It’s the time of year once more, dear Cowpokes, where we find ourselves wandering aimlessly through our local Giftorium looking for the exactly appropriate gifts for those special people in our lives. My meanderings this Christmas have led me to deduce that the item most wanted in Christmas stockings for 2014 is… a jar. They’re everywhere – in pretty much every homewares store I visited, there was a display featuring jars in one manifestation or another.

Yes, somewhere between now and when I last visited an insane asylum,(i) the populace has gone jar crazy. But I need to make it clear here – we’re not talking about your standard preserving or jam jar. A jar is just a jar, right – they’re a common utilitarian item and you can pick them up from any ol’ kitchen supply place for tuppence… What makes a jar an even remotely contender for a respectable Christmas present?

Well, I’ll tell you. String.

Yes, my friends, it appears that some string tied around the jars instantly renders them Giftorium-worthy. In this example, the string is tied around four jars at the bottom, but some jars featured string at the top! And don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to put up with common garden variety ‘rustic’ string – why, string comes in all colours of the rainbow. A jar tied with coloured string is surely the gift that your significant other wants to wake up to on Christmas morning!

If string is not your thing, then a jar with a handle is the next step. A jar with a handle and a straw shoved in it. Preferably a jaunty red-and-white striped straw, it seems. It’s an effort, I suppose, to conjure whimsical images of sunny summer afternoons under the walnut tree, sipping ma’s home-made lemonade while Chip and Bobby Jo take turns at swooping over the river on the ol’ tyre swing.

Of course, there’s something for everyone in the Giftorium! If the down-home image is not your thang, you can change it up with the industrial look – a jar with a handle, a shiny stainless steel straw AND a pattern-punched lid to keep the wasps out.

But where do you go when you’ve exhausted the possibilities of a jar with a lid and a handle? Well, I’ll tell you – a jar with a lid and a handle on a stem! Kind of a wineglass-stein-jar thingo.

Call it a Frankenstein if you like, but I mean, seriously, the only thing that could improve on that is the addition of some string. Amiright?

  1. Which wasn’t actually that long, as it happens, as I was at Beechworth only last week. But for the sake of the amusing metaphor… []


Just prior to Halloween, my friend Hugh wrote to me with a very spooky tale. It seems that a neighbour of his – let’s call her Margaret – had recently been on a ‘ghost’ tour of a popular historical location in Sydney, and had been involved in a quite unsettling experience. You will recall that I am not averse to the occasional ghost tour, so I was very interested to hear his account of Margaret’s adventure.

The particular locale in question runs several kinds of tours: straight historical tours, ‘ghostly encounter’ tours, ghostly sleepovers, and ‘extreme’ ghost tours. I believe that Margaret and her daughter attended one of the ‘ghostly encounter’ tours – an adult walking tour taken by lantern light and featuring moderately ‘spooky’ content.

Margaret told Hugh that the significantly creepy part of her tour occurred in a dormitory in one of the buildings that was on the evening’s itinerary. This is how Hugh described the incident in an email:

Last Saturday she and her daughter went on a night ghost tour of [a heritage site].(i)

She said the place had a very sad feel to it. Not of danger, or anger, but sorrow.

The touring party entered one of the old dormitories, and a number of them posed on the beds, feigning illness. Margaret felt this was disrespectful, so would not photograph her daughter doing this.

One of the women from the company group took a photo of a male colleague as he posed on a bed. She had put her bag down on the bed, and the man was sitting next to it.

She took several shots. Three, I think. But when she came to look at the photos, two of the shots were as expected — of the man sitting on the bed next to the bag. But in the third, there was a major change.

Instead of the man, there was a baby. The baby was looking directly at the camera, with a piercingly sad gaze. One of its hands was placed over the bag beside it.

The woman was visibly upset, and over the rest of the tour kept flicking through the photos on the camera, and saying she didn’t want this to be happening to her.

Both Margaret and her daughter saw the photo with the baby, and said it was not one of those ‘blur that could be anything’ ghost photos. The baby was as clearly there in the photo as the man in the others.

