Secular Right | Reality & Reason

May/11

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Nerds and the supernatural

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So the rapture didn’t happen. Not a big deal. Here’s one thing that I think warrants attention: Harold Camping is a nerd. He has a degree in civil engineering from Berkeley. As the British would say, “he can do the sums.” I have never really believed in the supernatural. As a small child I knew I was supposed to believe in the supernatural, but I honestly had a hard time taking any of it seriously. I have normal human instincts, like getting “spooked” in the cemetery…but my own personal experience with friends visiting cemeteries at night for fun and laughs as a younger man is that actually opening yourself to the possibility of the supernatural naturally changes how you view “creepy” background events (my friends who believed in ghosts were really easy to scare, it was quite fun!) Most of my friends might assent to the proposition that there probably weren’t ghosts in cemetery X, and that that ghosts may not even exist, but most of them did not dismiss out of hand the very possibility of the existence of ghosts. I did.

 

All that being said, I have tried to imagine myself, a nerd with a quantitative and analytic bent, existing in a world where the Bible was the Word of God. I can immediately intuit how someone like Harold Camping could arrive at his absurd conclusions! To the nerdy crazy fundamentalism seems eminently reasonable once one accedes to the peculiar propositions of faith. Give a nerd an absurd axiom, and he will infer absurd entailments! Camping did as a nerd is wont to do. Most normal humans don’t have this nerdish momania to create integrated rational wholes, and then project inferences from the system which they’ve constructed. It seems silly and a waste of time. This is why so many conservative Christians easily spouted sage skepticism worthy of James Randi all this week.

The bigger problem is the collateral damage which Camping’s Bible-nerd fixations have caused, by enticing the less nerdy desperate, gullible, and plain dull. Normal social feedback mechanisms will tell people to reject Camping’s assertions on a “common sense” basis, but people extracted out of these social networks, living in a state of atomization, will feel the pull of attraction. In the history of religion there is always talk of mystics and prophets. But there’s far too little discussion of nerds such as Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine, whose logics have determined the life and death of many, whether they would have wished it to be so or not.

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23 comments

  • tim · May 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Take your average terrorist. More likely then not he was trained as an engineer. Most engineers I know have a problem with things they can’t calculate or measure. the world is black or white to them. Not grey as it really is.

  • John · May 22, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Ideas move the world to an extent not commonly appreciated, and a disproportionate number of original ideas, both good and bad, were constructed by nerds.

  • jb · May 22, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    I really like this observation. To add to it a little: Nerds can often be found acting as if their expertise in one field extends to all fields. It’s not exactly that they approach a new field with the idea of taking their personal spin on it (though I’m sure that happens) but that they trust their technical intuition even when they are outside of their element, in situations where it likely doesn’t apply.

  • j mct · May 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Isaac Newton didn’t know when the world was going to end, but he figured out, from Bible reading, that it couldn’t happen before 2050. I don’t know exactly how he figured it out, but Isaac was a pretty meticulous guy and I doubt he made a mistake.

    The weird thing about this guy is that lots of people knew about him. Some guy somewhere in the US is preaching the imminent end of the world about every week, why did this guy get famous?

  • Matt · May 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    @j mct: This guy got famous because of his multi-million dollar advertising campaign to spread the word that the end was nigh. The mainstream media only started covering it last week.

  • Susan · May 22, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Is Camping really a nerd who sincerely believed that the world would end yesterday? Or is he a very astute con man who figured out how to make a bundle exploiting the gullible? His Family Network raked in 100 million bucks a year. Maybe he’s blown his credibility with some of his supporters, but at his age, and with the fortune he’s already amassed, why would he care?

  • kirk · May 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Salem Hypothesis – engineers in large numbers self-report as ‘scientists skeptical of evolution’ while holding anodyne creationist beliefs.

  • John Farrell · May 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    What is it about engineers…and crackpottery? Look at most anti-evolution sites and anti-Einstein sites, and you find engineers. I’m guessing it’s not the discipline itself, but something about people who tend to go into engineering.

  • Polichinello · May 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    I’d hesitate to call Augustine or Athanasius “nerds.” Nerds aren’t so much defined by brilliance, but by their social ineptitude. Both Augustine and Athanasius were quite socially adept and great orators. They had a lot of popular backing.

    Origen, OTOH, definitely a nerd.

  • Jonathan Campbell · May 23, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Razib,

    I agree generally and I think that the non-nerd attitude of other religious leaders should lead us to doubt their sincerity. They profess to have very specific worldviews, yet they have no interest in testing the validity of their worldviews, a very non-nerdy attitude to have. Camping, unlike other religious leaders, but like scientists, was willing to make falsifiable claims.

