Turtles All The Way UP…!

…And they’re all dead as doornails, naturally. So welcome, friends, to yet another discussion of scale, science, and the saddest thing in the world, this installment focussing on the ONE THING that nobody ever bothers to notice about Creationism…and I don’t know why no one ever does, because it’s a lot more critical than Creationism’s fumble-fingered attempt to undo evolution, and yet so much easier to defend…and along the way in defence of it, you pretty much can’t help but drop a million-volt razor-wire fence around evolution, too, just as a necessary consequence…

So where’s Richard Dawkins when you need him?

The answer to this: somewhere over yonder letting Creationists frame the “debate”, is where he is. But this is not really something he deserves blasting for (although I confess in the past I’ve quite enjoyed letting loose the occasional blast at him), because the mistake he makes is the same one you or I might make, and to the degree he looks foolish it’s only because he ‘s been suckerpunched the same way we might have been, were we Richard Dawkins instead of him.

Here is how it happens: a bunch of Creationists start “questioning” evolution. Of course we know that they are not just “questioning evolution”, that in fact they are not even primarily “questioning evolution”…we know that’s just a cover, for their distinctively American cultural and religious agenda…not that I tar all Americans with this same repulsive brush, but “distinctively American” is just the sort of evil poison these fuckers believe in, so I figure to hoist them with their own petard…but then having seen through that thin-skinned deceit of theirs (I mean, do they think we’re idiots?), we go out and do battle with them on the fields of biology anyhow, not taking our time enough to see there’s an intermediate step here. And thus we receive the suckerpunch: as we allow ourselves to get charged up with righteous biological ire.

But there’s something more fundamental at stake, here, than mere ire, or mere biology…than mere evolution, for that matter.

Because a Creationist worldview is also (I hope you will recognize) deeply hostile to astronomy

…And through that hostility it gets down to an intolerance so basic that there is no Bill Of Rights on this planet (or any other!), that would possibly ever come to its defence.

Simply put:  it’s the measure of distance that’s at stake here.

Which is the one thing in the universe we simply cannot ever do without…!

…And which is the basic tool of astronomy, too, and hence the conflict.  Because the funny thing about astronomy is that there isn’t any such thing as a sub-discipline called micro-astronomy, that it supports.  No.  It’s not just all about distance, but it’s about all distance…whether it’s relatively big, or relatively small.  And there’s the stumbling-block right there, you see.  Creationists love to make the artificial distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolutionary principles all the time…if you breed up corn from a plant the size of a baby’s thumb to a thing suitable for stuffing an exhaust pipe with, that’s micro…that’s just Man exercising his God-given dominion over the world, because the corn still started as corn, if you see what I mean.  Macro, on the other hand, is saying that what we call “sight” is something that began with the pseudopod.  Thus, the creationist moves to exclude the scientific by making a show of accepting the empirical…but only so far, and no farther.  Say whatever you want to about corn, so long as you don’t say corn isn’t corn

Which is, it must be admitted, a neat trick.  Try it with astronomy, though, and you’ll whang yer thumb with the hammer…because astronomy’s all about telescopes, all about “how far away is that shit?”, and the first understanding it requires is that most of the time, corn isn’t corn.  Because “cornness” is rin the eye of the beholder, cornness is relative, all part of the continuum of distance measures;  in other words part of the most empirical thing in the world, a set of observations stretching back to ancient Egypt…but these observations all have consequences, and all the consequences have consequences, and in the end science is impossible to exclude from it all.  If you want to debunk Einstein you’ll first have to debunk the hands of the clock;  if you want to assert that the sky’s a dome covered in flaws, through which God’s magnificence shines through, you’re going to have to mean it as a metaphor…because that’s exactly what it’s been discovered to be.  And, because astronomy is old.  The Amish know about heliocentrism, for heaven’s sake.  Therefore one cannot stand up in public and say “I don’t believe the Earth goes around the Sun” without Amish people ridiculing one for one’s stubbornly reactionary ways

But, too:  accept one thing, and you must accept all the rest of it.

