Quote of the Day

“Homo sapiens [are] a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree.”
— Stephen Jay Gould

I came across this quotation today, and it chimed in with my thinking about the recent near-apocalyptic disasters in our region. People ask “Why does God allow these things?” I reflect upon the sheer miracle that we exist at all. Here we sit, on a thin semi-solid crust floating upon a ball of molten rock, surrounded by a thin layer of atmosphere with enough oxygen to keep us alive, and then beyond that: nothing. More or less.

Leunig’s cartoon in The Age today (see his gallery here) has something to contribute also:

Cartoon by Michael Leunig, The Age, 9th Oct 2009

Cartoon by Michael Leunig, The Age, 9th Oct 2009

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Quote of the Day

  1. matthias

    There was a poem from World War One -Siegfried Sassoon I think who wrote -or to that effect:

    The Germans say “Gott mit uns” and the
    British say ‘We have God on our side”
    Whilst God says ‘I am going to be busy”.

  2. Paul

    I read somewhere that we are even luckier than that. Not only do we have a Goldilocks planet, if the basic physical constants were different, the universe would not exist. So we are on a Goldilocks planet in a Goldilocks universe.
    A humorous take on this by Fr Richard Umbers is at
    http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/richard_dawkins_and_the_meming_of_life/

    At the end of this article, Fr Umbers has rewritten the first chapter to fit in with Richard Dawkins’ style of belief.

    By the way, I see that the Melbourne folks are being graced (sic) by an atheist convention next year:
    http://www.atheistconvention.org.au/

    Just an observation – as far as I can see, all the visiting luminaries are 60’ish white males. I always wonder why men of a certain age are so passionate about atheism. My own theory is that they are still fighting the battles of their youth. In the 60’s and 70’s they thought religion would wither and die, and they are frutrated and not a little angry that it has not. Their explanation seems to be their postulated religion gene or religion meme or whatever.

  3. An Liaig

    I believe the following is a relevent extract from:

    Leach, J.H.J. and Cross, L. Image, Symbol and Mystery: An Eastern Christian view of the sacraments. Eastern Christian Publications, Fairfax, VA, USA, 2009.

    “Modern western culture …views the universe as a three dimensional grid of space/time extending to infinity and independent of human existence or perception. Since the sacred and the divine can not be measured nor confined within such a universe, this utilitarian, reductionist view has no place for them. They do not fit. Even such human values as beauty and love are seen as purely cultural or biological artefacts with no objective reality. In such a view of the universe human life itself, indeed all life, can only be considered as an incidental and unimportant accident. Descriptions of this view are well known to all of us from the populist astronomy books we read as children or from “educational” television shows. A typical example would read something like this: we are a species of ape living on a small planet orbiting one very average star among billions of stars, on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions of galaxies. The clear message, either implicit or explicit, is that there is nothing special about us and that it is foolish to attach any significance to human existence – or even to existence itself. This is often stated not as opinion or as philosophical viewpoint but as if it were fact

    “…the universe is, to say the least, utterly indifferent to us. In the words of a 16th century tanka (a Japanese verse-form) we are ‘no more than fleeting foam on the surface of a violent sea.’”

    This has been even more bluntly, and less poetically, stated by the Cambridge physicist Prof. Stephen Hawkins:

    “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet. ”

    This radical reductionist view of reality and humanity’s place within it is not the traditional view of European culture nor is it some natural, underlying view of reality which has been obscured in the past by human religion and culture – a kind of “default” or “natural” view. Although its adherents often treat such a world view as supra-cultural in this way, this reductionist view is clearly the product of the specific history and culture of 16th and 17th century Europe . It is a view that has developed with the attempted application of empirical, scientific methodology to the concepts of human society and existence, even though this methodology cannot be properly applied in these areas, and it is a product of the triumphal anthropocentrism of the industrial revolution . In its most basic form it is a view that holds that only that which can be objectively observed and measured truly exists. It is ironic that a world view which holds the mind of man to be the final authority in the universe also denies any fundamental significance to human existence. …

