Waking Up in the Universe

“The odds against our century’s happening to be the present century are the same as the odds against a penny tossed out at random on the road from London to Istanbul happening to fall on a particular ant.”

This is the first part of Richard Dawkins’ 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture entitled “Growing Up in the Universe” that was intended to provide young people with an introduction to evolution, and more generally, the wonders of science. In the lecture, Dawkins aims to shake off the “anesthetic of the familiar” and, in various ways, demonstrates the usefulness of science in aiding our understanding of the universe. Rather than re-invent the wheel, Wikipedia provides an excellent summary of the series here.

Also “The DVD Outsider” has an extensive review of the series (I’ll spare beleaguered theists the stridently anti-religious rant that precedes it, even though it’s highly entertaining):

The human brain is the most sophisticated object in the known universe and hey, you’ve got one! Yes, you had to go through the complex reproductive process to obtain one but the fact is that if you are reading this, you are the proud possessor of a human brain. What are the odds? Actually the odds of you being here reading this are staggeringly small. If you could grasp just how small, you’d wake up each morning thrilled to be alive and the prospect of more discoveries about the wonder that is your life before being shut down for good, with luck, at extreme old age. If you’ve passed on your genes then you’ve done your job (as far as evolution is concerned).

I am not naïve to think that life is wonderful for all (there are many things that conspire to make it hard. I could have done without pain for a start) but as a child you ask questions. If you have teachers and guardians that are well informed then the world isn’t so much an oyster as a sumptuous banquet just waiting for you to taste its many pleasures.

The tossing pennies rubbishing of psychic events and the cannonball aimed squarely at Dawkins’ own head (faith in scientific principles) are small but exquisite pleasures in this particular lecture and I’m happy to report that my ten year old put his hand up more than once after the audience was asked a question. That’s getting your audience involved.

It would certainly be wonderful to see science taught this way in the classroom rather than as is more frequently the case, in dull fashions that result in it being a stultifying exercise in boredom. In this regard, let me direct your attention to the tragic story of Andy, a gifted 12-year old who entered his junior high school science fair with the challenge to “invent something new and useful.” Andy thought about the problem for a while and, after the expected failed attempts and blind alleys, came up with the idea of a self-buttering toaster. Kind of a Rube Goldberg contraption, to be sure, but quite a clever invention for a 12-year old.

The evening of the fair approached, and Andy and I looked forward with anticipation and excitement to a night of glory. The judges, a collection of teachers and parent volunteers, methodically walked up and down each aisle. They asked questions, measured things with rulers, made notes on clipboards, and generally maintained a judgelike demeanor. When the judges came to Andy’s table, the toaster worked perfectly. With self-assurance and a smile, he handed each judge a slice of warm, buttery Wonder Bread for a snack.

But when the winners were announced, Andy’s name wasn’t called. Crestfallen, he approached the judges and asked, “Why didn’t I get a ribbon?”

“Well, Andy,” said a judge, “we thought your machine was dangerous. After all, it uses electricity and it gets very hot.”

“Of course it does. It’s a toaster,” he protested. “It’s supposed to get hot and use electricity. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a toaster.” Unswayed by logic, the judges would not reconsider.

So who won? First place went to a girl who made a cap and vest for her hamster. Second place went to a boy who “made” radar.

“Hamster clothes? That’s so lame,” Andy whispered to me during the award ceremony. “And that the second place kid didn’t invent radar. He just cut out some pictures of radar antennas and glued them to a poster board.”

More seriously, several years ago, a cross-party group of MPs in the U.K. comprising the Commons science and technology committee found that the rote learning of facts of little use has effectively made science a “tedious and dull activity.” Chairman of the committee Dr. Ian Gibson MP said: “Science should be the most exciting subject on the school curriculum: scientific controversies and breakthroughs hit the headlines every day. But school science can be so boring it puts young people off science for life.” I don’t imagine that the situation is all that much different here in Canada. What an awful shame.

