The cat, the flashlight, and the fragility of science

“Science is the father of knowledge, but opinion breeds ignorance.”


“If the kind of God exists who would damn me for not working out a deal with him, then that is unfortunate.  I should not care to spend eternity in the company of such a person.”

Mary McCarthy

“Prayer  is like a rocking chair: It’ll give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.”

Gypsy Rose Lee

If I weren’t already concerned about the fragility of science, I would be more than a bit disturbed by the comments of Robert N. McCauley, a philosopher of science at Emory U., in an interview by the Boston Globe (January 8, 2012).  

But I was already concerned.  Two centuries after the Enlightenment, I saw the persistence of religion, generation after generation, saw my contemporaries grow up and repeat the same old rituals. I started to feet like an idiot who had gotten it completely wrong.  Thirty years ago, I saw some weakening of religion in Western Europe and Scandinavia, and I thought the progress of reason would be halting at best. But there would be progress, right?

Exceeding expectations: ”God’s match for you”

Well, reality has exceeded my worst expectations.  Fundamentalist religion is alive and well in most of the world, exerting a powerful influence on society and politics.  The primitive Abrahamic religions ruthlessly occupy center stage all over the globe. 

More bad news: Technologies created by science are blithely turned into vehicles of fantasy., with membership in the millions (that alone is cause for alarm), advertises that if you join, you’ll ”find God’s match for you.”  So the deity is wired into cyberspace, and merely does his will.  A bold claim.  What other commercial site claims that it delivers God’s will?

Religious wars continue to flare.  Muslims fight themselves and many other groups around the world.  No news there. 

Perhaps worst of all, huge majorities in this Puritanical, evangelical land of ours, profess belief in God, consider America a Christian nation, and connect patriotism to Christianity (hence the Christianization of the military and the mistreatment of atheists).  From somewhere there appeared $27 million to build a Museum of Creationism. 

Wrong museum!!

I think the old USSR had the right  idea.  In the 1960s, in (then) Leningrad, I visited the Museum of the History of Religion.  It was all there, in gory detail: the Inquisitions, crusades, persecutions, and atrocities.  Life-sized replicas of torture instruments.  I loved it.  Why is there no such museum in the US?

So yes, I have been concerned about the progress of reason for many years.  And Dr. McCauley has made me even more concerned: “If you consider how the human mind actually works, science faces challenges even when it seems ascendant.  Religion is too intuitive, too natural a style for thinking, to be gotten rid of.” 

He notes that “science is extremely unnatural.  That’s why scientists have to take courses in all these things – and then it’s still hard.  The products of scientific reflection are inevitably radically counterintuitive.  They challenge common sense.”

Religion and politics

That’s certain true of much of modern physics, beginning with quantum mechanics.  Now much of the language – of ‘branes and multiverses and strings —verges on the poetic.  There may be physical or mathematical data supporting the concepts, but they’re probably beyond the reach of non-specialists.

The unnaturalness of science vis-à-vis the human brain may account for its infrequency in our world, which is a real problem, because, as the professor notes, political leaders seldom have the scientific understanding to make enlightened decisions.  On the contrary (my comment), political and policy decisions are all too often driven by religion (did God tell Dubya to invade Iraq?).

McCauley also says that “If you look at the wide range of human cultures over human history one thing that quickly jumps out is how rare [science] is.  There are many cultures where science is not pursued at all, to this day.”

Indeed, there are places in our great land where science, if not rejected, is given equal status with religion, as politicians try to “teach the controversy” between “competing theories” and to get more and more Christianity rammed into the curriculum.  A bill in my home state of New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die” on the license plates – what a joke) would mandate the offering of an elective course in the Bible.

The real deal

One more time: Let us not be mealy-mouthed about “teaching the controversy” (there is none; evolution wins, hands down), “reconciling science and faith” or their “compatibility” or their “respective domains.”  THIS IS ABOUT REALITY AND UNREALITY, SUBJECTIVE AND OBJECTIVE.  They are two mutually exclusive ways of viewing the world. 

