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a gentler universe?

Consolmagno has done it again…

Yet another poignant and wise article, helpfully navigating the intersection of faith and science…

Here’s a sampler:

…there’s the world of nature, the world I study as a scientist, nice and neat and well described by some beautiful equations, elegant in their simplicity. And there’s the world of human beings, strange fleshy bundles of ego and free will, who can sometimes be described in a statistical sense but who as individuals never cease to surprise you.

Read the whole thing here.

17 replies on “a gentler universe?”

“Atheism goes hand in hand with flush toilets”

More believers live in third world countries, More people suffer in third world countries…so belief is linked to suffering.

The sun is yellow, a banana is yellow., so the sun is a banana…

What about all the possibilities, such as better education in the land of flush toilets?

Cheers Jack,
Instead of ‘belief is linked to suffering’, I think what he’s saying is:
the land of flush toilets is a land where people suffer far less often and to far less degrees than other lands, and quite simply this means that suffering is more of a ‘problem’ to those in flush toilet land…
I’ve heard of a friend of a friend of a friend who was giving birth (very rich woman), and even after all kinds of pain-killing drugs and other measures of comfort, she kept saying/insisting ‘But I can still feel pain – make it go away!’ The doctors had to tell her, ‘lady, you’re having a baby… it’s going to hurt…’

To me the statement “Atheism goes hand in hand with flush toilets” does link belief with hardship or lack of hardship. When you say suffering is more of a ‘problem’ to the well off do you mean a problem that gets in the way of belief in God or just a problem in general, in that we moan about it more because we are unaccustomed to it? Why do you think more people believe in God in Africa? Is it because they are desperate and as a last resort look to some higher power to rescue them or is it because suffering is less of a problem or some other reason?

When you say suffering is more of a ‘problem’ to the well off do you mean a problem that gets in the way of belief in God or just a problem in general, in that we moan about it more because we are unaccustomed to it?

mostly the latter, though possibly some of the first as well. I suspect that suffering might be at least one reason why some don’t believe, though the main point here is that we comfortable westerners are indeed strangers to many kinds (and levels) of suffering. Not only that, we make ‘mountains out of mole-hills’ (make our relatively small problems into ‘bigger’ ones…)…

As for higher belief levels in Africa:
I don’t want to reduce the difference down to a simple matter of more suffering/desperation or less knowledge/education…
I think the point being made by Consolmagno (which I agree with) is that we are more likely to have things ‘in between’ God and us. Our ‘flush toilets’ detach us from the reality of dealing with our (to put it literally) ‘crap’. (let no one say I’m saying we should not have flush toilets!) We don’t appreciate our food as coming from God, because, after all, it comes from the local supermarket, doesn’t it? It comes gift-wrapped, and we don’t even have to trade anything really for it, but just swipe a card and push a few buttons. Quite different from planting, watering, harvesting, cooking, cleaning, etc. gotta be quick… making any sense?

Mmm perhaps this is easier for you to relate to living in Auckland, for me personally, we have our own chooks so get our eggs and chicken from them, we have our own pigs and these help with waste disposal and bacon, we have a couple of cows and sheep that we eat too, but the place’s main income earner is grapes, so yep our wine supply is great too. I was brought up on a farm (more of a vineyard now) and have returned to live on the property in recent years, it is close to town but there are no street lights and the night sky is not some foreign sight, there is however a flush toilet – albeit an outside one ; ). I’m not sure whether I feel closer to God here than when I lived in the city. I suppose if I saw God as determining the weather then I might especially if my life depended on crops and I didnt have the safety back up of the local supermarket. Would I be closer to God if experienced more hardship or would I just wonder even more why God allows the world to be so cruel?

Thanks Jack,
Your farm lifestyle sounds wonderful!
I’m certainly not wanting to endorse (nor do I think Consolmagno is presenting) the notion of some kind of formulaic link between culture and belief…
Regarding your last question, I thought it would be interesting to replace a couple words with opposites:
“Would I be closer to God if [I] experienced more happiness, or would I just wonder even more why God allows the world to be so nice?”
My view is that neither hardship nor happiness should make or break one’s belief (or lack there of)…

Jack, I love your sun/banana correlation example.

The ‘flushing toilets’ correlation might be more a by-product of intelligence. There are observed inverse correlations between intelligence and religious belief and, if true, it would be more likely that you’d expect higher technologies (like flushing toilets) in a society that has largely abandoned superstition for reason.

Superstition, it would seem, tends to hold societies back from innovation.

Perhaps this goes back to your previous post Dale? Superstition tends to make up answers for unknown phenomena while reason demands that if you don’t know something you should admit it and always be open to correction even when you think you’ve found the answer.

