Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

“Keeping an Open Mind Is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.”

— attributed to Jim Oberg, space journalist and historian

sokalAlan Sokal was a teaching assistant in my quantum mechanics (QM) course.  I still recall vividly the day he came with a graph showing the spike of the first-ever observed strange particle.  I remember, too, the playful twinkle in his eye. Thirteen years ago, Alan (at this point a physics professor at NYU) submitted a paper to the prominent cultural studies journal Social Text, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

On the day of its publication, Alan announced that the article was a hoax, “an experiment to see if a journal would publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”  The editors of Social Text argued that Alan inadvertently expressed great truths in his article that even he wasn’t aware of – though they did take the precaution of having submissions peer-reviewed thereafter.

Slow forward thirteen years.  Fundamentalist branches of organized religions made a comeback, trying to obliterate the separation between church and state and to reclaim the domain of natural philosophy wrested away from them by science.  Some sprang to accommodate this “rapprochement” – most prominently Stephen Jay Gould with his theory of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), most loudly Matt Nisbet with his “framing” PR campaign.  We’re also awash in instant experts, courtesy of the Internet.  And all along, we have the very natural propensity to explain difficult concepts with analogies and metaphors.

As a result of this, religions from Christianity to Buddhism have been attempting to show that their tenets are compatible with concepts of reality developed through science.  Their vehicle of choice is – you guessed it! – QM.  QM enjoys particular favor for the same reasons that it appealed so greatly to the good folks of Social Text: it’s opaque, counter-intuitive, jargon-laden, safely remote from morality and has the cachet of vaguely-remembered great names associated with it (although Einstein opposed QM bitterly, because it couldn’t incorporate relativity and because he considered it ugly).  The results look exactly like Alan’s hoax paper – except that, unlike his, they are serious.


For me this came recently to the fore when my blog-friend George Dvorsky posted a link to a video  which purports to show where science and Buddhism meet.  I watched it until I heard that “a particle is everywhere in the universe at all times”.  At that point I turned the video off and wondered aloud why I wasted even moments of my finite life on such arrant nonsense.

The snippets presented as QM facts in the video are at best extremely sloppy thinking, at worst an attempt to preempt, appropriate and mislead as insidious as Intelligent Design.  The Schrödinger equation, whose mangled presentation caused me to switch off the video, was the earliest mathematical description of a particle’s wave function. This formulation, although instrumental in the progress of QM, has problems with the time component and cannot integrate any aspect of relativity. The older formulations often lead to absurd results, such as zero denominators in equations — or infinitely spread particles. Since then, descriptions such as Feynman’s path integrals have solved some of these problems, although the final reconciliation may require the advent of a working grand unified theory.

Physicists and mathematicians are aware of these limitations when they use such constructs.  In contrast, when people who are not conversant with a scientific concept use it to lend credibility to shaky or shady conclusions, they become demagogues and/or charlatans.  And before anyone trots out the elitism hobby-horse, all I can say is, just have the next person you meet on the street repair your car or give you a haircut.  The same logic applies, and no amount of skimming Wikipedia entries will make up for in-depth knowledge and critical thinking.

Buddhism has become fashionable among people who wish to be considered spiritual but not “conventionally” religious, many of them self-proclaimed progressives – hence it’s de rigueur not to criticize it.  Some of its prestige comes from politics (primarily the Tibet/China situation, but only because it’s pertinent to US financial concerns), some from the intelligence and charisma of the current Dalai Lama, some from the simple fact that it appears exotic to Westerners when compared to the home-grown Abrahamic monotheisms.

tokonoma-3283I like the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism very much.  However, there is nothing to attract me in the religion’s misogyny (women cannot become Buddhas and must be reborn as men to attain Nirvana), its primitive cosmology of universe-toting turtles, its punitive stance that suffering is the result of bad past karma, its oppressive policies whenever it gained temporal power (including pre-Chinese Tibet, which was a far cry from Shangri-La) or the dog-like master/disciple formula that I dissected in my critique of that pinnacle of ersatz mythology, Star Wars.