    Of course, value laden reductionist descriptions, such as the one given above, do not even accurately represent the understanding of science. We live around an average star not because we are mediocre or insignificant but because any other type of star would give either too much or too little radiation. Similarly, we live on the edge of the galaxy because those stars closer to the galaxy’s core are all deadly to life, either because of more frequent bursts of radiation from super novas or because of disastrous stellar close encounters. In short, we seem to live on a planet orbiting the only kind of star which could support life. Moreover, we live on a planet which is remarkable in many ways; it has oceans of liquid water, it has a large iron core and a strong consequent magnetic field, which protects the surface from solar radiation, it has a large moon which gives tides to the oceans etc. Many of these features are the result of an extremely unlikely collision about four billion years ago, a collision so unlikely that the Earth is probably unique in the galaxy. This collision, between the proto-earth and a Mars sized planetoid, profoundly effected the subsequent development of the planet. So, we live on a very unusual, possibly unique, planet and it is those very features that make it so unusual which also make it an ideal home for life. To describe it as an average sized planet, implying that it itself is average, is simply not accurate.

    Even the very constants which define the physical nature of our universe have just those values which make life possible. If any of these constants had had other values then matter, stars, planets and biochemical reactions would have been impossible. All of this has led physicist Paul Davies to comment “the universe seems like a put up job” . In a later book Davies has called this the Goldilocks Enigma . Why do we live in a universe where the very laws of physics are, like Goldilocks’ porridge, “just right” for life? Reflecting on this, Davies writes:

    “I cannot accept these features as a package of marvels which just happen to be, which exist reasonlessly. It seems to me that there is a genuine scheme of things – the universe is about something .”

    It is worth noting that this is not a view which comes from a religious standpoint, Davies is not a Christian, but rather from a mature reflection on scientific knowledge. It is a view of the world which is more “scientific” than the “humanity as chemical scum” view described above. Reductionist thinking has no adequate explanation for human life as it is experienced nor even for the features of the universe in which we live. We live in a universe which seems to be designed to bring forth life and we are a part of that universe. We are, indeed, that universe conscious of itself.”

  4. Dear An Liaig,

    I just looked up on the internet to see what on earth “an liaig” was, and gather that it is “the physician”. I guess that would translate as “The Doctor”, as in “Dr Who”…

    Anyway, Doctor (which I will call you for now as I don’t speak Irish), it seems that what you have in fact given us here is one set of scientific facts which can be interpreted with two diametrically opposed meanings.

    The scientific fact is, as Monty Python would put it, “how amazingly unlikely is your birth”, and is given in several ways:

    “we are a species of ape living on a small planet orbiting one very average star among billions of stars, on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions of galaxies.”

    OR

    “we seem to live on a planet orbiting the only kind of star which could support life. …it has oceans of liquid water, it has a large iron core and a strong consequent magnetic field, which protects the surface from solar radiation, it has a large moon which gives tides to the oceans etc. Many of these features are the result of an extremely unlikely collision about four billion years ago, a collision so unlikely that the Earth is probably unique in the galaxy. …Even the very constants which define the physical nature of our universe have just those values which make life possible. If any of these constants had had other values then matter, stars, planets and biochemical reactions would have been impossible.”

    Or others. The two sets of meanings that can be given to this are:

    “we are no more than fleeting foam on the surface of a violent sea.” / “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.

    OR

    “the universe seems like a put up job” / “I cannot accept these features as a package of marvels which just happen to be, which exist reasonlessly. It seems to me that there is a genuine scheme of things – the universe is about something .”

    In other words, both ways of describing the situation are more or less scientific, but the one observer sees this a “meaningless” and the other as “meaning-laden”.

    As for being the scum on an ocean, that would at least explain why some of us get washed away from time to time…

  5. An Liaig

    The reason there are these two positions (actually there are many more than two) is that science per se has nothing to say about meaning. Issues of meaning are beyond its scope and methodology. This means that when people claim that a particular philosophical view is ‘scientific’ they are being dishonest, perhaps even to themselves. They are appropriating the credibility of science (which, within its area of competence, has a very high reliability) to a philosophical view which is not open to the same tests of repeatability and falsification. This approach is most commonly seen in reductionist philosophy but the pantheists will also use it. Catholics should be wary of it eg. quantum entanglement has nothing to do with the relationships between Christians!

    Yes, my username is a homage to a favorite science fiction show. It is also a play on words with my real surname and aspects of my profession. As for not speaking Irish – sure its never to late to learn, so!