"There was this American physiologist who was asked if Mary’s bodily ascent from Earth to Heaven was possible. He said,"I wasn’t there; therefore, I’m not positive that it happened or didn’t happen; but of one thing I’m certain: She passed out at 10,000 meters.”
Lucretius: ‘O unhappy race of men, when they ascribed actions to the gods’
[W]hat cause has spread divine influence
of the gods through powerful states, filling
cities with altars, and brought it about
that men set up sacred ceremonies,
rituals which today are flourishing
at important times and in great places.
— V [1161-1166], p. 229.
[People] kept observing what went on
in the sky in fixed order—various seasons
of the year returning—and could not see
the causes that made these happen. Therefore,
they found themselves a way out, by linking
all these to the gods, making everything
directed by gods’ will. And they set up
habitations and spaces for the gods
up in the sky, for they saw night and moon
moving through the heavens—moon, day, and night,
glorious nocturnal constellations,
celestial torches wandering at night,
flying fires, clouds, sun, rain, snow, and wind,
lighting, hail, swift peals and ominous sounds
of menacing thunder.
O unhappy race of men,
when they ascribed such actions to the gods
and added to them bitter rage! What sorrow
they made for themselves then, what wounds for us,
what weeping for our children yet to come!
There is no piety in being seen
time and again turning towards a stone
with one’s head covered and approaching close
to every altar, and hurling oneself
prostrate on the ground, stretching out one’s palms
before gods’ shrines, or spreading lots of blood
from four-footed beasts on altars, or piling
sacred pledges onto sacred pledges,
but rather in being able to perceive
all things with one’s mind at peace.
— V, [1160-1205], p. 230-231.
[W]hen all the earth shakes underfoot
and tottering towns fall or their collapse
is threatened and hangs in doubt, no wonder
if races of mortal men hate themselves
and make room for the amazing powers
and immense forces of gods here on earth,
so that they have control of everything.
(…) — V, [1234-1240], p. 232.
[I]n their hearts the human race stirs up
anxious tides of worries, for the most part
with no good reason. For just as children
tremble in blinding darkness and are afraid
of everything, so sometimes in the light
we dread things which are no more to be feared
than those which during the night young people
tremble at, dreaming of what will happen.
Therefore, this terror, this darkness of mind,
must be dispelled, not by rays of sunlight
or bright arrows of the day, but by reason
and the face of nature.
— VI, [35-46], p. 241.
People say that gods, when angry, bring on
raging storms and then, when a lull occurs
in the fury] of the winds, that gods’ anger
is appeased and everything which was there
has changed back again, now that their anger
has been soothed. [I will explain] all the rest
which mortals creatures observe taking place
on earth and in the sky, when so often
they are in suspense, their minds full of dread,
things which demean their souls with fear of gods.
These weigh on them and press them to the ground.
Their ignorance of causes forces them
to assign things to the rule of deities
and to concede that gods are in control.
— VI, [55-67], p. 242.
[T]hey are carried back to old religion
and accept harsh masters, who, they believe,
in their misery, can do everything,
being ignorant of what can and cannot be,
in short, by what law each thing possesses
limited power, a deep-set boundary stone.
And therefore men lose their way even more,
carried away by their blind reasoning.
— Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman poet and philosopher (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC), De Rerum Natura(On the Nature of Things), translation: Ian Johnston, Richer Resources Publications, Arlington, Virginia, 2010. (Illustration: Lucretius)
Lucretius on the infinite universe, the beginning of things and the likelihood of extraterrestrial life
All things [the particles]
move everywhere, always in constant motion—
material stuff is stirred up and supplied
from down below out of infinite space.
This, therefore, is the nature of deep space
and its extent—bright lightning in its course
could not pass through it—though sliding forward
for unending tracts of time, its motion,
as it proceeded, would not diminish
the remaining distance it still had to go.
That shows how much immense space lies open
on all sides for things, free from all limits
everywhere in all directions.
nature herself makes sure the universe
cannot set limits to itself—she compels
matter to be enclosed within a void,
and void, in turn, to be bound by matter.
With this reciprocal relationship
she therefore makes the total infinite,
or else one of the two, if the other
did not limit it, in its unmixed form
would then extend out beyond all measure.
