Book review of “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” By Carl Sagan. Reveiw don by Richard C. Lewontin.
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”
—Colloquy between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet
I first met Carl Sagan in 1964, when he and I found ourselves in Arkansas on the platform of the Little Rock Auditorium, where we had been dispatched by command of the leading geneticist of the day, Herman Muller. Our task was to take the affirmative side in a debate: “Resolved, That the Theory of Evolution is proved as is the fact that the Earth goes around the Sun.” One of our opponents in the debate was a professor of biology from a fundamentalist college in Texas (his father was the president of the college) who had quite deliberately chosen the notoriously evolutionist Department of Zoology of the University of Texas as the source of his Ph.D. He could then assure his students that he had unassailable expert knowledge with which to refute Darwinism.
I had serious misgivings about facing an immense audience of creationist fundamentalist Christians in a city made famous by an Arkansas governor who, having detected a resentment of his constituents against federal usurpation, defied the power of Big Government by interposing his own body between the door of the local high school and some black kids who wanted to matriculate.
Young scientists, however, do not easily withstand the urgings of Nobel Prize winners, so after several transparently devious attempts to avoid the job, I appeared. We were, in fact, well treated, but despite our absolutely compelling arguments, the audience unaccountably voted for the opposition. Carl and I then sneaked out the back door of the auditorium and beat it out of town, quite certain that at any moment hooded riders with ropes and flaming crosses would snatch up two atheistic New York Jews who had the chutzpah to engage in public blasphemy.
Sagan and I drew different conclusions from our experience. For me the confrontation between creationism and the science of evolution was an example of historical, regional, and class differences in culture that could only be understood in the context of American social history. For Carl it was a struggle between ignorance and knowledge, although it is not clear to me what he made of the unimpeachable scientific credentials of our opponent, except perhaps to see him as an example of the Devil quoting scripture. The struggle to bring scientific knowledge to the masses has been a preoccupation of Carl Sagan’s ever since, and he has become the most widely known, widely read, and widely seen popularizer of science since the invention of the video tube. His only rival in the haute vulgarisation of science is Stephen Jay Gould, whose vulgarisations are often very haute indeed, and whose intellectual concerns are quite different.
While Gould has occasionally been enlisted in the fight to protect the teaching and dissemination of the knowledge of evolution against creationist political forces, he is primarily concerned with what the nature of organisms, living and dead, can reveal about the social construction of scientific knowledge. His repeated demonstrations that organisms can only be understood as historically contingent, underdetermined Rube Goldberg devices are meant to tell us more about the evolution of human knowledge than of human anatomy. From his early Mismeasure of Man,1 which examined how the political and social prejudices of prominent scientists have molded what those scientists claimed to be the facts of human anatomy and intelligence, to his recent collection of essays, Eight Little Piggies,2 which despite its subtitle, Reflections on Natural History, is a set of reflections on the intellectual history of Natural History, Gould’s deep preoccupation is with how knowledge, rather than the organism, is constructed.
Carl Sagan’s program is more elementary. It is to bring a knowledge of the facts of the physical world to the scientifically uneducated public, for he is convinced that only through a broadly disseminated knowledge of the objective truth about nature will we be able to cope with the difficulties of the world and increase the sum of human happiness. It is this program that inspired his famous book and television series, Cosmos, which dazzled us with billions and billions of stars. But Sagan realizes that the project of merely spreading knowledge of objective facts about the universe is insufficient. First, no one can know and understand everything. Even individual scientists are ignorant about most of the body of scientific knowledge, and it is not simply that biologists do not understand quantum mechanics. If I were to ask my colleagues in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard to explain the evolutionary importance of RNA editing in trypanosomes, they would be just as mystified by the question as the typical well-educated reader of this review.
Second, to put a correct view of the universe into people’s heads we must first get an incorrect view out. People believe a lot of nonsense about the world of phenomena, nonsense that is a consequence of a wrong way of thinking. The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of, for that vast project is, in its entirety, hopeless. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth. The reason that people do not have a correct view of nature is not that they are ignorant of this or that fact about the material world, but that they look to the wrong sources in their attempt to understand. It is not simply, as Sherlock Holmes thought, that the brain is like an empty attic with limited storage capacity, so that the accumulated clutter of false or useless bits of knowledge must be cleared out in a grand intellectual tag sale to make space for more useful objects. It is that most people’s mental houses have been furnished according to an appallingly bad model of taste and they need to start consulting the home furnishing supplement of the Sunday New York Times in place of the stage set of The Honeymooners. The message of The Demon-Haunted World is in its subtitle, Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Sagan’s argument is straightforward. We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities. The vast majority of us do not have control of the intellectual apparatus needed to explain manifest reality in material terms, so in place of scientific (i.e., correct material) explanations, we substitute demons. As one bit of evidence for the bad state of public consciousness, Sagan cites opinion polls showing that the majority of Americans believe that extraterrestrials have landed from UFOs. The demonic, for Sagan, includes, in addition to UFOs and their crews of little green men who take unwilling passengers for a midnight spin and some wild sex, astrological influences, extrasensory perception, prayers, spoon-bending, repressed memories, spiritualism, and channeling, as well as demons sensu strictu, devils, fairies, witches, spirits, Satan and his devotees, and, after some discreet backing and filling, the supposed prime mover Himself. God gives Sagan a lot of trouble. It is easy enough for him to snort derisively at men from Mars, but when it comes to the Supreme Extraterrestrial he is rather circumspect, asking only that sermons “even-handedly examine the God hypothesis.”
