Archive for the ‘science and religion’ category

On Darwinism as a Term of Abuse

December 11, 2008

A while back, I posted a short piece criticizing the Rt. Rev. and the Rt. Hon. Lord Habgood, P. C., former Archibishop of York (number 2 in the Anglican hierarchy) and Ph.D physiologist, for his use of the terms “Darwinism” and “scientific orthodoxy” in a review of a history of creationism.  In that post I wrote,

Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet?

Well, someone does.  Leslie Darrow, proprietor of the Mid-Anglican blog had this to say about what seemed to me to be about as banal an observation as I could imagine:

I don’t know why not. Calculating the trajectory of a comet doesn’t need anything more sophisticated than Newtonian mechanics.

I replied that I was afraid Darrow was being either silly or obtuse, for reasons that I think are obvious.  No one refers to the ideas in The Principia as the corpus of Newtonism.  Mechanics, maybe, or in the case of problems involving Newtonian gravity, celestial mechanics, but not Newtonism, or Isaackery or anything of the sort.  No one.

Similarly, no one refers to this or this or this as successful applications of the methods of Darwinism.  They are all, of course, results achieved under the umbrella category of evolutionary biology, using methods from specialized biological disciplines ranging from field ecology to molecular genetics — the latter a practice for which Darwin lacked even the vocabulary to imagine

That all seems pretty standard issue stuff  — and even if you don’t want to go all philosophical on me, it comes back to the practice, the use of terms in science.  Do we refer to the study of molecular genetics as Watson-and-Crickism?

We do not.

Unfortunately, Darrow proceeded to dig herself in deeper.

(more…)

Sarah Palin Substance, Take Two

September 3, 2008

Most of the press and blog coverage today has focused on (a) the water torture nature of the story of what happens when you don’t vet the first significant “Presidential” appointment  you make — thus aiming the coverage appropriately at the real culprit in Palin story:  John McCain. If this election is in fact a “judgment” vs. “experience” choice, then for now, judgment is winning, as indeed it should.

At the same some folks are pointing out that the kinds of trouble Palin herself is in — and hence the sort of problem she is becoming for John McCain — may be the kind of briar patch in which the GOP ticket is perfectly happy to find themselves, the argument being that in a change year, a gut-level populist appeal may be just enough to turn the key states their way.

So, against that possibility, I want to take another whack at what a Vice President — or a President — Palin looks like from a point of view embedded in science.  As before, my argument is in essence that what Palin thinks about a specific issue for which there is a clear body of research — using scientific methods, producing reproducibly results — tells us not only about the rationality of her position on that particular issue, but also about the quality of her mind, her judgment, her ability to make decisions of the sort a President faces.

The obvious place to start here is, I’m afraid, with sex — in particular, with Palin’s judgment about the most effective way to education adolescents about sex.  As we now know, both through the usual political research process and because of news about her family I will not discuss, Sarah Palin believes that the correct way to instruct children about sex is to avoid what she calls “explicit sex education” and teach only that abstinence is the appropriate behavior before marriage.

OK — that’s a view a fair number of people hold.  But Palin, of course, is not just anybody — she’s been mayor and she is governor, and you would think that she has some responsibility to back ideas not only because they are comfortable, but because they are valid.

Not so here.  There is ample evidence that abstinence education does not work. See here for one recent take on this, and see this for my earlier whack at Mike Huckabee on this same issue.  Cruise the blogosphere to find as much more as you would like.  Bottom line:  abstinence education shows no improvement in the key parameters of sexual behavior or outcomes over control groups in repeated studies, one of the best of which can be found in summary here.

But  you knew that already, didn’t you?

Now it is something of a dog bites man story to suggest that an evangelical Christian would favor abstinence teaching for her own family, or even her own community; but the point here isn’t about personal choice or belief, it’s about the ability to perform evidence-based reasoning.

Put this another way:  there is a street definition of neurosis as repeatedly doing the same thing expecting a different outcome.  A scientifically informed policy would look at the grim statistics:  the US is the world leader among developed countries in teen pregnancies (h/t Dem from CT over at Daily Kos).  The good news had been that despite that dismal result, teen birth rates had been falling since the peak rate of 61.8 birth rates per thousand in 1991. That is to say, the decline began at exactly the time a Democratic adminstration took office — one whose record on evidence based policy is, by and large, exemplary.