And therefore…

Let us consider stellar distances.  The speed of light has been measured, and the “standard candles” identified — and we conclude it is a pretty big universe, that we live in.  So:  problem!  If it is big, our distance measures tell us it must also be old…much older than six thousand years.  I mean you can deny the fossil record if you want to…you can say that anybody can make coal with a couple of pounds of moss and a pressure cooker…you can even say that all the organisms arrived miraculously, fully-formed for Man to enjoy and use, about three hundred generations ago.  But what will you make of the light of a distant star, that our measures of distance tell us must have taken four hundred generations to get here?

Or, four hundred thousand generations to get here?

Easy enough to say it’s a miracle.  God made it so that the universe looks older than it really is.  All right, fair enough:  let’s say he did.

Given that, is it still as big as it appears, though?

I mean…is he just making us see a whole bunch of objects that aren’t there, or is he miraculously bringing us their light ahead of time, just in time for the end of the world…

Or is the REAL miracle that none of that matters shut up all inconsistencies are divinely reconciled by pure grace…!

Which would be fine by me!

If only someone would just say it…

But oh, I don’t want to ask too many difficult questions, you know.  Truly, no Christian theology goes this far, although all the best Christian theology anticipates these questions…generally.  And not specifically.  But really quite brilliantly in general terms!  But then I don’t want to harp on that so much, because none of that past brilliance would tolerate Sarah Palin’s belief, you know?  And yet I don’t want to slag Sarah off just like that, because I want to say my piece about why she’s completely wrong.  In other words:  I just want to point out that we’re outside the realm of “the scientists haven’t done their job correctly” in these questions of how God gimmicked the universe so our observations would eventually come a cropper.  Because yeah, it’s gimmicked:  because there are no macro- or micro- distance measures.  If we think we know how far away Betelgeuse is, there’s no competing theory telling us we’re wrong, there’s just “sorry, bud, an angel did it”.  And, as I said:  that’s fair enough.  Maybe an angel did do it.  But the question is, then what else did the angel do?

Or in other words:  what else must the angel have done?

Jupiter is about forty light-minutes away, and the Andromeda Galaxy about a million light-years away…and it takes about one second to bounce a laser off the Moon.  But are all these things equally non-miraculous?  Or is there a point at which we hit a “ha-ha” barrier, run into the Truman Show boundary where there are no more distances, just illusory projections of distances…I mean I’m willing to accept it for the sake of argument, but where is it, eh?

Does the domain of distance end at the heliopause?

It would be a damn funny thing if it did;  because Pioneer 10 already went PAST THE HELIOPAUSE…!

Unless that was an illusion.  But how are we to tell if it is?  And if it is, what practical difference does that make anyway?  And in any case what are we saying here, just how arbitrary is this universe?  Just how many theophysical epicycles does it need, to produce what we see through our telescopes?  Is it as big as it appears, only somehow invalidated or screwed with or “miracle-ized” in time? But time and space are one, at least so Professor Einstein says…and, MAN!  Well does it all exist, or doesn’t it?  “Yes, it exists now…but not so’s you’d know.”  “It exists in space, but not really in time”.  Jeepers, this is a rather hard cosmology though, isn’t it?  Mindbending.  And there’s not even anything in the Bible to suggest it;  nothing to say “extend your intellect as far as you like, but sooner or later you’ll pass a veil where you can’t trust something even as basic as how you can tell how far away things are…”

Well…except, perhaps, there’s one way to suggest this.

I fear the Amish would ridicule it…but there is one.

“Jesus ascends bodily to Heaven”.

Listen, here’s the problem:  everything we know about astronomy is what we’ve reasoned out from what we’ve seen.  Distance.  The concept of distance is the whole and entire root of astronomy.  “How far away is that thing?”

