Saturday, 28 August 2010

Theories: Splitting Linguistic Hairs and the Work of Anne Elk (Miss)

The work of Anne Elk (Miss), undoubtedly one of the overlooked intellectual giants of our age, serves to remind us of the importance of theories. And indeed, how anyone can hold one … ahem!

I cannot gainsay Miss Elk’s evident expertise in the area of paleantology since I know nothing of Brontosauruses.

But I was fascinated to hear the ‘T’ word occur yet again in Richard Dawkins’ recent More4 documentary ‘Faith School Menace?

To its credit, Madani High School in Leicester was the only religious school which allowed Dawkins access. But its openess provided a clear example of an oft-repeated error, a linguistic error, which helps millions of people to ignore the fact of evolution.

I think it may be a source of frustration to people starting out in some academic disciplines that the first two-thirds of any subject seem to be given over to redefining perfectly good words in English. The social sciences excel in this trait. I’ve certainly spent glowering and resentful evenings over what I seem to remember calling at the time “a pile of nit-picking wank”.

See how articulate I get when I’m angry?

But when the pique has passed and you’ve cleared up the broken crockery, you’re left with very precise language. It’s truly useful.

My dictionary says that a theory is:

1 a system of rules, procedures and assumptions used to produce a result
2 abstract knowledge or conjecturing
3 a conjectural view or idea: "I have a theory about that"
4 an ideal or hypothetical situation
5 a set of hypotheses related by logical or mathematical arguments to explain a wide variety of connected phenomena in general terms: the theory of relativity
6 a non-technical term for hypothesis

Do you think civilian usage tends towards definition 3? I do. If you used a thesaurus it would, under that circumstance, probably allow substitutions of ‘opinion’, ‘supposition’ or even ‘guess’.

Madani High School’s headmaster, Dr Mohammed Mukadam said to Dawkins (24:05):

“None of the reports that I have read says that evolution is a scientific fact. Just says there is a scientific theory which says evolution is there”

Which is why, I suppose, all sixty of the year ten students came to the conclusion that the Koran was filling in the missing bits.

But scientific usage of the word ‘theory’ is different. A theory can also be a fact. A scientific theory is derived from empirical data, contains concepts and testable rules, is good at predicting and is disprovable.

A scientific hypothesis is a tentative theory. It’s more in line with ‘theory’ as used by Dr. Mukadam - definition 6 in the list.

It’s a shame the word ‘theory’ covers such a wide gamut in English, because it leads to a lot of misunderstanding in relation to the theory of evolution. Which is a fact.

That’s my theory. It is mine and belongs to me and and I own it and what it is too. Ahem!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Friday the Thirteenth

“Some mathematicians believe that numbers were invented by human beings, others, equally competent, believe that numbers have a sufficiently independent existence of their own and are merely observed by sufficiently intelligent mortals”
E T Bell
The Magic of Numbers

‘The Magic of Numbers’ is still available today. Amazon bills it as:

“a stimulating account of the origins of mathematical thought and the development of numerical theory”


“… exploring the ways in which "number magic" has influenced the development of religion, philosophy, science and mathematics”

These days, Bell’s quote may find agreement among physicists and scientists. We can create models of the universe – things which we can’t possibly see or experience directly – with the aid of mathematics. And these models reflect real occurrences and relationships of objects and forces.

I’ve used the royal ‘we’. I actually mean ‘people a lot clever than me’. The highest end of mathematics and theoretical physics is an exclusive club. We all benefit from satellites in space but not many of us could get them there or make them work when they’d arrived. We may all one day benefit from String Theory, but it probably wouldn’t bankrupt you to buy a drink for each of the people who *really* understand it.

Numerology is an older concept of how numbers underpin the universe. As alchemy is to chemistry, it may have been the first steps in what has become a (very different) modern discipline.

Numerology is a system of magical thinking, a fairly basic magical concept, based on the idea that something can be expressed numerically, even reduced to its most basic identity - by numbers.

The idea was probably given extra traction by the Hebrew writing system which had no separate letters and numbers, so alphabetical symbols could stand for numbers too. Thus, it was easy to translate a name or word into a numerical version to examine its ‘hidden’ characteristics.

By this method, Jourdemayne becomes:
1 + 7 + 6 + 2 + 4 + 5 +4 + 1 + 1 + 5 + 5 = 41
4 + 1 = 5

The letters reduce to numerically to five and the word contains more fives than any other number than one (also five).

Fives are restless, live on their nerves and fascinated by the bizarre and unusual.

Don’t know what they mean.

The dark side of a five nature may also manifest as excess, debauchery or perversion.

It’s a nice idea, but work’s a bit demanding at the moment and I’d rather get the sleep.