13 Replies to “Waking Up in the Universe”

  1. “I defy any of my coreligionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.”
    Ann Coulter – Godless.

  2. MJD — You said:

    Please allow me to add, with evidence above, that to say NO Faith is also the ONE TRUE… I guess “path?”… may also not be the answer…

    Please don’t put words in my mouth. I’m not of the school of thought that suggests atheism is a “path” to anything. I simply don’t believe in God or supernatural beings as prime movers in the universe, that’s all.

    I will say that I don’t find religion to be terribly edifying when it comes to answering some of the most fundamental and vexing questions of existence, but then science isn’t altogether satisfying in that respect either. Philosophy may be pleasing in this regard, but like religion, it too is just a man-made intellectual construct without any real validation by way of evidence.

    It all seems like You dare question “X” God and ye shall burn in eternity, heretic! topped off with You believe in a God and you are an idiot who will remain stupid and inconsequential to anyone with an IQ for eternity, heretic!

    It may well seem that way, as there are some religious beliefs that are pretty darned silly if you ask me (e.g., most of Leviticus). I do think that a “literal” interpretation of the Bible is, quite frankly, idiotic. There’s no two ways about that being just plain dumb in my opinion. A more sophisticated reading of the Bible acknowledging that much of it is metaphorical, allegorical and so on is another matter altogether.

    When you’re like me, which is worse?

    I believe that’s what’s known as a “false dilemma” in logic. I don’t think you’d really want to be making a choice about the matter based on the lesser of two evils, so to speak. Besides, when it comes to “belief” or “faith” you either have it, or you don’t. It’s not really a choice in my opinion. I know I certainly didn’t “choose” to not believe, I just came to that realization when I was about 10 yrs. old. The notion of an afterlife seemed ridiculous to me. I can’t say for sure that there isn’t such a thing, but it seems rather highly improbable.

    One, in my opinion, must think for themselves, find out what works for them, and be tolerant of others…

    Quite so. Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency for religion to encourage intellectual laziness. In fact, the Catholic Church has thrived off keeping its unlettered flock largely in the dark for millennia.

    I hate being told how to think… and I honestly do not believe in “magic” in a “mystical” sense… or really any other sense come to think about it…

    …and those things that appear to be magic will most likely be properly investigated and proven as to their causation… but until they are, again, should we dismiss COMPLETELY everything?

    Well, I hate being told how to think as well. I’d say that most people do, but that’s actually not the case. Many it seems quite like being told what to think and being conveniently provided with what they regard as the “answers” to all of life’s problems.

    Should we dismiss completely everything? No, but we should seriously question everything and decide whether it’s worth investing a lot of intellectual capital in. I happen to think the supernatural isn’t. It seems like a complete waste of time and effort to me and, more importantly, it leads absolutely nowhere. It has no practical application at all.

    I’d like to believe in magic because it would certainly make life a whole lot easier. Or so one might think. I suspect however, that like the proverbial magic lamp, it would fraught with all sorts of unintended consequences. Just imagine if everyone was a “Q” (like on Star Trek)…

    Anyway, I agree… and you’ll find Wiccans (Pagans) do still worship the “Gods of old”… so they’re not as dead yet as some might assume.

    There’s all sorts of weird, cultish beliefs out there. There’s something to be said for paganism as far as that sort of thing goes. I still think it’s all nonsense, but that isn’t to say that it can’t be well-intentioned and quite benign.

  3. “There’s all sorts of weird, cultish beliefs out there.”

    So true, and all religions are, in essence, cults.

  4. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

    I didn’t. I added my own to a statement. Big difference between saying You said and Let me add… but fine.

    I believe that’s what’s known as a “false dilemma” in logic.

    I am always so glad when people help interpret my experiences and feelings for me. I mean, after all, why should I think for myself when someone can help think for me?

    Besides, when it comes to “belief” or “faith” you either have it, or you don’t.

