Tyson Responds; Atheism vs. Agnosticism

By Chris Mooney | March 7, 2011 7:58 am

Neil Tyson has responded extensively to comments over at the Point of Inquiry forums–comments that were, in turn, triggered by our interview. Without going into every issue, I want to chime in on a few points. Quoting Tyson’s responses:

From Taylor
“Tyson is wrong that the scientific atheists don’t criticize their own believing brethren”
1) No question that vocal/viisible religious scientists are criticized often and resoundingly. My comments were not about these individuals but about the persistence of belief among scientists in general (40% in America) – a point that I hardly ever see addressed in public discourse by anyone. And the related fact that members of the National Academy of Sciences are at 7%. Active atheists cite and celebrate this small number, yet, to me, the most interesting fact worthy of further research is why that number is not identically zero.

We did a show on this with Elaine Ecklund of Rice. Short answer: The relationship between religious belief and scientific education, or scientific expertise, does not appear to be linear. What Ecklund finds about many religious scientists is that these people start out as believers from religious families; then their scientific education and training causes conflict and makes them more religiously moderate; but they ultimately find some way of reconciling the beliefs of their upbringing and their science, and don’t move all the way to atheism. (But of course, you won’t find many fundamentalists in this camp, either.)

Next Tyson response:

From David_Lewis
“It was hard to believe that …both Mooney and Tyson so studiously avoided talking about …climate science denial…of the Republican Party”
3) Nope. Never came up. Which, by the way, is not the same thing as “studiously avoided”.

Indeed. We did an interview that was 50 plus minutes and still didn’t even get to this subject, just for lack of time. It is obviously not a topic that I studiously avoid. It’s a topic I’m going on and on about constantly. You may have noticed.

Next Tyson response:

From KennyKJC
“It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons”
5) We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation. That would be me. Evidence that “disinterest” and “cowardice” are two different mental states. FYI: In spite of what shows up on YouTube, less than 1% of my public messages (spoken or written) involve God or religion.

Personally, I do use the word “atheist” to describe myself, because it means the lack of belief (theism), and I certainly lack belief. So I consider it the most accurate term for someone like me.

Still, I can see where Tyson is coming from. For many people, “atheism” calls to mind  an organized movement that does things and takes positions, as well as an associated personal identity; agnosticism doesn’t really carry this meaning. So there is a clear difference in connotations, even if one can argue that substantively, all agnostics are really, effectively, atheists.

This is, obviously, a subject that one could say, much, much more about.

Last response to quote:

From Asanta
“I think by just staying out of the religion debate, he thinks he can remain the lovable, approachable non-threatening teddy bear of science education.”
6) My pedagogical goal is to get people to think straight in the first place, rather than to debate them later after it’s too late. For this reason, you will hardly ever see me on a program with Moon Hoaxers, Conspiracy Theorists, UFOlogists, Creationists, or even Astrologers. And, as is true in my reply to Kenny KJC, these subjects occupy less than 1% of my actual public discourse, in spite of what the viewing statistics of YouTube clips imply. Note also that my TAM6 presentation, which is all about pseudoscience, was given under heavy persuasion from people such as James Randi, who I respect so deeply that I would not decline his invitation to speak: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/component/content/article/44-amazing-meeting/1232-qbrain-droppingsq-from-neil-degrasse-tyson-at-tam6.html So if the consequence of all this is that I am a “teddy-bear”, I happily accept the moniker, but my motives differ from what you assert.

I’m with Tyson here. If anything, I’m moving more and more to the view that we need to create a culture of scientific thinking–and rational, calm discourse in general–rather than banking on the hope of changing minds that are already fixed. It’s an indirect approach, not a direct one, and one that recognizes how strongly people cling to beliefs and resist letting them go.

