What I find “miraculous”

October 17, 2011 • 9:59 am

I don’t believe in the supernatural or true miracles, of course, but there are a few things that move me deeply and produce great wonderment when I ponder them:

  • Our brains that evolved solely to enable small bands of social primates to make their living on the savannah have nevertheless helped us unravel the deepest secrets of the universe, from the existence of subatomic particles, to black holes, to the Big Bang, to the compositions of atoms, molecules, and our own hereditary material.  They’ve even led us to things like quantum mechanics—things so bizarre that they violate every notion we have about how the world should behave.
  • That everything on Earth, including all the devices we use—computers, cellphones, toasters, cars, beer, pacemakers, backpacks, paperclips,and the like—are made solely of substances that have been wrested from the crust of the Earth and transformed by our hands and brains.  So too from the Earth come the bodies of every creature who ever lived. And all of it originated from the hydrogen and helium of ancient stars.
  • That all of those species in all of their wondrous complexity—a complexity even more amazing on the cellular and subcellular level—have arisen through the simple evolutionary process of one type of replicator outcompeting another. And it involved, again, only those molecules present in the Earth’s crust and atmosphere.

This last wonder, of course, is not mine alone.  In our era Richard Dawkins expressed it most eloquently, but it all began with Darwin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Read that sentence again: it’s the final one in On the Origin of Species. There is a lot in it, not the least the idea that evolution is still going on. (By the way, this is the only use of the world “evolve” in the entire book.) What impresses me most is Darwin’s comparison of the laws of physics to the “laws” of evolution, i.e., no supernatural intervention required.

It’s only when you stop and think about the path from stardust to evolution that you realizing how stupendous it all is. That’s not proof of God of course, because we understand that whole process as a purely materialistic one produced by the laws of physics.  But it’s fantastic nonetheless.

I’m sure that there are many things I haven’t pondered that readers find equally amazing; do weigh in below.


146 thoughts on “What I find “miraculous”

  1. Not as awe inspiring, but I have always found it amazing, if not miraculous, that we inhabit a planet with a moon that has almost the same angular diameter as our larger and more distant sun. I can’t think of any way that it would be important except for the aesthetics of solar eclipses. Still it amazes me.

    1. This coincidence of angular sizes is an accident of our particular moment in geologic history. The moon is getting farther away as tidal forces transfer angular momentum from the earth’s rotation to the moon’s orbit. 100 mllion years ago the moon appeared much larger than the sun in the sky; 100 million years from now it will appear smaller.

      It is thought, though, that having a large moon stabilizes the earth’s rotation and suppresses chaotic polar wandering such as we see evidence of on Mars.

      1. Odd then that we’re here at just the right time!

        I remember an Asimov essay — “The Triumph of the Moon”? — in which he made the point that without a large moon and the consequently large tides, life might never have left the oceans. Is this consistent with modern evolutionary thought?


        1. The sun has about 40% of the tidal effect of the moon, so without a moon there would still be tides, just smaller. Sufficient to promote extra-oceanic life? Dunno.

          1. And fascinating to ponder the effects of tide amplification on the history of life, especially with respect to the colonization of land by plants and animals.

          2. Even without tides, I’d expect there would still be daily and seasonal cycles of variation in lake and stream levels, creating moist buffer zones in which transitional forms could get a foothold on land.

            I’d also expect aquatic animals living at the muddy margins of lakes and streams to modify their habitat by burrowing and nesting, thereby creating further niches for transitional forms to occupy.

            Rafts of floating vegetation might also provide niches for air-breathing insects and plants to exploit.

            Bottom line is that I don’t think there’s any shortage of ways for life to get out of the water with or without tides.

          3. @ Lou Jost ~ Forgetting the other bodies which only effect the tides to a minute degree…

            THIS LINK claims:

            The strength of the sun’s gravity is 179 times that of the moon’s but the moon is responsible for 56% of the earth’s tidal energy while the sun claims responsibility for a mere 44%

            1. Therefore I think (please correct me if I’m wrong!) a spring tide maximum of 5.0 metres above sea level in a mid-ocean spot would be reduced to 2.2 metres in the same system sans the moon.

              1. I think this is a direct quotation from Asimov’s essay (the source is a little ambiguous about what’s quoted and what’s not):

                And of course the tides are the product of the Moon. The Sun, to be sure [a distinctive Asimovian phrase!], also produces tides, nearly half the size of those produced by the Moon today [consistent with your 2.2m and 5m tides, Michael], but that smaller to-and-fro wash of salt water would represent a smaller drive towards land and might have led to the colonisation of the continents much later in time, if at all.

