The Man Who Knew Infinity

Srinivasa Ramanujan [1887-1920] was a Tamil Indian mathematician, who in relative isolation and without almost any formal training, made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions.

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In 1913, he wrote a series of letters to scholars at Cambridge University and caught the attention of British mathematician G. H. Hardy, who realized that Ramanujan had rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new ones.

The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a 2015  British film made about his life. It was based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Robert Kanigal and focuses on the tension Ramanujan faced being accepted by the academic elite due to his foreign birth and lack of training.

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This academic reserve was only compounded by Ramanujan’s devout religious fervor and confessions that he felt the revelations of mathematical proofs that came to his intuition, were from God.

He famously stated: 

An equation for me has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God.

Hardy, an avowed atheist, opposed Ramanujan’s intuitive methods throughout their relationship, demanding of him proofs to establish the validity of this theories. A dyed-in-the-wool modernist, Hardy could not but maintain a dry tolerance for Ramanujan’s strange, eastern, mystical ways.

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However, across the course of the film Hardy changes his views and in the closing scenes Hardy, played by Jeremy Irons, admits before his peers at the Mathematical Society:

We are merely explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection.

His conclusion: maybe, somewhere beyond his world of scientific proofs, there is something that explains the existence of the beautiful patterns of the mathematical world. Maybe there is something or someone that can only be discerned by intuition, not by proofs, but by reveling in the marvelous fingerprints of mathematical equations which exist in all their elegance, to be discovered by subtle minds like Ramanujan’s.

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Maybe, just maybe, as a civilization we grow in our scientific knowledge, we are not growing out of a belief in God, but only moving deeper in our wonder and awe of the world, deeper towards a knowledge of God.

 

 

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The Dawkins Dilemma

Damien Shalley is someone who randomly came across Bear Skin, several pages deep in google search listings and subsequently submitted feedback.  Considering we gain hits from all around the globe, and a following which interestingly comes largely from North America, it was a surprise to find out he lived in the same city as me in a corner of the anitipodes. Since then he has submitted various guest posts to Bear Skin on various themes of interest – art, music and even creative originals. His latest piece is a reflection on everyone’s friend, Richard Dawkins.

The Dawkins Dilemma

by

Damien Shalley

 

And there he is again, right on schedule, evolutionary biologist and social commentator Richard Dawkins. Perhaps best known for his “evangelical atheism” and his very public position that any form of religious belief is patently absurd, Dawkins loves to express his point of view during traditional Christian religious holidays such as Christmas. One seemingly cannot turn on a television during the festive season without being subjected to his anti-deist opinions. His annual analysis of why belief in God is foolhardy turned up as pre-Christmas viewing on both the BBC and the ABC in 2015, and his previous four-part analysis of why religious faith is antithetical to scientific endeavour also got a repeat airing. (He saves his strongest criticism for the Catholics in the final instalment, in case you hadn’t already guessed). Strangely enough he also resorted to spreading his views via Al Jazeera television last year. (Al Jazeera is funded by the Islamic government of Qatar). Make of this what you will.

Professionally, Dawkins is an esteemed evolutionary biologist with a knack for clearly and accurately explaining biological and evolutionary processes.   For this, he has my admiration. He may well be peerless in his capacity to disseminate this knowledge in an understandable way. I have often marvelled at how well he describes processes such as natural selection, the driver of evolution, and felt awed by his dedication to the advancement of human knowledge.

But Dawkins insists that anyone who adheres to a religious faith or spiritual beliefs of any kind – his most famous target being Christianity – is deluded and foolish. In his publicly-stated view, religious belief is not worthy of serious consideration. His primary argument against it is simple – it is unscientific.   God cannot be observed directly and “belief” cannot be quantified or measured. As such, religious belief systems defy the kind of objective analysis that a scientist like Dawkins requires and must be rejected outright. Yet one only has to scratch the surface of Dawkins’ primary argument to reveal a universe of questions for which he has no answer.

Dawkins himself is a polite and erudite man in his mid-seventies. He is impeccably well-qualified and any attempts to question the scientific basis of his arguments are quickly and skilfully shut down during debates. His primary weakness, it seems, is his intolerance of alternative points of view. In his opinion, God is a delusion, Christians are fools and forms of belief that he does not understand are equally foolish.