    So you can’t “doubt” certain beliefs or faiths? You must simply “obey” or “rebel”? You can’t look at aspects of certain religious teachings and absorb what works for you and discard what you do see as nonsense?

    …seems kinda binary to me…

    …but then again, I shouldn’t be thinking for myself!

    I certainly didn’t “choose” to not believe, I just came to that realization when I was about 10 yrs. old.

    That’s awfully young to establish a life’s philosophy? Kinda tragic too as most ten year old’s still believe in Santa… Still, this is a comment, not a question…

    The notion of an afterlife seemed ridiculous to me. I can’t say for sure that there isn’t such a thing, but it seems rather highly improbable.

    Thank you.

    Like I said, MOST atheists I’ve bumped into cite “SCIENCE IS MY GOD” which is admirable, but then don’t know poop about science as they then prove by stating an absolute on what still has to be considered an untested hypothesis.

    Since KEvron seems to think that at any moment, I’m going to start quoting scripture and splashing holy water over everyone, it’s the idea of the afterlife that has me arguing… not a personal belief in it as such, but an interest in it. (Google my name and you can laugh at me a lot… but PLEASE NOTE: I do count the former and present chairman of Skeptics(sic) Canada as friends…)

    Yes, I’m a ghost idiot… a “ghostie-buster”… one of those idiots running about the haunted house with Scooby-Doo… and have been so since 1997.

    …but, like KEvron did here (amongst others) is they don’t read… and notice in my notes and editorials I do not subscribe to “ghostly experiences” as being defined… and I do not subscribe to them being “dead people” nor “extra-dimensionals” nor anything really… I just think really weird things are experienced that seem very real to the witness… and I like to try and figure out what those experiences are caused by… or at least, examine possible causations.

    It’s not for everyone… and some may think I’m wasting my time (Read: Most of you.) but it’s my time… and at least I’m not preaching any belief nor charging those affected any money.

    This is why I argue the way I do… and I’ve debated with the best and brightest, trust me. (Yes, including Randi, Alcock, DeRobertis, the defunct CSICOP (now Crime Scene Investigations which is CFI)…

    …now do you have a sense of where my “actual experience” with Atheists and Humanists come from?

    For the record, the individuals I mention above, in person one-on-one are nice, charming, and very knowledgeable and discussions are usually very eye opening… although they didn’t convert me… (nor I them…) and two of the above are “so-called” sceptics, but devoutly religious…

    …no, it’s their followers. Their “flock”. Many of them are acidic, nasty, and yeah, REALLY scary. If they acted on what they preach, anyone wearing a Star of David, Crucifix, or Crescent… or any other type of “symbol”… would be in REALLY big trouble.

    What’s sadder for me is that some of the “higher-ups” in the Humanists and sceptical groups are more than well aware that it is not science and it is a “cult of non-faith” in itself… and are happy with it as they see themselves as the Messiahs of “truth”… and when you’re drinking a tea and hear effectively these words from someone you see as a learned, older, supposed-to-be-wiser person, the tea tends trying to leap out of your mouth in a comedic, yet frantically scared in some ways, fashion.

    Do I believe in a God as the current and past religions say? No, not really…

    Do I believe that all religions are bad? No.

    Do I believe that all religious people are idiots? Not at all… in fact, I can introduce you to some that would blow your mind… but they still didn’t convert me… and the real intelligent ones didn’t try.

    Do I believe that there can never be a “universal intelligence” out there or possibly here with us now? I doubt it… but don’t deny it… Ergo: I can never be an Atheist.

    …and here’s the rub… that will continue the dislike people have for me here and other places…

    Do I think that the current structure of those the report to be “Humanists” and “Atheists” are, for the most part, cults and religions unto themselves that are as bad and as nasty as those theists and religions that wish to dictate the philosophies or everyone on Earth? Well, so far they aren’t as violent as some, but yes…

    From everything I’ve seen, all I can say is Atheism sure seems like a cult… for some, like yourself, it’s a philosophy that appears to have been considered… but for other’s, it’s a cult they join because they think only smrt ppl r Eh-thee-izts thanks to propaganda and the tearing down of easy targets in religious beliefs and the constant “mantra” of we are science that’s droned without proper understanding of the basis for science…

    I will now allow the masses to claim victory and slink off to my corner with my dunce cap… because I’m certain now that I’ve come “out of the closet”, there will be mocking… and I’ve wasted enough pixels on this topic.

