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I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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Chris OConnor

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I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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Books do Furnish a Life: An electrifying celebration of science writing

By Richard Dawkins


I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science
In conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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I'm putting my response to Mr. P here.
Mr. P wrote:Read the intro and found some of Dawkins examples speaking to... A sense of spirituality within the science. And this also calls to mind recent conversations about how he (and the other 3) rejects spiritual considerations in his worldview. He doesn't. It just doesn't draw on myth or what have you. When I think of facts about nature, in its entirety, I do feel in a sense spiritual. It is much more awe inspiring that any other contrived system.

The fact that science admits it is wrong is also very inspiring and is, in my view, a means to also inspire altruism and ethics. We know we can be wrong, so we should always consider how we treat each other for this reason.
I would argue that when I hike in the woods or go on one of my night kayaks, it's very much a spiritual experience. The word "spiritual" doesn't necessarily have to invoke a deity. For me it's a feeling of oneness with nature.

I'm pretty sure Carl Sagan's wonder of the universe was itself very spiritual. As Dawkins says, a scientific understanding of the physical world doesn't necessarily diminish it, the theme of his book, Unweaving the Rainbow. Keats wasn't the only poet to complain that scientific learning may diminish our sense of wonder. Here's a poem by Walt Whitman.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
-Geo
Question everything
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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I don't see Dawkins using 'spiritual,' and if it is true that he shuns the word, I think the reason would be his love of precision and clarity. He goes along willingly with 'wonder' and even 'romance' in speaking of the feeling of science, but he'd probably think that with the many ideas of what 'spiritual' means, it's impossible to be clear using it.

I took a look at the history of 'spirituality,' and before I realized I'd bit off too much, I fastened on the contrast between the spiritual and the worldly as having some specificity. The spiritual person was developing his inner self through some kind of mental discipline, whereas the worldly or 'fleshly' person was indulging his grosser senses by eating, drinking, sex.

Where do you fall in the debate between these two on the degree of harm in illogical thought? I'm much more a 'Tysonian."
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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"Spiritual" is indeed a nebulous word. To add to the confusion one of the definitions (in my dictionary) invokes the word "soul." 1 relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things: I'm responsible for his spiritual welfare | the spiritual values of life.
DWill wrote:Where do you fall in the debate between these two on the degree of harm in illogical thought? I'm much more a 'Tysonian."
I'm certainly more Dawkinsesque in my temperament, though I have a bit of a split personality too. Fortunately in my world, I'm never on the public stage. I don't have a twitter following, etc. Only here on BookTalk do I tend to occasionally bring out my inner Dawkins.

In this exchange, Tyson brings up the story of an cousin who claims to have spoken to a dead person, and his response is brilliant. Even Dawkins says he wished he had thought of it.
Tyson wrote:This is family, how am I going to handle this?’ Here’s what I did. I said, ‘Next time this happens, ask him questions that could be really useful on this side of that barrier, like “Where are you? Are you wearing clothes? Where did you get the clothes? Is there money where you are? What’s the weather like? Who else is there? How old are you there? In your mind’s eye are you young, or are you old? Is grandma there? How old is she? If grandma’s where she is, would she make herself old? Or would she be young again?” Ask questions.’
"Ask questions" is a far better than confrontation. And Tyson shows his skill in this conversation with Dawkins.
-Geo
Question everything
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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DWill wrote:I don't see Dawkins using 'spiritual,' and if it is true that he shuns the word, I think the reason would be his love of precision and clarity.
I don't see the word either...but that is moot. If he prefers not to use certain terms, like I try to avoid using 'belief', that does not preclude me from finding a commonality with the word 'spiritual.' I do that to try to bridge differing povs. And also to explain to folks that need a spiritual basis how and why the understanding and trust in science can be, as they call it, spiritual.

I rarely use the word myself. But...
When you refuse to learn, you become a disease.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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Mr. P wrote: I don't see the word either...but that is moot. If he prefers not to use certain terms, like I try to avoid using 'belief', that does not preclude me from finding a commonality with the word 'spiritual.'