    (discussed more here:
    http://www.acouplequestions.com/?p=260)

  • Polichinello · May 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    What is it about engineers…and crackpottery? Look at most anti-evolution sites and anti-Einstein sites, and you find engineers.

    Mechanical engineer here. Engineering for the most part takes places in a Newtonian world. It’s all F=ma. Electrical engineering goes a little further, but not much, really. So, you really don’t have to come to grips with any of Einstein’s concepts, and you certainly don’t have to worry about evolution. Thus you have the ability to construct superficially appealing counter-explanations dressed up in scientific language.

    Also, a lot of engineers rely on predigested charts and graphs to do much of their work. Yes, they’ll design tests, but these are fairly limited experiments designed to answer a prefabricated “yes” or “no” handed down from marketing or some other governing authority.

    I’m not sneering at engineering. It’s important. One of the reasons the U.S. won the atomic race is that it had better engineers, but they are not the same thing as a scientist, and the best of them will readily admit that.

  • Polichinello · May 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    I agree generally and I think that the non-nerd attitude of other religious leaders should lead us to doubt their sincerity.

    I have never found nerds to be all that sincere, really. If anything, what “sincerity” they display is more of a function of their seemingly bottomless ability to engage in epic self-deception; i.e., they’re true gourmands of high literature because they know David Edding’s canon from back to front. In fact, their willingness to subsume so much of their lives into fantasy genres of entertainment should remind us how religious such people can truly be.

  • Narr · May 23, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    I have lawyer friends who say that their worst clients are engineers (I am neither). They want and expect for everything to be clear.

    I have to agree with others here that Camping at least deserves props for putting his theory to the test. I can’t tell you how many religious folk I’ve run in to recently who have smirks on their faces–they agree there will be such an event, but won’t venture any predictions. A lot of my secular friends are smirking too, as if Camping’s deadline was some sort of universally binding fundamental of the Christian faith.

  • Polichinello · May 23, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    I have lawyer friends who say that their worst clients are engineers (I am neither). They want and expect for everything to be clear.

    Too bad for the lawyers. :)

  • Susan · May 24, 2011 at 1:54 am

    Breaking news: Camping now says the apocalypse will take place on October 21 of this year. His calculations were off by five months.

  • Polichinello · May 24, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    His calculations were off by five months.

    Well, looking at him, I don’t think he fat-fingered his calculator, but still, you gotta be careful with the slip stick, too.

  • Author comment by David Hume · May 24, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    they’re true gourmands of high literature because they know David Edding’s canon from back to front.

    damn, that was a good line (as a nerd, i appreciate the reference!).

  • dmt117 · May 25, 2011 at 1:39 am

    Augustine, Athanasius and Origin were nerds? Only a nerd could write such a thing. The City of God is a literary masterpiece, a supremely creative act of the human spirit that sustained a culture through civilizational collapse and subsequent rebirth, and animated Western civilization for a thousand years. This is a matter of history, not religion. Whether one agrees with Augustine’s religion or not, to compare him to a crank like Camping merely illustrates that atheists are themselves not immune to crankery; or at least the tendency of atheism to degenerate into philistinism.

  • Author comment by David Hume · May 25, 2011 at 5:23 am

    hey asshole, i was complimenting augustine.

  • Zippy · May 25, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    RE: Engineering and creationism.

    My pet theory is that “watch implies the watchmaker” type arguments are amenable to engineers because they see order arising when people like them — engineers — design and build things. They see intelligent design every day at work, and it has to affect how they see the world.

  • SFG · May 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    ‘Nerd’ has become less pejorative than it used to be, and of course nerds think other nerds are cool.

    Probably religions have a mix of nerds and people types. Given how much intellectual top talent went into religion before the scientific revolution, this isn’t surprising.

  • Susan · May 27, 2011 at 12:17 am

    In my insufficiently misspent youth, a nerd was someone who, above all else, was insanely boring. That description does not appear to fit some current self-described nerds.

  • Thursday · May 30, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Just because you are nerdy doesn’t mean you have no artistic abilities. Someone like Nabokov seems to me totally aspergery despite his exquisite prose style.

    Really nerdy people probably don’t do as well in creating believable human characters, so the probably don’t make great dramatists or realistic novelists (Nabokov’s characters are pancakes), but I see no reason why they could craft great essayish works like The City of God or the Pensees. Or romance/fantasy/sci fi works where character is not that important.

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