Carl Sagan's Religion

I have about three things swirling around in my head that I want to try to forge into a blog post on Russell's novel Children of God, the relationship between science and religion, and in particular Chris' virulent reaction to the novel, especially to one particular piece of it which summarizes Russell's overall take:

And the thing that annoyed me the most: "...the difference between God and science, that there were different ways - parallel ways - to think about the world." - page 259. This isn't true, though it's a convenient out if you don't want to be controversial. Science deals with everything that is empirically disprovable (Disprovable. That's why I loved Sandoz's line, that he "felt once more the strangely visceral thrill of trying to disprove a hypothesis he suspected was robust."-page 93 - that's the way you do it, goddamn it. That's the way you do it!). The God hypothesis itself is not disprovable, but that God is exerting influence is. Following Occam's Razor, nothing in either book happened because of God because that would be an unnecessarily complicated step in the causation. Everything can be explained the simpler way, equally well, so it should be.

This was obviously not Andrew's favorite book either, and in part for the same reason: "We don’t need 438 pages for “to each his own,” that’s all grand and magical but, really find something a tad more interesting." The "live and let live" attitude that they read Russell as adopting towards the great irreconcilables -- particularly science and religion -- seems unsatisfying to Andrew and to Chris and I'm sure to others as well. I find this all fascinating both because a) that's not what I see as Russell's point, and b) I can't get worked up about a potential conflict between science and religion because I fail to see a conflict unless people work really hard to produce one, so "live and let live" strikes me as the beginning of wisdom in situations like this. It's not a cheap cop-out. Indeed, it might be the beginning of Torodov's ideal of "difference with equality," since it would take weapons out of the hand of each side and stop people from trying to kill one another over what I can't help but see as a misinterpretation.

Okay, let me be more specific about this. The story Russell was telling in the second novel seems to me a richer story than the story in the first novel, precisely because the terrestrial machinations of The Sparrow is dominated by the question of whether Emilio had willingly prostituted himself -- and did anyone reading the book actually think he had? Both novels are about the problem of faith in the face of adversity, and the challenge to a system of claims posed by discrepant experience, but neither novel is about simply abandoning faith or a system of propositions because they come under challenge. And Emilio, obviously the central focus for the drama, is a fascinating contrast: in mundane matters, he's a devoted falsificationist (which is what Chris likes about page 93 in the quotation above), but in matters of ultimate significance, he is unable to do without God.

The contrast between mundane and ultimate matters is important, and it's the key to the sentiment that science and religion are "parallel ways . . . to think about the world." The key word here is "parallel," as in "lines of thought that never cross." Such a sentiment, properly understood, eliminates the possibility that a scientific claim and a religious claim might ever, even in principle, be in conflict with one another -- if they were, they wouldn't be "parallel" any longer. How can this happen? Quite simply, it can happen if science and religion are directed to different aspects of the world, which is what I think is captured by the mundane/ultimate distinction is so important. Science, in whatever form (and parenthetically, I'm not convinced that the falsification of hypothetical claims is self-evidently equal to "science" per se; there are inductive sciences, experiential sciences, and a whole plethora of things that fit under the heading of "science" -- I'm writing a book about this at the moment, but that's material for another discussion forum altogether) is necessarily concerned with things we can perceive, observe, and experience in a way that is directly communicable to others. "God" does not fit that category, and it's an egregious mistake to treat religious statements as akin to scientific ones. Religious statements deal with questions like "what is the value of the world as a whole?" while scientific statements deal with questions like "why does time slow down for observes traveling near the speed of light?"

Now, the fact that religious claims deal with ultimate significance does mean that "because God wanted it that way" is always an appropriate -- if scientifically unrevealing -- answer to any question about how or why something happened. Treating that claim as a scientific claim would be a serious category mistake, and in some ways this kind of category mistake is precisely what keeps getting people -- both in the novels and in life -- in trouble. That, for me, is the real power of John Candotti's reformulation of the notion off faith near the end of the second novel: to say that "now I see the hand of God in those events" is emphatically not to displace the scientific explanation of those ocurrences, but to imbue them with meaning and significance irreducible to those occurrences themselves. Ultimate significance.

On the other hand, you could live without any such thing. You could try to just treat everything as shit that happens, to rigorously confine yourself to mundane explanations and a view of the world devoid of ultimate significance. And some people do manage to get close to that, although I'm not sure how they really answer Camus' question about why not to just commit suicide. I reference Carl Sagan in the title of this post because he was an outspoken atheist, opponent of mysticism and psuedo-science, and anti-religious skeptic (besides being a brilliant astronomer and gifted popularizer of science), and someone who is often cited (including by Chris!) as dispensing with ultimate significance in favor of a focus on what is scientifically knowable. but much like Duran in Todorov's account, or like Emilio at the beginning of Children of God, Sagan can't make that position stick, and even he turns to claims about ultimate significance to underpin his overall endeavor:

We are one species. We are star stuff harvesting star light. Our lives, our past and our future are tied to the sun, the moon and the stars . . . we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we have begun at least to wonder about our origins -- star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of nature, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth, and perhaps throughout the cosmos. Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring!