                Indeed, hundreds of millions of years ago, when land life was evolving, the Moon was surely closer to Earth, and the tides were considerably more ample.

                (This is followed by a comment about the “capture” of the moon, which is at odds with the currently understood history of the Earth-moon system. But it’s not crucial to Asimov’s point.)


                PS. I regret giving away all my collections of Asimov’s science essays…

      2. I think people are, or should be, reconsidering that. We still don’t know why Venus (retrograde) and Uranus (heavy tilt) are tipped over, but they seem very stable.

        [Both impactors and, recently, planet migration mechanics, trading eccentricity for rotation, has been considered. Also, Venus may be tidally stabilized by the Sun.]

        And Mars doesn’t seem to have the same amount of wandering as Earth. (IIRC a vague memory of abstracts on the latest planetary conference.) While the Moon seems to couple to Earth in just the way required to tip it now and then.

        I guess we have to sit and wait until the tide goes out on that one.

        Also, needless to say, the Rare Earth idea underlying it all is religiously motivated even if it _can_ be true. Just not very likely.

      3. So I can’t find that abstract, but I also can’t find any evidence for polar wandering.

        Seems from a quick google dip into the web ocean that there is a long standing hypothesis about Martian polar wandering (especially since the Tharsis bulge implies at least one tipping – but would then also mean later stability one would think), and a lot of models on how ancient coast lines or magnetic anomalies can be coupled to various models of wandering.

        But I can’t find anything definitive, certainly not a consensus.

      4. Actually, 100 million years ago the moon would have been roughly 4000 km closer than it is now (given a VERY rough rate of retreat of 4 cm/yr; that’s actually its current rate and it started off slower so this is an extreme estimate). But the elliptical orbit of the moon means that its distance from earth varies by about 50,000 km every month anyway, so a 4000 km difference is negligible. It’ll make a difference in the tides, but not much, and the naked eye wouldn’t be able to tell at all.

    2. According to my calculations, using Wikipedia data, from Jupiter, Amalthea would give you a pretty good annular eclipse (5.15′ to 6.14′ for the sun), from Saturn, Prometheus (3.3′) and Pandora (3.4′) would be pretty close to the size of the sun (3.3′), and from Uranus, Cupid (1.25′) and Mab (1.19′) would provide annular eclipses, while Perdita would provide the closest total eclipse (2′), compared to 1.66′ for the sun. Given the changes in those numbers over an orbit, some will probably give a total solar eclipse once in a while.

      1. Interesting. It helps me articulate my amazement. Had I lived on a gas giant with umpteen moons and a small sun, maybe I wouldn’t be surprised. So perhaps it is simply amazement that the earth has such a large moon, given other terrestrial planets in the solar system do not. Maybe, in the future, the study of exo-planets will show that, even in the habital zone, large moons are not unusual. If so, as an atheist, I will be glad. I don’t like anything that smells of earth exceptionalism.

        1. Somewhere in the universe, there are probably intelligent beings living on a large (Earth-sized) moon of a gas giant. Imagine having a giant planet rising to take up most of the sky every day, possibly with a ring system, and an array of other large and small moons flying around. I wonder what kind of mythologies would develop on that kind of planet. Given the existence of other moons, they probably weren’t convinced the universe revolved around them for very long; they would probably assume the other moons have life and would likely be right, at least for bacteria. They would probably also assume that all life would live on moons orbiting gas giants.

          1. “Imagine having a giant planet rising to take up most of the sky every day…”

            It wouldn’t rise. Moons of gas giants tend to be tide-locked (as our moon is to Earth) so that the planet remains fixed in the sky.

            1. I admit I forgot about that; the mental image was just so cool. Science fiction writers must feel like that all the time.

              Using Wikipedia for equations and numbers, the moon generates a tidal force at earth’s surface of 1.1*10^-7 m/s/s. That would have been higher in the past when the moon was closer, and after 4.5Gyr, the earth is still not tidally locked to the moon.

              Using the same method, the earth would see the same tidal force at a distance of 25 million kilometers from Jupiter or 16 million km from Saturn. Those planets have moons at those ranges, but only really small, recently discovered ones. The large moons are about 1/10th as far away.

              So you’re probably right that large moons in realistic orbits are tidally locked, but then, there’s always the possibility of a spin-orbit resonance like Mercury has.

