Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (2010)

Imagine that approximately 160,000 - 200,000 years ago, a huge asteroid miles across is hurtling toward the earth as the earth's gravity draws it in toward a cataclysmic event.  The asteroid strikes the African continent in an area that is now called Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia.  Many forms of life are destroyed by the impact of this asteroid, including the entire population of an incipient large-brained species among the genus Homo, Homo sapiens (subspecies idaltu), that walked upright. Other species, including one which some have labeled Homo rhodensiensis, are destroyed as well.  At the time of this catastrophe, there were relatively small numbers of this incipient species, homo sapiens, alive.  As a consequence, the species homo sapiens went extinct, and modern homo sapiens (subspecies sapiens) never emerged.  To the north of Africa in the area now known as the Middle East and Europe, the species Homo neanderthalensiswho is believed by some to have evolved from a common ancestor with Homo sapiens,  Homo rhodesiensis (or perhaps Homo heidelbergensis), is not directly impacted by this catastrophe.  Only this species within the genus Homo survives.

One of the mysteries of Homo neanderthalensis is whether this species had the capacity for the spoken word and language (see August 31, 2009 post).  The earliest humans (e.g. 160 - 200,000 years ago at the time of our imaginary encounter with the asteroid in Africa) are not believed to have  developed language as we know it.  At best, early humans and some of their predecessors may have enjoyed some kind of capability for communicating by gesture or perhaps making sounds, what some have labeled a proto-language.  Exactly when the human capacity for language evolved is unclear, but it was at least 50,000 years ago ( the time of the out-of-Africa migration) if not earlier, in Africa.  (See also February 15, 2012 post).  Homo neanderthalensis was still a viable north-of-Africa species within this time frame, but if Homo neanderthalensis was already out-of-Africa in this time frame and language first emerged in Africa, this suggests that Homo neanderthalensis may not have had a language capacity.  For purposes of our asteroid story, let us assume that Homo neanderthalensis did not have the capacity for language (despite its large brain) and let us assume, as a consequence of the catastrophe brought about by our imaginary asteroid, that because Homo sapiens went extinct and never invaded the European habitat of Homo neanderthalensis, the latter remained undisturbed by another Homo species.

We can now imagine a number of alternative "histories" over the next tens or hundreds of thousands of years after the asteroid catastrophe for life on earth that might have evolved.  One such history witnesses that Homo neanderthalensis becomes the dominant hominid species on the earth, migrating across to North America and South America, into southern Asia, and back to Africa.  Another history witnesses the extinction of Homo neanderthalensis and the disappearance of the genus Homo entirely from the earth.  Other histories involve one of the first two just described plus the emergence of another large-brained species, perhaps an evolved Neanderthal or perhaps another evolving hominid species in Africa.  Undoubtedly, there are many other such "histories" that can be imagined, but in the interest of keeping these speculations simple, in any of the above scenarios it is possible if not most likely that 160 - 200,000 years after our imaginary asteroid struck the earth, the earth would be much different than it is today.  If the Neanderthals did not go extinct and survived today under the first scenario, we still don't know what their capacity for creating social structures and institutions might have been much less there capacity for creating technology as part of their historical evolution.  There is some evidence that their capacity for creating social structures would have been quite different than homo sapiens as Neanderthals may have lived in much smaller social units comprised of extended families, whereas humans lived in somewhat larger groups whose members included individuals from outside the family.  (See November 21, 2012 post).  It is possible that their brain structures may have been similar to homo sapiens given that the cranial capacity is similar to humans, but this is by no means certain.  What I am getting at, however, is the possibility that Neanderthals may have never had or developed the communications and language skills of humans, and this would have significant impact on how they perceived the world around them, including developing ideas, as homo sapiens later did, of the physical universe beyond the earth or even the biosphere on and around the earth.  In such a circumstance, we can imagine that no species would have developed an idea or belief in a creator of the universe; there would be no idea of a "god," and there would be no religious institutions.  Human social evolution described by Richard Boehm in Moral Origins (November 21, 2012 post) may never occur either. 

Physicist Stephen Hawking is a homo sapien who has spent all his adult life contemplating the physical universe beyond the earth, its origin(s), and the physical laws that describe its behavior.  Together with physicist Leonard Mlodinow (see November 20, 2011 post), they consider three questions, assuming that there are laws of nature:
  • What is the origin of the laws?
  • Are there any exceptions to the laws, i.e., miracles?
  • Is there only one set of possible laws?
The first question is readily recognized as posing the question whether there was a Creator who established the laws of nature?  Or did the laws evolve as a result of some spontaneous event?