Worse yet, what is the outcome of suppressing desire, Buddhism’s ultimate goal?  It’s the fate of the Miranda settlers in Serenity, the fate of any conscious being that gazes obsessively at its navel with the belief that reality is but an illusion.  If this is true, why explore or invent?  The Western religions have an awful lot to answer for.  But at least in their figures of defiance, from Prometheus to Lucifer, they incorporate a key element: striving for something larger than one’s puny self without letting go of one’s individuality.

I’m often told that science strips away comforting illusions or the mysteries that add beauty and meaning to life.  Yet which is a more potent (let alone true) image – stars as glittering nails inolympics crystal domes, or as incandescent engines that create life?  Science needs no pious platitudes or sloppy metaphors.  Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus.  Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks.  And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

59 Responses to ““Keeping an Open Mind Is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.””

  1. Damn eloquent Athena. Do you think that at the very least, maybe that video is good in that it introduces some of the ideas of quantum mechanics to people whom it may be nothing more than a name? Or do the pieces that were misrepresented create a completely false understanding that’s harmful? If nothing else, it inspires the imagination a bit. You certainly need to ignore some of the head in the clouds stuff though.

    I write about things that I certainly have no expert knowledge in. Knowing that, I try to make it clear that I am a speculator sharing my opinion, not an expert. I suppose it’s easy to cross that line and assert something you’re excited about, implying expertise that is not there.

    The quantum world is an abstract and foreign one. It’s a bizarre exercise to compare it to Buddism, but if it makes people think, maybe it’s not all bad. It seems like we’ve got to have those middle people that can translate to the lay person to some degree, but it’s inevitable that they’ll flub it up a bit. We’ve got to pull the the world along into the bright future somehow.

  2. Alex Vance says:

    I take a lot of issue with your bias toward Buddhism.

    Yes, there are a lot of brainless new-agers who love energy crystals and distance healing. Yes, the person who created the video may fit in that category.

    But Buddhism, in my mind, is a beautiful description of how a man set forth to live his life by the goal of eliminating suffering, with tips we can use. The Buddha himself was science minded: he asked his students to take nothing on faith, but to test it by their own experience. It seems that your issues with it are not with Buddhism, but what people have done with it at various times.

    Buddhism is like anything else: people use it for their own means. Some of them are douchebags.

    As for me, I like the meditation exercises. I like the focus inward, and I believe strongly that being in control of one’s desires is key to being happy.

    I do agree with you that Buddhism has a blatant lack of activism and self preservation built into it, which is bad. So it must be incorporated into a larger worldview which includes industry that moves the world forward. But as a methodology for improving your own personal existential welfare, it’s the best I’ve seen so far.

    It seems like you’ve just met one too many people whose brains have fallen out.

    P.S. do you have a source for the “women don’t have souls” idea?

  3. Athena says:

    Those are very good questions, Odin. The major problem is not even the erroneous scientific information, but the attempt to preempt and appropriate the knowledge gained from science. It’s like the apocryphal saying attributed to the destroyer of the Alexandria Library: “If it agrees with God’s word, it’s redundant. If it doesn’t, it’s heretical.”

    Alex, I have no particular bias against Buddhism. I consider it as pernicious as any other organized religion. All your statements could apply just as easily to the life and example of Jesus, or to many portions of the Talmud. The “it’s not religion, it’s people” is as old and tired as the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” mantra. As for picking and choosing which aspects of a religion to embrace or consider canonical, that’s an equally old mental exercise for people intelligent enough to be embarrassed that they’re using Bronze Age precepts to guide their actions.

    Meditation and control of one’s desires didn’t enter the sphere of human activity with Buddhism. Both were well-known and practiced as early as classical Greece, if not earlier. There are undeniable comforts in religion and it had its share of creativity. Nevertheless, much of what humanity accomplished was not because of religion, but in spite of it.