[But I have shown above that space spreads out
without limit; thus, matter, too, must be
infinite, for if the void were endless,
and the total sum of matter finite,]
neither sea nor earth nor sky’s bright spaces,
nor mortal races, nor sacred bodies
of the gods could endure for very long,
not even for the short space of an hour,
since, with their combined masses forced apart,
supplies of matter would be carried off
and scattered through huge areas of space,
or what is, in fact, more likely, matter
would never have united and therefore
would never have produced a single thing,
since, in its dispersed condition, it would
be incapable of forming compounds.
For clearly the first particles of things
did not all place themselves in due order
by their own planning or intelligence,
nor did they through some agreement assign
the motions each of them should have. Instead,
since there are many of them and they change
in many ways through all the universe,
they are pushed, energized by collisions,
for a limitless length of time, and then,
having gone through every kind of motion
and combination, they at length fall into
those arrangements which make up and create
this totality of things, which also,
once suitably set in patterned motion,
has been preserved through many lengthy years.
It makes rivers with large flows of water
refresh voracious seas, and earth, once warmed
by sun’s heat, restore what it produces,
races of living creatures grow and thrive,
and, in the aether, gliding fires live on.
There would be no way they could act like this,
unless supplies of matter kept arising
from infinite space, stuff which they then use
to restore, over time, what has been lost.
Thus, to repeat myself, many particles
must spring up. And yet to be capable
of keeping the number of those impacts
at a sufficient level, there must be
infinite amounts of matter on all sides.
In these things, Memmius, stay far away
from having faith what some people say—
that all matter presses to the centre
of the universe and for this reason
the substance of the world remains in place
without any collisions from outside,
and that the bottom and the top cannot
be forced apart in any direction,
since all matter sinks towards the centre—
if you believe that anything can stand
upon itself—and that all heavy things
on the lower part of earth press upward
and remain there, placed upside down on earth,
just as we now see images of things
— I [996-1061] p.45-47.
To start with, we know that in every part,
in all directions and on either side,
above and below and throughout all space,
there is no limit, as I have explained,
and facts themselves announce it on their own—
the nature of deep space is very clear.
Since infinite space lies empty on all sides
and seeds in countless numbers fly around
through the deep universe in various ways,
driven by eternal motion, we must not,
in any way, now think it probable
that only this one sphere of earth and sky
have been created, that beyond us here
all those many particles of matter
do nothing at all, especially since earth
was made by nature. Seeds of things themselves,
jostling freely here and there in various ways
and forced to random, confused collisions,
produced nothing—then finally those ones
suddenly united which could become,
every time, the beginnings of great things,
land, sea, sky, the race of living beings.
And so, to repeat myself, you must grant
that there are other aggregates of matter
similar to this in other places,
which aether clutches in its keen embrace.
Further, when large quantities of matter
are on hand and there is sufficient space,
with no causal factor standing in the way,
we may be sure that things must be produced
and their full development completed.
Now, if supplies of seed are so enormous
that all the years of living animals
could not count the total, and if nature
and the same force remain which could collect
the seeds of matter into every place
in the same way they are thrown together here,
one must grant there are other earthly spheres
in other regions, with different races
of human beings and classes of wild beasts.
Add to this that in the whole universe
no single thing exists all on its own:
nothing is born unique and flourishes
as the single specimen of its kind.
Instead it always belongs to some race,
and those of the same kind are numerous.
If, to begin with, you direct your mind
to living creatures, you will discover
this is true for living varieties
of savage animals which roam the hills,
true for human offspring, and it is true
for mute herds of scaly fish and all bodies
of things which fly. Thus, one must acknowledge,
that, in the same way, sky, land, sun, moon, sea,
and all the other objects which exist
are not unique—instead their quantity
is beyond all counting.
If you grasp these points well and hold to them,
you will see at once that nature is free,
liberated from her proud possessors,
doing all things on her own initiative,
without divinities playing any part.
— II [1047-1094] p. 89-90.
Since the moment earth was first created,
that day sea, land, and rising sun were born,
many particles have been added on
from areas outside. All around them,
seeds which the immense universe has joined
by hurling them about have been attached.
Because of that, sea and lands could increase,
the mansion of the sky could gain more space
and raise its high roof far above the land,
and air could flow there.
— Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman poet and philosopher (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC), De Rerum Natura(On the Nature of Things), translation: Ian Johnston, Richer Resources Publications, Arlington, Virginia, 2010.