The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.
But of course, I might be wrong.
I doubt that an all-seeing God would fall for Pascal’s Wager, but the sensibilities of modern believers may indeed be spared by this Clintonesque moderation.
Most of the chapters of The Demon-Haunted World are taken up with exhortations to the reader to cease whoring after false gods and to accept the scientific method as the unique pathway to a correct understanding of the natural world. To Sagan, as to all but a few other scientists, it is self-evident that the practices of science provide the surest method of putting us in contact with physical reality, and that, in contrast, the demon-haunted world rests on a set of beliefs and behaviors that fail every reasonable test. So why do so many people believe in demons? Sagan seems baffled, and nowhere does he offer a coherent explanation of the popularity at the supermarket checkout counter of the Weekly World News, with its faked photographs of Martians. Indeed, he believes that “a proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us in all times, places and cultures.” The only explanation that he offers for the dogged resistance of the masses to the obvious virtues of the scientific way of knowing is that “through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science.” He does not tell us how he used the scientific method to discover the “embedded” human proclivity for science, or the cause of its frustration. Perhaps we ought to add to the menu of Saganic demonology, just after spoon-bending, ten-second seat-of-the-pants explanations of social realities.
Nearly every present-day scientist would agree with Carl Sagan that our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural demons, witches, and spirits of every kind, including any of the various gods from Adonai to Zeus. (I say “nearly” every scientist because our creationist opponent in the Little Rock debate, and other supporters of “Creation Science,” would insist on being recognized.) We also exclude from our explanations little green men from Mars riding in space ships, although they are supposed to be quite as corporeal as you and I, because the evidence is overwhelming that Mars hasn’t got any. On the other hand, if one supposed that they came from the planet of a distant star, the negative evidence would not be so compelling, although the fact that it would have taken them such a long time to get here speaks against the likelihood that they exist. Even Sagan says that “it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial life,” a position he can hardly avoid, given that his first published book was Intelligent Life in the Universe 3 and he has spent a great deal of the taxpayer’s money over the ensuing thirty years listening for the signs.
Sagan believes that scientists reject sprites, fairies, and the influence of Sagittarius because we follow a set of procedures, the Scientific Method, which has consistently produced explanations that put us in contact with reality and in which mystic forces play no part. For Sagan, the method is the message, but I think he has opened the wrong envelope.
There is no attempt in The Demon-Haunted World to provide a systematic account of just what Science and the Scientific Method consist in, nor was that the author’s intention. The book is not meant to be a discourse on method, but it is in large part a collection of articles taken from Parade magazine and other popular publications. Sagan’s intent is not analytic, but hortatory. Nevertheless, if the exhortation is to succeed, then the argument for the superiority of science and its method must be convincing, and not merely convincing, but must accord with its own demands. The case for the scientific method should itself be “scientific” and not merely rhetorical. Unfortunately, the argument may not look as good to the unconvinced as it does to the believer.
First, we are told that science “delivers the goods.” It certainly has, sometimes, but it has often failed when we need it most. Scientists and their professional institutions, partly intoxicated with examples of past successes, partly in order to assure public financial support, make grandiose promises that cannot be kept. Sagan writes with justified scorn that
We’re regularly bombarded with extravagant UFO claims vended in bite-sized packages, but only rarely do we hear of their comeuppance.
He cannot have forgotten the well-publicized War on Cancer, which is as yet without a victorious battle despite the successful taking of a salient or two. At first an immense amount of money and consciousness was devoted to the supposed oncogenic viruses which, being infectious bugs, could be exterminated or at least resisted. But these particular Unidentified Flying Objects turned out for the most part to be as elusive as the Martians, and so, without publicly calling attention to their “comeuppance,” the General Staff turned from outside invaders to the enemy within, the genes. It is almost certain that cancers do, indeed, arise because genes concerned with the regulation of cell division are mutated, partly as a consequence of environmental insults, partly because of unavoidable molecular instability, and even sometimes as the consequence of a viral attack on the genome. Yet the realization of the role played by DNA has had absolutely no consequence for either therapy or prevention, although it has resulted in many optimistic press conferences and a considerable budget for the National Cancer Institute. Treatments for cancer remain today what they were before molecular biology was ever thought of: cut it out, burn it out, or poison it.
The concentration on the genes implicated in cancer is only a special case of a general genomania that surfaces in the form of weekly announcements in The New York Times of the location of yet another gene for another disease. The revealing rhetoric of this publicity is always the same; only the blanks need to be filled in: “It was announced today by scientists at [Harvard, Vanderbilt, Stanford] Medical School that a gene responsible for [some, many, a common form of] [schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, arterio-sclerosis, prostate cancer] has beenlocated and its DNA sequence determined. This exciting research, say scientists, is the first step in what may eventually turn out to be a possible cure for this disease.”
The entire public justification for the Human Genome Project is the promise that some day, in the admittedly distant future, diseases will be cured or prevented.4 Skeptics who point out that we do not yet have a single case of a prevention or cure arising from a knowledge of DNA sequences are answered by the observations that “these things take time,” or that “no one knows the value of a newborn baby.” But such vague waves of the hand miss the central scientific issue. The prevention or cure of metabolic and developmental disorders depends on a detailed knowledge of the mechanisms operating in cells and tissues above the level of genes, and there is no relevant information about those mechanisms in DNA sequences. In fact, if I know the DNA sequence of a gene I have no hint about the function of a protein specified by that gene, or how it enters into an organism’s biology.
