Science and Religion… and Smarty Jones

Most people see Religion and Science as antagonistic. But how far apart are they really? Consider this odd coincidence.

Still smarting – after all this time! – about Smarty Jones’ failure to win the Belmont Stakes and worried still about how much Smarty must be smarting, I confided to a Rabbi friend my childhood fantasy: a race in which all the horses came in at the same time. The Rabbi observed that my sense of justice was “pathological.”

Granted, the rabbi said she meant it as a “compliment”. Still I felt vindicated when I read up on quantum physics (and by “quantum physics” I of course mean everything but the actual physics part which is math). If my reading of quantum physics correct, everything is possible which means anything is possible. A race such as I fantasized could happen.

Picture a probability wave – or, if that’s too hard, do what I do: picture the Wave at a ballpark. In every Wave at every game I’ve ever been to, there is always one person – okay me – who refuses to take part. It’s not that I’m anti-Wave, but I always seem to have my hands full of Slurpees and nachos at the moment my turn comes to stand and wave my hands about in the air, risking not only the loss of Slurpee and nachos but the wrath of the person in front of me who is now Slurpee and nacho be-decked.

But the more I don’t stand up, the more my sense of identity is caught up in not doing so. I become the person-who-doesn’t-stand-up-in-the-Wave. Soon it becomes a matter of pride; I vow never to stand up. In the probability Wave at this point, I represent zero possibility.

But in reality – even quantum reality – there is no such thing as zero possibility. In my seat in the bleachers, I could receive a phone call telling me I’d won the Nobel Peace Prize, causing me to jump up and flail my arms about wildly at the very moment the Wave came around to me. See what I mean? It could happen.

Just to make sure I’m right, I call my friend Danny Hillis, an actual (computer) Scientist and acknowledged genius (and not just by me). After some rigamarole about “inifinitesimals” (a word Danny usually knows better than to use around me since it causes my eyes to resemble those of rabbits hanging upside down outside certain European butcher shops) Danny agrees cautiously that, given the right time frame – like say a hundred billion years – a race such as I describe could theoretically – i.e. mathematically – happen. But he goes on to ask, do I know what the math is called that offers such a possibility? Not waiting for me to come up with the right answer – for which there is zero possibility – he says, “It’s called a pathological function.”

Q.E.D. Neither Religion nor Science offer anyone real solace.

But wait, I haven’t come to the Crackpot Theory yet. That springs from the epiphany I had when Danny kindly explained that there’s no value judgment attached to the word “pathological”, it only means “out of the ordinary”. Not that I need Danny to tell me I’m not mainstream – I have “Family Feud” for that – but I finally understood what he and the Rabbi had been trying to tell me: if there were horse races in which all the horses came in at the same time, I’d be the only one who liked it! Everyone but me would hate it. Indeed, Danny says, they wouldn’t stand for it. They’d find some criterion on which to base a winner – just like they did, says Danny (who is not without a sense of irony) in the Bush-Gore election.

Imagine the race where the horses come streaming down the field, some stragglers, some leaders, then suddenly at the finish line, a dead heat! It would be the most amazing thing you’d ever seen. People would talk about it for years.

But a year or two later, could anyone except racetrack devotees remember the name of a single horse? It would be the race that was memorable, not any one horse, the phenomenon not the individual. That is so not the American Dream, at least not the American Dream as revamped for the 21st Century – let’s call it the A.D. – which demands that we distinguish ourselves from the pack. In lieu of the house with the white picket fence, we want Celebrity! Like the title song in the movie “Fame”: “I wanna live forever, people remember my name!” (By the way, can anyone remember the name of a single person who was in that movie?)

Just as Space needs Time to be complete, however, Fame needs Fortune. The “that” in “That’s what makes horse races” means reversals of fortune – winners can lose; losers can win. It most definitely does not mean everyone can win, which is of course what would happen if all the horses came in at the same time. Would the bookies of capitalism – the venture capitalists, the New York Stock Exchange – stand for “everybody wins” any more than the bookies at the actual race who would have to pay out on every single bet? Would even the penny-ante bettors who stand to win something stand for losing, in exchange, their animating dream of the Big Win?

