Through the power of relativity, a million-year picnic may pass in an hour.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

We Are Star Stuff

[Response to "Carl Sagan's Religion" - I will dispense with a traditional introduction, considering this post already borders on 3,000 words.]

I realize that declaring religion and science as monolithic concepts is false and somewhat unsatisfying. I will use the term “science” to generally mean the “hard sciences” that deal in empiricism and skepticism, which base themselves on the scientific method. For religion, I generally mean those institutions based on the faith that there is a higher power that created the universe and at some point influenced humans to have faith in it. Because I am most familiar with these, my statements will mainly involve those religions which believe that the word of their God is contained in the various books of the Bible, though my arguments are not confined to the Abrahamic religions.

This essay’s purpose is twofold: first, I will directly examine PTJ’s claim of “Carl Sagan’s religion;” second, I will examine the validity of the “live and let live” sentiment in terms of the intersection of science and religion. I need not directly address PTJ’s statement, “A coincidence's status as a miracle is neither provable nor disprovable. It's not a scientific claim.” Instead, I will end up addressing it as a natural consequence of the course of my argument.

[I am, of course, not without my own influences. I have never been religious, though for a long time I thought that I was with the majority. Back in elementary school, I knew many people who went to church, but none of them seemed to actually believe in God; rather, they seemed to believe that church was a waste of a beautiful Sunday and something their parents made them go to. (I’ve been to eight religious services in my life: my christening, a Catholic mass in the “Screaming Children’s Room” with my grandmother (I wasn’t screaming, for the record), two Presbyterian services in Pittsburgh, a bar and a bat mitzvah, and two Passover seders.) My ordered thought on this topic, then, comes a bit more recently and draws its influences from Carl Sagan, by way of Douglas Adams, running it by his longtime friend Richard Dawkins (who, no matter what I may think of his methods, aligns with my argument at the moment), passing it to Arthur C. Clarke. Pity only Dawkins and I are alive, probably the least agreeable of the five.]

I.
Santa Claus is Coming
Do you believe that an omnipotent being not only created the universe, but that it continues to manage the events on a thoroughly ordinary blue-green planet in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the galaxy, causing genuinely inexplicable events to occur? Let me rephrase: Do you believe that a large man in a red suit flying a sleigh powered by reindeer visits the individual residences of millions of children in a single night?

I know it’s a cheap shot. But they are both explanations for what seem to be inexplicable events. To a child not familiar with the laws of physics, the Santa Claus myth is plausible. What other explanation could there possibly be for those toys that show up than a fat man who comes down a chimney?

Of course, the nature of Santa Claus is completely falsifiable, or is it? Of course, a single fat man could not and is not responsible for those toys getting there. But the toys appear nevertheless. Is it indeed possible that Santa Claus is a god who influences parents to buy toys for their children? Should universities have a Santa Claus studies chair in their religion departments?

We worry about children who, after a certain age, do not reject the Santa Claus myth. But why? Does it matter if people continue to believe in Santa Claus? What possible harm could come from it?

Carl Sagan’s Religion
Carl Sagan was indeed an eloquent and outspoken proponent of science and skepticism. He was also an outspoken opponent of pseudoscience and illogic. His life’s work was teaching science to the masses. Cosmos was the most watched public television series in US broadcasting history and the accompanying book is one of the most popular non-fiction books ever written. It would be safe to say that his life’s work was at least partially successful.

One of the arguments commonly posed against Sagan’s was that the pursuit of science is emotionally unfulfilling. His specific answer to that was, as PTJ rightly points out, that the knowledge (Latin: scientia) of the universe is itself a fulfilling endeavor. It is important to note that in all of his writings that I have encountered, he carefully divorces his sentiments from his empirical work. (He was always careful to do the same thing when addressing things like SETI and the Drake Equation.)

Is this indeed Carl Sagan’s religion, as PTJ contends? Certainly, the wonder is evident in Sagan’s eyes when you watch Cosmos. His exuberance is evident in his writing. We are, he was fond of saying, “star stuff contemplating star stuff.” So this is certainly Sagan’s answer to the religious argument that science is unfulfilling. But is it religion?

Without trying to sound too semantic, Webster will be my guide for a moment. Religious is defined as “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.” [Emphasis mine] On the surface, PTJ’s contention cannot be discounted because deity is not the only possible path to religiosity. “Faithful devotion,” though – let’s dig deeper.

Faith has a more complex definition. “2(1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust; 3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially: a system of religious beliefs” If we take the third definition and remove the “especially,” we still cannot remove Sagan’s statement from the realm of religion. It strikes me, though, that all these definitions hinge on the word “belief.” Let’s dig deeper still.