Anyhow, like other magical systems, numerology can provide an insight into human cognitive patterns and reflect the preferences of specific cultures.

So now that it’s Friday the thirteenth, it seems the time to go over why this day seems to have such a bad rep.

Numerologists work the significance of numbers out from philosophical precepts and then cite examples as evidence.

There are some numbers which are always going to be significant to human beings.

We have ten sets of digits and toes which may account for the popularity of base 10. However, with the rise of computing, the usefulness of binary has become more apparent. I keep a hexadecimal chart next to me to specifiy web colours, for example.

There are seven orifices in the male human body. The eighth, in women, is the one through which new life emerges. So it is easy to consider eight as a female number and for it to be associated with change or rebirth.

These rationales are based on biological constants.

In addition, we are the inheritors of middle-eastern religious traditions so other patterns that emerge reflect that.

Two is bad because it is the first to split from one – the devil from god. Remember that this notion seems indisputable only to monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Catholicism. If we were the cultural inheritors of dualism - the philosophy that opposites are dynamic tension, evident in religions like Catharism and Mithraism – modern European numerologists may not have disliked the number 2 so much.

If we start with the idea that two is bad, we can go searching for evidence: in Noah’s ark the ‘unclean’ beasts went in two by two, for example (the ‘clean’ ones went in, in sevens). For thoughts on how beasts get to be ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ see this.

The first human to be created was Adam. Eve was the second and she precipitated The Fall. So the first woman was a separation from the perfection of one and the cause of all the trouble.

Told you this was culturally specific reasoning.

Four is doubly female: (2+2 and 2x2) … so you can guess this isn’t going to be good.

Four is solidity: four points are needed to construct a three-dimensional object, a tetrahedron. After that come the cultural preferences and taxonomies: there are four weeks in a month, four seasons, four phases of the moon, four elements in classical physics, four humours in classical medicine, four cardinal points, menstruation once every four weeks.

This means it’s earth-bound and practical.

“Sweat, misery and defeat are the lot of man on earth and the lot of 4-people in numerology” says one of my books on one of its less jolly pages.

So getting to thirteen … 1 + 3 = 4. Oh dear.

Thirteen reduces to a very unlucky number. So you know the drill by now: use your cultural biases to work out a rationale, then go looking for supporting evidence in appropriately authoritative tomes -

Thirteen is a supernumerary number. Twelve is perfect; it (reduces to three 2 + 1) – the number of the Trinity. Twelve is complete – twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve months of the year, twelve disciples. The twelve months of the year is a fudge BTW: the Babylonians has a sneaky extra one to account for the thirteen lunar cycles in a year. The thirteenth at the Last Supper was Judas and we all know what happened to him.

Thirteen becomes the Death card in the tarot. But cussedly, it’s not such a bad card. It’s about rebirth and new opportunities, moving on.

That’s thirteen. What about Friday?

The Sumerians based their calendar on the moon’s phases with a few extra days after the 4 x 7 when the moon isn’t visible. At the end of every 7 day cycle, there was a day which was sacred and evil simultaneously.

This is probably where our Sabbath comes from – an uncanny day on which it is best to be fairly inactive in order to avoid the danger which is about.

This sycratic confusion of ‘powerful & potentially malign’ with ‘holy & in need of reverence’ is a common idea in magical thought. Powerful supernatural beings are often called by kindly names in an attempt to charm them and to avoid evoking the creature itself. As Robert Kirk wrote, fairies were referred to euphemistically because “… the Irish usually bless all they fear harm of”.

Names can be hazardous hyperlinks, potential shortcuts to entities themselves.

This the fairies were ‘The Good People’, ‘The Honest Folk’, ‘The Little Folk’, ‘The Gentry’ and more. The Devil went by ‘Auld Clootie’, ‘Auld Scratch’ or ‘Auld Hornie’ in Scotland, ‘Grime’, ‘Grim’, ‘Old Harry’, ‘Old Nick’, ‘The Old Gentleman’ and many others in England. Hecate, the powerful and fearsome godess of witches was called ‘The Good Goddess’ and also in Greece the Furies were called the ‘Eumenides’, which means ‘The Kindly Ones’.

Even Harry Potter’s friends and associates are too nervous to say the name of the dark magician ‘Voldemort’!

But back to Friday: Friday is ruled by Freya the Nordic goddess of love, war and death. Not an intuitive grouping for us, but there we go. She has occasionally been rebranded as a witch, which might account for the uncanniness of her day.

Jesus was crucified on a Friday.

And Chaucer in the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’, the tale of Chauntecleer the proud rooster and Reynnard the fox, writes that: “And on a Friday fell all this mischance”.

