very poor: from laziness or bad choices, or just from bad luck or having been born to the wrong parents. Conservative and liberal elements then strive to help the very poorest, providing them with food, money and basic housing — generally achieved by taxing the rich. This is good in moderation, but taken to excess, this can lead to dependency of the poor, and redirection of the rich into less-productive fields like politics and the church. Conservatives very rarely leave a good pathway for the poor out of dependency, nor have they found a way to keep scoundrels out of the government and the church.

Scrooge McDuck. he'd likely be a Republican, if only to protect his wealth.

Scrooge McDuck, banker, railroad tycoon, steel magnate; he’d likely be republican, though not likely conservative. Motivated by money and power, he may do good, but not in any direct way, usually.

At present, the US Republican Party, the GOP, consists of approximately equal halves conservatives and republicans. That is, GOP leadership is currently an approximate balance between kindly folks like Ned Flanders who would rule by the Bible, and an equal number of rougher individuals, more like Scrooge McDuck who would rule by money.  in a sense, this is a wonderful compromise as the excesses of each group reins in the excesses of the other. In another sense though, the balance between conservatives and republicans is an ungovernable mess that leads to regular de Condorcet failures. I’m not sure how this will play out in the 2016 elections.

Fortunately, not all irreconcilable differences are as irreconcilable as one might think. Many de Condorcet problems are solvable by compromise, or by the effects of time. Compromise between charity and commerce can produce the best of all worlds, a major theme point, as I understand it, of Dickens’s Christmas Carol.

Robert E. Buxbaum, October 20, 2015. I use these essays to refine my thinking — here, more than usual. Any help you can provide will be welcome, feedback, corrections, comments. I’m trying to figure out what I, myself think. The divide between Conservatives and Liberals produces some of the most wonderful quote – exchanges, e.g. between Churchill and Attlee in 1950s England. Liberals, and I have not quite made up my understanding here, seem like a sort of like conservatives in that they believe in wealth redistribution, but without the guidance of a church, or church-based morality. At some point in the future, I’ll hope to arrange my thoughts about them, and about the difference between liberals and democrats.

Major blunders of the American Revolution

As nice as it is to discuss the brilliant men and great battles that allowed the American colonials to win the American Revolution, there is another way to see things –perhaps less enjoyable, but just as legitimate: looking at the great dunderheads and mistakes that allowed the greatest military power on earth to be defeated by a small group of undisciplined rabble. Here follows brief essays on my three top dunderheads: two British, one French. No one realized they were dunces until much later.

Pride of place goes, I think, to King Louis 16th of France. He helped us to win the war, and lost his own empire in the process. King Louis had nothing to gain by funding the American cause. And he had quite a lot to lose in men and money. He lost his ships and men in Rhode Island, lost colonies in India and the Seychelles, and spent millions he’d need when the famine of 1789 came. Worse, by supporting America, Louis put the bug of Liberty in the French ear. Far better (for Louis) would have been if he had waited, non-committally for another 3-5 years as the Dutch and Spanish did. He could have continued to host and honor Franklin, could have continued to sell weapons (to both sides) and could have even encouraged hot-head volunteers like Lafayette to go over and fight. We might still have won (see below) but at a greater cost to us and a fraction of the cost to the French monarchy. Let us thank God for fools. Here are my thoughts on when to get involved in a foreign war.

The basic issue of big-scale blunders is not seeing the disaster that hides behind a small-scale victory. And that tends to be funny.

The basic of every great dunderhead is not seeing the disaster that hides behind a small-scale victory. And that tends to be funny.

British admiral George Rodney is my second, honored dunce. He had many victories, especially after the war was lost, but his major war achievement was not-relieving Cornwallis at Yorktown, and thus losing the war. In early 1781, Rodney was defending Jamaica and other British “Sugar Islands” in the Caribbean while waiting for orders to either fight the French fleet or relieve Cornwallis. As it was, he did neither but instead attacked a Dutch-held, Caribbean island, St. Eustatius. Rodney noticed that British freighters were being hijacked by pirates and that the island was a major trading port to the American colonists. By going after these pirates, he gained booty, but left the rest of the empire under-gunned. This allowed French Admiral, de Grasse Tilly to defeat Admiral Hood in the Caribbean; allowed him to take Tobago for the French. And then, while Rodney was still protecting his St Eustatius booty, de Grasse circled back to Virginia in time to bottle up Cornwallis. British Admiral Graves tried twice to dislodge de Grasse, but without Rodney he hadn’t the firepower. Cornwallis surrounded the day Graves gave up his second, failed attempt.

