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At last! Something interesting to report

Dear Charles:

Your last words to me before you died were “Call the instant anything exciting should happen!”. Unfortunately for the world, your friends and me, you departed to Valhalla before anything of sufficient merit occurred. Now I am pleased to report that something of interest has occurred, twenty years after your departure.

A 12-foot tall steel monolith has been spotted in the desert of southern Utah by a passing helicopter that had been intent of counting bighorn sheep. Investigation has not revealed whether it is an art project or an alien artifact. Naturally we should not call it a monolith because it is not made of stone, but let us not quibble, dear Charles, for this is actually interesting.

The report is here.

Charles Fisher (1914-2006) was always a poet and at various points in his life a soldier (Welsh Guards), spy (MI6) and stenographer in the Canadian House of Commons. Friend of many, mentor to the selected few. He died at 91 in Bangkok on vacation. I would like to think he was bedding a young lady at the time. He was famous for having people over for dinner and disappearing. “Where’s Charles?” someone would ask. Through the kitchen pass-through someone called back from the liviing room: “he’s gone to Cambodia”. “What do you mean he’s gone to Cambodia?” “He has gone to Cambodia” was the reply. He left the guests and acolytes to clean up.

I feel I have fulfilled my obligation, Charles, to report anything exciting, even if fourteen years late. You will have ways of getting the message. Of this I am sure.

His obituary in the Guardian is here.

His funeral was the only one I have ever attended where the mourners left the church walking an inch of the ground, so elated were they by the many recollections of this extraordinary force of life.

Now would someone please tell us what the monolith is?

Belief

A youtube video examines the question whether life is unique to this planet, which is an interesting question. We have all been the targets of the “billions and billions” hypothesis of Carl Sagan, who held that it was virtually certain that amidst the billions and billions of stars there must be life. At a certain point in the film, the late Dr. Sagan gets a sliver of time, in which he says that “Faith is belief in the absence of evidence….For me, believing when there is no compelling evidence is a mistake. The idea is to withhold belief until there is compelling evidence.”

Let us think about that statement for a moment. If I stand before you, in plain sight, do you need to believe that I am there? No. Belief in that case is superfluous, and to say that you believe I stand before you when you see me is not an accurate use of the term. If I say I have been to Rome last week, do you need to believe that I was there? I would say yes, a bit, and belief is an appropriate word. But very much less belief is needed to believe that Rome exists than that I was there last week. It doesn’t take much to believe that Rome exists. It is a reasonable inference from thousands of photos, histories, accounts and travelogues that attest to the existence of Rome. Thus the degree of belief is proportionate to the probability of the event in question.

If I hold a pencil in my fingers and open the fingers, I do not believe that the pencil will drop to the ground. I know it. Unless gravity has been amended, the result of letting the pencil go will be that it drops to the ground. And if it floats away, then you know we are on a spaceship.

If you withhold belief until there is compelling evidence, you will never need to believe a thing. Which is the state that Carl Sagan wanted us to live in.

This point was hammered home by our Minister in his Easter sermon. He said from the pulpit: “everybody on this side of the aisle is a strict materialist. Everyone on the other side of the aisle is a believing Christian. We all get into the Tardis – Dr. Who’s time and space machine – and appear at the mouth of the burial cave on Easter morning. The rock has been rolled away, the seals have been broken, the ropes have been broken, and the tomb is empty. What do the materialists all say? “The body has been taken”. What do the Christians say? “He is risen indeed”.”

His point was that better evidence does not necessarily overcome the objection (that say, something happened that was impossible) , that belief might be needed even if you had been present twenty seconds after the Resurrection.

The point of this morning’s sermon is to point out that we do not escape from the need to believe some things. It is easier to believe in the existence of Rome than say, some bohunk hamlet in Oklahoma that you have never heard of. But when something plainly impossible happens, you need belief. Compelling evidence will not be available for the extraordinary or the miraculous. Moreover, large parts of your life run on belief, because you have no compelling evidence for most of the assumptions on which you base your life and actions.

Which is why I think Carl Sagan one of the bigger fools of our time. Regardless, watch the video. We do not need to know nor should we be afraid that we do not know whether life exists elsewhere in the universe.