Reflections on the Phenomena of Awe, Wisdom and Weaponized Doubt

Science has not killed the religious enterprise any more than Nietzsche killed G-d.

I took this topic up in 2007 in an essay called “The Flight From Meaning” where I introduced Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” remarks with –

We must undertake the task of climbing out of that arid desert of the soul — that imagined realm where there exists no good, no evil, and no loving Creator — as a matter of survival. Finding the way up and out is a matter of attaining the appropriate scale perspective and a willingness to take in the deep implications.

We have a hint of that process from that nominal atheist, Carl Sagan, who wrote:

“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Excerpted from the famous commencement address delivered by the late Carl Sagan on May 11, 1996

I find it deeply significant that human intelligence is able to proceed from the awe-at-creation narrative to an ethic of kindness and compassion. Awe is the beginning of wisdom.

Science does not instruct us to doubt the very organizational principles on which the scientific enterprise is founded, nor does it advocate unreasonable doubt concerning those areas of human experience and belief, such as love and trust, about which the metrics of strict empiricism are so obviously inadequate. There is a faith path from Isaac Newton through Baruch Spinoza to Albert Einstein that has propelled the scientific enterprise: The created universe has an elegant underlying deign so miraculously intelligible to human intelligence that scientists are frequently humbly driven to acknowledge that, in the beautiful handwork of nature, one discovers the ‘mind of God’.

Weaponized Doubt

For the intellectual rebels of the last century, doubt became a weapon, selectively employed, to attack the social authority structures seen as oppressive (as were the religiously supported institutions of royal privilege, for example). But the arrogance of doubt was not to be denied, leading to challenges to any authority structure or system administered by those who could be described as the “less intelligent”, even when the moral precept being challenged was prima facie valid. Weaponized doubt became a scattershot weapon. There was a huge collateral damage toll in the last century; consider the millions of victims of just two “scientific” ideologies of the day, authoritarian Marxism and National Socialism. The echoes of the doubt-weapon persist in the 21st century. Liberation ideologies tend, perversely, to be all about the liberation of the self-anointed intelligentsia from moral constraints “invented by lesser minds”. Thus, conscientious ethicists who warn us about the moral perils of opening up a market in fetuses and improperly obtained human body parts are dismissed as anti-science religious nuts, a charge I can readily imagine being levied against physicians squeamish about some of the Nazi medical experiments in the 40’s.

There is plenty of fresh collateral damage from weaponized doubt. When it is aimed at G-d or any ultimate moral authority, it promotes forms of moral narcissism, both harmless and malevolent. The most serious risk: weaponized doubt promotes blindness to true evil. I’m talking here about the cold blood dripping, flat out evil of Adolph Hitler and his amoral clones, not the rhetorical evil-as-impurity. Blindness of that sort actually serves to empower evil, endowing it by default with the preternatural power of a blowtorch in a gasoline soaked forest.

More LINKS below….


A Physicist & G-d

Our Choice of the Lens

‘Easter’ Philosophy

Renaming the Universe

Reflections on Evil and the Modern Mind

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