  5. MJD — Wow. That’s quite lengthy and it would take quite a while to address every single point you raise, so let me just focus in on one for now.

    So you can’t “doubt” certain beliefs or faiths? You must simply “obey” or “rebel”? You can’t look at aspects of certain religious teachings and absorb what works for you and discard what you do see as nonsense?

    When I said that with regards to “belief” or “faith” you either have it, or you don’t, what I was referring to is the fact that “belief” of this kind isn’t the product of a rational thought process; it’s largely an emotional experience. Faith comes from the heart, not the head, or as it says in Romans 10:10: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” It seems to me, that to be a true believer, one almost has to put reason aside in order to make the “leap of faith” necessary to acceptance of a supernatural view of the world that otherwise defies credibility.

    It’s not really a question of having to either “obey” or “rebel” but simply not believing. To obey or rebel would have to be premised on actually “believing” in the thing one is supposedly obeying or rebelling against. Atheism is, as I stated before, simply an absence of belief. Other atheists may feel that it encompasses a good deal more than that, but strictly speaking, it doesn’t. It’s simply a starting point.

    Of course you can look eclectically at different aspects of certain religious teachings and take from them whatever you want. That, of course, is entirely another thing being a “believer” in one particular faith, however. And indeed, it must be said, that many so-called “Christians” do much the same thing — picking and choosing what they want to believe or will accept, and discarding the rest as archaic nonsense and/or rationalizing what they find objectionable as being inapplicable to them. They too, of course, are hellbound. 😉

  6. “I doubt it… but don’t deny it… Ergo: I can never be an Atheist.”

    Well, now there’s your problem MJD, you don’t seem to know what an atheist is or what the word means.

    The vast majority of atheists are like Dawkins – they hold no belief in a god or gods. Dawkins himself has stated quite clearly that he cannot say for sure there is no “god” but that it is highly improbable and those who hold that belief do so without evidence.

    Are there some strong atheists who say positively that “there is no god”? Sure, but they are small minority.

    And I can guarantee you that every atheist would instantly become a theist if convincing and compelling evidence (as well as clear definition) of a “god” is shown.

    So really most of your diatribe seems to me to be one big straw man – setting up a caricature of an atheist to knock down that does not reflect the reality atheists. I find the ham-fisted attempts at false equivocation – trying to equate atheism and humanism with “religion” or “cults” and capitalizing the word as if it were a title – a bit amusing as well as typical intellectual dishonesty from ardent believers.

    You might also consider that while most atheists would fit into the same category as Dawkins, that applies mostly to a general and vague idea of an intelligent “god”. The more specific one gets, the more data points of refutation there are. That means that as you encounter more detailed god descriptions, there is more likely even for Dawkins-like atheists to say “that god does not exist”.

    Do you say “Zeus does not exist” or “I hold no belief in Zeus because he is highly improbable”?

    Do you say “Krishna does not exist” or “I hold no belief in Krishna because he is highly improbably”?


    Most atheists, even those who would never say “god does not exist” could and would be perfectly reasonable in saying “The bible-god does not exist” for the same reasons you would give to the above.

    In short, atheists may appear to say “There is no god” when they really mean “a god may exist, but it is not the bible-god”. The problem is the cultural bias of the listener – assuming the meaning of “god” is their particular description of that entity.

    That is some hubris, to assume that “god”, if it exists, is the one described in your bronze-age parchments.

