“Just the facts, ma’am”: the private eye and religion

I just read Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact about the incompatibility of religion and science. The arguments will be familiar to anyone who frequents Coyne’s website Why Evolution Is TrueThe book is a full-throated endorsement of science (broadly construed) as the only way we have of finding out what is true.  That “broadly construed” is important to Coyne’s case; it’s not just “scientists” who do science, in his formulation; a plumber does science when he makes a hypothesis about why a pipe is leaking, tests the hypothesis, and either confirms or rejects it.  That’s the way we achieve truths about plumbing and, Coyne suggests, about anything.  Religion (or listening to Beethoven, or reading Shakespeare) can’t tell you why a pipe is leaking, or how the universe began, or what causes malaria.

It also doesn’t help you solve crimes.  My novel Where All the Ladders Start is, among other things, about the private eye as scientist.  Our hero, Walter Sands, is investigating the disappearance of a cult leader.  There are conventional explanations–the guy was murdered, or kidnapped, or just took off on his own.  But there is also a religious explanation advanced by many cult members: God loved the guy so much that He assumed him into heaven.  Walter is not impressed by the religious explanation, however.  He is relentlessly practical: private eyes aren’t interested in miracles; they’re interested in people — in means, motive, and opportunity.  So he does what private investigators do: he searches for facts, and eventually he uncovers the non-miraculous truth.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a bit of a twist at the end (in a private eye novel, there’s always a twist at the end).  Walter uncovers the truth, but he can’t escape religion’s clutches.  Because, he is told, in everything he has done, he has actually been following God’s plan.  And he finds himself unable to dispute this, because, really, how can he?  How can anyone?  If God has a plan, a private eye is not going to uncover it.

(For those not of a certain age, “Just the facts, ma’am” is a catchphrase associated with no-nonsense Sergeant Joe Friday of the 50’s (and 60’s and 70’s) TV show Dragnet.  Snopes tells us, though, that the character never says exactly that.)

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Where do you get all your bad ideas?

While I was in Albuquerque I had the chance to chat with Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico.  One of his research interests is creativity. So, OK, the conversation got a bit off-track, and we ended up talking about foot fetishes.  He brought it up!  Anyway, Rex pointed me to this entertaining blog post about V. S. Ramachandran, the prolific Indian neuroscientist (he came up with the idea of the mirror box for treating phantom limb pain, which was the basis of a particularly bizarre episode of “House”.) Ramachandran had an idea about foot fetishes, based on the work of Penfield and Jasper, who did the amazing “awake craniotomies” that allowed them to map the regions of the brain associated with different kinds of functioning. Jung explains:

Penfield and Jasper wrote a book in 1954 entitled Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain in which they describe surgeries performed on some 750 patients undergoing awake craniotomy. Both males and females were studied, although only about 10 percent were female. With respect to the genitals, Penfield and Jasper state (page 69), “The representation of genitalia is only sensory and not motor.” Second, and importantly, they state, “Its relationship to foot is not altogether clear,” although they place the genitalia next to the foot on the sensory map (see above). Well there’s the rub …

Their sensory map looks like this:

On the basis of this evidence, Ramachandran came up with theidea that maybe the proximity of the genital processing right next to the foot and toe processing, plus a little miswiring, would lead to foot fetishes.  Well, OK….

Turns out that Penfield and Jasper’s data wasn’t all that strong about the position of the genital processing, and in reality it’s probably right where it belongs, under the trunk.  So?

So, what does it all mean for 1) genitals, 2) the brain, 3) Penfield, and 4) Ramachandran? With respect to the genitals, they look to be where they are supposed to be in the brain, and the cartoon of the little man should likely be updated so that he is not tripping over his junk. Second, the brain appears to be organized in a somatotopical manner (that means it roughly maps to the body in terms of location and importance of function). Third, Penfield and Jasper (among others) were studying people with epilepsy, tumors, and any number of other brain disorders, and some miswiring might be garbling the data, along with the highly possible reticence on the part of either the good doctors or patients to map or report stimulation regarding the genitalia as compared to ANY other sensory or motor function. And finally, Ramachandran remains a genius. He was likely wrong on this front, but he has brilliantly demonstrated a key feature of highly creative individuals: they put out a lot of ideas. Not all of them are right, but some might lead to a “novel and useful” treatment for phantom limb or a theory of synesthesia (the latter of which is well supported by “miswiring” data). Keep it sexy, Dr. R. …

This seems right to me.  To be creative, you need lots of ideas, but not all of them are going to be good ones.  The trick is to figure out which ones are worth spending your time and energy on.  I have pages and pages of notes about the novel I’m currently working on, and it is entertaining and rather distressing to read through these notes and look at all the bad ideas I’ve come up with.  How do I know if the good ones are ending up in the actual novel?  I’m relying on my friends to tell me.  If I get it wrong, it’s all their fault.

