Evolution is Wonderful

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Milky Way. On a warm late August night in 2009, my wife and I stretched out on a campground table at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah to see the cloudy stretch of our home galaxy arc across the night sky. I had never been in a place dark enough to see the stellar display. I lived in central New Jersey my entire life, where light pollution blocked out all but the very brightest stars. But here, far from the suburban sprawl I was accustomed to, I could giddily gaze at a simple circumstance of the universe we live in and wonder about all that starlight.

I had come to the national park for the fossils. Dinosaur fanatic that I am, I couldn’t step foot in Utah without taking a direct route to one of the most glorious Jurassic bonebeds of all time, where a chaotic jumble of giant bones conjures up visions of life and death 150 million years ago. The quarry wall was closed for repairs, and so I happily settled to see a Brigham Young University excavation of a geologically-younger long-necked herbivore that would later be named Abydosaurus.

Such magnificent, long-lost creatures kept stomping through my imagination as I stared at the Milky Way. I’ve never been drawn into astronomy or physics, but I recalled that even light takes time  to travel. There was no way to be sure, but maybe some of the ancient lights I was looking at originally left their incomprehensibly distant stars when Abydosaurus and the monument’s other dinosaurs still walked the Earth. Seeing the illuminated points scattered over the park’s gorgeously-exposed geologic formations – the rocks little more than inky outlines in the dark – I felt like a time traveler standing between Earth and sky. There are few moments in my life when I have been as overtaken by sheer wonder and joy at the universe we live in.

The first time I visited Dinosaur National Monument, I woke up to see the sun hit this Permian formation across the Green River. Photo by Brian Switek.
The first time I visited Dinosaur National Monument, I woke up to see the sun hit this Permian formation across the Green River. Photo by Brian Switek.

Yet, despite how enraptured I felt by Deep Time, the horror novelist Stephen King thinks that I was missing out on the true wonder of existence. That’s because I’m an atheist, and, on NPR’s Fresh Air, King delivered this condescending quote about those who don’t see divinity in nature:

If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design.

I really don’t care about Stephen King’s views on the existence or non-existence of deities. That’s very, very far down on my list of issues worth worrying about. But King’s quote represents a snobbish and pervasive belief that those who see no evidence of gods are somehow impoverished in their lives. Creationists have been peddling this arrogant argument for quite some time – that without a god, the universe is purposeless and we are trapped in a nihilistic march towards oblivion.

I don’t feel that lack of hope or fascination. I’m not crippled by the sense of emptiness King and others presume I must feel.

We live in an indifferent universe. There is no destiny or plan, and Nature was not created for our benefit. Yet we’re still here. Our lineage goes back billions of years to the last common ancestor of all life on Earth, giving us traits in common with ever single living organism, and our ancestors have been fortunate enough to persist through the five worst global catastrophes of all time. At so many points in the past – whether minor in scale or as devastating as an asteroid striking the planet – history could have turned out quite differently, creating circumstances that would have prevented our evolution. We’ll never know all those alternatives. All we know is what has actually transpired.

Bones in the Jurassic quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by Brian Switek.
Bones in the Jurassic quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by Brian Switek.

To repeat a line from my book Written in Stone, we are creatures of time and chance. How wonderful is that? Out of all the innumerable possibilities in the history of life on Earth, a string of circumstances billions of years long transpired in such a way as to allow the origin of our species (and also accounts for the loss of all our human relatives along the way). And this unintended state of nature makes a humble bee pollinating a flower, a sunrise, the division of a cell, the jagged outline of a mountain in twilight, the petrified record of the dinosaurs, and everything else in existence all the more spectacular. (Paleontology and natural history are what I love most; we all admire different aspects of nature.) None of that was ordained to exist, and yet evolution and other ongoing natural processes have nonetheless generated phenomena which are not only beautiful, but comprehensible to us.

There is no need for the supernatural to invoke or appreciate wonder. And rather than reducing nature to equations and graphs, I truly believe that science – our ability to actually understand why bees pollinate flowers, why mountains rise, and how remnants of ancient life became locked in stone – makes the world all the more exquisite by not only giving us clues, but new questions to ask.

The closing paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection are some of the most reprinted words in all of science. So much so that they’ve become a little worn and cliche when plopped down into seemingly every book about evolution in existence. But no matter how many times you’ve read the lines, take a breath and really read Darwin’s conclusion over again:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. 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.

Even as the specter of death hung over his “entangled bank”, Darwin was still in exuberant awe over such a simple natural process that could account for so much of what we find beautiful about life. Understanding the origin of such diverse and disparate organisms only makes our world feel more magnificent. I dare Stephen King to write a more beautiful tribute to nature.

106 thoughts on “Evolution is Wonderful

  1. When this brand of ignorance is trotted out I always refer back to Newton’s unweaving the rainbow and Feynman’s Ode to a Flower (there’s a great animated version of it on Vimeo). But people like King and all those others who make a living in the land of make believe are famous for refusing to exist in reality. I was forced to read a book for an education course I’m taking and the author actually claimed that people have DIED for the lack of poetry! I’m not sure there’s any way to reason with people like that.

  2. I’ve been following your blogs and articles for about the past 2-3 years. The way you express your strongly felt beliefs and ideas illustrates your passion for everything that you say and do, and I applaud you. Though, I am probably most comfortable with your humor. (I am a fan.)
    Your pictures here are beautiful!
    My only wish is that somehow and in some way the two sides of the religious debate could stop throwing barbs at one another. Everyone is entitled to have their own unique spin on the meaning of existence. A moral or intellectual judgment should not be made by either side. There is still so much that we humans do not know, and might never know. I do applaud the scientists that are working so hard to make progress in our human understanding of all life past and present, and our understanding of the world around us.

  3. Following, as best I know how, ideas expressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein. I cannot be an “atheist” because use of that word implies a definite negation of the concept of God. But I have no clear concept of God, and no one else seems able to define in a sensible way what God would be if there were a god. Thus for me there is nothing to either affirm or deny.

    Likewise, I cannot agree that we live in an indifferent universe, because I do not know what a “different” universe, sorry, I mean, a “caring” universe would look like. Is there some experiment we could perform to check this? Could we find out whether the universe cares by analyzing a very small piece of matter, using a sufficiently powerful microscope, to see if there is even 1 part per trillion of caring in the substance of matter? No, because there is no definition for “caring” when the universe is involved.

    We know very well what a caring person is, but there is no clear way to extend the definition to cover the entire universe all at once!

    Statements of that nature (there is no god, the universe is indifferent) make no logical sense to me, because they have no relevant linguistic foundation.

    As a result, I can confidently report that my awe and appreciation of nature are undamaged, and could not be touched by anything I know of.

  4. “Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver, in the end, the fresh air brings vigour and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”

    – Bertrand Russell

    “It only adds, I don’t see how it subtracts.” To stand in rapt awe of nature and to appreciate that we are starting to have an inkling of the mechanisms through which it came to be so is such a blissful feeling that it almost feels perverse whenever someone tries to provide an alternative supernatural, lazy explanation to it. One of the fundamental assumptions of the scientific worldview is that the universe is understandable in terms we can understand. Having set out on a voyage with such a confident assertion as a species, a trait that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, it is akin to blasphemy to resort to extra-scientific explanations and disrespectful to all the wonderful people who have contributed in the most wonderful process called scientific research.

