Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Science vs. God

In a Response thread to a prior entry, I was asked — I think — to make sense of the whole universe, evolution and all, without God, the apparent implication being that if I fail to satisfy, religion stands vindicated. That’s a tall order — in principle spanning everything from tonight’s lunar eclipse on the chilly East Coast (in about one hour) to the fauna of the steamy Galapagos, made famous by Darwin and recently photographed by honeymooning science writer Ken Silber (how hollow and materialistic it all must have seemed to him!).

I don’t imagine I can convince anyone determined not to be convinced — of much of anything. In fact, one of the most pernicious things about belief in God is that it tends to create people determined not to have their minds changed, as though the changing of a mind were an inherently violent process. I can’t get far with that as raw material, nor can civilization.

Readers who are open to observation and evidence, though, will know full well how much sense the universe makes — and will likely have some idea why it makes sense, to the extent they recall their math, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, and history. Armed with those powerful and very exciting tools, not to mention (perfectly secular versions of) philosophy and art, one could spend a happy and very rich lifetime describing the known universe — and the tantalizing mysteries about parts of it still not fully understood (though nothing in it, even the parts we don’t yet fully understand, appears to suggest some supernatural or non-material presence at work, I must, under the circumstances, hasten to add).

Think of all the truly awe-inspiring things that a scientist could tell you about the Moon and the reasons for tonight’s eclipse compared to the sad, faltering, desperate, and usually nonsensical narratives about such things eked out by various superstitions, whether they be animist, ancient Greek, Christian, neo-pagan feminist, back-to-nature Gaia-worshipping, or what have you. Only a mind quickly bored by complexity would find some ancient Middle-Eastern tale about the sky being, say, a giant cow skin stretched between divine campfires more amazing or engrossing than the humbling truth about the Moon’s probable origins in the same massive dust cloud as the Earth, with all the attendant implications for the decidedly cow-dwarfing size and mass of our surroundings, not to mention for the regularity and power of tides.

I can’t recommend the old science TV series Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, highly enough for anyone still laboring under the impression that science renders the universe dry and boring. Dry and boring? Tell that to a white dwarf star or a black hole, baby (I’m listening to the Tin Machine album with “Baby Universal” on it as I type this, I confess).

Scientists and Children

Children often ask questions about how the universe works — and the laziest of those children basically want to be told that everything in the universe works exactly the same way they do, which is to say by crawling around in search of food or making entreaties to parent figures. Thus, some find it very cozy and comforting to be told that the Moon is there because a daddy-force up there somewhere decided to put it there — and if you’re good, he’ll be with you always and will fulfill your every hunger. For adults, by contrast, there are concepts like geosynchronous orbits and igneous rock and gravitational pull. For children and for adults who prefer to think like children, Daddy remains the explanation for everything, always, forever.

This is not to say there isn’t the perplexing question, which Heidegger rightly called philosophy’s biggest puzzle, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But (a) it’s not clear that our (evolved) intuition that there ought to be nothing because that’s “easier” is correct when applied to the universe as a whole (there may be some amount of energy less than which it would be “harder” to achieve in much the way it’s not easy to get a terrestrial object down to absolute zero); (b) we know that short-lived “virtual particles” arise out of nothing all the time and disappear again, so it’s not clear this sloppy, largely unorganized, almost-entirely-empty (and mindbogglingly vast, dark, and cold, except in a trifling few tiny spots), rapidly/acceleratingly dissipating energy-burp of a universe as a whole can’t have a similar story; and (c) for those who find the presence of a universe without any clear prior cause so mentally unacceptable that they’re willing to latch onto even non-rational narratives that simply invent an explanation — such as a sentient creator-force — there will always be the residual question: Why oh why do you think the creator-force (or whatever) that you just made up springing causelessly into existence somehow “makes more sense” than the universe, which you can see with your own eyes really is here, doing the exact same thing? When God does it, it’s an explanation? Sort of like saying, “How could anyone survive five-million-degree heat — oh, it’s Crazy Bob! Crazy Bob can do anything!”

Not that science ever promised you some purpose-driven, i’s-dotted narrative of how everything got here and where it’s definitely going and how you can find joy and meaning in the middle of it anyway. Science just offers to work at finding out what we can really know. It won’t be perfect, but it won’t lie to you (though there’ll be mistakes from time to time, of course — anyone who claims they have flawless answers is deluding you). If you prefer to be lied to, stick with religion, but stop acting surprised when some of us, loving truth and wanting to know what’s actually going on in the world, feel a duty to puncture the lies. As adults, we know that the answer to the question “What is true?” cannot possibly be “You leave me alone! I can think whatever I want, so there!” Though as a legal and practical matter, of course, you can believe in Zeus or the Great Beaver, and no one can stop you, rest assured. But you see how arbitrary — and thus probably false — such comfort-fantasies are and why some of us might want to advance the discussion beyond them.

Taking the Smartest Route Available

This is not to say there aren’t highly intelligent, wonderful people who partake of both modes of thought, science and religion — I’ll see one in Vegas this weekend, in fact. I admit moderates exist on these issues, obviously. That’s something Sam Harris often fails to do and something Christopher Hitchens sometimes fails to do — and he has been taken to task for it by Daniel Radosh, as I’ll explain in tomorrow’s entry.

In the meantime, I’m going to go look at the Moon. I don’t expect to notice it doing anything unnatural or intelligently-guided, and it will be beautiful and awesome all the same — even more so for being unplanned, really, just as the fact that advanced economies and sorted-for-survival-advantages lifeforms are the result of simple but effective sorting processes is far more interesting (and the effort to understand these humbling sorting processes far more enlightening) than just saying “The wise Commissar must have made the people wealthy!” or “God must have decided to make ponies because they’re pretty.”

