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Can a Spherical Cow Walk on Water?: Treading Lightly over the Barrel of Fish Debacle


It makes about as much sense to assume a cow is a sphere while you're trying to do the math for a physics word problem as it does to assume that Jesus can walk on water when you're looking at the wisdom of his parables. From this standpoint we will begin to explore the curious intersection between faith, physics, and philosophy. This intersection invites us to examine the assumptions we make in both religious and scientific contexts and to explore the value of metaphor, and symbolism. Our intention is not to ridicule or undermine religious beliefs or scientific methods, but to highlight the value of metaphor in understanding complex ideas.

Section 1: Physics and the Art of Simplification

Physics, like many other scientific disciplines, often requires simplification to make complex problems more manageable. The infamous "spherical cow" is a prime example – an amusing, yet scientifically useful simplification of a complex real-life object.

By assuming a cow is a sphere, we can calculate its volume, surface area, and other properties much more easily than if we had to account for its actual shape. Now, imagine you're Genghis Khan, the famous conqueror, and you've decided that the most fearsome way to besiege the castles of your enemies is by catapulting cows at them. In this (hopefully) hypothetical scenario, simplifying and using the idea of a spherical cow in a vacuum would probably be good enough. Indeed, the history of science shows that scientists have long used the technique of simplification to tackle complex problems.

Another example of fruitful simplification in science is Albert Einstein's thought experiment of imagining falling out of a window, which contributed to the development of General Relativity. By considering what it would feel like to fall in a gravitational field, Einstein was able to visualize how gravity affects space and time. This mental exercise allowed him to devise a revolutionary theory that explained gravity not as a force, but as the curvature of spacetime caused by massive objects.

Similarly, the Bohr model of the atom is a simplified representation that has been crucial in our understanding of atomic structure. Although it is not entirely accurate, it provides a useful and accessible way to visualize electrons orbiting a nucleus, helping scientists make sense of complex quantum phenomena.

Simplifications can be powerful tools for understanding, however they must be used with care to avoid misinterpretation or misapplication. It's essential to recognize that there are limitations to this approach. A spherical cow is not an accurate representation of a real cow after all, and if you start applying this assumption to more complex problems, you might end up with some udderly ridiculous conclusions.

Section 2: Parables, and the Suspension of Disbelief

Parables are stories used to convey spiritual wisdom or moral lessons. Jesus' parables, such as the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, are prime examples. Let's take a closer look at the Good Samaritan story, which is like the spherical cow of moral teachings – it simplifies a complex idea into a digestible narrative.

Once upon a time, a lawyer had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus responded by asking him what the law said. The lawyer replied that he must love God and love his neighbor. To clarify, the lawyer asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus then told the story of the Good Samaritan:

A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers, who left him half-dead by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both passed by, but neither stopped to help the poor fellow. However, a Samaritan came along, and instead of turning a blind eye, he stopped to help the man. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his care. To put this in a modern context, we could imagine the lawyer asking the question of Jesus in Fenway Park, and Jesus instead says that a police officer, then a Red Sox fan walked past the beaten bostonian, but then a man with a Yankee cap stops to help him.

Now, after finishing, Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three passersby was a neighbor to the injured man. The lawyer answered, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus concluded by telling the lawyer to go and do likewise.

The role of symbolism and metaphor in religious texts like these allows us to understand complex moral and philosophical ideas without taking them literally. Interestingly, Buddhism appreciates this notion and has incorporated it more harmoniously into their worldview with the concept of upaya, or skillful means. This suggests that teachings are tailored to suit the audience's understanding and should not be taken as absolute truth.

At the same time, religious texts also present us with tales of miraculous events, like Jesus walking on water or turning water into wine at a wedding party (quite the party trick, huh?). For some, accepting that such extraordinary events could have occurred may be challenging. Our opening statement draws a parallel between accepting the miracle of Jesus walking on water and assuming a cow is a sphere for a physics problem. So, what's the connection?

Section 3: Hopping Over the Barrel of Fish Debacle with Upaya

As we begin to see the absurdity of taking statements at face value in both religion and physics, we must recognize the value of metaphor and the importance of moving beyond literal interpretations. When solving a physics problem, we don't need to truly believe that a cow is a sphere to benefit from the simplification. Similarly, when we read Jesus' parables, we don't need to believe in the literal miracle of walking on water to appreciate the wisdom within the stories.