  5. Actually, Stephen King is the one who is “missing out” on the stars, sunsets, and pollinators. The structure and operation of an indifferent universe is a beautiful thing. To observe and understand the real world that we inhabit, without any metaphysical crutches, is a fantastic and fully satisfying experience. From his quote it is unclear exactly what kind of God King believes in — a kindly, gaseous vertebrate or one that makes you burn people at the stake or fly planes into buildings. Which ever it is, it is a blinder that makes one more, not less, ignorant. I do enjoy his books, but it’s obvious that while he’s a great writer he’s a shitty philosopher.

  6. David: Where, exactly, did I say that my way of looking at nature is the only way? The point of this essay was to scuttle the notion that a lack of belief in gods somehow makes nature or existence hollow. To reject the idea that atheists or agnostics are somehow “missing out.” If King feels he sees gods in nature, I am not personally offended that he has those feelings. The point of my ire is that King – and others – somehow take lack of belief to be synonymous with a fatalistic, boring nihilism incapable of feeling wonder. That’s totally wrong. You’re responding to an argument I wasn’t making. – Brian

    This is a lovely piece of writing, but exactly as flawed in its thinking as King’s remarks seem to be. Both you and he seem to think that only the people who share your particular framework of beliefs can fully appreciate nature. I think you are both, and equally, wrong about that. I think there are believers who are filled with the same awe at nature that you describe, and some who aren’t, and the same with non-believers. But I think Ralph is the one who has hit the nail on the head here. We should have the humility to understand that a certainty that there was a prime mov, and a certainty that the wasn’t, are both beliefs that are almost certainly unprovable, and certainly unproved.
    Thanks, Ralph, for contributing some rational perspective.

  7. Wittgenstein’s comment may be witty word play, clever enough for sitting at a table in the salon, but not really of much relevance or use to answering a question. Following his logic, Wittgenstein could not even say if Wittgenstein existed.

  8. Wittgenstein would probably have enjoyed playing linguistic Twister, and getting all bent out of shape with smarty-pants word-play. The whole problem with God is that there are plenty of people who think they have a very exact description of what God is, and the more you let them try and explain it to you the more they supply you with a perfect proof that there cannot be such a thing. You could have had Wittgenstein all in a spin by putting him in a big barrel and telling him to pee in a corner of it.

  9. Doesn’t adding “God” make it all LESS wonderful?

    It is amazing to think that matter has the ability to self-organize, to think that a seemingly simple process like evolution could create such complexity, and to think that we’re fortunate enough to live at a point in human biological and cultural evolution that we can appreciate both the beauty and mechanics of the system.

    But let’s say it is all meticulously constructed by God. Now the wonder of my observations is overshadowed by the questions: why make a system that relies so heavily on death and suffering? Why make such a large universe where 99.999999999999+% of the volume of the universe is instantly lethal to life? Why make such a huge percentage of the world’s species parasitic? What kind of sick mind came up with all that? Is humanity the purpose of all this, or are we, like rabbits and trout and flickers and rotifers, just another bit-part player in somebody else’s play?

    The naturalistic story makes sense and fills me with awe. The divine story disturbs and offends me.

  10. Brian,
    You’re right, to some extent I was responding to an argument you didn’t make, although I think it’s sort of implied in your final paragraph when you say that a scientific view makes the world “feel more magnificent,” suggesting that it’s a little less magnificent for those who think it had a cause. A small point, really. I think I was more reacting to your, and King’s, respective senses of certainty, as when you say “we live in an indifferent universe. There is no destiny or plan, and Nature was not created for our benefit.” maybe because it’s in your blog post there’s an implicit sense that it’s just what you think, but you state it as a matter of fact.
    Anyway, you wrote an interesting piece that I enjoyed, and it has sparked an interesting discussion.

  11. Both believers and non believers can appreciate nature and be awed by it. And each side takes a leap of faith when they decide there is a God or that the universe is indifferent. Science can neither prove nor disprove either assertion. People simply chose to leap in opposite directions – choosing the one that they personally feel most comfortable with. The world would be a better place if the believers would stop putting down the atheists. But the atheists must also do their part and stop acting as though they are intellectually superior.

  12. A great article.

    “we are creatures of time and chance ” indeed. Stephen King might have found it in his own holy book:

    Ecclesiastes 9:11

    I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

  13. Dear Brian,
    Thanks for your clear and passionate response. I am religious, and I treasure the insights of evolution and the dedicated people who help us to understand the world better. I share your impatience with those who seem to feel there is only one right way to appreciate the glories of nature. I love the beauty in the photos, as well as in the wonderful statement of Charles Darwin.

  14. To Dan Chure — Far from being mere drawing-room chatter, Wittgenstein’s ideas have been tremendously useful to me over the past 45 years. Please don’t judge what Wittgenstein said and wrote by the few sentences I used to respond in my comment. You have to read W’s later books, especially “The Blue and Brown Books” and “Philosophical Investigations.” Those books are quite difficult to follow, but tremendously rewarding if you can struggle through them.

  15. All well and good until you realize that everything you perceive is illusion. Sights, sounds, and all the rest reside in your brain, not out there.

  16. Stephen King should stick to making movies.

    Mr. Switek, you stick to doing what you are doing. Great blog, great post.

    That sense of awe, that love for the universe as it is, I get when my kids say “I love you dad”. Or after a couple of hours galaxy hopping with a big Newtonian telescope. Or a day fishing on the lake. That THING may not be the same for all of us, but it is out there to be found, no gods necessary.

  17. “Creationists have been peddling this arrogant argument for quite some time – that without a god, the universe is purposeless and we are trapped in a nihilistic march towards oblivion.”

    I’d like to first say that I am not a creationist nor an advocate of the Intelligent Design Movement. But, your article is highly lacking in refuting the above point that you made. When asking such a question, you are delving into the realm of philosophy. But you used no philosophy (or science for the matter) to counteract that point; all you used was anecdotally conveying to us a subjective sense of awe you sometimes experience. I in no way deny your personal subjective experience, but that experience in no way logically leads to saying that the following statement, “the universe is purposeless and we are trapped in a nihilistic march towards oblivion”, is in any way inaccurate. Yet ironically, rather than a scientific or philosophical objection, you use an emotional, almost religious appeal to oppose the statement.

    I am not attempting to be disrespectful at all, but just giving a critique. There are various philosophical arguments and schools of thought out there which attempt to retain some sort of purpose in an atheistic world, but this article with its mere emotional appeal in no way contributes to them.

  18. Well, those whole issue is stupid, because in fact people’s sense of wonder or enjoyment of experiences is emotional and biological in origin, it’s not a product of a world view or set of beliefs.

    People don’t get overwhelmed with a sense of awe when standing in a redwood forest because of any particular belief system, it happens because of our biology.

    Atheists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, tribal religionists, etc. all experience the same types of feelings.

    How we interpret those feelings may depend on our worldviews, but the feelings themselves are primal. A good example of this is the fact that, as an atheist, I still get goosebumps and a sense of awe when going into large old world cathedrals. They are just plain awe inspiring buildings, no way around it. However, instead of thinking, “God must live here.” or “Wow God is so wonderful.” when I go into those buildings I think, “Wow, that’s a lot of impressive hard work people did a long time ago!”

