Friday, 31 October 2008

Moeraki Boulders

On Koekohe Beach, just north of the small hamlet of Moeraki, there are a few dozen large, perfectly spherical boulders scattered along the tide line: the Moeraki Boulders. Tourists on the road between Christchurch and Dunedin stop for a while to stand around and on them and to take photographs. I drove up there today and took a few snaps myself. The boulders are unusual but not unique. There are several other sites in New Zealand where similar rocks occur, and, so I have read, they are found in other parts of the world. They have been fairly extensively examined and the process by which they were formed is no great mystery, although their uniformity and large size has meant that over the years legends have accreted around them, in much the same way that calcium and carbonates accreted around some core to form the boulders themselves, millions of years ago.

One of the legends is fairly modern. A few years ago an English amateur historian called Gavin Menzies visited New Zealand intent on proving his theory that in 1421 a large fleet of Chinese junks visited our country. And prove it he did! He had a whale of a time. From one end of the country to the other he found junks and Chinese forts, and lighhouses and goodness knows what else. Not a hillock nor a bump nor a hole in the ground; not a Maori pa site, nor a rock nor a burp from his magnetic resonancing machine passed his notice without being declared a Chinese ruin of some sort or other. And he went ballistic with joy when he arrived at Moeraki. He found not just one but eleven (count 'em! 11!) junks. Squarish bits of sandstone were obviously bits of the concrete lining of old chinese ships, and the boulders themselves were (obviously!) ballast stones.

I won't try and disprove Menzies' theory. It has, of course, been comprehensively debunked elsewhere, but I will note, in passing, two things: That Mr. Menzies is the only person ever to suggest that the Chinese lined their ships with concrete; and the ludicrousness of the idea of trying to use dozens of rock balls 2 metres in diameter as ballast in a small wooden ship. Of course, no matter how much evidence is produced Mr. Menzies won't change his mind: he's a believer. He's a fundamentalist. By 'fundamentalist' I mean that his theory doesn't originate in the world around him, it originates between his ears. In other words, rather than encountering the world and then theorising about what he discovers there, Menzies works the other way around. He begins with his theory and then goes into the world to seek evidence for it. Seek and you shall find. If you start with a strong idea, such as a Chinese fleet in 1421 or a CIA plot to blow up the twin towers or the creation of the world in 6 days, the screening out of all that inconvenient counter evidence comes pretty easily, and the proof is there for all to see.

But then again, in actual fact all of our theories originate between our ears - even the nice broad minded liberal theories of people like you and me. Just like the fundamentalists we see the world not as the world is but as we are. Perhaps the real danger is ignorance of this fact. When we forget that our world view is tentative, provisional and approximate, and fool ourselves into believing that the way we see the world is some sort of ultimate truth then we are well on the way to believing all sorts of plausible tosh about flying saucers or Sarah Palin's pregnancy or 15th Century Chinese admirals.


Anonymous said...

Yes, that was a lot of junk from Mr Menzies (you and I know the truth of the matter from Erich von Daniken).
But can you smuggle in a religiously and culturally freighted (!) word like 'fundamentalist'? In your last paragraph you nearly corrected yourself into saying 'We are all fundamentalists.' What is the difference between the conservative and the liberal? Thomas Sowell says it's really a question of *vision: the liberal optimist vision of the world (I'm OK, you're OK, we, i.e. government can fix it) versus the 'tragic vision' - which the Christian realist understands perfectly well (the gap between hope and experience, the pervasiveness of sin, the sense that we are made for eternity, and this world ain't it; you can't please everyone but you can do trade-offs etc).

VenDr said...

A lot of junk! Nice one.

I think the defining characteristic of fundamentalism is not the content of belief but the mode of belief. Fundamentalists are people who have an answer and they are going to apply that answer no matter what the question is and no matter what the evidence is. To a fundamentalist creationist, the answer is always "six days by God and 6,000 years ago." There are other types of fundamentalists. From 1984 to 1999 our country was run by new right economic fundamentalists, whose answer, no matter what the problem was, was free market economics. There are atheist fundamentalists and feminist fundamentalists and ....

In my last paragraph I didn't correct myself. I started to state what the real characteristic of fundamentalism is: the inability to recognise the answer as provisional and limited. I have no problem with a conservative Christian worldview, after all, I held it myself for many years.Like all other world views (including my present one)it is a metaphor. Like all metaphors it has insights to bring and limitations to be wary of.

VMR said...

Do we as people not also have insights to bring and limitations to be wary of? I'm not sure where I sit between fundamentalism and liberalism but I know I have some insghts and lots of limitations [including trying to get a handle on all this stuff!]

Tillerman said...

You state, "When we forget that our world view is tentative, provisional and approximate....."

I think this is indeed so and changes continually if with courage we get used to continually suspending our judgement and tell ourselves - "I now have a new partial answer, or partial insight, but I will continue the journey ".

I have come across a challenge and perhaps a change to my world view recently. I have always thought that there was a huge gulf between the dualist and non dualist ways of looking at the 'ultimate end' as it were.

A recent book by John Hick has challenged me to think in a new way about the eastern mystical / Buddhist concept of a complete union and absorption into some sort of ultimate godhead.

I have always had a problem with this (probably based on my Judaeo, Christian world view) Hick points out that:

"... When taken literally, is that to lose one's individual identity completely, like a drop becoming part of the ocean - a familiar simile in mystic literature - would be to lose the individual continuity of consciousness and memory in virtue of which the mystic would later be able to report the experience. How could someone remember being in a state in which he or she no longer existed as a distinct individual? There must, surely, have been a continuing strand of consciousness to enable them later to speak about it, while still enjoying something of its bliss.

He states that because the mystic experience is beyond words and that the mind cannot really conceive it, similes such as a drop of water falling into an ocean are used.

He goes on to state: " I suggest, then, that the Unitive language of Advaita Vedanta [i.e. Advaita Vedanta Hindu philosohy] is not to be construed literally, as reporting a total extinction of the individual memory-bearing consciousness, but Metaphorically, as expressing a usually brief but vivid awareness of the limitless reality in which we are rooted, an awareness whose quality is a profound 'ananda', happiness, and whose continuing effect is a considerable degree of liberation from the domination of the ego."

Thus for myself, in my own small journey, I can accommodate the idea of non duality within Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual paths, if I think of Unitive spiritual experiences as being metaphors.

Whether or not Buddhists or others give a rats behind about my philosphical amendments is neither here nor there really - and in a way only partially important -

-it is what we do with our understandings ("by their fruits, you will know them") that really counts and that is another story entirely. :-)

VenDr said...

I got a book by John Hick in the mail just yesterday. Probably the same one, seeing as I bought it on your recommendation. I'll read it directly, but I am interested in his take on the Dualism thing. Like you, I have always regarded this as an uncrossable divide between "Eastern" and "Western" ways of thinking.

The metaphor of the drop falling into the ocean isn't an encouraging one for many Westerners unless you think of it the other way round. The drop realises that its smallness and the oceans hugeness are illusions. The drop IS the ocean.The drop doesn't merge into the ocean it becomes the ocean. I think this is the meaning behind another metaphor I find more helpful - Meister Eckhart's metaphor of The Ground.

Tillerman said...

Yes, the book (if anyone else is interested) is:

'The New Frontier Of Religion And Science - Religious Experience, Neuroscience And The Transcendent' by John Hick.

The matter that I refer to is in Chapter 2 'Spirituality and Mysticism'

John Hick investigates a number of ideas including making an interesting case for NOT identifying consciousness with the physical functions of the brain - and discusses the obvious implications of this - more grist for the existential mill :-)