And then I remembered something else. The whole fantasy of a race in which all the horses came in at the same time was sparked by an ad I’d seen in the New Yorker. The ad was for Belmont Race Track – yes, the very place where all these years later Smarty Jones lost his bid for the Triple Crown. It featured a picture of an adorable, ungainly colt, followed by this text: “By the time he’s one year old, this colt will have had every natural instinct bred out of him except one: the urge to win.”

I was appalled, not least by their self-congratulatory attitude; they were taking it for granted that eradicating all other natural instincts was good. They assumed anyone reading the ad would share their point of view. And what my Rabbi friend and my Scientist friend were both trying to tell me is that they would have been right.

Here’s where Science and Religion really come together: when ideologues turn Science into a Religion, re-writing Darwinism as Dar-WIN-ism, focusing only on competition (the urge to win) at the expense of the other natural instincts (like cooperation). We’re indoctrinated from birth into a belief system that ruthlessly evicts notions of sharing or nurturing or looking after anyone but Number One. Every natural instinct is bred out of us, except the urge to Win Big. The ad for Belmont Race Track – which, like any race-track, is all about believing you can win big – was an ad for the American Dream.

Q.E.D.This month’s Crackpot Theory: It’s not me that’s pathological, it’s Capitalism.

Hali Jones responds to “Religion and Science… and Smarty Jones”

The horses I know, like the people you know, are vastly different from one another.  They differ in how they see the world, how they think about the future, remember the past, evaluate themselves and consider their place in life.

Regarding horse races and horse winners, many horses are not athletes despite how they can use their bodies across land, water and sometimes through pure air.  Many other horses are not only great athletes, they are competitive regarding their talents.  These are the horses who enjoy racing.

This said, I am not applauding the training techniques used to bring a promising horse to the winner’s circle.  In conversations with veteran race horses, and many up and coming ones, I am often sad at the injuries and suffering that can take place for a young horse.   What I do applaud is the ability and drive an individual horse may have to compete and to win.  Some know themselves so well they can tell me they are better suited to compete in jumping instead of running, for example.   But they want to compete in any case.  It then follows that if anyone, human or otherwise, is competitive they want to win.

As with people, the world-class race horses are few.  As with people, some are pushed to compete against their will, and that is unfortunate in every case.  But for those who are doing what they love to do, racing gives them a job to which they feel profoundly suited and they are proud of their accomplishments, irrespective of what I may think about them doing it in the first place.

One point that has been continually clear in my conversation with these amazing individuals is their ignorance of the human greed  endemic in racing.  However, each of them recognizes the esteem and value they feel when among humans and among other animals.

Hali Jones–no relation to Smarty–is an animal communicator and is featured in Jane Smiley’s new book “A Year at the Races” as the person Smiley called on for help with her race-horses.

Mildred Goldberger responds to “Religion and Science… and Smarty Jones”

Aside from the (sneaky) reference to Capitalism, smuggled into the discourse via the discussion of risk, there isn’t any discussion that I would term “economical.” Capitalism was a late invention, as you know, based on the insights of David Ricardo. Adam Smith understood it, he even understood the inevitable collaborations between and among the players but even he could not have imagined our present Capital Intensive politics.

But I’m surprised that you would have let the Belmont Park statement stand.uncorrected. The “breeding” of Natural Instinct occurs before conception, even for horses. What has happened to that poor colt is training to override his natural instincts, among which “the urge to win” is unlikely to occur.

Mildred Goldberger is an economist and (delightful) writer.

Danny Hillis responds to “Religion and Science… and Smarty Jones”

My rating for the piece is “tan(pi/2)”,
which a mathematician would recognize as a a pathological
transformation of the transcendental.

Murph Goldberger’s commentary on Danny Hillis’s response:
As you probably know, the tan(pi/2) is infinity, it is simply the vertical y-axis on a standard x-y coordinate system with the horizontal line the x-axis.  I guess he likes your piece!

Danny Hillis is a (Computer) Scientist and certified genius.

Murph (Marvin) Goldberger has served as President of CalTech, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and ever patient go-to person for questions on physics and related subjects.

Drawings by Sonic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *