Rational vs. Irrational - The Lessons of Cosmos
Science and Storytelling
I watched Carl Sagan when his original series, Cosmos, appeared on PBS. I remember striking imagery, a gorgeous soundtrack, and having my interest in science piqued as I watched things that defied common sense, but which were true none-the-less, shown and explained to me on my television. It was wonderful. It was amazing.
It was science.
Carl Sagan did not open the doors to Theologians, asking them to come onto his show to present their views on the age of the universe, the origins of existence, the theory of evolution, or the physics of light. He did not ask Theologians to come to come onto his show because they have nothing intelligent to say on such topics.
Please read that sentence carefully: I did not — in any way, shape, or form — issue an insult to theologians or religions. I am a fairly smart, well educated individual. I am not an economist, so it is not an insult if someone states that I have nothing intelligent to say with regards to the economy. I have my opinions, sure. We all do. But businessmen and economists are the ones that need to discuss such issues if truth is your goal and rational thought is you preferred starting point. Everyone else muddies the waters.
The same is true here. To paraphrase Niel deGrasse Tyson:
You do not put on an educational program which intends to enlighten the masses on the science of astrophysics and then invite a member of the Flat Earth Society to present their thoughts on the matter.
No seat at this particular table has gotten under the skin of a few science deniers.
Have you watched the new Cosmos?
God of the Gaps
God of the Gaps is a fallacy of religion and religious teaching that has been used since religion was first invented. The idea is simple: if we do not understand how something happened, God did it. Most of the time, it would appear this means you are done. You have reached the end of the story and there is no need to investigate further.
Scientists are human beings, and as such are subject to the same failings. In other words, even when the science is conclusive, conformation bias or personal views can get in the way. Cosmos has presented us with examples (e.g., young Michael Faraday being sent off on a fools errand lest he be allowed to overshadow his scientific so-called betters). Scientists are often religious people. Cosmos has presented us with examples (e.g., Giordano Bruno and his devout faith). The difference is that science allows — demands, even — the most sound concept, the most demonstrable idea, the repeatable precept, be the one that floats to the top and become the accepted model. Religion, on the other hand, cannot accept question. Not at all. Not ever.
Scientists do not know everything. They know that their knowledge is limited, filled with holes, and capable of being turned on its head tomorrow if the right hypothesis is presented. Those limits and holes are not to be hand-waved, however. they are to be explored. Theologians claim to know everything.† Where apparent limitations or holes exist, they invoke the God of the Gaps: God did it.
Take, for example, the fact that science does not know how life started. Cosmos has admitted this on many occasions: somehow, life began. What Cosmos did not say is that we are getting closer to our understanding of life's origins. Dr. John Sutherland of the University of Manchester, England, is a chemist who has created conditions as close as we can determine were those of primordial Earth; in that laboratory setting, he discovered that certain organic compounds just happen. Two of the four RNA building blocks of life formed spontaneously. He is getting very close to seeing how the others formed as well. Even if Dr. Sutherland completes his experiments, although it will get us closer to understanding life's origins, it will not fully explain it. We will still not know (yet).
But this does not mean God did it.
Cart Before the Horse
In science, you start with a hypothesis. You test the hypothesis and record the results.
- If the results of the test indicate your hypothesis is correct, you can move forward with it. Perhaps incorporating your hypothesis into the current model, or perhaps using the hypothesis to build a new model.
- If the results of the test indicate your hypothesis is incorrect, you need to back up and reassess the situation. The hypothesis is false, but what can we learn from that? What new hypothesis (if any) can be drawn from the data collected?
In religion, you start with an immutable conclusion. This conclusion will suggest (even demand) certain unalterable truths. Any test which suggests that one of these unalterable truths or the immutable conclusion is false, flawed, or incomplete must be rejected.
Science can, sometimes, reach religion-like irrationality. The models used to perpetuate the Geocentric (earth-centered) view of the solar system (and by extension, universe) were layered one atop each other in a vain and futile attempt to ensure that all of the data supported the desired conclusion: the Earth must be the center of God's creation.
Anything that suggested otherwise was to be rejected. A lot of scientists, for a long time, despite their data, bought into this. They picked the result they wanted to see and rejected any and all data which suggested anything else. But in the end, science won. This is not to say that 100% of all scientists agree. There are still those that believe the Geocentric model. Does the fact that a small minority of scientists adhere to a model which has been demonstrated to be be false on many occasions mean that the Geocentric model should be taught in the public school system?
