Thursday, May 26, 2016

O machine! O machine!

I am neither a genius, nor do I play on on TeeVee; but:  no.

I knew there was a reason I was giving Stephen Hawking's new PBS series a pass.  I found out what it was last night, within 10 minutes.

The episode had something to do with Isaac Newton; or maybe it was the Enlightenment.  I wasn't paying close attention at first, except that the story began with medieval times when people "believed" in "magic" (an idea that is really more modern than ancient, especially the way Hawking presented it; more as Harry Potter than with any authenticity.  That seems like a minor quibble but it isn't; it just isn't something I can develop here, although this is fairly close**.)  Hawking follows the crowd, giving Newton credit for replacing "magic" (his term, and obviously less volatile than "religion," but it's clear what he really means, and eliding the fact that Newton was an alchemist) with "science," and so setting us on the road to explaining, as he repeats, "why we are here."

"Magic," of course, has nothing to do with religion.  Nor is religion (specifically Christianity, since both Newton and Hawking are products of a Christian culture, like it or not) about an explanation of the universe.  Search the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament all you want, there is no explanation of the cosmos equivalent to anything the Pre-Socratics came up with.*  The two Genesis stories are not about how the earth came to be, but why God is connected to the Creation:  because God is the Creator.  "Creator of the Universe" is the felicitous phrase of the Jews.  But why are we here?  The best answer I can give you is:  because we are.  There's nothing magical about it; but in the same sense, it is all miraculous.

“My mother was always at work, by day helping my father on the croft, and by night at wool and spinning, at night clothes and at day clothes for the family. My mother would be beseeching us to be careful in everything, to put value on time and to eschew idleness; that a night was coming in which no work could be done. She would be telling us about Mac Shiamain, and how he sought to be at work. If we were dilatory in putting on our clothes, and made an excuse for our prayers, my mother would say that God regarded heart and not speech, the mind and not the manner; and that we might clothe our souls with grace while clothing our bodies with raiment. My mother taught us what we should ask for in prayer, as she heard it from her own mother, and as she again heard it from the one who was before her.

“My mother would be asking us to sing our morning song to God down in the backhouse, as Mary’s lark was singing up in the clouds, and as Christ’s mavis was singing it yonder in the tree, giving glory to the God of the creatures for the repose of the night, for the light of the day, and for the joy of life. She would tell us that every creature on the earth here below and in the ocean beneath and in the air above was giving glory to the great God of the creatures and the worlds, of the virtues and the blessings, and would we be dumb!

“My dear mother reared her children in food and clothing, in love and charity. My heart loves the earth in which my beloved mother rests.”
Quoted from Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century, by Alexander Carmichael (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press 1997), pp. 197, 621.

Stephen Hawking might make little of that, but to me there is more of value there than in all of the Principia Mathematica, at least insofar as Newton helps explain why we are here.  I'm not even concerned with rejecting Newton, or keeping science in its sphere and religion in its sphere (all this talk of spheres is as ludicrous as Paul's mention of the "seventh heaven," at least in any literal sense).

I just grow so weary of ignorance parading itself as knowledge, and foolishness putting on the raiment of wisdom.  What is clear to me is that Hawking, in line with a school of thought rooted in the 19th century, wants to replace religion with science as the total explanation for all things worth explaining (beauty, truth, love, music, joy, sorrow, mourning, most of human experience, in other words, need not apply, except as science can reduce them to absurdities and simplicities).  To the extent religion ever took that role, it took it (wisely) as ambiguity and only foolishly as a totality.  If science is truly forced to fill out that role, science, too, will fail.

I was working up some notes the other day on themes in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian gospels.  Not "a theme," because there isn't one; but themes.  There are several, but to keep it to two closely related ones, there is "justice" and "covenant."  "Covenant" is the more restrictive:  it is what binds the God of Abraham to the children of Abraham, and them to their God.  Justice, however, is of central importance to the prophets (the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures), and to the gospels.  Justice is not about why we are here, but how we should live since we are here.  Covenant is the guidance to the children of Abraham to attain justice; and it is that attainment, per the vision of Isaiah, which will draw the nations (i.e., the Gentiles) to the "holy mountain."  Not from coercion, or even conversion, but from desire to have what Israel has (and which, obviously, that nation-state does not yet have, but that's yet another discussion).  There is no magic in the teachings of the prophets or the Law, any more than there is clear and rigid guidance in the parables of Jesus.  Those parables are not simple allegories about how to be good, but subtle, complex stories that don't lead to any clear conclusion but keep us aware of how much we don't know, how much we never know.  This is the essence of Hebraic thought:  that we will always misunderstand justice, that we will always turn it to what benefits us.

And justice is never "just us." (sorry!)

Why are we here?  That's not the important question.  The important question is:  what do we do now that we're here?

And science has bugger all to say about that; because the answer is not in "magic."  And "magic," at least in its modern conception, is all that science has really replaced.

*Specific mentions of magic in the Hebrew Scriptures involve imposters who are not backed up by the Creator of the Universe.  Strict monotheists that they were, the Hebrews had no room for alternative explanations for how the world worked:  it all came from God.  Which is part of the grievance of Job, but also the reason Jonah is so pissed off.

**Just building on some ideas there, but if, 700 years from now, "Game of Thrones" were to be resurrected and taught in schools (the video version or the print version), would it be proof that we believed dragons and zombies and magic were real?   Is Dracula proof the English believed vampires were real in the 19th century?   Is "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" proof that people in the 14th century believed the beheading game was real, and not a literary trope?


  1. Lord ha' mercy. Not another Stephen Hawking celebrity vehicle. If I hadn't been glad to give up TV already, this would have made me so.

    There must be a rule that whenever a Brit-atheist scientist ventures into history he'll repeat the same nonsense that has been handed down to them from the most mendacious of anti-Catholic Anglicans and Puritans. With a bunch of 19th century scientistic tripe thrown in.

    How many of the "geniuses" in this exercise are actual historians, I wonder. But not very hard.

    I see that it's a co-production between PBS and the National Geographic. Well, it could be worse, I suppose. It could be the Discover or the History channel.

  2. The picture I found surprised me; for about 20 seconds.

    Hawking is Sagan, with better scientific cred; but beyond that, just as ignorant and full of nonsense.