Marcelo Gleiser: Life is fundamentally asymmetric
“Look into a mirror and you’ll simultaneously see the familiar and the alien: an image of you, but with left and right reversed. Left-right inequality has significance far beyond that of mirror images, touching on the heart of existence itself. From subatomic physics to life, nature prefers asymmetry to symmetry. (…) Life is fundamentally asymmetric. (…)
Somehow, during its infancy, the cosmos selected matter over antimatter. This imperfection is the single most important factor dictating our existence. (…) It is not symmetry and perfection that should be our guiding principle, as it has been for millennia. (…)
The science we create is just that, our creation. Wonderful as it is, it is always limited, it is always constrained by what we know of the world. […] The notion that there is a well-defined hypermathematical structure that determines all there is in the cosmos is a Platonic delusion with no relationship to physical reality. (…)
The critics of this idea miss the fact that a meaningless cosmos that produced humans (and possibly other intelligences) will never be meaningless to them (or to the other intelligences). To exist in a purposeless Universe is even more meaningful than to exist as the result of some kind of mysterious cosmic plan. Why? Because it elevates the emergence of life and mind to a rare event, as opposed to a ubiquitous and premeditated one. (…)
Unified theories, life principles, and self-aware universes are all expressions of our need to find a connection between who we are and the world we live in. I do not question the extreme importance of understanding the connection between man and the cosmos. But I do question that it has to derive from unifying principles. (…)
For a clever fish, water is “just right“ for it to swim in. Had it been too cold, it would freeze; too hot, it would boil. Surely the water temperature had to be just right for the fish to exist. “I’m very important. My existence cannot be an accident,” the proud fish would conclude. Well, he is not very important. He is just a clever fish. The ocean temperature is not being controlled with the purpose of making it possible for it to exist. Quite the opposite: the fish is fragile. A sudden or gradual temperature swing would kill it, as any trout fisherman knows. We so crave for meaningful connections that we see them even when they are not there. (…) The gravest mistake we can make is to think that the cosmos has plans for us, that we are somehow special from a cosmic perspective.
“Mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity” — and contemporary philosophy is also irrelevant, having “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.” The proper approach to answering these deep questions is the application of the methods of science, including archaeology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Also, we should study insects."
— Edward O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher in sociobiology, biodiversity, theorist, naturalist and author, paraphrased by Paul Bloom in The Original Colonists, The New York Times, May 11, 2012.
"Once you reject evidence as a source of knowledge, you don’t gotta believe nothin’ you don’t like."
The Three Passions of Bertrand Russell: Love, Truth, and Justice
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair. (…)
I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved. (…)
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to Earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me. (…)
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy - ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness - that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. (…)
This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found. (…)
I had supposed until that time that it was quite common for parents to love their children, but the war persuaded me that it is a rare exception. I had supposed that most people liked money better than almost anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better. I had supposed that intellectuals frequently loved truth, but I found here again that not ten per cent of them prefer truth to popularity. (…)
As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of all the belligerent nations sickened me. As a lover of civilization, the return to barbarism appalled me. (…)
He asked my religion and I replied “agnostic.” He asked how to spell it, and remarked with a sigh: “Well, there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God.” (…)
I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.”
"Humanismis a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.
Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility.
It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values — be they religious, ethical, social, or political — have their source in human experience and culture.
Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.”
Stephen Hawking on science, human purpose and death
Q: What is the value in knowing “Why are we here?”
SH: The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value. (…)
Q: So here we are. What should we do?
SH: We should seek the greatest value of our action. (…)
"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."
Q: What are the things you find most beautiful in science?
SH: Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.
“If you can’t go by reason, what can you go by? One answer is faith. But faith in what? I notice there’s no general agreement in the world. These matters of faith, they are not compelling. I have my faith, you have your faith, and there’s no way in which I can translate my faith to you or vice versa. At least, as far as reason is concerned, there’s a system of transfer, a system of rational argument following the laws of logic that a great many people agree on, so that in reason, there are what we call compelling arguments. If I locate certain kinds of evidence, even people who disagreed with me to begin with, find themselves compelled by the evidence to agree. But whenever we go beyond reason into faith, there’s no such thing as compelling evidence. Even if you have a revelation, how can you transfer that revelation to others? By what system?
Q:So you find your hope for the future in the mind.
Yes, I have to say, I can’t wait until everyone in the world is rational, or until just enough are rational to make a difference.”
Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet Discuss the Meaning of Life and Death
A British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist discuss the meaning of life and death.
Lawrence Krauss on understanding the universe
“Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.
(…) The amazing effort to understand how the universe works reveals wonders far more remarkable than those presented by Bronze age myths, developed before we had any clear understanding of how the universe works. Simply arguing that one doesn’t understand the results, or doesn’t like the results and therefore one has to resort to supernatural explanations (…) is indeed intellectually lazy, as I did say at the time.”
Sam Keen on renewing our sense of wonder - “Human beings are what I think of as “biomythic” animals: we’re controlled largely by the stories we tell”
“Keen believes that our lives are shaped — and occasionally misshaped — by the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s only by becoming intimately acquainted with these narratives — as they have been handed down from our families, our cultural backgrounds, our religious beliefs — that we can begin to live consciously and, as the Sufi poet Rumi said, “unfold our own myth.” Unless we understand our lives as a kind of autobiography in the making, we’re likely to take refuge in other people’s stories, in ready-made ideologies, and in unexamined systems of belief. (…) The paradox of self-knowledge is that it’s only by confronting the depths of our own ignorance that we can begin to glimpse the essential truth of who we are.”
“I think we’re always in the process of writing and rewriting the story of our lives, forming our experiences into a narrative that makes sense. Much of that work involves demythologizing family myths and cultural myths — getting free of what we have been told about ourselves. I think that critiquing the myths of our society and helping people find their way through them is a very important thing. (…)
Cultures that have a unifying cultural narrative are stable in some ways, but they are also resistant to change. The fact that we don’t have a unifying myth today allows us to create new stories from direct experience.
For the past several years, I’ve been leading groups into Bhutan, a country that has probably the most intact cultural myth of any place I’ve been. It’s an agricultural society where more than ninety percent of the people still own land. The government is a monarchy with a Tibetan Buddhist mythology. For the Bhutanese, reality is simply what it always has been and always will be. In that sense, they are spared the kind of self-doubt that seems part and parcel of our predicament in the West. They are brought up knowing who they are and how the world works. And there is an innocent beauty in that. But there is also a certain foreshortening of experience.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the development of Western thought has washed away more and more of the certainties of our own religious myths. Our pilgrimage has led us deep into unknown territories. We have to re-invent ourselves. That’s a very tiring process and anxious process, but it also grants us a kind of freedom that no other culture has. So for all the chaos that comes from not having an organizing myth, there is also an enormous opportunity for creativity. (…)
In a way, human beings have never been part of the natural order; we’re not biological in the normal sense. Normal biological animals stop eating when they’re not hungry and stop breeding when there is no sense in breeding. By contrast, human beings are what I think of as “biomythic” animals: we’re controlled largely by the stories we tell. When we get the story wrong, we get out of harmony with the rest of the natural order. For a long time, our unnatural beahvior didn’t threaten the natural world, but now it does. (…)
Most of us are fear-avoiders. We worship the god of security. Instead of facing our fears, we walk around with a kind of free-floating anxiety. It’s much more therapeutic to recognize that we have fears and to try to separate out the ones that are reasonable from the ones that are not. I think we have to become connoisseurs of fear. (…)
We have to get beyond our cultural mythology to find out who we are. “Writing my autobiography,” as I call it, necessarily involves demythologizing my family’s history, my culture’s history, and even my own history to get to this deeper layer. So I think it’s increasingly hard to have deep self-knowledge without entering the darkness in some way. (…)
Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. I believe it also ends in wonder. The ultimate way in which we relate to the world as something sacred is by renewing our sense of wonder. That’s why I’m so opposed to the kind of miracle-mongering we find in both new-age religion and old-age religion. We’re attracted to pseudomiracles only because we’ve ceased to wonder at the world, at how amazing it is.”
“Richard Feynman used to go up to people all the time and he’d say “You won’t believe what happened to me today… you won’t believe what happened to me” and people would say “What?” and he’d say “Absolutely nothing”. Because we humans believe that everything that happens to us is special and significant. And that — and Carl Sagan wrote beautifully about that in The Demon-Haunted World — that is much of the source of religion.
Everything that happens is unusual and I expect that the likelihood that Richard and I ever would’ve met. If you think about all the variables: the probability that we were in the same place at the same time, ate breakfast the same. Whatever. It’s zero.
Every event that happens has small probability… but it happens and then when it happens; if it’s weird, if you dream one million nights and it’s nonsense but one night you dream that your friend is gonna break his leg and the next day he breaks his arm… *sound of revelation*. So the really thing that physics tell us about the universe is that it’s big, rare event happens all the time — including life — and that doesn’t mean it’s special."
— Lawrence Krauss, American Theoretical Physicist who is Professor of Physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at the Arizona State University, Closing words for "A Universe From Nothing" (01:03:20 - 01:04:30), AAI 2009.