The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. The name of the debate is ?The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin?. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY EDUCATION) - RTR2YBDF

Dawkins is an adherent of rationalism and empirical analysis. He espouses a well-known and scientifically well-accepted view that our universe came into existence after a massive cosmic detonation. This explosion spread atoms from an infinitely dense ball of matter approximately the size of a melon to the farthest reaches of space. Elements created in this “big bang” formed the building blocks of organic life. Carbon-based life forms were created on earth when water, amino acids (proteins) and electricity combined to kick-start primordial existence. Human life subsequently came into being after billions of years of evolution.

This is fine as far as it goes. It is a scientifically sound premise and there is a significant amount of evidence to support aspects of this theory. We live in an expanding universe (consistent with an explosive genesis), we are carbon-based life forms, we can observe primitive aerobic organisms living in hot springs in parts of the world today that might well be our primitive precursors, and we can see evidence of evolution in the form of prehistoric fossils and observe natural selection processes in wild environments. The Dawkins position looks pretty strong. And yet, it isn’t.

Can matter originate from nothing? Can nothingness ever be the originator of “somethingness” (for want of a better word?) If our universe began when a massive accumulation of cosmic energy caused a concentrated ball of matter to explode, what was this cosmic energy and where did this ball of matter come from? Cosmologists have recently posited that in space, matter might accumulate in concentrated forms due to inversions wherein space folds in on itself in a cyclical manner. (This has been described as similar to the way in which warm air and low pressure systems create cyclones). This is another scientifically sound theory. But what is this matter which is accumulating? What is this “essence” of the universe – this foundation of creation, so to speak – and where did it come from? And why is the vociferous Richard Dawkins so strangely silent about this topic? Put simply, why can’t Richard Dawkins explain this in the same way that he so easily explains the known and understandable aspects of biology?

Because he can’t, that’s why. (Also, he doesn’t want to).

Dawkins has been at pains in the past to inform us that scientists cannot seek to explain phenomena starting from a “supernatural” standpoint. A premise such as the creation of matter by God bears no “internal consistency” to a scientist seeking a rational explanation. He cannot countenance this theological option, and within the boundaries of his scientific analysis, he doesn’t have to. But that still leaves a major hole in his analysis, as well as his conclusions about those who choose to seek additional answers elsewhere.

The fact that television programmers choose to allow Dawkins to stick his head above the parapet during the holiday season is probably more a function of their search for an audience than anything else. (He regularly attracts both supporters and critics and they all watch his shows – including me). In his latest outing, Dawkins interviews cloistered monks, an American Catholic priest and comedian Ricky Gervais, as well as looking to astronomy and classic English literature to help explain his position. He concludes after 50 minutes that there is no God and that belief in a deity is facile, that we are an accident of the cosmos, that people should live as though death will render everything in their lives utterly redundant and that Christian celebratory holidays are cultural norms of the delusional. (Incidentally, it hardly seems unusual to me that a society with a Christian history has public holidays linked to this heritage. But hey, show some respect, Richard Dawkins is speaking).

I’m not convinced of Dawkins’ argument and never have been, although I’m no opponent of science (or of free thought either). I believe that science is an invaluable tool for the betterment of the human race, and I believe that it has delivered the foundational understanding for our modern lives. Medicine, engineering, communications, education: these and virtually every other aspect of human existence have been improved by scientific advances. But I also believe that science does not, indeed cannot, answer any and all questions about human existence. And if people wish to seek answers in religious belief and social structures based on religious principles, it is not Richard Dawkins’ place to tell them that they shouldn’t.

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If you would like to submit a guest post to Bear Skin, please feel free to email me at jennifer@bishop.id.au

Prometheus [2012]

In his 2012 film Prometheus,, Ridley Scott revisits his Aliens franchise, deciding to tell the origin of not only his Alien creatures, but of humanity.

Plot Summary

The film opens with a humanoid  creature left on earth, a rocky and watery desolate place.  As his space ship leaves him, he drinks a potion and he collapses into the stream. His body dissolves into the water, and fragmented DNA reforms into strands; life is started on earth.

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Years later, in 2089, scientists Shaw and Holloway discover cave paintings of humans worshiping giants who are pointing to a constellation. They gather the data and present it to the Weyland corporation, invested in research into the origins of humanity. It seems Shaw and Holloway have found a star map. Weyland commissions the expedition aboard the space vessel, Prometheus, to seek out the star system and its inhabitable planet there.  The ship, and crew in cyro-sleep,  are guided by robot David.

Shaw and Holloway and the crew awake to find themselves near a desolate planet with a curious hive like structure. Within, there is a breathable atmosphere and heaped up bones and carcases of the inhabitants. The place seems to be a sarcophagus. David, proficient at multiple forms of communication, is able to awaken hologram like memories of the deaths of the giants here. It seems they were escaping a terror. David also opens long shut doors, taking the expedition into a temple-like chamber full of vases. Although dormant, from these vases quickly grow squirming, menacing demons – Aliens.

