Wednesday, July 2, 2014

'God and Astronomy' - What Bob Berman Gets Wrong



















ASTRONOMY Magazine Contributing editor Bob Berman,  in an article in the latest issue (August, p. 11, God and Astronomy) , literally steps into a cultural quagmire almost as treacherous as lax pundits have done in the political minefield of the JFK assassination. That is, he interjected the issue of God in trying to literally tone down empirical and observational science and its claims for confident knowledge,  while seeking some kind of putative accommodation with America's vast population of God believers. (And creationist know-nothings.)
 
Let me say ahead of time this is about like trying to square a circle, especially given that this nation's believers along with their religiosity, are outliers in terms of their peers in other industrial nations. The graphic below shows this:
Showing successful societies in relation to degree of religious beliefs (from Free Inquiry, Vol. 29, No. 1 Jan. 2009). Basically, for  18 out of 19 of the most prosperous democracies,  the share of population reporting absolute belief in a god or gods ranges from between as little as a few percent to at most one-half. In some of these nations, mainly in western Europe, two-thirds proclaim to be either atheists or agnostics. Compare this to the outlier U.S. (U) where 83 percent express solid belief- and this is for the patriarchal, personal version of a hyper-engaged deity.

Hence the stage is set already for strife and much debate, argument.  He starts out by describing how the very first COSMOS episode, with the animated segment on Giordano Bruno, irritated hordes of believers (mostly devout Christians) when Bruno - while being tortured - turned his head away from a crucifix in disgust. Well, uh duh!  You are getting some delicate parts roasted and broasted with assorted fiery implements and what do you expect him to do? Smile and shout, 'Thank ye, Jeezus!" Come on!

He then notes that "it's not lost on them that the original COSMOS was hosted by a proclaimed agnostic, Carl Sagan".  Which of course, is a common misperception - since Sagan was as much an atheist as I am. He just didn't want to disclose it for a very sensible reason: he knew by the time he'd become a famous popularizer that he had a very successful enterprise going with all his books. He didn't want to foul it up by spooking too many of his countrymen by saying the A-word. So he played it coy, much like Einstein before him (with his "God of Spinoza") and didn't let on - though if you parse his words it's clear he's an implicit or agnostic atheist.

 
At other times, and in assorted other interviews, it seems Sagan himself isn't clear what he is. For example, on one occasion he stated:

 
"My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn't believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I'm agnostic."
 
Also:
 
An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God."


Which suggests Sagan wasn't really au fait with either atheism or agnosticism. In fact, an agnostic atheist is exactly someone who withholds belief until there is evidence for a claim. A pure agnostic is one who asserts there is an impossibility of ever knowing enough to confer belief.  He subscribes to the tenet that our brains are simply not up to the capacity to ever be in such an ultimately knowing position.

Moreover, Sagan is wrong that an "atheist is someone who knows there is no God." This is the cartoon version of atheism.   What we atheists actually say is that the whole idea of God is redundant – logically unnecessary – because it doesn’t help us to model any physical systems or make verifiable, empirical predictions. (The closest to what Sagan identified as atheism relates to the explicit atheist who maintains there can never be any evidence for a God because the natural sciences can have nothing to do with the supernatural.)
 
The gist of it is that the atheist maintains the probability is very high that there is no ultimate force out there, and we are on our own. Which is precisely the point Carl Sagan makes in the last segment shown of the final new COSMOS episode ('Unafraid of the Dark'), with the focus on the 'pale blue dot' of Earth.
 
 Anyway, Berman also misfires on a number of other levels. He writes, for example,  that the new COSMOS’ series  “continues the series’ conviction that a belief in God is a superstition anathema to science”. But as I noted in my own ASTRONOMY magazine article:  ‘The God Factor’ (Astronomy Forum, March, 1990), science selectively excludes problems for which no practical method of inquiry exists. The supernatural, which is neither measurable or verifiable, falls into this category and that includes ‘God’. More to the point, we tend to regard such entities held by virtue of belief alone – as opposed to evidence - as evocative of superstition.  The latter encompasses such beliefs, especially when the supernatural realm is populated by invisible beings which can supposedly affect and interact with our world. To the empirical scientist this is the very epitome of superstition.
 
This is reinforced by the fact that astronomy, like most physical sciences, still operates on the principle of materialist reductionism. Thus, our job and duty is to remorselessly cull all dross or irrelevant issues that clutter as opposed to expose, what our objects of inquiry are about. This means all invisible, unapproachable entities must go into the dumpster.

