Science Matters

RoboCopMichael Meuleman, one of my students, briefly talked about his passion for brain imaging and brain imaging technologies. It’s his dream to further work on speech reconstruction for disabled persons, using and developing brain imaging technology himself. Michael referred to famous physicist Stephen Hawking as one of many who could benefit from this research. As a matter of fact, Hawking already participated in attempts to convert his brainwaves into speech. Soon, RoboCop won’t be science-fiction anymore!

On my way home from school, I kept thinking about what Michael had said, and decided to do some reading on the subject matter. In amazing times like these, when valuable information is just a few worldwide web clicks away, I discovered the research my student was referring to quite easily: click to read it here.

Speaking of Stephen Hawking I remembered how Oxford mathematician John Lennox responded to some of Hawking’s philosophical claims in a book called God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? This again reminded me of something that same John Lennox said during a lecture – it actually blew me away at the time:

Applied to the research on brain activity for speech reconstruction, Lennox reasoning implies the following.

When we identify a person’s brain activity while that person is hearing or thinking about, for instance, the word jazz, we might see something like this:

brain activity

In order to enable people like Stephen Hawking to communicate more rapidly by using their brain activity, computers need to do two fundamental things (among many processes):

  1. Register the type of brain activity that is ignited by certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…
  2. Interpret brain activity so it can be translated to certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…

The thing is, brain activity as such does not give you any word. In other “words”, the full picture or complete reality of a word like jazz is not given in a scientific representation of brain activity. That activity needs to be connected to the word in question. Computers need to be programmed to decode certain brain activity and to recognize or interpret it as the word jazz. Brain activity itself is nor produces the word jazz. There already has to be meaning (and an entity which produces it) before we can ask ourselves what that meaning looks like in scientific terms. More broadly speaking, the things we can say in scientific terms don’t ever give us the essential reality of a particular phenomenon. Science can only begin to explore reality because of the mysterious fact that there is something to explore to begin with! It comes as no surprise then that science can be considered a highly spiritual activity, as it continuously refers to a reality which transcends its endeavors.

The tendency for scientism by the “secular fundamentalist” (see Chris Hedges) new atheist movement, as if science can answer all important or relevant questions, as if science can provide us full knowledge about the true nature of reality, should be discarded as a perversion of science. If phenomena would not reveal themselves to our eyes – whether we look through telescopes or microscopes -, we would not be able to gain any scientific knowledge at all. No scientific knowledge without the mystical realization of revelation. And no scientific or other knowledge that can ever “solve” the mysterious fact that there is something rather than nothing. In the words of theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman John Dyson (born December 15, 1923, only ten days before René Girard :)):

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson

It’s amazing what science can do, but it’s even more amazing that there is anything to do at all. Hopefully we, human beings, learn to use scientific and technological knowledge for some good. At least one of my students seems up to it :), and I’m sure most of them are. And while we’re at it: science can never answer the question what goals it should help to accomplish – those questions are and remain philosophical and draw from many sources…

On the (Biblical?) Road

[For more, check out a previous post – click: Religulous Atheism]

The books of the bible have left an indelible mark on humanity’s cultural idiom, moreover because they are themselves already important, somewhat reinterpreted, summaries of different ancient strands. Throughout the ages, storytellers, novelists, directors, painters, sculptors, architects and musicians have consciously and unconsciously transmitted basic biblical sayings, motives, symbols and archetypes (René Girard is among those who reveals this, time and again, in his work on western literature). This continued tradition makes clear that “man does not live by bread alone…”

Up to this day, we create images and tales to gain insight and different perspectives on our lives. Stories aren’t just a way of entertaining ourselves to escape reality. On the contrary, they allow us to get in touch with and reflect upon questions which are part of our everyday existence as human beings. Beyond scientific questions and concerns, we are confronted with layers of meaning in our everyday experience which broaden our assessment of reality. To reduce the experience of sexual intercourse, for instance, to what can be said of it on a purely scientific level, is to mistakenly consider a partial description of the experience as the experience itself. That’s why we naturally develop a language to express and cultivate other aspects of the same experience, aspects which transcend the purely scientifically describable domain.

