Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

21 MAY, 2013

Your Cousin, the Blade of Grass: Brian Cox on the Wonders of Life


“Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.”

With his penchant for exposing the intrinsic mesmerism of everyday life through the prism of science, the charismatic particle physicist Brian Cox is as close to a Richard Feynman of our time as we can hope to get. In fact, it is Feynman he cites in the introduction to his magnificent new book, Wonders of Life: Exploring the Most Extraordinary Phenomenon in the Universe (public library), based on his BBC television series of the same title. Riffing off Feynman’s famous ode to a flower, in which the legendary physicist marvels at how some people can believe that science can detract from wonder of life and insists, instead, that “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower,” Cox recasts the same lens on another seemingly simple but utterly miraculous wonder of life, the humble blade of grass, and uses it to illustrate Darwin’s legacy:

On its own, it is a wonder, but viewed in isolation its complexity and very existence is inexplicable. Darwin’s genius was to see that the existence of something as magnificent as a blade of grass can be understood, but only in the context of its interaction with other living things and, crucially, its evolutionary history. A physicist might say it is a four-dimensional structure, with both spatial and temporal extent, and it is simply impossible to comprehend the existence of such a structure in a universe governed by the simple laws of physics if its history is ignored.

And whilst you are contemplating the humble majesty of a blade of grass, with a spatial extent of a few centimeters but stretching back in the temporal direction for almost a third of the age of the Universe, pause for a moment to consider the viewer, because what is true of the blade of grass is also true for you. You share the same basic biochemistry, all the way down to the detail of proton waterfalls, and ATP, and much of the same genetic history, carefully documented in your DNA. This is because you share the same common ancestor. You are all related. You were once the same.

Indeed, once both you and the blade of grass were stardust. But Cox goes on to consider the disconcerting implications of this, which challenge the heart of what it means to be human, what we consider our singular and special-case humanity:

I suppose this is a most difficult thing to accept. The human condition seems special; our conscious experience feels totally divorced from the mechanistic world of atoms and forces, and perhaps even from the ‘lower forms’ of life. … [T]his feeling is an emergent illusion created by the sheer complexity of our arrangement of atoms. It must be, because the fundamental similarities between all living things outweigh the differences. If an alien biochemist had only two cells from Earth, one from a blade of grass and one from a human being, it would be immediately obvious that the cells come from the same planet, and are intimately related.

Cox explores the age-old friction between science and scripture, echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s depiction of creationism as a philosophy of ignorance and Richard Dawkins’s fascination with the magic of reality. Cox bemoans the “so-called controversy surrounding Darwin’s theory of evolution”:

My original aim was to avoid the matter entirely, because I think there are no intellectually interesting issues raised in such a ‘debate.’ But during the filming of this series I developed a deep irritation with the intellectual vacuity of those who actively seek to deny the reality of evolution and the science of biology in general. So empty is such a position, in the face of evidence collected over centuries, that it can only be politically motivated; there is not a hint of reason in it. And more than that, taking such a position closes the mind to the most wonderful story, and this is the tragedy for those who choose it, or worse, are forced into it through deficient teaching.

But Cox safeguards against secular fanaticism and goes on to consider the possible co-existence of science and spirituality, with a wonderful aside on labels and a gentle reminder that we simply don’t know, that scientific reductionism is as intellectually lazy as religious dogmatism, that science and philosophy need each other:

As someone who thinks about religion very little — I reject the label atheist because defining me in terms of the things I don’t believe would require an infinite list of nouns — I see no necessary contradiction between religion and science. By which I mean that if I were a deist, I would claim no better example of the skill and ingenuity of The Creator than in the laws of nature that allowed for the magnificent story of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and their overwhelmingly beautiful expression in our tree of life. I am not a deist, philosopher or theologian, so I will make no further comment on the origin of the laws of nature that permitted life to evolve. I simply don’t know; perhaps someday we will find out. But be in no doubt that laws they are, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as precise and well tested as Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Ultimately, in reflecting on the necessarily speculative nature of some of the films in the series, he reminds us that ignorance is what drives science forward and, as Feynman himself memorably put it, it is the scientist’s responsibility to remain unsure. Cox writes:

Some parts are speculative, but that is nothing to be ashamed of in science. Indeed, all science is provisional. When observations of nature contradict a theory, no matter how revered, ancient or popular, the theory will be unceremoniously and joyously ditched, and the search for a more accurate theory will be redoubled. The magnificent thing about Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species is that it has survived over a hundred and fifty years of precision observations, and in that it has outlasted Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

He echoes Robert Sapolsky’s timeless words on science and wonder, returning to the heart of Feynman’s ode to the flower and concluding:

Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.

Wonders of Life goes on to explore such fascinating macro-mysteries and micro-miracles as why the world exists, how our senses work, and what the trees of life tell us about evolution. In the concluding chapter, Cox returns once again to our distant cousin, the blade of grass:

Go outside, now, and look at any randomly selected piece of your world. It could be a scruffy corner of your garden, or even a clump of grass forcing its way through a concrete pavement. It is unique. Encoded deep in the biology of every cell in every blade of grass, in every insect’s wing, in every bacterium cell, is the history of the third planet from the Sun in a Solar System making its way lethargically around a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its shape, form, function, color, smell, taste, molecular structure, arrangement of atoms, sequence of bases, and possibilities for a future are all absolutely unique. There is nowhere else in the observable Universe where you will see precisely that little clump of emergent, living complexity. It is wonderful. And the reason that thought occurred to me is not because some guru told me that the world is wonderful. It is because Darwin, and generations of scientists before and after, have shown it to be.