  19. The universe is wonderful. That is true whether it happened by random chance or whether it was created by a divine entity. Or maybe random chance IS the divine entity.

    Stephen King sees the wonderfulness as evidence of God’s presence. If that makes him happy, why let it bother you? Because he says it condescendingly? *snort* if I had a nickel for all the times people said things I didn’t believe in a condescending way, I’d be as rich as… Stephen King.

    You see the wonderfulness of the universe as something that happens despite its indifference. If that makes you happy, good enough. The world would indeed be a better place if folks like King didn’t take it upon themselves to deride your opinion, but then, you don’t have to listen to him or them.

    I don’t believe that the universe in all its complexity and interconnectedness is necessarily a product of a “supernatural” being’s grand design, but neither do I believe that divinity is supernatural. Which leaves me able to sit and watch a sunset and enjoy it from BOTH perspectives. Or neither, if you prefer.

  20. A spot-on piece!

    It is of interest that spirituality is also an evolutionary component of the Darwinian enterprise. It provides intelligent beings the needed sense to make sense of it all. It provides faith that life has some purpose and renewable hope in an indefensible future.

    I view spiritualty as a core factor essential to our existence and without which… we just may not be here.

    It is so powerful that governments saw the opportunity to exploit this emotion to serve its own interest. In fact, the fingerprints of the government are all over religion. It is so intense that most politicians cannot even end their speeches without invoking the sky god to bless us and his kingdom.

    Unlike spiritualty, I see religion as a way and means to control mankind; to enslave him both in a figural and a literal sense. It is by no accident that serfdom/slavery had the endorsement of the church. Religion narrows life’s path because it is the way, and its path is the “truth”. No need to question it, if by faith alone you can move mountains.

    So gaze up at the heavens and enjoy a magnificent show! Who knows….it may have been created by an advance civilization that overcame its own controlling religious beliefs.

  21. @ Kathy K

    “Everyone is entitled to have their own unique spin on the meaning of existence. A moral or intellectual judgment should not be made by either side.”

    Well, of course everyone is entitled to be wrong… But if there is a meaning to existence beyond that which we ourselves invest in our own lives, how would you go about discovering what that was?

    Many thousands of years of religion and esoteric philosophy have yielded no consistent answer. In only a few thousand years, science has, ib contrast, provided an extraordinarily rich, detailed and accurate model of reality, with astonishing consilience across different disciplines.

    Science is unsurpassed as a way of knowing. Yet everything it tells us indicates that there is no meaning to existence beyond that which we ourselves invest in our own lives…

    “There is still so much that we humans do not know, and might never know. ”

    How would you know that?

    Again, the only reliable way of increasing our knowledge of the world is science. And there is no way of knowing what science might or might not be known to science given world enough and time.

    As Brian notes, science continuously gives us more questions to ask!


  22. I am really not sure I see much in this essay, other than that Mr. Switek is awed by nature wants to take a swipe at those he disagrees with.

    I have engaged in this debate from both sides. Ironically (or maybe not), I discovered the divine AFTER my graduate work in evolutionary biology. Now, the atheists annoy me as much as the Christians used to. Nobody likes smug, self-righteous people. They come in all flavors.

  23. to Ralph Dratman – This has got to be the most stupid and insane comment I’ve ever read. Do you understand yourself what you wrote? I feel sorry for you that you spent so much of your life living in Wittgenstein’s shadow. It’s not too late to start your life all over again. Close the ‘Tractatus’ and open the book of Nature. (I had read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, btw)

    to Hominid – Please, teach yourself some physics (and neuroscience), starting with the basics.

  24. Uh-oh – an atheist whining about the fact that his worldview has no objective axiology or aesthetic values. If you’re going to write articles for such an esteemed magazine as the one that shows all the topless women, at least try to avoid straw men. No Xians claim that you can’t ‘say’ that you have value or find wonder or purpose in the universe – our claim is that on your system, there are none of these objective things, which you freely admit, when you say, “We live in an indifferent universe. There is no destiny or plan, and Nature was not created for our benefit”. You can make up all kinds of things for yourself – magical values, magical wonders and magical meanings – but the fundamental reality is that on your view these things are subjective, emotional ejaculations.
    Let’s not even go near the idea of how you can actually account for the idea of beauty and truth on your worldview in the first place. Oh yes – but it’s Xians who live in the fairy tale world. I’m wondering if you dress like Kriss Kross.

  25. A beautiful piece, and wwell written.
    And the question about such beauty should rightly be not who, made such wonders, but why they exist – something only science can truely answer.

  26. “Creationists have been peddling this arrogant argument for quite some time – that without a god, the universe is purposeless and we are trapped in a nihilistic march towards oblivion.”

    Well, to be fair, it isn’t just creationists who have made this argument. Atheists themselves have made this argument — Dawkins being a prime example: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    1. Religions are likes alphabetical spokes on a wheel of knowledge, all claiming to the one spoke to be the best array of the 26 flavors. The hub remains, the center remains rotating through space without a religious map on the way to Nothingness which is the pure Love worth sharing. From this sense of Nothingness, humans can create all they can connect from the energy begun in the Sun to share. Whiners pay with their life.

      1. I use to agree that as long as a religious person stayed passive with their beliefs and their belief in some sky god helped them get through the night then…what the harm?
        But, then, I realized that this would be the same consideration that I would give for a grown person to believe in the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny or good old Santa.
        If your friend shared with you that they believed in one of the above…you would look at them in a whole new light! Your relationship would change…and for a good reason.
        The questionable markers in western religions are wrapped in the terms “I am the way, or the light, or the truth”. Or, in this case…the hub of all knowledge.

  27. Incredibly well written. This expressed many of my sentiments about evolution in a clarity which I could not have expressed myself! Great Article.

  28. great essay. found a small typo: giving us traits in common with ever single living organism – ever should probably be ‘every’

  29. Perception is not always illusion. Perception sometimes accurately reflects reality. Would you walk off the top of El Cap or step in front of a speeding train?

  30. I believe in evolution but I also believe in God.

    I know it sounds weird. My mind tells me that evolution is the only logical explanation for life’s diversity in the planet and everytime I get to think that maybe God doesn’t really exist, I get really emotional. It’s like my mind and my heart are in a constant battle. I grew up in the Philippines, a very catholic country. We do not have divorce, abortion is illegal unless the mother’s life is in danger (which I completely agree with), Christmas is the biggest Holiday, we love Fiesta, etc. I grew up in a very religious community. God is a fact of life for an outstanding majority. I work in a Research Funding Agency, and we have an altar in the center of our office! It hurts me on a very personal level to shun this belief. So I decided to believe in both.

    PS Do you have a public fanpage for yourself or Laelaps? I searched your name on Facebook today but I only found your personal account and I don’t think you’re the type who confirms friend requests from unknown people.

  31. I read the complete King’s quote and with the omitted part included, it sounds way less dogmatic than most comments suggest. When the paragraph is read in its entirety, he does not sound condescending to me at all; rather, he sounds like an honest man that acknowledges his ignorance and I cannot help but respect that… just saying. Thank you for posting the link; otherwise, I would have gottent the wrong impression of what he really said. Note that I am not a fan of his (for no other reason that I do not like his main genre). That said, he is merely choosing to believe in something just like any of us do and each of us can find meaning and wonder by looking at nature with various types of “tinted-colored glasses”. No one is superior to another in this context, as this is literally a matter of taste. When dealing with matters of scientific evidence, like in the case of “intelligent design”, now that’s a different thing. ID is wrong, plain and simple. I know so at so many levels, scientifically, personally, etc., but this is a topic for some other time. This was quite the peculiar post; different in content and tone from the ones I have read from you, but very good nonetheless… Thanks.

