Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe


mRio / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

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Sagan’s pale blue dot: tribal confession or transcendent truth?

In a new year’s post, Adam Frank of 13.7 invites us to contemplate our place in the cosmos.  The professional stargazer asks, “What, really, is the point of it all?” He directs us foremost not to religion, or to philosophy, but to Carl Sagan.  Cue a four minute animation set to Sagan’s famous reflection on “the pale blue dot.”  Frank insists that “it will fill you with a sense of pure wonder.”  This invitation is too good to pass up.

This Voyager 1 photo of Earth as a pale blue dot, suspended in a sunbeam, captured the world’s imagination in the 1990s.   |   Wikimedia

But after watching it, I fail to feel wonder at the late Dr. Sagan’s deprecation of the human race.  Sagan insists of humanity, “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.”  In virtue of what principle does the pale blue dot challenge human importance and privilege?

Further, by what authority does Dr. Sagan diminish his fellow man as deluded?  John writes in his first epistle, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Is Sagan’s brand of collective anthropic humility more palatable to some because it issues from a 20th century modernist tribe rather than a first century religious one?  A defender of Sagan’s myth would have to ironically claim some sort of epistemic privilege as well as self-importance.

The four minute animation–at one point summing the human condition via battling tanks with “H8” painted on their sides–concludes with these words:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that we have an imperative to be kinder and preserve our home, the Earth.  If one wants to hold a sense of wonder from passing judgment on fellow human beings and thinking that reality consists chiefly in void, empty space, and is merely the curious fractional remnant of a clash between matter and antimatter, he or she is entitled.  But moral responsibilities and good feelings do not automatically follow from such a vision; it may as well be just another unreasoned affectation, a tribal confession.

In light of entropy, mortality, and the heat death of the Universe, Bertrand Russell provides a logically consistent outlook: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Possibly, Sagan’s pale blue dot really is the vaunted God’s eye view.  But if there were anyone who could speak to humanity depravity and conceit with logical consistency, we should not be surprised when he self-importantly declares, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Destiny without Deity

Like lots of folks last week, I invested a bit of time looking for a good Valentine’s Day Card to give my beloved.  Whether for a birthday or some other occasion, I’m always dismayed by the selection of cards in the store.  For the most part, they alternate between mildly profane and unbearably saccharine.

I did manage to find an agreeable V-Day card.  However, another card happened to catch my attention.  It was one of those sappy ones, but different; a card that wanted to retain a sense of romantic destiny without tipping a hat to deity. I don’t remember it verbatim, but in essence, it read something like this:

“I am in awe of a universe that put the two of us together, and even more so that it knew I needed someone who could put up with me.”

It was a striking example of two powerful but opposing forces at work in the human mind. On the one hand, the propensity toward awe, and on the other, the conspicuous denial of whom that awe is owed to. What does it mean to be in awe if not to acknowledge the masterful work, power, or fury of a willing agent?

And describing a universe that knows something about the couple beforehand not just implies intelligence, but borrows from a sense of divine providence. It shouldn’t have been a big deal for the card to just say “God” instead of “universe.”  Even a pantheist could be happy with “God” wording; on such a metaphysical view, God is the universe.  So maybe the card maker was trying to be inclusive of an acutely irreligious clientele.  Whatever the reasoning, the consumer is confronted with an inconsistent sentiment on the card shelf.  Our material universe cannot be owed awe or have foreknowledge.

The late pastor and apologist Francis Schaeffer gave us a potent tool for making sense of this inconsistency in his concept of the upper story and the lower story. Imagine human knowledge as being contained in a two-story house. On the lower story, we have truths about the material world: what we can learn through empirical inquiry and science. The facts formed from the observation of physical phenomena do not support any normative end in themselves.  Even with them, we find ourselves asking, “How now shall we live?” We somehow must find those answers in the upper story, where morality and meaning reside.

On a pre-modern worldview, which allows the possibility of the supernatural, we can ascend a staircase that connects the lower and upper stories.  But with the Western Enlightenment came modernity.  Strict naturalistic presuppositions disallowed any real connection between the two stories.  On this materialism, there was no effective way to indict evils like the Nazi holocaust or European colonialism.  So postmodernism launched in an attempt to recover some sense of meaning for humanity. Yet, its claims on meaning and morality are only a “leap” of faith from the first to the second story.  It doesn’t even want to affirm any real logical connection.  Only an objective supernatural reality can ground true morality and purpose.

Without the supernatural, all our sentiments are empty.  That we picked out a nice greeting card and some flowers becomes a matter of simply going through the motions. There are still philosophers, like Luc Ferry, who suggest that we ground our meaning in the frame of reference of our fellow human beings.  But if matter is all there is, to speak of meaning as if were something real becomes itself incoherent.  Anyone who harbors such a worldview must come to terms with the idea that nothing can inspire awe, and that there is no path of destiny you can embrace. Thank God this is not actually the case.

Journalists, academics try to understand God and government

Here’s an interesting and recent headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Does government do too much? That could depend on your view of God.”

Some folks at Baylor did a study on the intersection of small government conservatism and Christian faith.  When both the journalist and the academic undertake an investigation like this, I think there tends to be an outsider’s bias.  They are kind of scratching their heads, asking “Why on Earth would anyone think this way?”

At least the journalist MacDonald does a fair job by getting a counterpoint from Woodard, an academic with rightward sympathies.  Yet the article, sadly typical of mainstream media work, smuggles in the notion that conservatives are by nature angry.  Researcher Froese conjectures that since small government Christians tend to be poorer and less educated, they are probably anxious and depressed.  According to this line of thought, they are then given to believing in a wrathful and angry God.  But reading on about the study, one really wonders why the secular/liberal types who believe they cannot find the meaning of their lives wouldn’t be even more anxious and depressed.

To me it follows that any Christian who takes his faith seriously will have peace and hope.  I know somewhere there is a statistic that Christians actually achieve higher levels of education than the general population.  But ultimately, the article’s discourse is muddied by juggling so many overlapping identities.

Between the two opposing interpretations that Froese and Woodard offer on small government Christians, I have to commend Woodard’s view.  After all, it would take a fearful or angry liberal to have such an uncharitable view of his Christian neighbors.

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