Saturday, July 12, 2008

Humility and Hope in the Face of Immensity

People often ask what it is I hope to do with my degree in “Interdisciplinary Science.” My goal, in my own small way, is to communicate our understanding of humanity's place in the universe as revealed by the methods and findings of science. If I can be even one percent as effective and eloquent as the astronomer Carl Sagan was in communicating the humbling, yet hopeful, self-awareness science makes possible, I will have realized my goal. Made famous by his co-creation and hosting of the PBS television series Cosmos in 1980, he died, far too soon, in 1996. Dr. Sagan was one of the chief scientific investigators for NASA's Viking missions to Mars and the Voyager 1 and 2 missions to the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft had completed its primary mission in 1990. After passing beyond the orbit of Neptune, Dr. Sagan suggested that the camera aboard Voyager 1 be turned towards Earth for one last look, just as a child, leaving home to begin the adult period of their life, turns back for one last glance of where they started from.

The Pale Blue Dot...



As you watch the video, I hope you not only look at the images, but really listen to, and think about, the words. Throughout my life, similar words and images, and these words and images in particular, have moved me, often to the point of tears, beyond my ability to adequately express. In the video, Dr. Sagan refers to the study of humanity's place in the universe as a profoundly humbling and character-building experience. It is more than that though, for these words, and the ideas behind them, have moved me, inspired me, and above all else, have given me hope which all of the "holy books" of all the world's religions cannot even approach.

Our individual lives, our loves, our tragedies and sufferings, and our occasional, yet all too temporary triumphs, when seen against the staggeringly large scale of the universe–the cosmos, lead many people to feel reduced to insignificance. Instead of humility, they feel despair. Too often, the despair forces many people to turn back, to grasp for something, anything, that will make them again feel significant. This is unfortunate, for it is only part of the message. Standing at the brink of the unknown, if we do not turn back in fear, we find we are capable of exploring our immediate neighborhood, that the new knowledge thus gained enables us to take a few more cautious, yet hopeful steps, into the unknown. Since the realization, hundreds of years ago, that our home, the Earth, revolves about the sun, and not the other way around, humanity's understanding has only grown. The obvious smallness of humanity's home, set against the immensity of the cosmos, when combined with our ability to understand and appreciate these facts, and our determination to continue to explore, is for me, and many like me, a source of profound hope. Humility without Despair and Hope without Certainty...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

An Honest Discussion?

Our courts go to great lengths to ensure that trials are as fair as possible. One way in which they do this is the thorough screening potential jurors are subjected to. This is intended to not only exclude those that have already made up their minds about the case but also weed out those candidates that have even a subtle bias that would prevent them from dispassionately evaluating the evidence and testimony presented in court. Should a potential juror that has already reached their own decision about the case misrepresent themselves during the screening process in order to sit on the jury, simply put, they have lied. They were selected under false pretenses and are quite literally, bearing "false witness" to the proceedings, a violation of the 9th Commandment (the 8th for Roman Catholics or Lutherans). Were such a thing to happen, and it unfortunately does from time to time, the juror is guilty of the crime of perjury.

The procedures used by our courts (screening of potential jurors, rules of evidence, rejection of hearsay, etc.) to ensure fair trials are simply a carefully delineated, formalized distillation of the rules for any kind of honest discussion. An honest discussion cannot take place if any party to it is not open to modifying or revising their views during the course of the dialog. To attempt to engage someone in what is billed as an "honest" discussion when ones own views on the subject at hand are off-limits to revision or modification is to misrepresent oneself, to lie.

At its heart, this is a moral issue. Religious believers frequently attempt to engage others in discussions in an attempt to persuade them of the "truth" of their particular dogma. They do this knowing full well that their own views are, at least as far as they are concerned, not open to revision or modification in the light of new arguments or evidence. The blatant duplicitousness and dishonesty of this must be publicly exposed and loudly condemned in no uncertain terms. Many believers seem to think that it is permissible to deceive others (not to mention themselves), either by lies of omission or commission, whenever it is believed to be justified by their beliefs. This double standard is morally and ethically reprehensible and something which should not be tolerated, either in the public square or in one's personal relationships.

Monday, July 7, 2008

On "Faith"

“Faith” is a very slippery concept and the meaning changes with the context in which it is used. In our culture we are inculcated from a young age to regard “faith” as a virtue. But is it always a virtue? One of ways in which the word “faith” is used is a relatively trivial one, commonly used in the context of encouraging another person, as when a parent encourages their nervous son or daughter before a musical recital or big exam by saying something like: “You’ll do fine, I have faith in you.” Another, more profound way in which the word is used is when someone says something like: “I have faith in the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, and in the Enlightenment values of reason and free inquiry on which the leading Founding Fathers drew.” A third way in which “faith” is used is in defending ones certainty of the truth of a proposition when there are no other good reasons to conclude that it is, in fact, true. Too frequently, one reads of a child that dies because their religiously devout parents refuse needed medical treatment, choosing instead to place their “faith” (and their child’s life) in God’s hands. I consider such certainty or “faith” a moral abomination. Many Christians assert the literal truth of the story of the creation of Adam and Eve as outlined (twice, in fact) in the book of Genesis, even though there is not a scrap of compelling evidence external to the Biblical tradition that it is true––it is accepted on “faith,” not because of good evidence.

Religious believers frequently claim that atheism is a “faith.” This may have been true in centuries past, when humanity’s primitive understanding of the workings of the universe seemed to leave the Deity with plenty to do. As time passed, as we learned more about the way the universe works, God’s job description has become shorter and shorter. For several centuries, stories have been told about a mysterious ape-like creature roaming about the Pacific Northwest and of a giant water creature in Scotland’s Loch Ness. Despite decades of searching with the latest technological tools, no substantiated evidence that either creature exists has turned up. Short of paving over the entire Pacific Northwest or draining Loch Ness we cannot be absolutely certain that they do not exist, but does it really require “faith” to at least suspect that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster might not exist after all? Not hardly.