  32. Well written but reasoning seriously flawed. Just think about it…what can ‘time and chance’ really do to create?

  33. I wonder what King has to say about our newly discovered Family members, the Mermaids persented to the world by Dr. Roberts and Dr. Smith. Well, so much for fiction!

  34. Hi Brian. My name is Nina, I’m 15 years old, and I feel equally strongly about this topic. You and I have almost identical views on the issue. However, I am not an Atheist. I’ve been raised in a reform Jewish household, and I strongly believe in the existence of G-d. Not the traditional G-d, but G-d nonetheless.

    When we were children, they told us stories about G-d, and defined him as this aging bearded man who sat up in the sky and ran the show down here on Earth. And we believed it, because our childish, undeveloped minds clung to fantastical stories like this one. In my development as a Jew, I’ve gone through phases in which I lacked a belief in G-d because I could not convince myself to believe in the old man in the sky any longer. I had grown up; this idea was childish, and was something of the past.

    My experience with the world changed my mind back. No, I don’t believe that there is a man in the sky controlling us with strings tied to our ankles and wrists. But the breathtaking beauty of nature and the undeniable existence of patterns and structure in nature are so astounding. So then we ask ourselves, “How?” How did such an orderly system come about? And “Why?” Why does everything work the way it does? Why does it all exist? There are so many questions that cannot be answered with science nor with logic.

    Religion exists, in my opinion, because people needed something to believe in. They noticed the spectacular patterns and beauty in nature and did not understand it, and wanted to answer their “How” and “Why” questions. So they turned to yet another thing they did not understand, a summation of the answers to all of these questions that really wasn’t an answer at all: G-d.

    So here we are. Left with no answers to our questions. But we know the questions exist, and we assume that there is some answer, though we may never accept/recognize/know it. My nontraditional idea of G-d is this imminent driving force, this overarching ideal, which, in essence, is the answer to all of the questions we cannot answer with neither science nor logic. He is nothing concrete, he is not within all of us, he is neither man nor woman nor turtle nor lamppost, he is not here to help or to hurt us. He is just an idea, a condolence for those of us who don’t want to admit to our ignorance.

    To summarize, the beauty and order in our world do, in fact, exist, but they are not well understood. I consider G-d the answer to all of the questions that we cannot yet answer, the answer to our “How” and “Why” questions.

    I’m not here to preach religion. I wrote this in hopes that I inspired some of you, or at least broadened your view a bit by showing you another perspective on this ongoing debate.

    I have a final in the morning that I should really be studying for right now, so I guess this will have to be the end. Thanks for reading.

  35. It was a beautiful quote. However, their is a section of Darwin’s excerpt that we should consider:
    ‘, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life.’

    If investment bankers, politicians, the captains of industry, and the Dogs of War take that excerpt to heart, the rest of us need shudder.

    Respect and learn Darwin’s science, take not to heart his philosophy.

  36. @ Nina

    You say,“So then we ask ourselves, ‘How?’ How did such an orderly system come about? And ‘Why?’ Why does everything work the way it does? Why does it all exist? There are so many questions that cannot be answered with science nor with logic.”

    Yes, there are many questions that cannot be answered with science nor with logic, but these are not amongst them.

    Re my response to Kathy, above, science is a remarkably successful way of finding answers to questions about the world, and, in fact, the only reliable, consistent, inter-subjective “way of knowing” that we have.

    What you’ve just advocated is a god-of-the-gaps — or in your case, G-d-of-the-gaps. Here are two views on that, one from a famous atheist, the other from a Lutheran pastor and theologian.

    “But,” says the religionist, “you cannot explain everything; you cannot understand everything; and that which you cannot explain, that which you do not comprehend, is my God.”

    We are explaining more every day. We are understanding more every day; consequently your God is growing smaller every day.

    Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Gods” (1872)

    How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed farther and farther back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

    — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1997, p. 311)

    You should be wary of this conception of (a) god as a condolence against ignorance, however comforting that may be. But really, ignorance needs no condolence. It’s a spur to finding things out!

    I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things that I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell … possibly … it doesn’t frighten me.

    — Richard Feynman, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”, BBC Horizon (1981)


  37. Nina, there are more answers out there than you can imagine. Keep up the search and you will be rewarded. (Not from a fortune cookie 🙂

  38. I didn’t read that King quote as condescending at all. Seems to me he is just as awestruck as you are with the natural world, yet he sees an order in it, that to him makes obvious some kind of intelligent design. Great rebuttal, but you should remember that atheist can be just as snide and casually dismissive

  39. I agree with Ralph D. about Wittgenstein. Arguing about X is meaningless until you define X, and since ‘God’, ‘the gods’, and so on are very poorly defined and can’t be reliably pointed out, a denial of their existence is as vacuous as an assertion of it.

  40. This article is too much like the Insane Clown Posse’s infamous song Miracles, where the Juggalos express amazement and wonder at fire, air, dirt and magnets (Magnets, how do they work?). You can do better than this.

  41. It’s so simple. Nature is the source of life. Nature is all powerful. Nature is God. No need to look further.

  42. Nina. For a great read, I suggest Howard Bloom’s The God Problem. I think you’ll like it, no matter what your final thoughts on the matter turn out to be. I wish I’d read it 30 years ago.

  43. I disagree with the comparison between Brian’s post and the ICP “Miracles” video, on several grounds. To start with – Comfortable Serf’s tone suggests that it is not OK to be in awe of nature. If you don’t find anything awe-inspiring, then you probably are leading a fairly dull life. The difference between “Miracles” and this post is that the geniuses in ICP don’t understand any of the phenomena they feature in the song – and failing any concrete understanding, call them all “miracles” as per the title of the song. This sort of supernatural ignorance is exactly the opposite of Brian’s post – instead, as many other scientists (myself included) feel – he argues that blaming phenomena in nature on miracles is a consequence of ignorance and short sightedness. I believe Dawkins would refer to this idea as the “Argument from Ignorance”, somewhat the opposite of the “Argument from Authority”. Ultimately, using an archaic and totally unnecessary supernatural answer to the many real questions about our universe totally diminishes, if not downright belittles how spectacular it really is. Knowing what we do know in science, and how we know it is a far more awe-inspiring story than invoking the boogeyman.

    Otherwise, thanks to Comfortable Serf for making me watch the “Magical Mysteries” spoof song from SNL.

    1. I would say that science has increased the set of questions we can’t (yet) answer.

      As for God or gods, science has nothing to say about such poorly defined concepts one way or the other. Let me keep my fables in peace and I’ll let you keep yours.

  44. @ Isaac

    Whining? Really?

    Please show how beauty is in any respect anything other than an intersubjective cultural consensus, that is inconsistent over time and space.

    As for truth, as I noted earlier: “Many thousands of years of religion and esoteric philosophy have yielded no consistent answers. In only a few hundred [corrected!] years, science has, in contrast, provided an extraordinarily rich, detailed and accurate model of reality, with astonishing consilience across different disciplines.”