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12 APRIL, 2013

Science vs. Scripture and the Difference Between Curiosity and Wonder


From Aristotle to St. Paul, or how rational thought and religion battled over knowledge.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose holy curiosity,” Albert Einstein counseled in 1955. Iconic science fiction writer Isaac Asimov has hailed curiosity as the key to discovery. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the greatest scientific minds of our time, has proclaimed it central to our DNA. And yet curiosity hasn’t always enjoyed such ample cultural endorsement — in 1605, for instance, even the father of the scientific method admonished against its dark side.

In Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (public library), British writer Philip Ball traces the cultural history of curiosity across its rollercoaster of popular favor:

It has always been a complaint leveled at curiosity that it is the enemy of productivity, an unwelcome distraction from our daily duties. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment’s mockers of curiosity were … often not utilitarian Gradgrinds but gossipy, solipsistic wits and libertines. And a surfeit of information has always given cause for grumbling. Alexander Pope felt that the printing press, ‘a scourge for the sins of the learned,’ would lead to ‘a deluge of Authors [that] covered the land.’ … But it is clear that the first ‘professors of curiosity’ who flourished in the century of Pope’s birth had to work tremendously hard to get their knowledge, and curiosity was, before profit or fame or reputation, their most significant motivation.

Among Ball’s most fascinating observations is the contrast between curiosity and wonder, a tension arguably reconciled in the eloquent definition of science as “systematic wonder” but an enduring tension nonetheless:

For the Greeks, curiosity was not even a clearly articulated concept. To the extent that it was acknowledged at all, it stands in contrast to its mercurial sibling, wonder. Aristotle believed that all humans naturally desire knowledge, but he felt that curiosity (periergia) had little role to play in philosophy. It was a kind of aimless, witless tendency to pry into things that didn’t concern us. Wonder (thauma) was far more significant, the true root of enquiry: ‘It is owing to their wonder,’ he wrote, ‘that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.’ … Until the seventeenth century, wonder was esteemed while curiosity was reviled.

In his popular emblem book Iconologia (1593) showing classical personifications of the human qualities, the Italian author Cesare Ripa depicted curiosity as a wild, disheveled woman, driving home the message in the caption: ‘Curiosity is the unbridled desire of those who seek to know more than they should.’

Though on the surface wonder might appear infused with the poetic energy of awe, there’s also an element of docile faith to it, contrary to the active engagement of curiosity. In fact, Bell demonstrates how this very dichotomy grew central to Christian Scripture, where the extinguishing of curiosity — as Galileo learned the hard way — became a mechanism of intellectual oppression, one necessary for preserving the “wonder” of faith:

That some knowledge was forbidden to humankind is of course central to the Christian Creation myth: this is the basis of the Fall. ‘When you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God’, the serpent tells Eve of the fruit on the tree of knowledge. The transgressive aspect of curiosity is an insistent theme in Christian theology. Time and again the student of the Bible is warned to respect the limits of enquiry and to be wary of too much learning. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God’, proclaims Deuteronomy. Solomon (if it was he who wrote Ecclesiastes) cautions that:

with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more grief.


Or, as the King James version has it:

Be not curious in unnecessary matters:
For more things are shewed unto thee than men understand.

St Paul was considered to have echoed this sentiment in the admonition ‘Seek not to know high things.’ The fact that he did not actually write this at all speaks volumes in itself, suggesting that the mistranslation fitted with prevailing prejudice. … ‘Do not take pride in the arts or sciences,’ wrote Thomas à Kempis in the fifteenth century, ‘rather, fear what has been told to you.’

Wonder, on the other hand, had an element of unquestioning submission that resonated with the religious tradition:

The central problem with curiosity was that it was thought to be motivated by excessive pride. The accumulation of pointless learning ran the risk not that one would become another Lucifer but that one would primp and preen rather than bow one’s head before the Lord. ‘O curiosity! O vanity!’, cried the late twelfth-century theologian Alexander Neckam. ‘O vain curiosity! O curious vanity!’

The imperative of pious humility was what commended wonder to Augustine at the same time as it indicted curiosity. There was nothing frivolous or hedonistic about wonder. It instilled awe, reminding us of our powerlessness and insignificance before the glory of God. That is why wonder in the face of nature’s splendour was seen as the educated response, and a willingness to believe in marvels and prodigies was not only praiseworthy but virtually a religious duty. Curiosity, like scepticism, was a sign that you lacked devotion and faith.

The remainder of Curiosity challenges common assumptions about the Scientific Revolution, exploring much like Vannevar Bush did more than half a century ago, the evolving role of curiosity in the face of “the knee-trembling quantity of information we have at our fingertips” through the lives and minds of such revered scientists as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.

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26 MARCH, 2013

Happy Birthday, Richard Dawkins: An Atheist’s Animated Altercation with God


Knocking on heaven’s door of lamentable ignorance.

Yesterday, we explored humanity’s age-old paradox of grappling with mortality. Today, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — tireless myth-buster, vocal atheist, and one level-headed dad — celebrates his seventy-second birthday, LA-based filmmaker Kevin R. Breen brings us Richard Dawkins Dies: a delightfully South-Park-esque confrontation between Dawkins and God as the two engage in a smack-down at the heart of the creationism vs. evolution quasi-debate.

The best excuse for [people who don't believe in evolution] is lamentable ignorance.

Complement with The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, Dawkins’s science-driven antidote to creationist mythology, one of the best children’s books of 2011.

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