          2. “They would probably also assume that all life would live on moons orbiting gas giants.”

            And someone on that world is posting on a blog (they’re always called blogs there; never websites) about the possibility of inhabited worlds orbiting the stars themselves! And the inhabitants assuming that all life would live on such planets!!

            Might there be systems with both kinds of worlds? Maybe ours? What intelligences lurk beneath the ice of Europa? 😉


            1. Bloody hell that’s a great vid. I’ve subbed to Pakiavellin’s channel for any future uploaded goodness. That one needs to be looped for maximum audience spliffy audiovisual pleasure!

  2. Wonderful, Thank you Jerry. You, and your book have been an inspiration to me and I’m sure many others. Keep it up.

  3. Music.
    That we have evolved a sense of beauty.
    The ‘unreasonable’ effectiveness of our sense of beauty in mathematics.
    The ‘unreasonable’ effectiveness of mathematics, full stop.
    In the end, music.

  4. all of it originated from the hydrogen and helium of ancient stars

    I find this perhaps most mind-blowing and humbling of all — we are all literally stardust.

  5. Mine is hypothetical, but I still find it amazing.

    Pour a glassful of water into the ocean. Stir the oceans thoroughly. Then dip your glass into the ocean again, anywhere in the world. You will almost certainly get back a few of the water molecules from your original glassful.

  6. Beer is interesting as the art of making it appears to be as old as civilisation itself. If you are going to be pedantic, ale is as old as civilisation, technically beer uses hops as a flavouring and preservative. The thing that fascinates me is that malting is quite a complex and exact process and someone had to work out how to do it. In its original state, grain consists mostly of starch which is useless for brewing alchohol. Put the grain in a warm, moist place and it will release an enzyme that turns the starch into sugar. You can tell that this has happened because each grain produces a little green spike. At this point the grain has to be dryed to stop the sprouting process otherwise all your sugar will be used up as the sprout grows bigger. Add to this the fact that yeast grows naturally on the skins of grapes and apples but not on grain. Some guy living in a pre-scientific culture worked all this out and gave us beer.

    1. And getting drunk is something that is as old as fruit and predates humanity (and probably older too, if there are some other fermentable substances out there).

  7. Echoing “Tulse” above – it is wonder-full to consider that we exist at this time because ancient stars formed and died billions of years ago. Contemplating the timescale involved from the formation of the elements through to the evolution of life on earth, begins to make questions like who am I? why am I here? quite irrelevent, and show how self obsessed I can be, teaching me humility.

  8. I’ve had those same first two thoughts for a long time myself, although I was never able to find words quite as eloquent.

    It’s a sort of coincidence that our intelligence, which evolved because it helped us figure out how to tie a rock to a stick, also happened to enable us to figure out a lot of things about the universe. However, I suspect we’d be a lot more intelligent and better off today if our ancestors had needed to figure out more complicated things than that in order to survive.

    And yes, it’s amazing that whenever someone invents something, there seems to always exist a combination of atoms and molecules that make up the material needed to build it. But I often think about what we could build if we had materials with properties beyond those which exist naturally. Maybe someday we’ll be able to directly manipulate atoms and “weave” them together to create new materials with combinations of properties that we’ve never seen before.

        1. Thanks for fixing that link. I thought you were referring to a different kind of films. I was ready to search through the back issues of Cahiers du Cinéma to see what I missed.

  9. I find religious belief miraculous

    As someone who has never believed in the supernatural, that so many people can believe such ludicrous, obvious nonsense is beyond my powers of rationalisation. I mean, intellectually I can make a stab at explaining it, but instinctively I find it hard to believe those explanations. It just boggles my mind.

    1. Oh aye, and the development of an organism like us from a single cell at conception to wonderously complex maturity, governed by nothing but a series of chemical reactions.

      Mind blowing.

      1. “…governed by nothing but a series of chemical reactions.”

        That’s overstating it a bit, I think. It’s implemented by a series of chemical reactions, which are governed by the information encoded in the DNA. The role of information is crucial in organizing the process, so you can’t really say it’s “nothing but” chemistry, any more than a computer is “nothing but” transistors.

        1. That’s a distinction without a difference, innit? I wasn’t denigrating the contribution of DNA, that contribution was implicit in my statement.

          1. Suppose we take a fertilized ovum, remove its DNA, and replace it with randomly generated DNA of the same length, whose base pair sequence is complete gibberish. The result would not be a living system and would not exhibit the elaboration of complex structure that you find miraculous; it would be nothing but chemistry. Since the living cell is chemically identical to the non-living one, the difference must lie in the information content, not in the chemistry.

