Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox

I’ve never felt terribly comfortable with the display of passion from believers. It isn’t that it bothers me that people believe false things (though it does) or that someone is claiming to be so emotionally moved by their belief. It’s that it lacks something. It’s one of those intangible things that’s difficult to really identify. It’s like the body from Weekend at Bernie’s. Yeah, it was moving and it fooled a lot of people, but it was ultimately lifeless.

That isn’t to say I think believers are being insincere or that they aren’t really wrapped up in their belief. Of course they are. But when they try and convey that, they lose me. And it isn’t merely that I find what they believe to be silly. Hitler believed a lot of moronic things (including creationism), but when he conveyed them, he didn’t lose anyone in the room. He had a real passion, awful as it was.

And the same goes for a lot of figures, including one’s much more revered in history. Sticking with the WW2 theme, Churchill and FDR conveyed some real passion in their words. Moving further up in history, JFK and MLK both passed on their passion. You could feel it. You knew they meant what they were saying.

I think the same goes for a number of scientific figures, but probably for different reasons. With the political and social people I just mentioned, I’m not so sure what it is that really drove them. For Hitler, it was probably simple hate. For the others, they probably had convictions fundamental to who they were as humans, I would hazard to guess. But I’m not sure there was one underlying thing that made their passion so real. For people like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, though, I think what makes their passion so special is that it is underlined by a deep understanding. When they speak their beliefs, they know they are as close to truth as anyone can get. Religious believers may think they’ve found truth, but since they have zero methods for determining as much, they can’t know it.

And that brings me to Brian Cox. He currently has a fantastic show on The Science Channel right now called Wonders of the Universe. Throughout every moment of the show, it’s obvious he has a passion. You can feel it. And along with the Dawkins’ and Sagan’s and Tyson’s of the scientific world, he conveys it in a way that is uniquely powerful, unavailable to mere believers.

I won’t be so bold as to call him the next Carl Sagan, but he has that same passion, that same fire. It’s really exciting stuff, under all of which lies an intensely deep understanding.

Religion and the fear of death

One of the motivators for religious belief is the comfort it provides. For many people it provides an immediate comfort because it allows one to be a part of a bigger group, and people like to belong. For others, it provides a comfort of ‘knowing’. For instance, we all want to know the answer to a lot of basic questions like “How old is the Earth” and “How did humanity begin”. Religion – while it has either always been wrong or been forced to defer to science in order to be correct (and even then it usually mangles things) – makes strong claims that it has the answers. But for so many others, religion provides comfort against the fear of death. Many of us want to believe we keep on existing, that all we’ve done in our lives has some unending meaning, and maybe ultimately, that we are never alone. It is this final sort of comfort that indirectly forms the basis of some new research:

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.) have found that people’s ‘death anxiety’ can influence them to support theories of intelligent design and reject evolutionary theory…

The researchers carried out five studies with 1,674 U.S. and Canadian participants of different ages and a broad range of educational, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.

In each study, participants were asked to imagine their own death and write about their subsequent thoughts and feelings, or they were assigned to a control condition: imagining dental pain and writing about that.

The participants were then asked to read two similarly styled, 174-word excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins, which make no mention of religion or belief, but describe the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.

After going through these steps, participants who imagined their own death showed greater support for intelligent design and greater liking for [Michael] Behe, or a rejection of evolution theory coupled with disliking for [Richard] Dawkins, compared to participants in the control condition.

However, the research team saw reversed effects during the fourth study which had a new condition. Along with writings by Behe and Dawkins, there was an additional passage by Carl Sagan. A cosmologist and science writer, Sagan argues that naturalism — the scientific approach that underlies evolution, but not intelligent design — can also provide a sense of meaning. In response, these participants showed reduced belief in intelligent design after being reminded of their own mortality.

While it was creationism intelligent design that was chosen for this experiment, I see this study as representative of religion at large. When shown two different arguments, a sizable portion of the participants clearly chose to reject evolution on the basis that it provided them with no sense of meaning. It isn’t particularly relevant that the alternative was specifically creationism intelligent design since there is no science to be found within any religious idea anyway – nor is there any science supporting any religious claim of significance. Any relatively mainstream religious idea could have been presented in science-y terms – just as creationism intelligent design is – and then used as a tool for comparison.

This isn’t all to say that the primary motivator for religious belief is the fear of death. I suspect it’s actually culture and upbringing – the biggest indicator of what one’s religion will be is what his or her parent’s religion is. But the fear of death – the fear of the unknown – frightens people and makes them uncomfortable. Religion helps to ease that discomfort with its made-up stories and fairy tales, and so it acts as a tightly woven net that catches people before they can fall into reason or even momentary consideration of their beliefs.

While the results of this study are obvious (and while they will be distorted by believers), I think there is another interesting point here, albeit an obvious one. There are a lot of accomodationists (Collins, Giberson, Miller, etc) out there who will argue that religion and science are compatible. While their position is one that is in some ways a small improvement over the current situation, there is comfort in the fact that they aren’t winning over too many adherents. People still recognize that evolution does largely eliminate their particular, cultural god. The fact that we know humans were not inevitable (or any other animal, for that matter) means that most of the gods in which people believe are untenable. That is, the sort of gods people praise are almost always the ones that deemed the inevitably of humanity. That inevitably takes away the random components of life and gives credence to why a god would care about us at all. I think the recognition that evolution takes this all away is ultimately good because it shows that while these people do not understand evolution in its details, they do understand its implications. That is a good thing – even if they falsely associate those implications with a lack of meaning in life.


Yet another Symphony of Science

This one includes some familiar and some new ‘singers’ (including someone without a penis for the first time in the series): Michael Shermer, Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Jill Tarter, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Feynman, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Carolyn Porco, and PZ Myers.

(Whoops. As a commenter pointed out, Jane Goodall was in the last one. But this one has two women, so, uh, there.)

Article on Dawkins

I’m swamped in Marine Biology, Human Nutrition, Genetics, some philosophy and other areas of study this weekend, so cheapo-posts will have to do. Here is an article about Richard Dawkins I found enlightening.

So he is genuinely puzzled by people calling him aggressive. “Well, I’m nothing like as aggressive as I’m portrayed. And I’m always being labelled ‘strident’. In the bestseller lists it always has a little one-line summary of the book, and for my new one it says ‘strident academic Richard Dawkins’. I’m forever saddled with this wretched adjective. I think I’m one of the most unstrident people in the world. I’d like to think my books are humorous at points,” he adds, pensively. “I’d like to think people laugh when they read them.”

And when asked about who may read them,

So finally I have to ask him, does he honestly think any creationists will read it?

“Hardline, mind-made-up creationists, no. But there are lots of people, people who think they are creationists but who haven’t thought about it very hard, people who grew up in some religion or other, who are just beginning to question what they were taught. And all of a sudden they are reading about evolution and saying, wait a minute, this makes sense. I get a lot of letters from people thanking me, saying, ‘You’ve changed my life.’ That is very, very gratifying.” So you have actually converted people? “Well, for example, I was at one point teaching in Oxford, and we had an animal-behaviour student who was a creationist from some out-of-the-way Bible college in America. He came dutifully to all my lectures, every week, and after the last lecture, he came down to the desk where I was packing up my notes and he said, ‘Gee, this evolution, it really makes sense!’ So yes, yes, I do believe that people can change their minds, be convinced by the truth. And I thought, yes, that’s what I’m here for.”