And as with any problem, there are two ways of finding a solution to it.  One is the Infinity Road:  expand knowledge, explode assumptions, accept the innumerability of unknown factors…and give up all notion of control…

…And the other is the Zero Road, wherein one also gives up all notion of control, except it’s done by arriving at a conceptual point-source upon which all thought, or need for thought, is compacted ’til it gives up its structure utterly…and thus there is no longer any need for control.  Note that I do not say one road leads to Enlightenment because the other does not…not to get all Rudy Rucker on you, but once you arrive at one of these transcendental poles, you’re no less in the transcendental realm than if you’d come at it the other way.  HOWEVER.

We’re not talking about walking through the gates of ivory or of horn, we’re talking about what Sarah Palin might say if she looked through a telescope.

If she chose to walk the Infinity Road, she might think:  “shit, that’s one motherfucker of a big universe out there…I might need a God with bigger interests and ambitions to explain it!”

But if she chose to walk the Zero Road, she might think — but never say! — “look, there are four angels circling the planet Jupiter…that must be where Heaven is, BECAUSE JESUS ASCENDED BODILY TO IT, SO IT’S GOTTA BE FUCKING SOMEWHERE UP THERE, I MEAN C’MON.”


Bloggers, do you you think maybe there are people out there — a silent majority! — who pay lip service to astronomy but nonetheless think “look at the angels, look how they shine with the light of their own righteousness” when they look through a telescope?

Well, here’s a funny thing, then:  if there are such people, their belief is protected by no law of this land…and no bloody history or tradition of it either, which may very well be why they’re somewhat fearful of speaking it out.  All these battles have been duly fought and won and lost, minimum three centuries before the Native Americans ponied up turkey to the bloodshot-eyed sin-vigilant Mayflower crowd.  Today I’m free, of course, to start a religion that doesn’t believe in the existence of coffee ice cream, or snorkels, or the emotional component of the sex act…no one will interfere with me.  But some things are not just plainly contrafactual, but also basic and important, and belief in their necessary non-existence therefore merits no tolerance, even in a tolerant society.  “Arithmetic is an invention of the Devil, meant to mislead the faithful!”  “There is no such thing as sugar!”  “Whenever you see a basset hound, it’s time to change your name and hop a freight!”  I mean, by all means build your church.  But don’t expect tax-free status, and don’t expect anyone to be polite to your belief.  “All parallel lines will meet if you just extend them far enough!”  “The question-mark is really the true period!”  “All wrenches are really just retarded hammers!”

“It’s time the heliocentrists admitted that they DON’T have all the answers…!”

The key thing is here:  there’s a limit.

And we can find it in astronomy easily enough.  Arguing about evolution with creationists is actually kind of stupid, if you ask me.


And then ask them how far away that is.

Personally, I think they would throw themselves into the cold Alaskan waters, rather than answer.

Although if you think about it, there is a good answer.

But surely the matter of whether one’s beliefs are worthy of respect, must hinge upon whether or not you know that one good answer.

Really, just know where to point to.

And so here we are, here I am — just went through a huge whole day of commemoration of the moon landing.  Good God, I couldn’t be happier that people actually remember it.  And still know, as it were, where to point.

I swear to God, in my capacity as occasional oracle…we will get there, and we’ll learn a lot.  But it’s going to be the most MASSIVE scientific/engineering project since 1969.  It’s going to be by far the most EXCITING shit human beings have ever gotten their noses into.  The physical conditioning the astronauts will have to undergo will be enormous, but worth it.  Several very well-known people will probably say something deeply dumb about it…

…But it will lift the spirits of all mankind, even despite the activities of the famous.

I’ve been waiting for a time like this my whole life.  I felt like hope was put on hold, from about the flight of Apollo 17 ’til now.  This is my scene, I’ll tellya.

So pay attention when I say this:

If you can give me an honest cosmology that includes both God and the Universe…both God and Fact, without any painfully-obvious bullshit…

Then I’ll probably convert to your stupid religion.

