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"The Kingdom Of Nagai"

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Posted by Benjamin Nelson on February 26, 2001 14:06:14 UTC

This is something I’m working on for print media. Perhaps it is more of the same -- at least as far as some of you are concerned -- but I’m open to any CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.

BLN
Benjamin_Nelson@WPBA.pbs.org

"The Kingdom of Nagai"

Beyond the smoke-plumed villages, dry acacia trees descended toward the Great Rift Valley, and beyond the hills hung the blue haze of Africa, and everywhere were birds -- crowned cranes and cordon bleus, shrikes and sunbirds. Overhead sailed greedy-beaked vultures, strange eagles and the fearsome black kite of Africa. Here, in Equatoria, in the heart of Africa, with Congo to the west, Rwanda to the south, one senses what this continent must have been, when the Blue Nile was not impeded by Owen Dam but wandered freely, like the kites, from Lake Victoria to the fertile delta of Egypt.

Looming to our west was Mt. Kenya -- Kere-Nayaga, named for Nagai, which is the Maasai word for God. To be sure, it is a formidable mountain, jagged and malign, rising to snowy glaciers that many avoid, for the bright whiteness is the kingdom of Nagai. Overhead, crashing jacaranda trees lashed wildly at the stars, with gusts that came as suddenly as avalanche. Grimy from a long day in the merciless sun, we squatted on stools in dim twilight and drank from a communal calabash of pombe. Stoic Massai warriors, chewing hard twigs of mswaki, stood like herons on one leg to contemplate our ways. Then naked children came; far from the modern world, they played at being airplanes, which they knew only from the lights that passed overhead: satellites of unknown origin, arching over the Southern Cross, dying in a shower of ethereal blue.

As outsiders, we found it hard to believe that such a place could still exist. And for those who wonder about the drive to find and impose pattern on the world, the children of Kere-Nayaga might be seen as participants in an unintentional experiment. To be sure, we think of the science our civilization has developed as all but inevitable, an unearthing of preexisting truths. But suppose you take an equally curious society and isolate it from the Western philosophical tradition stretching it back to ancient Greece. As they sift their environment for patterns, what kind of system would these people come up with to explain their world? But here, in an ancient continent, confronted with an alien system, all we could do was lay our own conceptual grid over the Maasai’s and explain it in our own terms -- build models of their models. But there will always be gaps between our theories and the culture we are trying to formalize. Even if so much of the Maasai belief system were not secret, there would still be no way to think with the brain of a Massai, to erase our own network of beliefs and immerse ourselves in another. In the end, two different world-views can be as immiscible as oil and water: their very structure holds them apart.

Yet perhaps there is a level below culture, a commonality that extends back before the ancient Greeks -- and even earlier, before there were Caucasians or Africans, when there were just Homo sapiens. At the deepest level, we are all information gatherers. Dig deep enough through the layers of the mind and surely you will reach rock bottom, an impenetrable floor: the architecture of the brain as it was molded by evolution to find patterns, even if they are not always there. We all find ourselves in a world of randomness, where some seasons are wet while others are dry, where bad things happen to good people and enemies prosper. And we all share the belief in symmetries, and finding ourselves in a world where the symmetries have broken, we imagine a time before the fall from perfection, whether we call it Eden, the Big Bang or the Kingdom of Nagai. Along with this drive to find symmetries, we hold in common a compulsion to divide the world into dualities: positive and negative, matter and antimatter, right and wrong, good and evil.

Nevertheless, scientists insist that their own symmetries and dualities are testable hypotheses, while others are articles of faith; that there are true and false compressions. Moreover, for a scientist, knowledge is something to be discovered. It might remain secret until a paper is published, but after that, it is free to anyone who can understand its hieroglyphs. The Maasai have not traditionally used their powers of induction to zero in on platonic truth: Shauri ya Nagai, one might say -- this is the affair of God. Besides, to the Massai, the most powerful truths have been known since the beginning. The burden is to protect them and pass them undiluted down the line.

Undiluted, but also untested, a scientist might say. And for some of the denizens of our most prestigious research institutions the overriding question is this: How could the Massai possibly still believe such things? How could a system with so many seeming arbitrary components remain so remarkably intact, throughout the invasion of tourists and missionaries, the scrutiny of anthropologists, the discovery of physics? Part of the explanation is that the Massai world, like that of science, is not stagnant. It has absorbed new gods along the way. But have gods or dances ever been abandoned when they didn’t prove effective? We all have a vested interest in maintaining our gods, and perhaps science is not any different.

Indeed, few people, even with college educations, are in a position to evaluate the intricacies of particle physics or cosmology. We accept them on faith, stories told by the high priests and priestesses. We are provided with the warranty that the speculations are grounded in observation and that even the most beautiful tower can be toppled by a single observation. But the relationship between the observable world and the theories we build is subtle, to say the least. In practice, we are more likely to add filigrees to our models than to seem them overturned. And when confronted with an observation that stubbornly resist the reigning theory, a scientist is tempted to dismiss it as experimental error. Or the theory can be supplemented with what are politely called “auxiliary hypotheses.” Galaxies spin in contradiction of Newton’s laws, so there must be invisible “dark matter.” Beta decay violates the law of conservation of energy, so there must be “invisible neutrinos.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to predicting and controlling the world around us, physics has proved the more powerful set of tools. Where is the Maasai’s equivalent of QED or even the atom bomb? It is hard to imagine that given any amount of time he Massai’s way of explaining reality would have led them to quantum mechanics and Information physics. And yet, if their way of carving up the world didn’t provide levers powerful enough to move the earth, it certainly gives them the inner strength to weather invasion after invasion. And for the Maasai, the purpose of building mental orders seems less to control the environment than to control the world within. But to us, the outsiders, the Massai will probably always belong to the Unmanifest, standing as a reminder that even here on earth, among fellow humans, not everything is knowable.

B. L. Nelson
February 25, 2001

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