Rodney’s choice was one of greed, self-interest, and glory-seeking at the expense of British national interest. It isn’t unique in the Revolution or in British military history. Clinton’s move to attack Philadelphia when he was supposed to aid Burgoyne caused the loss of Burgoyne’s army and got the French in on our side, but I judge Rodney’s screw-up bigger if only because Cornwallis’s defeat ended the war and lost America.

Finally, I give the third-place dunce cap to General Banastre Tarleton, otherwise known as “Bloody Ban,” the most hated man in America. Tarleton was the son of a noted slave trader and mayor of Liverpool. He tended to win battles, but as fictionalized in the movie, The Patriot, he rarely differentiated rebel from loyalist, burning farms and churches of both. He also became known for “Tarleton’s quarter”, killing his enemies after they had surrendered. In the long run, this sort of thing turns your friends in to your enemies, and so it did here.

The view, common in Tarlton’s regiment, was that this was at least partially a religious war. If a congregation wasn’t Anglican — a church with the king as its head — it was a “sedition shop” and needed to be eliminated. He wasn’t totally wrong, but it rarely goes down well; for example the Sunni vs Shiite, Hamas vs ISIS wars. He certainly undermined Benedict Arnold’s claims that King George was serious in granting religious freedom.

A religious dissertation on why resistance to the king is obedience to God.

A religious dissertation: resistance to a tyrant is obedience to God.

When Tarleton was given the job of capturing Marion Francis, the Swamp Fox, his approach, with Major James Wemyss and Captain Christian Hock (or Hook), was to burn the farms, churches, and plantations of anyone in the area. In one of Wemyss memoranda, he writes he had “burnt and laid waste about 50 houses and Plantations, mostly belonging to People who have either broke their Paroles or Oaths of Allegiance, and are now in Arms against us.” Note the word, “mostly.” These methods did succeed in drawing out the Swamp Fox, but it also drew out most everyone else in the south, even those who’d given up on the revolution. The now-farmless farmers enlisted and produced enthusiastic counter-attacks at Gibson’s Meeting House, Hill’s Iron Works, Fishdam Ford (Wemyss capture), Williamson’s Plantation (Huck’s Defeat), Blackstock’s farm and Cowpens. By the end, the colonials had even figured out how to use Tarleton’s enthusiasm against him.The right way to deal with your enemy is with focus and mercy, as Grant treated Lee at Appomattox. Tarleton’s methods would have made the Revolution a centuries-long, religious war IMHO, if the French had not gotten involved on our side.

Robert Buxbaum. July 16, 2015. If you have other classics of stupidity, please tell me. I’d like to recommend two books by A. J. O’Shaughnessy: “An Empire Divided,” and “The men who lost America.” As a final note: after the war Tarleton retired to Parliament where he served until 1833 as a fierce advocate for British slavery. Britain ended their use of slave workers in the Caribbean and south Africa in 1833, but didn’t stop their use in Ceylon and areas of East India company until 1843. Most Slaves who came to the new world did so in British ships.

Change your underwear; of mites and men

The underware bomber mites make it right.

Umar, the underwear bomber.

For those who don’t know it, the underwear bomber, Umar Farook Abdulmutallab, wore his pair of explosive underwear for 3 weeks straight before trying to detonate them while flying over Detroit in 2009. They didn’t go off, leaving him scarred for life. It’s quite possible that the nasty little mites that live in underwear stopped the underwear bomber. They are a main source of US allergens too.

Dust mite, skin, and pollen seen with a light  microscope. Gimmie some skin.

Dust mite, skin, and pollen seen with a light microscope. Gimmie some skin.

