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bricks of masonry

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Bought a DVD yesterday that carries two complete Billy Connolly concerts, from 1991 and 1994; both filmed at the Hammersmith Apollo (formerly the Odeon). Pretty amazing stuff, though I wouldn’t try watching it all in one go. He’s great at embroidering what starts as a simple story into something quite extraordinary. He sounds like a programmer – subroutines within subroutines, umpteen layers deep. I’m watching a bit of it the 1994 concert now, and it comes across like this:

Travel
 {
 Airports
    {
   "moving sidewalks"
      {
     Escalator Nightmares,
      Involuntary Noises
       {
       Cold
         {
         Norway
         }
       }
       Loose Paving
        {
        Glasgow
         {
         Swearing
         }
       }
     }
   }
 }

Because he mentions Freemasonry at one point, I looked it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica again today. I had thought little of it in the past, I used to see it as a formal version of the Lions Club – which does apparently have some links, I read somewhere. My first encounter with it was around 1994, when I was working in the V&A Museum in London. One of the warders approached my boss with an offer to join the “Worshipful Order of Lighthousemen”, I think the title was. It wasn’t presented as secretive in any way, and they didn’t mind that I was in the room. My boss replied “that’s Masonic, isn’t it”? “No, no, we’re just a bunch of blokes who get together and have fun.” He was Catholic, though, so the conversation didn’t go any further, and there was a bit of swearing once the warder had left the room. The keyword is “Worshipful” – if I understand it correctly, that definitely indicates a Masonic connection. Since then I’ve been more aware of it, but every time I read about it I have an overwhelming impression of pointlessness that precludes any serious interest.

Since a Freemason is “required to be an adult male believing in the existence of a Supreme Being and in the immortality of the soul” (Britannica again), that pretty much counts me out, since I believe in neither of those things. (It’s debatable whether I can be called “adult” too, but that’s another story.) Actually, I do still see it as something of a joke – I have read the Illuminati books, after all, which are about a secret society that tries to run the world, but keeps getting it wrong in humorous ways. The Ku Klux Klan, as originally formed in 1866, had openly Masonic trappings, some of which persist to this day. I even know the secret handshake, or at least I think I do, since I heard it third-hand. It includes a mechanism for indicating your status on several levels, ranging from “pleased to meet you”, through “there’s something a Mason can do for me” to “emergency – I need immediate help”.

Reading about the history of and reactions to Freemasonry today led me to think about agnosticism and atheism. Am I an agnostic or an atheist?

Modern agnosticism can be traced back to T.H. Huxley’s writings and speeches from the 1860’s – he invented the word – some of which hark back to Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). The Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it like this:

(Huxley) insisted (agnosticism) was “not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle,” viz., to follow reason “as far as it can take you”; but then, when you have established as much as you can, frankly and honestly to recognize the limits of your knowledge. It is the same principle as that later proclaimed in an essay on “The Ethics of Belief” (1876) by the British mathematician and philosopher of science W.K. Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I find myself in total agreement with the above, so by that definition I am an agnostic. Confucius (551-479 BC) put it like this:

When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge.

In practical terms, however, I call myself an atheist. Let me explain:

  • I can’t make absolute assertions, without absolute proof, about the whole universe from my little corner of it. To do so, whether the assertion is positive (“this is the case”) or negative (“this can’t happen”) would be unscientific.
  • There are things I can assert, if I have proof to back them up, such as the presence of the Sun, or even its composition (from spectra). Absolute proof is not required, if what you have is enough to go on. Quantum Physics is not an absolute, but it provides workable explanations of the Sun’s power source, the creation of new elements there, and their detection in spectral lines. This computer’s silicon circuits rely on “quantum tunnelling” for its semiconductors to work. In other words, the theory works well enough for my purposes.
  • To close my mind off, to refuse to entertain possibilities, would also be unscientific. This makes me a theoretical agnostic, since I am not making an assertion such as “there are no gods”.
  • However: nothing I have seen in my lifetime seriously suggests the presence of anything we call “supernatural” in any form – ghosts, Allah, fairies, Krishna, magic, or God. It’s fun to speculate, but I can’t take it seriously.
  • If you are going to tell me that any of these exist, I will require proof. By proof, I mean something based on reality*1 that does not hinge on personal experience. The fact that you have seen something does not mean that I could ever see it too. I could make myself see something (self-delusion), but it should not come to that.
  • This makes me a practical atheist; my daily life does not involve the supernatural, my answer to the question “do you believe in [God | Allah | Krishna | Ra]?” is “No”, and I live my life accordingly.
  • Because I try to think scientifically, that does not mean that I am obliged to investigate any idea or concept that comes my way – there are far too many of them and too few hours in the day. They nearly all start the same way – “someone says…”, “someone saw…”, “someone thinks…”, all words with nothing to back them up. Getting me interested would take something a bit more solid. Don’t tell me; show me.

The X-Files series, though I didn’t watch it much, seemed to be about this kind of problem. The main protagonists, Mulder and Scully, investigated strange (fictional?) occurrences, with much human interest coming from how differently they reacted to the same apparent phenomena. In conversation, I am open to possibilities, but an evangelist would see this as a chink in the armour to exploit, the distinction is often too subtle for them, as I have found. I was a bit surprised when a colleague of mine brought this up in the pub a few years ago, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect that belief in the Judeo-Christian God was “common sense”. It might be in Ireland, a heavily Catholic country, but I said something like “the universe is wonderful enough without invoking the supernatural”. The response was “I’m not talking about the Supernatural, I’m talking about God” – at which point the conversation was effectively over, as you might imagine. “Whose round is it?”

I agree that people have a need to Believe, but we need to balance that with the tendency of people to manipulate, delude, cheat, and lie, to themselves as well as others. I’m aiming for a mind that is “open but filtered”; interested in learning, but with bullshit-detection in full effect. I can’t claim to be there yet.

* Reality, by my favourite definition, is that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. I think Terry Pratchett may be implicated somewhere, since his DiscWorld books sometimes feature Gods with that very problem – they vanish when people stop believing in them, with hilarious consequences. The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy also helped my thinking here, with Douglas Adams’ comic interlude about a god that vanishes in a puff of logic. Coming back down to Earth: a skydiver with a failed parachute might “snap”, close her eyes, and stop believing in the ground; the atoms making up the ground may be mostly empty space, with subatomic particles made up of quantum improbabilities; but… there’s no reason to believe the end result will be any different. That is reality as I see it.

Written by brian t

February 9, 2003 at 11:04 am

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