Monday, October 07, 2019

Annoying Facebook Science Meme Critique Rant

A friend of mine posted one of those annoying memes which go around facebook under the umbrella title "I fucking love science".

This one went as follows.

Frivolously, I said: "Have you got a week."

"Possibly." said my friend. (These may not have been his precise words.)

So I wrote the following.


It is always possible to frame Paradise Lost or the Book of Genesis as "that story about the talking snake", in the same way it is always possible to frame Hamlet as "that story about the sad kid" or Parsifal as "that story about the lost cup".

But if you choose to frame them in that way, I will probably think "Oh, these Science Dudes don't get what art and literature are for".

In fact, I will probably think "If Science Dudes look at the Bible and Milton and can't see anything but a talking snake, I definitely don't want to be a Science Dude."

This doesn't make them wrong, necessarily. You can get science and not get literature, in the same way that you can know everything about sport but nothing at all about cookery. But it does make my fur prickle and my hackles rise. It makes me disinclined to pay attention to the rest of their argument.

Which, I strongly suspect, is the object of the exercise. No-one is trying to persuade anyone of anything. They are just saying "Our side -- hooray! -- Your side -- boo!" If I had flaccid hackles and smooth fur they wouldn't be doing their job.

Indeed, there is a kind of a trap here. If an annoying person is standing on a virtual street corner saying "Science rocks! Religion sucks!" it is very tempting to turn around and say "No, on the contrary, science sucks!" Which means the annoying man can say "See, told you so! Religion is anti-science."

I shall attempt to get to the end of this week without at any time saying "Science! Boo!"

I think that it is entirely possible to fucking love science without fucking hating religion.


Some Christians think that their Bible is the exact word of God. They think that God wrote it, in the same way that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet. Similarly, Muslims believe that their Koran (which has also got a snake story in it, I think) existed in heaven before it was dictated on earth, and would have existed even if God had never created the universe.

If you went up to one of those Christians or Muslims and asked "What would happen if every single copy of the Bible and/or the Koran were destroyed... and everyone on earth for some reason forgot all about them?" they would reply "I suppose God would dictate them all over again when he thought humans were ready for it." Which is a perfectly reasonable answer.

Now, I don't believe that the Bible is a magic book in that sense, and neither do you, and neither does the Archbishop of Canterbury, and neither does the Pope. But some people do. And if you go up to one of those people and say "If we forgot about the Bible, it couldn't possibly be reconstructed" they would simply retort "Oh yes it could." It's the kind of evidence that only works if you have already decided what verdict you are eventually going to come to.

"I can prove that God doesn't exist" says the science dude. "If God existed, he would exist. But he doesn't exist... so it follows that he doesn't exist!".

"I can prove that God exists" says the Christian. "If God didn't exist, he wouldn't exist. But he does exist! So it follows that he exists."

Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.


I am pretty sure that if human culture was wiped out then the exact combination of words which go to make up Hamlet would never exist again.

This is what makes works of art especially precious. All over the universe there must be aliens who know about evolution by natural selection and Pythagoras's theorem; but none of them know about the death of Ophelia or why Hamlet thought he was a rogue and peasant slave. Gravity is just sitting around waiting to be discovered: only one being in the entire universe could have written "oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt..."

Next time someone asks you what's so special about humans, that's the answer.

If you don't like Hamlet then substitute Les Miserables or Lord of the Rings or Here Comes Noddy! or any book you do like.

But if we entirely wiped out human culture humans would carry on making babies. And I think -- I am not quite sure but I think -- that as long as we go on making babies, we will still have the idea of "fathers" and "sons". And if we've got the idea of "fathers" and "sons" then wouldn't we also have the idea that one of the worst things that could happen to a young man is for his father to be murdered? And that one of the worst possible crimes is for a man to kill his own brother?

And I think that if we entirely wiped out human culture, human beings would soon spot the fact that everyone dies in the end, and some of them would start wondering "where do people go when they die?" And once they've asked that question, the idea of ghosts would occur to some of them.

So sooner or later it would occur to someone to tell the story of a young man who gets a message from his murdered father's ghost...

Maybe this is all a bit Neil Gaiman. But I think that there is a very good chance that if we rebooted human culture, humans would sooner or later come up with a story that was very much like Hamlet.

Sherlock Holmes and Spider-Man I wouldn't hold out as much hope for....


Jung and his disciple Joseph Campbell thought that human brains are wired to tell particular kinds of stories. The story of Luke Skywalker is a bit like the story of Gilgamesh because the journey of those two particular heroes are a bit like everyone's journey through life. Deceitful snakes and wise old men and tricksters pop up in stories all over the world because they represent things which are in every human being's mind.

Archetypes, if you insist.