  4. Paul Gilster says:

    So beautifully phrased… Especially the finish:

    Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus. Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks. And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

    Whenever I read you, Athena, I find things I’ve been thinking but have never been able to express as well as you. Lovely.

  5. Roko says:

    Great article, Athena. This is probably not the worst example of quantum nonsense I have ever seen – but the discussion of entanglement never once mentioned decoherence, or drew the distinction between what happens on the quantum scale versus what happens on the macroscopic scale; which I thought was an intellectually dishonest move. A novice watching the video would think that basketballs really do get entangled.

    I’ve blogged this.

  6. Athena says:

    Paul, Roko, I’m very glad you enjoyed the article!

    Paul, it helps that I grew up with poetry being sung around me — courtesy of such composers as Theodorakis, who made poetry accessible and memorable to everyone. Greek is one of the few languages with this gift and it inevitably informs thought and writing cadences.

    Roko, thank you for the blog post! The intellectual dishonesty you point out (and the real danger of seriously misleading non-scientists) is a partial answer to Odin’s important questions.

  7. ZarPaulus says:

    My personal issue with quantum mysticism is misinterpretations of the observer effect, also I recall seeing a book about the year 2012 where the author claimed to use quantum mechanics to predict the future.

  8. Athena says:

    ZarPaulus, your objection is along the lines of Roko’s point about the decoherence and the collapse of all pontential states into a single one upon observation (which pertains to questions of “seeing the future” as well). It sounds pretty esoteric when discussed with such terms, but the essence is that macroscopic systems are fixed in spacetime. You cannot have even quantum microtubules (a silly concept that Penrose and Hameroff advanced), let alone entangled basketballs.

  9. Alex Vance says:

    Athena, it seems that your issue is with religion itself, which is understandable but to me is unfortunate.

    I can group all religions under one umbrella and point out in each a corrupting influence that inspires right wing conservatives and fundamentalists who are among the worst people on the planet. It allows people to be manipulated, read: Republican Party.

    But let’s not be too hasty in writing off religion entirely. The benefits of religion are the benefits you and I get from looking at the physical world and its future: wonder, excitement, purpose. Rather than write the religious off as ignorant and lost, let’s help them find these same values in an experiential reality based worldview. Let’s use uplift, not scorn.

    There are already modern treatments of Buddhism and even loose takes on Abrahamic religions that are compatible with a scientific worldview. They are not the enemy. Neither are Buddhists nor Christians nor Muslims.

    The overwhelming majority of the religious, as far as I understand it, are people that we can work with. Why alienate them with overgeneralized anti-religion? Most of us want the same thing: a better, science based future.

  10. Roko says:

    @ Alex Vance: Rather than write the religious off as ignorant and lost, let’s help them find these same values in an experiential reality based worldview. Let’s use uplift, not scorn.

    Amen to that!

  11. Athena says:

    Alex, the essay came about because George gave prominent coverage to the video and solicited opinions of it. I stated it was nonsense. He asked me “to explain myself”. So I did.

    I suspect that it’s virtually impossible to get adults to change their minds, unless they have an epiphany of some sort — usually a personal experience so traumatic that it shifts their worldview. I’m glad you and Roko (and Gould et al) think persuasion by reason is possible. I’m less optimistic.

  12. caliban says:

    Part of the issue here is that science has become seen as a kind of power broker in the modern world. Science isn’t mythology, but for many people it functions as if it were mythology, a very powerful mythology, and so many people try to call upon that power. Religions of all stripes are not immune to this, and I’ve certainly seen all sorts of stupid arguments from a wide variety of religious points of view, trying to use science to bolster their side.

