Saturday, February 24, 2007

Carolyn Porco: Awe and Wonder

The next in my series of posts on the presentations at Beyond Belief 2006 concerns the presentation by Carolyn Porco, Senior Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Dueling Stories

She was speaking in the part of the seminar that had to do with, “If not God, then what?”

In this, she asserted that science has come up with a story as interesting as any religion – a story that starts with the Big Bang, goes through the formation of galaxies, the formation of stars, the collection of organic molecules in clouds of rock and gas surrounding those stars, those molecules forming life, and, eventually, an “Armageddon” story of destruction when the sun explodes in a supernova.

She accompanied her story with a slide show of astronomical images, from deep-space images of galaxies billions of years old, to the formation of stars, to images of dust around other stars, to the death of stars.

Note: If we have descendents living in this solar system when our sun goes nova, it will not be the end of human civilization. Many of those descendents will move to colonies further away from the sun and designed to survive a nova. After that, our sun will still be a source of exceptional amounts of energy for billions of years as it cools. If there is an eventual end to civilization, it will not come from here. It will more likely come from our engineering our own extinction through ignorance.

Either way, I would assert that this story is far better than any religious story, precisely because we can look at empirical evidence and determine it is true – and our knowledge of this story is getting better over time. Imagine if we were to hold that the science of Ptolemy was unerring, and no future discover could force us to reconsider anything he had written. Imagine how impoverished science would be today.

It would be as impoverished as a system of morals whose practitioners insist can only be drawn from ‘infallible’ books written 1300, 2000, or more years ago, and that no discovery we make today can cause us to reconsider what was, in a more primitive era, considered to be right and wrong.

Awe and Wonder

Carolyn Porco was also asked to speak about awe and wonder in the universe. It is a topic easily illustrated by the images that Porco displayed during her presentation – galaxies, stars being born, stars exploding – all very awesome images.

As I see it, there are three attitudes that people can have relating atheism to awe and wonder.

(1) Awe and wonder do not exist. They are like angels, devils, and God himself, in that they do not exist and nobody has ever experienced such a thing. People have other experiences that they mistake for awe and wonder, but no genuine awe or wonder.

(2) Awe and wonder exist, like trees exist. Atheists and theists may disagree over where trees came from – one arguing for an intelligent designer and the other arguing for evolution. However, neither disputes the existence of trees. They may dispute the nature and origin of awe and wonder, but neither disputes the claim that certain events can be awesome or wonderful.

(3) Awe and wonder are mistakes, like a belief in angels and devils. Even the atheist knows that beliefs in angels and devils exist. Our understanding of the real world would be incomplete if it did not postulate beliefs in such things. However, those beliefs are false. Similarly, under this option, awe and wonder exist, but only for the theist – in the same way that belief in God exists only for the theist. The atheist has to do without (at least if he is a consistent atheist).

For the sake of space, I am going to dismiss option (1). I do not know of anybody who would argue this position. The real dispute is between (2) and (3), where the typical atheists will assert (2), while many theists would assert (3). To those theists, an atheist only experiences awe and wonder when he forgets for a moment that he is an atheist and allows himself to experience God.

Ultimately, any claim that an atheist cannot experience awe without opening himself up to God is as absurd as a claim that he cannot experience pain without opening himself up to God. Or, more generally, that all of his senses – touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste, would all cease to function if he were a consistent atheist.

There is no deep philosophical difference between pain and awe. An individual interacts with the environment, which sends a signal to the brain, which then interprets the event. Part of that processing involves attaching a value to that event or experience, whether it be the awfulness of pain, or the awesomeness of beauty.

Some theists may worry that they would lose their appreciation of certain things if they knew the underlying scientific facts. For example, there is something about knowing how rainbows work that would make rainbows uninteresting.

However, it is questionable that any scientific description of how pain works will make pain any less horrible – that will make the theist indifferent to pain. If somebody were to explain to him the collapsing electric potential across the cell membrane of a neuron that transmits signals along its length, the release of neural transmitters at the end of one neuron, and how those neural transmitters start another wave of cascading electric potential in the next neuron, I sincerely doubt that they would become indifferent to putting their hand in a bed of hot coals.

Science and Dewonderment

There is no reason to believe that knowledge of the scientific facts surrounding the experience of awe will make the object experienced any less awesome.

There is a way in which it is possible for a change of beliefs to have this type of effect. If a child is given an ornament where she is told, “Grandma wanted you to have this when she died,” it may acquire sentimental value. If she were to discover that her mother picked the ornament out of the garbage and made up the story, she may well lose her attachment to the ornament. This is because what she desires is that which connects her to her grandma. Once she finds out that the ornament does not have this property, then the ornament is no longer thought of as something special.

The same can apply to rainbows. A person may believe that a rainbow is a miracle created by God as a way of sending a greeting to the people. She may value the rainbow as a connection between herself and God. Once she finds out that rainbows are not messages from God, then she may cease to think of rainbows as in any way special.

Yet, on this model, we are talking about somebody who has a particular emotional attachment to messages from God. If, instead, we are talking about somebody who has a particular emotional attachment to objects of rare and exotic natural beauty, that person will continue to appreciate the rainbow whether God exists or not.

If a person would actually lose an appreciation for rainbows if she learned that they were not messages from God, she would be mistaken to assume that this must be true of everybody. This is as much of a mistake as assuming, from the fact that one prefers vanilla over strawberry, that everybody prefers vanilla over strawberry. As a matter of fact, people value different things. Some desire experiences that connect them to God, while others like rare and exotic experiences of natural beauty.

Personally, I like rainbows. I have always thought that they were interesting. Because of this, I have always been interested in the science of rainbows. Knowing that rainbows are caused by photons with different energy levels entering raindrops, which splits the light into its component colors, and reflects that light back on the observer, does not distract from the beauty of a rainbow one iota. Any more than my knowledge of how pain works makes pain any less painful.

The Advantage of Science

In fact, this knowledge gives me a bit of an advantage. With this knowledge, I get to experience more rainbows than I otherwise would have. I know that whenever there are rain clouds in one direction, and a bright sun coming from the other direction, in the morning or evening, I have a chance for a rainbow. I can be sitting at my computer while a rain storm goes through, see the beams of a setting sun several minutes later, and predict that I will probably see a rainbow if I were to look to the east. I can be so confident in my prediction that I can tell my wife to come with me, we go out to a bridge near our house where we have an excellent view, and expect to see a rainbow.

She likes rainbows, too.

And rainbows are even more awesome and wonderful when they are shared.


Dean said...

I have to nitpick here. The Sun won't go nova or supernova. The sun isn't massive enough to explode, and it is not expected to go nova (one of the classic ways for this to occur is in a binary star system). It will however, become a red giant, which may eventually envelop the earth's orbit. This may actually be what she said and you misinterpreted it (I've watched that video, but I can't recall exactly what she said about it).

Anonymous said...

Science dose not devalue the world. It adds so much more new things to value.

Everything we see is literally star-dust. We carry iron from asteroids that struck Earth in our blood. Our very cell plasma is the remnants of the primordial oceans. All of life is one big family tree, and its photo album is written in limestone, and we turn it layer by layer.

None of this could have come from any religion.