If they are right, then the Very Big Stories are the ones which humans are most likely to start telling even if culture has been rebooted. So if it is possible that Future Humans would have a story which is a lot like Hamlet, then it is very likely indeed that they would have a story which is a lot like Paradise Lost.

I don't know if this is true. I recanted my faith in Hero With a Thousand Faces a long time ago. A lot depends on what we mean by "culture" and exactly how the reboot scenario works. If snakes have gone extinct then no-one would think to tell a story about the snake in the garden of Eden -- or even about Kaa or Sir Hiss. And maybe, once we have wiped out a million years of human culture and started all over again, the new lot of humans wouldn't understand the idea that, say, kids are innocent and old men are wise, in which case the Journey of the Hero wouldn't have anything to be about.

Maybe the new lot of humans wouldn't even understand that there are things called rules with consequences if you break them or think that it would be odd for two adults to be naked all the time.

But if the New Humans thought so differently, I am not sure I would call them "human". And if they were that different from us, why assume they would come up with that very specific way of investigating the universe called "science"?



1:  God exists, or
2:  God does not exist.

But these are not the only options. (That would be too simple.)

1.1 God exists, and wise and clever humans can work this out for themselves.
1.2 God exists, but humans wouldn't know that he existed unless he told them so himself.

2.1.1 God does not exist, but some wise and clever humans honestly believe that he does.
2.1.2 God does not exist, but some wise and clever humans made up the idea of God because they honestly thought that believing in God would make humans nicer.
2.1.3 God does not exist but some ignorant and stupid humans think that he does because they don't know any better.

2.2 God does not exist, but some wicked humans invented the idea of God for some nefarious reason -- to fool other people into giving them money, or to make everyone respect the king or to give them a pretext for wearing nice red uniforms.

3: God does not exist, and the the fact that some people think he does is a complete historical fluke -- if history had gone differently, the Fish Slapping Society might have taken the place of the Church of England and Henry VIII might have quarreled with Rome over the precise interpretation of the rules of Tiddlywinks.

But in each case, if human beings came up with the idea of God once, they would probably come up with the idea again. If God exists, then some of the New Humans will figure it out eventually. If the existence of God isn't the sort of thing that can be figured out, God will do his "Hey guys, look at me!" routine with the burning bush all over again.

If God does not exist, but was a more or less honest mistake by some more or less well meaning Humans, then it is quite likely that after the Reboot, some more or less well meaning New Human will make the same kinds of mistakes all over again. The New Humans will live in the same universe that the Old Humans did. They will ask the same kinds of question about it. And they will very probably come up with the same sorts of answers. "I reckon that someone must be in overall charge; I reckon he must be good but quite cross with us when we are bad; I reckon he wants us to acknowledge him in some way..."

But supposing the idea of God was a deliberate con-trick? In that case I think that the same sort of Naughty Priests who came up with the idea in the first place will come up with the same kinds of fibs after the Great Cultural Reboot.

I agree that if the idea of God coming into being was an arbitrary and meaningless fluke then the same arbitrary and meaningless fluke is unlikely to happen twice.

So. Destroy all the holy books and wipe everyone's memories. I think that in a few thousand years, human beings will again be building temples, saying prayers, sacrificing goats and trying hard not to covet their neighbor's Oxen. I think they will get to this point a long time before they have worked out the Three Laws of Motion from first principles.

I cannot guarantee that anyone would re-invent the lyrics of Kum-By-Ya.


The Snake Story had probably been around for a long time before it got incorporated into the collection of stories we call Genesis. And the book of Genesis had been around for a very long time before Christians worked out what they thought the story meant.

Christians think the snake story is a partial description of how human beings relate to God. In particular they think it is the answer to one very Big Question.

"If God is nice, why is the world horrid?"

"Because humans keep on breaking God's rules. Let me tell you a story..."

Obviously, the Christian New Testament understands the story in a very particular way. Paul says "in Adam, everyone has sinned", which is probably not what the Genesis-writer had in mind when he wrote the story down. Later Christians have understood Paul in different ways. St Augustine probably didn't understand the story of Adam and Eve in quite the same way that Billy Graham does. I doubt if I could state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes. But the basic idea -- "things used to be okay between man and God; then man broke God's rules and they are not okay; someday God is going to do something and they will be okay again" -- is one which millions of people have found makes sense for them.

They might be wrong, but it can't just be written off as "a silly story about a talking snake."


If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think it is probable that in a thousand years time, humans would again be telling stories very like Hamlet, Gawain and the Green Knight, Superman, Cinderella, and Adam and Eve, because I think they are the kinds of stories which human beings tell, because I think that part of what makes us human is telling those stories.

If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think that it is probable that humans a thousand years later would have come up with the idea that the universe is run by some sort of God, because that's the kind of creatures humans are and that's the kind of universe we live in.