So what happened over the last seven years, during which an administration whose full throated support of world wide abstinence education has had its chance to work its wonders on American women and girls?  What’d you’d naively expect:  the latest report from the Centers For Disease Control, analyzing the data from 2006, shows the US teen birth rate after a fourteen year decline, started to climb again in 2005, a rise that continued in 2006.  From 40.5 births per thousand, the 2006 data show an increase to 41.9.

So it goes, as the late KV would have said.  Idiocy, a lesser evil than the deaths to which Vonnegut referred, is also always with us.

But to the deeper argument:  we know some things.  We know that abstinence education does not work, that funding it is a kind of welfare scam to benefit the religious right, that the real world consequences of the totality of US policy in this area has produced a dismal record of preventing teen pregnancy (80 percent of them unwanted, according to CDC figures, btw).  We know that teen pregnancies have all kinds of deleterious social effects, as the CDC noted in this passage in one of their reports:

“The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy recently estimated that $9.1bn in public funding was expended on teenage childbearing in 2004. These costs include public assistance, healthcare, child welfare and other expenses.”

And let me repeat — we know that abstinence education does not work.

So what would a rational leader do here, one who understood the processes of scientific investigation and could interpret its results?

Try something else perhaps?

Or not.  Both Sarah Palin and John McCain have voiced their continued support for abstinence education as we know.  There are only two explanations that adequately account for such a choice.  One is that they know better — they know that this policy does not help and correlates with a development in the wrong direction, but they feel that they need to take this position to satisfy their base.  Or they simply do not allow facts to penetrate ideology.  (If anyone has any other possible explanations, I’d love to hear them.)

The first option suggests that McCain and or Palin are cynical and so hungry for power that the unwanted pregnancies of deliberately poorly informed teenagers are an acceptable price to pay for success in November.  The second suggests that either or both lack the capacity for judgment, the ability to analyze data, assimilate and interpret information, and come to conclusions for the greater good of the people they seek to represent.

That is — when you choose to reject the bits of science you dislike, you lose the abiltiy to distinguish between scientifically defensible conclusions and stuff you just would rather believe.  While such an approach to the world is comfortable — inconvenient facts cannot overturn settled assumptions, the real world has a way of biting such poor judgment in tender places.

I honestly don’t have a clue whether in either case cynicism or willed ignorance is the explanation for the two GOP candidates on the national ticket deciding to go all in for abstinence.  On their history — McCain has much less of a public commitment to the culture wars side of his party, so maybe pure hunger for power has an edge there.  Palin’s commitment to extreme religious views is also well documented, so perhaps hers is a sincerely chosen blindness.

But I will say that in either case, taken as a case study of a larger test of the way our candidates think and would govern, either explanation leads to the conclusion that this ticket does not think about the world in the ways Presidents need to do.

As for the question of simple humanity, it is worth noting that Governor Palin used her line item veto this spring to cut funding from the Alaska state budget that reduced support for Passage House, a transitional home for teenage mothers.  I have some direct knowledge of institutions in other states that perform a similar service, and let me tell you, the damage a loss of this kind of support can do to both young mothers and their children is immense.  While I fully agree that families are off limits, it does seem to me to be within bounds to say that it seems to me both socially sound policy and a moral good to extend as much of the support a loving family can give to an unplanned pregancy to all those who need it.

Image:  Ary Scheffer, “Greek Women Imploring the Virgin of Assistance,” 1826. National Museum of  Western Art, Tokyo.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: New York Times on the Hardest Job in Science…

August 24, 2008

Or at least in the top ten: Check out this story on someone who sounds like a fantastic teacher of high school biology in Florida, doing his best to put evolution all the way back into the curriculum.

I’ve no doubt that the science blogosphere will pick up on this piece, and it should. But as someone who has taken a fair share of potshots at the Times and some of its writers lately, I thought it was dead down the middle of the “credit where credit is due” imperative to note that the paper and reporter Amy Harmon did a fine job here.

Image: Henri Rousseau, “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is how it’s done: Science and Spirit Edition

August 21, 2008

Dateline: Johannesburg.

One of the sadly underused venues in J’burg is the new Origins Centre at Wits University. (Not yet developed website here, better description here.)

The museum — at least the Rockart part, the half that is open so ar is a nicely designed exhibition that engages the birth of modern human consciousness by looking at, mostly, the rock art of Southern Africa, especially the cave paintings of the San people.

