Carl Sagan’s challenge ignored

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Carl Sagan’s 1985 Gifford lectures are really interesting. They have been edited and published in The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.

I highly recommend this book.

Massimo Pigliucci recently commented on the book at his blog Rationally Speaking (see Good point, Dr. Sagan!). He points out that Sagan effectively issued a challenge to theologians in his lectures. It’s a challenge they have not taken up.

Here is an extract of Pigliucci’s article:

“After contemplating all this [the immensity of the universe] for a moment, Sagan says: “And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions.” That seems exactly right, and something that is hardly discussed even in debates between atheists and theists: human religions are completely oblivious to the enormity of space. There is much talk about “intelligent design” and “anthropic principles” and other fanciful notions concocted to convince us that there is scientific evidence that this whole shebang was put in place by someone just so that we would eventually appear (and what a beautiful result he got for all his efforts!).

But Sagan’s observation makes it very clear that these people have no idea in what sort of place we really live. As Douglas Adams famously put it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Indeed. What sort of intelligent engineer would create a contraption (the universe) that takes upwards of 13 billion years to generate Homo sapiens, all the while wasting 99.999999999999+ percent of the space in the universe? Or maybe, suggests Sagan, this vast amount of space and time hasn’t been wasted, and God has created many other worlds with people. But in that case, did Jesus come and die on the cross in every single one of them? Are there separate Hells and Heavens for different species of ET? The theological implications are staggering, and yet completely unaddressed.

Ah, the religious will say, but who are we to question God’s plan? He (or she, or it, as Sagan repeatedly writes) notoriously works in mysterious ways. But that is the ultimate cop out. It is simply a fancy, and frankly insulting, way to say “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” People have a right to believe whatever inane story they like to believe (as long as they do not try to impose it on others), but many religious people since Thomas Aquinas actually want to argue that their beliefs are also rational, that there is no contradiction between the book of nature and those of scripture. If so, then they need to answer Sagan’s question about why it is that the so-called holy books don’t tell us anything at all about how the universe really is.

Sagan imagines how God could have dictated his books to the ancient prophets in a way that would have certainly made an impact on us moderns. He could have said (I’m quoting Sagan directly here): “Don’t forget, Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes. … You’ll understand this later. Trust me. … How about, ‘Thou shalt not travel faster than light?’ … Or ‘There are no privileged frames of reference.’ Or how about some equations? Maxwell’s laws in Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese characters or ancient Hebrew.” Now that would be impressive, and even Dawkins would have to scratch his head at it. But no, instead we find trivial stories about local tribes, a seemingly endless series of “begats,” and a description of the world as small, young, and rather flat.

Sagan’s challenge is virtually ignored by theologians the world over. And for good reason: it is impossible to answer coherently while retaining the core of most religious traditions. The various gods people worship are simply far too small for the universe we actually inhabit, which is no surprise once we accept the rather obvious truth that it is us who made the gods in our image, not the other way around. We miss you, Carl.”

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58 responses to “Carl Sagan’s challenge ignored

  1. much could be said, but the most ironic thing here is that the point being made in the quote is a theological one, and very much after the flavour of Psalm 8 (which, among other things, reflects on the vastness of creation and how relatively miniscule humans are)…

    And could someone explain where the assumption came from that if humans arrive at the end of a long history, the non-human bits of time, space and matter were ‘wasted’?? Is someone assuming that a God could not delight in all his creation…

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  2. Oops, Ken, looks like Pigliucci is another Dawkins-basher!!

    At the same time, it is so refreshing to read the words of a positive atheist [Sagan], which do not in the least resemble the angry and inflated rhetoric of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.

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  3. He is. isn’t he? I think another example of professional jealousy.

    You have to take people as they come and I think that Pigliucci makes some interesting points, and also makes mistakes. A bit like Dawkins.

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  4. I meant to add, Dale, that I thought you would pick up on that comment!

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  5. Professional jealousy? Or maybe… just maybe???… a fair comment about Dawkins (or at least Dawkins when he is in anti-God mode).
    My view is that the most balanced and respectible voices are those who acknowledge Dawkins’ ability and gifts as a scientist, yet who can also point out that when he gets on his anti-theism tirades, he speaks out of his field. That’s not Dawkins’ bashing, that’s just balanced commentary. 🙂

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  6. Didn’t you notice that Massimo was on one of his own “anti-theism tirades.” Something he does quite effectively from time to time.

    Mind you – if he has a dig a Dawkins in the process, perhaps that makes it acceptable?

    Something I have noticed about Dawkins is that he generally doesn’t make personal digs like this (during his “tirades”) – something I can respect him for. As I know from experience that ambitious scientists can be a catty lot.