There was no baby on the tour.(ii)

Of course, this story intrigues me greatly. The first thing we all want to know is: where is the photograph? Right? Unfortunately, it seems that at this point in time, the photograph exists nowhere outside of the woman’s phone. Margaret did not ask for a copy, and it certainly hasn’t made it to the Facebook site of the tour provider (where people have no hesitation in posting up all manner of exceptionally unconvincing ‘ghost’ photos). There was a suggestion from Margaret that the woman didn’t want to ‘spread the story around’.

You can probably tell that I am deeply skeptical that this event unfolded in quite the way it seems. Now I want to make it very clear that I’m casting no aspersions on either my friend Hugh, nor on Margaret. I am sure Margaret is telling the story exactly as she remembers it, and I’m very grateful to both of them for allowing me to reproduce it here.

As I will try to show, however, I think that the least likely explanation for this whole affair is that someone snapped a picture of a ghost baby.

There are a number of things of which we should be be mindful as we begin to examine this event:

•Margaret did not know anyone on this tour, aside from her daughter.(iii)

•The photographs in question were taken on a phone and not a discrete camera (although Hugh’s story only specifies ‘camera’, this was one of the details I asked him to re-check with Margaret – it was a definitely a phone camera. This is a critical fact to know in considering certain aspects of the incident, as we shall see).(iv)

•The atmosphere on these ghost tours is highly charged, which I can verify from personal experience. People are skittish and jumpy.(v)

•Margaret was predisposed to feel ‘a certain way’ about the location. She said to Hugh that “the place had a very sad feel to it. Not of danger, or anger, but sorrow.”(vi)

•It is common that these kinds of tours are conducted by lantern light and there is often no other kind of light source. Margaret confirmed that this was the case on this tour.(vii)

•We like to think that other people won’t take advantage of our trust in them, but they can, and they will (for all kinds of reasons).

•People don’t, as a rule, remember past events particularly accurately, especially if they’ve witnessed them under emotionally enhanced circumstances.(viii)

With those thoughts under consideration, I believe that – looking at it from the point of view of an impartial observer – there are six different possible explanations for this incident:

1: A woman on a nighttime ‘ghost’ tour of an old building actually snapped a realistic and unmistakeable picture of a ghostly apparition in the form of a sad baby, and was, completely understandably, deeply distressed.

2: The woman snapped a picture of something that a number of people, including Margaret and her daughter, mistook to be a ghostly baby.

3: The woman showed people a photograph she’d faked to appear as if it was that of a ghostly baby (and also fabricated a convincing emotional performance in an effort to reinforce its reality).

4. The woman herself was the victim of a hoax in which someone, somehow, planted an unsettling photograph on her phone without her knowledge.

5. The story of the ghost photograph incident was completely made up by Margaret, and related by Hugh as it was told.

6. The whole story was made up by Hugh.

Each of these scenarios has its own problematic consequence:

1: Asks us to accept the reality of a supernatural event, and furthermore, an event that numerous people failed to witness in actuality, but only saw as a result of some unexplained photographic mechanism. Explains the whole tale as told, but requires we question the nature of reality as science and rational endeavour reveals it.

2: Asks us to accept that numerous people were mistaken in exactly the same way by a photograph that Margaret describes as being as clearly of a baby as those of a normal human adult taken just before it. Explains the events, but requires we question the credibility and/or memory of a number of witnesses.

3: Asks us to accept that the woman concerned staged an elaborate prank. Explains everything, but requires a mechanism of execution for the deceit, and a motive.

4: Asks us to accept that someone else staged an elaborate prank, and was prepared to cause distress to carry it off. Explains the woman’s anguish and preserves her credibility at the expense of additional complication to the methods and motives for executing a hoax.

5. Asks us to consider that nothing Margaret told Hugh is true. Explains everything, but requires we question the credibility of the person relating the tale.

6. Asks us to consider that Hugh concocted everything, possibly including Margaret.

I don’t know Margaret at all, so I must maintain in my mind the possibility that explanation #5 is valid, since this and #6 are the ones that require the least number of assumptions. I do, however, know Hugh very well, and Hugh says he knows Margaret well, so I will accept that there is no real credible motive for Margaret to just spin a fantasy for Hugh, and then maintain that fantasy when queried on it. So I will discard #5 since there’s no compelling evidence to reinforce it (it is significant to note that, according to Hugh, Margaret herself is open to suggestions as to what she witnessed).

