Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know: An Invitation to Picture Parallel Realities
by Krista Tippett, host
With Martin Rees as with other scientists I’ve interviewed across the years, I’m utterly intrigued by the language he uses to describe the stuff of his inquiry, the ideas that drive the work of his days — the deep structure of space and time, extreme phenomena in the cosmos.
He is an aristocrat in several senses in the world of British science. He’s a member of the House of Lords and holds the honorific title of Astronomer Royal. He recently ended a five-year term as president of The Royal Society, the august scientific fellowship to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. Yet the great value of this conversation, I think, is Martin Rees’ skill in bringing the vast frontiers of science down to earth, so to speak. He sees them, and is able to describe them, as matters for public understanding and pondering.
So, for example, he uses an analogy that became the playful title of this show. As he discusses the possibility of parallel realities — once the stuff of science fiction — he asks us to picture worlds that might be out of our range of perception because they are tightly rolled up in space like origami. Or we might be like ants on a flat plane, assured that the contours of our known world are all there is. But just beyond of our range of perception, other planes also teem with life.
In his conversation with me as in the prestigious Reith Lectures he gave in Britain in 2010, Martin Rees is especially good at evoking the great puzzles that physics carried from the 20th century into our own. There are the predictable laws of physics at cosmic scales that Einstein brilliantly described. Then there is the wild, anything goes “microworld” of reality at the smallest scales — the scale where cosmic origami might happen. I remember another great physicist, Freeman Dyson, describing this as the difference between the rules of nature at the “mountaintops” and in the “rainforest.”
And I find a great and strange comfort in Martin Rees’ desire to loop in a third level of complexity that begs for some kind of unity with the other two — that of life. He makes the remarkable assertion that human beings are the most extreme complex phenomena in the cosmos by far. It is possible, he says, to say definitively true things about the workings of stars — but not to say anything that is even remotely definitively true about dieting or child care.
In fact, on scientific frontiers from cosmology to genetics, new and complicated ethical and philosophical questions are being raised that need deliberation precisely in relation to complex human life. In his Reith Lectures, he named a few: How will our lengthening life spans effect society? Who should access the readout of our personal genetic code? Should the law allow designer babies? Should we use nuclear power or wind farms?
For pursuing this kind of inquiry, Martin Rees was awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” He took some sharp criticism from some scientists and atheists for accepting the prize.
In the spirit of full disclosure, On Being receives funding for some of our shows from the John Templeton Foundation. But what brought him to our attention, compellingly, is that Martin Rees himself is firmly atheist. He is in fact as little interested in science-religion dialogue as in science-religion battles. Rather, in his third way between the two, he sees religious people as essential allies in the philosophical and ethical challenges that are being raised on scientific frontiers.
I’m grateful for the language Martin Rees uses to describe the role he’s discovered along this path — a calling to be a “science citizen.” His is an eloquent voice for many of our listeners, I think, who find the labels of “atheist” and “agnostic” too narrow if they seem to rule out ethical and spiritual life, however broadly defined. And he helpfully points at practical starting points for non-religious and religious to pursue meaning and mystery in our age — together, and with humility all around.
Sam Harris’s “Scientific Fundamentalism” Couched in Atheism
by Martin E. Marty, special contributor
Protestors rally during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to London. (photo: Colin Grey/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
“Same Old New Atheism,” last week’s clipping about religion sighted in the public sphere (it might as well be labeled “Same New Old Atheism”) is a 6800-word review, which places the trendy “New Atheism” in the context of previous efforts to establish scientific positivism in the place of religion. Religion, in turn, is to be done away with, as it’s been done away with for centuries.
The review in question is not a fundamentalist screed against defamers of the faithful, but the voice of Rutgers professor Jackson Lears, whose critics describe him as a “man of the left” in a “magazine of the left.” Lears reviews three books by Sam Harris, who to Lears is a “scientific fundamentalist.” Harris, in turn, has responded that Lears’s review is “idiotic.” It isn’t.
We can only hit some high spots of Lears-on-Harris and hope that readers will all follow through by reading the whole article, one of the best short criticisms yet of the old/new or new/old atheism.
