Carl Sagan Day is fast approaching, and we’re excited about the lineup of speakers and events we have planned! For more info, visit sagan.saiu.org.
Carl Sagan, in our current book club pick The Demon-Haunted World, spends considerable time discussing skepticism and its application to science. Throughout the book, he recounts story after story of personal experiences and the extreme degree to which memories can easily be rewritten and experiences reinterpreted. He graciously gives enough background for each example so that the person’s mistaken ideas are seen in an understanding light. The reader can see that, if they were in the same position and had access to only those experiences, they might come to similar (mistaken) conclusions. Through these examples, he demonstrates that human experience is largely swayed by interior emotional states and external urgings directing interpretation. Several questions are raised, such as where do we draw the line for what is counted as “evidence”? Does feeling something more strongly make it more likely to be true?
By his examples of people being led into believing wholeheartedly in events that were complete fabrications, we can reasonably claim that human experience, no matter how “rational” or “reasonable” we presume it to be, is largely unreliable and subject to extreme distortion. For example, we now know that “strange” mental phenomena are an expected part of human neural activity. What determines how these phenomena are interpreted is largely social. Depending on a social community’s established interpretations, when someone in that community has a hallucination it can be interpreted as anything from a random side effect of pattern-matching networks gone awry to an ascendant experience of an alternate, normally-closed reality. All human activity is filtered through social constructs, such that even when someone encounters a novel situation, they are primed in certain ways to fit their experience into sensible forms. With this in mind, how can we possibly determine what is “real” if all we have are these sometimes-nonsensical senses?
Enter the scientific method: People have been testing the world around us for centuries now, and we have amassed a great deal of consistent knowledge about how it functions. While human perception is our only tool for understanding the world around us, it can easily lead us astray. What multiple people observing the same things brings us is consistency through repeatability. These repeated “sensings” allow us to get an average experience that we can say, with high confidence, constitutes reality. Science gives us a method to find consistent explanations that minimize expected human error, and with it we have learned much. Prayer has been used for thousands of years in an attempt to alter reality, especially the reality of illness, and yet there are many instances of demonstrable failure. With the consistency of science, we have developed disease treatments that work. We have been able to construct a history of our species, of life, of Earth, our solar system, and of the universe itself that is consistent and has great explanatory power for new findings in, say, epigenetics or particle physics. Our scientific understanding doesn’t depend on a select few experiences of “the divine,” which are inconsistent at best and completely contradictory when taken as a whole. In this great endeavor open to all, we have accomplished much through the equalizing and elevating practice of science.
Though nobody has ventured from Earth’s orbit since the final Apollo mission over 40 years ago, access to space travel is poised to become more affordable, available and commonplace than ever before. Recent developments in the space industry are promising dramatically cheaper access to space, and with that promise comes the possibility that long-imagined solutions to Earth’s environmental, economic, and energy problems may finally become viable. Imagine limitless energy beamed down to Earth from orbiting satellites, polluting factories moved off-world, and strip mines closed in favor of raw materials delivered from the sky. If access to space becomes cheap enough, all of these ideas can migrate from the imaginations of sci-fi authors into the real world.
It is no secret that NASA, the agency that put men on the moon and flew the Space Shuttle, is perpetually short on money. As the Space Shuttle retires to America’s museums, NASA is diverting millions of dollars from their own in-house spacecraft development to private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX that promise to deliver goods and people to space at a far lower cost than NASA has been able to achieve.
The key is launch costs, typically expressed as cost per pound to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Space Shuttle, developed with the intention of making spaceflight cheaper than ever, promised to deliver cargo for as low as $600/lb to LEO, but ended its career with an average cost of $8,000/lb. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can do the job for $1,800/lb, and Elon Musk believes that upcoming design improvements and scaled-up rockets could bring the cost as low as $500/lb. At that point, it becomes economically viable to do a lot more in space than just science.