  7. Are there some strong atheists who say positively that “there is no god”? Sure, but they are small minority.

    Yeah, you’re right… I’m sorry… I based my entire ideas about Atheists on The Humanist Association of Canada, CFI, CSI, and members of Sketpics (sic) Canada… not a true cross representation of the field… really, you have me dead to rights when you said “Straw Man”… yup… based on all the major organisations that (supposedly) represent Atheists.

    Granted, I do agree that people that question dogma are a good thing… and that the “small minority” (read: shriekiest members of the groups mentioned above,) also preach dogma and use science, incorrectly, to support their “faith”.

    But hey, us Straw Men builders… we’re pretty bad for asking about all this anyway.

  8. Ok then, so why don’t you link to any of those organizations sites where they define atheism as anything other than the dictionary definition I gave? Or indeed, where they state they are organizations representing atheists, rather than say secular humanism, skeptical inquiry or the separation of church and state – none of which require atheism for membership.

    Sorry, but you are still shrieking at straw men and trying desperately at false equivocation when you try to say the minority have “faith” and preach dogma.

    You are pretty bad for trying to misrepresent who atheists are and what they represent then make sweeping generalizations. You are pretty bad for trying to equate science with faith and try for equal time because science doesn’t back up your own faith.

    I’m merely pointing it out to you.

  9. Those organizations do not say that there is absolutely no God. Show me where The Humanist Association of Canada, for example, says this.

  10. Hi, you seem to have drawn a bit of attention. There are intriguing questions at the heart of this little skirmish called the science-religion debate. One is the ramification of the knowledge of evolution applied to our own brain, as both a fascinatingly enormous information processor (forgive the bald analogy); a subversive mobiliser; and yet the provider of a very thin veneer of intelligence. Given that, there is one thing I agree with both brilliant scientists and brilliant religionists, that we are very poor at being much greater than our nearest species relatives, but exerting our minds (best brain power, human ability, angelic qualities whatever you like) to become much better at life, at complex social relationships, than any of those relatives, is the most important use we can put that mind to. For a theist or an atheist to deny this purpose, goal, aspiration, would really be the slippery slope to building a destructive tendency. But of course that is just what some people from both sides of the fence have done.
    Science, however, doesn’t tell us that we deserve to live forever, that we should be kind and altruistic. It does tell us, as does religion, that we are inherently able to be kind and altruistic. Religion has over centuries and more recently science also, tells us we can train ourselves to make greater use of these inherent abilities. Science can also tell us how to train to destroy more efficiently, as well.
    It is of utmost importance that religion understands its role in human society to provide human beings with a knowledge, training and habit towards peace and harmonious human relationships for a globe of many billions of people. Religion must understand that science provides countless tools for us to be able to achieve these harmonious relationships, especially by solving the problems that tend to irritate those relationships. Scientists must understand that religionists have to become the best supporters of science. The communication and education, the important problem solving in this complex society, towards this is currently very poor. Who is the best? Certainly not those that support vitriol towards the other.

  11. Gents, I was invited to meetings and listened to the speakers and read the lit that was available… I also was a member of the defunct CSICOP (now CSI/SFI) and received the newsletters… and if you’re telling me that you do not believe that it’s members, in toto, have never spouted “THERE IS NO GOD”… well…

    Lastly, my argument remains: Most atheists are as bad as theists in “preaching” their “faith”. I have not seen otherwise.

    Geez, no wonder I’m accused of circular argument… because I keep having to come back to the same point.

  12. Of course, I am willing to apologise when proven incorrect…

    I “Googled”… and although I did find things like There is no evidence of any deities, Belief in a deity is unfounded, and a few other phrases, “THERE IS NO GOD” did not get me any hits.

    Ergo: Nope, the groups above have not said “NO GOD”… they’ve inferred it, they’ve said it in meetings* (although I do not have recordings of this, so take this as you will,) but never online.

    * – Since my experience here has shown that often, older comments are not read, I have been to HAC, Skeptics Canada, HAT meetings and was a member of the defunct group CSICOP (now CSI/CFI)…

    I am sorry if I blasphemed against the non-faith.

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