Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


"We're baffled," say scientists

Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” - J. B. S. Haldane, 1892 – 1964

Professor Haldane, an avowed atheist, frequently made observations that any thinking theist could eagerly embrace as God's truth (remember, all truth is God's truth.) At the age of eight, before I could think clearly about my own faith in philosophical or metaphysical terms, I experienced a phenomenon that should have at once put me firmly in his camp. But not the atheistic one. Oh, no – this little episode spilled the beans about something apparently outside the Universe altogether. 

Before I ask you to give credence to the recollections of a middle-aged man about something that happened in 1969 (there, I just carbon-dated myself), I will attempt to establish my admittedly subjective credentials. My long-term memory is not infallible, but surely far better than my short-term one. I can remember being baptized as a baby in the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, but I have no idea where I put down the cordless drill two minutes ago, and will, if unchecked, waste the next hour looking for it in vain. My friends are frequently surprised by the details and accuracy of my recollections about our collective past. It's how I'm hardwired. The following recollection of a glimpse into the future cannot be scientifically verified, but it has remained unchanged for decades, and is very simple in sequence.

As a child I was obsessed with birds, and any close proximity to, or better still, interaction with them filled me with delight. Our family had moved from San Diego, CA, to Bozeman, MT in the summer of '69, just in time for Neil Armstrong to invent that future dance craze, the Moonwalk. I was crestfallen to find that Montana had civilization, and worst still, schools, but I was up for any adventures my new home would offer. Conveniently enough, our first Montana home was across the street from that of three brothers who were the same age as myself and my two younger brothers, with whom we could play or feud with as the moment dictated. One morning, right at that moment when we are most likely to recall a dream accurately, I dreamt the following:

I had gone across the street to our friends' house, to find a magpie sitting on the fence in their backyard. It didn't outwardly appear to be injured or sick, but it apparently couldn't fly, either. It just perched on the back fence, defiantly emitting the standard magpie call, which I gleefully returned. Back and forth we went, until other activities took over, or, in this case, until I woke up.

Which I did. I got up, dressed, and went across the street, that being my standard procedure at the time. And there, right out of my dream, sat the magpie. It couldn't fly, or I'm sure it would gladly have done so instead of hanging out with the likes of me. It squawked. I squawked back. This went on for a few minutes, and I told the kids there that I had, just minutes before, dreamed that “I was having an argument with a magpie!” I don't remember whether they took any notice of this, or whether they believed me. Eventually my eight-year old attention span faltered and I spent the rest of the day in the freedom a child enjoyed in those politically incorrect days of summer autonomy.

I didn't closely analyze this brief-yet-uncanny sequence of events, first dreamed, then realized. I was at an age at which a child has yet to adopt a skeptical attitude toward the Universe, and had indeed been brought up on a mashup of Roman Catholicism and New Age weirdness, either of which might admit a child's dream as a conduit of the supernatural. I didn't read anything into it. I just accepted that my dream had foretold an actual event, and what of it? Didn't we live in a Universe fraught with infinite possibilities? 

Or did we? I had yet to experience the Materialist view of things, which rules out the supernatural in all its forms. No spirit world, no God, no reincarnation, no Karma, only those things that can be observed and documented using the Scientific Method. Many years passed before I ever met a proper atheist, at least in the U.S. (The ones I encountered in China nearly twenty years later didn't count, having themselves been the product of mass indoctrination by a totalitarian state.) My Universe presumed a God, held me responsible, and, worst of all, threatened to make me reincarnate until I got it right. But it also seemed to allow for less stringent manifestations of the supernatural, in this case a prosaic, pedestrian preview of the immediate future. (My dreams tend toward the wildly irrational and random; this one stuck unimaginatively to the unadorned facts.)

The skeptics, acting on the assumption that no dream could accurately forecast the future in such concrete terms, have the answer. Billions of people dream every night, for thousands of years on end, dreaming every kind of dream that can be dreamt. (Uh oh, we're going to run out of new things to dream.) Why couldn't it be that one child out of billions might accidentally dream an uncomplicated event that just happens to occur – verbatim - minutes later? (This is known as The Law of Large Numbers.) Oh, and might not I, between waking and dreaming, have heard the distant magpie distress signals coming from across the street, and constructed a dream around them? (A few years later I developed the questionable habit of sleeping with the radio on, and that did in fact interfere with a few dreams.) And wouldn't a boy who loves birds dream about them anyway?

Enter William of Ockham (1287 – 1347), and his secret weapon, Occam's Razor. (The spelling must here remain unexplored.) His Razor states that “among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” In layman's terms, the simplest explanation is often (though not always) the best. The specific details of my dream varied so violently from my “normal” visions (which might range from eggs hopping along a conveyor belt and singing in three-part harmony, to terrors too unspeakable to write here) that I can't simply ignore them. Might I not simply dream I was in school, or, as I sometimes do now, that I'm at my day gig making guitar straps? I bet most of us have useless dreams - I mean, if I'm going to do schoolwork or factory work, I might as well at least get a grade or a paycheck. 

But a flightless magpie is something few people ever see, and if I'd seen this one before, there's no way I could have forgotten it. And the location – my friend's backyard fence. The squawking back and forth. Okay, I could have gotten that from the dream, but, caught up in the moment, I was more interested in my interaction with a wild bird than I was in the dream I'd just had. Not everything can be boiled down to such a pedantic sequence. Quite simply, my dream accurately foretold a future event.

For those who insist that my experience cannot be scientifically verified, I say, Amen. No scientific study of clairvoyance or any form of ESP has shown any scientific basis for such phenomena, and indeed, any scientist who ever undertook such an investigation in the first place should have his slide rule broken over a knee, his pocket protector ripped from his lab coat, and be banished to Ken Ham's Creation Museum, forever to wallow in the silliest of pseudoscience. For a case such as my own, we must look somewhere besides science.

What? Isn't science the basis for, well, everything? Tax codes, Thai kickboxing regulations, bluegrass etiquette, literary criticism, the Geneva Convention, the Golden Rule? So far, so bad. Some things fall squarely outside the realm of scientific inquiry, and, as one who loves science, I will insist on this as firmly as I insist that music theory does not apply to nuclear fission or plate tectonics. To maintain that everything that has ever happened in recorded history has a purely scientific explanation is to prostrate one's self before a false god, one deaf and blind to what it means to be human, conscious, free. The transcendent works of Bach, Beethoven, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Tolstoy - strictly determinist animal behavior. The selfless courage of Mother Theresa, Nathan Howe, Oskar Schindler - nothing but higher animals obeying their herd instincts. To someone who actually believes in such a world, I have much pity, but very little to say.  Nothing I say here will concern them, so they may feel free to read something else.

Much heavy weather has been made of late concerning the question of whether the existence of God, or any other supernatural entities or phenomena, can be proved or disproved by science. Here I will enlist the input of Stephen Hawking, whose scientific credentials cannot be seriously questioned. In spite of his recent atheistic stance, he nonetheless has yet to recant his statement in A Brief History of Time, where he states, "As far as we are concerned, events before the Big Bang can have no consequences, so they should not form part of a scientific model of the universe. We should therefore cut them out of the model and say that time had a beginning at the Big Bang." (emphasis mine.) If God initiated the latter, science can have nothing to say about it.

Some occurrences can be proved, but not specifically via the scientific method.  But no proof, scientific or otherwise, will convince one whose assumptions will not admit truths they find unpalatable. In Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the upstanding defense attorney Atticus Finch conclusively proves the innocence of a disabled black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman. Nonetheless, the all-white jury returns a guilty verdict, not because they have any reason to fall for the plaintiff's obviously fabricated testimony, but because this is Depression-era Alabama, and no black man could be believed over any white person. (To his credit, we later learn that one of the jurors dissented vehemently from his fellow white men, and only under duress cast his vote against the innocent–yet-doomed Tom Robinson.) I will here attempt to illustrate how a proof could be ironclad, yet without the aid of the scientific method:

Suppose you and I are driving down the road in my battered Crown Victoria, and a song comes on the radio – in this case, “Shattered”, from the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album. My band played this back in 1979, and I know all the words, the lament of an Englishman navigating the perils of New York City. (And you thought Sting came up with that idea! For the record, P. G. Wodehouse was writing on that very subject 100 years ago, with hilarious results.) It's mostly a rap, just a bit of melody here and there.

Well, I can't be prevented from rapping along with Mick Jagger, perhaps a major third lower, just for fun. “My brain's been battered / Splattered all over / Manhattan.” I'll also hammer out Charlie Watts' drum fills, note-for-note, on my steering wheel (while you wish I'd just steer the car instead.) I nail everything in the song, either to your amazement or to your annoyance, but one thing is clear to you – This guy has heard this song before. My driver's seat performance is absolute, ironclad proof that I've heard the song at least once previously.

Or is it? Doesn't the Infinite Monkey Theorem prove that a Universe full of monkeys, provided with typewriters and reams of paper, will eventually type the complete text of Shakespeare's Hamlet? Mathematically, yes. (Maybe in Brazilian Portuguese, if they have the right sort of typewriter.)

This, as any idiot can see, ignores the element of improbability entailed by our humanity. What if one of the monkeys, on a roll (“Get thee to a nunnery!”), accidentally starts typing the text of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas​ instead? Now we have to start over. Bad monkey.

We needn't look to Shakespeare to give this asinine theory a decent burial. The chance that any of the monkeys, individually or in concert, will even (in the course of nine hundred billion trillion years), give us the words, “CLOSE COVER BEFORE STRIKING” misses the point in most impressive intellectual fashion.

Back to my car: If you had some motive for supposing I could not possibly have heard “Shattered” before, you might start looking for alternate explanations for my faithful rendition: He studied the sheet music. (I like that one – I can read music!) Or perhaps I heard some other band do the song exactly like the record. Nice try. (Too close to my having heard the original.) Okay, Large Numbers to the rescue! In this, or perhaps another Universe (Multiverse is a hypothesis intended to include any possibility whatsoever), wouldn't it stand to reason that I might just happen to make all the right sounds with my mouth, and hit the steering wheel in perfect sync with Charlie's lovely, quirky drum fills? Émile Borel, with his proposed legions of monkey typists, might think so. Any court of law, however, could only convict me of having accidentally performed “Shattered” by their violating not only Occam's Razor, but by bringing a really stupid assumption (i.e., that I improvised along with the song, predicting the entire lyric and much of the drum part) to the courtroom.

By attesting to the single most supernatural-appearing event of my life, I am not here attempting to prove Christian doctrine (to which I have nonetheless devoted much of my life) – I am merely asserting that there is more to the Universe than, well, the Universe. Science cannot prove me right nor wrong, but I can think of nothing that could possibly convince me that my dream was not informed, accurately and deliberately, by something completely outside of time and space. Not just something, but (I cannot believe otherwise) Somebody.