Likely stories, James C Raymond

Falling for Science: Asking the Big Questions
Bernard Beckett
Longacre Press, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877361722  

Imagine yourself in Egypt in the third century BC. You believe the earth is round – what else would cause ships’ masts to appear before their hulls on the horizon? – and you want to measure its circumference. How would you do it? Or imagine you are living in the first half of the 20th century. You suspect that Einstein’s theory about the effect of gravity on the trajectory of light is valid because, well, because Einstein was nobody’s fool. How would you test it?

These are just two of the problems described by Bernard Beckett in Falling for Science, with solutions so ingenious we might be tempted to believe that science, given enough time, will explain absolutely everything. Hence the double entendre: “falling for” in the sense of falling in love, or at least in awe; and “falling for” in the sense of falling for a con (if, for example, you responded to an email from a stranger in Lagos offering you a few million dollars to help her transfer the rest of her fortune to Wellington).

Beckett’s book lives up to both senses. He is genuinely impressed by science, but relentlessly sceptical when scientists promise more than they can deliver, including a few pesky questions that science may never be equipped to answer. This last category includes, among other things, how human consciousness is produced by the mushy matter in our heads, whether machines will one day experience consciousness like our own, and whether time is real or just the result of the way we are programmed to order our experience.

Beckett is a secondary school teacher; he is also a writer, having published more than half a dozen novels, including the prize-winning Genesis. Both vocations serve him (and us) well. Beckett the teacher seems to have honed his talent for exploring the mysteries of the universe by explaining them to an audience whose hormones focus their attention on mysteries of more immediate urgency. He unfolds even the most abstruse operations of science with clarity, wit, an occasional pinch of mild profanity, and more than occasional irreverence. To professional scientists, the result may seem simplistic, and Beckett cheerfully admits as much. But for the rest of us it is a welcome explanation of things we might have known only vaguely, if at all.

It is no surprise, however, that Beckett the writer considers storytelling the proper complement to science, taking over where observation and data collection leave off. Storytellers would be foolish to ignore science, he tells us, but the converse is equally true: “[W]hen science fails to acknowledge its storytelling component it becomes not just hopelessly dry, but ultimately meaningless.” The story Beckett tells begins with a break from mythology achieved by early Greek philosophers, followed by a retreat to mythology during the first 15 centuries of Christianity, and a return to rationalism during the Renaissance, when science challenged the authority of the church and the utility of revelation in making meaning of our lives.

One of the pleasures of this book is Beckett’s ability to make us marvel at the scientific imagination even when it turns out to be wrong. Thales was wrong to imagine that everything was made of water. But what a brilliant insight it was to imagine that beneath the obvious diversity of things lurks some sort of underlying material that everything shares. Most of us would have been content to think that dirt is “made of dirt, grass of grass, and goats of goat stuff”. Democritus may have come a bit closer to our understanding of physics when he speculated that everything is composed of ultimate particles he called atoms. His atoms may not resemble what we now call atoms – but that does not diminish his brilliance in theorising some sort of material constants beneath the surface of things.

Just as Montaigne was the real subject of his essays, Beckett’s book is to some extent about Beckett, beginning with the Catholic education that explained the universe in biblical stories that were satisfying to him as a child, but then did nothing to assist when he discovered that the stories were myths. No harm done: “perhaps as with all those raised in such a certain and untenable tradition, I am left with the legacy of insatiable curiosity.” Curiosity, yes; but also an insatiable yearning for meaning. Then again, Beckett’s story is really the story of anyone blessed (or cursed) with a thirst for meaning that neither science nor religion completely satisfies.

Pure science, without story, paints a pretty bleak picture:

We are here as the result of nothing but random chance, we are told. The universe was not created with us in mind. We were not meant to be here, we simply happened, a sheer fluke, the result of contingency and the laws of physics. The universe has no attitude towards us, it is nothing but physical relationships. Creation is random and disinterested. There is no God, no purpose, no meaning. We simply are.

 

Beckett responds, eventually, by invoking Shakespeare as a maker of meaning, specifically, Macbeth’s soliloquy ending with the somewhat cheerless observation that life “is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.”

Not much comfort there. But Beckett stares into the void with unflinching courage:

Life is an elaborate pantomime, an acting out of our own invention, signifying only that which we ourselves imagine into existence. Knowing the world is beyond us, and the brevity of this existence our greatest challenge.