What is involved here is the difference between explanation and intervention. Many disorders can be explained by the failure of the organism to make a normal protein, a failure that is the consequence of a gene mutation. But intervention requires that the normal protein be provided at the right place in the right cells, at the right time and in the right amount, or else that an alternative way be found to provide normal cellular function. What is worse, it might even be necessary to keep the abnormal protein away from the cells at critical moments. None of these objectives is served by knowing the DNA sequence of the defective gene. Explanations of phenomena can be given at many levels, some of which can lead to successful manipulation of the world and some not. Death certificates all state a cause of death, but even if there were no errors in these ascriptions, they are too general to be useful. An easy conflation of explanations in general with explanations at the correct causal level may serve a propagandistic purpose in the struggle for public support, but it is not the way to concrete progress.
Scientists apparently do not realize that the repeated promises of benefits yet to come, with no likelihood that those promises will be fulfilled, can only produce a widespread cynicism about the claims for the scientific method. Sagan, trying to explain the success of Carlos, a telepathic charlatan, muses on
how little it takes to tamper with our beliefs, how readily we are led, how easy it is to fool the public when people are lonely and starved for something to believe in.
Not to mention when they are sick and dying.
Biologists are not the only scientists who, having made extravagant claims about their merchandise, deliver the goods in bite-sized packages. Nor are they the only manufacturers of knowledge who cannot be bothered to pick up a return package when the product turns out to be faulty. Sagan’s own branch of science is in the same business. Anxious to revive a failing public interest in spending large amounts on space research, NASA scientists, followed by the President of the United States, made an immense fuss about the discovery of some organic molecules on a Mars rock. There is (was) life (of some rudimentary kind) on Mars (maybe)! Can little green men in space machines be far behind? If it turns out, as already suggested by some scientists, that these molecules are earthly contaminants, or were produced in non-living chemical systems, this fact surely will not be announced at a White House press conference, or even above the fold in The New York Times.
Second, it is repeatedly said that science is intolerant of theories without data and assertions without adequate evidence. But no serious student of epistemology any longer takes the naive view of science as a process of Baconian induction from theoretically unorganized observations. There can be no observations without an immense apparatus of preexisting theory. Before sense experiences become “observations” we need a theoretical question, and what counts as a relevant observation depends upon a theoretical frame into which it is to be placed. Repeatable observations that do not fit into an existing frame have a way of disappearing from view, and the experiments that produced them are not revisited. In the 1930s well-established and respectable geneticists described “dauer-modifications,” environmentally induced changes in organisms that were passed on to offspring and only slowly disappeared in succeeding generations. As the science of genetics hardened, with its definitive rejection of any possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, observations of dauer-modifications were sent to the scrapheap where they still lie, jumbled together with other decommissioned facts.
The standard form of a scientific paper begins with a theoretical question, which is then followed by the description of an experimental technique designed to gather observations pertinent to the question. Only then are the observations themselves described. Finally there is a discussion section in which a great deal of energy is often expended rationalizing the failure of the observations to accord entirely with a theory we really like, and in which proposals are made for other experiments that might give more satisfactory results. Sagan’s suggestion that only demonologists engage in “special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble,” is certainly not one that accords with my reading of the scientific literature. Nor is this a problem unique to biology. The attempts of physicists to explain why their measurements of the effects of relativity did not agree with Einstein’s quantitative prediction is a case no doubt well known to Sagan.
As to assertions without adequate evidence, the literature of science is filled with them, especially the literature of popular science writing. Carl Sagan’s list of the “best contemporary science-popularizers” includes E.O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, and Richard Dawkins, each of whom has put unsubstantiated assertions or counterfactual claims at the very center of the stories they have retailed in the market. Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature5 rest on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims about the genetic determination of everything from altruism to xenophobia. Dawkins’s vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing non-selective forces in evolution. Thomas, in various essays, propagandized for the success of modern scientific medicine in eliminating death from disease, while the unchallenged statistical compilations on mortality show that in Europe and North America infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and diphtheria, had ceased to be major causes of mortality by the first decades of the twentieth century, and that at age seventy the expected further lifetime for a white male has gone up only two years since 1950. Even The Demon-Haunted World itself sometimes takes suspect claims as true when they serve a rhetorical purpose as, for example, statistics on child abuse, or a story about the evolution of a child’s fear of the dark.
Third, it is said that there is no place for an argument from authority in science. The community of science is constantly self-critical, as evidenced by the experience of university colloquia “in which the speaker has hardly gotten 30 seconds into the talk before there are devastating questions and comments from the audience.” If Sagan really wants to hear serious disputation about the nature of the universe, he should leave the academic precincts in Ithaca and spend a few minutes in an Orthodox study house in Brooklyn. It is certainly true that within each narrowly defined scientific field there is a constant challenge to new technical claims and to old wisdom. In what my wife calls the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Syndrome, young scientists on the make will challenge a graybeard, and this adversarial atmosphere for the most part serves the truth. But when scientists transgress the bounds of their own specialty they have no choice but to accept the claims of authority, even though they do not know how solid the grounds of those claims may be. Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution.