#6 is somewhat more problematic. Hugh knows me, and the other friends to which he told this tale, quite well, and it is within the realm of plausibility that he would play a complex trick on us. At this time, I have no way of knowing whether or not this is the case. I have only had the discussion about this affair via email, and Hugh’s emails seem consistent and don’t hint at any deception. I believe he is being truthful about this event, but rational process requires I must allow this as feasible. Everything considered, though, it seems unlikely, so I will disregard #6 also (I’m sure that both Margaret and Hugh find these last two options amusing, but I hope you can see that they must necessarily be part of the equation in order to cover all conceivable contingencies).

Of those explanations remaining, the one I’m most inclined to think is the most plausible at face value is #2: that people were mistaken about exactly what was in the photograph. And yet, Margaret seems adamant about what she saw: “The baby was as clearly there in the photo as the man in the others.” So, if she’s right about that, then we are faced with the two main remaining possibilities: that the photo is a genuine photo of a ghost, or that it was faked.(ix) The easiest of those to examine from a procedural point of view is the feasibility of fakery; how hard would it be to concoct this kind of photo and insert it into a photostream on a phone without being detected? The answer is that it is not at all difficult, as I quickly discovered. It turns out that there are numerous phone apps that will allow the very quick creation of an archetypical ‘ghost’ photograph and save it to your photo library.

On Halloween, Violet Towne and I were booked on walking tour of Melbourne General Cemetery, so I decided to carry out an experiment: would I be able to take photos on my phone, and, unbeknownst to strangers on the tour, insert it into my photo library as if I’d taken it with my camera phone? The answer is that it was trivially easy. Here are two consecutive shots from my phone on that night. The second one contains the ghost:

Although there were about twenty people on the tour, I was easily able to make it appear that I was casually photographing the graves while preparing and inserting a ‘ghost’ into my image. If I’d been so inclined (and of adequate acting ability) I could have, without any doubt, convinced people that this image appeared without my knowledge.(x)

I emailed the image to Hugh, who remarked that it looked to him like a classic double exposure – which it does, indeed. He showed it to Margaret who concurred and said “Well that is pretty good and spooky but no, it looked like a normal photo of a baby – as though it had actually been sitting on the bed when the photo was taken.” I could have made my ‘ghost’ less transparent and more solid – at the expense of ‘ghostliness’ – but as Hugh quite correctly pointed out, that would have made it easier to detect as an added image, and more like a collage. In this instance, he said, lighting conditions and interaction with other things in the scene would become much more critical. All completely valid observations. But as a result of the reactions from Hugh & Margaret, I realised something quite crucial at this point: for my photo to have had maximal effect, I’d have needed to have made the ghost photo obvious as quickly as possible after I’d taken the shot. In this era of extreme pixel-pushing, almost everyone knows that you can easily stick a ghostly apparition into an image with Photoshop, so waiting a couple of days would certainly open up the possibility of that having been done. In addition to that, it’s much more effective to show people such a shot while they are primed to be expecting ghosts, and while their critical faculties are impaired by the frisson of the circumstances and are acted upon by group pressure.

The thing is, we also don’t really know how convincing the photograph was, since we don’t have it. Margaret says that the shot of the baby looked as real as the photos of the man on the bed, but how good were those shots, actually? They were taken by lantern light – that’s going to be pretty dim, even with each person on the tour carrying a lantern.(xi) Under what conditions did Margaret and her daughter view the images? How big was the phone screen, for instance? How long did she get to examine it? Who was in control of the phone – was she able to look for as long as she liked, or did the woman whisk it away from her ‘to show someone else’? Maybe the excitement of the incident clouded her perception and she remembered the baby to be more real-looking than it was? It’s hard to be sure of any of these things.

Even so, let’s go on and accept that the ghost photograph was 100% convincingly that of a baby sitting on the bed with its hand draped over the woman’s bag.(xii) Since no-one saw a baby there in reality, the photograph is plainly not a record of an actual real event that occurred at that time.

One thing we must consider, therefore, is the possibility that what was shown on the phone was a normal photograph of a real living baby on the bed taken at some other time in similar lighting conditions and then inserted into the phone photo library directly after the events in the dormitory had transpired. I checked to see whether I could do such a thing and found that it’s very easy to accomplish in a variety of ways. It just needs some basic iPhone knowledge and a little simple preparation. Anyone could do it.