            So the mind-blowing part, for me, is not that chemistry can be used to build living organisms, but that information can be encoded in matter in such a way as to have such profound causal effects in the material world.

            1. So the mind-blowing part, for me, is not that chemistry can be used to build living organisms, but that information can be encoded in matter in such a way as to have such profound causal effects in the material world.

              A glimmer of understanding ?

            2. Since the living cell is chemically identical to the non-living one, the difference must lie in the information content, not in the chemistry.

              That is one profound misunderstanding of the concept of information. Information is always in relation to a system, in the same way that meaningful coding is. For example, random mutational noise maximizes the information content of the genome, while Shannon information paring down a set of prior alleles throws away noise information.

              The difference between cellular functionality and random chemistry is not information but functionality.* That difference has evolved as a consequence of the evolutionary process. Yes, it is beneficial that RNA can accept information and even more that it can _encode_ chemical information which is after all the end result. But we have found plenty of systems that can do that, from crystal to nanotube surfaces.

              For me the mind-blowing part is not the specific chemistry for coding (or how it comes about) but the overall process; that a dynamic hereditary population is the natural system for biochemical relaxation of solar (mainly) energy flow.

              * The reification and deification of the sometimes useful abstract measure of information is obnoxious.

  10. Call me a curmudgeon if you will, but until you can be as amazed by parasites and diseases, or as astounded by bindweed as by roses, you’re just indulging yourselves with a bit of naturalistic human viewpoint woo.

    I guess it’s mostly harmless, but religions have been started on less.

    1. But what we’re talking about is precisely what we as humans find amazing and “miraculous”, and not some objective standard for being astounding.

      But, with all that said, I do find some diseases and parasites really cool.

      1. Like the fungus that makes an ant climb to the tops of a plant to die so that the fungus can spore and infect more ants!

        (A well-known example, from Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. But fascinating nonetheless. Even for an Ant.)


    2. And while we’re at it, that there have evolved an estimated 10 million species of insects (perhaps many more) in terrestrial and fresh water habitats, but that there are virtually none in the seas, is miraculous in the first case, and utterly mysterious in the second.

  11. Sometimes I marvel that the various elements have such different, and often in their pure or simply combined forms useful, properties.

    And that a very simple metabolite, formic acid, is such a powerful solvent for proteins, and despite that, that ants are able to compartmentalize it to dissolve their prey. {The corollary of that is that without formic acid, at least the early years of protein chemistry would probably have progressed far more slowly.}

    1. That is a very humble statement. It’s miraculous to me how little babies are made and grown in our bellies into little humans that make us mad, sad and happy.

  12. I find it impressive that all the elements above carbon were forged in the heat of a supernova. It makes you wonder where exactly the leftovers of the star that produced all the heavy elements for our solar system ended up.

  13. I don’t think our brains evolved just to make a living on the savannah.

    I think they evolved to get us laid while making a living on the savannah.

    In other words, the abnormal size of our brains is a statistic with runaway sexual selection written all over it.

    1. An intriguing hypothesis. I know from personal experience that I have come up with some very creative, even ingenius, ways to get myself laid. (As to how effective they were, well, nevermind).

    2. I find it wonderful that we’re the result of some hundreds of thousands of years of parents getting to be parents largely because they can be witty and charming, because they can cast seductive glances, because they can woo one another with song and dance and dirty limericks. We’ve made ourselves enticing company.

    3. Except that sexually selected traits are almost always dimorphic (I say “almost”, but I can’t think of a counter example). I wish the person who wants to claim that there are sexual differences in brain size or structure good luck. I’m confident there is no evidence for it though.

      1. I wouldn’t say that’s accurate at all. Most sexually-selected traits apply to a single sex, but that’s because the streetlight is there. There may be any number of sexually selected traits that apply equally to both sexes, because there’s been no countervailing selection against them in the sex that doesn’t benefit from them. It’s only when a given trait is maladaptive to one sex that such differences will arise.

        For example, building a peacock’s tail on a peahen would incur a huge cost with no benefit (males compete for females, because females have a higher parental investment), so peahen’s have evolved peacock tail suppression.

        Any trait which increases the chance of mating for one sex, but doesn’t incur a cost, would be shared by the other sex. By their very nature, such sexually-selected traits would be hard to identify.

        In other words, if there’s a benefit to one sex, and no cost to the other, the latter is taken along for the ride.