Just as economics teaches us more about how the world really works (and particularly politics, with implications for a practical, utilitarian moral code as well) than would our uninformed gut instincts about how things “oughtta be” alone, and just as philosophy teaches us more about the consistent and inconsistent elements of our own thinking than would the stubborn assumption that we’re right about everything, so too does science offer an entire, real universe to be discovered and continually understood, a better way than the shortcut of telling us that we basically had it all figured from our first childhood Bible reading. Religion, for all its internal debates, contradictions, and centuries of theological knots, essentially offers one old, very simple, and very, very implausible answer to everything, and some people, tragically, spend their whole lives contemplating that brief answer — like a simpleton forever stroking the same piece of velvet in his shabby basement room, never daring to investigate the wide world beyond for fear he’ll find that it isn’t all made out of that same piece of velvet.

Was that last bit insulting? You see how I’m trying to help, though.

Oh, and while there’s hardly time to get into it all in one small blog entry, I have to say, my atheist acquaintances have tended to come to much more commonsensical (and perfectly humane) views on morals and much more relaxed, accepting attitudes toward the inevitability of death than most of the religious people I’ve met, who, if they haven’t simply given up trying to make sense of “God’s plan,” are often quite vexed and baffled about it all, and expend a fair amount of mental and emotional energy on the vexation and the bafflement, from what I’ve seen. If I thought the most loving being in the universe had concocted a system where I might roast in a lake of fire for eternity (just to take one version of the story, certainly not the only one), I imagine I’d be vexed and baffled, too, though (after years of reading comic books) I agree that all that troubling stuff could be rationalized as easily as contradictory Batman stories if one insisted on trying to defend it all — but sorting out all that stuff or providing some alternative narrative to it isn’t really my department. I have a real world to understand.


Ken Silber said...

Pleased to see the Galapagos link, Todd, but you give me more credit than I deserve–most of those pics were taken by my wife Brooke, while I was busy taking notes. As for hollowness, we did walk through a lava tube.

Todd Seavey said...

Duly noted. In vaguely related news, Sean Dougherty forwards a reminder that trying to appease the masses with science info is probably a lost cause: notes that a U. Wisconsin survey finds about 30% of Americans say they’re morally opposed to…nanotechnology. Riiiiiiight, and I’m sure Americans really know what they’re talking about.

(They’ll know a little bit more if they read my _Reason_ cover story this month ["March"] about nanotech, though.)

Scott Nybakken said...

Todd, if you had cable and watched the proper amount of progamming on the Science Channel, you’d know that the current theory explaining the existence of the Moon is *even cooler* than what you describe above. Many experts now believe that the Earth (or, more accurately, the proto-Earth) was actually struck by a Mars-sized planet early in the solar system’s history, and the molten material ejected into orbit following the impact coalesced into the Moon. (That material was primarily from the mantle of the two planets, while the heavier iron from the impactor’s core sank and was absorbed into the Earth, resulting in the low iron content of the Moon’s core.) More details, as always, can be found in Wikipedia:

Todd Seavey said...

I had that in mind, actually, but didn’t think it was a good time to get into the details. There is a universe full of them, though, and they rock.

Christopher said...

So God plays *marbles* with the universe!

MarcS said...

Interesting post that takes awhile to get to the crux of the argument, point, which is bascially that the universe is only evidence of the universe. I’d add that for the universe to be evidence of theism, you have to start looking within the universe for evidence that there was something before the universe – which there very well could have been, like hyperdimensional aliens (like in Contact! – a book/movie btw that made me realize the possibility of encountering extraterrestrial life would be enough of a spiritual event to satisfy more than a thousand sundays at church)- but, jeez, it sure is hard to find.

And you also have to deal with all the evidence that suggests the universe appears to be trying to discourage rational beings from believing in a god – like the absurdity of the major religions being based on self-contradictory, unverifiable, and demonstrably false sacred texts all providing competing advice on what to “believe” in order to establish the magical connection to the “what came before”. Take rational Martian (once we make Contact) raised without religion and comfortable with the universe as it’s own “first mover” but open to the idea that something may have created all of this – plop him down on earth, introduce him to various religious leaders, have him read all the scared texts – very doubtful he’s going to become a convert to anything.

At the same time, I agree with “Xine’s” comment that calling religious types “pathetic, intellectually irresponsible, immoral, mistaken, and stupid” isn’t constructive, or very insightful. Clearly, something in the way our brains evolved made us capable and often inclined to create mental models of the world based on instincts and drives other than reason (lust, intution, imperfect pattern recognition, etc.). Calling anyone who doesn’t lean more on their reason than these other obviously compelling emotional or intuitive mental faculties when dealing with the Big Questions comes across as more than a tad arrogant. Sticking to arguments about why such a belief is mistaken, irresponsible, and (possibly) immoral in the face of absence of evidence for and mountains of evidence against seems the most one can respectfully do and still keep dialogue civil. History doesn’t provide many instances of religious people responding to open hostility with introspection. And I’d say “pathetic” and “stupid” are value judgments that I don’t think you have the right to make as sweeping generalizations unless you can look into any believer’s “soul” (or mind) and see that their reason circuitry is indeed faulty or belief is inspired by mental cowardice.

Todd Seavey said...

I can examine their arguments, though, or their refusal to make any — but I will try not to browbeat them too much anyway.

But this might be a good point for me to turn to the topic of moderation, so I’ll post a new entry about that in several hours (after partying with an economist, in keeping with my role).

And Tuesday night, if all goes as planned, it just so happens I am scheduled to post a review of the novel _The Sparrow_ (which I haven’t finished yet, so don’t give anything away!), my fourth February Book Selection, which does indeed concern (very intelligent and likable) Jesuits encountering extraterrestrials.