Now, let’s contrast that scenario with the other main alternative: that a digital phone camera captured, via mechanisms unfathomed and with a high degree of realism, a phenomenon that no-one present witnessed with their eyes; that is, the supernatural apparition of a baby with “a piercingly sad gaze”. I cannot categorically discount this, of course, not having been there, nor having seen the photograph. I will say, though, that it occurs to me that this image, if genuine, would be one of the most persuasive ghost photographs ever taken. To put it into context, if the photo was as realistic as Margaret remembers, and the events happened as she recalls, and there is no fakery going on, then there exists no other photographic record, at this level of verisimilitude, of any ghostly phenomenon ever. I’ve seen hundreds of photographs purporting to be of ghosts, and I’ve never seen a single one that was ‘realistic’, (except for photographs that have been offered up well after the supposed event, and are therefore distant from the memory and verification of any witnesses). What we would have here, then, is a photograph of a ghost witnessed by numerous people almost immediately after it was taken. This would be, to my knowledge, unprecedented. It is, in any event, extremely rare. Had I been the photographer, I’d have wanted as much endorsement of it as I could possibly get. I’d have immediately posted it to my Facebook page for a start, or if I wasn’t a Facebook user, I’d have messaged it to several trusted friends for verification and time stamp. The idea that our mystery woman was just too freaked out by it to make it more public than the people who were in her immediate vicinity just screams ‘setup’ to me.

I hope you will agree that of these two possibilities, the faking of the photograph provides a conceivable, and not particularly elaborate, explanation for the ghost baby image.

Of course we don’t have any evidence at all as to why someone would seek to carry out such a deception, but when faced with the other option, coming up with a motive for a hoax seems the lesser of two leaps of plausibility: perhaps the hypothesised hoaxers had no other intention than to freak people out; maybe they thought it would be funny for the people concerned, but it worked too well and they chickened out when it came to revealing the gag; it’s even possible that they just wanted to see if they could pull off a stunt of this kind for aesthetic reasons. Maybe it was a rehearsal for a much more complex scheme to be used for publicity purposes by the tour company.(xiii) It could even be a bit of all of the above. These can only be speculations on my part, of course, but in my opinion even these speculations are more credible than accepting the alternative, which requires that we accept several supernatural mechanisms that have no basis in science or rationality. The main reason that Margaret herself is hesitant to accept the hoax hypothesis, is that she considers the distressed reaction of the woman who took the photograph to be far too convincing to be a performance. You can probably work out that if I can entertain the concept that Hugh, a person I know well, might be pulling my leg, I certainly have no trouble being skeptical of the motives of a woman who we know only as ‘the woman’ and whose photograph – the key piece of evidence in the whole adventure – remains, at this writing, unavailable for anyone to examine.(xiv)

This has been yet another long post, but I hope you will agree with me that these kinds of stories are worth exploring in detail. Unlike many of the scammers and swindlers who we encounter on the Cow’s rambles, people who have been involved in events that seem genuinely puzzling and mysterious deserve, I think, consideration and respectful attention. I have, myself, had one or two of those experiences. At the same time, it is important to keep a very clear idea of how the landscape of such things is shaped. It is one thing to propose a mystery. It is an entirely different thing to propose that the solution to that mystery involves even greater mysteries, especially when there are far less mysterious solutions at hand.