  14. I find it miraculous that I was born. That I became myself, somehow, and can contemplate that. And that it will all cease to exist at some given moment.

    Does that make sense? It makes my head hurt.

  15. “They’ve even led us to things like quantum mechanics—things so bizarre that they violate every notion we have about how the world should behave.”

    Actually we can’t have any notion about how the subatomic world should behave as neither could we have any notion about how the world of superfast objects should behave.
    It’s not bizarre, it’s just counterintuitive.

    1. In fact it’s thinking long and hard about how things should behave in order to be fully consistent that leads us to counterintuitive theories like relativity and quantum mechanics.

  16. Mindboggling and superb an example of amazingness to me is a virus. Stripped down bacteria or evolved in their own right, they are so incredibly successful to me they are – thus fat – the summit of evolution. Of what else is out there, off the tiny pathetic dot on which we live and ove, I can only drop my jaw…

  17. “… having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one …”

    Just remember that the accommodationism was mandatory at the time and not because Science was nice to Superstition but because Superstition was a grave threat to reason and science had to yield to the gods.

  18. This is minor miracle compared to the age and size of the universe, but every time I walk outside I am blown away by the fact that when I was a little kid, dinosaurs were big, slow, and most of all, extinct.

    And now, as a grown man, I learn that some dinosaurs survived the K-T extinction event, and now represent the largest, most populous, and most diverse group of terrestrial tetrapods. Thanks to science, I now live on the Planet of the Dinosaurs!

    (Have you ever looked at a sparrow’s legs? I mean, really looked?)

    1. I used to feed an orphan emu in the middle of a 5 acre field (it would gently peck my back if I wasn’t quick about getting the food in the bowl). When looking at an emu that close it looks very much a dinosaur.

  19. What is incredible to me is our curiosity about the world and its elements. We’d still be living in caves if someone hadn’t wondered “what if?” or “why is that?” and then followed through by observing and experimenting.

  20. One of the most impressive quotes of all time:

    “We humans have seen the atoms which constitute all of nature and the forces that sculpted this work and others. We have found that the molecules of life are easily formed under conditions throughout the cosmos. We have mapped the molecular machines of the heart of life. We have discovered a microcosm in a drop of water; we have peered into the bloodstream and down on the stormy planet to see the earth as a single organism. We have found volcanoes on other worlds and explosions on the sun, studied comets from the depths of space and traced their origins and destinies; listened to pulsars and searched for other civilizations.

    We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. We have walked far.

    *These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution.*

    Somehow, that last sentence almost moves me to tears every time I read it. It is the poetic equivalent of the Total Perspective Vortex.

  21. Miraculous? That an enormous number of evolved primates are able to get a peaceful nights sleep, every night.

    Think about it: We evolved from a world where life was, quite often, “nasty, brutish and short.” Sleeping is the act of being unconscious and immobile for eight hours per day. How would that have worked even 100,000 years ago, when our species was quite definitely modern? Needing to sleep so our brains work properly, and being in that sleep state is very dangerous. So we have automatic mechanisms to protect us, in that any unusual sound or touch can wake us (but not smell, oddly enough). Part of that automatic system is the ability to process limited information to come up with reasons why we woke up; what caused us to be disturbed and how we should react. Unfortunately that system of limited information processing gives rise to superstitions, seeing ghosts and spirits when there are none.

    However, we have transcended that primitive past. We now have a society with rules and laws and conventions that permit us to not only sleep in our beds, but have a very low probability of being murdered in them.(Stephen Pinkers new book is really, really good, BTW)

    Getting a good nights sleep now allows our brains to work smoothly, and do vital functions such as grind coffee, understand the universe, double entry bookkeeping and read WEIT.

    1. Our ancestors probably took more cat naps throughout the day than we do now, but I’m hoping naps come back in style.

  22. I go from amazement to amazement, but one that still remains large is [nerd warning] how quantum mechanics is at the same time minimizing the number of variables (no hidden variables re Bell test experiments) and number of parameters (which is another result I forget the name of, but I think Shor’s algorithm builds on it).

    So our basic physics is, despite say anthropic selection which is being most predictive today but perhaps gone tomorrow, unique.*

    * Quantum mechanics is also continuous, admits a continuous transformation between states, as opposed to, say, classical mechanics discrete pre- and post- states.

    Again a unique character, which may or may not be related to the previous one. But in any case amazing.

    1. The measurement prescription in the Copenhagen interpretation is kind of ugly and not continuous at all. There may be interpretations that are nicer in this respect, like Everett.