    The problem is hitching your particular religion to a specific scientific result. Suppose you claim that QM supports Buddhism. And tomorrow, if QM is demolished, shown experimentally to be totally false, would you lose your faith? Highly unlikely. In which case you aren’t really taking the science-religion connection seriously, only using it when convenient. This is the problem that I have with trying to make a connection between religion and science.

  13. Athena says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Calvin. That’s what I meant by appropriating and misleading: science in its “magic wand” guise is used for the legitimacy it can lend, not because those who use it in this fashion want to advance understanding. Hence the strong whiff of snake oil in such projects.

  14. Athena, I enjoyed your eloquent essay. I particularly liked your phrase, “Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus.” I couldn’t agree more and truly believe that the more perspectives and deeper knowledge one has about a given thing, the richer one’s experience of that and therefore of the universe becomes. I hope you don’t mind if steal your verbiage for conversations, as you have stated this more succinctly than I ever did. It makes me realize that I’m very late in making a central file for noteworthy quotes I’d like to reference with attribution some time later. Therefore, yours is the first.

  15. Athena says:

    I’m flattered to be the catalyst for starting a quote collection, Steve! You can find more of these in my essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction, which is in the Stories section of this site.

    I’m something of a hopeless (hopeful?) romantic about science: as a working scientist, I can see its warts all too well. But I can see its unique and immense potential equally well.

  16. Athena, very nice entry – I will try to put you on my regular reading list. About to read your Star Wars entry now!



  17. Guido says:

    Great post, Athena, I enjoyed it deeply.

    I just have to say that change is indeed possible for some people. I was a Christian for long time, but all that it took to open my eyes was to get a connection to the Internet and start challenging my views. I have always longed to understand things, to find the truth, so I sought to confront my views with reality and see if they resisted. They did not, but I only could do it when I had more information available, information that was not physically accessible to me.

    Every day new people get to the Internet, exploring, avid for knowledge and answers. This kind of posts is a good thing and might help somebody someday.

    Keep up the good work.

  18. Alex Vance says:

    I suspect that it’s virtually impossible to get adults to change their minds, unless they have an epiphany of some sort

    Yeah, but that epiphany can come in many forms. If you drop a mindbomb on someone, it will often smolder for many years before blowing up and changing them. It’s definitely not worth it to spend a lot of time on the stubborn, but spreading factual information has a lot of mindbomb power.

    Anyway, overall I liked your article Athena, especially the lauded last paragraph. Keep writin’.

  19. Athena says:

    Don’t worry about my continuing to write — It would take a tank or its equivalent to stop me! (*laughs*)

  20. Dear Athena: Great essay!!!! “Science needs no pious platitudes or sloppy metaphors.” That is it!

    We MUST care about this stuff (of the “pious platititude” of religion) because sometimes it seems the Dark Ages are back, with the current ressurgence of non-sense religious belief and all the alienation of the human mind it produces (an alienation, of course, quite convenient for the interests of those who promote religion).

    Unfortunately, most religions are now equipped with tanks, jet fighters, and nuclear warheads… 🙁

  21. J. Hughes says:


    I’m a little disappointed in your shallow understanding of Buddhism. I know you aren’t a Buddhist scholar, but you are sophisticated enough to know that there really isn’t any such thing as “Buddhism” – there are 2500 years of Buddhists in dozens of countries doing and thinking lots of different, sometimes contradictory, things. Some of your comments apply to some of them.

    > misogyny (women cannot become Buddhas and must be reborn as men to attain Nirvana)

    Yes, that was an orthodox doctrine. On the other hand there are many other aspects of early Buddhism that were contextually gender neutral and egalitarian in relationship to its Vedic environment. More about that in my essay “Buddhist Feminism”:

    > its primitive cosmology of universe-toting turtles

    Again, Buddhist cosmology is not of course a modern one. But it is a non-theistic cosmology that posits billion year cycles of collapse and expansion, similar to the 1980s Bang-Crunch model. Don’t know where you heard about turtles (maybe thats something Tibetan) but you can read more about Buddhist cosmology in my essay “Beginnings and Endings: The Buddhist Mythos of the Arising and Passing Away of the World”

    > its punitive stance that suffering is the result of bad past karma

    All theodicies have their problems. As an atheist theodicy Buddhism attributed success and suffering to the result of individual effort. For those who were oppressed or suffered from bad luck that obviously doesn’t help. And since like most Western Buddhists I don’t believe in reincarnation the traditional idea doesn’t work for me at all. So many of us Western Buddhists have a psychoanalytic interpretation of karma when we use the idea at all. Fortunately, Buddhism can actually be read as a negation of Hindu concepts of karma, a negation of social obligation and appeal to step out of karma altogether.

    > its oppressive policies whenever it gained temporal power (including pre-Chinese Tibet, which was a far cry from Shangri-La)

    Again, I agree that Buddhist clergy have made many accomodations to power throughout history, including theocratic rule. But the model of political order suggested in the Buddhist sutras is one of either peaceful decentralized democratic anarchism to countervail against greed-driven kings, or establishing the influence of dharma over the state by for instance convincing kings to eliminate poverty. It wasn’t post-Enlightenment liberal democracy, but it also wasn’t Sharia.

    > the dog-like master/disciple formula

    I presume you are referring to the guru-student relationship in Tibetan Buddhism, which is the most excessive authority relationship in Buddhism. Monastics in other Buddhist traditions really had much less of that kind of authority. I’m not attracted to authoritarian religious practice myself, but if you accept that “getting over yourself” is a useful thing then agreeing to the strictures of egalitarian community can do it as can a relationship of total trust in a teacher.

    > suppressing desire, Buddhism’s ultimate goal?

    It may sound like a word game, but in Buddhist psychology the goal is not to suppress desire, but to understand your mind well enough so that your desires lose power over you and you stop tying yourself up with them.

    Again, I don’t expect people outside of the Buddhist tradition to appreciate these distinctions, and some of your complaints, like about authoritarianism and compromises with power, I and many Western Buddhists agree with. But for me the Buddhist tradition is rather more complex than you seem to appreciate.

  22. Athena says:

    Thank you, Mauro! The priests and kings always work(ed) together, sometimes they were/are the same people.

  23. Athena says:

    On my part, Jim, I’m more than a little disappointed to see special pleading (and weak pleading, at that) employed to argue that Buddhism is “different”. There are equally many versions of Christianity or Judaism, as widely disparate as the various Buddhist branches. Some of them are as progressive and as low-key with respect to dogma as Buddhism. Several encourage questioning and most of them are better than Buddhism in terms of engaging with the external world.

    Americans have this habit of picking and choosing what portions of a religion or philosophy they wish to adopt, and still consider themselves followers of that discipline. If they were subjected to an imposed orthodoxy with all its ritual and rigor, they would be far less enamored of such mental contortions — because it would affect their lives decisively rather than as an optional overlay.

    Most crucially, any religion that attempts to appropriate and misinterpret scientific concepts to justify its own mythology reeks of snake oil to me. A Buddhist atheist is a contradiction in terms. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. It’s either science or turtles. For me, it’s science.

  24. J. Hughes says:

    How is a Buddhist atheist a contradiction in terms? Buddhists have had a variety of cosmologies, and there are supernatural beings in them. But those gods aren’t omniscient or omnipotent, they didn’t create the world, and worship of them plays no role in Buddhism. Buddhism (or most Buddhism at any rate) is a religion or philosophy focused on a soteriology of fulfilling human potential through human effort. Buddhists held that fully realized human beings were superior to the gods. That makes Buddhism very different from the theistic religions.

    So recognizing the diversity of Buddhisms and the diversity of Christianities does not require a materialist atheist to say both are equally problematic; Abrahamic religions are far more problematized by science and modernity. Buddhism still has many supernatural elements, however, all of which need to be teased apart from the psychological and philosophical elements that still have merit.

