Call me Jed

“Call me Jed, Mr. Ewell was my father”

Unlike his father Jed found conversation unduly taxing, and so he relied heavily on rhetorical clichés and stock jokes (such as this) to guide him through the interpersonal abyss.

His father, who incidentally was almost never referred to as Mr. Ewell, was a man-of-the-people, a welder, and the pinnacle of masculinity. Mr. Ewell would strike up conversation with anyone that met his eye and Jed had deeply admired this quality (if envy is a requisite component of admiration).

Like his father, Jed too had entered the welding profession; he even readily admitted to himself that his becoming a metal worker was merely a transparent attempt to both emulate Mr. Ewell’s potent masculinity, which he felt he lacked, and to earn his respect, which he felt he also lacked.

The tone of his and his father’s conversations had begun to change as he drew further into the secrets and skills of the profession. They were equals now. Ewell and Son adorned the front of shop, where once it had read Ewell and Ewell for Jed’s uncle, Frank Ewell, who died suddenly some time ago, and whose shoes Jed was now struggling to fill both professionally and familially.

Jed’s middle name was Frank after all, after his uncle, and he was despite appearances a Ewell also. To Jed this was akin to a religious calling; Ewells were a sacred order, blessed by rugged charm and incomparable work ethic. Even if Jed did not possess these qualities naturally, he was damn sure going to mimic them until even he could no longer mark the difference.

But welding is hard to mimic, it is a genuine skill, impossible to imitate but hard won only through ceaseless labour in the stiflingly hot workshop that now bore his name. Steel was his particular weakness; he felt his father’s eyes burning into him whenever this unruly, inflexible beast failed to yield to his torch and tongs. Other metals would comply with his art, but never steel; Achilles’ iron alloy.

. . .

Years later, Jed is accomplished at his craft, he still feels a pale imitation of his father but at least he is to some degree a genuine man, a genuine Ewell. Except in one aspect, hot panic overtakes him whenever a new contract is signed and he knows he is to work with steel.

A construction company now wants 30 beams reshaped to specification; Mr. Ewell is too old to oversee such a large contract, his worsening arthritis has rendered him a mere administrator.  A crisis of identity ensues for Jed, keeping him up at nights reconsidering the products of a lifetimes worth of small decisions. Maybe metal work had always been a mistake, maybe he doesn’t need his father’s approval as much as he thought he did, as now he had it it proved insubstantial, evaporating on contact with air.

Maybe Ewells could be artists or teachers and not just welders, maybe men don’t have to work with their hands to be men. Jed is single minded now, an unfamiliar determination possesses him, and so he calls the foreman of the construction company whose contract has triggered his spiritual revolution.

‘I’m sorry, I can’t do it’ he says solemnly ‘Jed F. Ewell can’t melt steel beams.’

Science and faith: a re-consideration

science-religion  For millennia people have understood the world through the lens of faith, the firm belief in teachings handed down by a select few anointed individuals, or prophets, with a special connection to God. Biblically, there appears to only be a few people in each millennium considered worthy enough to be God’s mouthpiece; today many Catholics believe the Pope fulfils a comparable role, and other religions have similar characters who are able to delineate truths revealed from on high. On the surface, the sphere of science seems a million miles from the domain of faith, perhaps almost its opposite; after all science operates on principles of falsification and scepticism, not trust. However, from the position of a lay-audience science and religion have much more in common than you might expect.

Someone unfamiliar with the scientific theory on a given subject is expected to accept scientific truths on the authority of a few esteemed scientists whom, as far as they are concerned, are individuals with special insight. This is much the same way in which people revered the prophets of old. An obvious objection to this comparison would be that, according to the principles of the scientific method, people who doubt a scientific principle or observation are invited to disprove it, therefore the longer a certain idea lasts the more we can be confident in its truth value; whereas in religion such open enquiry has historically been discouraged, thus faith belongs in religion and should have no place in scientific discourse. I agree with this basic distinction and of course in essence science and religion are completely different entities, but to an uninitiated individual the overall experience is much the same. Can we reasonably expect a lay person to have the necessary resources, or even the requisite understanding of theory and experimental protocol to go about falsifying or systematically disproving modern scientific theories? How would any of us go about deciding whether the Hadron-collider data that glimpsed the Higgs Boson is accurate or not? We are simply expected to believe the scientists involved in such projects have the ability to know these things and trust that they do. Obviously this ability isn’t divine, but that is irrelevant to those of us who aren’t educated particle physicists, because it is unlikely we will ever have the requisite understanding to check, and know, for ourselves that what they say is true. Therefore we must accept what they say on authority, not on evidence. This is a species of faith.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan formulated the idea of ‘Le sujet supposé savoir’, or the ‘subject who is supposed to know’.  In BYU3vmSjeMdIB3wVgZVb3Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9Psychoanalysis this represents the faith the person being analysed places in the knowledge of the analyst, which Lacan considered more important than the knowledge itself. The psychoanalyst is the one ‘who is supposed to know’, and therefore the patient puts far more stock in what they say because of this supposition. Scientists fulfil this role for society, we think they are the ones who are ‘supposed to know’, and therefore we collectively heed their advice, when once we invested in the advice of prophets.  Now it is scientists, not prophets, who commune with governments, inform policy, and receive extensive tax-payer subsidy; they are the Levites of a new age.

For the scientific illiterate, Science’s usurpation of Religion is like the invasion of a foreign king as seen by a peasant, it’s a purely nominal change and life continues much the same. The king himself may be the complete opposite of his predecessor in nature, but the peasant will never be close enough to either king to understand this difference, what is asked of him does not change. Science requires no less faith and fealty than religion, it may operate on completely dissimilar principles, but to the lay audience (incidentally: ‘lay’ is originally a religious word meaning ‘non-ordained’ finding new meaning in scientific society) they are equally beyond the horizon of their understanding. Arthur C. Clarke wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, in this case the quote should read ‘For most, any sufficiently advanced method of discerning truth is indistinguishable from special revelation’ (Although that’s much less poetic).