Comments (47)

  1. “It’s an indirect approach, not a direct one”

    It’s also the only intellectually honest one. We can demonstrate, for example, the distance of the earth from the sun but there is nothing we can definitively show right now with science proving or disproving some form of deity. The best thing we can do is teach people to cultivate rational thinking with the hope this will one day lead to the correct answer, but it is presumptuous to assert science has definitively shown what that answer is when it comes to God’s existence.

  2. Livvy

    One could, as you say, make the argument that “all agnostics are really, effectively, atheists” —- but the argument has no legs. It is, at best, incredibly unfair and illogical.

    When I was “agnostic,” I was not disinterested or uncertain as to the existence of some sort of god, but deeply *ambivalent* on the issue.

    That is to say, at different times I both deeply believed in a god/goddess and deeply believed there was no god/goddess.

    I now consider myself a theist. NOT an atheist.

    The equation of atheism with agnosticism is irrational, overly simplistic and, if I may be frank, a touch arrogant.

    I’ll never forget the young philosophy student who insisted, upon hearing that I considered myself more or less agnostic, that “all agnostics are really atheists.”

    Touching sentiment, but not true. The argument has no legs.

  3. Somite

    I think agnosticism is not a logically tenable position. You would have to ignore that everywhere we have looked and nothing we have seen shows evidence of a creator or a supernatural world.

    In effect if you argue that “claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.”; you are introducing the fantastical and imaginary concept of a deity for which there is no evidence or reason to believe exists.

  4. Alex

    Everyone, including Tyson, is talking about apatheism.

  5. Somite

    Right. And apatheism doesn’t help the cause of reason and science because it does not adress the root problem.

  6. eyesoars

    Livvy@2, Somite@3:

    Call me a militant agnostic then. I don’t know (and you don’t either) and I don’t care. Further, the matter is not amenable to proof, so argument about the issue is a waste of time.

    For all intents and purposes I’m an atheist: I don’t believe in your God(s). Strictly speaking, I’m an agnostic. More practically, I’m an atheist, because I think the question “Does God exist?” is an unintelligible proposition — any God that does exist is likely to be so utterly different from the common conceptions of it as to be unrecognizable.

  7. Lindsay

    “If anything, I’m moving more and more to the view that we need to create a culture of scientific thinking–and rational, calm discourse in general–rather than banking on the hope of changing minds that are already fixed.”

    Amen!

  8. Livvy

    Just to clarify: I am not talking about apatheism. Like I said, I care strongly and I do think it’s a worthwhile question.

  9. Somite

    eyesoars@6 I do know there is no evidence or reason to think there is a god. Do you feel the same about unicorns and werewolves?

  10. eyesoars

    Somite@9:

    No, I don’t feel the same about unicorns and werewolves; their (non-)existence is mostly inconsequential.

    In the case of ‘God’, however, there’s another issue. *Something* created the universe. Most probably it did not have intention or intelligence, but that’s a possibility (however slim). While that, whatever it is, bears no resemblance to any traditional image of God, it can be forced into that mold as ‘creator’.

    For now, there’s nothing much to be said about it. That could change, however. In the meantime, I’ll continue to think of the question ‘Does God exist?’ as ill-posed.

  11. Somite

    There is also no evidence that *Something* created the universe. In fact modern cosmology points to a spontaneous event. If you only take the evidence we have and deduced there is nothing that points to the possible existence of something beyond the natural world.

  12. JMW

    #3 Somite: In trying to argue the equivalence of agnosticism and atheism, you write …In effect if you argue that “claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.”; you are introducing the fantastical and imaginary concept of a deity for which there is no evidence or reason to believe exists.

    I believe your statement implies an unstated equivalence about claims about the existence of a god. Personally, I identify myself as a “strong” agnostic (who believes that it is impossible to know if a god exists, versus what I call a “weak” agnostic, who admits to not knowing if a god exists). In that state, there are some claims to the existence of a god, such as fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Judaism, in which ‘god’ acts to create pillars of fire, perform miracles, etc., etc. These are claims which I think have been adequately disproved by science.