    @ cornfed

    Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.

    @ Valerie

    “Science can neither prove nor disprove either assertion.”

    Well, science is not about proof. It’s about inference to the best explanation. It’s about weeding out bad explanations. It’s a refiner’s fire, continuously trying to falsify hypotheses so that only those that provide the best approximations to the truth survive.

    What science tells us is that “God” is a poorly defined hypothesis, with almost no explanatory power (you can’t just say “God did it!”, you have to say how), and with not a shred of empirical evidence.

    Thus, disbelief in (the existence of) God is not a leap of faith, simply a rational conclusion.


  45. For ham and egger atheists and incredulous agnostics Switek’s article provides the emotional comfort they need to remain emotionally secure in their worldview. For those who have been studying the debate at academic levels they are left wanting. Note the lack of epistemic acknowledgment in the inability to obtain a coherent linguistic plane. To be a consistent Atheist and committed to the Nominalist ontology hitherto, one wonders why there is no adverbial phenomenal nomenclature. If the theist is arrogant (As if this moral boundary somehow emboldens his case) then at the very least Switek should be able to utilize relativistic language so necessary for consistent atheism. The world cannot be objectively “spectacular” or posses “wonder” (used in the objective sense later in the article). It can only appear to one “spectacularly ,” but it cannot be “spectacular.” This would be antiquated terminology or borrowed from theistic assumptions. The fact is most Atheists have never experienced the existential abandonment called for by Sarte. They talk about and iterate bravery and acceptance of the brute facts of the universe but don’t go all the way. Even the charge toward Steven King as condescending makes one wonder which “morality juices” we can subdue to keep Mr. Switek from being so sensitive. What really surprises me is the full circle the debate has come since I was young growing up in the 80’s. Atheists then were very good at not letting religious dogma slide. Today it is the atheist making the big assumptions and guarding their weak arguments with morality. It will not be long before the debate in the academy reaches the ears of those seeking cerebral “comfort food” from intellectual light weights with a computer and an editor. When this happens I wonder what new morality atheists will have to create since they will no longer be able to peddle their views as intellectually superior without a challenge.
    Oh Isaac, Get your soul right!

  46. Ant, you are on point. For most of human history religion provided an explanation for everything around us both great and small. The rise of science has swept those explanations away and provides ever expanding understanding of the universe both great and small. Religion is left with an ever decreasing set of questions that it supposedly can answer. May that trend continue until religion goes extinct. Oh happy day!

  47. It also is of interest that that under the American justice system that science is allowed into the court room to assist in the determination of the guilt or innocence of the accused. In fact, DNA testing has released convicted murderers and rapist. So, especially in these cases, the evidence needs to be irrefutable; whereby, the “sworn” testimony of folks is dubious at best. The Old Testament God would have a hard time just keeping up with his promise of “whacking” his sheep that out and out lied under oath.
    Within this context, I propose we put God on the stand to determine if he (he is a he, right?) exists or cracked-up to be… that is. Well, you can throw out all of the New Testament because courts cannot allow hearsay evidence. So that leaves us with the version that the earth has corners and is tied down by mountains.

  48. The first Stephen King book I read was “The Stand”. I hated it! I was instinctively repelled by it’s over simplistic, pseudo religiuos tale of the battle between “good” and “evil”. Glad to see my instincts were right.

  49. Issac, exactly which planet do the Xians come from? I am unfamiliar with them but truthfully haven’t watched all episodes of Ancient Aliens so I might have missed that explanation.Sounds like something Erich von Daniken might have discovered.

  50. Ant

    “Whining? Really?”

    Yes, whining. He’s complaint is ultimately existential and angst ridden. He realizes his worldview offers no objective meaning, yet he refuses to fully accept this due no doubt to the existential trauma this would cause. So, he “keeps his head down and powers through” as Michael from Arrested Development might say. I’m merely asking him to get his complaint straight and to stop offering straw men. Xians don’t mind atheists inventing their own meaning, truth and beauty and other fairy tales, we’re just asking that you stop borrowing from our worldview to do so and to correct straw men argumentation.

    “Please show how beauty is in any respect anything other than an intersubjective cultural consensus, that is inconsistent over time and space.”

    If the Xian God exists, then all truth, beauty and goodness reside in Him. Ultimately any evidence you’re asking for would presuppose the existence of the Xian God, to which you might disagree. I can give you some arguments for the existence of God, but you’re a grown man, I’m sure you can look online for yourself.

    Perhaps you can show how beauty is anything other than beauty neurons firing in your brain. Do immaterial objects exist? In what way is beauty on your worldview different than the good feeling a 2 year old gets after she has relieved herself in her own pants?

    “As for truth, as I noted earlier: “Many thousands of years of religion and esoteric philosophy have yielded no consistent answers. In only a few hundred [corrected!] years, science has, in contrast, provided an extraordinarily rich, detailed and accurate model of reality, with astonishing consilience across different disciplines.””

    How funny the one w/the secular worldview (a worldview which often complains about religious dogmatism) is now complaining that we weren’t dogmatic enough. Perhaps you might be emphasizing scientific consensus a bridge too far, either way it doesn’t really matter. I don’t have a problem w/science or religion or the diversity of worldviews that comes from any of them. You might be begging the question a bit when you say that science provides an ‘accurate model of reality’ considering there is no one scientific model of reality – and considering that the accurateness of that model of reality is the very thing you’re trying to prove.

  51. Dan,

    I’m not sure what you’re driving at. In your attempt at sarcasm or humor I’m afraid I have missed your point. Feel free to make your point in a serious way if you’d like, or might I suggest stop joking around with people if you’re not a naturally funny person.

  52. Dan,

    Oh, I get it – ‘xians’ not ‘Christians’ right? I’d go w/the 2nd half of my advice. You’re welcome.

  53. @ Issac

    “He’s [sic] complaint is ultimately existential and angst ridden.”

    I’m really not sure you’ve read the same article as I have.

    “… we’re just asking that you stop borrowing from our worldview…”

    It’s not clear to me what you think I, or Brian, or anyone else is “borrowing” from your worldview… ?

    “but you’re a grown man”

    And you know that how?

    “I can give you some arguments for the existence of God…”

    But can you give me any evidence?

    “Perhaps you can show how beauty is anything other than beauty neurons firing in your brain.”

    I’m not actually claiming that beauty is anything other than neurons (not specifically associated with beauty) firing in our brains!

    “… now complaining that we weren’t dogmatic enough.”

    I’m not at all sure how you got that from what I wrote… ?

    “You might be begging the question a bit when you say that science provides an ‘accurate model of reality’ considering there is no one scientific model of reality – and considering that the accurateness of that model of reality is the very thing you’re trying to prove.”

    Not really, when you consider that the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood. (And what’s more, that they can be summed up in a single equation!)

    How much more accurate a model of reality do you want than one that enables us to successfully land a one-ton robot on the surface of another world half a billion kilometres away?

    But if you can show that there is a substantive discrepancy between these laws of physics and reality, please, knock yourself out.


  54. @ Ant (@antallan)

    Re: My first statement that you referenced.
    I am not making a reference to any personal quest nor am I claiming to an expert in philosophy.
    Are you suggesting that people should only ask questions that can be tested in a lab or be resolved with 100% consensus?

