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Your Connection to Everything

by Alexander Green Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dear Reader,

I didn't mean to set off a firestorm.

But last week's piece on scientific illiteracy generated more mail than any column I've written.

Most respondents sent me a verbal high-five, agreeing that a basic understanding of science enriches our lives and broadens our perspective.

Yet a vocal minority insist that the natural history of the world as revealed by science is unsettling, terrifying, or just plain preposterous.

These folks imagine themselves at war with biology, comparative anatomy, physiology, genetics, geology, paleontology, archaeology, biochemistry, ecology, physics, biochemistry, astronomy, spectroscopy and cosmology.

And the spitballs were flying...

The angriest letters came from readers who claimed that science leads to materialism - the notion that physical matter is all there is - and materialism invariably leads to atheism.

This no doubt comes as a surprise to the tens of thousands of practicing scientists who call themselves believers.

And it seems like a lot of the hostility results from a basic confusion of science with metaphysics.

Metaphysics - which transcends disciplines - investigates the fundamental nature of being.

Science is more pedestrian, collecting data through observation and experiments, developing theories to explain the evidence, and subjecting claims to scrutiny through peer review.

The core principal behind this approach is called "methodological naturalism." It stipulates that all scientific hypotheses are tested and explained solely by natural causes and events.

Geneticist J.B.S. Haldane noted 75 years ago that when he set up an experiment he had to assume - as a practical matter - that no god, angel or devil affected its course.

It's not that science rules out the possibility of entities or causes outside of nature. They just aren't considered during scientific investigations.

(Or, as Michigan State University science philosopher Robert Pennock quips, "Science is godless in the same way that plumbing is godless.")

Do science and religion really need to square off like the Hatfields and McCoys?

Of course not.

As the late Stephen Jay Gould wrote in "Rocks of Ages," "Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values - subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve... Science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven."

Most of us accept this. We seek enlightenment from a variety of sources.

It's just that science and religion approach the world in very different ways. Science, in particular, advances only as authority and conventional knowledge are overturned.

Yet both can offer us wisdom and consolation.

In "The Sense of Wonder," naturalist Rachel Carson said, "Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life... There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature - the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter."

Astronomer Carl Sagan took this view of nature to a higher level.

His "Cosmos" miniseries - watched by more than 600 million people worldwide - is the proud story of how through the searching of 40,000 generations of our ancestors we have finally come to discover our coordinates in space and in time. And how through the methods of science we have been able to reconstruct the sweep of cosmic history and to find our own part in its great story.

Sagan viewed the study of the cosmos as a genuine source of spirituality, inspiring both discovery and devotion.

In "Pale Blue Dot" he wrote, "A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths."

(Last week's photos from the Hubble Space Telescope provide eloquent testimony.)

 

Sagan called science a kind of "informed worship," a reminder of our connection with the rest of the universe. We are all starstuff, he reminds us, made of atoms - the heavy elements - forged in the fiery hearts of distant stars.

Sagan was a polymath. (Isaac Asimov, the science writer and long-time leader of Mensa International, once said that Carl Sagan and physicist Marvin Minsky were the only two people he'd ever met whose intelligence was greater than his own.) And Sagan studied the world's religions with the same hunger for learning he brought to scientific subjects.

He saw irrationality and dogmatism as enemies of both science and religion. And he found amazement and humility in our investigation of the heavens, as well as a profound sense of the sacred.

Sadly, Sagan died of a rare blood disorder 13 years ago.

Yet his mission to promote scientific and human understanding lives on.

That's clear in an interview with Charlie Rose recorded a few weeks before he died.

To see an insightful and timeless discussion with the world's most articulate advocate of scientific literacy, click here.

Carpe Diem,

Alex

P.S. There are still a few cabins available for our upcoming "Cradle of Civilization Cruise" to Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Italy, November 16-28, 2009. This promises to be one of our most exciting trips ever with visits to The Parthenon, the Greek isles, the Holy Land, the Pyramids, Capri, and Rome. I hope you'll join us. For full details visit http://www.freedomfest.com/cruise/ or contact Tami Holland at tami@freedomfest.com or 866-266-5101 ext 99.

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