Monday, November 05, 2007

flew and sagan (and god)

Until reading, The Turning of an Atheist, in Sunday's NYT Magazine I hadn't heard of the name, Antony Flew. Now I have. It's quite interesting how this British philosopher has become something of a symbolic hot potato between atheists and deists.

I finished Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. Like his other books, this one (a collection of his famous Gifford Lectures in 1985) is remarkable. Cerebral. Eloquent. Compassionate. Profound. I recommend this one highly. Though the passages I selected below illustrate just a glimpse of this fantastic compilation's beauty, I want to share some of the words said by Sagan that stood out to me. These are merely a sample, which alone don't do Sagan the justice deserved. One must read the entire book to appreciate it fully. In a time when it seems like compassion and reason are becoming increasingly pressed by extremism and indifference towards the welfare of our planet as a whole, Sagan's words are both poignant and much needed.

Different religions believe different things. There's a grab bag of religious alternatives. And there are clearly more combinations of alternatives than there are religions, even though there are something like a few thousand religions on the planet today. In the history of the world, there probably were many tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, if you think back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors when the typical human community was a hundred or so people. Back then there were as many religions as there were hunter-gatherer bands, although the differences between them were probably not all that great. But nobody knows, since, unfortunately, we have virtually no knowledge left of what our ancestors for the greatest part of the tenure of humans on this planet believed, because word-of-mouth tradition is inadequate and writing had not been invented.

So, considering this range of alternatives, one thing that comes to my mind is how striking it is that when someone has a religious-conversion experience, it is almost always to the religion or one of the religions that are mainly believed in his or her community. Because there are so many other possibilities. For example, it's very rare in the West that someone has a religious-conversion experience in which the principal deity has the head of an elephant and is painted blue. That is quite rare. But in India there is a blue, elephant-headed god that has many devotees. And seeing depictions of this god there is not so rare. How is it that the apparition of elephant gods is restricted to Indians and doesn't happen except in places where there is a strong Indian tradition? How is that apparitions of the Virgin Mary are common in the West but rarely occur in places in the East where there isn't a strong Christian tradition? Why don't the details of the religious belief cross over the cultural barriers? It is hard to explain unless the details are entirely determined by the local culture and have nothing to do with something that is externally valid.

Put another way, any preexisting predisposition to religious belief can be powerfully influenced by the indigenous culture, wherever you happen to grow up. And especially if the children are exposed early to a particular set of doctrine and music and art and ritual, then it is as natural as breathing, which is why religions make such a large effort to attract the very young.

Then there is the moral argument for the existence of God generally attributed to Immanuel Kant, who was very good at showing the deficiencies of some of the other arguments. Kant's argument is very simple. It's just that we are moral beings; therefore God exists. That is, how else would we know to be moral?

Well, first of all you might argue that the premise is dubious. The degree to which humans can be said to be moral beings without the existence of some police force is open at least to debate. But let's put that aside for the moment. Many animals have codes of behavior. Altruism, incest taboos, compassion for the young, you find in all sorts of animals. . . . All I'm saying is, it does not follow if we are powerfully motivated to take care of our young or the young of everybody on the planet, that God made us do it. Natural selection can make us do it, and almost surely has. What's more, once humans reach the point of awareness of their surroundings, we can figure things out, and we can see what's good for our own survival as a community or a nation or a species and take steps to ensure our survival. It's not clear to me that this requires the existence of God to explain the limited but definite degree of moral and ethical behavior that is apparent in human society.

That same technology that permits us to travel to other planets and stars also permits us to destroy ourselves - on a global scale, on a scale unprecedented in all of human history, and the mere knowledge that is possible, even if we are lucky enough for it never to come about, must powerfully influence the lives of everybody who grows up in our time in a way that was not true for any other generation in human history.

Religion has a long history of brilliant creativity in myth and metaphor. This is a field crying out for apposite myth and metaphor. Religions can combat fatalism. They can engender hope. They can clarify our bonds with other human beings all over the planet. They can remind us that we are all in this together. There are many functions that religion can serve in trying to prevent this ultimate catastrophe [of nuclear war]. Ultimate for us - I want to stress that we're talking about the elimination of all life on Earth. Doubtless roaches and grass and sulfur-metabolizing worms that live in hot vents in the ocean bottoms would survive nuclear war. It is not the Earth that is at stake, it not life on Earth that's at stake, it is merely us and all we stand for that is at stake.