But so many people seem to adopt them both!  Some of those are no doubt sincere (as opposed to pretending or posing for social reasons).  How in the hell do they convince themselves of the truth of the Bible, of what cannot possibly be true and had been conclusively proven false by every scientific approach that has investigated it, from physics to archaeology to linguistics?

Understanding religion

Religion will be with us as long as we fail to understand it, as long as we fail to understand how deeply the religious impulse, to believe without proof, is buried in our brain.  (This is distinct from the tribe/herd instinct, which is what motivates the wishy-washy Jews who occasionally attend shul, pretend they believe, and stage monstrous bar/bat mitzvahs.)

Is religion socially programmed, or are our brains hard-wired for it (whatever that tired metaphor actually means, since we’ll never be able to find the complex neurological interaction, synapses, and pathways that produce religious belief)?  Are we somehow predisposed to structure our world according to unproved beliefs?

Evidence from reality strongly supports the role of social programming.  Dawkins rightly laments that religion always gets first crack at the kid, who’s never allowed to make independent religious decisions.  He regards this forced programming as a form of child abuse, and I agree.

But there’s a lot of evidence on the “predisposed” side too.   Evidence from my own brain suggests hard-wired.  I was fortunate to have Bill Perlman, my father, leading the way; he was the first skeptic I ever met.  If both parents had been more than superficially religious, it would have been harder, but I can’t see myself a believer, especially since, back then, happy to report, you could actually get a secular education, which enabled you to stand apart from religion and realize that it fails the reality test.

On the other hand, my brother, raised in the same environment, does his minimal bit of Judaism – 1-2 days in the synagogue at High Holidays, plus Seder, plus bar/bat mitzvahs —  and is quite happy with it.  Go figure.

Never felt God’s presence

Although I spent the required amount of time davening, none of it felt as if I was talking to somebody.  I never had the intuitive feeling of belief, felt the presence of God in my life, or any of that abstract, subjective BS.

Here’s where the cat comes in.

We have recently increased our family group by one, with the addition of a very sweet and trusting four-year-old female, whom we adopted from the Humane Society and named Oreo, since her coat is black, except where evolution has elegantly painted her with white markings along her chest, front paws, and haunches.  When she curls up, she is perfectly camouflaged, which is why I closed the piano lid on her after she’d gone to sleep inside – but that’s another story.

Oreo is a prodigious leaper who can get to the high molding in our cathedral-ceilinged house, about 10 feet off the ground, in two leaps – first the cabinet, then the frig, then the molding.  On the way down, she goes right from the fridge, which I calculate would be a 75-100 foot leap for me.

She is a perfectly tuned machine.  Her best leap is from one cupboard top to another, across the stove, particularly impressive because the exhaust fan’s duct descends between the two cabinets, giving her a window of only a few inches to jump through.  Makes it every time.

Chasing the light

Oreo has one weakness which does not reflect well on her species: she is attracted to the beam of a flashlight and chases the moving reflection as if it were prey.  My stepson is able to strobe out her little cat-brain and get her running in circles, truly a whirling dervish. Her legs blur and her torso swivels as she tries furiously to nail the elusive prey.  Dammit, gonna GET it this time!

This game never gets old.  Each night the beam holds the same allure and is equally untrappable as the previous night. Sometimes she contemplates it, as if trying to process in her little cat-brain the difference between a thing and an image.  But it will not compute. 

When will she lose interest completely?  When she processes the concept “uncatchable,” or whatever the feline equivalent of it is?  Maybe never.

I thought long and hard before falling for the all too easy comparison between this behavior and religion.  Religious people are forever chasing something that does not exist: heaven, salvation, eternal life, whatever. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed evidence for predisposition/hard-wiring.

The cat chases the light because it resembles prey – small and mobile.  It does not know what light is.   Hell, WE barely know what it is.  But at least we know it’s not in the “grabbable object” class of phenomena, just as heaven and angels do not exist in the same way as cars and buildings. 

And we shouldn’t be too condescending to the cat, because the response to light, the seeking of light, runs the length of the phylogenetic scale.  When plants do it, it’s called phototropism. When moths do it, it’s often suicidal.  When humans do it, it’s called lighting  Hanukkah candles or jetting to Cancun.  “Light = good” examples run throughout our English lexicon and our culture (and many others, I’m sure).  What do you see at the moment of dying? Light!

