Sunday, July 04, 2010

Box of bones or bag of bones

kw: observations, superstition, science, faith

A dozen years ago or more, our son, age six at the time, came running up to me carrying some bones and said, "Look! We found a dinosaur!" The bones were rather small, still articulated, and composed most of a skeleton of some smallish animal. I asked him and his friends to see if they could find the rest of the skeleton, and they did. Once they brought the skull, it was clear that this was the remains of a house cat. He still has the bones in a box in the garage, with other boxes containing a dried-out snake we found once, and a dozen skulls from mice, voles, shrews, birds, and one squirrel. He has spent a little time comparing them, but he didn't turn out to be very scientifically inclined, so his budding naturalist's collection never went further.

In some cultures, a use would have been found for the bones, besides being objects of study. Some of them might have been incorporated into an amulet, some might have been burned in a ritual, and some might have been ground up to be used as medicine. Of course a domestic cat doesn't carry much magical weight, not like a wolf or a wildcat.

One definition of superstition is "A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one's behavior in some magical or mystical way." I contend that the words "human reason" do not belong in this definition, because magical beliefs are definitely based on reason. It is just that the reasoning is founded on false premises. So, even though I come from a strong scientific background, I understand that those who try to influence events using means we call "superstitious" are behaving very rationally in their own system of understanding.

There are two sets of premises that underlie our interest in influencing or controlling our future. Both have this underlying premise: that to influence events one must influence the causes of events. The world view we (scientifically oriented) call superstitious holds that those causes are personalities, whether gods or demons or jinni, who may be appealed to or appeased or even controlled by the use of objects of power or by rituals. The scientific world view holds that events transpire according to natural laws, not based on nonhuman personalities, and that by study we may learn the workings of natural laws, so as to predict, or sometimes to influence events by taking advantage of the workings of natural laws.

For example, it was long thought that a projectile such as an arrow or a thrown ball was carried through the air by an invisible spirit or angel. If you wanted your arrow or ball to hit its target, you had to appeal to that spirit to help you. Those who happened to be more skilled at aiming or throwing accurately were thought to have the favor of the spirits.

It required years of experimentation and study by investigators such as Galileo to determine that a projectile that began with a specific speed in a specific direction always followed the same path. Eventually, those observations led to the sciences of ballistics and orbital mechanics, which can predict with great accuracy the path of a moving object, as long as the forces which act upon it are known.

What does this have to do with bones? Let us consider the realm of medicine, a much more murky science. Four times out of five, if you get ill, you will get well if you do nothing about it. That fifth time could be a killer! In the days before antibiotics and other modern medical techniques, that was it. You survived a few illnesses and injuries, until one came along that killed you. Consider the poor medicine man or herbalist. One-fifth of one's patients are going to die no matter what he or she does. However, it pays (literally) to be an active practitioner, because four out of five times you get to take credit for saving a life.

If I could be right four out of five times in the stock market, I'd become filthy rich! If I try some herbal remedy on all my patients, and it works 80% of the time, I already have that much credit with my "customers". If I get lucky a few times and an influential person or two recovers under my "care", my reputation grows. But that is not all there is to it.

People were keen observers since before they were people (meaning that apes are pretty good observers themselves). There is a great stock of lore from pre-"modern" times about medical methods and materials that do genuinely help. Their use is based on reason, acting with what nature provided. However, the notion that spirits are also involved has led to some seemingly weird practices. That 80% rule means that some things you do, simply by chance, are going to seem extra-helpful. That includes prayers, rituals and incantations. And, of course, objects deemed to have power.

An amulet is a collection of things that the maker believes have power or influence with spirits. While all kinds of objects might be included, bones are a big factor here. A talon from an eagle, a claw from a bear or big cat, or the entire paw of a smaller cat (such as an ocelot), might be included. I am not sure if anyone would have been interested in the backbone of the house cat in my garage. But the skull, maybe. It just takes one extra-skillful bloke carrying a cat skull in a bag, and pretty soon lots of young folks want one for themselves.

How many people still carry a genuine rabbit's foot, for luck? I was given one when I was a child, but I don't recall what happened to it. I wasn't very lucky whether I carried it or not, so the result of my human reason was to not burden my pocket with it! Not too many years later, becoming a scientist in high school and then college, I shed a lot of my superstitions. By the time my young son found the cat skeleton, I had no fear of handling bones, other than matters of simple hygiene. I had instead an interest in how it all went together, an interest that I, at least in part, imparted to my son.

Now, with all that said, how can I call myself a Christian? Is my faith not just another superstition? What can I base it on, since faith is not scientifically testable? Here we enter the realm of the inner man. I studied all sciences in college, not just my majors (chemistry, physics and geology). I paid particular attention to psychology and anthropology. I've always been rather poor at relationships, so I wanted to understand people better.

It was during those years that Western psychology shifted from dualism to monism, from the mind versus body of Descartes to the body-mind of the modern synthesis. I came to understand the currently reigning paradigm, that the mind is simply software running on the "hardware", AKA wetware, of the human brain and endocrine system. My present profession is information science, so I understand this all too well. I also recognize its weakness.

The big controversy of today is the origin of consciousness. Why do I feel like an "I"? It is trite to say we don't understand this. Of course not, that is why there is any controversy. Will we ever? Will we ever be able to say, "This collection of neurons runs the 'I' program"? or "This kind of electrical pattern represents the sense of self"? Maybe, but people of faith such as myself consider an additional thing, that the human soul and spirit are real things, psychological and spiritual organs, if you will, that yield experiences that the body-mind is too limited to endow.

I care for no ritual or liturgy. My relationship with God does not depend on them. I do not, as the Catholics do, depend on having genuine relics (bones of saints) in an altar to make it somehow a holy place; there is no bag of bones that interests me. I found many years ago that I can experience the divine presence in my daily life, in a way that has come to seem quite natural and normal. I forget how completely at odds it is with my life before.

I do pray. I do call upon God. I expect an answer when I call. I understand that frequently the answer will be "No" or "Not yet." I have learned a little about how to relate to God, which has also helped me relate to people. This is important to me. I understand, all too clearly, that there is no science of God, that there cannot be, because, as Isaiah wrote, "You are a God who hides himself." I didn't find God by scientific means, and nobody does. Yet I find my faith entirely reasonable. Spiritual exercise is as reliable as dropping a stone. The stone falls to the earth because of gravity, and to call upon God brings his presence because he is living. Peter said to Jesus, "You are the son of the living God." It is based on my own inner experiences that I can say, "Amen."

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