It’s well worth taking in — the art is beautiful, the museum engages both the intellectual and political contention that surrounds the interpretation of the art and the terrible recent history of the San.

But what got my attention was the introductory film in which the museum’s curators framed the entire exhibition. When, in talking about characteristics of modern human mental life, they introduced the idea of spiritual aspiration the images were (I’m doing this from memory, so while I think that this is the right order, don’t sue me):

A rocket launch.

The JFK speech on going to the moon as a challenge to be undertaken because it was hard.

The “One Small Step” sound and video from the Apollo 11 landing in the Sea of Tranquility

A shot of Stephen Hawking.

(Also, slightly earlier in the video — the same shot of the c. 50 y.o. Albert Einstein turning his head to the camera, slowed down slightly, that I also used in my film biography of Einstein in the mid nineties. It was good to see an old friend.)

In a different context, some guy writing about a different set of origins used the phrase “There is grandeur in this view of life.”

Same idea: coming to grips with the patterns and processes that govern the material cosmos is among the central human aspirations. If you want to see the human spirit in action you can find it, at its best and sometimes worst, in the practice of science.

So, if you happen to be in or near Johannesburg, let me say again: check out the Origins Centre. It’s worth it on its own terms — and I believe in supporting places that have their institutional heads screwed on straight.

Image: San Bushman rock art Perdekop Farm North of Mossel bay. Photo: Andrew Moir. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Friday Science and Religion Kaffeeklatch: Albert Einstein edition

June 6, 2008

Cross posted at Cosmic Variance — which allows me to repeat my thanks to that erudite and friendly community, and to the generous host who invited me in, Sean Carroll.

I’m a bit late to this particular party, but I hear that there was a bit of a media and blog hullabaloo about a letter by Albert Einstein that was auctioned last month for 170,000 pounds. That doubles the previous record for an Einstein letter, and at least part of the reason for its record price seems to have been its content — what seemed to some a startlingly blunt assessment of religion in general. He wrote:

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

To get down to cases close to home:

“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

To be sure, he acknowledged, he was happy to identify himself as one of “the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity…” But clearly belonging to a community did not make him blind, deaf or dumb.

The reason I ignored this at first is that after fifteen years in the Einstein game I’m pretty tired of WWED appeals to authority, all that pouring through the great man’s quotations to find something to support whatever view one may have had in the first place.

The reason I’m picking it up now is that the letter raises a question that allows us with only a little leap of the imagination to begin to gather the intense pressure of the experience of being Jewish in Europe in the first few decades of the last century – especially if you were smart, prominent, public.

Just to get it out of the way: there is nothing surprising about this letter. Just five years earlier Einstein wrote that, when he was young he had experienced a bout of real piety, until:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.”

That revelation remained with him throughout his life, and he never made a secret of it. He refused to claim a religious affiliation in the papers he filed with the Austro-Hungarian government to take up a professorship in Prague. Told he had to claim something, he declared he was of the “Mosaic” faith – a construction that conveyed his disdain for the whole notion pretty well, IMHO.

And so it went. In 1915, he told one correspondent that, “I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible,” …. “Only His nonexistence can excuse him.”

Those who followed this malign, non-existent deity were fools. When he visited Palestine in 1921, Einstein was much impressed by the sight of Jews constructing cities and a way of life out of raw dirt and effort. But the sight of traditional Jews praying at the Wailing Wall seemed to him the “dull-witted clansmen of our tribe.” They made such spectacles of themselves, “praying aloud, their faces turned to the wall, their bodies swaying to and fro,” that to Einstein, it was “a pathetic sight of men with a past but without a present.”

That’s enough: the point is that Einstein made it clear in public, and even more so in private communications that have been in the public record for decades now, that revealed religion in general and orthodox Judaism in particular had no hold on him at all. When he used the term God, it was mostly just an off-hand short-hand: “God does not play dice” was another way of saying, as he did in the EPR paper, that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” the excesses of modern quantum theory.

But all this begs the question why Einstein bothered to claim Jewishness, if Judaism itself as a practice and a body of belief had no hold on him.

Einstein himself gave two answers. The first was he saw in Judaism a framework and a fair amount of thought about how to live ethically with others. His take on the tradition pulled out of Judaism “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” and a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.” This is religion as heuristic – and specifically, Judaism as a sustained body of inquiry into certain problems that interested him.