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  7. His “dig” (a word too pejorative for what he actually said, methinks) is not acceptable because it is at Dawkins, but rather because it is accurate. 🙂

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  8. Accurate! – in your opinion. meanwhile you will gloss over the “inaccuracies” in Massimo various anti-theist articles?

    Come on – they are both infidels – and they are both outspoken and proud of it.

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  9. As you’ll agree, we’ve got to treat each statement (or set of statements) on it’s own merit – or lack thereof.

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  10. Reminds me of the title of one of Pratchett’s books, Small Gods.

    @Dale,

    There are these religious people who dish out on “anti-evolution” tirades when it’s very clear that they know very little about evolution. I presume you think that these people are silly.

    More seriously, Dawkins does have a lot experience of the silliness of religions, as these people have been directing their nonsense his way for 30-odd years…!

    I suspect many of the people criticising Dawkins for not being “not knowledgeable about religions” are expecting him to “know” beliefs in the way that someone holding them does, something of a contradiction in terms, to be polite. Dawkins (and others) have looked at religion as a scientist might study any other subject, from the outside. That’s how all subjects are looked at when approached with objectivity. Same for psychology, sociology, … etc.

    I’m sure there are specialists that know more, after all, no matter how much you know there is always someone who know more (!), but that’s no reason to dismiss his efforts out of hand.

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  11. Yes – I agree. And I try to do that.

    I have often mentioned that I had a bad opinion of Dawkins – before I actually read his books! Now, I hope if I still hadn’t read his books and saw a comment like Massimo’s I would have taken as just another personal comment and ignored it – as I generally try to do in simialr situations.

    It’s hard to tell because there is a lot of Dawkins’ bashing these days – and attempts to create a knee jerk reaction to anything about Dawkins.

    I am sensitive to knee-jerk reactions in general and try to hold off judgments until I have proper evidence.

    I must say I am grateful that I manged to get over that knee-jerk barrier and did get around to reading Dawkins. He is a great writer and I do identify with a lot he says.

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  12. I haven’t seen a lot of mainstream Christian theologians addressing the “bigness of the universe” issue, but that may be because Christians are already SPLINTERED on the issue of “what comes next.” Any theologian who starts to relate specific verses of the New Testament to the vast size of the universe is going to offend a LOT of different people for a LOT of different reasons. I wouldn’t expect it to be a popular topic among orthodox believers.

    For a less orthodox discussion of theology and the size of the universe, however, I can recommend Frank Tipler’s “Omega Point.” Based on my reading of Tipler, he seems to satisfy the Sagan Challenge.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_J._Tipler

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  13. And we can’t offend religious people, can we Scott? That is part of the problem. The truth often offends. The cure is to adjust ones beliefs to reality.

    I say – go out there and offend them.

    I have read reviews of some of tipplers books. They have usually been pretty scathing – and certainly the “explanations” he has for Christian miracles that I have seen have been laughable.

    But I won’t let my knees jerk. I should have a go with one of his books one day. When I have time top spare.

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  14. Sagan effectively issued a challenge to theologians in his lectures. It’s a challenge they have not taken up.

    Oh really. Google “response to sagans universe challenge”..
    This review of Sagan’s “The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” addresses many of Sagan’s challenges.

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  15. Since there are numerous competing religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam etc) and cults within them (Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Sunni etc) it is almost impossible for the skeptic to take the concept seriously.

    Since Christianity is locally the most vocal religion, it is worth recalling the almost total lack of historical evidence for its Jewish ‘founder’ – as Dean Inge famously and firmly stated.

    And its political adoption by Constantine and subsequent history certainly look more human than divine!

    Can’t help wondering if all these centuries of theologizing, by some remarkably clever people, would not have been better directed into something useful like gardening, or latterly into quantum mechanics.

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  16. @Red Rosa
    At least Carl Sagan made a substantive critique, worthy of serious consideration. You should try it

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  17. Pondering the Sagan challenge… it seems to me like it’s easy enough to generate “theology” that addresses the size of the universe. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon whose later works of science fiction include some interesting theological notions.

    I view “science” as the human discipline that seeks to understand “Nature,” and “theology” as the human discipline that seeks to understand “Scripture.” Nature has been telling us about the size of the universe since men first looked up into the sky, but science didn’t start to grasp how big it really was until quite recently.

    If you’ve read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” by Thomas Kuhn, you should be able to apply his approach to disciplines other than science. One could write a book called “The Structure of Theological Revolutions” that would repeat Kuhn’s essential insight: groups of human beings have difficulty making sense of new ideas.