With great perception, Sagan sees that there is an impediment to the popular credibility of scientific claims about the world, an impediment that is almost invisible to most scientists. Many of the most fundamental claims of science are against common sense and seem absurd on their face. Do physicists really expect me to accept without serious qualms that the pungent cheese that I had for lunch is really made up of tiny, tasteless, odorless, colorless packets of energy with nothing but empty space between them? Astronomers tell us without apparent embarrassment that they can see stellar events that occurred millions of years ago, whereas we all know that we see things as they happen. When, at the time of the moon landing, a woman in rural Texas was interviewed about the event, she very sensibly refused to believe that the television pictures she had seen had come all the way from the moon, on the grounds that with her antenna she couldn’t even get Dallas. What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity “in deep trouble.” Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
The mutual exclusion of the material and the demonic has not been true of all cultures and all times. In the great Chinese epic Journey to the West, demons are an alternative form of life, responsible to certain deities, devoted to making trouble for ordinary people, but severely limited. They can be captured, imprisoned, and even killed by someone with superior magic.6 In our own intellectual history, the definitive displacement of divine powers by purely material causes has been a relatively recent changeover, and that icon of modern science, Newton, was at the cusp. It is a cliché of intellectual history that Newton attempted to accommodate God by postulating Him as the Prime Mover Who, having established the mechanical laws and set the whole universe in motion, withdrew from further intervention, leaving it to people like Newton to reveal His plan. But what we might call “Newton’s Ploy” did not really get him off the hook. He understood that a defect of his system of mechanics was the lack of any equilibrating force that would return the solar system to its regular set of orbits if there were any slight perturbation. He was therefore forced, although reluctantly, to assume that God intervened from time to time to set things right again. It remained for Laplace, a century later, to produce a mechanics that predicted the stability of the planetary orbits, allowing him the hauteur of his famous reply to Napoleon. When the Emperor observed that there was, in the whole of the Mécanique Céleste, no mention of the author of the universe, he replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.” One can almost hear a stress on the “I.”
The struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world is one aspect of the history of the confrontation between elite culture and popular culture. Without that history we cannot understand what was going on in the Little Rock Auditorium in 1964. The debate in Arkansas between a teacher from a Texas fundamentalist college and a Harvard astronomer and University of Chi-cago biologist was a stage play recapitulating the history of American rural populism. In the first decades of this century there was an im-mensely active populism among poor southwestern dirt farmers and miners.7 The most widely circulated American socialist journal of the time (The Appeal to Reason!) was published not in New York, but in Girard, Kansas, and in the presidential election of 1912 Eugene Debs got more votes in the poorest rural counties of Texas and Oklahoma than he did in the industrial wards of northern cities. Sentiment was extremely strong against the banks and corporations that held the mortgages and sweated the labor of the rural poor, who felt their lives to be in the power of a distant eastern elite. The only spheres of control that seemed to remain to them were family life, a fundamentalist religion, and local education.
This sense of an embattled culture was carried from the southwest to California by the migrations of the Okies and Arkies dispossessed from their ruined farms in the 1930s. There was no serious public threat to their religious and family values until well after the Second World War. Evolution, for example, was not part of the regular biology curriculum when I was a student in 1946 in the New York City high schools, nor was it discussed in school textbooks. In consequence there was no organized creationist movement. Then, in the late 1950s, a national project was begun to bring school science curricula up to date. A group of biologists from elite universities together with science teachers from urban schools produced a new uniform set of biology textbooks, whose publication and dissemination were underwritten by the National Science Foundation. An extensive and successful public relations campaign was undertaken to have these books adopted, and suddenly Darwinian evolution was being taught to children everywhere. The elite culture was now extending its domination by attacking the control that families had maintained over the ideological formation of their children.
The result was a fundamentalist revolt, the invention of “Creation Science,” and successful popular pressure on local school boards and state textbook purchasing agencies to revise subversive curricula and boycott blasphemous textbooks. In their parochial hubris, intellectuals call the struggle between cultural relativists and traditionalists in the universities and small circulation journals “The Culture Wars.” The real war is between the traditional culture of those who think of themselves as powerless and the rationalizing materialism of the modern Leviathan. There are indeed Two Cultures at Cambridge. One is in the Senior Common Room, and the other is in the Porter’s Lodge.
Carl Sagan, like his Canadian counterpart David Suzuki, has devoted extraordinary energy to bringing science to a mass public. In doing so, he is faced with a contradiction for which there is no clear resolution. On the one hand science is urged on us as a model of rational deduction from publicly verifiable facts, freed from the tyranny of unreasoning authority. On the other hand, given the immense extent, inherent complexity, and counterintuitive nature of scientific knowledge, it is impossible for anyone, including non-specialist scientists, to retrace the intellectual paths that lead to scientific conclusions about nature. In the end we must trust the experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand. Anyone who has ever served as an expert witness in a judicial proceeding knows that the court may spend an inordinate time “qualifying” the expert, who, once qualified, gives testimony that is not meant to be a persuasive argument, but an assertion unchallengeable by anyone except another expert. And, indeed, what else are the courts to do? If the judge, attorneys, and jury could reason out the technical issues from fundamentals, there would be no need of experts.
What is at stake here is a deep problem in democratic self-governance. In Plato’s most modern of Dialogues, the Gorgias, there is a struggle between Socrates, with whom we are meant to sympathize, and his opponents, Gorgias and Callicles, over the relative virtues of rhetoric and technical expertise. What Socrates and Gorgias agree on is that the mass of citizens are incompetent to make reasoned decisions on justice and public policy, but that they must be swayed by rhetorical argument or guided by the authority of experts.8
Gorgias: “I mean [by the art of rhetoric] the ability to convince by means of speech a jury in a court of justice, members of the Council in their Chamber, voters at a meeting of the Assembly, and any other gathering of citizens, whatever it may be.”
