Return of the Sunday Sermon


I have been working, for a while now, on a project of the severest whimsy and the most superficial profundity. It’s had many working titles – Baudrillard vs. Dr Johnson, The Proof of Future Time Travellers, Contra Simplex, The Urplex Index and How I Found God And Where He Was Hiding (old Rikki Fulton joke, but a brammer) –  but I strongly suspect it will only ever exist here, or as an appendix to the Collected Sermons of the Apostate Vicar McShandy.

It’s a tension between two of my internal avatars. There is the one who agrees with Walt Whitman: “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity”. And there is one who says with McNeice: “World is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural”. Put gauchely: is the universe elegant or weird?

Universe like this...

... or like this?

In the contemporary debates over science and religion, one of the most ill-used figures is William of Ockham, whose “razor” is dumbed down to “the simplest explanation is the most likely” (he actually wrote “pluralities should not be introduced without necessity”: Einstein’s theory of relativity might be more “plural” than Newton’s mechanics, but there is a necessity for the complexity). There is a deep aesthetic urge towards simplicity; best expressed by Richard Feynman: “It always bothers me that, according to the laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time. How can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what one tiny piece of space/time is going to do? So I have often made the hypotheses that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be revealed, and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the chequer board with all its apparent complexities”.

So it has become a past-time for me to collect “evidence” of the weird. Specifically, I wanted to find anomalies, anachronisms and eerie coincidences for which an explanation would involve a huge amount of plurality. The second part of the game was to debunk it. One of the first I came across was the Two Moons in Gulliver’s Travels. In Chapter 3 of Part III, the Laputan scientists “have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars”. Gulliver’s Travels was written in 1726. Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, were actually discovered in 1877 by Asaph Hall. Swift being visited by a time-traveller is a neat explanation. It’s also wrong: Swift was guessing, based on Kepler’s Conjecture that since Earth had one moon and Jupiter was thought to have four that Mars should have two. Andrew Crumey pointed out the solution to me, and the fact that if Kepler were right, Venus should have half a moon and Mercury one quarter of a moon; or Venus should have no moon and Mercury should have negative one moons.

The most profitable field for the weird is in simulation theory. Let’s postulate that our reality is in fact a simulation (an explanation that would account for us existing at all on a Goldilocks planet in a Goldilocks universe). Could we prove it? Could we find a “glitch” in the software (for example, the laws of physics being changed – such as an alteration to the fine structure constant, alpha – to keep the simulation going)? Queer resemblances – such as Vladimir Putin and the Arnolfini Groom – could be attributed to the simulation saving processing power, or to the Birthday Paradox (coincidences are more common than we think). Out of purely egotistic motives, here’s my doppelganger, the Marvel comic book writer Bill Everett, who invented Namor the Submariner.

My favourite “that can’t be true” at the moment is an anagram. The mundane explanation is just a variation on the infinite typing monkeys thought experiment. The truth could be it’s an Easter Egg from Our Programmers, discovered by Cory Calhoun.  “To be or not to be: that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” = “In one of the Bard’s best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten”. Calhoun also came up with this glorious piece of Arcanum. Have a guess as to what the source text was for this anagram: “I, George W. Bush, an evil Republican fascist, used God to inflict pain on the world, end life, facilitate death, create militant jihad rebels, and to let youths die for nothing”.



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2 responses to “Return of the Sunday Sermon

  1. Calhoun’s anagram – the second sentence of the American Declareation of Independence? We hold these truths to be self-evident…

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