Why I’m wearing a spanner

The spanner in question

We are surrounded by symbols of all kinds, objects that represent concepts. The spanner is a symbol, and its symbolism has three aspects.

Science

A spanner is a machine, a lever. It’s used to turn nuts and bolts, whose threads are rolled up inclined planes, and both are among the things studied by every beginning student of physics. It therefore represents science, whose methods are the only ones we have for finding reliable knowledge about the universe we live in and the ways it, and we, work.

Science works by trying to explain. We see something in nature and want to know where it fits in the scheme of things, why it behaves as it does, why, in Julius Sumner-Miller’s words, ‘is it so?’ The tentative explanations are hypotheses, and hypotheses are open to attack and criticism. If they survive, and cannot (yet) be shown to be false, they become theories, used to explain what we see, and to predict.

As time goes on, and more information becomes available, theories may be modified, or even abandoned. Newton’s theories have been overtaken by Einstein’s, phlogiston abandoned in favour of oxidation, and so on.

The idea that the world was created in the space of six days a few thousand years ago, much as we see it now, by a supernatural being, may once have been reasonable. No longer. Cosmology, astronomy, geology, geomorphology, meteorology, biology and the other sciences have elegant and robust theories, based on evidence, showing that it is much, much older, that it is more complex and interesting than we could ever have imagined, that life has evolved, without any direction except from the influences of natural selection...

We learn more from science in a week than we have ever learned from pseudosciences. We must be open to new ideas, but those ideas must be firmly based on evidence, and we must be prepared to abandon cherished notions if they can be shown to be false.

Technology

A spanner is a tool, a device for making things. We used to think that the use of tools by humans was unique, but we now know that some of our primate cousins, as well a few birds, make and use tools to aid in food gathering.

We’ve presumably been using tools from before we became human, and we’ve since used our technology to, in some cases literally, shape our world. Some aspect of technology is involved with virtually everything we do.

Of course science and technology are inextricably linked. We can make microelectronic devices, for instance, only because we have a theory of quantum mechanics, an explanation of how fundamental particles behave.

But science and technology of themselves are amoral, and without ethical values. We can use them for good or ill, to create or destroy, and there is always the danger that we may cause damage because we do not yet understand as well as we might.

Those thoughts lead to the third aspect of the symbolism.

A spanner in the works

Many of the symbols worn by people are overtly religious: crucifixes and plain crosses, the head coverings worn by Moslem women, Sikh turbans, and so on. It is the conventional idea that religious belief brings moral and ethical behaviour. That idea must be questioned. Can religions and their holy books withstand the same scrutiny we give to scientific theories? Or do we find that they are nothing more than the mythology and superstitions of ancient peoples?

Presumably no-one today follows Zeus, Isis and Osiris, Thor, Wotan, or any of the myriad other gods of old. Are not Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Krishna... all in the same category? Why should morals and ethics depend on ancient fantasies? Faith, we are told, is the key. But if faith cannot stand in the face of evidence it is worthless. And if faith is standing in the way of progress, as it may well be in the case of stem-cell research, controlling population, or slowing the progress of AIDS, to name only three, it is not only worthless but destructive.

After September 11 2001 the question was often ‘What sort of religion is Islam?’ Wrong question. It should have been ‘Is Islam true?’ And with that should have gone ‘Is Christianity/Judaism/Hindism... true?’ Since they are all mutually incompatible, as well as internally inconsistent, the only logical conclusion is that none of them is true. It’s time we gave them all up.

What to put in their place? It must be based on reason, not faith, and have a grounding in a scientific understanding of the world. There must be freedom and justice, economic as well as legal, for all. The only candidate is secular humanism.

Alas, the size of spanner needed to throw into the mechanisms of religions, totalitarian regimes, multinational companies with greater budgets and influence than elected governments, and other problems of the world, is rather too large to wear.

But symbols can make people stop and think. Even that would be an achievement, especially if it is critical thinking.

The spanner

The spanner itself is a 7mm combination spanner, of chrome vanadium material, an alloy harder, and with greater tensile strength, than conventional steel. The cord is Spectra®, a high molecular weight (i.e. long chain molecule) polyethylene, claimed to be ten times stronger than steel, 40% stronger than aramid fibres. Truly modern technology.

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