A deep-seated impulse, indeed.

But the light is a chimera in the cat’s world, a non-computing concept, just as religious belief and all its trappings – stories of virgin birth, divine revelation, gods with thunderbolts and gods with multiple arms and gods with snakes for hair.  Not real, never was.

Religious believers chase the illusion of gods and afterlife the way the cat chases the light.  There is no evidence for anything in the Torah, so why believe in it?  Why keep chasing the light of fantasy, twisting yourself every which way to believe it and accommodate it (e.g., keeping kosher – FOUR sets of dishes)? 

Getting right with God

The religious answer: If only we chase the light, pray enough (= get right with God), kill enough infidels, whirl around enough, we’ll capture it.  We’ll be saved.  We’ll go to heaven, Valhalla, Paradise.  We won’t die.  Sometimes humans have decreed that finding the light requires you to kill others or yourself. 

Who’s directing the flashlight beam?  Again, a concept the cat’s brain doesn’t seem to grasp.  Similarly, religious people don’t question the origin or validity of their practices (for sheer ridiculousness, see “tefillin”), beliefs, or stories – that’s doubt, blasphemy.

I’m not saying that religious practice does nothing for you subjectively.  Some religious believers get off on the communal activity and hymn-singing, which correlates to the  high pain threshold discovered in rowers moving in unison.  High Church officials get off by dressing in effeminate brocade.  I saw one bishop’s hat that belonged at a transvestite New Year’s Eve party.

Let’s just recognize that ALL progress comes from the scientific method. (Even the Iranians know that Allah isn’t going to build their bomb, no matter how hard they pray.)

The battle with religion will be long and arduous (the NH bill also requires that those who do not believe  be defined as “atheists” and burned at the stake – ha ha, just kidding, but only about the last part).   It will not end in my lifetime, for sure.

Walkin’ with Jesus

Science, though its rewards are abundant, reveals the complexities of life and the mysteries of the universe (some of them, at least), but it takes effort.  Requiring evidence, documentation, experimentation, experience, independent verification – that’s BO-ring.  Takes too long to get to the truth, if you ever do.  Feels much better to walk with Jesus (whatever that means).

People want to believe.  People love to believe.  Believing makes them feel good.  Believing assuages mortal fears with false promises. That’s what we’re up against. 

The price of their feeling good about their retarded mythologies is very high: perpetual strife and even wider war among religions and sects, each of whom is convinced it has the truth. 

The best the rational minority can do is, as Jesse Jackson might say, is “keep science alive; keep reason alive” — until the world is really ready for them.   Keep pushing back against the forces of darkness, which threaten from every side.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on June 8, 2012 at 10:23am

Loren, You are so right in calling it a "path."  Secularism is a mental muscle that must be trained, just because religion comes so naturally -- to children and primitives (though left alone, kids would not arrive at God on their own).


To Don: I would never impugn another's cat!  It's just that the flashlight beam lies outside Samantha's and Oreo's intellectual categories, just as the true nature of reality, as described by quantum physics, is beyond most of us.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 6, 2012 at 4:31pm



Both orthodox AND wiahy-washy religion are easy, each in its own way.  Certainly the latter is the past of least resistance.


Dennett talks about "belief in belief."  This is passed on, along with religious doctrine itself.



You've made MY day.  Thanks.

Comment by Loren Miller on June 6, 2012 at 2:37pm

SOME people want to believe.  Me?  I'm like Carl Sagan: I want to KNOW, and belief, especially in something I could not quantify, has never worked for me and never will.

Thing is, other people can't be bothered.  I don't think it's so much that religion is intuitive so much as it is EASY.  It requires neither work nor education.  It's the path of least resistance.  That it is also completely mistaken and wrong doesn't matter.  Add to that the tradition of religious indoctrination of children which all but insures perpetuation of the lie and you have our current situation.

About the only solution, as you observe, is to insist to resist, to call a spade a spade and a lie a lie and not blink.  Not easy, but then neither is the path of atheism.

Comment by Tammy S on June 6, 2012 at 2:10pm

Thank you, I think I needed to read those words today. I'm going to get my laser pointer!



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