If you’ve ever used an electron microscope to look at household objects, you’ll find them covered with brick-like flakes of dried out skin-cells: yours and your friends’. Each person sheds his or her skin every month, on average. The outer layer dries out and flakes off as new skin grows in behind it. Skin flakes are the single largest source of household dust, and if not for the fact that these flakes are the main food for mites, your house would be chock full of your left over skin. When sunlight shines in your window, you see the shimmer of skin-flakes hanging in the air. Under the electron microscope, the fresh skin flakes look like bricks, but mite-eaten skin flakes look irregular. Less common, but more busy are the mites.

The facial mite movie. They live on in us, about 1 per hair follicle, particularly favoring eyelashes. Whenever you shower, your shower with a friend.

The facial mite movie. They live on in us, about 1 per hair follicle, particularly favoring eyelashes. Whenever you shower, your shower with a friend.

Dry skin is mostly protein (keratin), plus cholesterol and squalene. This provides great nutrition for dust mites and their associated bacteria. In warm, damp environments, as in your underwear or mattress, these beasties multiply and eat the old skin. The average density of dust mites on a mattress is greater than 2500/gram of dust.[1]  The mites leave behind excrement and broken off mite-limbs: nasty bits that are the most common allergens in the US today.

An allergy to dust shows up as sneezing, coughing, clogged lungs, and eczema. The most effective cure is a high level of in-home hygiene; mites don’t like soap or dry air. You’ve go to mop and vacuum regularly. Clean and change your clothing, particularly your undergarments; rotate your mattresses, and shake the dust out of your bedding. Vacuuming is less-effective as a significant fraction of the nasties go through the filter and get spread around by the vacuum blower.

As it turns out, dust mites and their bacteria eat more than skin. They also eat dried body fluids, poop residue, and the particular explosive used by Umar Farook, pentaerythritol tetra nitrate, PETN (humans can eat and metabolize this stuff too — it’s an angina treatment). The mites turn PETN into less-explosive versions, plus more mites.

Mighty mites as seen with electron microscopy. They eat more than skin.

Mighty mites as seen with electron microscopy. They eat more than skin.

There are many varieties of mite living on and among us. Belly button mites, for example, and face mites as shown above (click on the image to see it move). On average, people have one facial mite per hair follicle. It’s also possible that the bomber was stopped by poor quality control engineering and not mites at all. Religion tends to be at odds with a science like quality control, and followers tend to put their faith in miracles.

Chigger turning on a dime

Chigger turning on a dime

larger than the dust mite is the chigger, shown at left. Chiggers leave visible bites, particularly along the underwear waste-band. There are larger-yet critters in the family: lice, bed bugs, crabs. Bathing regularly, and cleaning your stuff will rid yourself of all these beasties, at least temporarily. Keeping your hair short and your windows open helps too. Mites multiply in humid, warm environments. Opening the windows dries and cools the air, and blows out mite-bits that could cause wheezing. Benjamin Franklin and took air-baths too: walking around naked with the windows open, even in winter. It helped that he lived on the second floor. Other ways to minimize mite growth include sunlight, DOT (a modern version of DDT), and eucalyptus oil. At the very minimum, change your underwear regularly. It goes a long way to reduce dust embarrassing moments at the jihadist convention.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, Sept 21, 2014. Not all science or life is this weird and wonderful, but a lot is, and I prefer to write about the weird and wonderful bits. See e.g. the hazards of health food, the value of sunshine, or the cancer hazard of living near a river. Or the grammar of pirates.

Religion – Philosophy joke

“A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. A theologian is the man who finds it.” ~ H. L. Mencken

This joke is more sad than funny, I would say, as it speaks to the inability to grapple with the big questions of life in any really rational way. We’d like to communicate with God, so he speaks back, but we can’t quite. We’d like to be able to stop evil with religion, by holding up a cross or squirting holy water, but we can’t. We’d like to know how and why did the universe come to be, and what happens after death, but our best rational efforts are helpless, It’s as they should be, says the philosopher, but it’s sad that it is, and then the theologian (rabbi, priest, imam) says he’s got the answers and the powers too. It’s too sad for words.

The philosopher in this joke is (I imagine) a PhD scientist, like me. While rational thought is great, and a PhD scientist can actually predict quite a lot that will happen, We have no real clue of why things happen — except in terms of other things that we can’t explain. It seems clear that the answer to none of those big-issue questions can not be found in science or rational philosophy. Nor can science deal well with one-time events like the creation of the universe, or unmeasurable items like where the apparent zero-point energy of quantum mechanics comes from. Untestable, one time events are the basis of religion and not science: science is the opposite of religion.

We thus turn to the theologian. In a sense, he has the answer: it’s God, Jesus, Jihad, prayer… Perhaps these words mean the same thing, or perhaps something different. A theologian can talk about this for hours and leave them as incomprehensible as before. Likely he is as confused as you are, but doesn’t know it. While something like God does seem to underly the concept of time, or creation (the big bang), a one-word answer, like “God” isn’t really an answer. Even though there appears to be a God, God doesn’t seem contained within the word — he’s not there. And calling “God” doesn’t give us the power we’d want to save the drowning, or cure disease.

Though the theologian will likely tell you miracle stories, and show you a pretty picture: long-haired Jesus, seated Zeus, or a dancing woman with the head of an elephant, that’s God and it isn’t. The reason people believe the theologian, is optimism: we hope he knows. Besides, the theologian has a costume and he keeps on talking till he wears the audience down. Eventually they believe he sees the black cat in the dark room called God. And eventually we don’t care that he can’t do anything on the physical plane. A key trick he has in wearing us down, by the way, is that theologians work in pairs: one tells you the other is much smarter and holier than you; the other one tells you the same about the first. Eventually, you believe them both — or at least you believe you are stupid and evil.

The wise and good philosopher or theologian is very hard to find. He doesn’t talk too much, and instead lets his actions and example do the teaching and some good. He does charity and justice (Gen. 18:18) and makes good lemonade from the lemons life gives him. He will admit that he doesn’t really know which set of words and bows actually open up God’s warehouse (or if any are particularly effective) “God speaks within a cloud” (Ex. 40:34, etc.); “[His] thoughts are not our thoughts,” (Is. 55:8, etc.). “No man can see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20).

What is the percentage of leaders are like this? “In a thousand, I have found one leader of men”, says Solomon (Eccles 7:28). “The other 999 follow after the women” (Groucho Marx).

I can’t claim to understand God particularly well, but my hope is that you will not finish reading my post thinking you are stupid or evil for not understanding the theologian’s many words, and I can hope that you will seek justice, help the downtrodden, and make yourself something of value, like a good glass of lemonade. Then again, you might be tempted to run off to a bad theologian — to someone who will encourage you to pray long and hard, and who will get you to pay him for a picture of God that only he can provide — that is, for his special picture of the black cat, in the dark room, that can never be photographed.

Robert E. Buxbaum: Amateur philosopher, and maker of fine lemonade.

Science is the Opposite of Religion

Some years ago, my daughter came back from religions school and asked for a definition of science. I told her that science was the opposite of religion. I didn’t mean to insult religion or science; the big bang for one thing, strongly suggests there is a God -creator, and quantum mechanics suggests (to me) that there is a God -maintainer, but religion deals with other things beyond a belief in God, and I meant to point out that every basic of how science looks at things finds its opposite in religion.

Science is based on reproducibility and lack of meaning: if you do the same experiment over and over, you’ll always get the same result as you did before and the same result as anyone else — when the results are measured to some good, statistical norm. The meaning for the observation? that’s a meaningless question. Religion is based on the centrality of drawing meaning, and the centrality of non-reproducible, one-time events: creation, the exodus from Egypt, the resurrection of Jesus, the birth of Zeus, etc. A religious believer is one who changes his or her life based on the lesson of these; to him, a non-believer is one who draws no meaning, or needs reproducible events.

Science also requires that anyone will get the same result if they do the same process. Thus, chemistry class results don’t depend on the age, sex, or election of the students. Any student who mixes the prescribed two chemicals and heats to a certain temperature is expected to get the same result. The same applies to measures of the size of the universe, or its angular momentum or age. In religion, it is fundamentally important what sex you are, how old you are, who your parents were, or what you are thinking at the time. If the right person says “hoc es corpus” over wine and wafers, they change; if not, they do not. If the right person opens the door to heaven, or closes it, it matters in religion.

A main aspect of all religion is prayer; the idea that what you are thinking or saying changes things on high and here below. In science, we only consider experiments where the words said over the experiment have no effect. Another aspect of religion is tchuvah (regret, repentance); the idea is that thoughts can change the effect of actions, at least retroactively. Science tends to ignore repentance, because they lack the ability to measure things that work backwards in time, and because the scientific instruments we have currently do not take measurements on the soul to see if the repentance had any effect. Basically, the science-universe is only populated with those things which can be measured or reproducibly affected, and that pretty much excludes the soul. That the soul does not exist in the science universe doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Another main aspect of religion is morality: you’re supposed to do the right thing. Morality varies from one religion to another, and you may think the other fellow’s religion has a warped morality, but at least there is one in all religions. In science, for better or worse, there is no apparent morality, either to man or to the universe. Based on science, the universe will end, either by a bang or a whimper, and in that void of end it would seem that killing a mouse is about as important as killing a person. No religion I know of sees the universe ending in either cold or hot death; as a result. Consistent with this, they all see murder is a sin against God. This difference is a big plus for religion, IMHO. That man sees murder as a true evil is either a sign that religion is true, or that it isn’t depending on the value you put on life. Another example of the moral divide: Scientists, especially academics, tend to be elitists. Their morality, such as it is, values great minds and great projects over the humble and stupid. Classical religion sees the opposite; it promoting the elevation of the poor, weak, and humble. There is no fundamental way to tell which one is right, and I tend to think that both are right in their own, mirror-image universes.

It is now worthwhile to consider what each universe sees as wisdom. An Explanation in the universe of science has everything to do with utility and not any internal sense of having understood, as such. I understand something only to the extent I predict that thing or can do something based on the knowledge. in religion, the motivation for all activity is always just understanding — typically of God on the bone-deep level. This difference shows up very clearly in dealing with quantum mechanics. To a scientist, the quantum world is fundamentally a door from religion because it is basically non-understandable but very useful. Religion totally ignores quantum mechanics for the same reason: it’s non-understandable, but very precise and useful. Anything you can’t understand is meaningless to them (literally), and useful is mostly defined in terms of building the particular religion; I think this is a mistake on many levels. I note that looking for disproof is the glory-work of all science development, but the devil’s work of every religion. A religious leader will grab on to statistical findings that suggest that his type of prayer cures people, but will always reject disproof, e.g. evidence that someone else’s prayers works better, or that his prayer does nothing at all. Each religion is thus in a war with the other, each trying to build belief, while not removing it. Science is the opposite. Religion starts with the answer and accepts any support it can; fundamental change is considered a bad thing in religion. The opposite is so with science; disproof is considered “progress,” and change is good.

These are not minor aspects of science and religion, by the way, but these are the fundamental basics of each, as best I can tell. History, politics, and psychology seem to be border-line areas, somewhere between science and religion. The differences do not reflect a lack in these fields, but just a recognition that each works according to its own logic and universe.

My hope in life is to combine science and religion to the extent possible, but find that supporting science in any form presents difficulties when I have to speak to others in the religious community, my daughter’s teachers among them. As an example of the problem that come up, my sense is that the big bang is a fine proof of creation and should be welcomed by all (most) religious people. I think its a sign that there is a creator when science says everything came from nothing, 14,000,000 years ago. Sorry to say, the religious leaders I’ve met reject the big bang, and claim you can’t believe in anything that happened 14,000,000,000 years ago. So long as science shows no evidence of a bearded observer at the center, they are not interested. Scientists, too have trouble with the bang, I find. It’s a one-time event that they can’t quite explain away (Steven Hawking keeps trying). The only sane approach I’ve found is to keep blogging, and otherwise leave each to its area. There seems to be little reason to expect communal agreement.

by Robert E. Buxbaum, Apr. 7, 2013. For some further thoughts, see here.