 

I am reminded of that improbable passage in Ian McEwan’s Saturday in which an intruder genetically disposed to violence is suddenly calmed by a recitation of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”. It might work in fiction, but I’m not sure I would choose to wander into a hostile neighbourhood or a hostile universe with the Oxford Book of English Verse as my only defence. Then again, what other defence is there?

Evolution occupies much of Beckett’s attention, perhaps because it is often perceived as incompatible with various religious accounts. For those who think that the complexity and apparent design we observe in the world are not likely to have occurred purely by chance, Beckett poses a fascinating comparison. Imagine that you toss 12 dice, one after another, and every one comes up a six. Highly improbable; indeed, the odds are one in two billion. But then again, the chance of any particular combination of numbers showing up in this experiment is also one in two billion. A row of sixes is no more improbable than any apparently random sets of numbers.

From this we are to infer that, given enough time, enough matter, and sufficient external influences, however random, the life forms around us are no less probable than apparent chaos. Beckett does not allude to the classic example of a zillion monkeys hacking away at a zillion keyboards until they produce the complete works of Shakespeare – but presumably he would find this statistically as probable as any other result.

What is missing in this sense of probability, however, is the intuitive notion of probability, a “likely story”, common to Aristotle’s rhetoric, the novelist’s craft and courtroom trials. Sure, the defendant may not have known the gun was loaded when she aimed it at her sleeping husband’s ear and pulled the trigger. Possible. And, in a totally random and mechanistic universe, as statistically probable as any other story. But not bloody likely.

Beckett accepts evolution as a fact, but insists that it really doesn’t answer “[t]he big question of our existence, why there is something in the universe and not nothing.” In fact, “to say evolution explains our existence is at best philosophically naive, at worst wilfully misleading: a charge so often levelled at the religious side of this argument.” In fact, “Many would claim we are still a long way from even framing the question which would make its solution possible.”

Compared to the “big question of our existence”, calculating the circumference of the earth is a piece of cake. Eratosthenes, a Greek philosopher living in Syene (near present day Aswan, conveniently located on the tropic of Cancer), noticed that at noon on the summer solstice, the sun was directly overhead. If the earth is round, thought he, the sun would  not be directly overhead at that time in Alexandria, which was a known distance north of Syene. So he visited Alexandria on the summer solstice and observed that sunlight struck the earth there at an angle of 7o12’. Problem solved. The ratio between 7o12’ and the 360o of a full circle would be the same as the ratio between the distance from Syene to Alexandria and the circumference of the earth. He cross-multiplied and came up with the equivalent of 45,000k – remarkably close to the 40,000k that we now accept as an accurate measurement.

Verifying Einstein’s theory was actually a bit easier. If the theory was correct, a star – or more precisely, the light from a distant star – would seem to wander from its normal position in the sky as it passed close to a huge object in space, like the sun. In other words, the gravity from the sun would, according to Einstein’s theory, pull the beam of light off course. Easy enough to check this out – if only we could see the sun and the stars at the same time. Solution: wait for a solar eclipse. When the moon wanders between earth and sun, it darkens the sky and allows us to see the stars without losing track of the sun’s whereabouts. Sure enough, starlight near the sun shifted a bit, confirming Einstein’s theory.

If you like this sort of stuff, Beckett’s book is a great read. But don’t fall for science entirely. Reserve some scepticism. The trick is to know the difference between knowledge and mere belief, because nothing is more dangerous in this world than illusions of certitude. In fact, it is Beckett’s determined resistance to facile explanations that makes his book particularly valuable:

If your stories are different from my stories, and stories are how we reach our moral conclusions, then when it turns out we disagree on issues regarding crime and punishment, education, tax, reproductive technology or the environment, shouting “I’m right and you’re wrong” just won’t cut it. We’re going to have to listen to one another, and see if some sort of compromise can’t be hewn from the rock of culture …. We’re going to have to respect the idea that the sacred is personal, and we’re going to have to find ways of letting each other get on with our lives.

 

Or to put it more succinctly, “We can either take a moment to ask which views we are certain of, and which must be left open for negotiation – or we can bomb each other.”

 

James C Raymond is an independent consultant in legal writing and reasoning, with a keen interest in science as epistemology. He often comes to New Zealand, but is based in New York.

 

 

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