    There are some who have claims to the existence of a god that is immaterial and undetectable and who does not act in the universe in any way that is indistinguishable from natural law. That conception of a god is one which I believe humanity will never be able to prove or refute.

  13. Mike

    I don’t know why so many seem to think that any public discourse of science necessarily needs to focus on those who disagree with it. That is an eminently submissive posture. There is no reason to constantly frame science as something that crazy people disagree with. Scientific knowledge is a pillar of society, and we should treat it as such.

    That’s not to say that no one should be pushing back against anti-scientific zealots, but that shouldn’t be the focus of scientific discourse. Science should actually take center stage in the conversation. I think

    Chris has done some wonderful work looking at where these two forces intersect, but why should Tyson be criticized for not having much of an opinion on religious zealots? Or for not going out of his way to comment on climate change deniers? His impact on society is going to be much more valuable if he can stoke the fires of curiosity and wonder in children, or inform the public of the challenges and triumphs of modern science.

    I don’t want people to focus so intently on defending science from its enemies that they lose track of actually singing its praises.

  14. Kirk

    To be agnostic is to ascertain the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge. An agnostic is NOT the same as an atheist because they refuse to make any “claims to knowledge” concerning religion. An agnostic’s view of atheism is the same as their view of any religion. They simply ask “How do you know with all certainty that you are correct?”

  15. Jon

    I kept meaning to comment on the post from a couple days ago on one of the things Tyson said in the interview:

    Science exists, in part, in large measure, because the data taking faculties of the human body are faulty. And what science does as an enterprise is provide ways to get data, acquire data from the natural world that don’t have to filter through your senses. And this ensures, or at least minimizes as far as possible, the capacity of your brain to fool itself.

    So to the neuroscientist, the brain is this amazing organ. And to the physical scientist, it’s like, ‘get it out of here.’ Leave it at home. Just bring your box, and have the box make the measurements. So that’s an interesting duality.

    You bet it is. It is the key fault line between the views of someone like Daniel Dennett and Charles Taylor. Taylor follows Merleau-Ponty in believing that there are things worth considering that is *prior* to what you learn from getting out scientific instruments:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Merleau-Ponty#Corporeity

    For Taylor, this opens up a more *hermeneutic* way of understanding things that isn’t just talking about the physical makeup of objects…

    Dennett, by contrast, takes Descarte’s duality, takes up one side, declares the other a phantom, and just says “it’s all physical,” and things like consciousness and free will are pretty much illusions generated to us by physical reality.

    These two are on opposite poles of a debate that has been going on since Kant, according to this author on *Continental Philosophy*:

    http://books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&id=EpMeug3wkZUC#v=onepage&q=extreme%20darwinian%20evolutionary&f=false

    It was kind of a shock to read this book. The two cultures, the peculiarities of Anglophone intellectuals vs. others in the West, Hume vs. Kant and his continental descendants, scientism, controversies over atheism, empiricism vs. straight reason, complaints from atheists that “we shouldn’t need to know Max Weber or this or that philosopher/theologian”–it’s all in here.

    He basically calls Dennett’s approach of reducing all human conscious experience to Darwinian evolution as “extreme”, and not really producing wisdom… (He’s not even doing this from a religious perspective, but a philosophical one.)

    If you really want to get into the philosophical details and hear how Taylor (who *is* coming from a religious perspective) situates himself against Dennett (and against the Analytic tradition in general):

    http://vimeo.com/7803207?height=100%&iframe=true&width=100%

  16. eyesoars

    Somite@11:

    “There is also no evidence that *Something* created the universe. In fact modern cosmology points to a spontaneous event. If you only take the evidence we have and deduced there is nothing that points to the possible existence of something beyond the natural world.”

    This is an unintelligible proposition to me.

    Something created the universe –it’s here, and there was an event when/where it was created. It may well have been a spontaneous event, but some set of rules and/or events in a larger universe (not necessarily bigger, but somewhere “else”) would seem to be necessary to have driven the event. I doubt there was intelligence behind it, but it’s possible.