The second, of course, was that he had no choice. Whatever he may have believed, others defined him: “When I came to Germany,” he wrote some years later as part of an explanation for his conversion to Zionism, “I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew, and I owe this discovery more to Gentiles than to Jews.”

It was more than the casual anti-Semitism that he experienced or perceived, dating back to his failure to get an academic job after finishing his college degree. Rather, Einstein’s strong identification not just as a person of Jewish background, but as a highly public member of both the Berlin Jewish community and the nationalist Zionist movement, is one measure of just how rapidly the nature of German anti-Semitism changed in the immediate aftermath of defeat in World War I.

I go into this at some length in this tome – from which most of the above comes, in one form or another. See chapter ten if you’re interested. In this venue, I want to make just two points abstracted out of that much longer story.

First: as I suggested at the beginning of the post, any Captain Reynault response to this latest “revelation” of Einstein’s disdain for traditional faith is misplaced. Rather, it is just one more demonstration of the foolishness of the argument from authority for pretty much anything.

Second: the fact of Einstein’s Jewishness in the context of his blunt rejection of traditional Judaism offers one more reminder of contingency of the practice of science.

You can see that in this last anecdote:

On August 24, 1920 the Arbeitgemeinshaft deutcher Naturforsher zur Erhaltung reiner Wissenshaft — the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science — held a public meeting to denounce Einstein’s new physics. Nobel laureate Philip Lenard soon made the reason for such doubt explicitly, denouncing of “the alien spirit…which is so clearly seen in anything that relates to the ‘relativity theory.’”

Lenard could not make good on the (barely) implied threat then, but he (and others) did in 1933. Of course, nothing then or later could alter the significance of relativity; but German science suffered enormously, even if that abstraction “science” did not.

I don’t think, of course, that any such bald “it makes me feel bad so this science must be wrong” claims could have much pull these days.

Except of course, they do.

I began by chiding the What Would Einstein Do cult that invokes the great man in lieu of argument. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look at what Einstein did.

His resolute self-identification as Jew emerged out of his reaction to the anti-Semitism he witnessed directly. The expression of that viciousness included a direct demand to reject reason: physics could be rendered invalid by the origins of its discoverer. Einstein would therefore discover in Jewish tradition a defense of reason, and in his Jewishness he laid claim to a complementary style of thought to that of the fundamental physics he investigated.

Despite the snark above about contemporary battles, matters are different now. For me, the real value of the letter sold for such a ridiculous sum is that it reminds me of both the malevolent nearness in historical time, and (I hope, as well as think) the genuine distance we have moved from the time and place in which a public meeting could convene to denounce the religion/ethnicity of a few pages of mathematical physics.

That is: It’s not the God stuff in that letter that should catch your eye, that is, but the history to be plumbed in that little phrase, “with whose mentality I have a deep affinity.”

With that – I’m out of here.

Again, my thanks to all who read this here and at Cosmic Variance, even more to those who commented, and most of all to Sean Carroll physicist and public intellectual extraordinaire.

Image: Portrait of Einstein painted by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, (nephew of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes), Wiki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday blogging: On the Nature of Things — Philip Pullman edition

April 6, 2008

So I’m late to the Pullman party. I only picked up The Golden Compass after the publicity surrounding the movie — which makes me a full ten years tardy, in fact.

But read that book I did, and then, following a course plenty of folks have travelled before me, devoured the next two books in the trilogy as fast as I could.

The best thing about the book is that Pullman’s argument about the horror of dogma self-perpetuating by force runs through just about every plot event, but almost always does not displace the glories of the work: its realization of a marvelously realized alternate world and a human story told through the lives and actions of recognizable individuals.

There is a polemic reading of the trilogy, that is, but the characters are human, not types. (Mostly human, of course. Iorek is one of the most astoundingly complete characters I’ve found in fiction for a long time, to name one among many.) Pullman’s argument against revealed religion works, in fact, because it plays on the emotions brought into play only when you care about the individual lives and deaths he has made so imaginatively real.

But a bit of pop criticism of a book that I imagine most readers of this blog found long before I did is not why this post comes into existence. Instead, I want here to bring to the surface the root of perhaps the most powerful and beautiful passage in the entire trilogy — the moment (spoiler alert) in Book Three, The Amber Spyglass when Lyra tells the multitudes of the dead what will happen if they follow her and Will back up to the world of the living.