And so we have two warring principles [compassion and aggression] in the human heart, both of which must have evolved by natural selection, and it's not hard to understand the selective advantage of both of them. And so the issue has to do with which is in the preponderance. And here it is the use of our intellect that is central. Because we're talking about adjudicating between conflicting emotions. And you can't have an adjudication between emotions by an emotion. It must be done by our perceptive intellectual ability. And this is the place where Einstein said something very perceptive. In response - this is post-nuclear war, post-1945 - in response to precisely the question you have just formulated, in which Einstein was saying that we must give the dominance to our compassionate side, he said, "What is the alternative?" That is, if we do not, if we cannot manage it, it is clear that we are gone. We're doomed. And therefore we have no alternative. Certainly untrammeled, continuing aggression in an age of nuclear weapons is a prescription for disaster. So either get rid of the nuclear weapons or change what passes for social relations among humans.

But even getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether will not solve this problem. There will be new technical advances. And already there are chemical and biological weapons that could perhaps rival some of the effects of nuclear war. So this is a very key aspect of what I was thinking when I said we are at a branch point in our history, in the sense of who we are. I maintain it's not a question of sudden change, that we have been compassionate for a million years, and it's a question of which part of the human psyche the governments - and the media, and the churches, and the schools - give precedence to. Which one do they teach? Which one do they encourage? And all I'm saying is that it is within our capability to survive. I don't guarantee it. Prophecy is a lost art. And I don't know what the probabilities are that we will go one way or another. And no one says it's easy. But it is clear, as Einstein said, that if we do not make a change in our way of thinking, all is lost.

I therefore think that the perspective of the Earth in space and time is something with enormous, not just educational but moral and ethical, force. I believe it is lucky for us that this the time when pictures of the Earth from space are fairly routinely available. We look at them on the evening weather reports and hardly pause to think what an extraordinary item that is. Our planet, the Earth, home, where we come from, seen from space. And when we look at if from space, I think it is immediately clear that it is a fragile, tiny world exquisitely sensitive to the depredations of its inhabitants. It's impossible, I think, not to look at that planet and think that what we are doing is foolish. We are spending a million million dollars every year, worldwide, on armaments. A million million dollars. Think of what you could do with a million million dollars. A visitor from somewhere else - the legendary intelligent extraterrestrial - dipping down to the Earth and inquiring what we are about and finding such prodigies of human inventiveness and such enormous fractions of our wealth devoted not just to the means of war but to the means of massive global destruction - such a being would surely deduce that our prospects are not very good and perhaps go on to some other, more promising world.

When you look at the Earth from space, it is striking. There are no national boundaries visible. They have been put there, like the equator and the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, by humans. The planet is real. The life on it is real, and the political separations that have placed the planet in danger are of human manufacture. They have not been handed down from Mount Sinai. All the beings on this little world are mutually dependent. It's like living in a lifeboat. We breathe the air that Russians have breathed, and Zambians and Tasmanians and people all over the planet. Wherever the causes that divide us, as I said before, it is clear that the Earth will be here a thousand or a million years from now. The question, the key question, the central question - in a certain sense the only question - is, will we?


Comment Blogger Jim Anderson said...

Try reading Flew's 1950 paper "Theology and Falsification". This paper started his fame when he was 27 years old. It is short but I, for one, dont understand it at all. Now the cynics are saying that the reason flew has appeared to change his mind is that he is 81 and getting feeble minded.

8:36 PM  
Comment Blogger Jim Anderson said...

Duane, I've since read an extract from the autobiography of Charles Darwin (here.
To me Darwin makes the debate a lot more interesting.

"Another source of conviction in the existance of God connected with the reason and not the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capability of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look at a first cause having an intelliegent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a theist."

He appears to be agnostic although he calls himself a theist.

7:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home