The second question examines whether the laws of nature establish a deterministic system or whether there are occasions when the laws are suspended, accomplishing something that physical law would not permit.  This question was resolved by Spinoza in the negative  (see December 17, 2012 post), and Hawking does likewise, although he notes that there is a long line of physicists before him who felt differently.

The third question receives a lot of attention in this book, The Grand Design, and draws on Richard Feynman's sum over histories approach to quantum mechanics.  This is a probabilistic approach to epistemology attributable to the uncertainty (Heisenberg's uncertainty principle) in determining the specific historical pathway that an object takes to its present or future position.  For Feynman, the object of interest was a particle that we cannot see.  Particles can take an infinite number of paths to reach an endpoint, and each pathway has a probability associated with it.    As others have explained:

"The crucial point is that these different [probability] amplitudes have a wavelike nature, and as they spread through space they interfere with each other, their respective wave patterns either reinforcing or canceling each other out at various points. And if you sum over all the amplitudes of all the different paths, i.e. you sum-over-histories, then the different amplitudes will reinforce or cancel each other in such a way that the only path that survives this interference process is the one that the particle actually follows."

I'm not sure we can apply the sum-over-histories approach to the non-quantum world that earthbound hominids live in, such as the alternative histories of hominid evolution I described at the top, and it may just be mathematically too difficult because of the difficulty in describing "laws" applicable to animal evolution that would tell us who dies, who survives, and who prevails among those who survive.  But the evolutionary pathway is just as probabilistic as the elements of nature.  The real point here is the analytical model that Hawking brings to bear on looking at the universe:  something he calls model-dependent realismThis concept goes back to the debate between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein and what Bohr described as "observer dependent reality."  (See July 30, 2011 post).  For Einstein, he was certain that there was a reality that was independent of the observer; a tree falls in the woods even though no one has witnessed it falling.  For Hawking, our understanding of physical reality is dependent on what the observer perceives and senses, and it is quite possible that different observers will witness the same thing differently.  As noted in a prior post, Michael Shermer, borrowing Hawking's concept and applying it to his views of human belief, described a belief dependent realism.  (See June 12, 2011 post ).  The ultimate question for Hawking (and Shermer) is this:  it is pointless to ask whether a theory or model or belief is real, but only whether the theory or model or belief agrees with observation.  It is possible that more than one theory or model of explains the way things really are and observations can agree with both of them, and Hawking cites particle and wave duality as one example of co-existing models of the same thing.  Likewise, Hawking says "no single theory can describe every aspect of the universe."  It is likely that we will find multiple models explain our observations of different aspect of the universe.  Shermer, of course, is concerned about how certain tendencies of the human mind (biases) color our observations and cause us to believe something that is not real.

This is an epistemological issue.  It is different than the question of whether something actually exists.  Hawking does not deny that the observer and the observed are parts of the world that has an objective existence. 

The Grand Design is devoted in substantial part to explaining that the universe had a beginning and that beginning can have occurred spontaneously.  It then discusses what we know about how the microscopic elements that were present at the spontaneous beginning and, shortly thereafter, could yield the universe of complex compounds that we find in the universe we intelligent humans observe today.  Hawking asks us to think of the expanding universe as the surface of a bubble, and to imagine the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water.  Many tiny bubbles (in our model, corresponding to alternative universes, each with very different or similar sets of physical laws) appear and then disappear again while still of microscopic size.  Since they do not last long, these "universes" (and their different physical laws) do not, as the universe that we humans now observe, develop galaxies and stars needed to create elements heavier than hydrogen, helium and lithium, like carbon that is essential for life and intelligent life.  But then, Hawking invites us to further consider, a few bubbles are able to grow large enough so that they are safe from collapse and they continue to expand at an ever-increasing rate and they form the bubbles of steam we are able to see.  These "bubbles" correspond to that beginning of universes in a state of inflation.  Others have described this scenario as well, such as Steven Weinberg in The First Three MinutesIn the beginning there were tiny bubbles . . . and now there is a very large universe that includes intelligent life.  No help from a creator is needed to explain how the universe went from Point A to Point B.  But would imagination and storytelling ever have emerged?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Adolescent (1875)

The subjects of personal identity and group identity have surfaced in a couple of previous posts in this blog,  (see April 1, 2012,  December 10, 2011 and December 2, 2011 posts), and now personal identity resurfaces in Dostoevsky's The Adolescent.