Socrates: “When the citizens hold a meeting to appoint medical officers or shipbuilders or any other professional class of person, surely it won’t be the orator who advises them then. Obviously in every such election the choice ought to fall on the most expert.”9
Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.
Science & ‘The Demon-Haunted World’: An Exchange March 6, 1997
- 1The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1978). See my review in The New York Review, October 22, 1981. ↩
- 2Eight Little Piggies: Reflections on Natural History (Norton, 1993). ↩
- 3I.S. Shklovskii and C. Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe (Holden Day, 1966) began as a translation of a Russian work by the senior astronomer, Shklovskii, but soon grew into a joint work. ↩
- 4See my “The Dream of the Human Genome” in The New York Review, May 28, 1992. ↩
- 5Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, 1975); On Human Nature (Harvard University Press, 1978). ↩
- 6There is, in fact, an array of life forms with both mortal and magical characteristics. The hero of Journey to the West is Monkey, possessed of considerable powers, but potentially vulnerable to men and demons alike. ↩
- 7For an illuminating history of this period, see James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest 1895-1943 (Louisiana State University Press, 1978). ↩
- 8I am indebted for my appreciation of this basic agreement between the contending parties to Bruno Latour, who allowed me to read an as yet unpublished essay of his on the dialogue. ↩
- 9Plato, Gorgias, translated by Walter Hamilton (Penguin, 1960), pp. 28, 32. ↩
The Problem With Existence
Rene Descartes, for many or at least for himself, solved the problem of existence with the well-known statement “I think therefore, I am”. But, did he answer the problem of existence? Actually, he didn’t because he never explained existence. Yes, I know that I exist but the knowledge that I exist does not in itself explain existence, it assumes existence. For many, they assume existence as a materialistic biological presence that we experience with our senses.
The problem with existence is that its comprehension is beyond the ability of human knowledge. You cannot put existence under a microscope, nor can you apply the scientific method to it. Therefore, it must remain in the realm of the subjective mind. For all we know we may live in a matrix that was created by a superior intelligence, i.e. a computer program, or we could be a projection of a deity’s mind. Maybe existence is simply an illusion of a brain in a vat or a mass of information that fell together in some mystical way. For many, all of the above could be true except for the ones that use the word deity. For they are allergic to the idea of God and believe that existence can only be made up of dirt (materialist).
When studying existence we run headlong into huge gaps in human knowledge. Gaps that most likely will never be filled. This demonstrates the fallacy of the so-called ‘God of the gap’s’ argument. The gaps in human knowledge are so vast that science will never be able to fill them with anything but speculation and vague theories. Therefore, it does not really matter what you fill them with unless you’re an atheist who has had your imagination cut out by years of secular brainwashing, a lobotomy that has made atheists into monist who believes that reality can only be made up of one thing. This has resulted in them being some of the most closed-minded people in the world. On the other hand, the duelist can believe in a multitude of realities and worlds. He can believe in the world of matter or in the world of spirit. He can believe in worlds beyond the worlds, which for now, are unable to be imagined by the human mind. If the duelist at the present time cannot prove the existence of these worlds, it may simply be because he does not have the proper instruments to prove it. Before the telescope and the microscope humans did know about the very small or the very huge in our universe. Of course, all that happened before some began to believe that they knew everything.
The Christian faith holds out the possibility of many worlds. Christians believe that God formed the creation which is made up of the seen and unseen. This opens the possibilities of many forms of existence and many worlds. Some scientists have come close to this when they postulated a hypothesis known as the string theory, which basically says that there are 11 dimensions in the universe. However, as it stands right now there is no physical evidence for this theory; at best, there are some mathematical equations that seem to support it. The most that can be said about it, is that it is an interesting theory.
When it comes to existence, my conclusion is that we have two choices. We can in embrace the mystery of the universe in faith that there is more than we can see with our present tools and that existence will always remain a mystery to some degree, or we can embrace the monist view of materialism believing that everything is simply dirt (material as we understand it today). Before choosing one, we ought to be careful and think through the consequences, because your choice will greatly impact your existence. In many ways, it could be the biggest decision of your existence.
 Some true believers, believe in infinite progress and believe that humanity will find the theory of everything. My reply to them is not in this world. To believe that a finite being can have infinite knowledge is an allusion created not by science but by the religion of science-ism and a blind faith in the doctrine of continuous progress.
In my study of ancient history I found that ancient empires after conquering a nation would import foreign immigrants for the purpose of weaken that nations culture in order prevent it from rebelling against the Empire. After reading this it struck me that this is exactly what Western governments are doing to themselves and their people. Did these ancient rulers know something that are governmental leaders don’t? Watch the video and decide for yourself.
A Letter to a Believer
In Response to a Believer on The Existence of God Article
In my article on the existence of God, I surely was not trying to support fundamentalist creationism. I was simply trying to show what I feel is a self-evident truth. Self-evident truth is a truth that is evident, without any proof or argument to all men and can be experienced by our senses and known by our reason. It is not a truth that can only be known by a priestly class of scientists who have some ‘secret knowledge’. I am not a scientist, but I believe I have a good grasp on what can, and cannot be known by humans.
