This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Monday, 26 November 2012
Mr Rockflinger and the Asteroid: An enquiry into faith
Imagine a man who’s never heard of the law of gravity, the somewhat odd idea that every object in the Universe attracts every other with a force that grows four times greater for each halving of the distance between them. This man only knows that when he throws something into the air, it will fall down. It’s something that he has complete and utter faith in: if you throw something up, it will fall down. There’s no need, in his mind, to examine the reason why. It’s the way things are.
Now take our hero and put him on the surface of an asteroid where the gravity is very low, just enough so that he sticks to the surface. Now he, since his hobby is throwing things up and watching them fall down, picks up a rock and throws it up…but this is an asteroid with very little gravitational attraction, so his rock doesn’t fall; it goes floating up and away into the wide starry yonder, for ever and ever, amen.
Now can you imagine the state of mind of our Mr Rockflinger? All he has known is now in question: he can either decide that his entire faith in things falling when thrown up is completely mistaken. If he does, he will have to admit, if only to himself, that therefore every other thing that he has believed in – for example, that the sun rises in the east or that water flows downhill – may be just as mistaken. He may begin questioning the very basis of his faith, and he may decide that everything he believes is rubbish and that he has to start all over again.
Alternatively, he can tell himself that he has not seen what he manifestly has seen – that a rock thrown up will not necessarily fall down. He can further then tell himself that if such a thing has happened it is due to the exertion of forces opposed to the natural law that what goes up must come down. He can tell himself that any such force must be evil; and he can then set himself not only against such evil, but against any ally of that evil; by which he will include anyone who dares claim that any non-falling rock is due to any other reason than the exertion of the forces of evil.
So, Mr Rockflinger has basically a choice – to examine the foundations of his faith, and if necessary make the adjustments required; or, he can harden his faith and vilify (if not burn at the stake) anyone who says different.
There are the middle-of-the-roaders – those who will say that the faith that anything that goes up must come down isn’t to be taken literally; that it’s only a spiritual expression of an idealised condition that one must take as an allegory. These would be those who lack the moral courage to take one or the other path.
Now I’m, of course, comparing this with religion, but not in the open sense of religion versus atheism. In fact, I’m keeping atheism out of this picture altogether. I'm assuming that every one of the three paths open to Mr Rockflinger is within the bounds of religion.
But if we consider the three paths open to Mr Rockflinger on his asteroid are all equally valid, which would then be really religious? No one who isn’t a raving fundamentalist bigot will pretend that the hard-faith path is true to the tenets of religion, I assume. So whom do we call really religious: the fence sitters who try to explain things away by parables, or the few who choose to examine the fundamentals of their belief?
I don’t think it’s all that simple a question, not the least because the third option is not only the most difficult, but can also lead to a further orthodoxy: “What goes up will NEVER come down!”