    I’ll also point out that ‘beyond the natural world’ and ‘outside our universe’ are not necessarily — and I would argue almost certainly not — the same. General relativity implies quite a lot about alternate universes, particularly how incommensurate they are, and how readily they’re created.

  17. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    “We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation.” A term I’ve heard for this is “eh-theist.” Courtesy of Aaron Bornstein.

  18. Dave B

    Many Enlightenment thinkers, and people that followed, were deists of some sort. These people are some of the most important scientists and philosophers in Western history, and no one begrudges their religious beliefs.

  19. debunk

    So, what Dr. Tyson is saying is that he just doesn’t like being called an atheist, even though he is one?

    We already have a word for atheists who do not care what other people believe, and it’s simply “atheists”.

  20. No Christian is exempted from being human by believing in God. Conversely, no non-believer is ever banished from the human family for not believing either. Personally, 99% of my requirement for civil conversation involves showing up. Religious bona fides are at the bottom of my checklist.

  21. Steve D

    Agnosticism is a perfectly viable position: it’s the stance that the evidence does not support a decision one way or the other.

    As for Somite, “You would have to ignore that everywhere we have looked and nothing we have seen shows evidence of a creator or a supernatural world,” that’s a position that many people would radically reject. It amounts to restricting “evidence” to purely observational data and ignores deductive and inductive logic entirely.

    I find Jacques Monod’s argument in Chance and Necessity amusing. He observes that two criteria for intelligent design are geometric regularity and repetition but then he postulates, only at the macroscopic level. Because at the microscopic level we have geometric regularity and repetition everywhere. Monod’s distinction is a purely ad hoc one designed to avoid the obvious alternative, and nowadays with microcircuitry, it’s even more complete balderdash.

    And when I’ve raised this point, guess what response I get? Monod can’t have committed such an obvious fallacy because (chorus of oohs) he has a Nobel Prize. See, argument from authority is bad if it involves the Bible or St. Augustine, but good if it involves Voltaire, Bertrand Russell or Jacques Monod.

  22. debeuk

    What Dr. Tyson is saying is that he actually is an atheist, but doesn’t want to be called one because he doesn’t care what other people believe, so he calls himself an agnostic?

    We already have a word for atheists who don’t care what other people believe. It’s “atheist”.

  23. Alex

    debeuk @22: Actually, atheists who don’t care what other people believe are called ‘apatheists’.

    Somite @5: You presume there is a problem around religion and science regarding reason. Please define reason.

  24. Somite

    Steve @21 geometry and regularity happen all the time in nature and all instances are explained by material phenomena. Induction and deduction should not be a mechanism to make sh*t up. They are supposed to be based on facts and observations.

    Alex @23 There is a big problem with religion because it makes statements that are not supported by observation or evidence. That’s what reason is.

  25. debeuk

    @alex: Calling yourself an apatheist doesn’t mean you’re not, in fact, an atheist. Just like calling yourself an agnostic because you don’t like to be associated with other atheists doesn’t mean you’re not an atheist.

    I suspect most atheists (myself included) don’t care what other people believe. It’s people forcing their beliefs on others that most of them have a problem with.

  26. Jon

    Somite: There is a big problem with religion because it makes statements that are not supported by observation or evidence. That’s what reason is.

    No that’s empiricism. Not the same as reason.

    There’s a ton of philosophy that’s not strictly empirical, but still has strong claims to reason. That book I linked to above tells that story…

  27. michael

    my only answer to that is u cant prove that he doesnt exist.Who is to say he didnt start everything

  28. jld

    @eyesoars

    *Something* created the universe.

    Really?
    Out of what?
    And who created the “what” and the “creator”?
    Turtles all the way down!
    God does not exist because it is a meaningless idea.

  29. Giffy

    Atheism does not imply 100% certainty any more than any other label. Many Christians I know have some level of doubt as does just about anyone when you get right down to it. I believe in evolution, but I certainly think I could be wrong.

