New understanding beckons, but something is holding us back


New understanding beckons, but something is holding us back

IKE BOSS reckons humanity is on the threshold of incredible new discoveries, but in the local world of ideas we often fail to advance beyond the irrational.

  • 03 May 2024
  • Free Speech
  • 7 min to read
  • article 5 of 14
  • Ike Boss

IT'S no use just filling a pothole with sand.

Our world lost two giants last month: Peter Higgs, who crystallised our understanding of the Standard Model and the attributes of particles, on April 8, and Daniel Dennett, who kept us “conscious”, on April 19.

These departures focused my mind yet again on a growing discontent with the public thinkers playing on the stage presented by the Afrikaans mainstream media. My discontent turned into annoyance and resentment with the publication last year of Die oorsprong van alles: “Dit was aand en dit was oggend” (Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe, 63(2):196) by Kobus van der Walt, Johan Dreyer and Rudy Denton. The philosophers featured in Die Burger, Beeld, Volksblad and Rapport, and the public calling of Akademia increased this exasperation.

“Akademiese integriteit verg dat daar afgewyk moet word van ’n normatiewe materialisme [wat] by voorbaat enige metafisiese interpretasies uitsluit…” (Van der Walt, Dreyer, and Denton) can never restore the standing of that irrational concept (“God”) long forfeited.

The Stellenbosch philosopher Anton van Niekerk has not yet abandoned the possibility of everlasting life (Die Burger: Geloof deel van my menswees, 16/2/21; Leef vir mekaar totdat ons oë sluit, 17/6/20; Om die dood te hanteer, 2/6/20), even though he specialises in bioethics(!) and has recently, in a column he claimed to have been “misunderstood”, applied Pascal’s Wager to promote faith (Die Burger: Die groot risiko van (on)geloof, 26/3/24).

I reported Van Niekerk to the University of Stellenbosch: “Van Niekerk is guilty of academic neglect, deficiency and carelessness, and brings the university into disrepute.”

For my trouble I was dissed by Van Niekerk and snubbed — in a sophisticated manner, mind — by the recrorate's executive manager: “We appreciate your concern that the Stellenbosch University brand/IP must be protected, and we want to assure you that we have policies and rules in place to ensure that this is achieved.”

Daniel Dennett.
Daniel Dennett.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Is that right? I replied that I noted that I had been told, as Curtis told Grumio, in The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.24: “Away, you three-inch fool!” By the way, in his column last week (Die Burger: Ons kan vashou aan die leë graf, 23/4/24), Van Niekerk proposes that humanity’s “vlammetjie van hoop… in die uur van radelose duisternis” are maintained by “’n graf wat drie dae later leeg was”.

“Policies and rules in place to protect the Stellenbosch University brand/IP”? Well, what do you know? What about leadership, and statesmanship, and technology, and ethics, and morality, and diplomacy? What about science? Our hope is in a fairy tale? Stellenbosch?

The Bloemfontein philosopher Johann Rossouw argues, among other things, that religion has a “tradition” of human suffering in order for “God” to reveal himself in human suffering (Rapport: Die erge lyding wat ongeloof kan bring, 19/6/22) and that “sekularisasie en die verswakking van 'n Christelike werklikheidsbeskouing” lead to social and general decline (Rapport: Ander weë nodig vir teologiese opleiding, 16/4/23).

At Akademia, classes commence with a Bible reading and prayer, and intelligent design and all its siblings are paraded in colourful cloaks (Rapport: Ons is onbeskaamd Christelik, 14/4/24).

Not to mention the Netwerk24 platoon of theologians and daily devotional scribblers: simply an embarrassment for an affluent company flaying integrity — its own integrity and academic integrity — on the altar of bottom line, for additional eyes and a few easy extra bucks.

Peter Higgs.
Peter Higgs.

When a public intellectual speaks Afrikaans, it seems, “God” is inevitably pushed in somewhere.

Had not it been so destructive, the “God of the gaps” would have been simply farcical. Whenever religion is bloody-nosed this used “God rag” is applied.

What we do not yet understand is not opportunity for the introduction of “God”; “God” is but a ready container to hide whatever we are too lazy, too craven and too dumb to investigate.

The prime contribution of modern science is the certainty that much more is still to be discovered and understood than what can already be explained, and be even better understood, or adjusted, or rejected by continuous research. This is the main difference between religion and science: religion provides certainty that we know what we have known for thousands of years, period; science provides certainty that exciting new discoveries will almost certainly improve the way we understand things right now.

Every scientific breakthrough casts light on existing questions, and creates new questions. This is the nature of advancement — a continuous process of discovery, exposure, observation, testing, critical consideration, application of peer minds, adjustments, theorising, declaration, and unending subjection to unwavering research.

Religion’s sole contribution is to plug holes with the “God rag” until science pops him like a blackhead.

“God” is a nuisance. “God” is continually imposed by his groupies at events where no one really wants him present, because his followers and he, too, make like pigeons on a chess board.

I think we are on the verge of extraordinary new discoveries that will open the lift doors to accelerated insight. This opportunity demands a new kind of thinking, something I call quantum hysteria.

By quantum I mean a system of elegant and profound mathematical frameworks, and changing, developing suppositions that may define reality as it can be observed and experienced and supposed, by continuous application of mind on expanding data. In this sacred space there is no room for gods and demons and fairy godmothers and witches.

By hysteria I make reference to Slavoj Žižek’s “Only hysteria produces new knowledge, in contrast to the university discourse, which simply reproduces it”, or words to that effect, a general Lacanian approach in his quest to advance critical thinking and to engage settled norms almost adversarially.

It is important to come to grips with Žižek’s view: he does not glorify hysteria; he does not promote desultory or arbitrary, loose, inconsistent public house banter; Žižek is here to say that repeated rag plugs of the dominant order are to be removed from the troughs created by scientific advancement, and future pluggings prevented.

Slavoj Žižek.
Slavoj Žižek.

Certainly, literature and theology celebrate our awe and wonderment:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour" – William Blake, Auguries of Innocence; “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? — Psalms 8:3-4.

However, when we pursue an evolving understanding of dark matter and dark energy and the megaverse and quantum mechanics — and recent images from the James Webb space telescope have stirred the current paradigm yet again — we need to apply elsewhere. Tradition, culture, language and fables will provide only a warm, fuzzy feeling and no substance. The mystery probably lurks in that young discipline, quantum biology: how life happens when nature acts up and displays the quantum trickery we do not yet understand, in order to get ahead of the classical norms, which we think rule, because life always finds a way.

The smart money is on quantum biology for the new hiding place of “God”. I am almost excited by the expectation that any time soon some Afrikaans thinker will make the call, “Will you look at that! It can only be ‘God’ performing these tricks!”

No use filling a pothole with sand. (The Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond coined this expression in 1894: “There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps — gaps which they will fill up with God.”)

Methinks the famous put-down used by Wolfgang Pauli may be used for the public intellectuals promoted by the Afrikaans media: They’re not even wrong.

Marry, sir, they have committed false report;
moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily,
they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have
belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust
things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Dogberry, the chief of the citizen-police in Messina.

Much Ado about Nothing (5.1.215-19) 

* Ike Boss is a communications practitioner from Cape Town.

♦ VWB ♦

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