The circumstances here underlying the search for personal identity are not remarkable:  Dostoevsky's protagonist and narrator, Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky, has two fathers, a biological father and an adoptive father.   The more unique circumstance is that neither of these "fathers" has played much of a role in his life through adolescence.  Arkady does not really know either father. The adoptive father is a wanderer across Russia who returns home to Arkady's mother once in awhile; the biological father, a nobleman who has squandered his wealth, who like others of his class during the second half of the 19th century seem to flit back and forth between Russia and other European countries, while  arranging for someone to take care of Arkady as he is growing up. Alternatively, Dostoevsky's protagonist is referred to by some as Arkady Andreevich (patronymic name derived from his biological father) and Arkady Makarovich (patronymic name derived from his adoptive father). From which father does Arkady derive his personal identity?  "How can you not feel your father's blood in you?" Arkady is asked at one point, suggesting a blood or genetic basis for identity.  Personal identity, as another posting on this blog has observed, is a matter of autobiographical memory, and is not always a matter of genetic identity.  (See April 8, 2011 and December 2, 2011 posts). 

This is Russia, between the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) who authorized landowners to free their serfs and Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918), the last of the Romanovs.  It is a period of great change in Russia, including the beginning of the industrial revolution and liberal reforms under Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881), including emancipation of the serfs.  The intellectual air in Russia at the time is full of "ideas," and Dostoevsky, I believe, more than any other Russian writer of his era, brings the exchange and conflict of ideas to dramatic life, not only in The Adolescent, but his more famous novels, Crime and Punishment, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov

As The Adolescent opens, Arkady, age 20, fresh from completing the equivalent of high school in Moscow, arrives in Petersburg with an "idea" in his mind.  He has developed the naive, if not "adolescent" idea that he can achieve a life of independence of mind and solitude, whereby he is liberated from a life that depends on others.  Moving into adulthood he has to be prepared to no longer be a dependent.  But solitude, he believes, requires"power."  And to achieve power, his idea is to become a "Rothschild."  He is therefore determined to work, earn and save, with "persistence and continuity" until he is financially independent and can control his own destiny. His family now resides in Petersburg, including his adoptive father, his biological father, his mother and sister, as well as coterie of friends of immediate family members.

Ideas have a way of not maturing to actualities, which certainly happens here. As the plot progresses our protagonist is unable to flee the mix of his adolescent friends, family and relatives, and friends of relatives.  Instead of a life of solitude, Arkady encounters an ocean of social interactions, social emotions and feelings (see November 21, 2012 post) and by the end of his narrative he admits that his "idea" is "no longer recognizable."  Instead of working to accumulate the wealth he believed he needed to pursue a solitary life, Arkady believes he must now work to support his mother and his sister.  Even "Rothschild's", as another posting in this blog describes, cannot live and succeed in solitude.  (See June 30, 2012 post).

Arkady's first discovery is that his biological father possesses a moral anchor.  Andrei Petrovich is embroiled in litigation over an inheritance.  After arriving in Petersburg, Arkady is presented with a document, which he is told contains information that is inconsistent with his biological father's claim to the inheritance.  Arkady is presented with his own moral crisis: should he deliver the document to his father? or should he deliver it to the other party to the litigation? or should he conceal it?  After all, there is a possibility that Andrei Petrovich's inheritance might trickle down to his mother and even Arkady.  Arkady is assured that the document has no decisive legal significance because his father would win his case even if the court knew of the contents of the document: the testamentary instrument (will) is clear; the document, on the other hand, contains only precatory language that expresses a hope or a wish and does not create an obligation or a command.  The document, then, presents "a matter of conscience."  Arkady agonizes over the correct course of action before finally deciding to place the document in his father's hands, who in turn, after the court has ruled in his favor, renounces his claim.  Arkady is a "dumbstruck, but delighted" about his father's noble choice.  Arkady repents his own "cynicism and indifference to virtue" in light of his father's example.  Comparing his father to the example of Joshua of Nazareth:  "this man was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found."