Bridging this gap between faith and science is where we encounter the barrel of fish debacle. Watch any public online religious “debate” and you will often find atheists who criticize religious stories as fairy tales, on the level of shooting fish in a barrel. However, the religious, instead of guiding them towards a more sophisticated understanding, often attempt to defend the barrel of fish insisting on the literal interpretation. This results in both sides arguing over the miracles in the barrel while overlooking the more profound relationship between Good Faith and Reason.

"No matter what, the Light Troll will stay the course, not take things seriously or personally, and always aim for common ground, and 'as far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons'... that is the game of the Light Troll" - Upaya.

As we mentioned before, upaya is a Buddhist concept that highlights the importance of skillful means in conveying spiritual teachings. This principle emphasizes the need to adapt teachings to suit the audience's understanding. Upaya encourages us to see that both atheists and Christians have common ground in their shared respect for "Logic" and "Logos," respectively.

“Λόγος Logos: Noun - Nominative Masculine Singular. From lego; something said; by implication, a topic, also Reasoning or motive; by extension, a computation; specially, the Divine Expression.” - BIBLEHUB

Faith in Jesus or the Logos signifies faith in Logic and Reason. Good faith is trusting reason and the reasoning abilities of our neighbors and even enemies. Conversely, any faith that does violence to reason is considered "Bad Faith." In this context, religious individuals who take scriptural stories literally without cultivating the wisdom within are like those who consume raw manure instead of using it to nourish the fruit of their understanding. Similarly, atheists value logic as a way to navigate and understand the world, but are equally misguided when they confuse the theoretical models for reality itself. By using the concept of Upaya, we can find a meeting point where both sides can agree on the importance of reason and wisdom, instead of getting stuck in the barrel of fish debacle.

Section 4: Good Faith, Bad Faith, and Layers of Existence

In order to appreciate the harmony between faith and reason, we need to recognize that both are essential for personal growth and spiritual understanding. Understanding the concepts of Good Faith and Bad Faith is crucial for bridging the gap between the scientifically minded and the religiously minded.

Good Faith is always general and is faith in Reason itself. It manifests at the cosmic level as faith in the universe as a unified, self-consistent whole. At the ego level, it means having faith in Reason, which can lead to a deeper realization and understanding of the universe. At the interpersonal level, it involves faith that everyone thinks they are or are trying to be reasonable, regardless of how absurd their position may seem to us.

In contrast, Bad Faith is always specific and manifests at the cosmic level as the belief in an inconsistent universe, with mutually exclusive rules for different places. At the ego level, it is either the belief that one already knows how the Omniverse works OR the belief that one is incapable of understanding anything whatsoever about it. At the interpersonal level, it is the belief that others are evil and oneself is good, or the belief that oneself is evil and someone else is the messiah.

Acknowledging Good Faith allows for more constructive conversations that bridge the gap between science and religion. To better understand their relationship, we should consider the layers of existence, as detailed in a past article on the subject. For a more in-depth exploration, please refer to the article itself.

Briefly, the layers of existence include Nature, Objective Relationships, Subjective Experience, Intersubjective Mythology, and Human Nature. Science primarily operates in the layer of Objective Relationships, making claims based on empirical evidence and testable hypotheses. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the realm of Intersubjective Mythology, focusing on shared beliefs, stories, and values that shape human societies and experiences.

Poetic Naturalism can give us insight into which mode of inquiry is appropriate for each level. Science is particularly useful in informing our expectations in layers beneath the Subjective Experience level, while religion is more useful for informing our intentions in layers above the Subjective Experience level.

When assessing claims made by religion and science, it is crucial to consider the layer in which the claim is being made. By understanding the distinct layers in which religion and science operate, we can appreciate the different roles they play in human understanding and avoid conflicts that may arise from applying the same criteria to both domains. Recognizing the appropriate layer for each domain allows us to appreciate their unique contributions to human understanding and foster a more harmonious relationship between the two. For example, expecting empirical evidence for religious claims or searching for moral guidance in scientific theories can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. We should extend good faith to science when it makes claims about objective relationships, such as the laws of physics or biological processes. Similarly, we should extend good faith to religion when it makes claims on the intersubjective mythological level, such as the moral teachings or spiritual experiences that can provide meaning and guidance to individuals and societies.

