Wednesday, 10 January 2007

A New Old Thing

How cell division leads to assymetry in the body. Superstrings helping with The Theory of Everything. The first stars might have been SuperGiants. Nightmares and suicide are linked (and women have more nightmares than men). We found the part of the brain that lets us envision ourselves in the future, and it appears to be linked to the envisioning of the past. (I think my future lobe is pretty enhanced, from the amount of time I spend daydreaming impossible possibilities.) A particularly interesting study that allows scientists to now completely say whether or not someone will buy a product: if the area in the brain devoted to wanting an object wins out on the area feeling the pain of paying money. Interesting because it's a branch hypothesis off this suggests that people buy more with credit cards because it's painless- deferred payment and abstract payment means our brains don't comprehend the real pain of buying.

It would appear that Ithaca, the island of Ulysses in the Odyssey, is a bit mysterious. There's a modern island by that name, but according to the Odyssey Ithaca is the Westernmost island of the Ionian chain- modern Ithaca doesn't fit this. But the Westernmost island is far too big to fit the Odyssey description. However, the Western tip of this island, Kefalonia, has a peninsula, connected to the main portion of the island by a narrow isthmus. A 122 m borehole hit no bedrock, but only loose sediment, leading to the beginnings of an idea that the isthmus was filled in by landslides over the intervening 3,000 years.

It has long been believed that Homer's Ithaca was modern Ithaca. Although it is axiomatic that what we believe to be true can turn out to be false later, I find this to be particularly true in post-dictional science, anthropology and archeology. Our dearest held beliefs of the way things were, the way things must be, get overturned with time, as we learn new things about the way it truly was.

This isn't always true. The book of Daniel is controversial as it has indications of a later writing in the Inter-Testemental Period, yet it has strong indications of an earlier writing as well. It refers to items that were known at the presumptive time of writing, yet forgotten for millenia, only to be rediscovered in the modern era. What we thought was true was claimed to be overturned, and then reversed again as some pointed out the historical awareness.

Yet very often the old understandings need tweaking at least. As we learn more about the nature of myth and discover there is no indications of a worldwide flood, the Noahaic Flood ceases to make sence, except as a localized event featuring the breaking of the Bosphorus. Christianity and Judaism are no longer as unique as we begin to discover our immense debt to Zorastrian concepts like Heaven, an afterlife, satan, and cosmic dualism. As I read The Quest for the Historical Muhammed I learn that our long held assumptions about Islam might not hold water- like that the Hadith might have no accuracy at all, the Qur'an might have been written 2 centuries after it's presumptive writing, and Mohammed (pbuh) might not even exist. Obviously these are far-ranging thoughts, and I don't agree with all of them. But it represents the nascent attempt to apply historical criticism to Islam, something long done on Christianity (and often used in Islamic apologetics).

The Odyssey took place so long ago, it seems it represents both sides of this conflict. Like the flood, we are now learning our long-held assumptions on the place of Ithaca were incorrect. Yet, like Daniel, we are finding that the original writing was more correct then we long thought. Homer didn't err (in this case)- he wrote of a real place, and accurately described it.

It is indeed hard to parse the mysts of time. It requires painstaking research, brushstroke by brushstroke. And it requires a suspension of belief. A belief that my holy traditions are always right, or my interpretations of them, will obscure the truth behind those traditions. And a belief that my modern science has discovered everything, or is somehow superior to the knowledge of the Ancients, will also suspend the march towards true understanding. It would seem that the path of humility, the willingness to admit that we might be wrong, and the embrace of adaptability and change are the only sure ways of reaching the truth. It is like the old Shaker spiritual is correct path: To turn, turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.

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