Monday, 25 June 2007

Dumb News, Smart Entertainment

Newsflash: news is getting dumber; entertainment is getting smarter (eg. Lost, Heroes, 24, Prison Break, Jericho, etc.)

Question is: why?

I've already suggested why news is getting dumber in a previous post about the crisis of context where I explained that context is being constantly stripped away from everything in our public (and private) lives, depriving them of meaning. News that consists merely of sound-bites and clips of things blowing up, bleeding, crashing, or wailing carries no meaning, and cannot carry meaning. So why try to make it balanced? How can it be? How can you be objective about a sound-bite?

So news is getting dumber because our society demands it. But why, then, is entertainment getting smarter? We're seeing an explosion in TV shows that have incredibly complex, multi-year plots. They involve numerous characters (both Lost and Heroes have more than ten major characters), numerous twists, and some of them address some very deep metaphysical issues (fate vs. freewill, individual responsibility vs. entitlement, the value of human life, etc.).

Perhaps the old adage, "nature abhors a vacuum" is evident here. Perhaps the lack of meaning and context in reality (the news) is being filled by the meaning in our entertainment? Instead of applying our reasoning to nutting out whose policies are best, and trying to predict how a particular political proposal will affect us and our country, we're spending time puzzling over the latest clue in Lost, or trying to guess which Hero or prison escapee will get killed.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Err. Shouldn't that be obvious? Using our mind's capacity on entertainment, while not a bad thing in itself, should merely be practice for using it on reality. Just as fairytales should present moral issues in a black and white way, training us in understanding core principles so we can apply them in a much more complex world, so should entertainment be preparing us to understand and engage with the real world.

But it clearly is not. People vote unthinkingly. People engage in and encourage behaviours which have clearly detrimental long (and often short) term effects. Our stories are no longer preparing us to better engage with the real world. They are merely feeding our hunger for meaning -- any meaning will do.

We are amusing ourselves to death.

The (False) Story of God of the Gaps

I recently watched the TV series The Story of God, from Robert Winston, a fairly famous medical scientist. The book of this series is subtitled A personal journey into the world of science and religion, a subtitle that is very apt, especially for the third episode of the TV Series, itself titled God of the Gaps. The first two episodes are a (rather naive) overview of the world's major religions, but it is the last episode, examining the struggle between science and religion, that I want to address here.

Winston's "personal journey" is one of uncertainty. He argues that we must allow for uncertainty in our belief in God, refusing to dismiss him (or it) and equally refusing to allow him to dictate reality. He casts Richard Dawkins on one side and Ken Ham on the other.

Dawkins is clearly irritated at Winston's treachery (he's a scientist, he should know better!) and almost mocks Winston's fondly held uncertainty. Winston, for his part, pokes fun at Dawkins's unjustified certainty (and I would certainly agree with Winston that Dawkins has no reason to be so smugly confident in the legitimacy of his beliefs, and here, as always, he gives no grounds for them apart from his brand of blind faith).

Ironically, Winston then talks to a mathematician, who calculates the probability that Winston's belief system would give him for the existence of God. This turns out to be 95%. Seems that Winston's uncertainty is pretty certain, then. Why persist with this sham? (Keep watching, there is a reason!)

Winston then visits Answers in Genesis's creation museum, and comes away from a personal tour with Ken Ham feeling sickened by the "mockery of science". Winston wasn't even listening to Ham, when Ham carefully explained that the underlying assumptions of naturalistic science are both incompatible with Christianity (and, indeed theism) and just plain wrong. Winston challenges Ham to a debate, so he can not listen to him some more. We only see the debate from Winston's side (since it's on his show), but even then it looks rather one-sided (in Ham's favour), with Winston's attempt to corner Ham in his "literal interpretation of Scripture" looking wildly ridiculous. (He asked Ham why, if he took the Bible literally, he wasn't circumcised. In Winston's show, Ham seemed bewildered for a moment, as any sensible person would be by such a non sequitur. We never saw his answer, but it could be as simple as, "because I'm not a Jew!" If Winston then wanted more of an explanation, a pointer to the Jerusalem council described in Acts should suffice.)

Clearly Winston wants us to feel revulsion for these two extremes of certainty. He also presents another approach he finds distressing, which he labels "weighing the soul". This is when science tries to measure the supernatural. He finds a modern version of this in Dean Hamer's so-called "God Gene". Hamer strenuously denies this having any impact on religion, a denial which Winston (correctly) dismisses. Hamer's genetic research clearly attempts to explain "spiritual" sensations (not to mention homosexual tendencies, in his earlier research) primarily as a result of "nature" (in the "nature vs. nurture" debate). Perhaps Hamer's gene should be called the "gullibility" gene, or the "weirdo" gene, since it correlates to how "spiritually connected" someone feels to the universe. Hardly a serious measure of religious belief -- at least not Christian or Jewish (Winston's religion) belief.

But Hamer's mistake is not in trying to "weigh the soul", but in assuming that something is merely natural. Winston, with his struggle to resolve the clash between his belief in materialist science and a supernatural deity, sees this sort of thing as an unjustified invasion of materialistic science into the realm of the supernatural. If he had a holistic view, he would realise that Hamer's mistake is twofold: trying to explain the why of something by showing the how of it, and limiting the discourse of psychology (the science of the mind) to materialistic causes only. The former mistake is a result of the latter, and both are sometimes described as "reductionism". Materialistic science "reduces" everything to a deterministic, material chain of cause and effect. If human beings really are spiritual beings (or at least have a spiritual component), as both Judaism and Christianity claim, then this reductionism is a dangerous mistake.

Winston finishes his rather bewildered journey in CERN. Here, he claims, he has allies in the physicists who are building these multi-billion dollar machines in order to discover the Higgs boson, or so-called "God particle". It is immensely ironic to see Winston appealing to these men, who are spending billions of dollars in search of certainty on one tiny, elusive particle, to side with him about the primary importance of uncertainty. But they are polite, and manage to concede that, behind the wall of certainty that their billions of tax dollars should push back a little further in a couple of years (ie. around about now), there remains a few micro-seconds of uncertainty. Maybe enough room for God.

And, having won that Pyrrhic victory, Winston exits stage left, happy that he still has a God. If only a God of the Gaps.

Me? That's most definitely not how I see the universe. Certainly I value science -- I'm an engineer, I apply science every working day. But I know that science applies because God sustains the laws of the universe. It doesn't surprise me that the universe is full of specified complexity -- information; or that it is, on a large scale, describable by very simple, elegant mathematics; or that it is, on a small scale, mind-numbingly complex and unexpected. It doesn't surprise me that we all innately "know" logic; or that we know that there is a right and a wrong, and even substantially agree on what it is. It doesn't surprise me that the day follows day with delightful regularity, or that the Son of God can rise from the dead.

You see, I believe in a God who loves order, and who made us to love order, but who loves us so much that he doesn't shy from intruding into this world, and doing something radical to fix it when necessary. I'm afraid I don't have enough faith to believe in a world of blind chaos resulting in what I see, in what I am. I know what chaos leads to -- I can simulate it day after day, year after year, and the result will be the same: chaos. Only if I cheat (as Dawkins does in his Weasel program) and place a purpose, an end, a telos, into it will anything other than chaos emerge.

So, unlike poor old Robert Winston, who clings desperately to his uncertainty, and tries to keep his God squeezed into the narrowing gaps, I don't worry. Every new discovery is a paean of praise. Every new uncertainty is a recognition of God's bigness. What else could you possibly expect?