In which I review “Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story” using upgoer5

This is the book I’m talking about. And this explains the words I’m using (and not using). Why am I doing this? Because this is my writing place!

Why is the world here? Why is there something instead of nothing? We’ve talked about this before. In this book, a man goes around talking to men (they are all men) who have thought a lot about this question. They all have different ideas.

Some people believe that God made everything. But then who made God? Where did God come from? Is God just “there”? Where is “there”? And why is God the way He is and not some other way?

Some people think that something just pops out of nothing. But if this is possible, why is it possible? Why is the way things are exactly this way and not some other way?

Some people believe there are many, many worlds — many “everythings” — and each one may have a different way that things are. Maybe everything that could be, is. But why? Why isn’t there just nothing, which is the most simple way for things to be?

Some people think this has something to do with us, and the way we can think. Maybe there is something instead of nothing just so we can be here. Some other people think this idea is really stupid.

The man writes about what these people look like and where they live. He eats with many of them and he talks about what they eat. Most of them know each other; none of them agree with each other.

In the book, he also talks about his dog dying and then his mother dying. This makes him sad and it made me sad, but I’m not sure what this has to do with why there is something instead of nothing.

In the end, I don’t think he knows the answer to this question. And we don’t, either. Probably we will never know. Should that make us sad?

Is the paranormal “unconstrained whimsicality”?

Apropos of my discussion of the paranormal and Marlborough Street, here (via Jerry Coyne) is an excerpt from an article by the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins:

One aspect of the paranormal versus real science should not go unremarked. As in other forms of obscurantist pursuit, such as religion, it is so easy to make time-wasting speculations. The paranormal is effectively unconstrained whimsicality. Original suggestions in real science emerge only after detailed study and the lengthy and often subtle process of testing whether current concepts are adequate. Only if all this hard work fails is a scientist justified in edging forward human understanding with a novel and possibly revolutionary idea. Real science is desperately hard work; the paranormal is almost entirely the fruit of armchair fantasizing. Real science is a regal application of the full power of human intellect; the paranormal is a prostitution of the brain. Worst of all, it wastes time and distorts the public’s vision of the scientific endeavour.

(Neither Coyne nor Atkins takes any prisoners.)

This seems perfectly true to me. And this is an aid in writing fiction that involves the paranormal: you get to make up the rules, and no one gets to tell you That’s really not how it works. You are the one doing the “armchair fantasizing”; you’re not advancing human understanding, but you may entertain a few people. The hero in Marlborough Street can find missing persons and occasionally dip into someone else’s mind; the heroine of Summit with great mental effort can force a person to change the way he thinks and acts. The only limitation is the limitation of all fiction: internal consistency.  It’s your fictional universe, but once you’ve set up its rules, you have to live by them.

Finding Kenneth Miller’s God

As I have in the past, I’m teaching Sunday School for the combined Unitarian churches in my little town.  (Unitarians are presumably the only folks who would let me teach Sunday School, and I know they are the only ones I’d teach Sunday School for.)  We’re doing a “Coming of Age” curriculum for eighth and ninth graders, and the other day we had a little discussion of evolution with the kids.  I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that two of my fellow teachers had a lot of sympathy for intelligent design.

These folks are religious in the way Unitarians are religious–they are comfortable recognizing a spiritual dimension to life, but they aren’t comfortable with religious dogma.  They seemed to have an instinctive dislike for evolution because it didn’t have a spiritual dimension; they liked the idea that evolution couldn’t explain everything, and that some parts of life required God (or a spiritual force, or something beyond blind chance).

I thought of them as I read Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God.  Miller is a biology professor at Brown and a committed supporter of evolution who has testified in trials against ID and creationism.  He’s also a devout Catholic. In Finding Darwin’s God, he makes the case that a belief in evolution can be completely reconciled with belief in a personal God who actively intervenes in His creation.

Miller is an appealing writer, and he certainly seems like an appealing person.   On the other hand, I don’t think I was the target audience for his book.  He begins by making the case for evolution, which I didn’t have to have made for me.  Then he made the case against creationism and intelligent design.  Don’t need to be convinced about that, either.  So I skimmed quite a bit through those chapters.  Finally at around page 200 he gets to the part where he reconciles God with evolution.  His case is that atheist scientists oversell materialism and determinism, and that in fact, quantum-induced uncertainty means that there is no determinism:

The natural history of evolution is unrepeatable because the nature of matter is unpredictable in the first place.  Wind that tape back, and it will surely come out differently next time around, not just for the Burgess shale, but for every important event in the evolutionary history of life.