 Another cartoonish error Berman makes is when he claims (like ol' Pastor Mike used to) that  “atheism cannot prove God’s nonexistence”  (i.e.. cannot disprove God’s existence) but as anyone who’s studied logic knows, you cannot prove a negative anyway.  Once again, atheism doesn't claim to prove God's nonexistence, only point out that the concept is superfluous to the advance of empirical science - which like it or not is inherently materialistic. This is the very emphasis that Neil deGrasse Tyson made in repeated episodes of COSMOS.
 
Berman is more or less aghast at this, as when he remarks: "The advocacy segments in shows like COSMOS may be well intentioned but I fear they may merely harden those who think science is a 'position' or 'view' of the world rather than an impartial portal to truth." 
 
But Berman doesn't seem to grasp here that science DOES take a position or view (naturalistic or materialistic) which undergirds its naturalistic approach to inquiry - in order to take an impartial approach to the natural world. If it allowed subjective beliefs to hold sway, or adopt any openness to supernaturalism, the impartial search for natural truth would be destroyed.

 What Berman reveals here is a tacit fear that science will alienate the American yahoo masses if it too explicitly declares its naturalistic basis in the approach to scientific inquiry. But know what? Tough shit! That is the way science works, like it or leave it - and go back to statues, crosses, and King James bibles. Moreover, I fail to understand why Berman is trying so desperately to appease and appeal to the American believer masses, when most educated Europeans have long past moved into a post-Christian era. (See above).
 
This unfortunate strain of timidity and unwillingness to upset the little godly believers also explains Berman's recalcitrance in acknowledging science' advance even when the probability is overwhelming that such advance is real. He states we need to more often respond "I don't know" to a lot of areas of inquiry like dark energy, etc. Which is true, but you can't be saying that ALL the time, or even most of the time, just because you're intent on projecting false humility to not scare away the religious masses!
 
This is also why he declares that the Big Bang is not the birth of the universe - as many cosmologists have described it - but "the birth of the observable universe" - which seems like extreme hair splitting to me. If one uses the cosmic microwave radiation to trace back the thermodynamic conditions in time, as Steven Weinberg shows in 'The First Three Minutes' - one definitely comes to a super dense, hot state with the cosmos the rough size of an atom. If this isn't a 'birth' I don't know what is!)

Berman also seems not to grasp that the invocation of God in any domain is laden with peril because even if we did agree some ultimate power started at all (as I pointed out in my 1990 Astronomy article) there’d still be no agreement on the entity’s attributes, nature or powers. Even Berman acknowledges this observing that some see a ‘creator’ that stands apart from the universe, while others see an underlying intelligence in nature.( Sagan, for his part, equated 'God' to the physical principles and laws that govern the universe, which let's be clear, is more a physical God.)  The point here is that it makes more sense not to interject the issue of 'God' at all, because no two people can even agree on what the noun means.

Berman makes the further statement that:  “some astrophysicists are agnostics or atheists”  (implying the numbers are too small for believers to worry over) but this misses the larger point: that while 83 percent of Americans believe in God, only 33 percent of physical scientists do (according to a 2006  NY Times study). This bifurcation of belief is what we ought to be most concerned about. It sets the stage for an ongoing tension between scientists and the bulk of the American populace (which let us also recall, as I showed above, is an outlier compared to the rest of the advanced industrial world in terms of God belief and religiosity)

As for Bob Berman's claim that “the majority of the world regards the universe as suffused with intelligence” let’s bear in mind that popularity alone has never led to objective truth. At one time, the majority of the world also believed that the world was flat and that the Earth was actually the center of the universe. I am not saying here that the cosmos is not imbued with intelligence, it well might be (as I indicate in my book, 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God'). What I am saying is that you cannot arrive at objective truth by means of assessing a poll or a vote then saying a "majority" decided it. This also means the IAU Pluto vote - to dethrone that small orb from proper planethood - was off base and wrong-headed.

 Science, including astronomy, proceeds by a certain methodology and is inherently naturalistic. The problem will always be that this delimitation will never satisfy those who espouse a supernatural domain or alternate supernatural  “universe”.

The sooner Bob Berman and other popularizers understand that, the quicker we can allow scientific inquiry to proceed without fretting over public alienation or loss of funding because a certain segment of the populace will go ballistic if their magic realms are marginalized.  Look at it this way: an advancing nation on the road of progress embraces the REAL. A backward, declining nation - one heading toward oblivion and collapse-   embraces the UNREAL.

That's the choice we have, and it ought to be easy,  though after the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, I am not sure it can be. Those five Justices have clearly shown not even they can discern the real from the unreal. And if they can't,  how many millions of others (many clapping and cheering the decision) are in the same unreal boat?

 

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