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Of Things That Go Bump in the Night and Much, Much More

August 14, 2014

imageA reader writes:

Last summer you repeated an interesting discussion between Hugh Farey and Matthias. Given the ludicrous call for Hugh Farey’s dismissal as editor of the BSTS Newsletter it seems timely to re-repeat it.

I side with Matthias in this discussion but I clearly see why Hugh Farey is a perfect choice for the editorship.

(above link added by me)

The reader kindly sent along the text. Here it is.

Matthias asks:

You are not willing to consider a miraculous unexplainable cause?

Hugh Farey responds:

No, I’m not. However, the reason is not, perhaps, what you might think. When we describe something as unexplainable, we can mean one of two things. One is inexplicability due to a simple lack of evidence. I hear a noise in the night; in the morning I can’t discover any reason for it. There is no evidence. It is inexplicable. Here is the Pray manuscript. It has a diagonal line of crosses in a pattern made mostly of rectilinear ones. It may never be possible to account for this. It may be inexplicable. This kind of inexplicability is a source of frustration but it stimulates exploration, investigation, further study and consideration. I like it.

The other kind is intrinsic inexplicability. This event is wholly beyond any human understanding, even if you had stood there with cameras, microscopes and the full panoply of forensic apparatus. Luckily, it is impossible to prove that any event is of this kind, but if it ever were, how dull! What would there be to do? Marvel? But for how long? I would get fed up with it very quickly and go and find something else to play with. That’s why no Scientist, whether convinced of the authenticity of the Shroud or not, can entertain the idea that it is truly unexplainable.


I am not sure what your religious beliefs are – atheist, agnostic, Christian etc.
As a Christian, I believe in the resurrection. Not the physical resuscitation of Christ’s body, but a materialisation as a spiritual body as described by Paul.
In my view, science will never explain this, unless one favours some kind of naturalistic explanation (eg. hallucinations etc)

Although I search for an explanation of the Shroud image’s formation, I also acknowledge that if it was a product of Christ’s resurrection then our chances of explaining it in scientific terms is probably zilch.

Despite much brain power over the years, no single theory convincingly explains the image. Of course there might still be a valid scientific explanation! But I think the fact that there isn’t, despite all the analysis over the years, is suggestive of a reasonable likelihood of a miraculous creation.

My own view is that Christ’s body dematerialised, and the image is somehow a byproduct of that. He then rematerialised in a spiritual form that somehow had quasi physical characteristics eg. three dimensionality etc – that took his appearance beyond a “ghost” and that is the resurrection.

Hugh Farey:

Well, for what it’s worth, I’m a Catholic-born, card-carrying, practising Roman Catholic and Head of Science at a Catholic school whose school badge is the triple tiara and crossed keys of the pontificate. I couldn’t be any more institutionally Christian without becoming a monk! (I could no doubt be a much nicer person, but that’s another facet altogether).

However, one of the Catholic version of Christianity’s core beliefs in is the rationality of the Universe, and the conviction that Faith and Reason cannot conflict. This was first expressed explicitly by St Augustine of Hippo, reiterated by Thomas Aquinas confirmed most recently by John-Paul II and Benedict XV, and is the rationale behind the Pontifical Academy of Science. (Is there another religion in the world with a scientific institution so close to its heart?)

The nature of the resurrection may, perhaps, be inexplicable. To deny that anything happened at all, which is the usual atheist line, is absurd, but all attempts to pin down exactly what it was have proved fruitless, and theology has moved on. The science of the physical resurrection, in other words, has stopped. Inexplicable – leave it and move on.

That’s exactly why, as I explained above, I won’t be treating the shroud as inexplicable.

Several of the commenters on this blog (including yourself, it seems) would like to have it both ways, and try to intertwine the rational and the irrational, the scientific and the mystic. They would like Jesus to have exploded in a burst of radiation, or dematerialised in an instant vacuum, or even simply ceased decomposing, woke up and yawned; and they would like this to have happened ‘miraculously,’ but without disturbing the laws of physics. This may be permissible within the bounds of individual conscience, but it is not Catholic orthodoxy or teaching.

By now, I can feel some of you stuttering with rage and thinking that I have demoted the shroud to the relevance of one of Napoleon’s handkerchiefs. Nothing could be further than the truth. Although St Augustine said that Faith and Reason could never conflict, he famously said that Faith ‘precedes’ Reason. He didn’t altogether mean that if there was uncertainty about a question then Faith should be given the benefit of the doubt, but more that unless you believe something is worth the bother, there would be no point in trying to find out more about it in the first place.

The shroud will continue to be important even if it is no more miraculous than any of the great masters’ paintings and sculptures of the life of Christ. It can be an object of personal contemplation, a means of education, a focus of unity among those drawn to its image. It inspires awe, immanence and compassion. Whether it is eventually completely explained rationally, or abandoned as an object of scientific study altogether, it will continue to influence people in one way or another for as long as it lasts.


Well, I strongly disagree. If you are a practising Catholic who believes in the resurrection, which you admit may be an inexplicable phenomenon, then why is it a jump to consider that the shroud is a by product of the inexplicable resurrection, and an explanation of its image formation is also inexplicable because it was caused by an inexplicable event? It is not a logical inconsistency at all!

Hugh Farey:

“an inexplicable explanation”

Maybe my interpretation of ‘logical inconsistency’ is different from yours.

Be that as it may, it misses the point somewhat. If I were to accept that there is an inexplicable explanation to the physics of resurrection, how would I begin to investigate it? You go for ‘dematerialisation.’ Shall we follow John Jackson’s idea, that the shroud collapsed “into and through the underlying body structure?” Or Isobel Piczek – that the shroud is a quantum hologram derived from an event horizon? Or di Lazzaro – that the resurrection involved UV laser radiation? The first two are incapable of exploration, as the vocabulary used is scientifically meaningless, and although UV laser radiation certainly does exist, if we accept that it occurred miraculously, then there’s nothing more to explore anyway. Remember that my point is not that the shroud cannot be inexplicable, but that if it is, there is nothing for a scientist to do about it.


some things in life are inexplicable, and always will be in my view.
I’m happy to leave some mystery in life.

There is a degree of human arrogance in our belief that we can explain everything ,predict everything etc.

Despite the advances in science, we are still SO ignorant of so many things, and keep getting so many things wrong.

Look, if a convincing comprehensive scientific explanation came out tomorrow for the image, I’d be happy to change my view. It’s just I think that’s unlikely

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