You asked me what I believe about evolution. From what I am able to observe, evolution as development is self-evident. We can see it happening. However, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not self-evident and he makes assumptions about the development of life which can never be proven by science, such as evolution being non-directed. I believe that some intellectuals of modern science, as far as evolution is concerned, have claimed to know far too much and have especially over-spoken on their knowledge of primitive earth. If there is a discrepancy between science and faith it is not found in reality but in both sides over-speaking their position.
I believe that any explanation of existence must start with God-man together. The problem with many scientists is that they want to explain everything by the dash. They then define the dash as naturalistic evolution, which seems to be a radical form of reductionism. I do not have a problem with studying the dash; the problem comes in when some intellectuals make it the whole show and attempt to explain the embodiment of all existence by it. This is like trying to define a car wholly by watching it being built on the assembly line and totally ignoring the designers, engineers and planners who worked on it before one bolt or screw was turned. If we were to watch a car on the assembly line without considering its origin, i.e. the planners, designers and engineers, you would not even know its purpose. You would have to sit around and theorize why it was built and what purpose it serves. You might come to the conclusion that it has no purpose and decide to destroy it or regard it as worthless. This seems to be similar to our situation today when science is trying to explain mankind and being befuddled on every turn.
Going back to my illustration of the assembly line, because no designers or testers are visible on the assembly line, we are told by those who manage the factory that we should presume that they do not exist. In fact, we are told that we should not even look for, or inquire about them because one of the laws of the factory says that you must not ask about them, since asking about them might bias your study of the car on the assembly line. We are also told that the method to understanding the car, is for us to study the nuts and bolts that hold the car together and that this will ultimately give us a complete understanding of the car. What nonsense.
The Circle of Life
In my analogy of the circle of life I was attempting to depict the unequivocal whole of life, which I believe to points to a first cause. In the Orient, life is understood to be a great circle. We in the west see it as a linear line ascending gradually from the lesser to the higher, like an escalator being a perfect example. We view life this way because we have interpreted evolution as directed and progressive. That is, moving toward a goal. However, Darwin and neo-Darwinian do not agree with this image of an escalator as a symbol for their theory of evolution. Evolution in Darwin’s mind and in the mind of many of his disciples is chaotic, undirected and unpredictable, which in my thinking puts it outside of the realm of science. You cannot analyze something that is chaotic and unpredictable. How can you apply the scientific method to such a phenomenon? Does God throw dice?
However, in the circle of life we see progression or growth, then declension, and finally the circle ending with death, which points to a beginning and an end. If we were to form a picture of the movement of life based on what we see in real history you would have a series of circles, which depict the circle of life moving into eternity on a horizontal line. You could make each progressive circle larger denoting progress, but that might be debatable, depending on one’s definition of progress and how much you believe in the concept. In the East, scientists are not as obsessed with the concept of progress or evolution as those in the West are, and they are much more inclined to question some theories of evolution. Oriental cultures are older cultures, which have had many ups and downs and no longer get too excited about the ups (progress).
In contrast, those in the West seem to be obsessed with only one part of the equation of this circle of life (evolution or growth) which is why they depict existence as an ascending line and not a circle. They are actually taking the portion of the circle which we could call growth or ascension, and making it the whole circle. This is a great example of dissecting the whole and then making one of the parts, the whole. This is the ultimate form of radical reductionism. For example, in theology, the church has done the same thing to the gospel in making the death of Christ, which is a part of the atonement, the whole atonement. Therefore, the resurrection has been eclipsed and even removed from the concept of the atonement, and reduced to a once a year celebration. One could write a book on the reductionism of western science and theology.
I have been working on a book entitled “In Christ.” It is about the expression “In Christ” that is found in the New Testament 160 times. In the first chapter of the book, I analyze the reason for the disuse of the expression and people’s lack of understanding of it today. One reason for its neglect is reductionism; it was just too big of a concept for the western mind. The expression was dissected and then lost among the pieces. The same reductionism has been applied to just about everything in the west, including man himself. This reductionism has increased with specialization, which has created a new form of ignorance.
The Chain of Descent and Ascent
My purpose in giving a chain of descent and ascent, “…in the real world we see the lesser coming from the greater, the seed from the tree, the boy from the man, the machine from the human.”, was to demonstrate that evolution is not the ruling principle of nature.
When Henry Ford built his first car, he knew what he was making, the car did not evolve from a screw or nut. It came from the mind of Henry. The screw and the nut already existed, which also came from someone’s consciousness, and Henry just incorporated them in his total equation. However, the automobile cannot be totally be defined by only studying the screws or the nuts. It must be defined by the completed product. After, it was created by a consciousness (Henry’s mind); it then evolved, or developed, into what we have today. If you put wings on it, it becomes something else and we start all over again with a new creation, just as it began in the mind of the Wright brothers. They used existing parts to make the whole.
God may have done something like that in creating higher life forms, from things that worked well with simple life forms. Remember in the begin God started with star-dust and made everything, including man. When a builder builds a house, he has a plan of what that house will be when completed. He has in his mind a completed house even before the first nail is hammered. The house comes from the mind of the builder or architect who is greater than the house. The lesser from the greater is the ruling principle, not evolution. Evolution might have a minor effect on the construction time or phase of the house. However, it is not the end all and does not explain the existence of the house. It would make little difference, whether the construction phase (evolution) was fast or slow. It’s fast from God’s point of view, but slow from mans.