The Adolescent reaches a crescendo as Arkady (who is recalling and recording the events of his reunion with his fathers and others a year later) recalls a conservation with his biological father in which the latter imagines a life without God.  "A calm has come, and people are left alone, as they wished:  the great former idea [of god] has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them all then is departing, like the majestic inviting sun in Claude Lorrain's painting, but it already seemed like the last day of mankind.  And the people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy.  My dear boy, I've never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid.  The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly; they would hold hands, understanding that they alone were now everything for each other.  The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality, would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass.  They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formerly.  They would begin to observe and discover such phenomena and secrets in nature as they had never supposed before, because they would look at nature with new eyes, the  eyes with which a lover looks at his beloved. *** Every child would know and feel that each person on earth was like a father and mother to him."  If we stopped loving god, Andrei Petrovich suggests, we would naturally turn to loving each other and becoming more appreciative of nature  after experiencing only a brief period of orphancy.  Profound, but not implausible given what we know about the origins of morality and conscience.  (See November 21, 2012 post). But it may leave one to wonder:  who is the adolescent, the son or the father? And then Andrei Petrovich explains, "this is all a fantasy, even quite an incredible one; but I have imagined it only too often, because all my life I've been unable to live without it and not think of it.  I'm not talking about my faith:  I have no great faith, I'm a deist, a philosophical deist, like all the thousand of us."  Arkady realizes his father's love more mankind is genuine ("the falseness I had feared wasn't there") and he realizes that his father is extremely comfortable with himself --- happy.  "I wouldn't exchange my yearning [for brotherhood among mankind] for any other happiness," his father confesses.  "In this sense, I've always been happy, all my life.  And out of happiness I came to love your mama then for the first time in my life." 

There is more to this novel than what I have focused on, and what I have focused on prefigures themes that later appear in Dostoevsky's final novel, The Brother's Karamazov.  As a first-person narrative written as young Arkady's "notes" of events that occurred only several months earlier, the notes have the character of autobiographical memory that lies at the core of extended consciousness and the autobiographical self.  (See April 8, 2011 post). 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda (1982)

While I was reading Jose Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' commentary published in The New York Times titled The Moral Animal caused me to reflect on what I was just reading and connect with some thoughts of writers whom I have read in the past, including Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins (see November 21, 2012 post). The question provoked by the juxtaposition of Rabbi Sacks' commentary and the 1982 novel by Nobelist Saramago, a humanist-atheist, is whether we are a less violent (implication: more altruistic) species now than we were just a few centuries ago. In a book that I have not yet read, The Better Angels of Our Nature,  Steven Pinker answers this question affirmatively. I have read that Pinker's conclusion is well documented, but day-to-day news stories can still make one skeptical about Pinker's conclusion. The numbers may be trending in the right direction, according to Pinker's data, but atrocities still remain.  Some of these atrocities are inspired by religious beliefs, as this year's shooting of a young woman, Malala Yousufzai, by Taliban in Pakistan demonstrates.  And while not likely inspired by religious beliefs, sexual predation on the young by Christian clergy reveals that religious leaders can be just as corrupt, oppressive, and immoral as anyone else.

Sacks' commentary:  "At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.
"Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.
"The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.
"Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.
"Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals."
So far, Sacks has compiled a neat summary of views covered in previous posts in this blog.  (See September 12, 2012, September 17, 2012, November 21, 2012, December 5, 2012, November 9, 2010, October 13, 2010, June 17, 2010, May 12, 2010November 4, 2009,  September 18, 2009 posts).  His commentary continues:

"The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.
"A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.
"The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.
"If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters."
Up until this last quoted paragraph, Sacks appears to have got it right.  Then he stumbles.  According to Sacks, "[Religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct . . ."  I will concur with Rabbi Sacks that religion is a "powerful community builder" (see May 12, 2010 post)," but as the post discussing Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins documents (see November 21, 2012 post), the evolutionary and cultural pressures that favored altruism and community building among humans preceded religion by tens of thousands and perhaps a hundred thousand years.  Religion, by the time it became a human cultural institution, merely co-opted this pre-existing "instinct."  Sacks claims too much for religion: religion has not configured our neural pathways; the need to survive as a member of a cooperative group favored the development of the social instincts long before religion evolved.  Nor can religion claim that religion necessarily binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism.  Religion binds individuals together in other ways have nothing to do with altruism.  His commentary received a fair amount of constructive criticism, much of which is sincere in my view, as well as praise.  Religion has succeeded because cultural institutions promoting religion, religious institutions, religious rituals, and religious stories are generally successful at capturing the curious imagination of the child before the child has had an opportunity to think critically for itself.  Studies of early-childhood establish that humans seek explanations about the world around them from the very beginning, and religiously "locked-in" parents are significant influencers in guiding their children to the same religious institutions and their stories and values.