  1. Names and locations have been anonymised by arrangement with Hugh []
  2. Keep in mind that these are verbatim quotes of Hugh’s recounting of Margaret’s story – possibly not Margaret’s actual words. I note this only to make it clear that in stories such as this that are handed on verbally, all kinds of errors and assumptions can creep in as the story is handed on. I re-checked a number of details that were unclear to me from High’s account, but it is possible that there are still small differences between what Hugh recorded and what Margaret related. No-one is to blame here – that’s just how eye-witness stories go. []
  3. So she could have no idea of the bona fides of any other person there. For all she knew, everyone could have been in on a prank, except her and her daughter. []
  4. It’s crucial to the ‘hoax’ hypothesis. Inserting a bogus photograph onto a standalone digital camera, whilst not impossible, presents some technical difficulties. Pulling off the same stunt on a phone camera is ridiculously easy. []
  5. You will recall that, in my account of the Aradale tour which Violet Towne and myself took, I mentioned that other participants were certain they were experiencing supernatural phenomenon when there were far more likely explanations. And that tour was heavily tilted towards history, rather than the supernatural, so a more ‘ghost’ oriented tour is of course even more likely to imbue the proceedings with nervousness. []
  6. This, of course, is a highly subjective and emotional assessment. Margaret presumably knew at least something about the place she was visiting, and even if she didn’t, her reaction is unsurprising; as a rule, ghost tours are not conducted in cheery, jolly, well-lit places. It kinda doesn’t work. []
  7. So photographs are going to be always in dim light, or by camera flash. []
  8. This is not merely an assertion on my part. There is substantial science in place that demonstrates that human memory is pliable and unreliable. In addition, skilled practitioners can exploit those factors very effectively. []
  9. For the purposes of this investigation, whether or not a hoax was perpetrated by Margaret or by a third party who ‘framed’ Margaret, is incidental. []
  10. I achieved this trick with Ghost Capture, an iPhone app that is designed specifically to make ‘ghost’ photos. It comes with a library of images that you can insert as your ghost, but also enables you to use any image you like as your phantom. Right now there are numerous images in circulation on the internet that purport to be genuine ghost photographs, but which a casual search reveals to be the work of this app, or one of another dozen or so just like it. It’s pertinent to understand that a user with even a little skill could contrive to use this app on a ghost tour such as the one in question to create in a matter of seconds a reasonable ‘double exposure’ style ghostly apparition. []
  11. I checked with Hugh about the lighting – Margaret made it clear that there was no light other than the twenty or so lanterns carried by tour members. []
  12. And there’s another item we should consider. The bag was prominently identified in the story, both before the photograph was mentioned and then as a focal point in the ghost baby photo which showed, according to Margaret, “One of its hands… placed over the bag beside it”. The bag could quite conceivably be serving the purpose of magician’s misdirection prop, making you focus on something other than the thing you should be focussing on. It might, for instance, be distracting you from the fact that the photograph was taken on a different occasion, perhaps. Your eye is drawn to the bag on the bed, but not to the fact that it is a completely different bed, say. Because the bag is detailed so clearly in the story, it even makes me wonder whether the woman made a purposeful point of drawing attention to it. This kind of ploy is used in stage magic tricks all the time, in order to contrive a phantom continuity of events. []
  13. As there has been no mention of it on the tour site, one must assume that it has not so far been used with this intention. []
  14. I’m prepared to wager that if anyone attempts to pursue the photograph, it will never manifest. It will be either have been erased from the phone by the owner ‘because it was too disturbing’, or it will have mysteriously erased itself – vanished into the ether via the same supernatural mechanism by which it arrived. []


A few days ago Violet Towne and I were down on the south coast of Victoria on a short break. On a day too rainy and bleak to be at the seaside we dropped into an antique and junk place for a rummage, as we like to do, and I was delighted to discover, in one of the more secluded nooks of the building, a framed print of one of the Giovanni Bragolin ‘Crying Boys’.

I was surprised to find that VT did not know the story of the ‘curse’ associated with the Crying Boy, and I thought I might take this opportunity to recap it here for others of you who may not have encountered this quirky piece of urban legend.

Giovanni Bragolin – known also as Bruno Amadio – was a trained classical painter and probably painted the original Crying Boy portraits – all variations on a similar theme – sometime in the early 1950s. It is likely that they were created specifically to sell to tourists as a money-making venture. Whatever the case, at some point Bragolin was evidently fortunate enough to secure a deal to have the paintings copied and printed and made widely available in English department stores in the late 1950s. There were probably many thousands made.(i)

For reasons that escape me personally, the Crying Boys were monumentally popular and ended up in households all over Britain (and elsewhere in lesser numbers). And there they hung for decades, doing nothing more confronting than offending the sensibilities of those with good taste. Until…

On the 4th of September 1985, Britain’s popular tabloid, the Sun, ran a story about a fire that destroyed the home of Ron and May Hall, a working class couple from the town of Rotherham in South Yorkshire. The couple put the blame for the blaze on the ‘unlucky’ portrait of the Crying Boy which hung in their living room, which – according to the report – escaped the fire completely unscathed. Not only that, said the Sun, but it was common knowledge among firemen that there had been numerous other instances of this same scenario unfolding in blazes across England: homes devastated by fire, watched over by the completely untouched portrait of a Crying Boy. The picture, the firemen said, was cursed.(ii)

The next day the Sun ran a followup story claiming that their offices had been flooded with calls from readers with pictures of the Crying Boy on their walls, all fearing that they might become victims of the jinxed painting. And so the legend of the Curse of the Crying Boy was born.