So that’s pretty clear then. There are sound reasons for believing Friday the thirteenth to be unlucky.

But the thing about fear of Friday the Thirteenth is that it doesn’t seem to figure much before the nineteenth century. If the day really was unlucky, you’d think that knowledge would be a human constant. And in some Mediterranean countries, like Greece and Spain, it is Tuesday the thirteenth which is thought unlucky.

I have no certain explanation for the rise of the superstition then, but a couple of ideas.

The first one is that there are plenty of ideas in the collective conscious which are not explicitly stated. Perhaps the nineteenth century was the first time that Friday the Thirteenth was noted and written down.

The second one, and more likely, is that the nineteenth century saw a Renaissance of occult thought and activity with participants such as Eliphas Levi, S L MacGregor Mathers, Helena Blavatsky and August Strindberg, and societies like the Theosophical Society and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Perhaps Friday the Thirteenth is a manifestation of nineteenth century nouveau occult numerological ramblings.

Of course, like all magical thinking, these ideas reveal more about human factory-installed software and cultural biases than about the world in an objective sense.

That’s why it’s important to understand and appreciate the importance of the cultural biases which may predetermine thought patterns. These, in some ways, are the most potentially dangerous as they most easily go under the radar.

Not that all magical thinking is wrong or useless, but it often is.

However evolution has favoured those who look for patterns - and some of those causal relationships that we intuitively posit actually exist and help us to survive. Some false positives (I can see god’s face in the clouds) are less dangerous than some false negatives (I didn’t see that tiger’s face in the forest).

It’s a numbers game.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

England’s Child Witches

The spirit is hiding in the children … the fire burns brightly, the spirit of witchcraft
South London Church, 2010

Those who visit regularly will know that I’m interested in contemporary manifestations of African witchcraft belief.

I wrote about witch hunts centring on children in Nigeria, after an award-winning ‘Dispatches’ which followed the work of child-welfare campaigner Gary Foxcroft. ‘Saving Africa’s Witch Children’ can be seen here.

I also wrote about attacks on children in magical rituals in Uganda after reports on the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ and ‘Crossing Continents’ by Tim Whewall. While I disputed the statistics implied in Whewall’s ‘Newsnight’ piece, I don’t doubt that there is a widespread belief in the efficacy of witchcraft in Uganda and that some children have been harmed.

Now, there has been another ‘Dispatches’ production, concerning the witch-related religious practices taking place in African churches in the UK – specifically London.

‘Britain’s Witch Children’ followed an undercover journalist psuedonymously named ‘Buki’ (23, passing for 15) whose ‘mother’ is seeking spiritual assistance after her daughter has become argumentative following a holiday back to Africa.

‘Buki’ and her mother went to three churches and found diagnoses of possession or witchcraft in all cases, and very quickly.

Spiritual assistance against witchcraft does not come cheap. The pastors do not seem to publish a scale of charges, but encourage people to give what they can. When offered £170, one church gave ‘Buki’ access to an open and communal session, upon which attendance she was expected to pay more.

“… some people give one thousand pounds. It’s for God, not for us …” explained one pastor.

The deliverances varied from intimidating ranting in rooms to large services where adults threw themselves to the floor, vomited, spat and screamed. The documentary makers noted that there were no child protection officers present, and the fear on children’s faces was clear to see.

This isn’t just about psychological abuse of children – although that would be bad enough.

Victoria Climbie was abused and killed in the belief that she was possessed. The Metropolitan Police’s ‘Project Violet’ was set up to explore cases of child abuse connected to spiritual beliefs. So far, some parents have been prosecuted, but no pastors.

The whole thing must be a difficult balancing act. As Mor Dioum of the Victoria Climbie Foundation pointed out:
“People in those positions of responsibility do not want to be seen as policing culture or religion, or … accused of being racist”

That same issue had been raised about Victoria Climbie by Neil Garnham QC, Counsel to the Inquiry into her death.

Reasons for belief in witchcraft are many and complex. I believe at least one to be the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, which can be inferred from historical witch trial accounts from Strasbourg to ‘Salem. I’ve written about sleep paralysis and supernatural belief here.

“… what do you normally see in your dreams … if there is a spirit fighting you it can come in the form of a dream … do you ever see someone trying to molest you in your dream … or sleep with you? …” asked Pastor James of ‘Buki’.

In case we simply ascribe witch belief to immense stupidity or naivete, it’s also worth remembering that magical beliefs are a natural state for human beings. We need educating into the empiric.

To recap from ‘Nigeria’s Witch Children’ regarding witch hunts in Europe:

“… the natural assumption would be that witch hunts belong to eras with magical religious traditions, rigid social strata, simple technology, agrarian economies and pre-Renaissance thought patterns … In actual fact, large scale witch hunts in Europe were a phenomenon of the Reformation.”