    Agnosticism is not simply doubt as to the correct answer, but the belief that the answer is unknowable. That is a far different thing. Both atheists and religious people say we can know something about the existence of gods, even if they may both say that we lack complete proof.

    As others have pointed out simply not caring is apatheisism. Though that is not the same thing as simply not caring about what other people believe.

    Personally I am atheist, but I don’t think being one is central to being a skeptic. Certainly elements of religious belief are untenable from a skeptical scientific outlook, like YEC, but someone can believe in god and still be a good scientist or skeptic. We all believe things thats other may find as lacking is sufficient rigor.

  30. Shaun Fletcher

    There is NOTHING wrong with Mr Tyson’s approach. Just as there is nothing wrong with that of Professor Dawkins, or Even squidboy. All of them are valid and decent approaches to putting your point of view, and it is precisely the multi-faceted, individually decided, and nuanced nature of the secular and scientific approach to debate that gives it real strength in depth.

    The only people who do need to pull their heads in are those who are telling others to stop doing things their way.. do things your own way, but dont lecture everyone else constantly about them doing it wrong, and most especially dont spend as much energy attacking those who actually agree with you about almost everything as you do on the actual subjects that matter.

  31. Nullius in Verba

    “Something created the universe –it’s here, and there was an event when/where it was created.”

    The universe is, by definition, everything that exists. So anything that created it must be a part of it, and must therefore itself have been created. By what? And what created that? And so on.

    Either things require something to create them, or they don’t. If they do, then the creator must have been created by something. If they don’t, there’s no reason to suppose that the universe must, either. Whatever reasoning you apply to justify the uncreated creator can be applied to the universe. Invoking a creator doesn’t answer the question, it just pushes it back into a place where answers to questions are not required.

    The way that physicists think of the start of the universe is somewhat like the lines of latitude and longitude drawn on the surface of the world. If latitude is thought of as ‘time’, and longitude is thought of as ‘space’, then we can see that all the lines meet and ‘space’ shrinks to a point at the North pole, which represents the big bang. The question of what happened before it is then the same as asking “what is to the north of the North pole?” The answer is “nothing!”, but not in the sense of some sort of flat and featureless territory, but of there being nowhere for it to be. Or you could say that it you go north to the north pole and keep on going, you find yourself going south, over on the other side of the universe.

    We are confused by the beginning of the universe because in our daily experience we assume everywhere has a past and future, just as we assume there is always land to the north and south of us. (Or perhaps a cliff edge.) It’s an incorrect assumption. But it’s the way our brains are wired.

  32. TTT

    For once, I agree with Nullius.

    The universe apparently really does stretch out to infinity in linear measure, so why not in temporal measure too? “Beginning” and “creation” are human conceits that our small, fleshy, jury-rigged, just good enough to not go extinct yet brains attempt to project onto a universe that–to an overwhelming extent–consists of conditions in which we could never survive and that have no conceptual relevance to anything those minds can handle. The rules of our lives are beneath triviality as a framework in which to try to grasp the universe.

  33. Dusty

    I think the point is that discussion of religion is separate from a discussion of science.

    Whether there is or is not a God does not affect anything Tyson does professionally. Evangelical Atheists are creating a tension in Science that doesn’t have to exist.

    Personally, I can’t stand Evangelicals, Christian or Atheist. Preaching doesn’t change people’s minds, it only reinforces things they already thing, or pushes their back up against the wall and forces themselves to take a defensive stance.

    I don’t think we need a word for Atheists who don’t engage, we need to use the term for those that do… Evangelical Atheist.

  34. Freddy

    How about instead of worrying about what these people believe in their personal lives we actually rely on SCIENCE. Create a Hypothesis find a way to test that can be recreated accurately, and if you can test and prove it is real. Does it really matter what someone believes if they can use their background to persue new ventures in science and come up with provable hypothesis that can be tested? Isnt the science whats important here. Lets get out of peoples personal business and go with results instead of attacking peoples beleifs. How about that.