But here’s what’s really stupid.

Why don’t we have any new religions?

Yes:  why not.

But here’s my suggestion:  watch that Discovery Channel “Japanese Hi-Def MoonView” show, with the sound off…and wait ’til the Earth creeps over the horizon.

This post may be subject to revision.  I will give it one day, though.


24 responses to “Turtles All The Way UP…!

  1. Your wish is my command, Matthew!

    I’m trying to make it so only the posts marked “Personal” are the ones that may suddenly disappear. Those are my scratchpads, and I reserve those, but I’m always conscious of your remark “this blog gets rebooted more than the Legion!”

    Christ, we all know what lies down that road. Pretty soon Geoff Johns’ll come along and involve me in a crossover where a beloved character SUPER-DIES…in order to generate nostalgia.

    I may make a minor tweak or two, though. Something maybe amounting to twenty words. No more.

    The question is: can you guess what the one good answer to “POINT TO JESUS!” is?

    But seriously I don’t know why astronomers haven’t been enlisted in the New Atheist fight…

    Except I do.

  2. “…my own finger.”

    Uh… well, what are the obvious guesses? The sun, the moon, Polaris… actually, the Southern Cross is a better guess than Polaris, and they’re kinda mutually exclusive… How about a Lagrange point? Geosynchronous orbit over Metropolis?

    No, I don’t know. You might have something in mind that either isn’t clicking with me or that I’d never think of. Really I think the best answer is to point down at the Earth, but I’m no fun that way.

  3. But anyway, I’m not sure that your argument holds up all the way down the line, in this sense: I suspect that the creationists (not the young-earth creationists, of course; your argument does in fact settle that lot) would gladly cede you anything and everything about astronomy but still draw a line in the sand between that and evolution/natural selection. Because what they’re concerned with is preserving what we might call human exceptionalism, which astronomy doesn’t threaten but evolutionary biology does.

  4. I think Jesus is hiding behind the sun–just like Counter-Earth…

    this is good stuff Plok–I look forward to a Scopes/Astronomy trial very soon (and to watching those jokesters on Amish Comedy Central rip into it)


  5. Well, the issue isn’t so much that astronomers aren’t taking up the “fight” for atheism, so much as most atheists (astronomers included) recognize that arguing with a creationist is pretty damn useless. Dawkins says as much in The God Delusion. No amount of facts and logic is going to convince a creationist that their imaginary friend isn’t real, regardless of which facts are used and who’s presenting them.

  6. Jesus lies in the constellation of Sagittarius at a distance of roughly 25000 light years. The entrance to heaven is the central black hole.

    You can’t prove me wrong, can ya, Plok?

  7. I tend to go down the Infinity Road, personally. I’ve argued that God is certainly big enough to manage a Multiverse (and I’ve also argued that a Multiverse reconciles predestination with free will). Beware, though, for I am a dirty liberal Christian evolutionist.

  8. This is one of your fiendish oriental trick questions, Master, is it not?

    I think for a start I’ll just copy over this bit I posted on Charlie Stross’ blog, under What have the Romans done for us …?

    Dull data, transcendent sensibilities …

    Marginally, I paid several thou $A to get a Masters in Astronomy with the Swinburne Astronomy Online program, and worth every cent. With the SAO, I was in discussion forums with graduate level students from Australia to Turkey. I suppose we could had had that via fiber optics and balloon relays, but would it have been so cheap?

    I might have taken that course anyway, but in fact I did so because Swinburne, a year or so before, had advertised a programmer’s job, in building a software model of the Galaxy capable of accumulating incoming data. And where had the data been coming from? Hubble. Spitzer. COBE. I lucked into the course right in time for a Golden Age of Astronomy.

    Is astronomy an economic terminus, a luxury whose value is determined only by what the few are willing to pay for it? Well, yeah, 99% probably. There’s a lot we didn’t absolutely need to know. The catch is, it is indeed a matter of probability, and the final 1% might include a solar flare, or an NEO heading our way.

    I’m rather impressed with the ozone-hole observations — because even though we had other observations to go on, the environmental concerns denial lobby was already in full throat. Action could have been stalled, while we waited for more conclusive data. By the same token, I’d support five times as many Earth observation satellites right now, to refine our climate change information.

    The big one for me though, is non-economic. Pure, dazzling knowledge. It was like this …

    Final semester, I picked an essay topic: Quasars or Starbursts? At issue was or were the power sources of certain way-distant galactic objects known as ULIRGs and HLIRGs — ultraluminous and hyperluminous infrared galaxies. For a while, as I dug into the papers, the observations were as dull as dishwater; and then the picture came into focus.

    The satellite observatories, IRAS and Spitzer, were the first focussing telescopes outside the atmosphere, which blocks most infrared light. And with them we discovered, that for every four galaxies we had hitherto seen, there were three more that we had not.

    Because, most of their output was infrared; and because there is a steep diminishing of intensity with redshift; and because their visible and UV-Xray stars were mainly cloaked behind vast shrouds of carbon dust: the cumulative product of huge numbers of shortlived O and B stars blowing off their helium-burning layers. The luminosities of these IR behemoths were in the range of 100 billion to more than a trillion Suns.

    These galaxies — 3/4 as numerous as all others — were mostly 2 to 6 billion lightyears distant. Now I remember when we identified the first quasar, 3C273 if I recall, by radio, and that was around 2 billion. Now here we are, with our orbital telescopes, getting prolific data from halfway back to the Big Bang.

    Data good enough that we were just beginning to model what was going on behind the dust-shrouds. Two major theories: (1) most of the emission was due to supermassive black holes, i.e. quasars; (2) most of it was due to chain reactions of star formation, with many of the stars being massive O and B types, rapdily going supernova and sustaining the chain reaction.

    Current favoured theory — both the above. That far back in history, the galaxies were closer together, and had not cleared out the population of dwarf galaxies swanning around. Galactic collisions were frequent.

    In a galactic collision, the respective stars pass by one another, as indifferent as the bullets respectively of Earp and the Daltons. Too far apart to matter. The hydrogen gas clouds of the two galaxies are another story: they encounter one another on a broad front, mix and exchange momentum. That is, their orbital momentum, which had kept them moving around their galactic centres. Stalled in their orbits, these gas clouds dropped toward the nearest centre of mass. At the centre of the centre of that centre, was a supermassive black hole, blazing away; and as the flood of gas piled up against the force of the blaze, new stars condensed out of it like raindrops; so that the incoming flood was fuelling a continuous starburst.

    And I thought: I’m seeing the Forges of Creation. This is the reason for the universe as we know it. (NB. More specifically, it’s the reason for the Population II stars making up the Galactic Bulge, while we orbit out in the Disk. Even without our new observations, there has been strong evidence for a catastrophic early infall of star-forming material.)

    And I can pretty much guarantee that we would not have seen it at the turn of this particular century, if we had not been putting up infrared telescopes.

    I’m not saying we crucially had to know about this. But it is definitely humanity’s birthright, and because of the space industry, we know it now, rather than some future generation.

  9. So, the Forges of Creation, right? Now I didn’t post the following to Stross’ place, this one’s for you. Summon up the picture of a trillion-Sun orgy of star formation in a galactic collision, even perhaps our Galaxy, 6 billion years ago …

    Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
    In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
    Self-clos’d, all-repelling: what demon
    Hath form’d this abominable void,
    This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said
    “It is Urizen.” But unknown, abstracted,
    Brooding, secret, the dark power hid.

    Times on times he divided and measur’d
    Space by space in his ninefold darkness,
    Unseen, unknown; changes appear’d
    Like desolate mountains, rifted furious
    By the black winds of perturbation.

    For he strove in battles dire,
    In unseen conflictions with shapes
    Bred from his forsaken wilderness
    Of beast, bird, fish, serpent and element,
    Combustion, blast, vapour and cloud.

    Dark, revolving in silent activity:
    Unseen in tormenting passions:
    An activity unknown and horrible,
    A self-contemplating shadow,
    In enormous labours occupied.

    But Eternals beheld his vast forests;
    Age on ages he lay, clos’d, unknown,
    Brooding shut in the deep; all avoid
    The petrific, abominable chaos.

    His cold horrors silent, dark Urizen
    Prepar’d; his ten thousands of thunders,
    Rang’d in gloom’d array, stretch out across
    The dread world; and the rolling of wheels,
    As of swelling seas, sound in his clouds,
    In his hills of stor’d snows, in his mountains
    Of hail and ice; voices of terror
    Are heard, like thunders of autumn
    When the cloud blazes over the harvests.

  10. A perfect fit, I thought. Yay to William Blake!

    And here’s where I’ll quibble with you about there being no new religions. As Joseph Smith to the New World, so William Blake to Newton’s cosmos. Except that Blake established no sect of Latter-Day Saints to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. Pity. The Poetic Anglican Druidical Church, having Milton for its Latter Testaments and Blake for its Apocrypha. They were just nuts enough to do it. Coleridge would have joined like a shot.

  11. New religions? There’s Scientology, but I don’t think anyone wants to get into that. I’m picturing some sort of science-fiction religion, where people worship atoms and venerate the double-helix… but I think we’ve had enough stories about primitives in the future worshiping atomic bombs. There’s a middle ground, somewhere.

    Our concept of God has evolved so much from the Old Testament days, never mind the thousands of years prior. That’s right, creationists: God evolved. The smiting, wrathful OT God wouldn’t have survived the past hundred plus years, but the friendly personal God was fit enough to flourish in Its environment.

    Jonathan: That information about the hidden galaxies and dust clouds giving us the history of time… just amazing. Mindblowing. Thank you so much for sharing. Nice choice of poem, too.

    Being a comic book reader, all this talk about the creation of the galaxy makes me think of Jack Kirby. Even if the science was a little off, he got it all right.

  12. The fluxions of Space and Time are the sinews of Jehovah
    Riemann, thou shouldst be living at this hour!
    To see how the burning heart of every supernova
    Inscribes upon the lightcone, Calculus is Power.

    And a banjo-playing spastic
    Just warped across my grave.

  13. Oh and the new religions – didn’t you see 12 Monkeys? Religion has been replaced by Psychology. Believe it or don’t. And beyond that – fundamentalist Christianity and Islam ARE new religions.

    Oh, and religion doesn’t operate on the same principles once mass media exists, because it completely invalidates it’s original function.

  14. As a dirty liberal evolutionist Catholic, I can’t say I agree with everything you say but I defend your right to say it.

    Maybe I’ve read too many Jack Kirby comics, but I tend to think there’s too much “out there” to think everything can be argued scientifically or theologically given man’s imperfections.

    So I prefer to think there’s a God out there and if I’m wrong after kicking the bucket, it really won’t make a difference will it?

    BTW, I’m with you on the whole reboot bit. I’ve been defending the boarded-up Fortress against Black Lanterns for weeks now. Good thing I’ve got an ample supply of time bullets to knock out the undead @#$$%^^%.

  15. Ah! But you see, Marc, I don’t think religious people are dumb…I think they’re fine, as fine as non-believing type people. The “New Atheists” are just arrogant shitheads…

    …But most religious people aren’t just good at reasoning, they’re good at stretching the taffy of belief to accomodate reality, too. Sure, some try to stretch reality to cover belief, but what they do isn’t very interesting; whereas, despite how Dave just totally nailed it by saying Jesus is hiding behind the sun like Counter-Earth — that’s exactly where he’s hiding, of course — that a religious person will accept much as metaphor is downright fascinating. Heaven up in the sky? Metaphor. Tower of Babel? Metaphor. Three nights in the whale’s belly, nine days across Ninevah…obviously metaphor. I mean it’s either metaphor or miracle, and not just in the sense of “God did it” but in what God did…

    What’s the character of a world based on miracle, anyway? Clearly it isn’t one where proportions are accidental, or even unexpectedly recombinatory. Three days because three’s a special number, forty days and forty nights because it sounds cool…the alignments and symmetries of the human psychology made manifest in the outside world, that would otherwise be so infuriatingly inexact and opaque to meaning. A world governed by miracle would be a world in which history and parable were identical, wouldn’t it?

    Nevertheless, in every religion there are a few kernel beliefs that are taken to be unmetaphorically true…a serious Christian person might believe the idea of the “seven days” in which God created the world to be, well, a little permissibly loose…but it’s hard to imagine such a person giving up the idea of God creating the universe as metaphorical! In my own problematic system of belief, God creating the universe isn’t on the table in any meaningful sense, so I can imagine him not doing so as easily as you please…but that’s me, and my “religion” has a lot more to do with Jonathan’s tale of stellar forges than it does even with the most attractive stuff out of world mythology. A limited view, maybe! But I don’t make the rules, I just answer to the impulsions…

    And the “new religions” bit…well, Sean’s right, it turned into psychology somewhere along the way. In Scientology’s case it turned into very bad psychology, with truly trivial ornamentation passing for the cosmological bit. Really, that’s some evidence right there: you believe some whacked-out shit if you’re a Scientologist, but the key isn’t what you believe, it’s that you believe…the active part of that witches’ brew is surely the part that’s all about control and self-worth. Which is how you know it isn’t good for anything, because those two things just don’t go together…the mass media thing’s also right on target, but I think I might need to make another comment after this one if I feel like going over that incredibly compelling ground…

    And actually: maybe I will. A new religion, huh?

    What would it have to look like, I wonder?

    There’s your fiendish question, by the way, Jonathan.

  16. I keep meaning to say something, but I keep holding back because I’ve never actually had any dealings with religion, so I’ve never really even had something to *reject*. I’ve always been a bit *spiritual*, even if it’s out of utter hope, and I’m always about one step away from being That Guy, you know: “Hey, man, what we think of as ‘God’ and ‘Heaven’ could just be some kind of, like, cosmic *energy field*, maaaaaan.”

    I’m pretty open to speculation because it doesn’t change anything on a day-to-day basis, but *organized* religion? With books and rules and codes? If I’m going to invest all that time into learning these concrete things, I want a little more to go on, you know? Science is all books and rules and codes, but at least that’s reproducable.

    I suppose the biggest impediment to new religions (in the way we traditionally think of them) is the lack of modern miracles, or at least miracles for *everyone* to see. I mean, Philip K. Dick says he had a religious experience, but people say he was just mentally ill. And maybe he was, but why do people in Biblical times see pillars of flame and burning bushes and they get credit, but when PKD talks about a pink laser beam and his son’s hernia he’s having crazy hallucenations and/or is on drugs?

    Frankly, I wish we could reconcile it all by saying science is the *method* through which religion works. “God makes evolution happen” or “God made the Big Bang happen,” simple as that, but I can see where that might not be appealing for either side…

  17. Also, thanks for that video link, Sean. Tyson truly is a science-badass of the highest order. If I had a birthday party and invited him, do you think he’d show up?

  18. In college, I had a professor who suggested that at least some early recorded religious experiences and supernatural occurances were actually hallucinations brought about by the still-developing corpus callosum (the connective strands between the brain’s hemispheres).

    A new religion? You’d have to take the Scientology route; base it on wonky New Age quick-fix pseudo-psychology crap, then bring out the bizarre stuff when people are already invested. Or, get some really strong drugs.

    We’ve come far enough in our beliefs to envision a single God. Where can we go from there? Some sort of material fetishism? “I pray to my car, so it goes. The Tivo isn’t working, I must have offended it somehow.” Maybe not. Can you build a religion out of atheism, or is that just existentialism or nihilism?