Some stories are just made to gather momentum, and this was one. Everyone had a ‘friend of a friend’ who had been affected in some way by the image. Rumours grew that not only did the painting survive house fires, but it could not be burned even if you tried. People who attempted to get rid of the picture fell afoul of bad luck, and some even reported seeing it move on the wall all by itself.

To add kerosene to the flames, it turned out that there were numerous incarnations of the Crying Boy theme painted by other artists – it was a veritable plague of Crying Boys. As I mentioned earlier, they were – puzzlingly – exceptionally popular, and the conjecture must be that in the 70s and 80s in England, if there was a house fire anywhere there was a fair to middling chance that the tenants were in possession of a Crying Boy. This possibly goes at least a little way towards providing some basis for the idea of the curse, but in all probability it can mostly be put down to a case of overactive imaginations and rumour run riot.(iii)

The Sun (perhaps in a moment of conscience, but probably more because they knew how to ride a story to death) did a shout out to readers who were afraid that the picture might bring them ill luck. Send them to us, they said, and we’ll dispose of them for you! The offices of the paper had soon accumulated a staggering 2,500 copies of the Crying Boy, which demonstrates two things clearly, I think: just how popular the damn thing was, and also how frighteningly superstitious the readers of the Sun were.

In an act that just smacks of the British tabloid mindset of the 1980s, on Halloween 1985, Sun employees stacked the prints into a huge pile and they were set ablaze by a popular Page 3 girl. It could only have been more perfect if she’d been topless.

An urban legend isn’t quelled quite so neatly, though, and the Curse of the Crying Boy didn’t simply go up in smoke with the bonfire. Over the next decade it neatly transmogrified from fleeting newspaper titillation into full-blown myth, and lives on today, with many new riffs on the original story. Hang a Crying Boy next to a Crying Girl (yes, they exist too), it is said, and the bad luck will be thwarted. Hang ten copies of the Crying Boy together and the bad vibes are similarly dissipated (you’ll need some good luck finding ten copies these days, though). Whole narratives have arisen around the artist who painted the original picture and the supposed identity of the Boy himself, all with little or no basis in fact. Stories of disasters involving the Boy now come from countries all across the world and he is so embedded in popular culture that he even sports a Facebook page, of sorts.(iv)

But I can sense the question on your minds, Faithful Cowpokes: did I buy the copy I saw? Sadly, I didn’t. I probably should have, but the truth is that I wasn’t totally familiar with the version hanging in the antique shop, and didn’t know if it was ‘the real deal’ as it were. That’s why I snapped the pic of it that you saw above – I wanted to check its provenence (there was no mobile reception, otherwise I’d have done it on the spot).

Oh, and anyway, as if I’d hang it in my house. Are you crazy?


UPDATE: The Crying Boy spotted on eBay in Israel. Printed on a magnet! (WARNING: May cause your fridge to burst into flames)


  1. Actual statistics are hard to come by, with various reports citing quantities from 50,000 to a quarter of a million, but given the widespread popularity of the prints, and the fact that they still turn up in junk shops on the other side of the planet, we can be fairly sure that a large number of them were made. []
  2. No fireman actually said this, as it turns out, but the Sun was very happy to let the implication stick. []
  3. There are many ‘supernatural’ explanations, of course, but they are banal and tedious and probably without any foundation in fact. You can, if you are so inclined, chase them up via the excellent Fortean Times redux of the Crying Boy Curse. []
  4. It’s a bit of a pathetic effort, really, and could be HUGELY more entertaining in my opinion. []


This is my new assistant. I am about to augment her for my secret project. Hint: she is not a Roman.

Eager to please!