Embracing Good Faith enables us to appreciate the wisdom in religious teachings, such as Jesus' parables, without getting bogged down in debates over the literal interpretation of miracles. We can also acknowledge the importance of reason in guiding our understanding and beliefs, without dismissing the value of faith and spirituality. For instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan has a very curious ending. Of course the parable teaches us the importance of compassion and kindness, transcending cultural and religious barriers. However if we keep looking deeper we see that the way it manages to do so effectively is by the way the story powerfully places the listener in one particular position when they hear it, allowing them to clearly and obviously see the answer for themselves. The lawyer was attacking Jesus' credibility, hoping to catch him in a "gotcha!" moment, but by the end of the story, even the lawyer himself was not only unable but unwilling to refute Jesus, because he could see the logical validity and social importance of the teaching for himself.

It is crucial to note that we can appreciate this deeper moral lesson while leaving the question as to the divine authority of Jesus as "God the son" to the side. In the story, the "correct answer" is left to the authority of the person listening. Jesus doesn't tell the lawyer who he should be like; it was the lawyer himself who thought the Samaritan was the good neighbor and therefore he ought to be like him. What we find is that in the areas where Jesus is most useful, we don’t find him demanding people to have faith in him, but we see him demonstrating Good Faith towards others in an inspiring way.

By understanding the relationship between Good Faith and Bad Faith, as well as the layers of existence, we can foster a more harmonious relationship between science and religion. We can appreciate the wisdom found in religious teachings and the importance of reason in guiding our understanding, all while avoiding unproductive debates over literal interpretations. This approach allows us to fully engage with the rich insights that both domains have to offer and encourages a deeper exploration of the human experience.


In the end, while mocking the absurdity of spherical cows or Jesus walking on water is easy, our exploration has revealed the need to embrace faith and science as complementary aspects of human understanding. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen it is essential to recognize the limitations of simplifying assumptions and the applicability of ancient wisdom, and so questioning our preconceptions can lead to a richer, more nuanced understanding of the world and our place in it.

When applying simplifications like the spherical cow assumption in physics, it can indeed at times be useful. For example, when launching a cow from a catapult, it might be reasonable to assume the cow is a sphere. This is akin to interpreting the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we can appreciate the deeper moral lesson without questioning the divine authority of Jesus as "God the son" because, in an important sense, we are really looking to refine and comprehend our own moral awareness and ethical authority (#Safety3rd!).

However, when the cow is used as a torpedo aimed at a submarine underwater, this is a situation in which the shape of the cow, and its constituent materials relative to water are obviously crucial, and so the assumption of it being a sphere in a vacuum is no longer sufficient, if not outright foolish as it's antithetical to the investigation.

Similarly, when examining passages in the Bible where Jesus talks about slavery, we should not start with the assumption of his divine authority. Instead, we should approach these texts as if they were written by a perceptive ancient Middle Eastern teacher who was doing their best, not an omniscient god. Most people today are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.'s message and famous speech. MLK made a powerful point about "being the best street sweeper that you can be". You can find quite a few passages in the bible where Jesus said a few things that carry the same message, but in the context of his time where slavery was taken for granted. We have already become more educated and sophisticated in our moral sensibilities, and now have found effective ways to restructure society through non-violent protest. As such, we already know that slavery is wrong, so we don't let people in our society take others as slaves. In this light, Jesus's points about being the best slave you can be should be seen as a now moot point from a Middle Eastern preacher, not the creator of the universe condoning slavery. Attempting to use Jesus' teachings to condone slavery is as ridiculous as trying to apply the spherical cow in a vacuum idea to bovine torpedoes.

By first acknowledging the limitations of simplifications and the context of ancient wisdom, we can better understand the nuances and applicability of religious and scientific teachings. Through our exploration of the amusing parallels between spherical cows and Jesus walking on water, we've discovered that both embracing simplifications, while at the same time being willing to question our assumptions, can lead to a deeper understanding of the world and our place in it. It's crucial to apply discernment and critical thinking in our ever-evolving world, while also recognizing when metaphor can be leveraged for understanding given the appropriate context and layer of existence. This approach allows us to appreciate the unique contributions of both science and religion to human understanding and foster a more harmonious relationship between the two.

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Daphne Levine
Daphne Levine

It seems that what is needed is faith in reason. As both the scientific and religious oversimplifications are needed for the propagation of complex information, a correct decoding of the message is crucial for harvesting the wealth of knowledge transmitted by these disciplines. Therefore, the faith in reason. Only in a consistent and logical universe, one can safely make thse oversimplications and trust that they are transmitting the correct information to their fellow humans. Wonderfully written piece!

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