Wednesday, August 4

Human Faces And Human Nonsense


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

This morning and afternoon (9 March), I was watching the National Geographic Channel's back-to-back reprise of Carl Sagan's venerable 1980 series Cosmos, being re-broadcast in preparation for Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's updated version, scheduled to start tonight.  The 1980-vintage Cosmos is as mesmerizing now as it was 34 years ago. But it set me to wondering:  why is it that, despite the deluge of books in the last generation or so explaining even subjects as abstruse as superstring theory (e.g., Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe) to the general public, so many people nevertheless choose some cheesy second-rate alternative to real science, opting instead for either fundamentalist Christianity or for some bastardized form of quasi-Jungian / Alan Watts-ian Hinduism, often based upon some grotesque  misunderstanding of  quantum mechanics? Apparently, a dismayingly large number of people choose to drive a '72 Yugo with a busted radiator instead of a 2014 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.  The obvious question to ask– once one quits banging one's head against the wall -- is ... why?

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Javier:
Carl Sagan
cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Javier

I pause from my own head-banging long enough to assert my belief that we know quite well what the cause is not:  a lack of available information, not only about the particular sciences – especially astronomy, cosmology, evolutionary biology, etc. – but also a lack of information about how science itself, science per se, works.  Saying there is not enough information is like saying there is not enough sand in the Gobi Desert.  One could easily fill up an e-reader with e-books pertaining to nothing but those subjects, and still not even scratch the surface -- all written for an audience intelligent enough to be interested, even without the technical background.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Marjorie Morris Lipan
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
cc licensed (BY NC SA) flickr photo by Marjorie Morris Lipan

What, then, is the reason?

The following is my theory …

First, there is the fact that the material in question, in fact, virtually all scientific material, is just intrinsically … well … real hard stuff, even when written for a general audience.  (Brian Greene's Elegant Universe on superstring theory is pretty rough going, even for a popular exposition -- and I have master's degrees in both math and physics!) Most adults are out of school and do not want to return to school, even on their own terms. Furthermore, the American educational system usually succeeds in its de facto goal of wringing every last spark of gratuitous curiosity – curiosity simply for its own sake – out of virtually all its victims in favor of transforming us all into optimally efficient cubicle-drones. The purpose of the human intellect is to make a buck, says this regnant ideology, and any other goal is secondary at best, subversive at worst.  That is why the vaguely condescending phrase "life-long learner" now refers to a person with the exceptional characteristic of not having turned their brain off.

But, secondly, aside from the intrinsic difficulty of the material, there is the very human tendency to want to “mark” the universe with a human face.  This is the human analogue of a dog or a cat … er … ah … “spraying” a fire hydrant or a favorite lawn shrub – or an expensive sofa.  Dog, cat, and human want to assert exclusive “ownership”, in some sense, of their environment.  Nor is this a matter of mere territoriality, at least with humans. Rather, this was the great advantage of mythologies:  they “marked” the universe by staking out a human claim, not only for ownership, but most of all for kinship. We humans want the universe to have a human face – even to be human, or at least uniquely human-friendly, on some instinctual level.  “Being human” involves, among many other things, purpose, order, and perhaps most of all status – much preferably purpose, order, and status that place human beings at the center of the Great Wheel.  We want to count, and much preferably to count more than anything else in the cosmos. We want the universe to be all about us.


Well … I hate to rain on your – actually, on our – parade.  But, given the present conception of the universe, you just can’t get there from here. You haven't really been able to "get there" since at least Copernicus.  (Or Giordano Bruno, and we all know what happened to him:  he had a "stake" in the outcome, but not the kind he wanted.)  I am important to my wife, to my family, to my friends – my wife and I will be important to the IRS in a few weeks – and  that’s about it.  But humans want more. We want to be necessary. We suffer from a gnawing sense that mere contingency is somehow beneath our dignity.  We talk colloquially about the end of the world, but short of the sun’s evolution into a red giant – which will not occur for another 4 billion years or so – what we really mean is the end of humanity. The world could go on quite swimmingly without us.  Compared to the 13.7-billion-year-and-counting history of the cosmos, an individual human lifespan counts for next to nothing, and the human race itself, not much more. The age of mythology is over.  In the closing page of his almost-classic book on cosmology The First Three Minutes, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg concluded that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless”. The cosmos does not have a human face.

So we do the next best thing:  we give it one.  Or at least we try to do so.  We invent mythologies, today known as “ideologies”, that imbue human history with a purpose, a “human-centric” purpose … or rather, a Purpose … a Telos, moreover a Telos that, far from being arbitrary, is -- so we tell ourselves -- actually embedded in reality just like the value of pi or the irrationality of the square root of 2. (If we believed the mythology to be purely artificial, fictitious, and fabricated -- basically an existential security blanket -- it wouldn’t work.)  This Purpose goes under a multitude of names. We call it variously the “harmonic convergence”, the Second Advent, the Coming of the Twelfth Imam, the classless society, liberty / democracy, God’s plan, Divine Providence, Intelligent Design, etc., etc., anything to evade what we regard as ultimate cosmic banality, for mere cause and effect will not rock us to sleep at night.  In many ways, this is a harmless enough game.  We want more than to know.  We want to cuddle.  And you can't cuddle with Type 1a supernovae or mitochondrial DNA.  So as the saying goes “Whatever floats your boat”.  The problem is that many of the Teloi that float some people’s boats are also powerful incentives to sink the boats of others.

So I would urgently suggest that, as the late Carl Sagan all-but-explicitly said in the concluding episode of the “old” Cosmos series, we need to grow up.  Badly.  And one of the most urgent lessons we need to learn in order to grow up was taught to Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) by a benevolent “mentoring” alien, disguised as Arroway’s beloved father, in the movie Contact, based on Sagan’s novel of the same name. Arroway’s “father” kneels on the beach and, sifting sand through his fingers, says to his “daughter”:  “The only thing we‘ve found that makes the darkness bearable is one another”.  Faith certainly has its virtues.  (One of my first posts on this blog considered the issue of the nature of scientific faith.)  But it is a poor substitute for knowledge, and, in any case, to paraphrase the Book of James, “Faith without humans is dead”.  Only humans have a human face, not ideologies, and any Telos that makes the latter more important than the former is destructive of both.

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