Monday, 16 July 2012

Voyage VII – Life, the Universe and everything

As soon as I arrive I know something’s up.
‘The point is not that we don’t know all there is to know on the subject’ says Lou, lacking his usual composure. ‘I’m perfectly willing to admit that. The problem is that you appear to be claiming that you do know...’
‘So you admit you don’t know it all’ says Olly, equally ruffled.
‘Gladly. But neither do you.’
‘I never claimed I did either.’
‘Gentlemen...’ says Ned. Lou and Olly look away from each other. They are re-grouping, not backing down.
‘Look...’ says Lou, off again.
‘Oh gawd’ says Keith, turning conspicuously to his book but he’s in no position to complain. He loves the fracas.
‘As a scientist it goes with the territory that there are things we don’t know – otherwise there’d be no more research grants, and then where’d we be?’
The attempt at levity falls flat. Olly is still tense. He feels insulted, I can tell, but he’s still trying to be civil while Lou remains pompous and patronising and doesn’t realise how infuriating he is.
‘I’m sorry...’ says Olly at length ‘I simply cannot accept your view of a world, of a universe without a... a mind, a guiding force. I understand – no wait a minute – I understand, really that you are not wilfully denying the existence of a God you secretly know to exist – no let me finish Lou.’ Lou sits back and crosses his arms. ‘I understand that you sincerely hold your views, and no doubt, when the day comes, God will respect you for that and you will not be “damned for all eternity”. I accept what you say on all that, but you have to accept my belief that...’
Lou can’t wait any longer. ‘But where does that “belief” come from?’
‘I don’t know Lou. You tell me’ says Olly wearily leaning back.
‘I don’t claim to know. That’s just the point.’
‘Well if you don’t know, what are we arguing about?’
‘That you do claim to know. It comes from God doesn’t it? Or your soul or whatever it was you said – these insights, these intuitions about the nature of life and the universe and right and wrong?’
‘Or from the bible surely?’ interjects Keith.
‘Absolutely, written by people with similar sources for their insights – revelation, meditation, prayer – yes?’
‘If you say so Lou.’
You said so. You said it yourself Oliver. Your faith came to you in meditation and some “intuitions” you had, and of course from reading your bible. But Oliver, how do you know these “intuitions” came from God? Hmm? You... what? just sat there under a tree and thought about it? ...sat in your room and read a book and that gave you insight into the workings of the universe? Does that not strike you as somewhat presumptuous Oliver?’
‘Steady, Lou.’ Ned puts out a hand to calm Lou who is standing up. Olly is looking very tired and hunched. Keith looks like he could get violent with Lou if he doesn’t shut up soon.
‘No Ned.’ says Lou levelly, ‘I’ve been accused of arrogance by this man because I attempt to understand the universe without recourse to God whilst he reads an old book, or sits and thinks about it and there it is. Hallelujah! He has the truth. How silly of me not to have just sat and thought about it for a while.’
I look at Lou. I’ve never seen him like this. There’s something dark and uncompromising in his eyes.
Olly’s voice is low and almost lost in his scarf. ‘I never said I had the truth. God is a mystery...’
‘But you do know, somehow that God exists, don’t you? ...that He made everything, that He wants us to follow His only son and be forgiven for our sins. You claim to “know” those things don’t you Oliver? And it’s not the same as a reliance on the scientific method before you say anything. I don’t think I ever heard a Christian say “Our redemption by the blood of Christ is a plausible theory, given the weight of evidence, but we may be proved wrong in the long run.” Faith is a totally different matter to science.’ Lou looks around. He’s begun to shout and suddenly realises it. He sits down self-consciously and tries to be calm but cannot contain himself. He leans forward at Olly. Olly looks away. ‘Somehow, for you, sitting and thinking or praying, or reading an old book convinces you that you know all these things. I find that extraordinary, no, unbelievable.’
‘But you claim to know’ says Keith challengingly, ‘all about the big bang and evolution and so on. How do you know? You haven’t seen it happen. Nobody’s ever actually seen it happen, so how can you believe in it?’
Lou takes a moment then turns on Keith ‘How does a car engine work Keith?’
Keith isn’t expecting this. Lou has always been the butt of Keith’s good-natured condescension, Lou and Olly both. He doesn’t expect to be faced down.
‘What? What are we talking about?’
‘Tell me what goes on in a car engine – not the gears and clutch and all that – the cylinders and the pistons. You’ve taken an engine apart Keith. Tell me what happens when the engine runs...’
Keith is obviously suspicious. It is obviously a trap of some sort but he doesn’t want to admit that the trap might catch him so he smiles and gives a medium length description of the cycles of an internal combustion engine. He makes it light and jovial and it gives everyone a chance to relax a little. Olly sits up straight. Keith clearly really does know his stuff and appears to be attempting to bury Lou in detail. Finally Keith comes to a halt and takes a swig from his pint. Lou just says ‘U-hu’ and nods his head slowly. Everyone waits tensely to see what will happen next. I notice suddenly that the dark haired girl from the bar is sitting behind Keith. I’d been so caught up in the debate I hadn’t noticed her arrive.
‘And you’ve seen all this have you?’ says Lou eventually. Keith makes a smirk and looks at him as if he’s very stupid indeed. Ned, however looks as if he knows what’s coming.
‘You’ve seen the combustion, the petrol and the air, in the cylinder, exploding.’
‘What?’ Keith wants more to work with but Lou just looks at him, waiting. ‘Well, not as such, but it’s obvious what’s happening.’
‘Noise, smoke from the exhaust, shaft turning...’
‘Yeah, and petrol ignites in air...’
‘It certainly does...’ agrees Lou ‘but doesn’t it strike you as remarkable that you can run your Beemer on, what? Explosions? In a metal box? Doesn’t that seem unbelievable to you? If you’d been, I don’t know, a mediaeval peasant and someone had put it to you that your cart could be run on explosions do you think you’d have listened to them? It sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? Magic.’
‘But it does happen. We’ve all seen it Lou. Thousands of times, any street you like.’
‘No you haven’t Keith. You’ve never seen that explosion, in that cylinder.’
‘But it makes sense.’
‘Yes it does. Precisely.’
‘But that rather backs up my point’ says Olly, sitting up straight. ‘It’s physically impossible to see the force working but you know it’s there nonetheless. There is no other explanation.’
Lou takes a moment to think. We take this to mean that Olly has scored a point but I can see Lou’s not letting go.
‘Look’ he says, almost forcibly grabbing Olly’s attention and getting all of ours along with it. ‘Given the evidence – yes, we explain the role of the petrol in the engine but no...’ He looks around at the rest of us getting restless. ‘Can you hear me out? I’m nearly done.’ Everybody has clearly had enough now. This’d better be good. ‘You can look up the designs, read the chemistry, do the physics. It’s all there if you want to, in the literature, and it does make sense, yes’ he says turning to Keith. ‘There’s the maths and the logic and you put it all together with the data and there it is – you don’t need to actually see the explosion. It stands to reason, as you said Keith...’
‘But your theory of evolution doesn’t make any sense does it Lou? I...’
‘Oh? And what is your opinion on epigenetic inheritance Keith? Or sympatric versus allopatric speciation?’
‘What? Patrick who?’
‘I’m sorry, I assumed, since you had such a strong opinion on the subject Keith, that you must know something about it. My mistake. Now as I was saying Oliver, what I want to know is where’s your evidence for God? Where’s your reasoning? All you’ve done, both of you, is discover we haven’t explained everything (as if we should have everything sewn up by now, which by the way would be the ultimate arrogance) and have jumped to the conclusion that therefore God must have done it. You argue that your explanation has the merit of simplicity compared to all the “mental gymnastics” I am “forced to resort to”, but yours is no explanation at all. You’re like the father who is asked by his young son what makes the car go. He doesn’t know the answer so he tells his son it’s the Automotive Spirit makes it all happen. All you’ve done is give the problem a name. You have no evidence for His existence, besides his conveniently filling in all the gaps for you, that and your “deep intuitions”. And you call me arrogant, in that condescending, ecclesiastical tone of yours Oliver, like I’m just a silly boy who hasn’t tried hard enough?’ He stands up and looks down at Olly and Keith. He’s surprisingly tall.
‘Finally’ he says, ‘I don’t claim to know for sure what the universe is like. I have some theories, which appear to work, but might just as well be found to be wrong tomorrow. That’s science for you. But do you know what? I survive. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I manage. And I don’t feel the need to believe a fairy story about the meaning of life, the universe and everything just to make myself feel better...’