In the early modern era, traditional power relationships, social structures and economic models were changing. It produced dislocation and unsettled psyches, some a little paranoid, in need of certainty.

So where people are uncertain, isolated or economically disadvantaged – such as being part of a new immigrant population – it isn’t surprising to find supernatural rituals aimed at manipulating events in the real world. And there is also more likely to be a dependence on established and recognisable forms of authority, such as pastors.

People in charismatic African churches are not looking for the ‘how’ – they know perfectly well that microbes cause diseases and cars mechanically fail. They are looking for the ‘why’: why me; why not my enemy; why now; why here. It’s a question that empiricism can’t answer without leaving the empty and unsatisfying answer:
“shit happens, sometimes more to you than other people”.

So what about ideas for constructive interventions?

I’ll reiterate my position, stated in each of the previous African witch blogposts: I don’t think it’s constructive in the short term to simply challenge supernatural beliefs. For people who hold these worldviews, the truth of their convictions is self-evident.

It’s ethically dubious, and in any case impossible, to legislate on thought and belief. Previous attempts have ended in mass murder for believing that matter and earthly life were instrinsically evil (see the Albigensian Crusade), and life-long house arrest for believing that the earth orbited around the sun (see Galileo).

As prosperity and certainty enter a life, dependence on supernatural explanations tend to leave.

Interventions must be aimed at actual acts. To this end, several African states have enacted laws which make it illegal to denounce children as witches.

The Child Rights Act of Nigeria:

“… prescribes up to 15 years’ imprisonment without the option of a fine, or both, for offenders in child stigmatisation, accusation of witchcraft or torture cases. It empowers the government to seal off premises of any organisation used to perpetrate child abuse”

In ‘Nigeria’s Witch Children’, I wrote:

“In the short term I believe that the single most important intervention would be to aggressively target professional witch hunters. Witch hunts employ specialists who, for obvious reasons, ensure that the hunt is self-begetting. Inquisitors in Europe have their counterparts in modern Nigeria, pastors who specialise in finding witch children and performing rituals to denature them – for a price. Stopping witch hunters would not stop accusations of sorcery nor fix Nigeria’s social and economic problems, but it may confine the issue of sorcery back to local levels.”

It’s hard to know how cynical the pastors are: whether they believe in any part of the supernatural scheme they are paid so well to manipulate. But their integrity is immaterial: they are the most critical level at which an intervention can and must be aimed.

Oddly enough, a new law against accusations of child witchcraft may have been unnecessary if the old ones hadn’t been superceded.

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 reversed the presumptions of its predecessors, that witchcraft did exist and could cause real harm. Instead, it provided for penalties for those who pretended to have such powers. They were treated as con-artists.

That was superceded in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act which covered much the same ground. This Act, in turn, was superceded by European consumer directives.

These two required that psychic services must be declared as being for ‘entertainment purposes’.

But here’s where we give religion the respect that other forms of magic don’t get. Can you imagine communion billed as ‘for entertainment purposes only’? Yet in some strands of Christianity, transubstantiation – the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – is accepted as real.

Charismatic churches are getting in under the umbrella of respectability conferred by more established organisations.

So here’s another idea, but one that would be very controversial and would probably prove impossible to institute: the removal of charitable status from religious organisations.

Many religious organisations do real and good charitable work, such as providing crèches and Mums’ clubs, safety schemes for victims of domestic abuse, support for substance abusers, food for the homeless etc.

But these strands should be completely separated – managerially and financially - from the primary mission of providing a centre for people of like-minded metaphysical notions. I’ve no objection to people worshipping – I simply think they should do it at their own expense.

It may sound complicated – it isn’t. Plenty of businesses separate their accounts and activities into discreet entities. One company may own and carry a mortgage on the premises, another owned by the same directors rent the space and manufacture goods in it, perhaps even another market and distribute the goods.

If we could tease the ‘inculcation’ strand from the ‘good works’ strand of religious institutions, it would be a good thing for society at large and would favour those religious organisations who really do outreach to others.

And I emphatically do not propose that ‘exorcism’ should count as charitable work for the purpose of tax relief.

What is the moral justification, after all, for giving tax breaks to an organisation which is characterised solely by its insistence on utterly unprovable postulates? It’s an historical oddity, and would be untenable if we were to invent the system from first principles today. We must end the idea, enshrined in our tax structure, that holding supernatural beliefs is necessarily virtuous.

In this model, the Salvation Army would do very well (a great worship to social work ratio) and some witch-accusing churches, I venture, would do very badly indeed.