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The crew take a preserved giant head and one of the vases, back into the space ship. In the process they lose two crew in the honeycomb tunnels of the hive. These two poor souls are the first victims of the rapidly growing, frightening creatures disturbed in the chamber. In true Aliens style we know it’s just a matter of time before each crew member gets their come-uppance.

Aboard the ship, Shaw examines the giant head and discovers a close match to human DNA. They have discovered the Engineers – the predecessors to human life on earth. The discovery sends ripples through the crew aboard, “you’re messing with 300 years of Darwinism.” When Holloway asks Shaw if this disproves her faith, marked by a cross around her neck, she retorts, “but who made them?”

David opens the alien vase and extracts what looks like vials of liquid from within it.  Most enigmatically, he deliberately places a tiny drop of the black ink into Holloway’s glass of water.  That night Holloway and Shaw make love, but not before we discover that her father died fighting ebola in Africa and that she is sterile and cannot bear children.

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The next day, the crew return into the hive, however Holloway is seriously ill, and Shaw, unknown to her, is now pregnant with an alien foetus.  David explores alone and discovers the cockpit of the Engineers‘ spaceship. He activates the hologram memories again and discovers that the Engineers were bound for earth.

Curiously, the spaceship is packed to the gills with vases like those in the temple. It’s almost as if the ship is packed with weapons – fearful biological weapons.

Most interestingly, David discovers an Engineer in cryosleep with an audible heart beat. One is still alive.

Holloway is very ill and Captain Vickers will not allow him back on board. When the crew try to return him to get medical help, Vickers instead torches him with a flame thrower. Not long after Fifield, one of the ships crew left in the hive tunnels over night arrives, crazed and zombified. He too is promptly killed. Inside the ship, Weyland the elderly millionaire who established the Prometheus expedition, is found. It seems,  he commissioned the expedition to find the Engineers and discover the secret to his own immortality. Strangely, Captain Vickers is revealed to be his daughter. Both she and David have known the deadly nature of this expedition and are party to Weylands hubris.

At this point though now it is dawning on the crew, Shaw in particular, that the expedition is doomed. The alien foetus within her has grown rapidly and threatens to kill her. Boldly, she accesses a medical pod and performs surgery on herself, extracting the wriggling creatures and sewing herself up with laser stitches and staples. With only a few jabs of pain killers to abdomen and legs, she then proceeds to race and chase for the remainder of the film. The foetus she leaves to die, locked in the medical pod.

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Weyland and David awaken the Engineer, the one remaining creature of the race who spawned life on earth and are promptly and soundly beaten. This is no benevolent creator; no. The Engineer is bent on piloting his spacecraft straight towards earth where the vials of alien embyos and black sludge will obliterate life.

Is this the moral kick back for daring to name your space ship Prometheus? Is the search to find the gods, or to be like the gods, worthy of mortal punishment?

One by one the characters on the team Prometheus die off; in true Ridley fashion the female protagonist kicks butt. Despite the cesarian section, she shoots, kills, climbs and fights for the remainder of the film. She also maintains her faith, and although the Engineers wished to obliterate life on earth, she wishes to find the reason why, and the reason why they created life in the first place.

Thematic Points: 

Technology and Artificial Intelligence

Cryo-sleep, light speed, star maps, human like robots capabale of jealousy and deceit and proficient at “over 6 million forms of communication, ” the film explores a future only 80 years ahead of our own. David the robot is an enigmatic character, at once loyal to Weyland, he deliberately infects Holloway with Alien substance. His loyalty shifts from Weyland to Shaw upon Weyland’s death however, perhaps revealing a rather human expediency to preserve his own existence.

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Faith 

Shaw wears a crucifix and maintains a faith beyond scientific reason. At one point it is mentioned that surely by 2089, religion and faith would be no longer relevant. However, she is bent on asking the deepest of age old questions. Science fiction the genre, is able to ask the questions asked by myths and legends throughout time – why are we here ? where did we come from? What is the meaning of our existence? Is our creator benevolent or not? In fact, science fiction reasserts that humanity is not on a trajectory away from spiritual wonderings but into the same ones. The genius of Star Wars was that it portrayed a future and advanced scientific world into which spirituality was integrated, instead of being tied to the dated and contextual issues of post-enlightenment rationalism.