  23. What I find “miraculous”

    Magnets, the cell machine


    The perky, playful, inquisitive optimism of the young [all species]

    The kindness of strangers, friendship & Eros

    Orchids, Coffee & Cannabis

    00 > 13,750,000,000 years > Led Zeppelin & Leonardo

    Humour [what a weird thing it is]

  24. Apropos wonderment at the cosmos, no one has put it better than G.K. Chesterton:

    There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude.

    1. Yes it is wonderful. I’ve not seen that before. He was a real woo merchant though which spoils it for me ~ Converting to Roman Catholicism in later life

      1. Hi Michael,

        I’m tickled by your description of G. K. as a “woo merchant.” Sounds like something Shaw might level at him! No doubt G. K. wooed, and winsomely at that; I don’t think he was ever much of a merchant though.

        1. Jordan. I’m a Brit so maybe you don’t ‘get’ the expression. Instead of fannying around with borrowed quotes I would love to see your list of what you think is “miraculous”.

          Y o u r o w n w o r d s.

          1. Michael, I delight in the invitation. The good, the true, and the beautiful; all of them are miraculous, in the sense that one can never adequately explain them naturalistically; though the entire natural order is imbued by them. That would make my colors those of a Christian Platonist, since you asked.

            1. That reply doesn’t make the mark because

              “The good, the true, and the beautiful”

              are words that mean nothing unless they are placed in a context & you haven’t supplied one that’s real

              You might as well write

              “The green, the tall, and the bounteous”

              & that’s equally a load of useless verbiage until you add a context

              This is an example that works because it includes context:

              “The green, the tall, and the bounteous forest in which I live”

              Now that is a properly formed concept whereas yours is not

              Your Christian Platonism is I suppose the context you intend, but of course that only makes sense once you have shown that Christian Platonism is a valid stance upon which to construct reality. You can’t do that because it’s a faith position.

              1. The cosmos is the context Michael, but you knew that. I can put it in your formula if it helps to understand: the good, the true, and the beautiful cosmos in which I live. Goodness: there is a law of human acts transcending all empirical facts, which is unintelligble on a materialistic account of the cosmos. Truth: to know the nature and cause of things, which, again, is unintelligble on a materialistic account of the cosmos; one material object cannot grasp a truth about another material object. Beauty: there is Gregorian chant and the Himalayas, therefore there is a God. Q.E.D.

                Cheers, jb

              2. Oh well. Our positions cannot be reconciled JB because you’ve produced the god card to stand in for the unintelligible & not-well-understood.

                I’ve been here before & I have yet to encounter a theist who believes in a personal & interventionist god who can…

                ** Define the properties of their particular god
                ** Show logically that these properties are not in conflict with each other
                ** Show logically that these properties are not in conflict with the created cosmos
                ** Supply evidence for their gods existence & interventions in the cosmos
                ** Explain why their god is true & all other gods are not true
                ** Supply sensible reasons for why their god created evil

            2. Beauty: there is Gregorian chant and the Himalayas, therefore there is a God. Q.E.D.

              Seriously? Q. E. D.? Oh no, no, no, no, no. No. There are mountains, therefore plate tectonics. Fixed.

              Gregorian chant? I suppose it’s enjoyable in a superficial, atmospheric kind of way, but it is most certainly not complex and intelligent art. And even if it was, it would only be evidence of human ingenuity.

              Search YouTube for Dawkins reading a chapter from The God Delusion that addresses these arguments from beauty.

              1. Michael—I wonder if you teach because you’re awfully adept at giving out assignments (and awfully rhetorical for someone who laments “woo merchants” I might add). I’d be glad to take you up on these points but for now I have to get to work. Unlike G. K. I’m not a multi-tasker.

                JS1685–I’ll gladly read Dawkins on beauty. You might want to have a look at C. S. Lewis’ Weight of Glory or Jacques Maritain’s section on beauty in Approaches to God.

                Thanks, jb

    2. Unfotunately, Chesterton thought that gratitude should be directed at a supernatural Creator-thingy Who interacts with us instead of an emergent product of our biology. But other than that, yeah.

      1. Yes, which I suppose is another way of saying that he was sane. For, if you’ll forgive me quoting G. K. once more:

        It is not natural to see man as a natural product. It is not common sense to call man a common object of the country or the seashore. It is not seeing straight to see him as an animal. It is not sane. It sins against the light; against that broad daylight of proportion which is the principle of all reality.

        1. How come I knew this was going here? In that case, go ahead and worship “the light”, but if you are going to claim that you can comprehend what the Catholic catechism admits is Incomprehensible then I’ll need more evidence.

        2. I’ve popped over to your facebook & I see Fr. Benedict Groeschel & C.S. Lewis ~ along with the Chesterton quotes you leave about the place. Really it’s better to nail your colours to the mast rather than play these games. A decent conversation requires it.

  25. Not miraculous but something that occupies my thoughts: There is more genetic diversity present in a small gorilla population that occupies 10 square miles of jungle than in the entire human population. In other words, my western European genome is quite similar to that of the most remote Mongolian yak herder. In effect, we are all one extended family.

    In the words of Rodney King, can’t we all just get along?

    1. Based on my own personal chronology:

      My Parents
      Wayne Gretzky
      Jean Luc Picard
      Led Zeppelin

      One thing led to another?

  26. Something I like to reflect on when alone (because it usually moves me to tears) is that the universe started with an explosion, the dynamics of which appear to be described by relatively few physical concepts. And yet the ensuing chemistry has resulted in replicating molecules that can now contemplate their own existence. I cannot imagine a more wondrous thing.

  27. What I find miraculous is that we have a process guided by certain physical laws that results in the formation of stars, galaxies, and planets…and on at least one planetary body we have a process guided by certain laws that results in the creation and evolution of a stunning variety of life forms one of which can study and contemplate the universe and yet some people maintain that there is not an intelligent force at work in the universe or that intelligence is not built into the fabric of the universe. I am not advocating a personal supernatural deity or supernatural interventionism. But every time I think about the miracle of how life unfolded on this planet I go into shock and awe.

  28. One of my miracles is flying. Just think what is involved when we take a plane flight….there we are, sitting in perfect comfort inside a gigantic chunk of supernova vomit that weighs many hundreds of tons, carefully shaped so that it defies gravity, moving almost as fast as the sound of our own voices….there we sit, at an elevation higher than the highest mountain, in air so rarefied we would die if we had to breath it, maintained aloft by the long-decayed bodies of dinosaurs and the forests that sheltered them..Every time I find myself at 30000 ft, looking down at the turquoise edge of the continental shelf dropping off into the deep dark blue ocean, or look straight into the crater of a volcano, and I think of the long causal chains that keep me suspended there, I get shivers down my spine.

  29. This post reminds me of one of my favourite quotes about the wonder of science.

    Richard Feynman:

    “I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.”… There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

    I’m pretty sure there is a clip of the full quote on YouTube if you want to hear the man himself say it.

  30. This is partly speculation, but I think it will also make sense to others who are familiar with the subject.

    I don’t see intelligibility (1) as particularly miraculous. Once we gained second order abstraction – the ability to treat our thoughts as if they were *things* we were observing outside of us, it made our ideas “addressable”, and our conscious thoughts became Turing complete. At that point, to turn Edelman upside down and shake him, we became computers and the universe a tape. Everything describable is computable, (though not necessarily beforehand) i. e. intelligible.

    I suspect that it is sociability that brought about second order abstraction. Language in particular. Fully recursive grammar requires it. And I suspect that second order abstracton is where we differ from other primates and earlier man. Brute force process – large and busy brains – can do finite depth grammar … at ever increasing cost. After a certain point “slipping the leash” became economical. A cheaper way of collating
    language to ideas … though at the cost of losing “hard” grounding of them.


  31. I prefer the word “wonderful” than “miraculous” :-).
    Things that I find wonderful:
    All the regulatory mechanisms in a living cell
    That time travel could be possible (but I don’t think I really understand what it means)
    and many, many more

  32. One of my favorite simple, yet mind-blowing little tid-bits is this: Imagine a best-case scenario for stargazing from earth. The clearest, highest, driest, darkest night you can think of. In that best possible circumstance, for every single star you can see there are over 30 million more in our galaxy alone. Try to process that for a moment.

  33. Too many amazing things to contemplate.

    – The Moon landings
    – Beethoven
    – Duane Allman’s guitar playing
    – The unquenchable curiousity of one particular primate that happened to stroll out of Africa not that long ago (in evolutionary time)
    – Watching your gorgeous baby daughter grow before your eyes (something I’m going through right now)

    And so on, and so on.

  34. That last sentence of the Origin of Species is incredible, it almost moves me to tears every time: it expresses so well both the wonder of life and evolution and the amazament and joy of a man that sees and understands it.