Therefore, I always begin my thinking with God for he is the Alpha and the Omega through whom all things exist and have their being. Where else could one start their thinking and reasoning? I believe this consciousness, which we call God, created the spiritual realm (unseen) and physical realm (seen) and for all we know they may be made of the same stuff, the spiritual (unseen matter) and physical (seen matter). This view goes beyond dualism and gives three categories of existence. (1) Absolute Consciousness would be the totally other or God. (2) The spiritual would be the unseen dimension (heavens) where the angels dwell along with unseen things and stuff, which we have little knowledge of at this time. If it is matter, it might be what some call dark matter or dark energy. (3) The seen or visible world would be physical matter. These categories could correspond to The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father would represent total consciousness; the Son or Logos as matter, both seen and unseen, and the Spirit as force or energy. This would be a semi-monist view, which could be accepted by theologians and some scientists who have a will to believe, yet are having a hard time putting the pieces together. In this view, everything inside the universe would be made of the same stuff and leave God outside of it as creator and yet, creating it and coming into it, through the Logos. In this, the Son would be the coming together of Spirit and matter. Of course, there are people on both sides of the issue, who would reject this view.
It was the humanists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which made progress and evolution the ruling principles by which modern man viewed just about everything. Men of the Enlightenment had tremendous faith that human reason and initiatives would usher in a golden age or utopia. Man would do what God could not do, i.e. create heaven on earth. This belief caused them to have a fixation on growth and development, which still dominates Western culture to this day. This focus on growth caused them to be somewhat blind to the fact that evolution or development is only one of the principles at work in the creation.
As stated above, I believe that all laws or principles, first took place in the mind of God in the beginning and then they are being worked out in what we humans call space-time. A part of this working out is what science calls evolution. To science, this working out is the whole show and therein lies their error, i.e. makes a part the whole. If there is a ruling principle, I believe that it is death and not evolution. Death has the final word and is reflected by the law of thermodynamics. However, in the resurrection it seems to be Gods plan to redeem the creation. In essence, the resurrection would nullify the principle of death and turn it into life. As for Christians, they believe that this new life from God has already entered the creation in the person of Christ and has been demonstrated in his resurrection.
Making evolution the ruling principle in the universe is like making the falling part in the story of Humpty Dumpty the whole story. However, the story begins with him setting on a wall and ends with him smashing into pieces when he hits the ground and then the failed attempt of all the king’s men to put him back together again. Not everything that is made or created evolves. Some sit upon the wall for a time; some do not even make it to the wall, however, in the end-all fall and break into pieces. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, i.e. everything is running down and dying, is not only a natural law, but it is also a biblical one. (Note Rom 5:12). Like Humpty Dumpty, we are falling down. Time-space as we know it is like a movie of Humpty Dumpty’s fall run in slow motion. It can only be called progress or growth (both are metaphors denoting up), in a very limited sense. The ruling principle is death (down). The progress that we seem to be experiencing now is nothing but a small bump in the fabric of the universe. We see it as progress because we have trained ourselves to ignore where Humpty Dumpty started and his end. All we see is him suspended in midair and we conveniently ignore that he is falling and will break into pieces.
When we talk about Humpty Dumpty falling down; down is a metaphor for death. It depicts the loss of higher ground. The only way up is resurrection, which becomes a metaphor for up only after you hit bottom. In the resurrection, God will put Humpty Dumpty back together and back on the wall. Jesus came down into this darkness to bring us up into the light. He descended that we might ascend with him into an existence which has as its ruling principle, life. In Christ, everything is up.
The concept of progress (up) was emphasized by the humanists of the enlightenment to replace the concept of heaven (up). It is an Illusionary concept, which is absolutely needed by a secular or atheistic culture, for without it the culture would sink into despair and nihilism. Of course, as the illusion of progress fades, which it must because it is not real, we will see Western culture slip into nihilism. During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment when the West was experiencing growth in its economy and science, it was easy to believe in unlimited progress, because that was what the West was experiencing. During this period the concept of declension (down) was set aside and totally ignored and still is today by many. This denial of declension reaches its pinnacle in the denial of death itself. This blindness to declension is one of the things which has led Western culture to the edge of the abyss, and not one of us has escaped its influence. The blind faith in progress is the philosophical source of liberalism, communism and progressivism of all flavors. It leads to a blind faith in mankind, which in the end means, the government. It is also the chief source and foundation of humanism and utopianism. All this comes from focusing on one part of the whole instead of the sum of the whole. People that adopt this view have one eye shut and cannot see the whole picture. All they see is Humpty Dumpty falling which strangely they see as progress. Of course, this is fine if you’re whole life is about the study of falling.
However, the great myth of endless progress is now being questioned by a large number of thinkers and with its demise, we will probably see a revival of much true faith and a lot of atheism coupled with nihilism. If the majorities choose atheism and nihilism, we will also see the resurrection of true Darwinism. Darwin’s theory of evolution was really never accepted by the majority, for it was filtered through the concept of progress, which actually made it something other than true Darwinism. In viewing Darwinism through the concept of progressive evolution (escalator) the sting was taken out the theory, for with directed and progressive evolution, man could accept evolution and still retain his dignity and meaning. This adjusted form of Darwin’s theory (directed evolution) was accepted without any evidence because people’s thinking was already shaped by the concept of progress and some form of evolution was the only alternative to creationism. This thinking remains today for three reasons (1) our blind faith in the metaphorical concept of progress. (2) There is still no other naturalistic explanation of existence other than some form of Darwinian evolution. However, true Darwinism still remains too much of a bitter pill for most to swallow, but the only pill for atheists. (3) If you take non-directed evolution or Darwinism away from the naturalist, they have no other way to support their views intellectually. Therefore, atheists will continual to believe in Darwinism even if science was to prove it false. The scientists who are first atheists and then scientists will continue to propagate Darwinism because it is the foundation of their belief system no matter what science says.
