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The tortoise question

18 December 2015

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THE story goes that, at a public lecture, Bertrand Russell was challenged on his philosophical construction of the universe by a lady who announced that the world was a flat plate, resting on the back of a tortoise. When Russell politely asked what the tortoise rested on, she replied, “It’s tortoises all the way down.”

We were alerted to the anecdote by Murray Lachlan Young and his poetic contribution to The Forum (World Service, Tuesday of last week), a discussion on the relationship between science and religion.

So disciplined, consensual, and courteous was this programme that one occasionally longed for a tortoise lady to pipe up. Chaired by Bridget Kendall, and hosted by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, we instead heard the views of four expert witnesses, and an articulate and intelligent audience.

From a show-of-hands poll it emerged that there were among them a healthy contingent of scientists prepared to admit to having a faith; and, if there was anybody wanting to engage in some Dawkins-esque knockabout, they did not have the temerity to speak out.

The misrepresentation of the science-religion divide, we were told, was typified by the naming of the Higgs-Boson as “the God particle”. Apparently, this came about because the publisher of Leon Lederman’s seminal tome of 1993 objected to the original name, “The Goddamn Particle”. It is a good gag, and went down well with the audience at CERN; but one could not help feeling that this was like debating poverty in the gilded atrium of an international bank.

For all its symbolic potency, this is not where the acute tensions between science and religion are being felt. Take it to a high school in the mid-west of the United States, and then see how many tortoise ladies you have to deal with.

And so to another story, concerning two ladies at a performance of Hamlet. As the curtain falls, one is heard to remark, “You know, the very same thing happened to Mavis only last week.” The anecdote does not reveal whether the close correspondence between Mavis and the tale of the doomed Dane evinced any symptoms of post-traumatic stress in our audience member, but, if it did, then she might nowadays demand that the programme contain a “trigger warning”.

This phenomenon — the alerting of readers and audiences to material that might cause upset — is not new; but the requirement for such warnings has become more prevalent, particularly in the classroom. Thus students of Hamlet might be alerted to the fact that the story includes an episode where the eponymous hero contemplates suicide. It might sound like the figment of some Daily Mail opinionista’s imagination, but “trigger alerts” are real, and, to its credit, All in the Mind (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) was prepared to take the subject seriously.

It has been found that you can induce stress in PTSD patients; that is, if you confront them with a direct retelling of their own traumas. But, as the PTSD specialist Professor Richard McNally explained, you cannot spend your life avoiding such confrontations, however bad something was for your friend Mavis.

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