    In my opinion, Scripture says a lot more about the size of the universe than most theologians have noticed. The major schools of Christian theology were pretty well formulated by the late 1500s–a generation before Galileo’s telescope changed the way we look at the sky. As I see it, Calvinists and Arminians and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians are still battling over issues like the “order of salvation,” without breaking any fundamentally new ground. That, in my opinion, may reflect the limitations of theology as a human activity rather than telling us much about God.

    The people who ARE doing some original thinking about man, God, and the size of the universe aren’t being embraced by established theologians. I think Frank Tipler is a “wishful thinker” whose science involves a few too many blithe assumptions, but I admire his attempt to put big ideas together. I don’t know much yet about Lanza and his “Biocentrism,” but he’s openly relating Eastern religious thought to physics and the size of the universe is an essential component of his theory.

    Sagan may not have read Tipler and probably died before Lanza published anything of note–but I’d have to say Sagan’s challenge has been more than met.

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  18. I disagree, Scott. Frank Tipler seems to me just trying to find “scientific” explanations for Christian mythology and “miracles.’ He seems to me stuck in the Christian mindset. Rather than break out of that and see the true wonder of the world he is trying to justify unwarranted Christian claims. Hardly a scientific approach.

    Similarly, I think Biocentricism does littel but produce a magical explanation with pseudo scientific justification. Lanza has had to distort scientific understanding in physics to achieve this. In the process he produces a static magical description unconnected with reality (and therefore unable to evolved as it is tested against reality). This must pale before the real world that we discover by the scientific process.

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  19. Sure, ropata, I’ll try to make those points clearer.

    Firstly, since the concept of ‘God’ does seem to depend totally on one’s religion, and these are numerous and conflicting, we can take it that ‘Man Created God’ rather than the reverse.

    So I’ll (cheekily no doubt) define ‘God’ as ‘that which can’t be explained by Science’ .

    Let’s go back to an arbitrary but useful date, 1900. Then, equations from Newton and Maxwell explained a lot of what was being observed out there by scientists, but not all. Einstein and Rutherford, among others, were working on explaining the rest.

    Now we have quantum mechanics to explain what was puzzling then, and lasers and the atom bomb to demonstrate our cleverness. (!)

    These days we still have some puzzling items for the scientists to explain, but Newton and Maxwell, plus quantum mechanics, do pretty well 99.9% of the time.

    So for the other 0.1%, how are the theologians getting on?

    My guess is, that they are still arguing some of those issues from 100 years ago, like the Pentateuch, or even further back like transsubstantiation.

    Digging into the bible didn’t seem to help the conceptual debates around quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 1930s, and any messages as to the Big Bang questions of today are not obvious either.

    Christianity is an intriguing historical study, and its contribution to art, music and some aspects of civilization undeniable. But as any brief study of the medieval papacy or today’s Roman Catholic church can confirm, its human rather than divine aspects are all too evident.

    And this is only Christianity! Maybe the theologians can sift through Islam and the eastern religions for one all-encompassing definition of ‘God’. Until then , we don’t seem to have much to work on.

    However, and happily, some theologians do seem to be letting their subject drift back into the placid and productive byways of history and literature. Exploring the rich variety of conceptual debate, and the tangled strands of religious politics and wars, is certainly instructive.

    But battling science tooth and nail? Some of the more enlightened theologians gave that up 100 years ago!

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  20. just a quick comment on Red Rosa’s comment:

    1 – the 99.9 (science) v 00.1 (theology) language is based on conflating modes explanation into one. It assumes that both science and theology are trying to explain the same things and in the same way, with the same mode of analysis. (and even if you’re not keen to place much value on ‘other modes of analysis’, you can’t a priori deny that they exist – rather you have to demonstrate why they don’t exist or aren’t valid, etc.)

    Science has always been a mode of enquiry that is empirical and metrical and Theology metaphysical and value-based. They are similar at points, however: both disciplines use logic/reason, are based on some foundational assumptions, and see themselves as never-finished disciplines.

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  21. I have to agree with Dale on this. Science addresses many questions that science doesn’t, such as “What is the molecular weight of glucose?” Theology addresses quite a few questions that science doesn’t, such as, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

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  22. Scott – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a question we all address – scientists and non-scientists, theists and atheists. No one can claims special skills here as of right.

    Theology has no special role in such questions (even though it might claim a role for itself).

    Dale – the problem with your “different modes of inquiry” is that theology has (and very often still does) intrude into the scientific magisterium, into the scientific mode of inquiry. It has no authority, skills, here and often makes outrageous knowledge claims which are shown to be wrong.

    historically theology is retreating as science advances – because theology’s knowledge claims are shown to be wrong.

    Theological metaphysics is just such an attempt – and is discredited.