Lears locates the genre in a “back-to-1910” cultural fashion in which now “deregulation” and “starvation of the public sector” have returned to the pre-World War I style. The key in philosophy, including manifestly in Harris’s works, “depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes.” The positivists, their outlook revisited by Harris, “assumed that science was the only sure guide to morality, and the only firm basis for civilization.” With them came “pop-evolutionary notions of progress,” “scientific racism and imperialism” and, most measurably, “eugenics” and the like.
Sociologists of knowledge (Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger, Thomas Kuhn and others) countered positivism, but it has come back in the works of authors Lears cites. They were also countered, in turn, by fellow scientists who found it philosophically and scientifically weak. But since 9/11 it is back again in Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and, of course, Harris, who now “press the case against religion with renewed determination and fire.”
The Christian Right’s absolutism next provided a fat target, and Islamic fundamentalism one even fatter. Its presence legitimates torture — in Harris’s books, at least — while “multiculturalism, moral relativism, political correctness, tolerance even of intolerance,” writes Harris, hobbles “the West” in its war against “radical Islam.”
Harris argues that to be un-hobbled, the West must reject “both religion and cultural relativism, and [embrace] science as the true source of moral value.” Lears praises sciences but rejects the implicit (and sometimes explicit) metaphysic, which the new atheists do not discern in their putatively scientific empirical approach to morality. How Harris roots his metaphysic in brain research, which is his main work, and how Lears criticizes it is a story too complex for this brief article, but is available in Lears’s essay.
The title term “Infidelity,” the colonial and early modern word for atheism, agnosticism, and radical religion through three centuries, was the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation in 1956 in “The Uses of Infidelity.” Protestant conservatives would show how unmoored Christianity and faith in general were when infidels, never great threats on their own, got a hold of them. Now again, it is usually “infidels” who do the most telling reviews of fellow infidels’ books. Conservatives through the decades hollered, and gave those of other faiths and no faiths a potency they had otherwise not known. Now, again?
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Atheists Don’t Have No Songs
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
Watch Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers sing a special song, since they say atheists don’t have any.
Warren Buffett Without God Too
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Picking up on Shubha’s post about the current marketing campaigns being put out by atheist and humanist organizations, our Tumblr friend Jiorjia over at The Ianez Compendium forwarded this ad featuring Warren Buffett and the comment, “I’m good without God. Are you?”
The point and power of the ad — that you don’t have to be a religious believer to be a good, moral, ethical humanitarian — is an argument that comes up a lot in my reading. I just wish this wasn’t the starting point for all parties involved.
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
"The godless groups say they are mounting this surge because they are aware that they have a large, untapped army of potential troops. The percentage of American adults who say they have no religion has doubled in the last two decades."
The billboards and posters, which haven’t been without controversy, aren’t completely new. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, for example, has been putting together marketing campaigns since 2007. However, this year four national groups are competing for believers, and the American Humanist Association is putting forth $200,000 into its “godless” campaign — thought to be the highest amount ever spent.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation designed a sign campaign for the sides of buses and highway billboards:
The organization American Atheist created this billboard campaign to target the Christmas season:
Watch for more of these ads coming to a cable television station, billboard, or bus near you.
In the top photo, the Greater St. Louis Coalition of Reason ran this billboard on roads in St. Louis, Missouri in September and October of this year. (courtesy of United Coalition of Reason)
To Hold Contradiction in Our Hands Is What Makes Us Unique as Humans
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"The less it is possible that something can be,
the more it must be.”
I’ve been sitting on this unbelievably gripping, humorous, and intellectually stimulating lecture by Robert Sapolsky for months now. I’m not sure why. My work life whisked me away, but, in watching this video again, it’s too good not to share.
Sapolsky is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists who explores “the biology of neurons” and how stress factors in to our social lives. He’s an incredible storyteller who makes sense of the human species by studying primates, particularly baboons. Using many examples from the wild, he debunks a series of commonly held assumptions that most people believe define human beings as being distinct, as being unique to our species: theory of mind, the Golden Rule, empathy, tit-for-tat, etc.
Despite all the universal behaviors we humans hold in common with other animals, Sapolsky says that humans have one trait that best defines and distinguishes us from other species: the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in our head, and yet continue on in the face of it.