  35. jeff

    Agnosticism does not answer the question of ‘do you believe a god exist’. yes meens your a theist, if your answer isn’t yes your an Atheist.

  36. Walter

    Okay, I’ll say it. An agnostic person is an atheist without balls.

  37. Ian

    “If anything, I’m moving more and more to the view that we need to create a culture of scientific thinking–and rational, calm discourse in general–rather than banking on the hope of changing minds that are already fixed.”

    Or as St Francis said … “Preach the gospel always, If necessary use words.”

  38. Consider a simple fact all you atheists who also believe in evolution. It’s very anthropomorphic to say that evolution is limited to Earth or that mankind [the naked ape] is some sort of pinnacle of evolution so when you scientifically extend it to the Universe over a period of Eternity….guess what evolves? Let’s just say it’s God to you, buddy! That’s the brilliant irony. Evolution x Eternity = God [relative to you]. Show me the limits of evolution and I’ll show you the limits of Diety. Atheists therefore must not truly believe in evolution.

  39. Stephen Howell

    Peter M:

    Nobody says that evolution is limited to earth and nobody (apart from theists) claim that makind is any kind of “pinnacle”. We a just a part of the web of evolution. We’re not some kind of “end product”.

    So evolution does not lead to some kind of super advanced creature. It simply leads to adaptation to the current environment. But even if it did, I don’t see where the not believing in evolution part comes from.

  40. Anthony McCarthy

    My brother, an agnostic, agnostic, says that he thinks it’s possible that sea stars are the pinnacle of creation and that they regard bilateral symmetry to be a dysgenic development that makes them doubt that evolution, which they know to have been more subtle than we do, is directed.

    Knowing that people are animals, part of the diversity of life on Earth isn’t the same thing as pretending that our development is not distinctly different from that of any other known species. There is no other species which has developed our kind of culture and manipulation of materials and social life to our own ends, generally of doubtful benefit to us and of known malignancy to life on Earth. Given that science is one of the more specialized aspects of that culture, to pretend that it doesn’t set us apart is and act of willful denial. I think that denial is at service to the ideology of fundamentalist materialism which leads so many atheists to pretend certain knowledge of the unknowable and denial of the obvious. In that they are exactly the match of other kinds of fundamentalists. One of their more opportunistic lapses in honesty is pretending that all of their opponents are also fundamentalists, religious, agnostic and even atheistic. Absolutism leads to paranoia of that kind. You can see it in Freudianism and its heresies, Marxism and its heresies, and organized atheism as well as biblical fundamentalism. Heretics are everywhere.

    I’m an agnostic believer, I had to find out that you can’t know before I was free to believe.

  41. Stephen Howell

    Anthony McCarthy:

    That’s an interesting comment. I like the idea about the starfish.

    I’m not sure I agree about the fundemental distintion of our species from others, though. Obviously we are radically different in our ability to build complex societies and tools and to completely dominate the world. But maybe there is a sort of “tipping point” in development that we are not far beyond and which, say, chimpanzees are not very far short of. Maybe.

    But if we are fundementally different from other species, how did that come to be, I wonder? Does it mean something profound?

    Certainly I don’t think there’s any doubt of the benefit to us, at least so far, at least by evolutionary measures. There’s nearly 7 billion of us. As you point out, that’s far too succesful, from the point of view of other species. Our brains were probably the most successful adaptation in the history of the world.

    I’m also interested to know what you mean by “fundamentalist materialism” and its “denial of the obvious”. What is being denied? (And what is fundamentalist materialism?)

    Pretending certain knowledge of the unknowable is clearly ridiculous. Any atheist who claims such a thing is certainly in direct opposition to the scientific method.