This entire episode is infused with classical sources; the tale of living men or women descending to the underworld to seek insight or to beg favors of the dead is one that originates deep in our past, and recurs again and again in the great literary investigations of human experience. Think of Hercules seeking Persephone, or Oddyseus in pursuit of knowledge…and then Dante, accompanied by Virgil examining the taxonomy of sin and human vanity in the greatest of all such stories (IMHO, of course).

Pullman’s version speaks to that tradition, locating the center of its terror in the direct confrontation between his heroes and their own deaths.

But then, in a brief set-piece, Pullman makes the single most direct and powerful claim of the whole work for his secular vision of transcendence in death. It is the necessary affirmative statement to balance his negative argument about the anti-human qualities of revealed religions. Lyra and Will have offered to lead the dead out of the grim, hellish experience of sense-less eternity. The dead ask what will happen, and Lyra tells them this:

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the aprticles that make you up will loosen and float apaqrt, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that look like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms taht were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. theyre just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you. I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true. But you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

And then there is this, as glossed by me in an earlier book of my own:

“For that which once came from earth to earth returns back again…Nor does death so destroy as to annihilate the bodies of matter, but it disperses their combination abroad, and then conjoins others with others…” But though atoms traipse through an eternal dance, coming together and falling apart, the human soul did not. Lucretius wrote, “Even if time shall gather together our matter after death and bring it back again as it is now placed, and if once more the light of life shall be given to us, yet it would not matter to us that even this had been done, when the recollection of ourselves has once been broken asunder, and to us now, no memory, no anguish remains from those who we were before.” Therefore, Lucretius concluded: “We may be sure that there is nothing to be feared after death”–for both sensation and memory are lost forever. Life is lived once, now, and that is all.

Lucretius wrote that in what I think is the greatest poem of science, Of The Nature of Things, written before 50 BCE (i.e. in the last decades of the Roman Republic).

Thus one of the foundational ideas of humanism:

This world matters; this time in which I write and you read is all in all. Our atoms may be eternal (though modern physics would say protons, whose claim on eternity has a current lower bound of 10 to the thirty fifth years) but our consciousness is not.

This is exactly the argument that runs all the way through Pullman’s trilogy. One chance means one chance to get it right. (Contrast this with the morally repugnant claim that commitment to a revealed religion is an essential precondition for leading a moral life. Scroll down to Sharon Soon’s quotes if you have a strong stomach.)

Back to Pullman. This moment comes and goes quickly in the rush of action at the end of the trilogy. After all, Pullman is writing a inversion of the battle for command of heaven and earth that typically ends with the triumph of God and the banishment of the dissident angels. There’s quite a campaign to manage, and the detour to the underworld is here, as in most epics, a subplot, a moment to pause the action, and perhaps (as here) to stand on the soap box for a while.

But this passage contains more than a skeptics credo. Instead, it is essential, I think, to the idea that Pullman wants to leave at and after his long work’s end.

As the trilogy closes, it seems, rather oddly given all the tumult of the last thousand pages or so, that everything returns to normal.Lyra in her world finds that the Church is still there, powerfully contending for allegiance and belief. It is, we are told, somewhat changed, a little less inclined towards the total intellectual dictatorship that threatened at the beginning of the book. The warring factions within and outside the church remain. Life continues.

Lucretius lived more than two millenia ago. It remains something of a mystery how his great poem survived most of those years, given the hostility of this world’s Church to his uncompromised materialism, his denial of the immortality of the individual soul.

This is an old argument, that is, one which, despite the advance of the most successful materialist program of discovery in history — the scientific revolution which began to take on its modern form just a few centuries ago.

There are communities within the science blogosphere that rage against this fact of life, this eternal return of the same battles. (See, e.g., almost any comment thread at Pharyngula.)

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I am saying that Pullman got it.

He explicitly presented the titanic struggle of His Dark Materials as but one campaign in a more or less endless war — not so much one between reason and folly (h/t Erasmus) as between the claims of this world vs. those of a notional next. His use of the language, imagery, even the elegance of Lucretius reinforces the point. The Greeks fought about this (as did the Jews, in an interesting way to be blogged another time.) The Romans did. Christian believers have, on both sides of the trenches. We do too. It’s better — more relaxing, certainly, and probably more conducive to tactical clarity — to take the long view. Or so, at least, I read Philip Pullman.

Image:  Luca Signorelli, “The Damned,” 1499-1505. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.