    When it comes to values – we all work in that area don’t we? Theology has no special role there. Theologians can work in that area because they are human – just like you and me. We are on a level playing field with values.

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  23. I wish I wasn’t so busy and I’d address the points more specifically, but basically theology is taking the wrong approach here.

    Established religions haven’t addressed the size of the universe and realistically couldn’t have. “Back then,” the average person people didn’t even have a notion of the full size of the earth, let alone the universe.

    You have to be careful with implications. For example Scott has implied a modern meaning on “looking up in the sky”, one that wasn’t held back then; they didn’t have sense of size or distance in the way that we do today, nor what the “heavenly bodies” actually were.

    (In a sense Scott needs to play is line from Kuhn backwards—which he’s not doing—to appreciate how different ideas at that time were.)

    Scripture of any kind cannot bypass what was known, because they are limited to what was known at the time they were written. They are written by people, after all…

    “Retro-fitting” knowledge onto old religious text is tedious and silly. That people are able to do simple merely show how ambiguous those texts are and how keen (desperate, depending on your point of view) the people who hold them are to have those texts to know “everything”, when it’s very clear that they didn’t know about the larger world, never mind the universe, which is perfectly understandable given the knowledge of the time.

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  24. @Dale, that’s a special pleading argument. If you’re looking at something like the universe, then both are talking about the same thing; as it’s “real”, you can’t argue it away by calling on “metaphysics”.

    (I see Ken has said something similar.)

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  25. Well said Heraclides.

    Many histories of science make passing mention of the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus, as their atomic theories sound surprisingly modern.

    But those ‘theories’ were pure speculation, and totally without any evidence or experimental verification.

    Such work was not possible until well into the 19th century, after massive advances in science and technology. Indeed the very existence of atoms was not fully accepted by some scientists until its closing decade.

    The ‘science’ of the two ages, 250 BC and 1900 AD, simply cannot be compared. To put Democritus and Rutherford on the same plane is totally misleading, and does justice to neither.

    Theologians should accept this point regarding their ancient sources also, and move on.

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  26. it is indeed “special” in that the proper mode of analysis is needed, but it’s not pleading… 🙂

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  27. …and analysing things kata physica (acording to [their] nature) has always been what the logical thing (and I suspect will be for a long time!).

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  28. Dale,

    It is a special pleading argument. You can’t break that phrase up either, it’s meaning is taken as a whole. You are pleading (asking) that things be looked in a “special” way to suit yourself using an unjustifiable reason (or no reason). I tried to briefly explain to explain why it isn’t justified, too.

    BTW, I don’t think kata physica is a proper term 😉 The phrase gives not one hit on google or dictionaries.

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  29. In their need to misappropriate the power over people that organised religion can deliver to its leaders, Western Religions in particular have fallen foul of their own laws. By defining the divine, ascribing it petty human jealousies and spitefulness, they’ve left their deities diminished because of their inability to scale up.

    I’d go along with author Tom Robbins when he said that religion bears false witness to the divine. Religious doctrine is blasphemy.

    Which is a bit of a shame because if they’d taken these tomes as pearls of accumulated wisdom, it would be OK. Scientific enquiry was part of all religious orders at one time or another.

    For example, I can see a quite rational reason for the prohibition of eating varieties of seafood or pork. For the former, food poisoning. As for pork, it’s the closest animal to tasting like human flesh (It says something for its ravenous culture when Americans hold all things porky in their staple diet).

    Physics is the closest one that gets to true theology/philosophy these days, which is why Sagan’s gambit has not been attempted. If truth is beauty, astrophysics (Hubble telescope in particular) has enlightened more people than the three brothers of Isaac, Ishmael and Andrew ever did. Less dead people too.

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  30. A Tom Robbins fan 🙂 Great books.

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  31. Science and Theology (or philosophy, to be more inclusive, and representative of the fact that we all have philosophical views) indeed ‘look’ at the same things, but not in the same way. That’s not special pleading, that’s just how it is.

    …and not everything can be found with Google. But you knew that.

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  32. In my opinion, “theology” is only interesting if one starts with the postulate that something called “Scripture” contains information not available elsewhere. I can’t think of any good reason to spend much of my time investigating a “Scripture” that is solely the product of human thought.

    IF some humans did have some “Scripture” that contained information not available elsewhere, one could use human reason to try to locate which “Scripture” contained such information and what kind of information it contained.

    Christian theology starts with the postulate that the Old and New Testaments contain some degree of extra-human information. It would certainly be appropriate for Christian theologians to address the “size of the universe” problem in light of the text of Genesis and various passages in the New Testament. I may tackle that question over on my own blog, just for kicks.