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The Myth of Prometheus & the Quest for Immortality

The central theme in Prometheus concerns the Titan who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment.  The gods want to limit their creations in case they attempt to usurp the gods.

Weyland is an elderly millionaire who seeks to find the origin of life and take immortality for himself. This hubris leads the mission to sure death and the unelashing of a terrible biological weapon into the universe. It seems both Weyland’s accomplices, David and Captain Vickers know of the dangers of the mission and comply. The moral framework of the story judges Weyland but not Shaw. She wishes to know her creator and to ask “why” and survives to continue her quest. Conversely, Weyland wishes to wrest immortality for himself, and so suffers judgement for his hubris.

The Origin of Life

As mentioned above, the narrative is set within the 21st century and is thus constrained by contemporary rational scientfic questions of life and origin. The story does not counter Darwinian evolution, instead addresses the missing link in evolutionary theory, “how did life start?” The Engineers are thus named because they are the agents of life [and death] but not the creators themselves. The film closes with Shaw jetting off, still searching for the answers. Moreover,  robotic responses [placed in the mouth of David] as to “why does it matter?”, sound hollow to the human heart and spirit. To be human is to question.

Interestingly, the Engineer who comes to prehistoric earth to generate life, gives up his own life,  for life to continue. Notes on the film production process allude to alternative plot elements, including an Engineer coming to earth 2000 years ago, to intervene in human barbarity, but was crucified. However Scott removed the plot element for fear it was too heavy handed.

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The Problem of Evil

The giants created life on earth and now seek to destroy it ? Why?  It’s like the planet and its hive are an enormous trap, set to lure over-reaching mortals in search of eternal life and answers of being, and then in turn to release utter destruction upon them and their species.

There is an amorality about the plot as well. The Engineers themselves are and have been consumed by Aliens. This biological weapon is indiscriminate, much like ebola, or the burrowing worm that lives in the eyeball intent only to blind, or the insect that lays it’s larva in the chest of a live host only to burst forth into life, killing it.

Why do we live alongside such creatures and imagine a benevolent world with a benign creator. Life is cruel – we alone place meaning onto that cruelty. So goes the questions as to the nature of morality in this universe.

However, it is intrinsic to narrative to create a meaningful universe. The characters have agency, face a crisis and struggle for catharsis. The absence of morality leaves both good and evil neutral – and removes the crisis. If there were no questions of morality, there would be nothing “wrong” with aliens destroying life; and we inherently believe in life. The suffering and randomness experienced in the universe does not discredit the existence of God, but rather, the existence of ultimate meaning  affirms that our suffering is significant and our struggle for catharsis, has worth.

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Some Final Thoughts:

In an earlier blog, Noah and the Quest for Immortality, I touched on the age old question, expressed in myths, legends and the greats of world literature – the question of life immortal. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero discovers that immortality lies only in human civilization and not in any herbal remedy to prolong life. The Noah story, which refashions this tale, reinjects into this epic narrative the note of eternal life. It lies in a promised descendent who would take destruction upon himself, delivering life and relationship with God back to humanity.

In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, the pair are originally granted immortality in the Garden and need not lust for it. Curiously they are tricked to eat of the fruit “of the knowledge of good and evil.” I say curiously,  because this knowledge is something they already possessed. Otherwise the dare would have no meaning for them. Why would they be tempted to take of what they already had ?

The power in the temptation was for them to believe God was withholding something from them – equality with him. He was a killjoy, a cheater, someone who wanted less for them than they could attain. The fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” would bridge the gap. So in taking what they already had, they showed distrust for God’s voice and so distrust for God’s nature and their own identity. In doing so, they lost relationship with God, and so lost immortality.

The quest ever since then has been to reattain immortality. And more importantly, to reattain relationship with God. These two things should not be equated to be the same thing.

What the film Prometheus shows us, is that it’s not the quest for relationship with God, or to ask “why” that gets humanity into problems, but the selfish quest for immortality and its power, to the exlcusion of relationship with this creator, that is the problem. The one who seeks to know God, must also listen to how this God is telling the story of redemption in unexpected ways.

The film was a popular and critical success, grossing over $400 million world wide. Nevertheless, there  are major weaknesses to the plot, including the strange choice to have a young actor [Guy Pearce] made up to look like an old man Weyland. Moreover, the unlikely way Shaw runs, fights, climbs and chases after experiencing major abdominal surgery is close to ludicrous. Various other characters such as Captain Vickers and other minor characters are underdeveloped leaving plot elements enigmatic or weakened.

Nevertheless the story is an interesting prequel to the Aliens saga and exploration of origins.