Monday, March 17, 2014

Nature and Nature's God

The Great Orion Nebula

I've watched 2 episodes of that new version of "Cosmos" with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and so far, I'm enjoying it. I think Dr. Tyson is a worthy successor to Carl Sagan, and I especially enjoyed his personal story about how Sagan directly influenced him, a kid from the Bronx, to take up a career in science. Since I teach college kids in the Bronx, I found this very moving.
I liked the second episode much better than the first. The second, about evolution and natural selection, was much better organized and coherent than the first. The first episode I thought was rambling and spent too much time on Giordano Bruno (who was not a scientist) and not enough on Copernicus and Galileo, and none on Isaac Newton (who all were scientists).
The second episode did a fine job of explaining evolution and its mechanics to the science-impaired like myself. I thought Dr Tyson and the show's producers did a great job of rescuing evolution from 2 popular misconceptions; the Herbert Spencer "Survival of the Fittest" way of thinking about natural selection, and "intelligent design," the idea that something like the human eye is so complex and sophisticated a mechanism that there must have been some intervening transcendence directing its design. They returned evolution to Darwin's original conception of something that happens over many generations, and that happens spontaneously by chance; not as some ongoing war among the creatures, and not as some piece of amazing clockwork either. Nature, like the world of human affairs, is full of trial and error. Since we belong to nature, why should that surprise us?

The issues around this are too vast for a blog post, so here are some random thoughts on Nature and Nature's God:

 --The great ethical contribution of evolution is the idea that all forms of life are inextricably linked together in their very fabric. That's an idea that is still working itself out in all its implications in human society. It's an idea that I find very moving and deeply gratifying, and that I am myself trying to sort through.

--There are few more sterile arguments to my mind than "science versus religion."  It always ends in bad science meets even worse religion and goes nowhere with both sides dug in and no one budges an inch.

 --How much God is "damaged" or "explained away" by science depends on what you expect God to be.  If you expect God to be a kind of absolute cosmic autocrat in which nothing happens that is not His will, then God will always be a tremendous disappointment.  Such a conception of God would not long survive a clash with the available evidence.  I've never believed in God the First Cause of everything that happens, God the Great Puppeteer.  The ancient Greeks may have believed that we are but the playthings of the gods, but never their puppets.  We, and everything else, have agency.  And yet, everyone yearns for the Great Cosmic Puppet Master.  Everyone wonders why the universe has to be so rotten.  Why doesn't God just waive His hand and fix everything?  And if He did, what then?

--Just because everyone (including me) makes God in his own image doesn't necessarily mean that He's not there.

--Perhaps God has only one power, but it's a big power that trumps everything else; the power of creation, the power to make being out of nothing, to make life out of death.

 --The transcendent cannot be proved or demonstrated by definition. If it could be proved and demonstrated, it wouldn't be transcendent.

 --Of course religious faith is fundamentally irrational. It wouldn't be faith if it was otherwise.

 --I've never bought the idea of "proving" God's existence from the workings of nature. The order that we observe proves nothing other than our minds prefer order to randomness.  We are hardwired to prefer the order of the crystal over the randomness of an algae bloom.  Neither of those things demonstrates that God exists.  There is nothing out there to help us out with any decision over whether or not there is a God.  We either believe God is there, or we don't.

--I don't believe in religious doctrines of "natural law."  By our standards, nature is very lawless. "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice," said Charles Darwin.   What order nature has seems to me to have little relevance to the way people make a society for themselves.  The basic workings of the processes of life and the cosmos mean little to us as models to organize a community to provide for our welfare, safety, and happiness.

--I remember my dad watched a bird take a dragonfly out of the air and exclaimed, "What a depressing thought, that your entire life adds up to nothing more than a satisfying poop for a bigger animal."

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,  
And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.
                                                   --WH Auden from "Friday's Child"

--The big question for the religious, is there really any compelling reason beyond our own preferences to believe in God?

--As far as I am concerned, it is not the business of religion to explain anything.  Figuring things out and explaining them is the business of science. We have religion for the same reason that we prefer to talk to a real live person on the other side of the table or at the other end of the phone, and never to an automated voice messaging system.

--"Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty."
                                                --Jacob Bronowski

--"Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible."
                                                --Jacob Bronowski

--Perhaps the pleasure we take from nature -- the view from a mountain top, the blooming of flowers, thunder and lightning in a summer storm -- is not about God, but about the sheer pleasure of being alive.  Those things may not prove that God exists, but our pleasure in them demonstrates that if God exists, then He is good for He made being alive to be good.

--There is only one "mountain top" experience in the Gospels.  The rest of the 4 Books are strikingly prosaic.  There is nothing in them like the story of Zeus and Semele.  In the Gospels, we are much more likely to meet God by the side of the road, in a city street, in a crowd, or in prison than we are to meet him on top of a mountain or see him in sublime spectacles.

--I love looking at and reading about the experience of other worlds.  I love looking at all the new photos that come in from explorer satellites of the surface of Mars or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  And yet, as marvelous as they are, I cannot help but feel that everything beyond our own small planet is a vast desolation.

--I remember reading many years ago a passage in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson where the two men made a trip to Greenwich on a summer afternoon.  They climbed the hill and watched the sunset.  Boswell describes watching the sun setting over the surrounding countryside as an exhilarating experience.  He asked Johnson if he had ever seen anything more beautiful.  "Yes," Johnson replied, "Fleet Street."

Andrea Pisano, Astronomy, from the bell tower of Florence Cathedral, 14th century

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