One of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses on the planet is power generation, but what if you didn’t have to burn any fuel in power plants? What if you didn’t have to worry about nuclear accidents or waste disposal? What if all the power you could ever need was simply beamed down from space? The concept of space-based solar power could make this a reality. The logic is simple: solar power is far more efficient in space, because the sunlight isn’t diffused by Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, why not build huge solar power stations in geosynchronous orbit, where the sun always shines, and beam the power to antenna farms on Earth in the form of microwaves? The microwave beam, when spread over a few square miles of receiving antennas, would be largely benign to living organisms and 100% pollution-free. The limiting factor to this idea has always been the cost of getting huge amounts of solar cells into orbit, but if SpaceX follows through on their promises, space-based power could be an enticing opportunity for profit. As we all know, if there is profit to be made, somebody will step up to the plate and make it happen.
Space also provides a perfect environment for exotic forms of manufacturing that aren’t possible in the gravity on Earth’s surface. In zero gravity, metallic alloys can be created that are impossible to replicate on Earth. Molten metals that would separate into layers when mixed on Earth will intermix perfectly without gravity. The vacuum of space is an ultraclean environment that allows manufacturing with none of the contamination issues of working on Earth. Additionally, extreme hot and extreme cold are available at a moment’s notice, simply through exposure to the outside environment. In fact, solar cells could be produced very easily and cheaply in space, making the construction of huge orbiting power stations more reasonable. But, where would the raw materials come from?
The ultimate promise of cheap access to space is profitable exploitation of off-world resources. One metallic asteroid, a few miles across, contains more gold, silver, platinum, and exotic rare-earth minerals than have ever been mined on Earth, in all of human history. One asteroid could make all the environmental damage of mining on Earth unnecessary, not to mention making the people (or corporation) that claims it unfathomably wealthy. This is the lynchpin of what makes space exploration beneficial to humanity: if the cost of access to space gets low enough to make asteroid mining profitable, every other idea about manufacturing and power generation becomes dramatically cheaper. All it takes is for the cost of launching your machinery to the asteroid to go low enough for even one company to believe they can make a profit. When that happens, American capitalism will do the rest, and the worst of our pollution and industry could finally be moved someplace they can’t affect our environment or quality of life.
This is why we should be excited about the future of space, even as the iconic NASA ships we all grew up with are put to rest. This is the answer to the skeptical question: “Why waste money in space when it could be spent helping people on Earth?” Space holds the promise of a solution to the trashing of our environment in pursuit of energy and industry, and even more tantalizing, a solution to scarcity itself. All it takes is for one person to look at the costs and say “Yes. We can make money out there.” The next space race won’t be driven by military paranoia and national rivalry. It will be driven by entrepreneurs looking to strike it big by fixing Earth’s worst problems.
The moon landings and the International Space Station were just the beginning. The next push into space could be just around the corner, and unlike the flags and footprints of NASA, this one won’t stop for anything.
The Secular Alliance book club will be reading The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan as our first pick of the fall semester. In it you’ll find his useful “Baloney Detection Kit” to carefully evaluate new evidence before accepting its implications. Also within is the story of the invisible, heatless-fire-breathing dragon, which no conceivable test can actually detect. Is it worth even saying it exists? Through analogy we can better understand the scientific method and what its findings entail. It’s a great book that’s sure to bring great discussion, so join us later in September for our first meeting.
Much of the media coverage of the Religious Right today is focusing on their portrayal of “religious liberty” and how the government, abortion proponents, and “the homosexuals” are infringing upon it. But who is oppressing whom? Are the rights of gays and lesbians to get the recognition and benefits of marriage being oppressed, or is it the “right” of the religious to have the laws mirror their convictions the true loss?
We’ll be exploring ideas of religious liberty throughout September, but our headline speaker is Rev. Steven Baines of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. We’ll also be examining the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, including the book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense which was cited by Justice Alito in his dissenting opinion. Through examining these resources we will better understand the “religious liberty” ideal as a tension between groups and their competing rights.
Join us at our weekly Sunday meetings to talk about these issues and more as we prepare for an active fall!