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  33. responses to general criticisms of religion, implication that empirical science is the “answer”…

    – Genesis is not a science text — to read it as such is a basic error.
    – Sagan’s claim is not new, the oldest book in the Bible has God reminding Job that he made the stars (Job 38). Christian recognition of early science goes back to Augustine
    – Religious faith is a “natural” feature of humanity… therefore there is no humane way to eliminate it, and why would a true humanist want to do so? (also implies atheism is unnatural)
    – Newton and Maxwell were devout Christians (so was Roger Bacon, Nicole Oresme, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Carolus Linnaeus, Leonhard Euler, Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, Kelvin, Riemann, etc etc)

    Sagan’s challenge also conveniently “ignored” the fact that the cosmological evidence is one of the most powerful philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

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  34. Maybe somewhat off topic, but recent progress on the origins of life on earth look interesting.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090829091049.htm

    Working out how small proteins ‘evolved’ into big complex RNA and DNA molecules turned out to be much more difficult than everyone expected 50 years ago.

    But these people seem to be getting there.

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  35. Dale: “Science and Theology indeed ‘look’ at the same things, but not in the same way.” You are dead right there – and that’s why theology has consistently got it wrong. It has not used a method enabling the discovery of true reality. Rather it has attempted to impose preconceived ideas on reality.

    Basically that’s what Sagan was saying. The pictures theology has are just so unimaginative compared with the scientific picture – because the later come from reality itself – something we just can’t conceive of without reacting with it.

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  36. Ropata
    The biblical description of stars. etc. is what Sagan was referring to. They just donj’t compare with our modern understanding of the cosmos which is far more awesome.

    Who want’s to “eliminate” relgious belief? certainly not Sagan. BGut one can hope that as our scoeity and culture evolve superstion will hold less sway. It’s a big problem now – and we can understand how it evolved. But, in the end, we are an intelligent species and hopefully this will show through. This is already happening in most developed societies.

    Cosmological arguments don’t in any way reveal the existence off god. Unless you want them too.

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  37. Ken,
    If you think theology has got it wrong, then you need to show philosophically (indeed, theological… or a-theologically or whatever) why you think so. Hint: faulting non-empirical descriptions for not being empirical seems pretty silly, no?

    one can hope that as our scoeity and culture evolve superstion will hold less sway… This is already happening in most developed societies.

    Ah… the old ‘superstition’ straw-man. There is a rather large (philosophical, btw) spectrum, Ken, when it comes to the meaning (other than human-created meaning, of course) in reality. At one extreme is the denial of any meaning to anything, which has been called nihilism. At the other extreme is the attribution of all kinds of meaning to all kinds of things, like cats walking under ladders, etc.; which is rightly called superstition. There’s a lot of room in between.

    Cosmological arguments don’t in any way reveal the existence off god. Unless you want them too.

    As far is ‘wanting’ is concerned, it may be relevant that some don’t want ANY arguments to point to God. Which is why we use logic, to get past what we may want to be true. Oops…

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  38. No Dale – philosophy is definitely not the test. Mapping against reality is how we test ideas. Where theology has made fact claims it puts itself up to testing. And where this has happened it has proven to be wrong.

    Surely you have to admit that in this area theology has been in retreat for at least 400 years.

    Your claim “Which is why we use logic, to get past what we may want to be true” is the same. Logic is the very thing we don’t use. After all we are are rationalising, rather than rational, species. Logic gets used to prove all sorts of things (especially when a bit of super naturalism is thrown in). Just look back on justifications for apartheid, slavery, gender discrimination, etc., etc.

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  39. @Dale, I’ll let the “pleading” thing go for your sake, but applying metaphysical approaches wouldn’t make any sense as the subject matter isn’t metaphysical to start.

    Faulting non-empirical attempts to examination of something that is empirical (real and measurable) is perfectly valid. At best, they’re going to be terribly limited in what they can say. It will almost certainly have to start with an assertion that contains empirical information that the non-empirical approach cannot “prove” for itself (a problem philosophy seems to have in this sort of situation) with the upshot that all you could do was show a “result” that was “consistent with” the original assertions, but as you couldn’t demonstrate these to be true, in the end you could only say “if” these were true, leaving the whole thing dangling. At worse, the “results” will be meaningless, as we’ve seen plenty of time.

    [off-topic]

    @Red Rosa, writes:

    Working out how small proteins ‘evolved’ into big complex RNA and DNA molecules turned out to be much more difficult than everyone expected 50 years ago.