So what does any of this have to do with  Baltasar and Blimunda?  Sacks' commentary does not address human violence and does not assign a role to religion in reducing human violence, and my opening paragraph suggests that maybe it did.  But paeans to the virtues of religion and religious institutions and religious leaders in human life, such as Sacks' commentary, often overlook the dark side of religion, of which I cited only two examples above.  And while the early history of the Catholic Church was absorbed in a curious debate about whether a man could be both corporeal and incorporeal,  once the Church was joined at the hip with the State in Rome, religion became a partner in state-sponsored terrorism. It is difficult to describe the history of Judaism (just read the portions of the Bible following the Torah) and Islam much differently. 

In Baltasar and Blimunda, Saramago introduces the reader to the auto da fe  (in Portuguese, "act of faith").  This was the Inquisition's punishment of heretics and non-believers of the Catholic faith.  The most severe form of punishment was execution, including a public burning, some form of torture, or a banishment to an area outside the community after a public shaming.  If the recent story of young Malala Yousufzai's punishment at the hands of Taliban is not enough to convince us that religion is capable of motivating non-altruistic behavior, Saramago's detailing of an auto da fe reminds us, "Oh yes, we used to burn people to death because their religious beliefs differed from ours."  (Today, some merely stone people to death, a practice part of a long religious tradition).  But wait, you may say, did not Christopher Boehm suggests that the development of the Golden Rule and egalitarian sharing in hunter-gatherer societies during the Late Pleistocene, evolve because of just those same kinds of punishment (capital or otherwise) involving shaming?  True, but forcing religious beliefs on others is not (and cannot logically be) contemplated by the Golden Rule.  Correlatively, shaming other humans because they don't agree with your religious beliefs is just as divisive, capable of promoting violence and instability, as it is promoting social cohesion.  Here is Saramago's description of an auto da fe, including sarcastic observations of the rituals, both individual and public:

"Today, however, there is an air of general rejoicing, although that might not be the right expression, because the happiness stems from a much deeper source, perhaps from the soul itself, as the inhabitants of Lisbon emerge from their homes and pour into the city's streets and squares, crowds descend from the upper quarters of the city and gather in the Rossio to watch Jews and lapsed converts, heretics, and sorcerers being tortured, along with criminals who are less easily classified, such as those found guilty of sodomy, blasphemy, rape and prostitution, and various other misdeeds that warrant exile or the stake.  One hundred and four condemned men and women are to be put to death today, most of them from Brazil, a land rich in diamonds and vices, fifty-one men and fifty-three women in all.  Two of the women will be handed over naked to the civil authorities by the Inquisition after being found guilty of obdurate heresy, of having steadfastly refused to comply with the law, and of persistently upholding errors they accept as truths, although denounced in this time and place.  And since almost two years have passed since anyone was burned at the stake in Lisbon, the Rossio is crowded with spectators, a double celebration, for today is Sunday and there is to be an auto da fe, and we shall never know what the inhabitants of Lisbon enjoyed more, autos-da-fe or bullfighting, even though only bullfights have survived [in the 20th century].  Women cram the windows looking on the square, dressed in their Sunday best, their hair groomed int he German fashion as a compliment to the Queen, their faces and neck are rouged, and they pout their lips to make their mouths look dainty, so many different faces and expressions trained on the square below as each lady wonders if her make-up is all right, that beauty spot at the corner of her mouth, the powder concealing that pimple, while her eye observes the infatuated admirer below, while her confirmed or aspiring suitor paces up and down clutching a handkerchief and swirling his cape.  The heat is unbearable and the spectators refresh themselves with the customary glass of lemonade, cup of water, or slice of water-melon, for there is no reason why they should suffer from exhaustion just because the condemned are about to die.  And should they feel in need of something more substantial, there is a wide choice of nuts and seeds, cheeses and dates.  The King, with his inseparable Infantes and Infantas, will dine at the Inquisitor's Palace as soon as the auto da fe has ended, and once free of the wretched business, he will join the Chief Inquisitor for a sumptuous feast at tables laden with bowls of chicken broth, partridges, breasts of veal, pates and meat savouries flavoured with cinnamon and sugar, a stew in the Castilian manner, with all appropriate ingredients and saffron rice.  But the King is so abstinent that he refuses to drink any wine, and since the best lesson of all is a good example, everyone accepts it, the example that is, not the abstinence.