And it’s in this unpredictability that God can work his wonders, choosing one probability over another to guide the world in the direction of creatures like us.

Well, for me what’s frustrating about the book is that Miller summarizes all this in about five pages.  He doesn’t engage with anyone who might disagree with his interpretation of quantum theory, determinism, and free will.  He just asserts the truth of his interpretation, and then he’s off to the theological races.  Indeterminacy gives you free will, gives you the possibility of miracles, gives you everything you need for a personal God like the one described in Western monotheism. So Miller can do the usual theological thing of making unprovable (or disprovable) arguments in favor of what he already believes:

Of course a loving God would create a Universe in just this way, so that it would contain creatures who have the ability to know, love, and serve Him (as the Baltimore catechism puts it), and if they fail to do so, He will consign them to eternal torment.

Of course a loving God would create the possibility of evil in such a Universe, to give these free creatures a choice, and if as a result some children happen to get tortured, raped, and killed by their stepfathers, it’s certainly not His fault.

I’m being snarky here, but only to make the point that, if you don’t buy into Miller’s beliefs, your surely not going to be convinced by his theological arguments. So I skimmed through that section as well.

Would my co-teachers get something from the book?  Maybe, but I can’t imagine they’d find Miller’s view of God as satisfying as intelligent design. With intelligent design and, of course, creationism, God (or a higher power) is a necessity.  Miller’s book only makes the case that God is a possibility — that His existence can’t be disproved by the fact of evolution.  He certainly doesn’t propose any way of proving that his God exists in the way that science proves hypotheses.  So we’re back to faith, which either works for you or it doesn’t.  Miller is sure of the truth of his God, and maybe his book will make it easier for others like him to reconcile their God with the scientific truth of evolution.  If so, I suppose that’s a good thing.  But I imagine that the vast majority of the faithful would still prefer it if evolution would just go away.

Quidditch on the Quad

We had beautiful weather for Parents’ Weekend at Tufts.  As is often the case with these things, the best times were those you didn’t expect — in this case, we got to watch an intramural quidditch game on the quad behind the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  It was my first quidditch game ever.

Here’s the autumnal scene:

Here’s some great quidditch action:

And here’s my kid.  First time I’ve seen him with a broom between his legs, I think.  Also, the first time he played quidditch.

And here is the winning squad:

This was supposed to be the team from my kid’s fraternity.  As you can tell, there were a few ringers.  And they were great!

The game was pretty serious — there was a referee plus two goal judges — but not that serious — James learned the rules during the practice before the game.

It was interesting watching a game where you have no idea what the rules are.  Quidditch felt like a combination of rugby and dodgeball.  I could tell that one of the four balls was special — that was the one you threw through the rings, but I couldn’t tell what was going on with the other three balls.  This is what my lovely wife must feel like when she actually pays attention to a game–like, say, the Superbowl–and she keeps asking me: “Wait a second — what just happened?  Why are you yelling at the TV?”

Today I went back to Tufts and listened to a lecture by the philosopher Ray Jackendoff on the cognitive structure of baseball that I found pretty interesting after watching the game.  (You can watch an earlier version of the lecture from his home page.)  A game, he says, has a physical sphere — in this case, people running around with brooms between their legs, throwing balls at people and occasionally tackling them.  That was mostly what I perceived as I watched the quidditch match.

Beyond that is the abstract sphere that encompasses the rules of the game.  The rules tell the players (and the referee and the spectators) what you can and cannot do with the balls and the brooms, and what you can and cannot do to your opponents.  Beyond the rules in the abstract sphere is strategy.  In baseball, for example, what constitutes a walk is a rule; an intentional walk represents strategy.  I could make out a few of the rules of quidditch from one viewing, but I couldn’t come close to detecting any strategy.  (James told me that I wasn’t going to discover any strategy from looking at him; he was mainly just running around.)

Long ago Mike Nichols and Elaine May did some hilarious animated commercials for Narragansett Beer.  One of the best of them–which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be on YouTube–has Elaine May’s character trying to be a baseball announcer.  If we use Jackendoff’s structure, the joke is that she only knows enough to announce the physical sphere: “The man with the ball throws the ball.  And now the man with the bat hits the ball.  And now he starts to run!  And the man with the glove catches the ball and throws it to another man with a glove!”  (Somewhere in the ad the Narragansett jingle showed up.)

The fun of being a sports fan is to know enough about the sport to think about it at the strategic level–like three of us at the gym later talking about whether a football team should go for a two-point conversion late in the game.  We’re all experts!

I doubt that I’ll ever become an expert at quidditch.  Guess I’m just a Muggle.