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.

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