"Another example, which no doubt will be of greater profit to the soul since the body is so grossly over-fed, is to be given here today.  The procession has commenced, the Dominicans in the vanguard carrying the banner of St. Dominic, followed by the Inquisitors walking in a long file until the condemned appear, one hundred and four of them, as we have already stated, all carrying candles and with attendants at their sides, their prayers and mutterings rending the air, by the different hoods and sanbenitos you can tell who is to die and who will be sent into exile, although there is another sign, which never lies, namely that crucifix held on high with its back turned on the women who are to be burned at the stake and the gentle, suffering face of Christ turned toward those who will be spared, symbolic means of revealing to the condemned the fate that awaits them, should they have failed to understand the significance of the robes they are wearing, for these, too, are an unmistakable sign, the yellow sanbenito with the red cross of St. Andrew is worn by those whose crimes do not warrant death, the one with the flames pointing downward, known as the upturned fire, is worn by those who have confessed their sins and may therefore be spared, while the dismal grey cassock bearing the image of a sinner encircled by demons and flames has become synonymous with damnation, and is worn by the two women who are to be burned at the stake."

There is much more to Saramago's description of this public spectacle in paragraphs that follow.  Among the condemned is Sebastiana Maria de Jesus, "one quarter Jewess," a converso who has "visions and revelations that the Tribunal has dismissed as fraudulent."  She "hears heavenly voices, but the judges insist that they are the devil's work."  She has been accused of "intolerable presumption, of monstrous pride, and of offending God," and she has been found guilty of blasphemy, heresy, and evil pride.  She is to be punished by a public flogging and exiled to Angola for eight years. As she is paraded through the streets of Lisbon, she wonders, "Where is my daughter Blimunda?"  Then she briefly catches sight of Blimunda, and at her side is Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco.  Standing behind Blimunda is a stranger she does not know, a man with a missing left hand lost in a recent war that was replaced with a hook, who later introduces himself as Baltasar Mateus.  The sentences and punishments are announced.  "Sebastiana Maria de Jesus had already passed, along with all the others who were sentenced and the procession came full circle, they whipped those who had been sentenced to a public flogging, and burn the two women, one having been garroted first, after she declared that she wanted to die in the Catholic faith, while the other was roasted alive for refusing to recant even at the hour of death, in front of the bonfires men and women began to dance, the King withdrew, he saw, ate, and left, accompanied by the Infantes, and returned to the Palace in his coach drawn by six horses and escorted by the royal guard . . ."  On seeing her mother disappear, Blimunda cries, "Where are we, Who are we, and Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco replies, We are as nothing when compared with the designs of the Lord, if He knows who we are, then resign yourself, Blimunda, let us leave the terrain of God to God, let us not trespass his frontiers, and let us adore Him from this side of eternity, and let us make our terrain, the terrain of men, for once it has been made, God will surely want to visit us, and only then will be world be created."

The fictional story that emerges from this religious atrocity is the meeting of Baltasar and Blimunda and Lourenco:  for Baltasar and Blimunda, a story of love and devotion that is filled with humanity but virtually devoid of religious piety; for Lourenco, a story of scientific exploration that challenges religious belief and superstition.  It is the second decade of the 18th century.  Spinoza has been in the grave for nearly forty years, and Galileo has been dead for almost 80 years. (See December 17, 2012 post).  Bernard Mandeville is writing The Fable of the Bees (see January 30, 2010 post), and stock trading is emerging as a financial force for commerce (see November 16, 2011 post).  As he did in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reiss (see June 28, 2011 post), Saramago weaves his imaginary characters Baltasar and Blimunda against the background of history and historical lives.  Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco is a historical person, and so is the King, Joao V of Portugal, and so is the construction of the Convent at Mafra, which consumes much of Saramago's tale.  The combined power of the clergy and the State committing substantial national economic resources for their own purposes is the background for this love story.  Padre Bartolomeu Lourenco also has his moment of doubt, as he cannot bring himself to substantiate the trinity and he is haunted by the auto da fe.  Lourenco's grand pursuit is the creation of a flying machine.  Toward the end of his life, he is pursued by the Inquisition.  And years later at the end of his life, Baltasar disappears and the book closes with Blimunda, back in Lisbon during an auto da fe, searching for Baltasar when she sees the body of a man burned at the stake whose left hand is missing.