Monday, April 30, 2007

Contradiction, Science and the Completely Material Universe

This is mostly an add-on to previous post.

I was talking with a friend about the idea of pride in submission. She thought it was a goofy concept, and it is, but I pointed out that it's really common. How many Christians are proud of their “submission” to Jesus, for instance? I'd say most of them. At least, that's my experience.

Then I said, to paraphrase, that most ideas prior to the very modern world were so primitive that not a single one of them really explained human experience without obvious contradictions not only of each other, but of the observable world. Say, Christianity demands that people accept the miracles but very few Christians claim to see even one such miracle. At the same time, during the Middle Ages, they were taught that the poor were blessed, meekness was good, violence was bad, all that, but they were also part of feudal contracts that lionized aristocrats that murdered for profit. They could be both “good Christians” and “good aristocrats”, even tho' the first wholly contradicted the second.

So, people have had a lot of experience holding in their minds two or more ideas that simply did not make sense, not with each other, not with the world around them. People lived in a state of perpetual contradiction.

It has taken a very long time for any ideas at all to come into existence that do not require a person to flatly contradict themselves entirely. I think most people don't grasp how recently strong ideas to support a purely physical universe is. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Big Bang became publicly known (with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, which basically killed the steady state model). If you were educated before the 60s, then, you were not taught that the universe could possibly have a purely material origin, because science, itself, hadn't developed the idea with sufficient proof to popularize it. So, it's only been around 42 years that there was enough scientific hypotheses to take us from the initial conditions of the material universe to the development of life on earth and our present civilization.

And we have thousands, tens of thousands, of years of cultural history, however, in holding multiple, contradictory thoughts in our head. It's gonna take a while to purge out all that crap, I figure – people are being told right now that contradictory ideas are better than a self-supporting group of theories that make sense in whole as well as their individual parts. These contradictory ideas are, furthermore, in many ways the very foundation of our culture, in their religious forms. So, to reject those cultural ideas is to reject, in some way, our very identities. I, myself, am not so enamored of my current identity to fear replacing it with a better one – but, clearly, many people are.

However, we're very close to having a system of knowledge – not just science, but also modern politics, epistemology and such – that is not contradictory, that a person can honestly support, and that epistemological system is of great power and utility, but for many people it will have to become their culture before they accept it, because of the damage done to the human psyche because our identity is based on these contradictory ideas that we've learned to live with.

Then my friend said, “It is good that our knowledge is catching up to our capacity for reason.” That's exactly it. That's exactly it.

Addendum to the Add-On

Yeah. Science. It works.

Here is a brief survey of science news from this weekend.

First, scientists are making concrete progress on reversing memory damage from diseases like Alzheimer's. Second, scientists have probably discovered the way to switch on the fat burning process of the human body. We are very closer to having a purely medical solution to the problem of weight in America. Third, a significant part of a mouse's brain has been computer modeled. We are very, very close, too, to unlocking so many mysteries of the brain with this sort of computer modeling – not just being able to do far more complex neurological research than ever before, but this also has significant importance for artificial intelligence.

So, uh, what's the religious news for this weekend? On the BBC RSS feed, the closest I found was a huge rally for secularism in Turkey. Religious fundies are on the verge of taking over Turkey, it appears. There is no other news that is strictly religious on the BBC right now (which, other than local news sources, is the only thing news I bother to read because . . . so much of it is so bad).

We, of course, see this sort of thing all the time. Hardly a day can go by without scientists making another advance in some field or another. Where is the religious equivalent to this? Where are the religious folks saying, “Today, our god healed some of the memory loss attributable to degenerative neurological diseases”? Or, “Today, our god decided that he'll stop people from getting fat because it's a health risk, and fat doesn't have so much a place in the modern world as it once did”?

What does religion do?

