Wonders in Science

This is one of the Hubble deep field images:

It is important to note that every little bright smudge on this image is a galaxy with billions of stars. This image is a very small piece of the sky, around 1 out of 150 million, making estimates of galaxies in the visible universe around 100 billion. It is worth pausing and thinking about that. When I think about the majesty of the universe I find it infinitely more inspiring than the parochial, one-world God, of the major religions. Just trying to imagine our place in this vastness, and to imagine that there are other beings out there doing the same thing, wondering if they are alone, there is a sense of awe and wonder that is difficult to describe. Try it sometime: try to grasp, even for a few seconds, what billions of billions of worlds would be like, spread across a space that takes millions of years for light to cross when light can circle the earth in (literally) the snap of a finger.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to Wonders in Science

  1. To play God’s Advocate here for a moment (rather than the devil’s): the major religions (as I understand them) do not speak of a “parochial one-world God”. That is, none of the major relgions of the world speak of a God who is merely the overseer of this planet. They speak of a God who made the universe you are talking about, and who watches over / monitors / governs it. Thus the wonder and awe they experience as they contemplate the universe just adds to the wonder and awe they experience as they contemplate their God.

    The big difference though, between the God that inspires them the universe that inspires you is that their God *cares* about them. He (in the major religions God is always a He) talks to them and listens to them. He has plans for them and cares about their welfare. For all the amazing wonder of our universe, it’s cold, uncaring, implacable and far out of our reach. It adds nothing to us – it only seems to isolate us, endanger us, expose us, threaten us. To the wonder and majesty of the universe, God adds warmth and personality, love and passion.

    Also, I would ask you, when you “imagine there are other beings out there” thinking this or that, and experience awe and inspiration at the thought, how are you different from those who look up at the stars and imagine a God out there thinking this or that, and experience awe and wonder at their own imaginary being? There again, those others out there you are imagining do nothing for us. They are as imaginary as Superman or E.T., and you can’t deny it. You can’t produce evidence for them and I can’t produce any against them – qualities they share with God.

    For the faithful, the idea of an incalculably vast universe with no purpose or plan behind it is frightening. Imagine waking up to find yourself alone on a bit of driftwood, afloat in an intractible ocean. No hope, no help on the horizon. Yes, there are others out there, at vast distances, who go about their business and care nothing for you, but that just adds to your misery.

    So anyway, all that to say: don’t be so hasty to dismiss the awe and wonder and inspiration that can be derived from religion. It is no less real, and maybe no more real, than the things which inspire you.

  2. brianblais says:

    “the major religions (as I understand them) do not speak of a “parochial one-world God”. “. If we restrict ourselves to the 3-big monotheisms, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, then I disagree with this. First, the bible is pretty clear that there is “the world”. So, what I said applies to all literalists (which make up a disturbingly high percentage of Americans). Second, I will grant, many people have updated their thinking somewhat to include a 13.7 Gy universe. But even many moderates believe that this was all created with humanity in mind. This is the epitome of parochial.

    i will admit that people have had experiences related to their religion that seem transcend the awe and wonder I speak of here. Perhaps Sam Harris is right in trying to uncover these higher forms of experience, related to us traditionally by the mystics. I have never experienced any such things personally, so perhaps I am lacking in some way. However, I would be with Sam Harris on this that understanding the universe is much more satisfying than attaching theses experiences to iron-age philosophy.

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