This gets even messier. Believe is defined as follows: “1 a: to have a firm religious faith b: to accept as true, genuine, or real.” We’ve still gone nowhere. The definition of belief, though, is somewhat more enlightening. An excerpt from the synonyms section: “belief may or may not imply certitude in the believer . faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof .”

Here we are. To (over)simplify, belief allows for doubt whereas faith does not. Carl Sagan had many beliefs. He never contended that they are facts. In his “manifesto for clear thought,” The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan ends many sections with the words, “But I might be wrong.” His point is that knowledge is asymptotic; that we cannot know “the truth,” but that we can get pretty damn close (Sagan 28). By and large, though, religion deals in absolutes. “Birth control is against the will of God.” Says who? “God.” Prove it. “I’m a manifestation of God and I said so, QED.” One must take it on faith that birth control is against the will of God, and that the real reason behind the statement isn’t more something like, if you don’t allow your flock to use birth control, you will bolster your numbers. (In practice, this is called Irish Catholicism.) Of course, I still can’t prove that God isn’t against birth control, but I can draw upon strong evidence to indicate that the terrestrial origins of such a stance are much more rooted in realpolitik than divinity.

Sagan’s statements about the nature of the universe can indeed be considered “religious” by a loose but accurate definite of the word. They are indeed a set of beliefs surrounding an ultimate truth; however, they are markedly different from conventional religion because they do not proclaim to know or have a monopoly on the truth. Where traditional religions are conservative in that they are loath to consider new evidence that would suggest their fallibility, Sagan’s view of the universe is progressive, inviting new ideas about the nature of nature. If we are to call Sagan’s beliefs his religion, as we may do, we must include the caveat that those beliefs are nothing like the religions that we know.

Sagan uses Newton as his example (Sagan 33). For three hundred years or so, scientists believed Newtonian physics explained the universe. Then Albert Einstein came along and showed that Newton was only an estimation of the actual mechanisms of physics. Indeed, Newton’s physics works very well for conditions that we see in everyday life and is used to model those situations. I defy anyone to find a single scientist, though, who still believes that Newtonian physics is more accurate or explanatory than Einstein. (I know that this is a horrible oversimplification of classical mechanics as well as relativity and quantum theory as classical mechanics is still a usable model for "normal" conditions, but I believe that the point stands.) It is hard to imagine a mainstream religion that so easily rejects something at the core of its “belief” system that is proved to be false and indeed not only rejects its former belief center but also actively looks to poke holes in its new one. (Again, this is an oversimplification, but I mean more than “questioning one’s faith.”)

What’s the harm, though? Why not let religions do their own thing? Why do I go out of my way to contrast skepticism and religion? Why can I not just let the two coexist? Indeed, the question returns: what possible harm could come of it?

II.
The Jews Are the Chosen People
Genesis 17:13 reads, “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” Judaism and Islam particularly take this message to heart; circumcision rates approach 100% in Jews and Muslims. There is strong evidence that circumcision significantly reduces one’s risk of contracting HIV. Therefore, God has chosen those religions to survive AIDS at a greater rate. (The Christian Church technically banned circumcision in 1442 as a matter of politics, but the pope is part of the voice of God, so that God seems to have forsaken them in 1442.) Thus, they will inherit the Earth when everyone else dies. Further, we should do nothing to help the uncircumcised fools because they are not God’s chosen people. Further, if medical science finds a vaccine against HIV, it should only be administered to the chosen ones. If it was given to everyone, it would be a violation of God’s will. I smell a smiting.

But is it coincidence? Is there, in fact, no connection between the passage in Genesis and AIDS? (And if there is a connection, couldn’t God have mentioned it as confirmation of His existence? I mean, how cool would that be, anyway? “Just get used to it now because you’ll thank Me later when you guys survive AIDS better.”) To paraphrase Machiavelli, I cannot answer, but I can tell you which is safer. The stance that it is happenstance allows for less genocide. Indeed, as PTJ wrote, “‘because God wanted it that way’ is always an appropriate -- if scientifically unrevealing -- answer to any question about how or why something happened.” The potential dangers with accepting the “because God wanted it that way” answer are too numerous to even attempt to itemize.

The Collision of Religion and Science
Science (at least scientific empiricism) does not specifically seek to be at odds with religion. Indeed, if religion confined itself to a certain kind of agnosticism and did not make statements about the nature of the world, there would be no conflict. However, when religion makes claims on the empirical world, they enter the world of science and are subject to its scrutiny.

I do not have room here to cite even a tiny fraction of the number of times when religion has intruded into the observable world. I do not need to mention the number of times where it has ended in disaster. Let’s leave it at Galileo.

What’s the problem with believing in heliocentrism? It can hardly affect one’s day to day life. Most of us never need to understand the nature of gravity or eclipses or earthquakes. They happen and we react. So what’s the danger?