For me, this is the absolute key difference between science and religion. When all those religious folks try to say that science “is just another religion” they seem to absolutely forget that even if science was “just another religion” it's like comparing the right way of doing something to the wrong way of doing it. If religion and science were both vehicles, religion would be the rusty junker in the yard and science would be the Wrightspeed X-1. One works, the other doesn't. It baffles me that difference doesn't seem to matter to religious people. Utterly baffles me.

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divabeq said...

I was listening to NPR yesterday, and the whole show was about this subject - the clash of science and religion in the US today - and one of the commenters, who was a biologist and firmly in the "science" camp, said that the thing that religion could offer that science can't is the feeling of awe and mystery... no, he used the word "inspiration". He said that he felt that was the reason religion was holding on.

I disagree. I disagree wholly. I think there's something intensely beautiful and inspiring about human knowledge reaching the place where it is now. Evolving from nothing to the complex, thinking creatures we are over millions of years and then in only a thousand, we've gone from scratching in the dirt, struggling to survive, blind in the wilderness to being able to trace not only our origins, but the origins of the universe.

Just because we had the will to do it. He specifically said secular humanism lacked inspiration, and I can't imagine how one wouldn't find humanity inspiring.

I can't wait to see what we know next!

April 30, 2007 11:47 AM  
Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, I've had similar thoughts. I was at this job in Vegas and one of the religious people there talked to me about what I believe, very respectfully, and I went on about all sorts of futurism, about how I think the world will be an increasingly fair, just place filled with more interesting things than every before and progressively so indefinitely.

At the end of it, he said to me that he could understand, if I felt that way, why I wasn't religious.

So, needless to say, I strongly agree that science is easily able to create awe and mystery -- who has not looked up into the vastness of space and wondered? Who has not see the stars, or the vastness of the sea, or the grandeur of a forest, and NOT been awed? And the more one studies, the more awesome this all becomes -- the vastness, intricacy of it.

Moreover, there might have been some selection bias, there. NPR might have looked for a scientist who felt that way, or perhaps biologists are different from physicists (tho', y'know, back in Maine Chloe was a biologist and didn't feel that way, but I only knew the one biologist), but NO physicist I know fails to appreciate the grandeur of the universe.

April 30, 2007 12:19 PM  
L>T said...

Great post Chris!
I have spent my whole life being frustrated with the Church & Christians & the fucking road-blocks they throw up to counter fine honest human knowledge & reasoning. I realized at one point that Christianity has had 2,000 years to figure out their stupid arguments. & I found out by experience when I became a Christian that blocking "human" reasoning is what you are taught to do. After all, how can a mere human being born sinful, in need of redemption have an idea contradicting the scriptures? It has to be wrong or else come straight from Satan.

The idea that we are used to having contradictory ideas in our heads & even taught that it is O.K., is a very good point. I'll be thinking on that for a while. :)
These contradictory ideas are, furthermore, in many ways the very foundation of our culture, in their religious forms. So, to reject those cultural ideas is to reject, in some way, our very identities. Yes, & we might have to reject our ideas of who the bad guys are too.

divabeg said:
I can't imagine how one wouldn't find humanity inspiring. I agree! Since i've embraced secular humanism, I've had more hope & geniune affection for humankind, then I ever had as a Christian. Christians are taught that humankind is bad. I remember the first time after I declared myself to be a humanist my mother made a negitive statement about something saying, "It's too bad you are human." I realized I'd excepted that kind of thinking my whole life.

April 30, 2007 4:30 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


The idea that we are used to having contradictory ideas in our heads & even taught that it is O.K., is a very good point. I'll be thinking on that for a while. :)

Well, I'm glad! I like it when people say I make them think. ;)

But, oh, yeah, we have all sorts of contradictions in our heads. For instance, RIGHT NOW, fundie Christians are talking about how the Constitution is a religious document, formed by God -- which is absolutely neither in the Constitution nor in the Bible. But they plow on, heedless to the contradictions implied in their politics. It's all around us, hehe.

April 30, 2007 11:33 PM  

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