I have noticed in my reading that the old edifice of progressive evolution is beginning to tip and is slowly being replaced by true Darwinism. This movement toward Darwinism is not so much coming from an increase in scientific knowledge as an increase in atheism. If this happens, the symbolic tree of life will have to be changed to resemble a bush growing in every direction without any impulse or direction up, which would support a pure atheistic theory, with no room for intelligent design or direction. If accepted, it seems that science would have to drop the concept of constant progress from the ideal of evolution and adapt some kind of chaos theory. This would eventually change the culture’s view of progress and evolution. However, the chaos theory does reflect increasingly our overall cultural thinking at the present, which is moving toward chaos, atheism and nihilism. At the moment, it is hard to know if science is leading or whether the culture is leading science. Time will tell.
Culture, History and Science
It does seem that many scientific theories have the propensity to reflect the culture at the time of their creation. When the culture was progressing and knowledge was thought to be absolute, science seemed to reflect these concepts and values. Now that things are less certain and the culture is falling into disorder and declension, science seems to be reflecting it with the Chaos theory. This may be just my imagination, but it seems clear to me at this moment that culture and history push science and not the other way around. From this, I must conclude, that much of science has a cultural bias, which should be included in any analysis of its theories. There is little doubt in my mind that much of what is called science is socially created and has less to do with reality then the way we are thinking at the time of its invention. Of course, science, will say that society is changed by their theories, which is partially true. However, new theories are created because the old ones no longer fit the culture. Based on these conclusions I believe we are on the edge of a paradigm change that will sweep away many of the existing theories.
The more I study science the more skeptical I become. I think humans in general pretend to know more than they actually do. We tend to accept the pretenders in their pretensions because it makes us feel secure, believing that at least someone understands the mess. This creates the illusion that we are somehow in control. I guess that makes us all liars to some degree and intellectually dishonest.
An example of what I am talking about is global warming. The majority of scientific organizations have endorsed the theory with little evidence, which could not truly be called science. Many endorsed it not because of the evidence, but because they were presupposed to do so because of their ideology. I think if you were to look at the theory of evolution and its history, you would find the same kind of thing to some degree. One difference is that Darwin’s evolution was a financial plus for everyone and fit nicely into the capitalistic system. On the other hand, global warming only benefited a certain group of people, who so far are not powerful enough to impose their beliefs on the majority. Darwin also was skillful in using the right metaphors, which were taken from a common experience and pointed to something that everyone could see going on in the barnyard and in society. That being growth and progress. In contrast, the global warming crowd used a concept that was foreign to most people, i.e. global warming. The average person could not see it or experience it, which made it hard to believe. This is the reason they changed the metaphor to climate change. Warming can be experience and judged by everyone; however, only scientists can discuss climate.
Science and Picture Thinking
Now, I am not saying that I do not believe in evolution to some degree or for that matter, climate change, but personally I do not believe there is enough true science to support any dogmatic position on either. I definitely am not a creationist, which believes in a young earth. However, their picture thinking may be as close or closer to the truth then the present evolutionist, whose picture thinking can only be totally fabricated in their imaginations, for no one was there to witness what they say happened, which Gee points out repeatedly in his book “Deep Time.” Much of the same thing could be said about physics. Most of the theories in physics can only be explained mathematically. The minute you turn them into picture thinking you embrace falsehood. This is the same in theology, when you form an image of God in your mind you have committed idolatry and have embraced error, for God cannot be imaged. The Scriptures explain God, like math explains reality. The scriptures can only explain God in a narrow, limited, veiled way. Paul said, “We see through a glass darkly.” The same could be said about math. As theology has always been guilty of saying too much about God, today science is guilty of saying too much about reality, at least some scientists.
Most popular science writers must write in such a way that it helps the average person to visualize reality. In doing this, they cannot but help to distort and veil reality. The human mind cannot image the unseen world of science any better than it can visualize the unseen world of the Bible, i.e. heaven. These popular authors have to try to use metaphors similar to religion to bridge the gap between the visible and invisible. However, much of the population believes their metaphors to be literal; this is misleading and can only lead to misunderstanding. Even Stephen Hawkins talks about visualizing the big bang, what nonsense. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” I think we have plenty of the latter.
 Note Henry Gee’s “Deep Time”.
 This seems to be the place that modern atheistic science is taking us.
 The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system all energy is equalizing, which points to the fact that in our discussion that everything is dying.
 The chief tenet of the Enlightenment is that the growth of knowledge is the key to human emancipation. No true believer in the Enlightenment would ever question that article of faith. Yet faith in progress through the growth of knowledge is itself irrational. Gray, John. “Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions” (Kindle Locations 238-239). Granta Publications. Kindle Edition.
 “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becket.
 Secular educators are cautious about teaching non-directed evolution for fear of the backlash from the community and in particular the religious community. However, as the next generation of the walking death dead take the place of the present generation we will see a larger push for non-directed evolution and the atheism, which accompany it.
 Note “Physics as Metaphor” by Roger S. Jones. University of Minnesota Press.