Astronomy Columnist Tackles Naturalism vs. Intelligence
Bob Berman is an unusual columnist for a science magazine. He’s independent-thinking, unafraid to tackle big questions and criticize powerful institutions, but all the while able to keep a sense of humor. In his monthly column “Bob Berman’s Strange Universe” in the November issue of Astronomy (p. 10), he took a moment from munching on his hot dog under the moon to think big. “Astronomy leads us to deep issues,” he began. “Many are so profound, we can’t even handle them.” In “Hall of Mirrors,” he nevertheless handled, in his own whimsical way, some of the biggest: quantum theory, consciousness, perception, time, space, and intelligence.
Take the question of intelligence lurking throughout the cosmos. This topic arises when we look for life beneath the martian surface or perform SETI searches. We assume life is out there, but we don’t know its limits….
Or consider nature itself, which most of us feel is smart. Yet, it supposedly arose randomly from inert matter. So we have this universe, which is basically as dumb as gravel. A few billion years ago, some witless bits of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen slammed together for awhile until out popped Kobayashi – the Japanese competitive eater who devours hot dogs. How carbon and oxygen atoms should have ever developed a taste for frankfurters is mysterious. But there you have it, and it probably happened on other worlds, too. We’re left with a combo plate: Some of the universe is smart, some of it is dumb. We’re never quite sure where to draw the line.
So given that the source of intelligence in the universe is a profound mystery, who does a better job explaining it: scientists, or theologians? Berman switches the conventional whipping boys:
If all this sounds far-out, well, you bet it is – although no more so than the standard model where the universe popped out of nothingness like a jack-in-the-box. Any way you slice it, the biggest aspects of the cosmos are strange and mysterious.
Religions push back these mysteries by one step, and science, understandably, finds this unhelpful, even if it cannot come to the rescue itself. We’re left with the stuff no one talks about, the uncle with the facial tic that everyone tries to ignore.
I think mysteries are among the best parts of astronomy, the perfect accompaniments to a starry night. Scientists love ’em too, as they brilliantly chip away. It would be nice, however, if cosmologists would put a lid on their arrogant ghetto-talk about their latest theory of everything and admit – just once in a while – that their knowledge is a single snowflake in the blizzard of the unknown.
So even though he called it a draw, he reserved his biggest put-down for the standard cosmologists. No worries, mate: “Me, I’m gonna observe the Moon,” he ended amicably. “Want a hot dog?”
Bob Berman is a rare columnist unafraid to stand up to the big guys in Big Science when he thinks they are a bunch of clueless loudmouths who don’t know what they are talking about (see 10/06/2004). Bravo.
Is it really adding another step, though, to posit God as the Author of intelligence? Is it really unhelpful? This common misconception needs to be put in its place. Carl Sagan used this in Cosmos as one of his many digs at religion, saying “Why not save a step, and say that the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question?” Don’t just swallow this line and feel intimidated by it. It’s time to go on offense:
- It begs the question that saving a step is a good thing. Sometimes it is, but not always. Should a pilot save a step, and skip over his flight checklist?
- It is not really saving a step. Materialists have exactly the same problem. They need a step to explain the origin of the cosmos, so in the place of God, they put a multiverse, nothingness, or their own imaginations. If anything, they are adding steps if not multiplying them.
- Omitting a source of intelligence for the cosmos leaves intelligence unexplained. It is a deficient answer.
- Supposing that intelligence can arise from non-intelligent matter (Berman’s “dumb as gravel” stuff) has no empirical support. It is tantamount to ascribing God-like powers to inanimate objects.
- Skipping the question just because it is mysterious is a cop-out. This is an arbitrary move in a debate, which spells death to logic. Deal with it. Either explain how intelligence arose spontaneously without an intelligent cause, or consider the alternatives honestly, without arrogance.
- Rational discussion is impossible in a material universe of impersonal, unintelligent particles and forces, because reasoning presupposes the existence of truth and the laws of logic – which are immaterial and unchangeable. Deny that and your arguments become arbitrary and inconsistent; i.e., you forfeit the debate.
In a day when most science reporters and columnists just regurgitate whatever scientists say about everything, it is refreshing to see an exception every once in awhile. Bob understands the enormity of these questions for religion and philosophy and does not endure arrogant posturing even by the inhabitants of powerful ghettos. We applaud Mr. Berman for having the guts to call it like he sees it.