    I agree that there is far too much facile equation of quantum physics with Buddhist, Taoist or Hindu metaphysics. On the other hand, there are profound, mind-bending aspects of physics and cosmology which can be meditations in their own right, and which can be compared to Buddhist ideas in ways which enrich our mytho-poetic understanding of ourselves. I don’t see any reason for a radical discontinuity in human culture so that no myth, moral or meditation from before “science” can be used and integrated with a scientific worldview. In fact, I find that integration personally enriching, so long as the ideas are understood deeply and not simply conflated.

  25. Athena says:

    Jim, either there are gods in Buddhism or there aren’t. Their exact nature is not the point. If there are, you cannot be a Buddhist atheist. Also, if we follow your argument, the best system is pagan polytheism, since those gods are least potent. And the Greeks showed that people were superior to any and all gods in unprecedented ways a long time before Buddhism arrived.

    You know that I come from a culture with many layers of myth and lore as well as innumerable intellectual and artistic contributions to humanity. These are all precious to me as part of a cultural identity which fuses into my personal one. I agree in both word and deed that these echoes and nuances enrich our existence: I use these myths in my stories, and to inform my actions. However, integrating these myths into the scientific view of reality is like stretching both participants onto a Procrustean bed. Even the Periclean Athenians were aware of this discrepancy, as the trial of Socrates showcased.

  26. caliban says:

    “Americans have this habit of picking and choosing what portions of a religion or philosophy they wish to adopt, and still consider themselves followers of that discipline.”

    People have been picking and choosing portions of religion to adopt from the beginning of time. Hell, even *before* Jesus was crucified, his disciples were “picking and choosing” the parts they felt most comfortable with. Indeed, part of complaint against Jesus by the religious authorities was that Jesus was picking and choosing parts of Judaism to adopt and ignoring others; he worked on the sabbath, talked to women like they had value, and so on. (Jesus returned the favor and accused the Pharisees of also picking and choosing piety over compassion.) And even casual studies of Islam and Buddhism and other religion show the same thing: right out the starting gate, people were “picking and choosing.”

  27. Athena says:

    Sure — but Jesus, after picking and choosing, called the new collection not Judaism, but something else. And as I said earlier, many religions besides Buddhism have many and significantly disparate branches.

    More generally I think we can all agree, as you and Jim mentioned in your earlier posts, that conflating scientific concepts with religious ones is intellectually dishonest.

  28. Walden2 says:

    Some day – maybe – human beings will grow up enough not to need
    gods or spirits or anything else to get through life. The Greeks got
    that ball rolling about 2,500 years ago, but so many still cling to their

    The “joke” is that people already do what they have to do by their
    own abilities and with the help of fellow members of their species,
    but they often think that some so-called higher power gave them the
    awareness and boost that they asked for, when it was inside them
    all the time, just like in The Wizard of Oz.

  29. caliban says:

    Yes, not only is it dishonest, it usually gives rise to gobbledygook.

    (And my apologies for derailing the topic a bit in my previous post…)

  30. Athena says:

    I think that Lanza’s stuff exists into the “not even wrong” region of spacetime, in which Penrose and Hameroff’s quantum microtubules also reside. It’s also solipsistic: nothing exists unless/until I witness or experience it. There is a “Buddhist” flavor (broadly defined) to such arguments, but Christian mystics also explored this issue. Plus, of course, thinkers like Zenon, Pythagoras and Plato — and the philosophy schools that they started.

  31. caliban says:

    Really, the idea of the conscious observer causing the collapse of the wavefunction is a bit passé these days. Decoherence explains much better, for example, the two-slit experiment. No consciousness needed.

    We can’t even define consciousness in a rigorous fashion. I suspect we can’t, and we need a new, more limited, more rigorous term. Until that time, trying to tie together the rigorous mathematics of quantum mechanics with a squishy, ill-defined concept such as consciousness is a futile pursuit.

