Am I My Doppelgänger?

Could there be another you in another world or is that “you” really someone else?  Why is this important?

Before I answer those questions, I want to look at the idea of the Doppelgänger.  A Doppelgänger is an identical copy of someone who is out there in the world somewhere, and the story goes that if ever they meet, one of them will die.  Although the word is German, this idea exists in English folklore, where they are referred to as “fetches”.  On the whole it’s confined to mythology although the internet has meant that it has become easier for people to find their doubles nowadays, which is not quite the same thing as there is no sense of bad luck or misfortune associated with it.  There is also the very strange case of Emelie Sagee, a teacher at a school in what is now Latvia, in the nineteenth century, who would allegedly have a ghostly copy of herself appear beside her, mimicking all her movements, when she felt tired or ill.  This may naturally itself be a fabrication.

At first glance you might also find the idea of parallel universes to be equally fanciful.  However, there are good reasons for believing in them.  The physical constants which allow us to exist at all in this Universe are very finely tuned.  For instance, if the force bonding atomic nuclei together was slightly weaker the only chemical element would be hydrogen and “life as we know it” would not exist.  If this is the only Universe, we would more or less be forced into believing in a Designer, i.e. God, because it seems to be so precisely arranged.  However, any universe without life in it would not have anyone living in it to notice that the physical constants were any different.  Consequently, one solution to this problem is to propose the existence of multiple universes where those constants are different from how they are here.  In almost all those universes, even where there are stars, there are no rocky planets and no chemical compounds, although I would still hold out for the possibility that there could be life forms or at least conscious beings made out of ionised hydrogen.

By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30044004900px-Plasma_globe_60th

Leaving that possibility aside for now, given that we’re more or less forced to choose between the Design Argument and the Multiverse, I opt for the latter.  Given also that there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be universes where the laws of physics vary a bit less than would be required to rule out the existence of organic life forms entirely, it seems plausible that there would be a plethora of other universes which are more or less like this one in various ways.

Many of these universes would be very similar indeed to this one, to the extent that they would contain counterparts of ourselves, which brings me back to the question of doppelgänger.  The issue is, are we the same person in all these other “dimensions” or are we just a load of almost identical clones?  What would it mean for us to be the same person elsewhere?  What would it mean for us not to be?

There are two main philosophical theories about this.  One is counterpart theory, which is the idea that those people in the other universes are very similar to us but not the same people.  The other is known as “cross-world identity”, or “transworld identity”, which is the idea that we are the same people in them.  I personally believe in the latter.

The problem with cross-world identity is that there doesn’t seem to be a definite way to identify the people involved as the same in different universes.  I was born in Canterbury, did two degrees in philosophy, got married to Sarada, lived in Leicester, had two children and became a herbalist.  There is presumably a parallel universe where I did a doctorate in biochemistry, ended up working for a biotech company in Cambridge, and had no children.  This goes against my values because of my political beliefs, but those could also have been different.  It goes further than that though, because there seems to be no reason for identifying this random individual in another universe with me even if she has everything in common with me.  She wouldn’t have been born in Canterbury because she would be from a possibly identical copy of Canterbury on a different planet in a different universe.  She wouldn’t even live on Earth or in the Milky Way.

If at some point in the future, a twin Earth appears billions of light years away from here which repeats our history perfectly, apparently the same individuals would be born on it and live identical lives.  These people would in a sense have nothing in common with us.  They wouldn’t be us.  This is of course the classic problem with the idea of the resurrection of the dead and judgement day.  A person dies and their body is cremated or rots away.  The atoms making up their body become incorporated in all sorts of other life forms, including human beings.  Those human beings also die and their bodies are also destroyed.  Then comes the Day of Judgement and all the bodies of everyone who has ever lived are reconstituted and reanimated.  But if these bodies are made of the same matter, there is no way that two complete bodies can be made up, particularly if cannibalism was involved, or possibly blood transfusion or organ transplants.  Therefore the resurrected human race cannot be the same as the original human race unless they happened to have died the night before or were cryonically preserved or something.  God then goes on to judge these people, completely unfairly, since they have just been called into existence and have done nothing their originals have done, so why are they responsible?

I happen to have an answer to that, but I mention it here to illustrate that it seems fair to claim that the almost or even completely identical people in parallel universes are not in fact us.  What exists to link us to them?  They’re in different universes!

There does, however, seem to be a much more ordinary-seeming situation which makes sense of it.  At one point I was a baby in a hospital in Canterbury.  I am now a 49-year old typing a blog entry in Loughborough.  At first sight the answer to the question “Is a baby in a hospital in Canterbury the same person as a 49-year old blogger in Loughborough?” is an obvious “no”.  However, clearly it is the case because the first person turned into the second one.  Put more normally, the first person became the second one.  There is a succession of moments from my infancy to my middle age and in each moment I’m the same person as I was in the moment immediately preceding.  The same could apply to parallel universes.  In each successive parallel universe, perhaps adjacent, I am the same person, so I’m the same person as myself in any possible world where I exist.

I’ve described existence through a lifetime as an “ordinary-seeming situation”, and of course it is.  What might not be as obvious is that just as living one’s life is what we all do, and it’s entirely ordinary even if one is oneself extraordinary, it’s just as ordinary to exist as a single individual in many parallel universes, or at least, that’s how it seems to me.  However, there are still a couple of problems with this.

One is the question of what happens if there are “gaps” in one’s existence.  That is, there are some universes where one exists and others which are initially identical apart from one’s existence.  If there is a way of ordering parallel universes, and I think there is in the form of relative probability, our births are, to quote Eric Idle “amazingly unlikely”, and therefore it wouldn’t be surprising if there were very probable nearby universes where one doesn’t exist, then more improbable and therefore more distant universes where one doesn’t.  It could be argued that this never happens in someone’s lifetime.  I would argue, though, that it does.  It happens, for example, every time we fall into a dreamless sleep.  There is a sense in which we don’t exist during that time, although anyone who wanted could easily call us back into existence just by giving us a shake.  However, and this applies to identity through time as well, there are overlapping characteristics in a lifetime which guarantee identity proceeds in a fairly steady stream, and arguably parallel universes interrupt that stream.  Bringing them into the picture, it seems that characteristics can be so altered that I could arbitrarily identify myself with a rock on the third moon of a planet in the Andromeda galaxy which was destroyed when its sun went supernova six billion years ago.  This is not so.  In the same way as there are overlapping characteristics through a lifetime, so are there overlapping characteristics in parallel universes.  The point does come when claiming that one is a particular thing or person is simply false.

Why is this important?

It’s important for various reasons.  I am of course currently quite preoccupied with the Mandela Effect – the discrepancies between groups of people regarding their memories of well-known events, such as Shirley Temple having been dead since 1939 as opposed to her survival until this century and the existence of a fifty-first US state called Superior consisting of northern Wisconsin and Michigan.  It’s entirely plausible that these are mere memory effects.  However, if transworld identity can be made to work, another explanation is possible, namely that other versions of oneself are living in parallel universes where the state of Superior does exist and where Shirley Temple did in fact die nearly eight decades ago.  Those other versions of oneself would often have such memories.  It’s equally possible that there are versions of oneself whose memories of such events are incorrect, and that I may be such a version.

If transworld identity is plausible, containing no logical flaw that would make it impossible to be true, there is then a plausible explanation for the Mandela Effect.  This is that events which are true in parallel universes create accurate memories which in special circumstances become mixed up and transferred into one’s mind in other universes.  The veil which leads us only to perceive this world occasionally blows aside or rips, and we glimpse those other realities.  If this happens to a sufficiently extreme degree, we might no longer be said to be the same person, because all the important memories would change to those from other universes, and those might even turn out all to be true in a particular parallel universe.

Then again, and this is ignored by many people although it’s as important, maybe our memories are becoming less reliable because we use Google, Wikipedia and digital media too much.  I think this is also true, and will be going into that in a bit too.

Getting From Here To There

Tales_titles

‘Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected’ is a TV series I associate with the late ’70s, although apparently it carried on until 1988.  Since I didn’t watch much telly in the ’80s, this might explain why I think of it that way.  The general idea was that each self-contained episode would end unexpectedly.  This could be seen as bad writing.  It’s kind of like deus ex machina – the trope in classical drama where an apparently unresolvable situation would arise in the story which would then be sorted out at the end by a god turning up.  This would generally, I imagine, provide an upbeat ending and the difference with Dahl’s series, and by the way I don’t know to what extent he was involved in the writing, is that the ending would normally be shocking or horrific.

commode

This may be unfair.  I only remember two episodes clearly, and before you ask, no, I did not see the one where the bloke eats too much royal jelly and turns into a bee.  The ones I’m thinking of are one in which a crooked antique dealer who makes his money from persuading gullible people that their stuff is worthless and then going on to sell it for a tidy sum comes a cropper when he insists a particularly valuable commode is cheap trash and he only wants the feet.  The sellers find that it won’t fit through the door, proceed to saw the legs off and present him with them.  Here the god of justice enters through the narrow door and exacts his revenge, but to be honest it doesn’t seem to have come out of nowhere because we have a clearly established greedy and dishonest character to whom just desserts are served, and the ending seems to proceed pretty neatly from the rest of the story.  The other episode involves a connoisseur with a weak heart being murdered by someone who ruins a valuable bottle of wine by letting it breathe for too long, which come to think of it is a rather similar story.  Okay then, maybe it did just ring the changes on the same basic idea and existed in a rather posh world of its own where people have ironic misadventures visited upon them, which is of course very Dahlesque, but neither of those episodes exactly involve a meteoric denouement striking the plot from outer space.  Then again, I may not be remembering it very well.

The last few days in my life have been characterised by two different things.  One is the delightfully fluid application of finishing touches to my novel, which I’ve found most enjoyable.  The other is the appalling event in Manchester and its aftermath.  When confronted with such horrific events, it seems to be natural for people to try to fit it into their view of the world, often also in quite dramatic and emotive terms, which however may be inappropriate, and to be honest I’ve felt completely powerless about it, not just in terms of what should happen because of it, but also out of concern that I will react inappropriately and insensitively.  This can happen very easily and even if the reaction is honest and well-founded there can be unintended consequences.  In order to avoid them, all I’m going to do is present the bare facts, which is that a lot of young people and their parents were killed and seriously injured by a suicide bomber.  Note that I use the word “suicide” there without the usual squeamishness of using a term for a criminalised act, because in this case there seems to be little doubt that the act was deliberately cruel.

I’m not even going to try to enter into a discussion of the situation and its possible wider significance and consequences, except to say that it was an evil act among many other evils in today’s world, which is uncontroversial.  Odious comparisons could be made with suffering and death elsewhere on the planet, perhaps in a misguided attempt to provide context and perspective, and I’m not denying the reality of those other evils.  Nor am I interested in theorising right now.  There is a basic baseline of humanity here which almost everyone can agree on that it was an atrocity, standing alone and considered as such, and a terrible instance of how wrong things are in the world right now.  Explanations can be offered but this is a vivid personal bereavement and loss.

These two experiences seem difficult to reconcile.  On the one hand I’m spending a lot of my time living in a fictional twenty-fourth century setting where the last major conflict of this kind took place over two centuries previously in 2096.  To them, such events are as remote as the French and American revolutions.  Children might learn about them in history if they’re interested or they might be studied in more detail at university, but although they can be learnt from in the same way as we might learn from the history of the French Revolution, followed by the Age Of Terror, or perhaps more positively as an early example of a fully secular state, they are remote from my protagonists’ lives.  Their lives are far from perfect of course, or it would be difficult to come up with an interesting tale, but the difficulties so far are largely non-political and more to do with the likes of frustrations in relationships and practical difficulties of coming to terms with having become a physical being when one was previously simulated.  On the other hand, the personal is political and there are political elements in those relationships and situations which also strongly suggest a history of struggle.

One novelty for me in trying to imagine this world is that it is very much still scarcity-based.  Most of the human Galaxy is still capitalist, with a couple of minor exceptions.  Mega-corporations still exist although not on the world-dominating scale often portrayed in Blade Runner and cyberpunk futures.  There is still a gap between the availability of resources and apparently limitless human need.  This sits rather uneasily with me because I believe passionately in abundance.  I believe that scarcity is manufactured as a result of the psychological need of the wealthy to keep others in poverty.  Nonetheless I do feel quite positive about the setting and also quite comfortable in it, since it is still a better world, or more precisely nine better worlds, than the one in which we currently live, partly due to a generally higher standard of living and technological solutions to many of the problems we face today.  From a political perspective the unification of humanity has meant the end of war and the motives for insurrection have been defeated without interfering with freedom of any kind.  People simply have enough and are not motivated to resort to violence.

In the timeline involved, the last major war was in 2076.  This is easily within the lifetimes of perhaps hundreds of millions of people alive on Earth today.  It’s less than six decades away.  Projecting that backward, people aged sixty today in Western Europe and North America were already being born into a world with rock music, satellites, television and computers, but more importantly also with nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and more positively in most people’s views, democracy, the welfare state, the UN and the Geneva Convention.

How do we get from today’s world, with its Manchester suicide bombing and continued sense of threat in this country, to a world in less than six decades with perpetual world peace?

Mysteries, I’ve heard, are written backwards.  You decide on a solution, test it for plot holes, then work your way through to the shocked relatives finding the dead body in the locked room and calling in the genius detective.  You know the ending already and fit the rest in.  I still have minor problems of this nature with my story.  One particular difficulty was that I’d assumed there was no unskilled manual labour left on Earth but one of my characters was unable to find renumerative work doing anything else.  This I solved by inventing an Amish-like network of closed communities who believe human fulfillment maxed out in the 1950s and seek to recreate such a world in various small towns, one of which is Letchworth Garden City.  There are still small gaps and plot holes which I’m currently plugging, I hope fairly elegantly and credibly.

I would defend futuristic positive science fiction as providing a sense of vision and a goal.  Just over the hill, if we want it and if we can raise our sights high enough, there can still be a gleaming utopia, because when it comes down to it there is simply no practical reason for anyone to be poor, unfulfilled or exploited and it’s scandalous that these are still realities in 2017.  Another thing which is scandalous, just to remind ourselves, is the fact that someone saw fit to murder and maim scores of children in Manchester this week.  These two things are connected, and the question is, how do we get from here to there?  How do we get from a world with suicide bombers in it to  a world, to quote Al Stewart without the irony, “that’s finished with war” or war which is pursued by other means?

Maybe by working backwards in the same way.  This is our locked room mystery.  We need to say to ourselves, isn’t it remarkable that within our children’s lifetime, perhaps even in ours, we will be living in a world where war, famine and poverty are no more?  And then we need, urgently, to say to ourselves, not how fanciful and unlikely that idea is, but to write the next six decades of future history backwards.  We know where we must be.  There’s no choice but to be in that situation by then, because otherwise pretty soon we simply won’t be at all.  Having eliminated that impossibility, we have to concentrate on working out our route, because we know deus ex machina is a purely dramatic device and that the machines as such cannot deliver that, or they would’ve done already.

The invention of nuclear weapons necessitated the invention of a different way of living which would mean they could never be used.  Nowadays there are many other risks, created for example by the easy availability of plans to build bombs on YouTube.  Hence the question now is what that exciting invention, changing the way we all behave towards each other, will be.  We will have the completed jigsaw by 2096 and we’ll be sticking the last few pieces in by 2074.  Today, we apparently have a daunting heap of unconnected pieces, but we have the picture on the front of the box.  What we need to do now is to put those pieces together.  We need to find the corner pieces now, then in a few years’ time we’ll find the edges.  Maybe we’ll be defeated for a while by an expanse of blue sky, but we know we’ll make it in the end because we know where we’re going.  We don’t know how to get there yet, but we will.  And we can’t allow ourselves to imagine it’s impossible, because it’s not.

What We’ve Lost

Testcard_F

2017 is 1978-y.  The calendar for both years is the same in terms of days of the week and dates.  It differs in other ways, such as the date of Easter Sunday and the movable feasts.  I am, possibly rather pointlessly, “re-enacting” 1978 in my mind, keeping track of news stories, popular culture and events in my life from that point.  1978 is also the last year I didn’t keep a regular diary of some description, so it’s interesting to extend it backwards. My father was my current age in 1978 too, so that may be significant.  My mother, on the other hand, was my current age in 1982, a more important year.  As I’ve mentioned before, 1978 was also the best year in terms of positive economic activity – if you subtract economic activity which is generally negative, such as disaster relief, cleaning up after car crashes, healthcare after people have fallen ill and funerals, it comes out on top.  Finally, it’s the last year before Thatcher.

calendarThis is all nostalgia of course.  However, it’s useful nostalgia, and it makes me wonder if there’s a way we can get certain things back.  Certain other things shouldn’t come back because they were utterly awful.  Here’s a list of my impressions of the differences between then and now taken from my observation of events:

More respect for working class culture

One of the most striking things about 1978 is that there’s a kind of prosaic, “everyday-ness”, unpretentiousness and mundanity to a lot of stuff which feels more distant now, and I would associate this in my mind with working class culture.  Unemployment, for example, tended to be portrayed publicly as misfortune for the unemployed rather than resulting from laziness or even blamed on the unemployed in any way.  There was none of this sanctioning, lecturing, condescension or any of that.  Nor was there any contempt for the more chavesky members of society, to the extent that the very word “chav”, though it did exist, was not widely known.  It occurs, incidentally in a certain punk song I’ve been unable to track down from that very era, but it’s actually a Romani word and at the time would’ve been heard as part of that vocabulary rather than something adopted fully into English. Employment in working class occupations was also, naturally, higher.

Punk is, of course, an anti-establishment, though also cynically exploited by the mainstream, strand in the late ’70s, but again with working class roots.  Another example is pub rock, punk’s precursor, which I can never quite get a fix on, and there are many other groups around which are anything but pretentious.  Squeeze’s ‘Cool For Cats’ particularly springs to mind, although it’s one example among many.  Squeeze, in fact, clearly following on from the Troggs and the Kinks, reflect what is more an ongoing tradition which has since come to an end rather than something which was particularly distinctive of the time, although there is clearly a swelling of working class influence at this point.  Continuing in the vein of popular culture, sitcoms come to mind such as ‘The Liver Birds’, clearly long in the tooth by that point, and also such as the rather obscure ‘Upchat Line’.  Also on TV we have ‘Play For Today’, which criticised the spending on the Silver Jubilee while a single mother struggled to make ends meet in ‘The Spongers’, a series for which Mike Leigh and Ken Loach both wrote many plays.  Remarkably to today’s eyes, there was even an educational TV series on trade unions and industrial relations, something which would never be seen today.  Such series as ‘On The Move’, featuring a young Bob Hoskins as a lorry driver, promoted adult literacy.

Car Trouble

Speaking of driving, this was also an era when modernity was symbolised by road traffic and motorways.  Traffic wardens were the butt of many jokes and more seriously, this was only a few years after J G Ballard’s ‘Crash’ and his less well-known ‘Concrete Island’, a modern-day version of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ telling the tale of a man stranded on a traffic island on the M4 in West London and struggling to survive.  Ian Watson’s ‘Thy Blood Like Milk’ portrays a young joy rider who  is made to pay for his victims’ lives with his blood, which is drained from him in a hospital on ‘Superhighway 31’ in a polluted future.  By the late 1970s this was fading, but the grittiness of the black stuff was in the soul of 1978.  Alan Bleasdale wrote that in 1978, again for ‘Play For Today’.

Art and Craft

Before the automation brought by CGI and computers in other ways, artisanship and virtuosity were musts.  Whereas nowadays computer-generated landscapes, characters, scenes and special effects are ubiquitous, the best CGI in 1978 was seen on the likes of ‘Star Wars’.  Before the recent additions to ‘A New Hope’, there were two instances of CGI use, both very primitive by today’s standards.  All the rest was of course achieved by the likes of model shots and matte painting.  Real objects were involved by necessity, and ingenuity and creativity were very hands-on.  Different skills are naturally required today, just as professional and hard-won, but they do not involve manually dealing with materials, cinematography and paint.  Another example is airbrushing, an important aspect of illustration at the time, which links to album cover art and via that the concept album, because at that time people would sit down and listen to entire double albums in one sitting.

Unity of experience

Today it can be quite difficult to work out whether what you’re into and are familiar with is widely known.  There are countless TV channels, music can be streamed or downloaded, often as single tracks, on demand, and timeswitching is routine.  None of this was widely available in 1978.  There were three TV channels, four national radio channels and very few video recorders and the Walkman wasn’t introduced until 1979.  All of this led to a marked unity of experience regarding popular culture.  If you weren’t physically sitting in front of the telly when Corrie was on, that was it – you wouldn’t see it.  The world would stop for ‘Morecombe And Wise’.  You could make a cup of tea during the ads but you couldn’t skip them and the first box set wouldn’t appear for decades.  The music chart was key.  Films were not shown on TV for five years after they had stopped showing them at the cinema and there was a rule that television programmes would never be shown more than three times, which wasn’t a problem for most people because everyone hated repeats.  This was also the era of losing TV shows.  The BBC only introduced a policy on archiving that year.

All of this meant that people would watch the same programmes and hear the same music at the same time.  This meant a much higher degree of focus on popular cultural products than exists today.  Scarcity led to value and quality in both viewership and production.  There were not acres of air time to fill.  In fact, much of the time BBC TV  would just be showing Test Card F or a blank screen.  Moreover, the fact that it was harder to wow the viewer with special effects meant that non-realist writing actually had to be good rather than relying on the spectacle.

Slap and Tickle

henryviii

More embarrassing to today’s sensibilities is of course the overt sexism, racism and homophobia everywhere with little sense of inappropriateness or interest in the rights of the people affected.  The interminable ‘Carry On’ series of films was drawing to a close, and they are of course deeply corny and painful to watch today, but I also maintain that they are in a firm tradition of bawdy British humour which stretches back through pantomime, Shakespeare and Chaucer all the way to the double-entendres of Anglo-Saxon riddles.  Again, this is an example of an ancient tradition which was drawing to a close rather than a specific Zeitgeist.  Much of it is should of course stay in the past but there is a potential distinction between bawdy humour and political incorrectness.  It’s possible also that the reason it existed was that there was still a sense of hiddenness at the time connected partly to modesty and perhaps prudishness, which contrasts with today’s expectation that we bare all in social media and elsewhere.  Another aspect of the dark side of this is of course the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris – rampant active paedophilia.  As I mentioned before, at the time the Paedophile Information Exchange were affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties.  All mercifully gone, along with the tendency of people not to over-share.  There were depths, some of them dark, but some also profound in a way we have lost touch with.

Nonetheless I maintain that because of the sheer Britishness of the tradition carried on by ‘Carry On’, the cringe-inducing smuttiness of Sid James’s Henry VIII is the most appropriate portrayal of that monarch ever to appear on screen.

  Then there’s the question of homophobia.  Whereas this was quite pronounced at the time, it has the distinction of having got worse in the 1980s due to the Thatcher government capitalising on the AIDS epidemic.  Consequently although it was at the time drifting towards greater tolerance, this process took a U turn in the early ’80s and proceeded to go backwards for many years.  Hence the question arises of the point at which we were back to being as opposed to homophobia as we were in 1978, and how much earlier various other measures of tolerance, such as the lowering of the age of consent, would have happened.

Progress and Equality

I’m not going to succumb to the fantasy that things were better in the old days and certainly progress has been made in terms of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity.  However, what really stands out for me is that there seemed to be much greater respect for the working class and the poor, and an understanding that progress would smooth out inequality.  Many of the differences between then and now are to do with technological change, perhaps progress, but not these.  These are primarily to do with naked class prejudice and excessive focus on the work ethic and profit and whereas people today tend to have a strong understanding that it’s not acceptable to be sexist or racist, the ideas of respect for the poor without blaming them for their situation and the willingness to treat the working class as worthy of dignity and respect is gone.

How do we get this back?

Scriptural Unicorns

unicorn

Why does the King James Bible mention unicorns several times?  First of all, let me confirm that it does.

All of the references to the unicorn are in the Old Testament.  There are a total of nine mentions, two in consecutive verses, as follows:

  1. God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” –
    Numbers 23:22.
  2. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.” – Numbers 24:8.
  3. His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” Deuteronomy 33:17.
  4.  Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?  Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” – Job 39:9, 10.
  5. “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the nicorns.” – Psalm 22:21.
  6. He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalm 29:6.
  7. But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalm 92:10.
  8. And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7.

Some people have used this fact to discredit the Bible.  Other people are very attached to the King James Version (KJV) and some even believe it to be a special second revelation on a par with the Bible itself.  Others attach themselves to it because of its seemingly picturesque language, and still others prefer it because they believe that other popular versions of the Bible are manipulated to make it seem more liberal than the original intention.

I am personally quite attached to the KJV, and find it unnatural to say the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, so I usually use the version beginning “Our Father, Which art in heaven.”  Many well-known Bible passages come to me first in the KJV.  Then again, some passages from the gospels occur to me first in Gothic, a language spoken in Roman times into which the Bible was translated in the early fourth Christian century.  A few of them come in Old English, although as far as I know the entire Bible was never translated into English before the Norman Conquest.  It’s just how my mind works.

In spite of how my mind works, however, I recognise that the KJV, however beloved it may be, is not a particularly good translation.  In a sense it suffers from being too accurate.  That’s quite a flippant way of putting it, but it tends to translate word for word, meaning that particular turns of phrase, i.e. idioms, in Hebrew and Greek tend to get transposed directly into English when in fact they weren’t originally part of the English language.  This fact is somewhat obscured by the very strong influence the language of the KJV has on English, such that some idioms which weren’t formerly found in English are now part of the language.  An example of this is the form “X of Xs”, as in “Song of Songs” and “King of Kings”, both of which emphasise the importance of the noun mentioned.  To an English speaker living in 1611, this would have sounded odd and not have suggested what it does to us nowadays.

A particularly questionable aspect of the KJV is that James VI conducted a personal vendetta against people whom he saw as witches, who were also seen as never practicing alone.  Having said that, there are some misconceptions about the attitude to perceived witches in Britain in the past, and much of the actual burning is more like popular lynching than a governmental execution policy.  Nonetheless, James VI could be said by modern standards to have been paranoid about witchcraft, and as a result the KJV includes a number of dodgy translations which use words such as “witch”, for instance Exodus 22:18 – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live“.  To be honest I don’t fully understand what other options were available here because when I read it in other languages it still seems to say this, but it’s said that this is inaccurate.  Maybe there was just a lot of anti-witchcraft sentiment around at the time all those translations were made, but it says “sorceress” in the NIV so I don’t know.

Back to unicorns.   This is what the Bible means by a “unicorn”:

aurochs

I’m going to assume that this picture is out of copyright!  This is what I call an aurochs.  Across Eurasia in Old Stone Age times, there were various species of bovine, including the wisent, or European bison, and the aurochs.  Just to get this out of the way:  I say “aurochs” for the singular and “aurochsen” for the plural, not to be awkward but because the “ochs” bit to me is “ox” spelt oddly, so to me “aurochsen” makes more sense than either “aurochs” as a plural or “aurochses”, which sounds dreadful, so that’s why I do it, okay?  I want to get past this.

It makes a lot of sense to interpret the KJV “unicorn” as an aurochs.  Oxen strength is proverbial, for example, and the Numbers references refer to the strength of a “unicorn” in the same way.  The Deuteronomy verse refers to “the horns of unicorns” and the plural introduces ambiguity in that it could be talking about pairs of horns rather than one horn per beast.  That verse also mentions “unicorns” just after cattle and several of the other references do the same and also depict it as a beast of burden.  Moreover, most or all of the references seem to be figurative, as if they are about a mythical animal, or at least one which isn’t around any more, and that’s the crucial clue.

The word “unicorn” in the KJV translates re’em in Hebrew.  When the Bible came to be translated into English, no animals in the Middle East had that name.  Given the figurative overtones of the reference, and I haven’t checked this, it seems that even at the time the verses above were written, the “re’em” was rare if not extinct.  Here’s a map of the aurochsen peak distribution:

By made by Christophe cagé 11:24, 22 March 2007 (UTC). Based on several authors, as T. van Vuure. – Based on image in: Van Vuure, C. (2005) Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1820741Bos_primigenius_map

This clearly includes the Middle East and represents the distribution in the early Holocene, the epoch immediately after the last ice age up until the Industrial Revolution.  The species initially evolved in South Asia in the early Pleistocene and spread to cover the extensive grasslands of Eurasia which appeared after the land bridge between North and South America formed, leading to the Gulf Stream and global drying due to the build up of snow in the Arctic locking up much of the water.  The last wild aurochs seems to have died in Poland in 1627, although domestic cattle are descended from them, some being more primitive than others such as the Northumberland Chillingham Cattle, as painted here by Landseer in Victorian times:

Edwin_Landseer-_The_Wild_Cattle_of_Chillingham

There used to be quite a few species in Europe and the Med which aren’t around any more but were common in ancient times and existed recently enough to have been recorded in writing.  One typically sad example is the European Lion.  Greek myths, such as that of Herakles, mention lions, although the Greek sphere of influence included Asia Minor, and the last European lions seem to have been the ones who killed Christians in the Colosseum, which probably weren’t very healthy judging by skulls full of the marks of dental abscesses for example.  This actually reflects the tendency for Europe to become less “African” as time passes.  Woolly rhinos and mammoths are further examples, although there are many others.

From the perspective of biodiversity, the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture first arose, suffered earlier in many ways than the rest of the planet from human activity.  That said, animals often seem to have been either hunted, accidentally killed in runaway forest fires started by humans or simply unable to compete with us for food, way back into the Old Stone Age.  Compared to the early Pleistocene, mammals now tend to be smaller and more likely to be nocturnal all across the planet.  Even so, the Middle East suffered particularly badly at the dawn of written history, before the locus of Western civilisation started to shift northwest.  Consequently, although the Tanakh mentions the word re’em a number of times, when the time came for the text to be translated into English nobody really knew what the word meant.  Consequently, it was translated as “unicorn”.

Another aspect of this is the nature of how the West saw natural history at the time.  Whereas Europeans would have been aware of animals in distant parts of the world such as elephants, they bracketed them with the likes of dragons and unicorns, and their approach was, and this is important, not scientific in the way we would understand the word nowadays.  It was more important to them to learn lessons from the living world, and this was reflected in bestiaries.  I’ve been into this before, but I’ll illustrate it with a couple of examples, one of which is from the Bible, Proverbs 6:6-8 (KJV 🙂 ):

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:  Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.

Later on, the beaver is given as an example of an animal who will sacrifice its lust to survive by castrating himself and leaving the gonads for hunters to recover, which is more an allegory than something which was literally supposed to happen.  This can be seen in particular in tales about such species as horses, very familiar to the readers of bestiaries but still used to teach morals in their behaviour, which was probably known not to be literally true by the writers and readers and never intended to be taken as such.

Hence the appearance of the “unicorn” in Scripture.  Whether or not the translators actually believed there was such an animal, the point is that it’s used to illustrate an allegory.  The actual cause of it being mentioned at all is down to the fact that human activity had reduced the biodiversity of the regions where the Tanakh had been compiled, but it doesn’t actually matter that much.

For the record, the NIV says “wild ox”.

5750000 Easter Sundays

 

Today is Easter Sunday, which is of course the primary “movable feast” in the church fullcyclecalendar, which is of course relevant to the other movable feasts.  Easter Sunday is supposed to fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox because it’s connected to the Jewish passover.  That’s complicated enough as it is, and it’s further complicated by the fact that it varies in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Western Churches, and complicated again by the fact that both the Vernal Equinox and the full moon are defined by the Church rather than by looking at the actual sky.  The equinox is fixed on 21st March and the ecclesiastical full moon, which is what the full moon as defined by the Church, is the fourteenth day of the ecclesiastical lunar month.  This differs from the real full moon, intervals between which can vary between 29.27 and 29.83 days.  There is a calculation referred to as computus which was instituted in 1583 by the Roman Catholic Church when it fixed the Vernal Equinox.  In 2015, Pope Francis proposed harmonising the date with the Orthodox Church, whose calendar is still Julian rather than Gregorian like ours, as a show of support.  The Julian calendar is around a fortnight behind ours because it treats all years ending in two zeroes as leap years whereas ours skips the ones which are not divisible by four.

It’s all a bit complicated and peculiar.  The “movable feasts”, whose dates depend on the dates of Easter, include, in the Western churches the days of rogation, the Global Day Of Prayer For Peace, Pentecost, Whitsun and the other Whit Days, the Feasts of Christ the Priest and the Crown of Thorns, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, Petertide, Sea Sunday, the Day Of Prayer For The Peace Of Jerusalem, World Communion and Mission Sundays, All Saints’ Day (which is surprising as Hallowe’en is  not movable), Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Quadragesima, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Quinquagesima, and no, I don’t know what all of those are.

As time goes by this planet rotates more slowly.  This is because it’s slowed by the Moon (I’m resisting calling it Cynthia although it does feel wrong to call it the Moon still), and as that happens the Moon moves outward from us and the month consequently gets longer.  This is because the energy of Earth’s spin is gradually being transferred to the Moon, which causes it to orbit faster and therefore move out and take longer to orbit.  Meanwhile, the date of the Vernal Equinox varies because the ellipse that is our orbit round the sun gradually moves like a spirograph pen would.  Various other things happen as well.  Consequently, the question arises of how many Easters there can possibly be according to computus.

How can we know how long the day was in prehistoric times?  The answer is that there are certain living things, and other processes, which occur in daily cycles, and rings can be counted in shells and corals which also have seasonal variations according to hot and cold.  Also, layers of silt can be laid down and baked seasonally, forming a primitive calendar.  The further back you go, the more days there are per year.  This would mean either that the days are getting longer or that the years are.  However, if the years were getting longer it would mean our orbit used to be smaller and the planet would have been much hotter unless the sun was warming at precisely the same rate as the orbit was widening.  For some reason the day, though it lengthens constantly, doesn’t do so particularly steadily.  At around the time of the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, the day was around twenty minutes shorter than it is now, so there were around 370 days a year.  That was 65 million years ago.  Go back to the beginning of the age of dinosaurs, which was 120 million years earlier, though, and the day was only half an hour shorter than it is now, so it’s not slowing in linear terms.

The year currently lasts about 365.25 days.  Incidentally, there is no definitive day length because it depends on whether it’s measured by when the sun, stars or Moon rises, all of which are different.  Leaving that aside, the question arises of when there were last 366 days in a year and when there will be exactly 365 days.  The answer to the first question is that it was true around 20 million years ago, when there were definitely apes but none of them were particularly human-like.  With reference to Easter and Passover, that point isn’t particularly important because this is about religious festivals.  However, since we do now have Abrahamic religion, the question arises of how long it would make sense to adhere to such a calendar.  This calendar, with its leap years generally every four years skipping one every few centuries, will cease to make sense once there are exactly 365 days a year.  By that time the month will also be longer and the date of the Vernal Equinox will have changed – it will in fact have cycled completely round the calendar a couple of hundred times.

The answer is that it will be roughly 5 700 000 years from now when Easter, along with various other aspects of this calendar, ceases to make sense according to that reckoning.  By an interesting coincidence, it so happens that if the days, years, position of the Vernal Equinox and length of the month are all assumed to be constant, the cycle of possible dates on which Easter Sunday falls repeats exactly over the same period of time – 5 700 millenia.  Hence the cycle coincides quite closely to the number of possible dates on which Easter can fall before which the calendar as it currently stands stops working completely.

The bar graph at the top of this post represents the number of possible Easter Sundays in this cycle.  It so happens that this is also the actual number of possible Easter Sundays in all time, from the first Passover right up until the sun becomes a red giant and wipes out the Earth.  Easter as we know it will by some quirk happen roughly 220 875 times on 19th April, standing out as more frequent than the other possible dates.  The rarest date, 22nd March, will only take place 28 500 times or so.  The first year it occurred on 19th April after the Council of Nicaea, which determined the date in 325, was 330.

As a Christian, I just slightly wonder if that 19th April date was the actual date of the first Easter Sunday, but I haven’t done the maths on that and I should probably just leave it.

Another consequence of movable feasts is that they mean that the years on which the same dates occur on the same days of the week, for instance 1978 and 2017, are nevertheless different in other ways.  Easter Sunday 1978 fell on 26th March.  Therefore any “perpetual” calendar (which isn’t, because of what I just said) would need to take the date of Easter into consideration to be genuinely reliable from the perspective of a Christian-influenced culture.

The other thing this makes me think, though, is how Easter could possibly have any meaning at all in getting on for six million years from now.  I mentioned in the last post that there are different “theories of atonement”.  Similarly there are different theories of eschatology, the study of the end of the world, and where these are Christian they don’t all require the Day of Judgement will come to pass at all.  It still seems to me that for Christianity as most Christians currently understand it to be true, surely it would’ve blown it if the Second Coming still hadn’t happened by the year 5 700 000 AD.  I don’t know what I think, but I do think there is no way there will be 5 700 000 celebrations of Easter Sunday.

Tell Me Have You Seen Her?

Will Self is quite a readable and captivating author to me, although like many other writers I feel he may be wasted on me and that a lot of his stuff must be going straight over my head.  Having said that, I did feel that he got to the heart of a particular aspect of bereavement in his short story ‘The North London Book Of The Dead’, used as the basis of his novel ‘How The Dead Live’.  Very obviously there will now be spoilers for those two works and possibly for other stories in his ‘The Quantity Theory Of Insanity’, and they’re good stories so you might want to take this particular warning seriously.  Against this I could also set the thought that literary prose is unspoilable because it’s not primarily about the plot.

Anyway…

In ‘The North London Book Of The Dead’, which is apparently “now a major motion picture” (why is nothing ever a minor motion picture?), a man whose mother has recently died keeps thinking he sees her, and it turns out that when people die they go to live in a different part of London.  Later on, if I recall correctly, they move out to the “provinces”.  Ignoring the Londocentricity, which I’m sure is there for a reason, this does actually capture quite well one of the experiences of bereavement:  the recurrent impression of glimpsing the person who has died, hearing her voice and the like.

You’ve had your spoiler warning.  Here’s your trigger warning.  At this rate nobody will be left to read this by the end.  Okay:  trigger warning for acute bereavement.  I messed up seriously a few years ago on this and I don’t want to do it again.  Some of my friends and acquaintances and I experienced quite a traumatic loss a number of years ago which someone close to the person concerned took askance to my reaction to.  For all I know, I may be venturing into traumatic territory here, but I want to make it worthwhile.  Again, this is where literary sensibilities might help me because the sufficiently talented can pull this off but I don’t think I’m one of them, so please forgive my clumsiness in advance.

So we had a friend with a history of depression.  Whereas you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, the fact remains that she was a real asset to her community, family and so on.  She was absolutely not a waste of space.  Nobody’s a waste of space of course but I don’t even think anyone who knew her could call her that.  And she was a really nice person too.  She did, though, suffer recurrent bouts of deep depression and sometimes she would hide away at these times.  Two things about her stick in my mind.  She was probably the best adult outside our immediately family at relating to our son as a toddler and whenever I made the tea at church, I remembered her telling me how to do it the first time.  The second sounds quite trivial but it means that whenever I make tea for a large number of people it reminds me of her.

She triumphed over her depression countless times, and sometimes it was very bad indeed.  As someone who had won so often, she deserves to be remembered for the numerous occasions where she did prevail, and also not to be defined by her illness at all but by her enormous value to the people around her.  Even so, on one occasion she did not prevail.  Her illness did, and she went missing.  Only after a month or so did it become clear that she had definitely found it too hard to go on living, and in the meantime, although most of us were pretty convinced about what had happened we couldn’t be absolutely sure.  In other words we didn’t have closure.  None of us knew for certain what had happened, not 100%, and we needed a definite answer to the question of where she’d gone, even though we knew really.  I’m avoiding saying that we knew “deep down”, because actually we pretty much knew on the surface too and we were all pretty definite about what had happened, but sometimes you need to do the doubting Thomas thing and stick your fingers in the nail holes and the wound in your friend’s side.

During the intervening period, I and many other people kept thinking we could see her in the distance or even quite nearby, although of course none of those identifications were correct.  Nonetheless she was out there somewhere for us because we didn’t have an answer for what had happened.  After a few weeks of course, we did get an answer, and that got us there to some extent.  Even so, way after her funeral I for one, and probably others, still glimpsed her in the distance quite often.  The experience of not having a resolution stayed and consequently this experience, which had gone on for far longer than was good for our mental health, left its mark.  I won’t say scar because there are “wounds” you don’t want to heal.  This is another thing I have left of her.  It’s been a long time since I “saw” her, but those inverted commas still hurt and so they should.

This is of course a fairly intense personal story, though it’s shared with a lot of other people.  Then there’s public grief, and here the death of Diana Spencer comes to mind.  Whereas I can see that she shouldn’t have been constantly pestered as a means of selling newspapers and I feel sympathy for her and respect for her work with land mines and people with AIDS, there’s no way I could feel a personal connection with her and the outpouring of grief didn’t seem authentic to me, even though it did affect some close friends quite profoundly.  I’ve never been able to pin down exactly what seemed in poor taste about that reaction but since I don’t really do much of the role model or hero thing, maybe there’s something about who I am which means I’ll never get it.  I’ve already done grieving celebrities though, so I won’t go on.

One of the unexpected consequences of all this grief was that it challenged my faith in an unusual way.  The gospels tell of a period after Christ’s death when people met him at length without realising it was him.  For instance, Mary Magdelene meets him in the garden and thinks he’s the gardener, then he goes unrecognised on the road to Emmaus.  There are a couple of ways in which this could be taken, but given my experience with my friend at the time, it shook my faith, not along the lines of “why does God let bad things happen to good people?” but more in terms of seeing how loss without closure can warp one’s perception.

I want to entertain for a while the possibility that this hallucinatory experience was what the gospel accounts are about.  One influential consequence might be that people could learn to treat everyone they meet with the same degree of respect and love as they would with Christ.  And this is where we get to the central issue of the problem:  the question of whether Jesus existed or not as a historical personage.

There are various theories of atonement, and most of them do require Jesus to have been a real person.  There’s at least one which doesn’t, known as the moral influence theory.  In this version, people are inspired to behave better as a result of their perception of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.  This requires neither a resurrection nor even the gospel accounts being true, although I suspect that almost every Christian who believes in moral influence also accepts other theories of atonement, which are not mutually exclusive.  One of the oddities of theology is that its terminology includes a lot of “-ologies” which are not so much thoroughgoing discrete disciplines as mere subject areas of the larger subject, so there’s mariology – the study of Mary; soteriology – the doctrine of salvation; christology – the nature of Christ – and so on.  Similarly, theological theories can sometimes coexist when they’re about the same subject, and consequently it’s possible to believe, for example, that the Crucifixion is an inspiring story as well as that, for example, Christ acted as a bait for Satan to take which was then unjustly taken, thereby leading to Satan’s defeat, which is the ransom theory.  So you can dispense entirely with the story of Jesus as a matter of historical fact and still accept the moral influence theory, but probably most people don’t do that even if they do believe in moral influence.

The story as it stands, however, with the authenticity of seeing the person you loved after your death, seems very genuine.  Treated as a work of literature, this raises a question for me which I can’t seem to answer right now.  How did people in that place and time grieve and how well did they recognise the grieving process?  It seems very realistic that the loss of a charismatic leader they were expecting to become an all-conquering Messiah in capital punishment would not involve closure and that they would then experience this manifestation of difficulty in accepting their loss.  What I don’t know, because it’s about emotional realism in literature, is whether that detail, if you take it seriously, far from discounting the idea of the story being fictional, actually supports the idea that it’s true.  If people universally experience grief in such ways, it doesn’t follow that it was recognised by the evangelists or whoever came up with the possibly fictional story of Jesus.  If they didn’t, it strongly suggests to me that the account is historical.  However, because I’m literarily impaired I have no idea.

The other aspect of all this is how personal and meaningful it is to me.  I can recount the events of my friend’s death and feel it very deeply and personally.  Likewise, talking about Jesus in this way really does feel as personal and real.  It doesn’t mean it is, but it does mean that it might be polite to behave with some respect towards people who believe these things.  They’re not just fun, interesting theoretical discussions or things which people believe just to be difficult, but things which are as real to them as their friends are.  The same applies to other faiths.  However, what they then do with those beliefs is often dodgy and dangerous, because that genuine emotion can be hijacked by the person concerned or others to, well, hijack for example.

The Big Bang Is Politically Incorrect

CMB_Timeline75

The Big Bang Theory is today generally accepted by scientists and in fact people in general, and there certainly seems to be a lot of evidence for it.  However, I personally don’t happen to believe in it.  Before I explain why, I want to go into why people do.

The astronomer Slipher noticed in 1912 that the further away a galaxy was from us, the redder its light seemed to have become.  This was explained by the Doppler Effect, which is the way sound, for example, goes up in pitch as a fire engine approaches and goes down as it recedes.  Galaxies therefore get redder the further away they are, which is weird because it makes it seem like we’re the centre of the Universe when that’s most unlikely.  The way this problem was resolved was to suppose that in fact galaxies in general are receding from each other rather than just all getting further away from here.  This is because space is expanding.  This also resolves something called Olber’s Paradox, which is that the night sky is black when if the Universe is infinite one might expect it to have starlight coming towards us from all directions, meaning that every point in the Universe should be at about the temperature of the hottest stars and there should in fact be no solid matter in the Universe at all.  The reason this can’t happen is that the further two objects are apart, the faster they’re moving apart, and once they’re more than around 13 billion light years apart, they are doing so faster than light, which means the light emitted by stars further away than that can never reach us.  Also, space is not infinite, though it is endless.

A rather misleading analogy used at this point is of a balloon being inflated with dots on its surface representing galaxies.  This tends to lead people to the question of what the Universe is expanding into.  Two possible answers to it are offered respectively by so-called “‘brane theory” and a philosophical idea about the nature of space and time.  ‘Brane theory holds that space is a three-dimensional surface of a hyperspatial “membrane”, so the answer in that case is that it’s expanding into hyperspace, and there may be many other universes around it doing the same thing which could even collide with this one.  I don’t think this is what’s happening though.

My take on it is that space and time are relations rather than particulars.  There’s distance and direction, both of which are relationships between locations.  In terms of time, some events seem to take place before, after or at the same time as others, although this may be illusory.  Space is more relevant to this.  It’s not a container for locations or objects, but a combination of direction and distance, neither of which are real “things”.  It’s more similar to a temperature scale, and it makes no sense to imagine a temperature below absolute zero or think of negative fahrenheit or centigrade scales as kind of “subterranean” or underwater, because it’s merely a measurement.  Direction is the same.  It’s an angle between two objects in three dimensions.  What the idea of space being endless but finite communicates is that there is at any one time a maximum distance between any two points and that travel in that direction will eventually lead to the distance between those two points starting to reduce and the direction suddenly reversing.  The idea of an expanding Universe is the claim that the point at which direction reverses increases as time goes by.  In other words, the maximum possible distance between any two places is increasing.  There need not be any “outside” to space for this to be true, nor need there be any edge to space.  Only objects have edges.

If the Universe is not infinitely large and points in it tend to move away from each other, if you rewind the film as it were, there seems to have been a point where everything was in the same place.  This is the basis of the Big Bang Theory.  Also, the further back you go, the hotter the Universe was on average because the same amount of energy was present in a smaller space, meaning that at the very start everything was infinitely hot.  The traces of this are said to exist still in the form of what’s known as “3K radiation” or the cosmic microwave background.  Just as a hot object glows red and a hotter one glows orange, the whole of space is filled with a slight glow in the redder-than-red microwave range, indicating a temperature of -270°C, just above the coldest possible temperature at -273.15°C.  This is pretty good evidence for the Big Bang theory.  So why don’t I believe in it?

Before the Big Bang theory the most popular cosmological view was the Steady State theory.  This already included the idea that space was constantly expanding but it rejected the idea that it was finite.  The problem then became how to account for the fact that it wasn’t empty, because after a while the only visible galaxy would be the one we are in, and since this theory also holds that there was no beginning to the Universe at all, that’s quite a while.  The answer to that was that tiny amounts of matter spring into existence all the time here and there and eventually there’s enough of it to start forming into new galaxies.

The virtue of the Steady State theory is its simplicity.  There’s no need for peculiar geometry like the thing about direction reversing and the past, future and the whole of space are all seen as similar to each other, which is most unlike the somewhat messier Big Bang theory.  The problems were finding a mechanism for matter to spring spontaneously into existence and accounting for the cosmic microwave background, and as a result the Big Bang theory won through.  However, a few scientists carried on believing in it, including Trevor Hoyle, who believed the reddening observed at a distance is due to space being filled with micro-organisms.  It’s also notable that Terry Pratchett, although he didn’t believe in the Steady State theory itself, did use it in his work, for instance ‘The Dark Side Of The Sun’ and ‘Eric’.  Another difficulty with the Steady State theory is that distant galaxies look similar to each other, i.e. they are at an earlier stage in their history, in other words they are quasars, although at first it wasn’t realised that quasars were outside this galaxy.  There’s a relic of the idea that quasars are inside this galaxy in the Star Trek episode ‘The Galileo Seven‘, but in order for that to be possible they would be phenomenally bright.  The fact that we are surrounded by a great distance by quasars suggests that again, we aren’t special but that that’s just what galaxies used to be like.

One of the things which bothers me about the Big Bang theory is that it was thought up by a Roman Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, who was unable to reconcile the idea that the Universe was not created with his faith in God.  Whereas this may be the motivation, that in itself doesn’t mean the Big Bang theory isn’t true.  However, I don’t believe in a “God of the Gaps”, that is, a God who is used to explain things we don’t yet have a scientific explanation for, because such a God would constantly recede from plausibility as new discoveries and better theories are made.  Consequently, although I believe in a creator God, the kind of creation I imagine is at every instant of and every point in the Universe, i.e. God holds the Universe in existence.  This is another form of continuous creation, but it’s still compatible with the idea that there was a Big Bang.

A Marxist cosmologist, Eric J Lerner, happens to agree with me on this point.  He feels that the motivation behind the idea that the Universe had any beginning at all is theistic or deistic, and more to do with the idea that we find it hard to cope psychologically with the idea that there is no creator than anything scientific.  I like this idea for two reasons.  One is that it throws the idea of a God of the Gaps out of the window.  The other is that it’s Marxist, and Marxism is basically true.  Like other theories, it approaches truth without quite getting there and it needs updating in various ways, but the principles are sound.

Lerner points to several problems which the Big Bang theory seems not to be able to explain.  Firstly, science has somehow got to the point where in order for the Universe to have expanded from the point it did so recently, it has to have a lot  of extra matter in it which can’t be detected, in other words dark matter.  I’ve said this before (but I can’t find it because I don’t use tags):  dark matter is a myth, and it’s a nasty bit of science too because something has just been posited to exist to explain stuff which can’t, however, be detected.  Modified Newtonian Dynamics is a better theory than dark matter by far, as it explains things much more neatly.  There are a few other problems too.  The large scale structure of the Universe is kind of frothy.  There are large empty bubbles in space surrounded by “membranes” (again) consisting of galaxies fairly close together.  However, there hasn’t been time according to the Big Bang theory for this frothiness to form because the size of the bubbles is too big.  Also, there seem to be stars older than the Universe.

Lerner’s solution  to all this is plasma cosmology.  The Big Bang theory places a lot of emphasis on gravity, but gravity is in fact a very weak force compared to electromagnetism.  Plasma is ionised matter behaving as a fluid, and in fact virtually all visible matter in the Universe is plasma.  Gases and solids are minor impurities, and liquids are even scarcer because they can only exist under pressure in a small temperature range.  It seems reasonable therefore to expect electromagnetism to be more important to the Universe than gravity.  If gravity were to be “turned off” for some reason, plenty of matter would continue to exist, but if electromagnetism were to cease to be, everything in the Universe would basically disintegrate instantly into subatomic particles, many of which would themselves fall apart and disappear.  Plasma cosmology can explain why spiral galaxies are that shape without having to pretend there’s this thing called dark matter, for example.  That said, I can’t say for sure that I personally actually believe in plasma cosmology.

My personal argument against the Big Bang theory is rather different, although it may be compatible with plasma cosmology as I also reject the existence of dark matter.  It starts with the idea of Boltzmann Brains.  This is a rather disturbing idea which starts from the perspective of an eternal Universe.

Scientists who do believe in the Big Bang theory usually also believe that the Universe will always exist and that time will never end.  A few of them believe that the Universe will collapse in on itself or that there is an endless cycle of the Universe expanding and contracting, perhaps repeating itself in exactly the same way every time, but on the whole the belief is reflected by the illustration at the start of this blog post.  The Universe began very bright and hot, then stars formed, then more stars plus planets, getting us to the present day.  After us, the stars will all burn out, leading to a very dark, cold future punctuated occasionally by smaller dead stars colliding and flaring into life again for a while.  Later still, all stars will have collided and black holes will form from them.  After that, those black holes will gradually evaporate due to a process called Hawking Radiation, which again I’ve mentioned somewhere on this blog but lost.  This Flanders and Swann song becomes relevant, and they do a better job at explaining it than me.

The Universe after that point becomes very cold and dark, and very quiet.  However, this is not the end.  There are tiny fluctuations in space which cause subatomic particles to pop into existence spontaneously, and in fact if this happens often enough it would be an adequate mechanism for continuous creation  to happen, although that’s not quite where I’m going with this.  Sometimes this will cause a hydrogen atom to appear from nowhere.  Less often, it will, by pure chance because this is operating by pure chance rather than any supposed chain of cause and effect, create a hydrogen molecule.  Even more seldom than this, a water molecule will appear, and so on, going down the range of less and less frequent events involving the spontaneous appearance of more and more complex objects.  This will happen unimaginably rarely, but since we’re looking at eternity it will happen an infinite number of times.  This means that there will also be infinite occurrences of your brain at a state it was in at every moment of your life.  In fact, and to me this is where it gets really vertiginous and frightening, compared to the real me, who existed when the Universe was busy and young, the infinite number of points at which my brain pops into existence believing wrongly that it isn’t a disembodied brain floating in an empty Universe about to freeze out of existence in a few seconds is infinitely more common, and this basically means that the probability of me being right about living on the planet Earth in a human body in the twenty-first century is zero.  This is Boltzmann’s Paradox.

If the Universe is both eternal and the Big Bang theory is true, this is the reality of our situation.  However, disturbing though this is, I don’t believe it is so.  Here’s why.

Complexity in the Universe has arisen from much simpler situations.  For instance, snowflakes and salt crystals form from random assemblages of molecules, atoms and ions with no real structure, Earth formed from a cloud of gas and chunks of rock and dust billions of years ago and complex life evolved from simpler forms over a period of many aeons.  One of these simpler situations is the apparent early Universe.  Go back far enough and the entire Universe was a single subatomic particle containing all the potential matter that would ever exist, and although this was a remarkable situation it was also a very simple one.  Now, we are able to look back into the past and work out that everything seems to have exploded from a single point billions of years ago.  However, there is a big problem with that.  Just as Boltzmann Brains would be called into existence spontaneously an infinite number of times throughout eternity in  a mostly uneventful and quiet Universe, if time is eternal, the same situation  could create an infinite number of situations where the Big Bang would seem to have happened only a few billion years ago, and this too would happen an infinite number of times.  Consequently, the probability of us being this close to the beginning of time is zero.  The genuine Big Bang could be the one we think we’re able to see evidence for but it almost certainly isn’t.  However, it could be something else quite similar.

If the Big Bang happened, it would happen an infinite number of times like everything else.  Also, since a subatomic particle with the mass of the entire Universe is much, much simpler than a human brain, the chances of that coming into existence are inconceivably greater than a Boltzmann Brain doing the same thing, and these other “universes” will often contain versions of our own brain actually in proper universes and correct about things.  These would, in any finite sample of time sufficient to include these spotaneous universes, be much more common than the other versions of us, and therefore the Boltzmann Brain paradox is incorrect.

This also means that it’s unlikely that this is the “first” Big Bang, or that the Big Bang happened at all.  The same kind of illusion which would lead us to think we aren’t disembodied brains floating in space is more likely to occur with reference to what we think of as the afterglow of creation.  Therefore, I don’t believe the Big Bang ever happened, or at least if it did, it was only one of many.  Otherwise we would be confronted that we are in a state of affairs with zero probability – living within measurable distance of the Big Bang.  And that could be, and if there was one there would’ve been people living back then, but we aren’t them.