    Excuse me for nitpicking, but it a bit of a whopper: It’s not from proteins to RNA or DNA! That paper is looking at how the selectivity of each transfer RNA (tRNA) for it’s amino acid might have developed. Proteins are chains of amino acids, joined end-on-end. Genes (a special DNA sequence) code for a protein. (Modern) tRNAs complement the DNA code, bringing a specific amino acid close to the molecular “machinery” that is building up the protein the gene codes for. The paper is looking at how each tRNA developed as so to only “pick up” one particular amino acid, so that each time the complementary DNA appeared in a gene, only that amino acid was presented by the tRNA, and not other amino acids.

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  40. Ken,
    you’re making philosophical statements. (i.e. “mapping against ‘reality’ [there’s your use of that word again… yawn.] is how we test ideas”)

    Theology and Science aren’t in competition for the same explanatory space. The ‘how’ questions are different from ‘why’ questions. (and -again- faulting ‘why’ questions for not being ‘how’ questions, or asserting [with no argument] that ‘why’ questions are invalid – is grammatically, logically, and common-sense-ally silly) 🙂

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  41. Seems to me that a few people are trying to do the “standard” avoidance thing of siding off into “philosophy” to avoid facing the actual question asked (in this case, if established religions deal with the scale of the universe).

    @Dale, read your last paragraph: it’s special pleading. It’s pleading that a class of questions can only be considered by theology, which is not true and is not justified.

    It’s also misleading: it only works for you because you have slipped an assumption into “why”… can you see what your unstated assumption is?

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  42. I’ve actually got to do some work. But what is so complicated and hard to understand about there being more than one way to describe something?

    To bring it back to the original question, what is so hard about there being more than one way to “deal with” the scale of the universe?
    And the ironic thing, as I way way back, is that the objection about God, humanity and the size of the universe is making some kind of quasi-theological assumption (that God would only make a small-ish local universe? how big is big? how small is small? what a strange objection!?).

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  43. EDIT: …as I said way back…

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  44. Dale – underneath it all, of course it is philosophical. Its been the same old philosophical argument between religion and science which has been going on for millenia.

    It’s one that science has won, although theology hasn’t accepted this yet. it still fights back. And humanity should be aware of what is happening, because it is a fight back, not only against science, but against society, culture, enlightenment and freedom.

    Well – you wanted to make it philosophical!

    You claim “Theology and Science aren’t in competition for the same explanatory space” – well then what is the problem. Why fight against science? Why the bashing of scientists? Why the ID/creationist offensive? Why the denial of evidence in evolution and cosmology? Why the continual assertions that theology can make fact claims – such as the origin of life and the universe?

    If theologians were genuine in this sort of claim they wouldn’t be making those comments – or writing disparaging articles about science and scientists. They wouldn’t be going on about “how” and “why” questions. They wouldn’t say childish things like: “[there’s your use of that word again… yawn.]” in attempt to put down scientific understanding.

    They would just get on with their job and ignore science and the rest of the real world.

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  45. The attribution of all kinds of meaning to all kinds of things, like cats walking under ladders, etc.; which is rightly called superstition.

    Getting on your knees and talking the ceiling with your eyes closed is a superstition too.

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  46. Ken that rant lumps too many people together. Not all theists do those things. Pretty discouraging to further engagment…

    Re my critique of your usage of ‘reality’: I’ve maintained consistently that for a scientist to do his/her work, he/she need to be concerned whatsoever with the philosophical question of whether or not there is more to reality than nature (in other words, a working scientist need not be a philosophical theist or philosophical naturalist, or any other philosophical position). As a theist, the LAST thing I want is to put down scientific understanding. You know me well enough.

    The “different kinds of explanation” thing really hits a sore nerve around here, doesn’t it? Maybe a nerve in the knee?

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  47. “Not all theists do those things” True. My complaint is, and always has been, with the ones that do. And they are extremely active these days.

    “Different kinds of explanation” does hit a nerve because it is a way of smuggling in non-scientific explanations. There is only one reality. Therefore only one complete description of reality (which of course includes indeterminacy). For theologians to claim that they have an equally respectable description – but one that they just dreamed up, didn’t derive from reality – and then go on about “different kinds of explanation” is not honest. Its ideological smuggling. Attempting a free ride.

    And it is a common tactic of the ID/creationist crowd. Attempting to sneak mythology into the science class with an equal standing to scientific knowledge!

    (By the way – if one can overcome the mechanical/naive interpretations of words like naturalist and materialist my position is actually that a working scientist does need to be a “philosophical naturalist” – but usually doesn’t admit it, or necessarily appreciate it).

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  48. Ken,
    I’m not trying to smuggle “IN” non-science into science, nor am I interested in sneaking mythology INTO the science class. I’m not a proponent of creation science and I’m not trying to get ‘Christian science” into classrooms. Direct your rants at those people, not me (and I’ll join you).

    I’m simply trying to point out what seems to me an obvious and basic fact that there are different ways of talking about the same thing. It’s NOT trying to play one explanation off AGAINST the other, or ‘insert’, sneak/smuggle one INTO the other; it’s merely recognising that there ARE other ways of describing/thinking-about/appreciating things than purely empirical ways. This is at the “duh” level of basic distinctions.

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  49. But what is so complicated and hard to understand about there being more than one way to describe something?

    There is a big difference between “describing something” and showing something is correct. You’ve shifted from the latter to the former. Anyone can describe “real” things with mythology, after all. By contrast, if the means used to show something is correct is limited, inappropriate or unable to, then those things should be pointed out.

    And the ironic thing, as I way way back, is that the objection about G-d, humanity and the size of the universe is making some kind of quasi-theological assumption (that G-d would only make a small-ish local universe? how big is big? how small is small? what a strange objection!?).

    You’re side-stepping the point raised. Observation: established religions (appear to) say nothing of the scale of the universe. That’s not an “objection”, as you put it, it’s an observation (or alternatively a question). Using loaded language, has you setting it up as a “fight”, shades of the “us vs. them” thing some religious people push.

    Nor does it say any about “G-d says”, which is really an excuse to retrospectively rewrite the religion’s texts, if you think it through.

    Several people have pointed out that established religions don’t is to be expected given the knowledge of when these religions were established. What really is a strange thing is why religious people can’t accept that their ancient religion doesn’t say anything about things that people didn’t know at the time. One simple answer is that you want the “scriptures” to be more than the work of men, and your “G-d” to be “all knowing”. That may be what you want, but it’s reasonable to think that the scriptures of the established religions don’t directly say anything about things that people of the time didn’t know about. It’s also a fine way to show that they’re the work of men: they’re limited to the knowledge of men at the time.

    Re my critique of your usage of ‘reality’: I’ve maintained consistently that for a scientist to do his/her work, he/she need to be concerned whatsoever with the philosophical question of whether or not there is more to reality than nature (in other words, a working scientist need not be a philosophical theist or philosophical naturalist, or any other philosophical position). As a theist, the LAST thing I want is to put down scientific understanding. You know me well enough.

    Do you mean ‘need not be concerned’ in that first sentence? Either way, I can’t that this advances the discussion.

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  50. Dale – I do direct my “rants” at the “anti-naturalist” of the ID and apologetics movements.

    It’s just that some theists (and others) not in those “movements” do fall prey to their arguments. That’s why they have got to be countered so strongly – because the arguments get wider penetration.

    And I am glad you are willing to “join me.” Now, don’t let me hold you back. I’m all for more liberal and pro-science Christians getting stuck in to these arguments.

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  51. Heraclides, you are quite right to correct me. The article itself is clear enough.

    Actually it was the ‘evolution’ word which I thought would raise a few eyebrows!

    Apologies for such levity.

    And great to see one of science’s Big Problems being chipped away at.

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  52. I’m simply trying to point out what seems to me an obvious and basic fact that there are different ways of talking about the same thing. It’s NOT trying to play one explanation off AGAINST the other, or ‘insert’, sneak/smuggle one INTO the other; it’s merely recognising that there ARE other ways of describing/thinking-about/appreciating things than purely empirical ways. This is at the “duh” level of basic distinctions.

    Other people would beg to differ and say that you are at the “duh” level of not understanding what you’re doing 😉

    Firstly, you’re mixing description with showing something is correct.

    Secondly, you repeatedly are trying to make “metaphysical examination of things” legitimate without justification. The reason for you doing this is fairly transparent to others, hence my “Other people would beg to differ …”

    Ask yourself this, if metaphysical examination of a subject were totally unable to show anything about your G-d (or religion) as being “real” or “true”, and you had no other means of doing this, would you be happy to discard metaphysical examination?

    The trick here is that you don’t appear to be willing to critically examine your means of showing if something is right, so it just becomes a crutch for what you want to be true.

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  53. Catastrophic events like tsunamis, earthquakes and avalanches used to be described in biblical terms.

    And indeed still are – a few christians have ascribed Hurricane Katrina to the wrath of god.

    But science does seem to do a better job nowadays.

    I’m happy to read verbal descriptions of these events – even if poetical or exaggerated – it all adds to the spice of life.

    But these events do have rational scientific explanations- Newton’s mechanics will do fine. And a few numbers – in e.g. cumecs, km/hr, tonnes – are essential to tell the real story about them.

    Just where this leaves metaphysics, I’ll be interested to hear.

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  54. Heraclides/Red Rosa
    It does not make sense to “rationalize” events that are clearly supernatural in origin. Religious conversion is a logical response to an encounter with the Divine.