I don't want to disagree with Sagan here; I think his claims rather poetic and inspiring. But I do want to call attention to the fact that they aren't scientific claims; they're religious claims, religious in the "ultimate significance" sense if not religious in the theistic sense. They transcend the bounds of the mundane world in order to impute significance to that world. There is no way to go from a physical account of the formation of elements in stellar furnaces to statements about loyalty and obligation without, in effect, taking what appears to be an empirical claim and subtly twisting it -- seeing it with the eyes of faith -- so that it serves as a foundation for a grander moral claim. And how, precisely, is this different than looking at some bizarre coincidences and reading them as "turtles on fenceposts"? As far as I can tell, it's not different at all. Sagan's obligation and loyalty come not purely from the scientific, empirical facts, but from the same basic process as Emilio goes through (obviously, the details are different) -- here's a system of claims that informs my take on the empirics of the situation, but is not reducible to them; this means that I can "lose my faith" and have the empirics look and feel different, and then "regain some measure of faith" and presto, the world changes again. There is no difference here, and there is no conflict, unless we are bound and determined to fabricate one.

A coincidence's status as a miracle is neither provable nor disprovable. It's not a scientific claim. Whether Isaac's music is evidence of God's existence or not says little about the music, or for that matter about God, but it does say a lot about the communities interpreting the music. To go beyond that -- to make categorical claims about the existence or non-existence of God -- is to commit the very same category-mistake as those people who insist that the earth is 6000 years old because "it says so in the Bible" (which it actually doesn't, but that's another story). Under such circumstances, "live and let live" strikes me as a thoroughly reasonable suggestion.



A couple of times in The Sparrow, Russell makes reference to the Runa's fear and awe of thunder, and its function in Runa society. Page 324 is a good example, as that's where Emilio spells out the use of the thunderstorm as a means of social control among the Runa: don't make a fierno, Runa parents tell their children, or you'll attract a thunderstorm. There's a whole social ethic compressed into that one little phrase, and it is easy to imagine the devastating impact of such parental advice on any Runa who did manage to get any ideas about competition or combat into her or his head.

I want to connect the thunder reference to another of the novel's central themes: that one cannot understand what one has not experienced. Emilio continually tells his inquisitors that they don't just fail to understand, but that they can't understand what he went through; they lack, as it were, the raw experiential basis that might make the words sensible. Hence he can't simply tell them what took place, and he has to lead them through the process so that perhaps, just perhaps, they can experience a little bit of his utter disillusionment and loss of faith. The words occupy a subordinate role to the experience; their efficacy is sharply limited by the experiences out of which they arise.

The connection to thunder is simply that the Runa's world is as rooted in experience as Emilio's is (and perhaps as all of our worlds are?). A threat of "thunder" makes sense to a Runa child because thunderstorms are both frightening and frequent; the experience of raw terror at the sound and light from the sky lends credence, and power, to the words, and it's that power and credence that underpins the social sanction. Similarly, Emilio's wrenching indictment of God on p. 394 only really makes sense in the light of his experience of feeling chosen, divinely guided, prepared for an ultimate communion . . . and then viciously raped. Experience, wordless and potent, supports and gives rise to the mere words that cannot possibly express it fully.

That said, there's a certain irony in the fact that we're getting all of this from a novel, a fictional work where no living person's actual experiences are in play. How successful is Russell at portraying those experiences that none of us -- even her -- could possibly have had? In what way might words about things not experienced make sense to us? Is there some "thunder," some raw experience, forming a common ground between ourselves and Emilio (or between us and the Runa? between us and Supaari?) and thus giving rise to the possibility of communication?


The embracing strategy

A quick note on a thought I had after class on Tuesday, concerning the last paragraph of Schmitt's book: as Phil pointed out as we were ending class, the last sentence of the text seems to undermine Schmitt's declared hostility to liberal universalism by observing at even such claims fail to escape the logic of the political. It might therefore follow that Schmitt is not really all that annoyed with universalism, since after all, it's just political. But I think that what is going on here is a tip of the intellectual hat -- and almost certainly a more profound intellectual debt -- to a stratey that Friedrich Nietzsche pursues in On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche spends most of that book railing against ascetic ideals, the separation of the mind from the body, the cultivation of abstraction as opposed to vigor, and the life-denying character of science and religion and modernity as a whole. But then, just like Schmitt, he seems to turn on a dime and declare that even these (according to his argument) terrible and reprehensible things end up serving life:

Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His existence on earth contained no goal; "why man at all?" -- was a question without an answer; the will for man and earth was lacking; behind every great human destiny there sounded as a refrain a yet greater "in vain!" . . . The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far -- and the ascetic ideal offered man meaning! . . . man was saved thereby, he possessed a meaning, he was henceforth no longer like a leaf in the wind, a plaything of nonsense -- the "sense-less" -- he could now will something; no matter at first to what end, why, with what he willed: the will itself was saved.

Here at the end of Nietzsche's text the same thing happens as happens at the end of Schmitt's: that which was previously castigated as false and misleading is captured by the broader logic and sweep of the argument, and reworked into something that (as Goethe once wrote of the Devil) tries to do evil but always ends up doing good. This kind of intellectual move is characteristic of "genealogical" approaches to the writing of history and philosophy, since all are of necessity driven by what Nietzsche called amor fati, the love of (one's) fate: whatever led to the present cannot be ultimately bad, because after all it contributed to the place where we currently find ourselves. And, according to this approach, not to embrace the present is to invoke transcendental evaluative ideals that end up undermining themselves. [How one criticizes a present that one is presently embracing is the conceptual problem all of these thinkers end up wrestling with.]

So, we either have here a) a strategy of ultimately defeating universal liberal claims by disclosing their hidden local-political character, or b) a sophisticated rehabilitation of universal liberal claims at the cost of their manifest content. In either case, it's clear that Schmitt is not in any sense embracing liberal universalism, and we have to be very careful not to misread his claims as some kind of retraction of the earlier argument. "Accepting" liberalism on his terms, after all, basically vitiates liberalism -- which is, after all, his point.