    Re: my second statement that you referenced.
    I am not making an argument against science. I think you read in your own interpretation of my words. I am a supporter of the sciences. However, we do not know everything at this time, and there are still many ongoing debates in the sciences. This does not mean that we should stop searching for answers or stop asking questions, including those that question our underlying assumptions.

  55. Much of the most beautiful nature poetry is found in the Psalms and they did not have science back then. This makes me that that appreciation of nature probably comes from our regilious faith and not from science which also grew our of our faith.

    Also it is one thing to appreciate nature, but another to apprepriate other people who can have very strange beliefs and bad ways of doing things. Psalm 8

  56. 1. Then you probably shouldn’t go around making philosophically naïve statements, such as, “A moral or intellectual judgment should not be made by either side.” No, I’m not saying that, esp. as that is not how science works.

    2. I don’t disagree with you here. I was just being facetious regarding your implied ability to quantify how much we don’t know.


  57. Everyone is destined to walk his or her path…..as part of their journey and learning throughout their lives. Their choices are theirs to make, their joy is theirs to experience in their own way….their pain to feel in their own intensity. Who has the right to comment on a person’s way of thinking? It is your adventure and your right to see and believe what is convincing to you. Science, religion, rituals….have been around for millions of years….take from it what will enrich you and leave what doesn’t. What other people think shouldn’t come into it……it is their shortcomings not yours. Your wonder and your perception are part of who you are…..what you have experienced and learnt. No one other person on earth has trodden the exact path you have…..so who are they to judge you. The one place we are totally free, for good or bad, is in our minds.

  58. Using a fiction writer’s words to fight against a scientist’s words is like matching a prizefighter against a prima ballerina – both great athletes, but in their own categories. The author should try to write this article again comparing a great spiritual leader’s words with a great scientist’s words.

  59. Well, I think that it’s OK to just accept that “it is what it is”. It’s doubtful that any one person is going to be completely, exactly right or it’s opposite. I’d like to recommend a 5 films set of DVD’s THE PROPHECY with Christopher Walken. This baby handles catholicity in ways that gives the non-catholic a birds-eye-view of religion that is well worth knowing about. The films were made from 1995 to 2005 and have the most interesting actors I have ever seen anywhere, anytime. Won’t someone let me know if they’ve seen the set and tell me if I am exaggerating or not. Tell me if you are Catholic because I was raised with little regard for that religion. One last thought: the word GOD is as good as any word to express the incomprehensible. I believe if a GOD created the universe and evolution is part of it, then God created evolution also.! Just saying.

  60. I think the opening question is posed backwards. You do not need religion to appreciate nature, but you do need nature to appreciate and understand religion!!

  61. Wow, I’ve rarely seen so much word salad in a thread. The unfortunate thing about word salad is, of course, that it’s all dressing for what is really a load of shit (either bovine or from another sauce).

    I’m amused by the humptydumptyism in the responses of the religious commenters. ‘Your meaning of beauty isn’t what’s mine, because otherwise I’d have to agree with you and I don’t want to!’ The erudite egg himself couldn’t have done better.

    Let me make clear that, as long as you don’t harm anyone, anything or the world at large, you can believe in as many imaginary friends as you like to me. It’s when people seriously propose their imaginary friend as a scientific explanation that I have to condemn that. Emotion or the limits of your understanding (“I can not imagine something grew naturally, so it can’t have!”) do not make a valid argument for something. You can give that argument shiny wrapping, a bow, let it play music or let it be presented by the greatest rhetoricians in the world but that does not make it true. In fact, if you need to hide behind convoluted sentences and philosophical semantics to make your argument sound impressive and can not express it plausibly in simpler language, you’re the octopus that squirts ink in order to confuse its enemies because it lacks better defenses.

    On the other hand, swarmy though this tactic might be, I have to say I am impressed by the verbal and semantical limbos and salsas that are being danced in these comments. Impressed, not awed. That people can go to performing such gymnastics to rationalise what is an irrational belief!

    I wonder, do our religious philosophers have an explanation why, if God intended humans to be the masters of the earth and for all other creatures to be used by us, he made so terribly many unable to withstand our exploitation of them, made so many of them beetles and made many others parasites? For that matter, why aren’t all animals and plants domesticated to begin with? Also, what’s the point behind convergent species and adaptive radiations, while you’re at it? Please make an argument different from ‘God works in mysterious ways’ because that one’s the obvious cop-out. I’m sure your verbal acrobacy is up to the task of accurately reading the mind of God about this and writing it down for me in a way that’s clear and readable to anyone. You can even just try to answer one of the questions I asked instead of the whole bunch.

  62. There is an obvious ‘intelligence’ in the web of life, but its the intelligence of life itself and not of a idealized creator god. Its curious to me how easily organized religion can criticize the theory of evolution, while no one is pointing out the evolution of religion and the development of the theories that are used to justify those organizations of theological “faith”. Theories based on scientific research and fact are much more sustainable than theories based on belief. The ‘theories’ of science are an open system, one that is open to new information and discovery. Whereas the ‘theories’ of religion are a closed system, in that the said ‘truth’ of that religion was revealed in the past and is unalterable in the present. Life is sacred, not because a priest makes it so, but because of its own inherent divinity. No gods need apply.

  63. ‘Do immaterial objects exist?’ A good instance of these are mathematical objects. Does 4 exist? Does pi exist? I mean outside of someone thinking about them temporarily. If not, how come they’re so ‘hard’? (That is, have properties which appear to be the same for all observers.) If the do exist, where are they?

  64. Anarcissle, The word object implies something material. To ask the question is a form of nonsense. Yes, questions can take that form and are very plentiful in any language. There is, by the same reasoning, no such thing as a mathematical object unless we are talking about 4 oranges, 4 eyeteeth, or 4 of something tangible. A good place to learn about existence is in a library dictionary. For example; think about a red unicorn. Just thinking about something doesn’t mean it exist. Our imaginations are pretty much limitless. Look up the word idea and ideal. Hope you read this and it helps your understanding.

    1. I’m familiar with the realist-formalist debate in the philosophy of mathematics. I don’t know of any way of resolving the issue except by faith, an unprovable belief that either mathematical objects are just mental concepts concocted for their convenience by human beings, or that they are real things that exist independently of human (or other) thought. I used to favor the former position, but I think one has to consider things like the fact that the digits of pi always come out the same, no matter how many billions of places are calculated. This suggests to me (but certainly does not prove) that pi exists independently of human convention. At the same time it seems to be immaterial. (I suppose one might debate this last, and say that pi and so forth are somehow implicit in the material structure of the universe, but then our concept of materiality is beginning to fray at the edges.

      1. Is your use of the word ‘faith’ provable? For something to exist in a material world it has to have height, weight, circumference, width, plus if it is animal or human, movement. Faith, love, wisdom, and the like, have none of these things. It takes something that can relate and demonstrate the finest states as well as the basest. This is where free-will and choice comes into the picture. I’ll close by asking a question: why do we like to spend so much time debating issues that can only lead to a waste of the precious ‘time’ that any one mortal has in this existence on Earth?

