Pigliucci on Sagan

August 26, 2009 • 5:27 pm

Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci, who seems to have moved from SUNY to CUNY, has a nice post on Carl Sagan’s challenges to theology. A snippet:

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.

29 thoughts on “Pigliucci on Sagan

  1. And besides the lack of revelation that the earth was not flat, the lack of any suggestions on how to make a printing press is also noteworthy. But I guess if you’re content to wait 13B yrs for H sapiens to appear, waiting another 1.4Kyrs for Gutenberg’s achievement isn’t much.

  2. More good stuff from Carl Sagan.

    So much to learn. I subscribed to Pigliucci’s blog in my rss reader and put “The varieties of Scientific Experience” on my list of books to read (second book added today!)

      1. Correction

        My response should have read

        newenglandbob,

        “So much to learn.”

        Thank you for this short but though-provoking phrase.

        Veronica

  3. Well, after reading that, my brain is really hurting.

    It seems the argument is, “You can not explain why the world is so big (which has absolutely no noticeable effect non our lives) and why did God not make it very easy to believe in him (I think I have pointed out that knowing God exists would not solve the world’s troubles. It did not solve the Jews troubles.)”

    Even so, I would agree that my response would be “I haven’t the foggiest idea”, which you say in kinda insulting. but I say that you have no clue why the world is so big either. You can not explain these questions either.

    So I really do not know what your point is.

    1. Pigliucci brought up one point out of many from the book based on Sagan’s lecture series.

      Sagan’s point is that religion has no answers to the many questions.

    2. The problem with throwing this particular question back at an atheist, Andrew, is that “why” ceases to apply in the same way if a creator god is no longer assumed.

      We can explain why in the sense of how – the universe is this big because it’s been expanding for billyuns of years (thanks Carl) at the speed of light or faster – but there’s no answer to why in the sense of “for what purpose”. None is needed.

      The point isn’t that humanity would benefit from knowing God exists, it’s that God supposedly wants us to believe for His own purposes. Indications that the universe itself makes belief difficult are tough to reconcile with the very existence of any creator god who likes belief. Yours, Andrew, is one such god.

    3. Science can at least tell you THAT the universe is staggeringly big even if it can’t (yet) tell you WHY. Religion doesn’t even tell you the THAT part of the problem.

      1. Indeed. There’s so much of the universe that we can’t even see because our eyes can’t see in those wavelengths, or those areas are too far away or too small to see with our unaided eyes. No holy book has instructions for building a microscope or telescope, or mentions x-rays.

        It’s science, not religion, that allows us to see the unseeable, and makes the universe so amazingly big and wonderful.

    4. Andrew,

      The points are:
      a) religion claims to have the answers, but actually doesn’t even manage to come up with most of the questions;
      b) religious people claim that we (or, more usually, some subset of us) are the special creation of God, but nothing we find out about the universe supports this claim;
      c) religious people can’t even agree whether religious belief is rational or not.

    5. Andrew, the big question about God revealing knowledge in the holy books is not why did He not tell us things that ancient tribes didnt know (like the germ theory of disease) know but the profound things revealed that the ancients didn’t know (the origin of the earth and the creation of life) have now turned out to be entirely wrong.
      Why did God reveal inaccuracies to his people?
      The only logical answer to this question from a religious point of view is that God is a lying trickster. It’s akin to the old creationist explanation for dinosaur fossils (they are not old but simply placed there by God or the devil to test our faith).
      You can, of course get around this problem now by suggesting that the inaccurate parts of the Bible are simply metaphors but it is science rather than religion that has revealed these as metaphors. The more science progresses the more metaphorical the Bible and other holy books will become. Right up to the point when the Bible is 100% metaphor – at which point we will agree science is compatible with this version of religion (or poetry).

    6. Even travelling at the speed of light, information about the supposed event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection could only have reached a tiny fraction of the observable universe by now — and in fact could and will never reach most of it before the heat death of the whole shebang.

      How can it be of such cosmic importance if God can’t be bothered (or is unable) to let anybody know about it?

      But on that subject: some of my Christian friends maintain that it’s impossible for their to be intelligent life on other planets, since Jesus would have to die for them on each planet, over and over again. (I asked them what if other intelligent beings never “fell”, but got no answer). So perhaps the real question is why create such a hugely vast universe that appears to be pretty much unpopulated.