  19. Well, as I said somewhere else recently, Dawkins et. al. (and who’s the real whacked-out guy, the younger guy, Sam something-or-other…?) are pretty heavily invested in the values associated with the major Western religions…progress, perfectability, etc., this isn’t “rejecting belief”, this is unconsciously cherry-picking from it in order to excuse the duty of examining your own biases. To build a religion out of atheism — just that, alone — you’d still have some major philosophical investigations and choices to do before you could arrive at one. Which is what the New Atheists don’t need to worry about, since their acculturation seems resolutely Christian: they don’t even bother to find alternative justifications for the ideals they pilfer from their own culture, they just sort of…hold ’em up, to say “see? RATIONALITY.” Which is probably why Dawkins (for example) is so hostile to Kuhn — not because “that isn’t science”, but because the kind of science that is, is the kind that asks questions of his philosophical position that he’s strikingly underequipped to answer…

  20. Justin

    There’s a long section in Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire where he discusses when and why the Age of Miracles ended. God, I suppose, having decided that there weren’t going to be any further overt displays of heavenly power. I’m pretty sure heavy sarcasm was involved on Gibbons’ part, but overt atheism probably wasn’t popular in his day

  21. Not sure that post doesn’t need quite a bit of rewriting, now…don’t know if I was sufficiently clear about something that I was trying to make sufficiently clear. Which is: although young-earth creationists would have to rewrite the book of biology to make their belief true, it’s possible to conceal the scope of this necessity by making every argument one of nomenclature. “Corn is corn” isn’t really a statement but an assertion of right in the word “species” — an illegitimate attempt to co-opt a technical term for general use. This is pure Wittgenstein: non-jargonistic terms don’t have any responsibility to anyone to mean some definite thing, because the meaning lies in usage…but technical terms aren’t like that, because they’ve got a job to do, and the description of that job is being more precise.

    However, you can blur those lines temporarily: “his unctuous manner, though it suggested servility, was really the outward sign of a certain species of disgust with his fellow man”, “attention theatre-goers, a dazzling new talent has exploded in our skies like a supernova”…stuff like that you can get away with, even though it’s absurd. But it’s a matter of picking your battles. Attacking evolution with nomenclature is a lot easier than attacking astronomy with nomenclature, because if you dislike relativity you still must reckon with trams and pocket-watches, and there isn’t even any need to meet a relativity-denier with the bushels of evidence and experimental proofs that relativity works…you just have to point to all the things it’s based on and ask “which of these, then, is also false?” And then down the ladder of turtles you will go, until you finally arrive at Euclid. Why did God make the variable stars? Which lights in the sky are regular stars that emit regular light, and which are simply “miraculous”? What sort of cosmogony applies, here? And can it withstand the skepticism of the Amish, who already know that the world is round, and that man has landed on the moon. You do have to rewrite the book of biology to get rid of evolution, but you can also pretend that isn’t what you’re doing, so long as you’re pretending to the right people. But when you try to rewrite the book of astronomy it’s very, very hard to pretend you’re not just doing it whimsically, and irresponsibly, and illegitimately.

    That’s my point. Hope that came across.

    But I forgot to say something else, something a little bit more theoretical. Which is: what’s the effect of “teaching the controversy” in American high schools? You don’t dare teach creation astronomy anymore than you dare teach creation algebra, but creation biology you can teach…

    Except why would you?

    Well…here’s a thought…

    Consider that since there will never be any “teaching the controversy” in any reputable university — you have to make universities to order to get that stuff into them! — then any bright child who sails through high school, should they make it to university will be confronted with one of two choices: accept that the people where you come from are all bloody well pig-ignorantly intolerant, or bomb out of school and head back to the farm.

    Now there’s your culture war, eh? Not red states vs. blue states, but old red-staters vs. young ones. One generation determined to limit the opportunities of the next.

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