  32. Nebris says:

    “In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded; “This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said – grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way!” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” ~Carl Sagan

  33. Athena says:

    I must admit to some ambivalence regarding this famous and on-its-face wonderful statement. Science is what it is because it never stops questioning and exploring. A religious framework, no matter how liberal, might stunt this aspect, without which science would become just another set of ossified answers.

  34. Walden2 says:

    Even Carl Sagan had a desire to get beyond the cold equations, to use an old SF story title.

    Did you know Contact’s main theme (the 1985 novel at least) was about what a deliberate message from God might look like? Thus the whole bit about pi that was absent from the 1997 film version.

  35. Athena says:

    I haven’t read Contact, only seen the film. Much as I liked his vision, Sagan was a clunky writer even in non-fiction, so I avoided reading his fiction. As a result, I missed that plot thread — though in retrospect it explains the preacher’s presence. Incidentally, one of the few afterlives I could imagine myself liking is what happened to Ellie: walking by the sea, deep in conversation with my adored, adoring father.

  36. Walden2 says:

    Contact was not a bad novel, though it is a bit dated and even somewhat simplistic when it comes to the subject of aliens and how to find and communicate with them. The film also has its flaws, but it is still a cut above most science fiction cinema and both versions are a good introduction to SETI and concepts of alien intelligence. Plus the main character is an intelligent, resourceful woman who also happens to be an atheist. That such a character alone made it through print and Hollywood is no small miracle there.

    Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice from 1968 is not only far more sophisticated but probably a more accurate rendering of how we will encounter our first alien life: It will not only be messy, confusing, and choked with human politics, but we will also realize just how little we know about what is truly out there. Just look at the decade-long debate over the Mars meteorite “fossils”, and those are just nanobacteria, if that.

    Sagan always thought that advanced ETI would be benevolent and help us commoners with such acts as broadcasting the Encyclopedia Galactica throughout the stars. He assumed “bad” species would destroy themselves before they could develop space travel.

    He could be right, of course, but my growing view is that a higher alien species might also treat lower societies with indifference or disdain, which means that while they may not deliberately attempt to remove us, we could still be wiped out by their indifference if they decide they need our Sol system for building material, for example.

    Perhaps, just like human societies and individuals on Earth, there is as much variety in the species throughout the galaxy and beyond, so we will encounter good guys, bad guys, and guys we won’t ever be able to figure out.

    Maybe if we meet up with enough good guys, we should team up and form a federation of united planets to protect each other from the bad guys. :^)

  37. Athena says:

    I haven’t read Lem’s book, but what you describe sounds a lot like some of McDevitt’s plots. I agree with you about how highly advanced species might treat us. After all, we behave the same way towards bonobos and elephants, to say nothing of ants!

  38. Athena says:

    A balanced and nuanced discussion — but then again, I happen to agree with him! I’ve been following Russell Blackford’s blog, he’s a friend and a number of our interests intersect.

  39. Walden2 says:

    Sagan seemed to be a big fan of Hinduism when Cosmos came out:

  40. Athena says:

    That was back when oscillating universes and non-Western religions were in vogue. Also, he used it as a metaphor (a useful didactic tool that can nevertheless backfire) and, of course, to show what a Kool Kat he was! Even so, here’s a fragment of that link you sent:

    “These great ideas are tempered by another perhaps still greater: it is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods but rather that the gods are the dreams of men.”

  41. Walden2 says:

    Sagan was nothing if not hip compared to most of the scientists of his era.

    I found this online essay by the man which addresses similar themes to that in this thread, written about the same time as the Cosmos series:

  42. Blake Stacey says:

    Yeah, Lanza’s “biocentrism” is basically what happens when instead of reading a physics textbook, you use it for rolling paper.

  43. Athena says:

    Lanza’s biocentrism, Tipler’s strong anthropic principle, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe’s version of panspermia (shoehorned to accommodate the steady-state universe), Penrose and Hameroff’s quantum microtubules… Lots of brains fallen through the floor.