Biblical stories have always been part of the language of the soul, and they still are. Songwriters like Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen – to name but two – very often use biblical motives to express their life experiences. For example, just recently, Springsteen recaptured the story of the prophet Jonah and the big fish – in his song Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale). [Click here for Springsteen’s interpretation of Christ’s Passion].

Although literalist interpretations of biblical stories are on the rise since the fundamentalist movement started in the 19th century, and since some atheists took over this approach only to come to opposing conclusions, a majority of Christians still engages in a creative dialogue with the stories as stories (meaning that they are viewed as attempts to also symbolically and metaphorically convey real and profound human experiences).

It’s a shame that some people dismiss the anthropological and cultural potential of the bible because they “don’t believe in a burning bush that can talk”. As if that is expected! It’s like thinking we should believe Prince made love to a car in the song Little Red Corvette. Maybe it’s wise to remember how people approached the biblical stories during Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The important Christian thinker Geert Groote, for example, writes the following around 1383 A.D.:

“No child believes that the trees or the animals in the fables could speak. After all, the literal meaning of the poems or of the epic writings precisely is their figurative sense, and not the sense the bare words seem to hold at first glance. Who would actually believe that, as the book of Judges tells it, the trees would choose a king and that the fig tree, the vine, the olive tree and the bush would have responded to that choice in that way or another? Christ uses all kinds of images in his teaching. Matthew the evangelist even says that Christ never spoke without images. And even though it is Christ who uses these images, I do not think that those things actually (literally) took place.”

Nevertheless, some people today think they can approach the biblical stories as attempts to answer questions of the natural sciences like we know them today – apparently not realizing modern science didn’t exist in a, well, pre-modernist era. Reading a book of natural sciences to know what the bible is all about (or vice versa) is like reading a cookbook to assemble a piece of furniture.

Biblical stories should be approached from the point of view of storytelling and what this entails on a cultural level in general. Throughout history biblical stories have always been open to different interpretations, generating different (layers of) meaning. They were considered highly symbolical stories, used to highlight the depths and transcending nature of any authentic human experience.

CLICK HERE TO GET A BASIC UNDERSTANDING

OF THE PRINCIPLES OF ANCIENT AND MODERN (HISTORICAL-CRITICAL) BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Sometimes people ask: “How do you know what is to be considered symbolical?” Regarding ancient or literary texts in general, that’s a wrong question. For even historical events were only told when they were considered as transmitting a significance beyond a certain place and time (a “trans-historical” meaning). Once you get to know the basics of the biblical “idiom”, it’s not very hard to engage in a creative and personal dialogue with biblical texts, “knowing” how to read and interpret them (without expecting one, “final” interpretation).

Maybe we get a better picture of what I’m writing here if we compare this kind of dialogue with the way we keep on developing and interpreting particular images, stories and myths up to the present. That’s why I assembled some pop and rock songs using the modern mythology of the road and the car. Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) really instigated this mythology with his famous novel On the Road. Although inspired by autobiographical events, the story remains an allegory for every person’s “life journey”. In Kerouac’s own words: “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.” (Leland, John (2007). Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think) – New York: Viking. pp. 17).

So, take a look and a listen at the (excerpts of) songs I assembled in seven sections, and ask yourself if it’s really that hard to “understand” that they’re also about an inward journey (moving from alienation of self and other towards following the – divine? – dynamic of a love which saves and which allows, obeying its call, to rediscover oneself and other). Modern cultural archetypes (“highway” and “car”) stand side by side with religious and Christian ones (“highway… to hell”, indeed).

Maybe you’ll also understand what the general idea of these seven sections is all about? “Loss and redemption” would be a fine interpretative starting point. Never mind the Catholic imagination of Bruce Springsteen, among others… Enjoy artists like Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Joshua Kadison, Toto, Metallica, The Killers, Green Day, Hanoi Rocks, Prince, John Lennon and Tracy Chapman – and many more!

CLICK TO READ THE SONG LYRICS (PDF)

CLICK TO LISTEN TO THE SONGS: