Protons and Leprechauns

My father, now dead, a mathematician without the slightest leaning toward the esoteric, once told me of driving by night with a friend through the hill country of North Carolina. Suddenly a large truck, lights blazing, came over a crest, passed through their car without a sound, and disappeared in the night. My father said that after a moment he asked, “Did you see what I saw?” The friend answered “Yes.” They said no more about it, to each other or anyone else. They would have been thought mad.

Over the years I have talked to various people, apparently sane, who have had unexplainable experiences. Some of these had dreamed of the death of someone who shortly thereafter died in the circumstances of the dream. Others were more similar to my father’s experience. Several remembered a sudden and terrible sense of the presence of something evil — this latter now called a “panic attack,” which explains nothing. Those involved seldom wanted to talk of such things in a scientific age for fear of being ridiculed.

But, one might reasonably ask, what could science, or scientists, know of these things? They can be neither proved nor disproved, nor repeated for study. And of course a number of equally improvable exploitations are ready to hand: the narrator is lying, or suffered a momentary imbalance of this or that neurotransmitter in his brain, or transitory dementia, or the delayed result of the ingestion of hallucinogen, and anyway the whole idea is so silly that we needn’t talk about it. Geez, it’s the kind of thing they believed in the Dark Ages.


But maybe not. JBS Haldane, the noted biologist, reported that he once “went into his home and saw himself sitting in his own chair smoking his favorite pipe.” ‘Irregular’ was his characterization, and he attributed the event to “indigestion.” This of course was ridiculous. He reported that he sat on himself and either he or the apparition disappeared and life went on. (JBS: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane, by Ronald Clark, p.111) The event predictably was ignored, including by Haldane, as being too far outside of the expected.

In religious societies, such events, real or imagined, were easily explained. Apollo did it, or Yahweh, or angels perhaps, or poltergeists. Nature was thought to be in the hands of sentient beings more or less like humans. It was reasonable to think that they might throw lightning bolts or do all manner of unnatural things. Now we know, or think we do, that nothing can happen except in obedience to the laws of physics. This means that if something does, we will dismiss it.

The second paradox is that of morality. It is clear that a physical system, the only kind we believe to exist, cannot be either moral or immoral. A fire does not burn up a kindergarten full of children from malignity. It burns as it has to. And since we are physical systems as much as the fire is, we are no more moral or immoral than it is.

Evolutionary psychologists argue persuasively that no absolute moral standards exist. They have to insist on this as otherwise there would be something outside of physics and that would upset the whole apple cart.

And so they point to the relative nature of morality. In one decade, short skirts are thought immoral, in another perfectly acceptable; in the Old Testament, stoning adulterers to death was not just moral but a duty; today, no. Bombing cities is immoral when Germans do it to England, but moral when England does it to Germany. In many cultures, horrific torture has been normal, in others a cause for revulsion. What we call morality is only a set of evolutionary adaptations to facilitate the passing on of our genes (as indeed short skirts might).

The problem here is that evolutionary psychologists, decent people, do not believe what they profess. If I stoned a homosexual to death, as at times in the past has been thought proper, they would be horrified. I could reply, “Why? Your moral objection is merely a prejudice local to this time and place and has no absolute validity. In evolutionary terms the resources consumed by gays would be better spent on having children and passing our society’s genes.”

Here it is worth noting that evolution is a subset of physics. How is it not? DNA follows the laws of chemistry — that is, physics. Mutations caused by cosmic rays or anything else comport with physics. Nothing that occurs within or without an organism undergoing natural selection contravenes physics — as if it did, we would be back to the paranormal.

Finally, there is the question of death. This is very carefully ignored in the sciences. Biology treats death as merely the cessation of certain reactions. But biologists also die. Do we really believe that nothing comes after death? How do we know? If we admit that we do not know, then there is the possibility of all manner of things in heaven and earth beyond our ken and of uncertain effect on our world. Scientists will pooh-pooh this (all the way to the grave ….)

Perhaps existence is not the simple wind-up clock we tell ourselves it is.

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