  65. “””There was no way to be sure, but maybe some of the ancient lights I was looking at originally left their incomprehensibly distant stars when Abydosaurus and the monument’s other dinosaurs still walked the Earth. “””


    The most distant stars visible to the naked eye are on the order of a few thousand light years away. (3000-~16000, depending on who you ask) Even if you happened to lay your eye on the Andromeda Galaxy, that’s still only 2.5 million light years away.

    With a powerful TELESCOPE, you can catch photons that are as old as the dinosaurs. But with the naked eye, sorry. I know I am missing the point of the metaphor 😀

  66. Jean — It appears to me that you’ve just defined space, time, gravity, and a lot of other things I experience out of existence.

    As to the ontological status of pi, and the realist-formalist debate, I find such questions at least entertaining. But if you don’t, why bother with them at all? I’m very doubtful about UFOs, hence I don’t spend my time arguing with their fans about them. My philosophy is ‘You keep your fables, and I’ll keep mine.’

    In regard to faith, I think at this point there is no other way to decide the formalist-realist debate; I can’t think of a way to prove that pi really, really exists, or really, really doesn’t exist. The former corresponds more with my experience, though.

    1. ANA, I would like to encourage you to analyze the language we’re using in the light of dictionaries, semantics, & linguistics. Each ‘discipline’ has it’s own set of rules and definitions. In the movie “Good Will Hunting” w/Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, (can’t think right now of the main star’s name,) it points up the fact that no matter how much we know personally, if we can’t use it to understand ourselves, then we are left depending on jargon, faith, et al, (and others,) and also wondering if “pi” is somthing that exists or not. ( I won’t get back to posting until Friday. )

  67. I share in the frustration that many feel when confronted by the arrogance of the religious when discussing atheists. Science is, indeed, the best way to understand the way the universe works and has answered a great many questions. To say that it has answered, or even has the capacity to answer, all significant human questions is absurd. Science is about continuously proposing, testing, updating, and even abandoning models used to represent the nature of the universe and phenomena within it. Many long-held scientific models have since proven incorrect and are replaced with better models that may themselves later be proved incorrect. In this way our knowledge grows and we closer approach an true understanding. Yet, even while fundamental models of the universe may be internally consistent, there are at times inconsistencies with other models, which may delegitimize one or both. Rational thought and Science should be about continuously questioning and being open to new possibilites. The certitude of many atheists that there can be no existence except that described by mechanistic descriptions is counter to that attitude. Of course the stories of religions can be proven false as our knowledge grows and we have more advanced understanding of phenomena. Of course the imposition of beliefs by the religious is counter to responsible intellectual growth. However, absolute certainty regarding the final answer to any important question is also counter to responsible intellectual investigations.

    1. Dear Questioner, I agree with what you say and mean and will use a religious gesture to compliment you: AMEN

  68. Ant

    “I’m really not sure you’ve read the same article as I have.”

    I could just say the same thing. FYI, If you’re going to be correcting my grammar & all of the other inane stuff (like when I said you’re a grown man, etc) that gives you an air of superiority, you might actually want to spell my name right. I spelled it myself up above if you need to go back and check.

    [It’s not clear to me what you think I, or Brian, or anyone else is “borrowing” from your worldview… ?] [I’m not actually claiming that beauty is anything other than neurons (not specifically associated with beauty) firing in our brains!]

    Then why not write about the axiological value of toothaches or ear wax? Why privilege the beauty neurons? All of these are equivalent on your worldview. Since beauty is something material, what about reason and logic? Are these material or immaterial?

    The fact that atheism keeps giving preference to such objective realities as beauty and truth and not other types of neuron firings is just evidence that you’re borrowed from the Christian worldview things that you don’t objectively have. Don’t you find it odd to privilege certain neurons firing in your brain? Who prioritizes what neurons are important and worth blogging about and which ones aren’t (of course that would impose something axiological – which on your view are also just neurons – so as you can see it’s rather confusing)?

    [“I can give you some arguments for the existence of God…”

    But can you give me any evidence?]

    Arguments for God are philosophical arguments. And arguments in philosophy ARE evidence (as any PHI 101 class would teach) regardless of whether or not you personally like that type of evidence. So, as you can see, your question is redundant.

    Perhaps you don’t understand what begging the question means? If you’re arguing for the accurateness of reality, it doesn’t do any good to point to reality and say, “See, look how accurate that is!” Any arguments about laws that make up physical reality beg the question in some sense because they have to presuppose the accurateness of reality before carrying out any experiments . If you try to prove those laws you have to resort to using such philosophical notions as veridicality, induction, the uniformity of nature etc etc – all of which have to PRESUPPOSE the accurateness of the reality you’re attempting to describe. Now – I’m not saying laws of physics DON’T describe reality. I’m just explaining your logical inconsistencies.
    Again, I’m not saying that any of the disciplines you’re mentioning don’t have their place, so don’t mistake me for arguing that there is a discrepancy between the laws of physics and reality. Indeed, because my worldview tells me that I’m created in the image of God and can interpret reality the way it actually is, I’m fine w/most of the things that you’re discussing concerning the laws of physics and reality. What I’m trying to get you to see is that on your worldview the nature of reality is just presupposed. There’s no evidence for the accurateness of reality that does not beg the question because any physical experiment presupposes the accurateness of reality to carry out said experiment. It’s likewise with logic and mathematics. I have no problem with objective laws of logic or numbers. But on your worldview these are just different neurons, adapted for survival value, not truth value, and furthermore, your present brain states are determined by your previous brain states, which makes reason itself , a rather odd thing to discuss (unless you’re some sort of epiphenomenalist). Not only are your present brain states just the outworking of your past brain states, but so are my brain states. Since this is the case on your worldview, why keep responding to my present brain states which I have no control over? Are you familiar w/the Green Day song “Walking Contradiction”? I could go on, but I imagine you get my point.

  69. @ Isaac

    Well, thanks for taking the trouble to respond after so long.

    I apologise for mistpying your name.

    In fact, I didn’t correct your grammar; I only followed normal academic practice to indicate that a word in a quotation that appears odd or erroneous is quoted exactly as it stands in the original. Such etiquette is far from inane.

    Nor was it an inanity to call you out on your assertion without evidence that I am (a) grown (that is, an adult) and (b) a man. In fact, I think that’s very much to the point here. (Unless you know me from somewhere else; in which case, I can only apologise for utterly failing to recognise you.)

    There are no such things as “beauty neurons”. Your continued use of that phrase only reveals your ignorance about cognitive science and theory of mind.

    Toothache and cerumen are demonstrably quite different things from beauty, so your question is rather vapid.

    And to claim as a fact “that atheism [nothing more than an absence of belief in any god] keeps giving preference [it doesn’t] to such objective [actually, intersubjective] realities [actually, aesthetic and epistemic judgments] as beauty and truth” is to pack a multiplicity of errors into very few words.

    I admire your comprehensive knowledge of all the world’s Philosophy 101 courses … or would if it weren’t plainly erroneous. I didn’t take a Phi 101 course that made such an assertion. (So, I should say, you’d have one exception to your claim there. But of course, I can’t claim to speak for any others that I haven’t taken.) Nor have I read any introductory philosophy text that does so.

    But whatever the philosophical “evidence”, if God exists and has any effect on anything we can observe about the world, then science can investigate it, and it is justified to demand the same kind of evidence (data, observations) for God that we have for evolution, gravity, the germ theory of disease, quantum field theory and so on. Sadly (for you) there is still not one shred of evidence of that kind.