Hypothesis, Theory, and Law
There are those on the religious side of the science debate that would have you believe that many of the models used by scientists around the world are, in essence, their own faith. In fact, one argument (related to Pascal's Wager) is that the belief in the process of evolution requires more faith than a divine creator. Evolution, they will tell you, is only a theory.
Theory is not some early stage where the idea waits for approval so it can become a law. That would be a hypothesis. So let's look at those three words how they are defined in science.
Hypothesis — an educated guess based on observation and analysis designed to answer either the question 'what' or 'why'. Needs to be tested.
Theory — a scientific model or summary of multiple hypothesis which have each been supported by repeated independent testing and observation. Designed to answer the question 'why'.
Law — a generalized body of observations with no known exceptions designed to answer the question 'what'.
What will happen if [insert conditions here]? A hypothesis can be drawn, testing can be done. If those tests reveal the same result, that result is verified by other scientists, and no exceptions are found — then it is possible to call this event a scientific law.
The Law of Gravity tells us what happens to an object when it is dropped; it does not tell us why it does what it does.
Why does [insert phenomenon here] happen? A hypothesis can be drawn, testing can be done. If those tests support the hypothesis, those results are verified by other scientists, and any exceptions are accounted for within the data (without manipulating that data in any way) — then it is possible to call this hypothesis a scientific theory.
The Theory of Gravity is a working model for gravitation forces that tells us why things happen the way they happen within gravitational fields.
To call something just a theory (using the word as a synonym for hypothesis) illustrates a gross misunderstanding of science and the scientific method.
Which is Which?
Those that complain and state that Cosmos is not giving the religious counter argument need to step back and ask themselves: which religious counter argument should be given?
Cosmos explained that there is no consensus on how the big bang started or how life began. Religious critics have suggested that the divine creator hypothesis should have been included. But which one? Over the eons, the origin of the universe and life has been explained as...
- ...the thought, word, dream, or bodily secretions of a divine or primordial being.
- ...the awakening of a divine or primordial being from an abyss.
- ...as a series of world-stages until reaching the present world.
- ...as the dismemberment of the corpse of a primordial or divine being.
- ...as a splitting or ordering of a primordial unity (e.g., cracking the cosmic egg).
- ...and so on.
None of these explanations has more or less scientific evidence than any other. Would the religious critics of Cosmos be more or less inclined to vilify Neil deGrasse Tyson if the show were to present the Mayan Creation story as the religious counterpoint?
The Death Lords of the Underworld summoned the Hero Twins to play a game of sport. The twins defeated their opponents, rose into the heavens and became the Sun and the Moon. Through their actions they prepared the earth to receive the gift of corn.
Later, the Creators (e.g., Heart of Sky, the Feathered Serpent, and five others) wanted to create beings with hearts and minds who could keep the days. Their first attempts failed because they used the wrong base ingredients. The forth (and final) attempt was when the Creators made humans from yellow and white corn and gave them the power of speech. They were satisfied.
Thus was the origin of the universe, the earth, and life.
Beyond the science classroom, one has to wonder if the religious critics of Cosmos are suggesting that religious teaching enter other classrooms as well. Like, perhaps, history class.
The most recent Cosmos episode shows that the flood story of Noah is a plagiarized account of the tale told in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This does not stop many a Biblical literalist from stating that the Biblical account of Noah's flood is a matter of historical record. But if you allow for such fanciful stories which have no evidence to back them up, are we then left with the inclusion of other stories of similar merit?
- Should history classes include the wars in North America described in the Book of Mormon, despite the fact that no archaeological evidence for them exists?
- Should history classes include the flood story? If so, do we include the Biblical account, or the one written in the Epic of Gilgamesh centuries earlier?
- Should history classes include Jesus as a historical figure? If so, how many of the other Sun-God heroes should be include? Ra? Dionysus? Perseus?
Religion and Science
The new Cosmos is wonderful and amazing. It is science, not religion.
Neil deGrasse Tyson did not open the doors to Theologians, asking them to come onto his show to present their views on the age of the universe, the origins of existence, the theory of evolution, or the physics of light.
And why should he? It is not like there is a Priest, Pastor, Rabbi, preacher, or religious educator out there who has invited a scientist to his pulpit in order to give the counterpoint to the questions posed or the answers given within the Holy Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Gita, or the Book of Mormon.