You may have seen some of our chalk around campus, especially one with the words Change the world with SCIENCE. What does this mean? It’s tricky because “science” doesn’t tell us what do do or how to behave. Scientific methods simply provide background information on issues, and the decisions are left to other methods, like politics, activism, and social movements. Sometimes, however, science provides us with compelling reasons because there is so much data pointing in a similar direction that the lines are obvious. There are some obvious lines today, like that one species has been able to affect an entire planet on a scale never before seen with global climate change. Another is that social institutions like marriage have changed many, many times throughout their history such that there is not “one way” or “originally-created” version.
The Secular Humanist movement believes in real change brought about by the hard work of many people—people who aspire for a world of equality, freedom of thought and speech, and sustainable living. We found our actions on the obvious lines of science applied to human need, including those in future generations. What sort of world are we creating for them? Are conditions going to be better or worse than they are now? What’s more pro-life than concern for global human suffering, future human suffering, and achievement of an equitable society?
You too can be a part of this movement. We have a lot of exciting programs for you to jump into. Just come to our callout on September 5 at 6pm in Fine Arts 015 to find out more. The Secular Alliance is the group to be in if you want to make a positive impact on the world without the divisiveness of rigid ideologies. We do good things because we can rationally see they are good, not because someone tells us to.
You may have noticed some changes to saiu.org. We’ve been touched by his noodly appendage and blessed with a new website! Aside from the new look, you can still quickly find out about our events and read engaging blog posts on our themes for the semester. And we have an exciting event planned for the fall that will be announced at our callout and posted here, so come back and stay informed!
The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the SAIU. For a longer version of this post, see the Nothing Is Mere blog.
I’m grateful to Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig for taking the time to respond to my post, “Fact-checking the Craig-Rosenberg debate“. I edited in a few of Rosenberg’s comments from correspondence, but Craig’s public reply, “Fact-checking the fact-checker“, is more in-depth, and deserves a response in its own right. I’ll single out two points for special attention: historical methodology, and the idea of immaterial causation.
Scripture and scholarship
Craig writes of my
[...] breezy dismissal of N. T. Wright’s scholarly work because Wright is “a Christian apologist and bishop” and of the work of New Testament historians in general because they are allegedly Christians [...]
I didn’t dismiss Christian scholarship. What I wrote was:
Craig doesn’t note that most New Testament scholars are Christians. (Are we to take it as evidence for the truth of Christianity that a lot of Christians happen to be Christian?)
Now, of course being a Christian doesn’t make it impossible for you to evaluate Christianity in a fair and skeptical way. I believe very strongly that the Earth is round, but that doesn’t mean that I’d be hopelessly biased in a debate with flat-Earthers. Agnosticism does not imply objectivity, and objectivity does not imply agnosticism. If anything, we’d be worried if most New Testament scholars weren’t Christians, since that would suggest that the historical evidence tended to make people less religious than the general populace.
But it’s also worth noting that Christian orthodoxy is not generally considered by historians the only possible objective interpretation of the evidence of the Gospels. And appealing to scholarly consensus here is misleading inasmuch as it has the guise of an appeal to independent authorities, as opposed to authorities who already came into the field accepting Christianity.
The charge was not that being Christian invalidates one’s scholarly work on Christianity. It was that, in the context of a debate with non-theists, it’s misleading to appeal to the authority of historians qua historians without mentioning that most of them came into the field already accepting the conclusion for which you’re arguing. (From childhood, no less!) Continue reading
On the first Friday of every month, the Bloomington Atheists group meets up at Player’s Pub for Atheist Happy Hour. Drinks are had, food is eaten, and chat happens. You don’t have to be an atheist to attend.
Feel free to drop by anytime between 5:30 and 7:30ish! We’re always at a big table in the back room with the pool tables. If you need a ride to Player’s Pub (424 S. Walnut, on Walnut between 2nd and 3rd street), email firstname.lastname@example.org and we can arrange one.
The SAIU Community Center will be open for studying on the Thursday of dead week. There will be free pizza, desserts, soda, coffee, and tea.
You can come as early at 6pm and stay as late as midnight!
The times when fresh pizza will be available are limited, but the rest will be available the whole time.
To get to the community center, go up the Student Activities Tower elevator (located across from Starbucks) to the fifth floor, we’re in room 577.