If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think that it is probable that some of the humans who believe in God would have come up with the idea of the Fall of Man. Things used to be okay between man and God, and things will be okay again in the future, but right now we are in God's bad-books and everything seems horrible.

I think it is less likely, but not impossible, that the New Humans who have the idea of the Fall of Man will tell a story quite a lot like the story of Adam and Eve. Humans keep on putting the same kinds of things in stories and the images in the story -- fruit, gardens, walls, snakes, nakedness and clothing, knowledge and ignorance -- are pretty fundamental. But I am not sure about that. Maybe it would be a different story and maybe they wouldn't put it in the shape of a story at all.

The trouble with the original meme is that it really says "If the story of the snake is just a silly story with no deeper meaning and significance; and if stories in general are just silly arbitrary things which people make up to pass the time and if the idea of God is just an arbitrary superstition which someone made up then if you wiped all the stories out then nothing at all similar would ever exist again."

And I don't think you can take any of that for granted.


I am off to have a rest.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Richard Worth said...

I am not a science-dude, but I understand that modern palaeontologists look at 'Walking with Dinosaurs' (now some twenty years old) and pick out the parts where our understanding has moved on. I cannot help wondering if 'Enthusiasts for Reproductive Biology' (or whatever the group is called) don't actually think of science as a process or a paradigm, but rather as the perfect corpus of knowledge that they just happen to possess: the equivalent of a priest not recognising Jesus in person because His wounds aren't exactly where the Gospels say they should be.

Mike Taylor said...

I am a science dude — you can read my publications at if you are so inclined. I do indeed look at Walking with Dinosaurs, which I loved, and pick out a lot of errors. (My favourite: the silly horizontal neck postures of the sauropods, which I an colleagues pushed back against in our 2009 paper.) I am here to tell you that Actual Scientists very much see science as a process, and each individual result as subject to challenge and potential falsification. The problem comes more from science fanboys who are not scientists themselves but like their idea of what they think science is.

R. H. Sullivan said...

It’s my understanding that literalism is a relatively recent innovation, and not just in regard to the Bible. Renaissance writers don’t seem to have been bothered by the fact that, say, Thucydides and Plutarch don’t always line up. They seem to have just sort accepted that the “true” version of the past was irrecoverable, and all that remained were stories. A lot of texts from ancient times up to the early modern period tend to report facts with the construction “some say...but others say...”

It’s a shame that so much of the discussion of Genesis 1-3 focuses on its scientific value, which is obviously nil. It’s a great myth, and it’s well told. There’s a great deal of wordplay in the original Hebrew, and even in translation, we get a good sense for the psychology of the characters in just a few short sentences. It’s logical, as all good myths are; it’s a fairy tale logic, but it’s not absurd. It expresses powerful poetic truths about curiosity, guilt, and falling from innocence. It really is one of the great works of world literature, so it’s sad to see it get dragged into tiresome “science vs. religion” debates.

Anonymous said...

Someone recently put the following gem from Sam Harris up on a forum I go on. I see I did not get round to making any comments.

Let’s just grant the possibility that there is a Creator God, who’s omniscient, who occasionally authors books. And he’s gonna give us a book – the most useful book. He’s a loving God, he’s a compassionate God, and he’s gonna give us a guide to life. He’s got a scribe, the scribe’s gonna write it down. What’s gonna be in that book? I mean just think of how good a book would be if it were authored by an omniscient deity. I mean, there is not a single line in the Bible or the Koran that could not have been authored by a first century person. There is not one reference to anything – there are pages and pages about how to sacrifice animals, and keep slaves, and who to kill and why. There’s nothing about electricity, there’s nothing about DNA, there’s nothing about infectious disease, the principles of infectious disease. There’s nothing particularly useful, and there’s a lot of iron age barbarism in there, and superstition. This is not a candidate book.

The idea seems to be similar as the one here: science is a set of facts that are true. That seems the only way anyone could think these 'facts' could be revealed centuries in advance of the process whereby discoveries were made.

Gaius said...

Re: "everybody would end up telling stories like that of Adam and Eve", I've often thought that the claims people make about how everything was better in the olden days until [capitalism/socialism/the patriarchy/Margaret Thatcher/the 1960s/etc.] came along and ruined everything are kind of like a secular equivalent. Things ought to be better than they are; things were better in the past; but then something happened and everything when wrong.

Re: "your story about a talking snake would be gone forever", I have to admit that my main reaction was and still is "So what?" If human civilisation was rebooted, I don't think that we'd ever be able to piece together a detailed picture of pre-Reboot history, but that doesn't mean that history never actually happened. "Would this be rediscovered after a civilisation-ending catastrophe?" is a very bad test of something's truth or falsehood.