The other day, whilst in a philosophical mood, I got to musing on whether there would be any way for humans to tell if we were being kept as pets by some alien intelligence.

Consider the goldfish that we keep in our kitchen.

Goldfish contemplating sunken treasure chest.

I doubt that they have even the foggiest idea that the glass-walled vessel in which they find themselves is in any way strange. Or even that they have any idea of what ‘glass’ is, or what ‘strange’ is. They are quite obviously accustomed to the large shadowy figures that loom over them from time to time, and have come to associate these figures with food, which makes for obvious excitement for them. Their goldfishy brains probably can’t even encompass the idea of humans, or a kitchen bench, or meatballs and tomato sauce (which is what I happen to be cooking for dinner as I write this).

But what if we are like that? If we were the pets of aliens, how would we even know? Our puny human brains might be to them as goldfish brains are to us. If we are being kept in the alien equivalent of a glass tank on an alien kitchen bench, how could we even know, if we are unable to contain the concept of alien glass, or alien kitchen benches or alien meatballs? If we know nothing other than the circumstances in which we find ourselves – like the goldfish, raised in tanks in an aquarium and transported in plastic bags to a new home – what possible reference point could we have?

As silly as this sounds, I don’t mean it to be a flippant question. It is at least as plausible as any other hypothesis for why we are here, and it is just as unfalsifiable as postulating the existence of God, or alternative universes, or that we are a computer simulation.

If you accept that there are grades of intelligent awareness possible in the universe (and our own experience tells us that goldfish seem to be less aware of the universe than we are, and at the same time more aware of the nature of things than bacterium, say, so that appears to be a fairly reasonable assumption) then putting ourselves at the top of the intelligent awareness ladder seems a tad presumptuous. Is there any way, therefore, to know whether our reality is a ‘natural’ one or whether we are in an alien goldfish bowl?

I suspect not. But the places to start looking would be things in our universe that seem to be a little too ‘convenient’ for us to be here. And there are, indeed, some of those.

CERN, in Geneva, has been holding over the last few days a conference called ‘The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?’

Decoding this for you: it’s a convening of scientists and various religious commentators to attempt to find a way to square religion with the uncomfortable facts that science throws up to challenge it.

After pausing for just a moment to reflect on whether Betteridge’s Law should be applied to the conference title, let’s hear what the first speaker at the conference, Andrew Pinsent had on his mind according to BBC News Europe. Science, he said, risked:

“…trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

Of course, he does not really mean ‘philosophy’ here, because science has always engaged with philosophy, from the very earliest of Greek knowledge at least, and probably before that. No, he has lumped philosophy in there in order to stack it squarely on the side of religion and divorce it from science because he needs to do that to set up his argument. As is almost de rigeur for religious thinkers(i) these days, he starts by depicting science as a mechanical process devoid of any wonder or beauty, so that he can make those things the sole domain of religion; science will make us into machines, religion is the only chance we have to stay human.(ii)

Why do religious people think like this? It’s profoundly offensive for a person such as myself who has no religious belief to hear that I can’t, apparently, experience the world as anything other than cold mechanical processes. Does Mr Pinsent have no clue at all that by voicing this opinion he is saying ‘Those of us who hold religious beliefs are better than the rest of you’?

You can see that I am predisposed already to think that this CERN conference is likely to be a pile of horseshit. Mr Pinsent goes on:

‘Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas’

What a brainless pronouncement. This man is confusing science with industrial manufacture. Why is he speaking at a conference at CERN? What does he even mean by ‘science in isolation… [is] not so good for producing ideas’? Isolation from what? Its ideas maybe??? WTF?(iii)

Further down in the BBC article we hear from co-organiser of the conference Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, who said that the discovery of the Higgs particle:

… raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer.

Yeah, and you know what Canon Dr Wilton? The Anglican Church can’t answer them either. Nor can any other religion on the planet. Making up a story does not count as an answer.

Another of the speakers at the conference, Professor John Lennox from Oxford University, is on record as having taken Stephen Hawking to task for asserting that we do not need to entertain the idea of a ‘God’ setting the Universe in motion:

When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?