  44. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    Oops! Blockquote fail. Let me try again.

    The editors of Social Text argued that Alan inadvertently expressed great truths in his article that even he wasn’t aware of – though they did take the precaution of having submissions peer-reviewed thereafter.

    Really? I missed that part. There’s a lot of blah in their (initial) explanation here (or see an earlier version here), but the bits that leaped out at me were:

    From the first, we considered Sokal’s unsolicited article to be a little hokey. …

    we … concluded that the article was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field.

    … we read it more as an act of good faith of the sort that might be worth encouraging than as a set of arguments with which we agreed.

    … and so we often balance diverse editorial criteria when discussing the worth of submissions, whether they be works of fiction, interviews with sex workers, or essays about anticolonialism.

    This sounds a lot like – yeah, we thought it was dodgy too; we only published it because we found it (and him) “interesting”, same as what we do for the whores and the blacks.

    Or am I reading something not there?

  45. Athena says:

    I think this was the second round of ass-covering, after increasing numbers of people pointed out how ridiculous they looked. The part about other Others reeks of toxic condescension.

    What do you do in real life, new perceptive commenter? Your Yahoo e-mail address doesn’t work, your name is obviously a handle… why so many veils?

  46. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    I think this was the second round of ass-covering, after increasing numbers of people pointed out how ridiculous they looked.

    Guess I missed the first round. link?

    The part about other Others reeks of toxic condescension.

    I can understand (and approve of) Sokal ignoring this, cos pointing it out could have reduced his critique of a whole field to a garden variety instance of Other-ism by two (five?) guys. What astounds me is that the cultural studies crowd, the proclaimed experts at identifying and prescribing correctives for this kind of thing, failed to say anything about it. (Or did I miss that too?) Instead, they closed ranks, defended Social Text, vilified Sokal (to his likely amusement) and as far as I can tell, continue to do so.

    Some more fun stuff from this version (which is a little older and ‘rawer’):

    In sum, Sokal’s assumption that his “parody” struck a disreputable chord with the woozy editors of Social Text is ill-conceived. Indeed, its status as parody does not alter substantially our initial perception of, and our interest in, the piece itself as a curio, or symptomatic document.

    This reminded me of the bit in HHGTTG where the mice insist that no, they were the ones doing experiments on the humans.

    Most of all, what his confession altered was our perception of his own good faith as a self-proclaimed leftist. In the view of our editors, Alan Sokal was now revealed to be either a) a leftist whose self-loathing has been activated by conservative caricatures of the cultural left, or b) a leftist whose genuine sense of commitment led him to a questionable manner of expressing his political point.

    “How dare you criticize Israel, you Self-Hating Jew!”

    In either respect, his actions smacked of a temper often attributed to “unreconstructed male leftists.” More to the point, the boy stunt pulled by Sokal seemed typical of the professional culture of science education.

    This bit astounds a little more than the rest. “Unreconstructed male leftist” appears to be an accusation of chauvinism/sexism, which Ross ascribes to everyone in “science education” in general and Sokal in particular. That would assign feminity in some sense to the field of Cultural Studies, as well as to himself and his co-editors. Is either group largely female? Does employment in a cultural studies department provide you with a vagina? Perhaps just an encumbrance on victim-hood rights of one, …

    Much of this has been (wisely) edited out of the final version appearing in Lingua Franca, which takes a more conciliatory tone.

    By the way, not sure if you want your blog cluttered with random fiskings of 13+ year old stuff, all of which I’m sure others must have already said elsewhere on the intertubes.

    Your Yahoo e-mail address doesn’t work, …

    Shore it does. 🙂 Just reverse the anti-spam mods.

  47. Athena says:

    I don’t mind the occasional long comment, as long as it’s on topic, cogent and doesn’t become a habit!