Once you’ve decided you’ve got the answer to something (whether it be a god of thunder or the origin of the universe) you don’t tend to allow further investigation if you’ve just made that answer up. Probably because it would make you look like the idiot you are for making stuff up in the first place ;)

Dale, the farm lifestyle is wonderful but sometimes not as idyllic as it may sound in that we still hold down busy jobs and ‘farm lifestyle’ is far more ideal when you have the time to live that way. As an example, you go to grab an egg and realise noones gotten around to collecting them and you’re running late – you rush outside to try and find one and slip on chook s**t on the deck, then find they haven’t laid where they usually do and you’re scrambling around the yard trying to find an egg and in your rush you leave a gate open and next minute the sheep are in eating the garden and you have to round them up…the plus is I’m on school hols at the mo and the kids and I can enjoy farm lifestyle : ).
Hi Damian – yep I thought you may not like the idea that atheism is a luxury for the well off. I don’t think Christians would like the converse idea that belief in God is a neccessity for the desperate.
Dale – interesting reversal of the question. Would I question why God allows the world to be so nice? If God has forgiven our sin through Christ and God is love, should I question a nice world? It depends, I guess, on God’s character and His purpose for our life. What do you see as the point of our life on this Earth? If its to prepare us for some other existence then maybe we learn something through hardship and death is not a big deal. But then why would he let the very young die, they dont get the preparation then. I’m rambling now : ), gotta go get the eggs!

I’d want to push back against the equation of belief with superstition, but at any rate, Consolmagno’s comments are simply about how suffering is more of a ‘problem’ to those with ‘flush toilets’… (makes sense to this toilet flusher!)
Indeed, trying to hold down busy jobs andfarm lifestyle would be taxing.
And yes, if the so-called ‘problem of pain’ is to be raised, then you have to also raise the ‘problem of comfort’ as well.
The point of our life on Earth? Geez! There are no bigger questions than that! (and of course, atheists would be convinced that such a question has no meaning – no doubt because ‘points’ [goals, meaning, purpose] cannot be scientifically verified; the implication being that only things which can be scientifically verified have ‘real’ meaning – anything else must automatically be superstition)
Some folk asked Jesus a similar question, and he quoted two passages: “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself”

I general I like Consolmagno’s comments. They do in general endorse a scientific approach.
However (there’s always an however) I take issue with the following (because I think it is out of place in a generally pro-science article):
“Free will acts in the universe, but it is something somehow a little more than this universe. It has a touch of the supernatural to it. It’s one of the traits of the human soul.”

Of course, there is the matter of how “free will” is defined (I think this definition matter is behind a lot of disagreements on free will). But pulling in the “supernatural” (or even “human soul” as many define it) is the old “ring fencing” approach – defining a problems as inaccessible to investigation.

I think that conflicts with his otherwise generally pro-science approach.

I too (as you know) wished he hadn’t used the term ‘supernatural’.
But this is one example that (I think) shows that you indeed can be pro science and at the same time be realistic about what we can explain and how we can explain it…
He’s not trying to ‘poke/widen holes’ in science, but he’s more seeing the un-explainable in the explainable (so to speak), or (to use the annoying word) the ‘supernatural’ in the ‘natural’…

It’s the assumption of “unexplainable” I object to. We should know by now that such declarations are never likely to stand.

I guess He knows that in his heart because he says only “a touch of the supernatural”

Well said. I would also object to other assumptions, like that there are no unexplainable things, or that if there are, they are automatically not important or meaningful…

The point that no-one assumes that there are no things that are unexplainable. To make that assertion would be just as arrogant as to claim that there are things like this. These are matters which humanity should be open-minded on in the true spirit of sceptical inquiry. It is by making the effort to investigate and understand that we may eventually find such phenomena.

We do have a problem though that many people who claim “supernatural” phenomena go on to claim these can’t be investigated but that they know all about them – just take their word for it – have faith. This has extensive consequences – not the least of which is the current anti-science attitudes in society.

I’m curious, Ken – why must “open-minded”-ness be “in the true spirit of sceptical inquiry”…? Don’t we simply need to be open-minded? Yes, not so much so that our brains fall out, but why ‘sceptical’ (or ‘skeptical’)?

It’s not such a simple matter of ‘everything can be investigated’… Only repeatable phenomena can properly be investigated, and not all such phenomena can be investigated in the same way.

As always, your ardent defense of science is amenable; but (back to the original issue) statements like Consolmagno’s about our universe displaying a touch of something ‘other’ are hardly anti-science.

“Only repeatable phenomena can properly be investigated.” I disagree. Our knowledge is full of examples of unrepeatable phenomena that have been investigated – surely the universe itself is such a phenomenon. This is the argument the Wedge people use to justify the “inference” approach to studying living systems – by claiming that historical events cannot be replicated and therefore the experiential testing of science (which is what I mean by “sceptical”) is not necessary. That throws the baby out with the bathwater.

I think these sort of assertions arise from attempts to place “limits” on humanity’s investigation of reality.

Of course different ways or methods are used to investigate different phenomena – but the point is we can investigate them. It’s wrong to limit science to what can be done in test tubes (even chemists rarely use test tubes these days).

I don’t think Consolmagno is anti-science – he is after all doing science and his little reference to “supernatural” (which is probably not uncommon with many practicing scientists) would, I imagine, not come to his mind in the heat of investigation. (That would be a real downer if it did!).

But I think people do use these ideas to argue, inappropriately, for limiting investigation (and usually for accepting the authority of “revealed truth” instead).

People (I agree) inappropriately use lots of things, for lots of reasons

That doesn’t make those things (like a realistic understanding of what and how we can investigate, test, know, experiment-with and the like) bad or dangerous.

I think we mostly agree here…

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