Who lit the blue touch paper if not God? Oh, how about a rainbow-coloured unicorn, or a jolly green elf? They’re at least as plausible as candidates for holding the matches as the Christian God. The fact is, the beginnings of the Universe are shrouded in mystery. Mystery, as in ‘We don’t know – it’s a mystery’ not ‘It’s a mystery and therefore it’s the God (that I personally believe in) that was written about in an ancient book full of irrational beliefs!’ We’ve had other things that were shrouded in mystery in the past and they’re not now. Many of those things (the Earth-centered Universe; the order of life on Earth; lightning; the processes of human birth, of the cardiovascular system, of the brain; the giant fossil bones in river beds) were once mysteries, in just the same way as religion sees the beginning of the Universe now. It is a constrained mind that can’t make the equation here.(iv)

This kind of nutty religious noodling simply makes me furious. These people don’t want a serious philosophical debate, no matter how they may be couching it. Having a genuine philosophical discussion about these kinds of big questions might be of some value. Having a religious discussion is entirely worthless because they’ve already made up their mind that they know the answer.

Canon Dr Wilton sums up his hopes for the CERN conference by saying:

By the end… we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

By which he means ‘I’m never going to change my mind, because I hold an irrational belief that can’t be swayed no matter what. But maybe I can get scientists to cut me some slack and stop being such a nuisance with their infernal ‘facts’.’

Canon Dr Wilton has no intention whatsoever of ‘finding a new way to understand his position’ – not in any meaningful way, in any case. Faced with a mystery, he just calls ‘God’ and that’s the end of it. That’s not how science works. Science is able to entertain the idea of a mystery without making a pronouncement. Or, science can contemplate the proposition that an old bloke with a white beard set things in motion. Or that it’s turtles all the way down. Or that we’re in someone else’s computer simulation.

The difference is that scientists just don’t merely presuppose one of those things and set about trying to convince everyone by talking it up. Science needs evidence, something religion is remarkably short on.


Addendum: As I was writing this over the weekend, the BBC site published an update to the conference. It was refreshing to see, at last, some thoughts from an actual scientist – physicist and all-round sensible person Lawrence Krauss:

One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don’t. You can’t disprove the theory of God. The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty. That’s why science makes progress and religion doesn’t.

Contrast that to this further waffle from the Professor John Lennox, who we heard from above:

If the atheists are right, the mind that does science… is the end product of a mindless unguided process.Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn’t trust it.

I doubt Professor Lennox has even the faintest clue how utterly stupid a declaration like that sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘But look at how amazing humans are! That can’t just be a product of evolution!’ Well, Professor Lennox, it can be and it is. Your lack of understanding of how things work does not, as I’ve said, imply the existence of a God, no matter how much mystery there is in the process.

Andrew Pinsent also features in the update, once again attempting to create a division between science and philosophy, as if scientists can’t be philosophers. Just look at his language – it is careful and insidious. Lawrence Krauss, by contrast, makes it clear that the issue here is science and religion, not philosophy. If you’ve read any of Krauss’s books, you will know that, like all good scientists, he’s no stranger to philosophy.


Thanks to acce245 for throwing this one my way.


  1. I use the word advisedly, because I actually don’t believe many of these people really think. []
  2. Whatever ‘human’ actually means. We are now completely augmented by the science we have created. We are already ‘machines’. Maybe Mr Pinsent thinks we should go back to the pre-fire veldt. Oh wait, we were using tools even then. []
  3. I’ll allow that Mr Pinsent might have been quoted out of context here – it’s hard to tell in the BBC article. It goes on to tell us that Mr Pinsent says we ‘need to get back to the ideas of Einstein’ – as if somehow there are no great thinkers in science anymore. This is the comment of a person with a profound lack of knowledge of science and scientists. It’s a mark of people who want to seem like they’re talking knowledgably about science to refer to Albert Einstein – the only great scientist they know. Mr Pinsent, you might like to read up on some of the great modern ideas people of science: Richard Feynman; Roger Penrose; Geoffrey West; Stephen Hawking; Garret Lisi – oh, and I could go on for pages… But when you’ve finished, then tell me with any earnestness that science is no good for producing ideas. []
  4. And, aside from that – as I’ve written on these pages before – it is entirely possible that at some stage or another we might run up against the limits of human comprehension. There is nothing that says that we will necessarily be able to understand the Universe. This is no license to presuppose God, however. []


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