    I do actually know what begging the question means. But science is not a syllogism. All I can say is that science continues to build models that describe our real world with considerable (and increasing) accuracy. Are these models complete? We have no reason to think so — else science would stop. Are there aspects of our real world which science cannot describe with its models? Well, we don’t know… but we haven’t found them yet.

    Nevertheless (to quote Sean Carroll):

    ❝[This] is not to say that every worthwhile intellectual endeavor is a version of science in some way. Math and logic are not science, … They are all about figuring out all possible ways that things could be, whether or not things actually are that way in our real world.

    ❝On the other hand, things like aesthetics and morality aren’t science either, because they require an additional ingredient — a way to pass judgment, to say that something is beautiful/ugly or right/wrong. Science doesn’t care about that stuff; it describes how the world is, rather than prescribing how it should be.

    ❝… What makes science (broadly construed as empirical investigation) special is that it is the unique way of learning about the contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined. We’re not going to get there through meditation, revelation, or a priori philosophizing.❞

    And you’re wrong to say that “[our] present brain states just [my emphasis] the outworking of [our] past brain states”. Present brain states are also determined by multiple inputs, such as what others say and write. And our brains are vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly complex systems, with about 120 billion neurons (about as many as there are stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way) and about 320 trillion interconnections (synapses), giving plenty of opportunity for sophisticated mental constructs (ideas, ethics, aesthetics, and so on) to emerge and change over time. There is no conundrum, no contradiction here.


  70. * And you’re wrong to say that “[our] present brain states [are] just [my emphasis] the outworking of [our] past brain states”. …

  71. I’m right with you, Brian. The idea that we can’t find some spiritual fulfillment from the wonders of nature without evoking a higher power or intelligent design is just plain wrong– as evidenced by pantheism (which is how I identify, rather than as an atheist).

  72. @Jaquelyn — Pantheism sounds kind of like belief in a ‘higher power’ or being to me. I’m not criticizing or disputing, just pointing out how people might take it. In any case, ‘spiritual fulfillment’ is going to require some kind of thing we can define as ‘spirit’, so that we can answer the question, ‘What is it that is being fulfilled?’

    @Jean — if you’re still there — I could go off on a rant about the unknowability and inexpressibility of things. We always depend on faith and jargon just to get by. But as for the ontological status of pi, I agree thinking about it may be a sort of refined taste not likely to appeal to many. It amuses me a lot, though, and if you don’t get it I think you may be missing something.

    1. @Anarcissie Well, to start, there is no monolithic pantheism. It’s a bit Web 2.0 (and doesn’t represent my personal beliefs completely), but the World Pantheism website sums things up quite well: http://www.pantheism.net/

      Particularly: “By spirituality and spiritual we don’t mean any kind of supernatural or non-physical activity. We mean our deeper emotions and aesthetic responses towards Nature and the wider Universe – our sense of our place in these, and the ethics and values that these feelings imply.

      We take the real Universe and Nature as our starting and finishing point, not some preconceived idea of God. We feel a profound wonder and awe for these, in some ways similar to the reverence that believers in more conventional gods feel towards their deity, but without anthropomorphic worship or belief that Nature has a mind or personality that we can influence through prayer or ritual.

      Our ethics are humanistic and green, our metaphysics naturalistic and scientific. To these we add the emotional and aesthetic dimensions which humans need to cope with life’s challenges and to embrace life’s joys, and to motivate their concern for Nature and human welfare.”

      There is no discrete definition of “spirituality,” but it doesn’t require a “spirit.” Rather, it can be how we relate to what we hold sacred, or simply worthy of our attention and veneration. For me, the natural world is that, plain and simple. I am a scientist and have a deep, spiritual connection to the natural world, and I don’t see those things as mutually exclusive. Indeed, I find the natural world to be more spiritually fulfilling than any concept of an intelligent designer.

      1. Certainly any kind of pantheism or panpsychism would imply that mind-body duality is illusory. Some might want to conceive of the totality as having some sort of personality, consciousness, and will, given that consciousness is an attribute of at least some matter that we know about. But I don’t know how to get at the question given present knowledge and logical and mathematical tools.

        The ‘intelligent design’ theory is indeed a comedown, but there is no evidence for it in any case, at least not that I’ve heard about. And if one did believe in such a being, then one would have to ask who intelligently designed the intelligent designer.

      2. Anarcissie. Something tells me you are over-thinking this. Maybe you should just put on your safety hat and jump into the pool.
        Jacqueline: Don’t bother at this time; many are called, but most are wrong numbers.

    2. Ana. Yes, I am still here. Jacqueline, I disagree with Nat Scientist about “wrong numbers.” If a debate can’t be extended, how can we take pride in helping someone take a look at information that will give them a chance to “jump into the pool?” Ana: How about helping me by defining “it” and what aspect you believe I’m missing. I ‘get’ the ‘it’ that you are amused by onto logically ruminating on pi; but another word for amuse is divert. Children can be amused endlessly whereas adults usually aren’t.

  73. Jean, I’m not sure what you “mean” when you say that you agree with what I “mean.” When I said that science couldn’t answer every significant question, I was not saying that these questions were answerable by religion, but rather that not all human experience can be quantified and that true understandings of human and physical existence extend into other epistemic domains.

  74. Jean — The ‘it’ you might be missing? I’ll quote Uncle Albert, although he waxes a bit more romantic and perhaps pious about it than I would, probably: ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

    Another way I might put it is that when I see how two seemingly utterly different systems — the physical world and mathematics — line up at so many unexpected points, I feel as if I’m almost overhearing the conversations of the gods, who may at any moment produce signs and wonders. That kind of amusement, which I acknowledge may be childish. I hope I won’t outgrow it!

    1. Ana, Only have time for one point right now and that is – not “childish” but rather childlike. Until later.

    2. Ana, Sorry I couldn’t get back sooner. Do you consider it unwise or unsettling to critique a famous person’s statements. Especially when it is someone like Uncle Albert? He can no longer let us know in what ways he would have found a better way of stating his legacy. In the quote you gave of his is used the word “true” art and science. It would have been a more powerful effect if he had omitted truthfulness. Please tell you’re take on what is true art & science as opposed to untrue art and science.
      One last question: Have you read Samuel Arbesman on wired. com about pi? He’s an applied mathematician. This site is also awesome. Jean

  75. In this case, I’m using Uncle Albert as a witness, not an authority. The point is not what is universally and absolutely true, but what he said he felt about what he was doing, which might be an answer — at least a partial answer — to the question you asked. I think Albert could have omitted the ‘true’ part, but as you may know he was something of a monotheist and a determinist and seemed to have liked to conceive of the universe as an orderly place where I guess some art and science are ‘true’ and others aren’t. You know, ‘Raffiniert is der Herrgott’ and all that.

  76. I believe that persons without gods have the opportunity to feel and know the surrounding beauty more profoundly than any deist or polytheist. We, unencumbered by fear, are after all, inherently aware of the transience of existence, of participating with and experiencing beauty and wonder only for a tragically short time.

  77. Was just at Dinosaur Natl. Monument a couple of weeks ago. The remoteness, geology and amazing scenery definitely put you in a contemplative frame of mind. God did not enter into my thoughts.

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