The danger is credulity. If people do not hold all of their beliefs up to the light of skepticism and test them, then they are in danger of being led astray by the first Jim Jones who walks by. It means that people who use the Hamitic hypothesis can Rwanda things up. We can, of course, prove that all Homo sapiens are virtually identical, but we can never disprove that God intended for the Tutsis to rule over the Hutus. Conveniently, this absolves the individuals committing genocide from responsibility because it is God’s will. I cannot tell you which is right, but I can tell you which is safer.

If we treat religious claims with skepticism, we may question whether or not there ever was a Ham. (We could figure out whether there was a Great Flood. If no, then no Noah and thus no Ham.) Religion must be held up to skepticism because not doing so will eventually result in disaster. If we do not put all of our beliefs up to the light, we risk falling into total darkness. (Sorry Carl, but you picked too good an image for me not to steal.)

This is a separate issue from that of Ultimate Significance. Even if there is a creator of the universe, there is no credible evidence that the creator cares about us, or indeed is still watching at all. Empirical evidence leads me to believe that religions were created for a very practical reason: to explain the unexplainable. (Churches frequently invoke God for practical purposes. Take, for example, priests’ chastity. If priests do not have heirs, they cannot pass their land on to anyone except the church.) Explaining the mechanisms by which the world functions is now the domain of science. Imbuing events with some separate meaning is not my concern; my concern is not even directly that of Christian Scientists refusing medical treatment. My concern is that Christian Scientists who refuse medical treatment are turning their back on reality. If they shy away from reality in one area, what is to say that they will not in others? Science and religion are indeed at war, not over the domain of ultimate significance, but over the observable universe. “Live and let live” is simply not possible when two irreconcilable viewpoints are directed at the same domain.

What is Ultimate Significance?
I’ve used the term “ultimate significance” many times. PTJ asked how one can, without ultimate significance, answer Camus’ question about suicide. As someone who does not believe in any order to the events of the universe beyond that which is observable, I can answer that question. It is fallacious to assume that human beings need to find some meaning beyond the observable world. With no evidence that there is life beyond that which we experience in our physical forms, this is quite literally all that anyone has, but it is not unfulfilling. It is not, as PTJ put it, “mundane” (perhaps “quotidian” would be a less emotionally charged word). Am I, or was Sagan, injecting ultimate significance into the study of the world? If there is no end beyond this life, if indeed our deaths are the end of our existence, then the work we do in our lifetimes is literally our ultimate – final, fundamental – work. (Dave Barry has what I find to be a more realistic version of Camus’ points: “A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.” So perhaps Camus should have listed his profession and religion as “Humorist.”)

This is what I see as Carl Sagan’s point. Indeed, there is significance in what we do here. By all indications, there was no part of our existence before our [conception/birth/brain activity/mirror test/latest Supreme Court ruling], and there will be no part of our existence after our deaths. Just as our planet is “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” we ourselves occupy only a tiny corner of the universe (Sagan, Pale Blue Dot). But it is all that we will ever know. Is this a religious claim? It certainly has the imagery of wonder. That is Carl Sagan’s message. One can experience wonder while confining oneself to the empirical universe. Further, this path to wonder does not require Ultimate Significance because skepticism admits uncertainty, which I am hard-pressed to reconcile which such an absolute concept as Ultimate Significance. Is it all significant beyond our bodies and beyond our mote of dust? Who knows and who cares? We’ll find out when we’re dead but for the moment, we’re here. Have I made a leap of faith, or have I used the instruments of empiricism to give me a working hypothesis?

I close with a quote from Carl Sagan, who set this whole thing off. It is infused with the concept of Significance, though I still question whether or not it is ultimate. Though he uses the language of wonder, his statement is remarkably grounded in the observable world. Sagan knew the importance of the "Blue Marble" photo from Apollo 17 in capturing the world's imagination about everyone's home planet, and made sure that Voyager 1 turned around and took the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image.



Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.


The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.


Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.


The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.


Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

5 comments:

TLC Tugger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andrew said...

Indeed, the problem of getting along with religion is that religion won't place with its toys. it has to keep trying to play with science's toys, which is a bad idea if there ever was one.

PTJ said...

Nice riposte. Here's a set of thoughts on Santa Claus:

http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2007/12/is-there-santa-claus.html

PTJ said...

Let's try that again: here's the url.

http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2007/12/is-there-santa-claus.html.

Chris said...

I'm quite glad that your "Social Constructionist view of Santa Claus" (SC view of SC) exists. I came to that interesting realization when I got to the age where I knew the man in the suit didn't exist, but my cousins didn't. Needless to say, that was before I knew what social constructionism was.