During a staff meeting several months ago, I recommended that one of our associate producers do some research on Dr. Sapolsky as a potential interview with Krista. The feedback: Dr. Sapolsky was a good storyteller with great depth of experience, but there was concern that his atheism might be too strident and might not work for our program.
To me, it’s these types of voices that we want to include in our repertoire of shows. He’s a non-believer who embraces the paradox himself. He’s not just against religion or worshiping a deity. He lives an intellectual life that listens to these religious and philosophical voices and internalizes them. He takes them seriously and doesn’t dismiss them.
So, when I’m evaluating future guests, I’m looking for clues, for indicators that strike me as openness to ideas without personally accepting them as doctrine. So, even though Dr. Sapolsky declares himself strident in the lecture above, he makes a Niebuhrian statement like the one that heads the top of this page. And, shortly thereafter, posts a slide with a quotation from Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard:
"Christian faith requires that faith persists in the face of the impossible, and that humans have the capacity to simultaneously believe in two contradictory things."
And then he immediately cites the mercy-filled work of Sr. Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, and quotes her:
"The less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven. The less loveble the person is, the more you must find the means to love them."
What’s even more delightful is Sapolsky’s own ability and intellectual curiosity to live comfortably and reconcile his own positions and beliefs. He marvels:
"As a strident atheist, this strikes me as the most irrational, magnificent thing we are capable of as a species. … And this one does not come easily. On a certain level, the harder this is, this contradiction, to take the impossibility of something and to be the very proof that it must be possible and must become a moral imperative, the harder it is to do that, the more important it is."
Check back on this blog in the coming days when Nancy makes an interesting connection between Evangelical leader Richard Mouw and self-proclaimed atheist Robert Sapolsky.
In the bottom photo, Sister Helen Prejean participates in a demonstration against the death penalty in Paris, France on July 2, 2007. (photo by Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images).
He trusts God to keep him safe. And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.
—Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, a self-declared atheist who is charged with protecting Navy Chaplain Terry Moran, a Seventh-Day Adventist who is ministering to Marines in Afghanistan.
Michael M. Phillips’ Wall Street Journal article "A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War" gives unexpected insight into some of the strange pairings of battle and the tension of war in all its humanness. Well worth a read.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Approaches to the Question “Is Religion Potentially Dangerous?”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
In "No More Taking Sides" Krista describes her conversation with Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad, who both have lost a loved one in the conflict:
"…this is not another version of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian story to which we’ve all become accustomed from the news. Neither is it a touchy-feely story of isolated good will. This story is fiercely human, admitting grief while also yielding to joy, and it is all the more hopeful for its origins in the hard ground of reality."
Updating the site for rebroadcast, we’ve also been editing our video footage from Krista’s live conversation with Robert Wright earlier this month. His answer to the audience question, “Is religion potentially dangerous?” is one that’s often asked in the context of the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
As we produce this interview for air, the most recent script characterizes Wright as “relentlessly logical” — and you might say that Wright’s assessment of religion’s role in this conflict is relentlessly logical in the best sense. But, while logic can be extremely helpful in understanding the forces behind human conflict, it says very little about the experience of those conflicts.
That’s where Robi and Ali come in. When Wright tells us that “human life is potentially dangerous,” their stories show us this on a gut level. Their partnership is a living example of why we’re all in this together is an idea really worth considering.
Ali Abu Awwad, from the transcript:
"When I get to the library that [Robi’s son] David was preparing for the student, a good library, and I saw Robi start crying there, I don’t know, it’s strange, that feeling that I got at that moment. I have that feeling that David is telling me, ‘Take care of my mother.’ This is the first time I’m telling that. I never told Robi that.
And I think [my brother] Yousef was so happy that Robi was taking care of me and I really don’t feel this identity when I feel about David, when I feel about Yousef. I don’t feel that.
They just put us — by passing away, they put us in this deeply feeling with our humanity. And if people appreciate and if politicians appreciate the life as they appreciate the death, peace will be possible.”
None of the theories of the transmission of religious belief favoured by anti-theists work. Religious belief is not a marker of stupidity. In this country, among the under thirties, it is most common in those with a university education. Nor is it transmitted by brainwashing. But if religion is natural, none of this proves it is necessary, nor that it is impossible to suppress…