"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)
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.
“Even today, some opt for the comforts of mystification, preferring to believe that the wonders of the ancient world were built by Atlanteans, gods, or space travelers, instead of by thousands toiling in the sun. Such thinking robs our forerunners of their due, and us of their experience. Because then one can believe whatever one likes about the past - without having to confront the bones, potsherds, and inscriptions which tell us that people all over the world, time and again, have made similar advances and mistakes.”
Sir Martin Rees on our understanding of the universe
“I would say that although the earth is very small, it is one of the most important places in the galaxy. It is the one place where we know that something very complicated has evolved. That process has led from simple life by Darwinian evolution to creatures like ourselves, able to understand our origins and contemplate the wonder and the mysteries of the universe. We should not be impressed by sheer size but should also admire the intricate complexity of all the things on the earth. And the most complicated things that we know about are human beings. (…)
Q: You have said that there might have been more than just one Big Bang. How could that be?
Sir Rees: Of course it is just a speculation. But it is certainly possible, indeed likely, that there was a lot more to physical reality than the volume which we can probe with our telescopes. And almost everyone will agree that there many galaxies which are beyond the limits of what we can see with our telescopes. A few hundred years ago, nobody would have believed that our sun is not unique or that our galaxy is not the only galaxy. Thinking about the properties of the Big Bang is thus an entirely legitimate speculation. (…)
I don’t see it as an humiliation. We should not be impressed by size. What is important is complexity. Even an insect can be more impressive than a star because it is more complex. New discoveries about the universe should not take away the realization of our own complexity. (…)
Q: Is religion still a concept helping us to understand the hugeness and the variety that surrounds us? (…)
I think the universe revealed by modern science is a more wonderful place to live in than the rather more limited and constricted view that people had of the universe in the past. (…)”
Robert Bellah on human evolution, culture and religion
"“Nothing is ever lost” means that what we are now goes all the way back through natural history. We are biological organisms and not simply computerized brains. By focusing totally on the present, thinking only about science and computers, and forgetting four billion years of life on this planet, we are losing perspective on who and what we are. We’re running great risks of doing things that will not be good for us. The cost can be very high indeed if we reach the point where we can’t adapt to our own increasingly rapid adaptations. We run the risk of early extinction. So this certainly isn’t a triumphalist story, but it is trying to get at what, in the very long run, leads to the amazing creatures that we are. (…)
I discovered the cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald’s notion that human culture, in evolutionary terms, moves from episodic, to mimetic, to mythic, to theoretic—that made all kinds of sense. To some extent, ontogeny repeats phylogeny, because children go through something like the same thing. So it’s a deeply interdisciplinary study. I’m drawing on biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and child-development researchers all in order to understand the deep roots of what would ultimately become religion.”
"This isn’t about what is,” said Mr. Nancy.
“It’s about what people think is. It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.”
— Neil Gaiman, English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films, American Gods, William Morrow, 2001
"Our brains tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, ignoring information that contradicts them. Mr. Shermer calls this “belief-dependent reality.” The well-worn phrase “seeing is believing” has it backward: Our believing dictates what we’re seeing.”
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.”
“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.”
“If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we are going what the meaning of the universe is and so on then I think you can easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems. How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don’t know because the whole spirit is to unders…well never mind that, anyway I don’t understand that…but anyhow…if you think of it though…I..the way i think of what we are doing is, we are exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world.
People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No I am not. I am just looking to find out more about the world. And if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything so be it. That would be very nice discovery. If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we just sick and tired of looking at the layers then that’s the way it is! But whatever way it comes out it’s nature, it’s there, and she’s going to come out the way she is. And therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we are trying to do except to find out more about it. If you said…but..the problem is why we do you find out more about it, if you thought that you are trying to find out more about it because you are going to get an answer to some deep philosophical question you may be wrong and may be that you can’t get an answer to that particular question by finding out more about the character of the nature.
But I don’t look it at…my interest in science is to simply find out about the world…and the more I find out and…I like to find out…and there are very remarkable mysteries about the fact that we are able to do so many more things and apparently animals can do.
And other questions like that. Those are the mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them. So …altogether I can’t believe the special stories that’ve been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be…too simple, too connected, too local, too provincial. The “earth,” He came to “the earth”, one of the aspects God came to “the earth!” mind you, and look at what’s out there…? how can we…? it isn’t in proportion…!
Anyway it’s no use to argue, I can’t argue. I am just trying to tell you why the scientific views that I have do have some affect on my beliefs. And also another thing has to do with the question of how do you find out if something is true? And if you have all these theories of the different religions and all different theories about the thing then you begin to wonder…once you start doubting… just like you are supposed to doubt, you asked me if science is true, no no we don’t know what is true…no no we don’t know, we are trying ……start out understanding religion by saying everything is possibly wrong, let us see, as soon as you do that you start sliding down an edge which is harder to recover from. And one…so with the scientific view or my father’s view that we should look to see what’s true and what may not be true, once you start doubting ……which I think, to me, is a very fundamental part of my soul is to doubt and to ask, when you doubt and ask it gets a little harder to believe.
You see, one thing, is I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and then many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask, “Why we are here?” and what that question might mean. I might think about it a bit and then if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else.
But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t have to…i don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”