Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Quest for Unicorns

I was reading about the new Dawkins style atheist "summer camp", Camp Quest, which comes from an idea of an American to provide a scout like experience without the religiousness. This is, as usual, over the top. From my year in the scouts, there was only one single religious occasion, which was the annual church service, and which I always disliked. When my son was in cubs, again there was no religious elements to what the kids did except for that one church service. This is hardly the stuff of indoctrination! As usual, the heavy mob weigh in with an "atheist alternative", which for the most part seems just as secular as scouting was.

But there are alternatives to scouting already around, such as the "Order of Woodcraft Chivalry". It was founded in 1916 by Ernest Westlake, and "differed from it in that it did not have the perceived military overtones of Scouting, instead focusing on the virtues of kindness, fellowship, animal conservation and woodcraft". (1) The affirmation of the Order is: ""To respond to the call of the world of nature, seeking from it simplicity, good sense and fortitude. To pursue bravely and gaily the adventure of life, cherishing whatever it holds of beauty, wonder and romance, endeavouring to carry the chivalrous spirit into daily life." (2). It still exists today.

On the whole, the British camp seems less dogmatic in its atheism than the American one. There is one notable atheist thought experiment in the UK Camp Quest, a game from the American concept:
The British camp has imported one prominent element from the original concept: a mind game centred on imaginary unicorns. The children are told to imagine that the camp is surrounded by unicorns which cannot be seen or touched, but which are there because there has to be 'faith' that they exist. They are then encouraged to develop rational arguments to prove that the unicorns cannot and do not exist, with anyone who manages it awarded a prize - a £10 note signed by Richard Dawkins.  It does not take a genius to work out that the 'unicorns' are, of course, an unsubtle metaphor for any 'invisible' deity, whether Christian, Muslim or otherwise, though Ms Stein denies this is the case.  'The unicorns are not necessarily a metaphor for God,' she says. 'They are to show kids how to think critically. We are not trying to bash religion, but it encourages people to believe in a lot of things for which there is no evidence.' (3)

Of course, it is easy to muster an argument that unicorns exist and have all those properties. There are a huge number of theoretical physics constructs which may or may not exist, such as gravity waves, tachyons, the Higgs Boson etc. They cannot be seen or touched, and no experimental apparatus has as yet conclusively shown that they exist. That they do exist is a matter of making assumptions that the physical models that predict their existence are accurate, and that is of course no guarantee that they do. Like phlogiston, or the ether, they may turn out to be fictions produced by physicists. Which just shows how difficult it can be even in the realm of so-called empiricism to do without faith in invisible entities!

On the subject of the existence (or otherwise) of unicorns, my favourite fable is that by James Thurber, the American writer and humorist (4):
Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. "There's a unicorn in the garden," he said. "Eating roses." She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him. 

"The unicorn is a mythical beast," she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there; now he was browsing among the tulips. "Here, unicorn," said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him. The unicorn ate it gravely. With a high heart, because there was a unicorn in his garden, the man went upstairs and roused his wife again. "The unicorn," he said,"ate a lily." His wife sat up in bed and looked at him coldly. "You are a booby," she said, "and I am going to have you put in the booby-hatch."

The man, who had never liked the words "booby" and "booby-hatch," and who liked them even less on a shining morning when there was a unicorn in the garden, thought for a moment. "We'll see about that," he said. He walked over to the door. "He has a golden horn in the middle of his forehead," he told her. Then he went back to the garden to watch the unicorn; but the unicorn had gone away. The man sat down among the roses and went to sleep.

As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could. She was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye. She telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist; she told them to hurry to her house and bring a strait-jacket. When the police and the psychiatrist arrived they sat down in chairs and looked at her, with great interest.

"My husband," she said, "saw a unicorn this morning." The police looked at the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist looked at the police. "He told me it ate a lilly," she said. The psychiatrist looked at the police and the police looked at the psychiatrist. "He told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead," she said. At a solemn signal from the psychiatrist, the police leaped from their chairs and seized the wife. They had a hard time subduing her, for she put up a terrific struggle, but they finally subdued her. Just as they got her into the strait-jacket, the husband came back into the house.

"Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?" asked the police. "Of course not," said the husband. "The unicorn is a mythical beast." "That's all I wanted to know," said the psychiatrist. "Take her away. I'm sorry, sir, but your wife is as crazy as a jaybird."  So they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after.

Moral: Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.


(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Woodcraft_Chivalry
(2) http://homepage.ntlworld.com/pringles5/owc/owc2.htm
(3) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1202810/Camp-faithless-Is-Britains-atheist-summer-camp-harmless-fun-worried.html
(4)  http://english.glendale.cc.ca.us/unicorn1.html

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