    I have witnessed many broken lives turned around by the love of God. I have felt His holy, healing Presence in my own life. I have seen an amazing physical healing. I have been privileged to participate in a community of faith where people look out for each other. I have given and received numerous prophetic, personal words of faith. The reason that global Christianity is so pervasive and lively, is that God exists and is actively growing his kingdom.

    Spirituality is admittedly a rather subjective experience, but that is easily within the domain of religion. Philosophers of science also admit that there is a subjective element to every so-called “rational” explanation.

    Metaphysics is alive and well outside of the hyper-rational club of New Atheists. As our conception of the Universe has grown, so has our appreciation of the infinite power of its Maker.

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  55. It does not make sense to “rationalize” events that are clearly supernatural in origin.

    Precisely, things that are supernatural are irrational.

    Also, if you read me properly, you’d realise that I didn’t try rationalise anything that was supernatural 😉 Far from it, in fact…

    But then, I get the feeling you’re not really reading or replying to what I’ve written, just basically sounding off 😉

    Metaphysics is alive and well outside of the hyper-rational club of New Atheists.

    Leaving aside that you’re putting labels on people, so? Just because some people believe something doesn’t make it right or good.

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  56. Heraclides, we’ve had our difficulties conversing in the past, so I’m going to proceed as cautiously as I can to avoid unnecessary offense.

    You say, “Things that are supernatural are irrational.” I don’t understand that to be an empirical statement. (I’m quite certain that you are not saying, “Humans have observed a number of supernatural events or beings, and all of them to date have been irrational, therefore we may induce that any future supernatural entities will also be irrational.”)

    I could agree with your statement if I added a premise: “All real things are natural things.” The problem with that step is that it doesn’t address the question of whether angels and demons are “real things.”

    String theory has given us enough undetectable dimensions these days that there’s plenty of room for unobservable intelligences that operate by laws of nature that we can’t even imagine.

    I’ve already revealed my interest in the Participatory Anthropic Principle. Let’s apply that concept to a string-theory universe before the Big Bang. All the mass of this universe may have existed in an 11-dimensional sphere with the diameter of the Planck length. (I call this the “protosphere.”) Current measurements indicate that this mass was more homogenous than a simple Big Bang model would predict, which suggests there was a “time” in which the particles in this “protosphere” were in contact with each other. As far as I can tell, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle would allow any particle in a Planck-sized protosphere to move at any velocity up to c and be anywhere in the universe. That means that there would be no mechanical constraints on any particle in the universe.

    In such an environment, the Participatory Anthropic Principle would predict a wavefunction of the universe that would expand until it included an “observer.” (Note that time is one of the eleven dimensions, and time is looped back on itself, so the entire system that we are talking about is one entangled mass at the microscopic scale and incredibly short time-frame in which we are accustomed to seeing quantum effects.) The Participatory Anthropic Principle would produce an “observer” if an observer is physically possible.

    All that is the wildest kind of speculation–a true “thought experiment” that Einstein and Bohr could get away with, but which is bound to get me in trouble. Nevertheless, it would produce an entity that most humans would call “supernatural.” I can’t say that such an entity would also be “irrational.”

    Would you define such a hypothetical “Protosphere Observer” to be “natural” or “supernatural”?

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  57. Scott,

    I’m going to ignore your (non-)reply. It’s very clear what I meant, but you’ve tried to “complicate” it to suit your own agenda.

    Supernatural things/events are by definition irrational, you must know that.

    It’s also should be quite clear what I was doing: pointing out to ropata what his words imply. In a sense, he made this statement not me, I merely made it explicit so that he might see it, holding a mirror up as it were. It’s just ropata seems to think that he words imply the opposite to what they do. (The only things/events you could never rationalise are those that are intrinsically irrational.)

    You have not replied to me but instead but instead gone off on a weird tangent of your own invention. Seems to be your way. Hence no reply to your “content”: it’s a soliloquy that doesn’t connect to what I wrote.

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  58. Heraclides, I’d have to agree that I went off on one of my weirdest tangents to date. Didn’t expect applause!

    On the other hand–it’s kind of cool. The entire universe prior to the Big Bang seems like it could have been the ultimate “quantum computer.” There were just under a google of entangled particles present, with no restraints on location or velocity with a Planck-sized space.

    What could you get out of a system like that?

    If Wheeler was right about the “Participatory Anthropic Principle,” such a pre-Big-Bang universe would have produced intelligence. That (or those) intelligence(s) would be “natural,” as you use the term, but it (or they) would look like “gods” or “angels” to the man in the street.

    And–here’s the point–they wouldn’t be “irrational.”

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