  42. WOW. who knew there would be so much intensity over how Dr. Tyson chooses to identify his faith (or lack thereof). Nothing like a cyclical discussion about religious nomenclature to git yer glory up…

    Frankly, I think the news in this podcast is the somewhat startling admission that Dr. Tyson edited his own Wikipedia page. That’s a PR no-no.

    http://itsnotalecture.blogspot.com/2011/03/neil-degrasse-tysons-mortal-sin-in.html

  43. Anthony McCarthy

    Stephen Howell, by materialist fundamentalism, I mean the claim, stated or not, by those materialists who assert that their belief, that the material universe is all that there is, is known and not believed. “The obvious” includes the fact that their belief is a belief and not known and that other beliefs by rational people of integrity are possible.

    I’m not sure as to our brains being the most successful adaptation in evolutionary history, if we bring about our own extinction, as we have so many other species, by our ingenuity that outstrips our sense of morality, the aspects of our behavior that causes our extinction will, by our own definition, be maladaptive. Watching the gulf oil disaster, global warming, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, it could turn out that the capacity for science and technology is maladaptive, in that sense. As Oppenheimer put it when talking about the development of nuclear weapons the possibility that science was bad for humans became plausible.

    The answer to that depends on whether or not we kill ourselves with science or if it comes to our rescue. As far as we know, we’re the only animals here who have faced these possibilities, consciously. In evolutionary terms, that makes us significantly different from any other species.

  44. Anthony McCarthy

    36. Walter Says:
    March 7th, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    Okay, I’ll say it. An agnostic person is an atheist without balls.

    I wonder if you’d include Charles Darwin in that, I wonder how many of the new atheists would agree.

    Darwin, C. R. to Fordyce, John, 7 May 1879
    Down Beckenham | Kent

    May 7th 1879

    Private

    Dear Sir

    It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

    Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin

    http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-12041

    I wonder what Coyne and Myers would make of this.

  45. Stephen Howell

    Anthony McCarthy:

    Thanks for the clarification. It’s often so difficult to really get down to the heart of these kinds of issues because it’s so difficult to precisely define the words.

    Take for example the word “materialist”. In this sense, it means, I think, acknowledging the existence only of things that could, at least in principle, be detected, directly or indirectly, by the senses. But I often get the impression that the other, more pejorative, sense of the word is also being suggested when it is used to describe non-believers. That is: meaning someone who has a shallow, possibly ammoral, superficial, pleasure and money seeking attitude to life. (I know from the context of your words that you are not using it in this sense, but I was just making a point about how words can be deceptive.)

    Anyway, I suppose the sentence “the material world is all that exists” doesn’t really mean much until you explain the words “material” and “exists”. And I suspect that the definition of the word “exists” would be different for materialists and non-materialists.

    If I had to choose, I guess I would have to place myself more on the materialist side than whatever the other side is called. (Metaphysical?) But only because I genuinely don’t understand what it means for something to exist without, even in principle, being detectable by the senses in some way. But maybe that’s my problem! (I’ll leave aside the problem of whether abstract concepts like mathematics can be said to “exist” because my head is already starting to hurt.)

    Regarding our brains possibly being the most successful evolutionary adaptation. I did say “so far”. As you say, they could yet turn out to be our undoing! On a species-wide level, I personally doubt it though. I think that even if we cause major environmental or nuclear catastrophes and, say, 90% of the human race is killed off, that still leaves a population massively in excess of other similarly sized animals.

    Also, I’m not making any value judgements here. I’m not suggesting anything about what’s morally right or wrong about the behaviour of the human race. I hope most people would regard the rate at which we’re currently destroying exosystems, causing extinctions and appropriating a huge proportion of the world’s biological resources for our own exclusive use as a bad thing, regardless of whether it may or may not be a successful strategy for the survival of human genes. I have plenty of views on what humans ought or ought-not to do, but when trying to describe the nature of humanity I try to be objective. (Maybe impossible, given that I happen to be one of them.)

  46. rory unsure

    let people think what they will. muslim,christian,jew or hindu. Gnostic beliefs are attriubuted! I want to belive in something, more than a cosmic ant farm! who are we?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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