    7. Andrew

      You say, “So I really do not know what your point is.”

      Keep thinking and reading. As newenglandbob points out there is “So much to learn.”

  4. It’s not all good. While hardly approaching a faitheist piece, it bashes the “angry and inflated rhetoric” of Dawkins and Hitchens in the second paragraph. That’s not fair.

  5. In the war of rhetoric, I think it ideal to really pound on this ‘small gods’ view. It’s absolutely true; religious concepts are incredibly small-minded, and that small-mindedness is best captured by the pinnacle of most any religion: its god.

  6. 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.

    No, they’re not. I don’t think they’ve been addressed particularly well, but they have been addressed. And these issues show up in popular Christian fiction too; see C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, or Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

    1. CS Lewis’ space trilogy supposed that life on other worlds had not yet “fallen”, so the debil sent a nasty, mean ol’ atheist scientist to tempt the Venusian Eve to sin and so God’s agents sent a Christian English professor to battle him. Otherwise, Jesus/Maledil himself might have to do something about the mean old atheist tempter to stop the great evil of doubting God’s commandments.

      It’s so deep that I tremble before it, even now.

      1. I have a dream that my children will one day live in a world where they will not be judged by the color of their belief but by the content of their facts.

        And in that world christians will realize what a joke Lewis was perpetrating.

  7. Pigliucci seems to me to be nothing more than a scientifically trained Chris Mooney. And his Dawkins Envy is really tiresome.

    He’s currently getting schooled by a couple commenters over there. Fun to watch.

  8. Although I miss Carl Sagan terribly also, I can’t help wondering…what would he think of the world we live in today? the religious wars, the hate, the lack of common sense on the down side,.. and the amazing technological advances, our pods, cell phones and advances on space exploration on the up side… are we overall doing better? are we relying more on science than the fantasy world of religious beliefs? are we closer and more united as a species? “..we make the world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers…”

  9. mk wrote:

    “Pigliucci seems to me to be nothing more than a scientifically trained Chris Mooney. And his Dawkins Envy is really tiresome.”

    Care to elaborate on that at all? The “schooling” Pigliucci supposedly received ends with this concession by RichardW:

    “Of course, if you think it’s irrational to reject what science plainly shows, then you’ll think the claim is irrational. But that’s a matter of epistemology, not science. (With hindsight I think this was the point Massimo was trying to make.)”

    1. I’m not mk, but I read that article and browsed some of the thread, so can give my opinion FWIW:

      1. Pigliucci is an accommodationist. He claims to believe in the theological claim that “Science cannot falsify or otherwise reject the supernatural”, and he describes science in the theological terms of “methodological and philosophical naturalism” [Wikipedia]

      Just as Mooney, he has a belief in belief.

      2. Anyone who describes Dawkins texts as “angry and inflated rhetoric” has problems with reality. Both as regards the emotional content but also the factual.

      [Which later of course stems from 1. He claims without other support that “when someone like Dawkins uses science to “refute” supernatural claims he is overstepping the epistemic limits of science”. Besides the non sequitur of using philosophic ideas on science, this hasn’t been tested.]

      3. Looking at the context of RichardW’s comment, he ends with that Pigliucci has described solipsism, which the later accepts. (!)

      For a basic empirical rejection of solipsism, which apparently Pigliucci doesn’t know about, see Deutsch “The Fabric of Reality”.

      [Roughly, a solipsist (or equally a religionist) taking his own ideas seriously has to accept that the major part of his world, his “mind” (“non-naturalism”), works according to natural law (and so is anti-solipsist (anti-religionist), btw). As an empirical idea is inconsistent and non-parsimonious and must be rejected.]

      1. It is correct… Torbjorn is not me. But as it turns out I now have no need to go back and collect all the info he provide concerning Pigliucci’s accomodationism and how he fared in his own comments section.

        And truth be told Torbjorn was much more efficient and eloquent than I ever could be.

  10. Ah, so there is the Sagan gambit where theologists choose to look away and pretend nothing was said, and the Dawkins gambit where they choose to overlook the argument and pretend what was said was nothing.

    Figures.

    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,

    Oh, but it isn’t insulting as the religious, by the power of special pleading invested in them, have a right to believe whatever inane story they like to believe and then tell the rest of us how special their pleading is.

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