American Astronomer, Astrophysicist, Cosmologist and Writer
American Astronomer, Astrophysicist, Cosmologist and Writer
Both skepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and practice. Their harmonious marriage within the mind of every schoolchild ought to be a principal goal of public education. I?d love to see such a domestic felicity portrayed in the media, television especially: a community of people really working the mix ? full of wonder, generously open to every notion, dismissing nothing except for good reason, but at the same time, and as second nature, demanding stringent standards of evidence ? and these standards applied with at least as much rigor to what they hold dear as to what they are tempted to reject with impunity.
If we offer too much silent assent about [ignorance] ? even when it seems to be doing a little good ? we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.
In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.
The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them ? the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you?re sensible, you?ll listen to us; and if not, you?re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive? Whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted. If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without consulting their horoscopes, or those who pin their hopes on crystals from Atlantis.
When we are asked to swear in American courts of law ? that we will tell ?the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? ? we are being asked the impossible. It is simply beyond our powers. Our memories are fallible; even scientific truth is merely an approximation; and we are ignorant about nearly all of the Universe? If it is to be applied consistently, science imposes, in exchange for its manifold gifts, a certain onerous burden: We are enjoined, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, to consider ourselves and our cultural institutions scientifically ? not to accept uncritically whatever we?re told; to surmount as best we can our hopes, conceits, and unexamined beliefs; to view ourselves as we really are? Because its explanatory power is so great, once you get the hang of scientific reasoning you?re eager to apply it everywhere. However, in the course of looking deeply within ourselves, we may challenge notions that give comfort before the terrors of the world.
If the very strong version of the anthropic principle is true, that is, that God?we might as well call a spade a spade?created the universe so that humans would eventually come about, then we have to ask the question, what happens if humans destroy themselves? That would make the whole exercise sort of pointless. So if only we could believe the strong version, we would have to conclude either (a) that an omnipotent and omniscient God did not create the universe, that is, that He was an inexpert cosmic engineer, or(b) that human beings will not self-destruct. Either alternative, it seems to me, is a matter of some interest, would be worth knowing. But there is a dangerous fatalism lurking here in the second branch of that fork in this road.
Many religions have attempted to make statues of their gods very large, and the idea, I suppose, is to make us feel small. But if that?s their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons. We need only look up if we wish to feel small. It?s after an exercise such as this that many people conclude that the religious sensibility is inevitable.
My kind didn?t really slither out of a tidal pool, did we?
Newtonian gravitation works throughout the entire universe. We could have imagined a universe in which the laws of nature were restricted to only a small portion of space or time. That does not seem to be the case. ? So that is itself a deep and extraordinary fact: that the laws of nature exist and that they are the same everywhere. So if that is what you mean by God, then I would say that we already have excellent evidence that God exists. But now take the opposite pole: the concept of God as an outsize male with a long white beard, sitting in a throne in the sky and tallying the fall of every sparrow. Now, for that kind of god I maintain there is no evidence. And while I?m open to suggestions of evidence for that kind of god, I personally am dubious that there will be powerful evidence for such a god not only in the near future but even in the distant future. And the two examples I?ve given you are hardly the full range of ideas that people mean when they use the word ?god.?
"From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman ate an apple? And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer?" Paine is saying that we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space, and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.
The word ?god? is used to cover a vast multitude of mutually exclusive ideas. And the distinctions are, I believe in some cases, intentionally fuzzed so that no one will be offended that people are not talking about their god.
All that we have seen is something of a vast and intricate and lovely universe. There is no particular theological conclusion that comes out of an exercise such as the one we have just gone through. What is more, when we understand something of the astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognize that worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as humans do, and therefore that there is a great deal of suffering and death in the cosmos if there is a great deal of life.
The word ?religion? comes from the Latin for ?binding together,? to connect that which has been sundered apart. It?s a very interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so. But the question has to do with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two fields and the methods of approach.
And if? life and perhaps even intelligence is a cosmic commonplace, then it must follow that there is massive destruction, obliteration of whole planets, that routinely occurs, frequently, throughout the universe. Well, that is a different view than the traditional Western sense of a deity carefully taking pains to promote the well-being of intelligent creatures. It?s a very different sort of conclusion that modern astronomy suggests. There is a passage from Tennyson that comes to mind: ?I found Him in the shining of the stars, / I mark?d Him in the flowering of His fields.? So far pretty ordinary. ?But,? Tennyson goes on, ?in His ways with men I find Him not?. Why is all around us here / As if some lesser god had made the world, / but had not force to shape it as he would???
But let me give a sense of two poles of the definition of God. One is the view of, say, Spinoza or Einstein, which is more or less God as the sum total of the laws of physics. Now, it would be foolish to deny that there are laws of physics. If that?s what we mean by God, then surely God exists. All we have to do is watch the apples drop.
By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, ?I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.? So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.
Does trying to understand the universe at all betray a lack of humility? I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we are admiring. If we seek that nature, then love can be informed by truth instead of being based on ignorance or self-deception. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship.
God, I need to believe you created me: we are so small down here.
I don?t propose that it is a virtue to revel in our limitations. But it?s important to understand how much we do not know.
I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.
I think there is a very general truth that Lillie Emery expresses in this poem. I believe everyone on some level recognizes that feeling. And yet, and yet, if we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there?s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?
If Newton were restricted, in working through the theory of gravitation, to apples and forbidden to look at the motion of the Moon or the Earth, it is clear he would not have made much progress. It is precisely being able to look at the effects down here, look at the effects up there, comparing the two, which permits, encourages, the development of a broad and general theory. If we are stuck on one planet, if we know only this planet, then we are extremely limited in our understanding even of this planet. If we know only one kind of life, we are extremely limited in our understanding even of that kind of life. If we know only one kind of intelligence, we are extremely limited in knowing even that kind of intelligence. But seeking out our counterparts elsewhere, broadening our perspective, even if we do not find what we are looking for, gives us a framework in which to understand ourselves far better.
If the Earth is, as we certainly know it to be, 4,500 million years old and the human species at most a few million years old, probably less than that, then we have been here for only an instant of geological time, for less than one one-thousandth of the history of the Earth, and therefore in time, as in space, we have been demoted from the central to an incidental aspect.
Understanding is joyous.
Religion used to provide a generally accepted understanding of our place in the universe…. The way to find out about our place in the universe is by examining the universe and examining ourselves - without preconceptions, with as unbiased a mind as we can muster.