    1. Yes! Language, that enables us to know things that we haven’t directly experienced.

      (It struck me today: Can we be fully conscious without language? How else can we think about what we’re thinking? Are language and consciousness intimately related? Am I not reading enough Pinker or Dennett?)


    1. btw, not only is it completely awesome to see wasps that inject venom into cockroach brains (and a tiny part of a cockroach brain, I might add) as bloody mind control so they can ride them like horses back to their burrows, but the WAY this was discovered, by the SCIENTISTS was absolutely amazing too.

      any kid reading that paper, that doesn’t immediately conclude science is fucking awesome is brain dead.

  35. That I am here. And for that to happen, my mother and father had to meet, had to fall in love (ok not a requirement but you get my drift), had to decide to have kids, and so on until an embryo formed carrying my exact DNA.

    And for my mother (father) to be here, her (his) parents had to meet, had to fall in love…..

    And so on for generation after generation after generation…

  36. No scientist here so I’ll just bash. Sorry!

    1) That, say, a Christian if asked this same question might respond: That the Lord and Savior Jesus died on a cross in exchange for the forgiveness of our sins. Without His forgiveness we would spend eternal life in Hell.

    2) That it’s realistic to say that 10s of millions of people (probably greatly understating) in this country believe that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago. That the first man and woman just magically appeared in a garden. That it was a perfect place with “no sin”. That they were instructed by an Invisible, Speaking, Listening, Communicating God not to eat an apple from a certain tree in the garden. And that a Talking, Listening, Communicating snake (that spoke their language) conned the young lady into eating that apple because the snake was very evil and just wanted to get her in trouble! And that this mistake pissed off the Omni-Benevolent Creator so much that he banished them from the perfect garden to roam a cold, cold, world until their dying days. So that they would suffer for their (I mean her) disobedience. And that every human after that would equally suffer because of it. Wouldn’t the snake just kill her if he was that evil? Wouldn’t God have killed the snake or was the snake so smooth that he was undetected? When a child makes their very first mistake does a parent banish that child and drop her off in a garbage dumpster? This would roughly be the equivalent of what this so called Omni-Benelovent and Omniscient Creator did when His very first Creation made her very first (and very minor) mistake. Sad thing is the timeline (<10,000 years) is equally as ludicrous as the story! And it is miraculous that people do not question it.

    1. It is because God knew from the first place we would fail, so he created us so that he could give us choices. Once sin has entered it will not leave. Will hands leave you if your parents had them and it never happened before or because of something(sin)?

  37. So Darwin in the his final edition of “Origin” stated he was a Creationist regarding abiogenesis but not evolution/natural selection?Darwin revised the text of the “Origin” extensively each time the book was republished in his lifetime; by the 6th (and last) edition, the text had evolved considerably. The final paragraph of the 6th edition differs from that of the first in that it includes mention of “the creator.” The relevant sentence of the 6th edition reads “…having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one…)”

    1. Discovery Institute mission statement:

      The Center for Science and Culture is a program of [the] Discovery Institute and was launched in 1996. The Center seeks long-term change through scientific research and scholarship; education and training of young leaders; communication to the general public; and advocacy of academic freedom for scientists, teachers, and students to question Darwinism.

      Discovery Institute quote ~ What were Darwin’s Religious Views? by Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D. May 1, 2009

      We should not be misled by Darwin’s seemingly religious language. His private letters are full of “God bless you,” “God only knows,” “I wish to God,” and so on, but these are mere expressions (sort of like Socrates saying “By Zeus!”), and not expressions of belief. They continue long after he’d shed any belief in God. Instructing his daughter Henrietta in editing his Descent of Man, he could say “Heaven only knows what you will think of the whole,” even though he’d no belief in heaven. In fact, he explicitly argued in the Descent that the existence of religion was due, not to God, but natural selection.

      Nor should we be misled by a sop Darwin attached to later editions of his Origin of Species. The first edition ended with the famous flourish: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one…” To smooth ruffled feathers, later editions read: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…” Some are fooled by this sop even to this day. But what did Darwin himself say about this little addition? “I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used [a] Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant ‘appeared’ by some wholly unknown process”

  38. Some others have mentioned it already, and it is somewhat irrational given the expense involved, but sometimes I just look up at the moon and marvel that there have been creatures like me who have *been there*.

  39. Wonderful blogs, well written, thoughtful, well researched. Keep up the good work. I just began my own blog on wordpress. How much time do you have to spend preparing it? You inspire me. Graygoosegosling

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