And with that he leaves – picks up his coat and smartly makes for the door. We all watch him go, all stunned, except the girl who’s looking in her purse for something.
I look at Ned who shrugs. ‘All academic now anyway’ he says ‘I mean, look at it’ and he points generally about at where we are. ‘Who knew?’ he says.
‘Makes you wonder if the God we thought we were praying to was the God who was actually there’ says the girl from behind her makeup mirror, touching up her eyebrows. ‘That’s if there was one there at all.’
‘You’ve only got God’s word for it’ adds Ned, grinning at her.
‘Could have been anyone. Could have been Thor’ she says, grinning back, putting her compact away. Keith looks profoundly troubled. I’m not sure if it’s because his faith is being challenged all over again or because the girl he’s picked up turns out to be quite capable of thinking for herself.
Olly also looks troubled, but it’s not so funny. He’s almost in the recovery position on the seat. He looks like he may lose it completely and suck his thumb at any moment. He looks about and slowly uncurls, hoisting himself up by gripping the back of the bench. Ned looks at him and raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Fancy a drink old mate?’ he says, bending down to look into Olly’s face but his gaze is far away. Suddenly he looks up at Ned. ‘Yes’ he says. ‘A large one please Ned.’
I smile at Olly. He looks really shaken. ‘Do you think I was condescending?’ he says. I’m not sure what to say. In truth I think he can be. We all can.
‘One for you kid?’ says Ned to me.
‘Calvados please’ I say, nodding. We’re all still half stunned with not being sure what just happened here.
‘I have to go and find Lou.’ says Olly hoarsely.
‘He’ll be alright.’ says Keith, but I can tell he really doesn’t really care. He looks at the girl over his shoulder but it is obvious nothing is going to happen between them now. She gets up to go and see if she can find her ‘posse’.
‘No’ says Olly ‘I have to go and find him.’ And he stumbles out, taking his coat with him.
I look at Keith. He shrugs and picks up his glass. ‘Your very good health’ he says dourly.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.