No, of course not. I think the allegation sometimes made is that if you in general base your conclusions on evidence, then you must not be a feeling, or spiritual, person, that data and facts are all that matter to you. Why that idea gets around I don't exactly know.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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geo wrote:I'm pretty sure Carl Sagan's wonder of the universe was itself very spiritual. As Dawkins says, a scientific understanding of the physical world doesn't necessarily diminish it, the theme of his book, Unweaving the Rainbow.
As it happens, my first contact with Booktalk back in 2003 was my review of Unweaving the Rainbow. https://www.booktalk.org/topic3576.html
Chris OConnor wrote:An email I received recently...

Quote: Hi Chris Here is a review I have written of Unweaving the Rainbow. Hope you find it interesting! Robert Tulip

Richard Dawkins: Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

Christiaan Mostert: God and The Future, T & T Clark, 2002

Richard Dawkins is justly famous for the remarkably lucid and coherent
evolutionary philosophy he has developed in his books The Selfish Gene, The
Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. Dawkins presents Darwin
with power, logic and clarity, effectively rebutting the old fundamentalist
idea of God as an interventionist designer. For Dawkins, evolution is the
real context of thought, and the Darwinian logic of cumulative adaptation
is entirely sufficient to explain all apparent miracles of evolution, from
Cambrian phylla to bat's ears to eagle's eyes to human brains. He considers
that any thinking which fails to engage with scientific understanding sets
itself outside the boundaries of intelligent conversation.

Unweaving the Rainbow further develops these evolutionary themes, with
different approaches to the rainbow providing a motif for the cultural
battles faced by scientific understanding. For Dawkins, Sir Isaac Newton's
use of the prism to explain the structure of light has a beauty which can
only add to our subjective vision of the beauty of rainbows in nature. By
contrast, John Keats' comment that Newton 'destroyed the poetry of the
rainbow' by reducing it with 'cold philosophy' actually diminishes the
scope of our imagination. Science is the foundation of creativity, so when
poets like Keats deride knowledge out of some romantic nostalgia, they push
our culture away from the engagement with reality that has to be the source
of any improvement.

I believe that Christian theology should engage with ideas such as those of
Richard Dawkins in order to retain credibility and contestability in the
broader intellectual community. Dawkins is an avowed atheist, with good
reason considering the lame ideas about God he has encountered, symbolised
by the religious demand that the rainbow can only be appreciated as a whole
rather than as the sum of its parts. Theology needs to unweave such
'rainbows' as its approach to the trinity, to creation and to the meaning
of heaven and salvation. For example, a key error of many Christians is
the belief that God is like a heavenly watchmaker, designing each creature
to fit its place. Charles Darwin showed that this theory about God is
incorrect, because the only mechanism of design is natural selection.
Dawkins provides a brilliant modern explanation of why the theory of
evolution is so compelling, and why it is simply wrong to reject Darwin.
However, he does not properly engage with the theological conversation
around these topics, appearing to say the refutation of incoherent ideas
also serves to refute coherent theology.

Theology should have the capacity to engage with Dawkins' critique,
developing its own coherence by systematic logic grounded in both an
understanding of natural processes and of the meaning of divinity. To this
end, the way of thinking I would like to explore sees God as the ultimate
adaptive possibility towards which humanity must evolve if we are to
fulfill our purpose in life. A way of putting this in terms of evolutionary
biology is to say God is 'the niche of the world'. This approach sees the
infinite and eternal God as revealed in that structure of reality (our
ecological niche) that will maximise human flourishing. By definition, if
humanity lives according to the will of this God we will prosper and grow,
but if we live contrary to the will of this God we will suffer, decline and
perhaps eventually become extinct. Connection with the divine reality
promotes salvation, understood in entirely evolutionary Darwinian terms,
while disconnection from this reality promotes destruction. There is one
truth, with the big picture equated to God and revealed in science. The
divine human niche is the global, even cosmic, ecological sum of factors
that enable human life.

I like to think of this divine niche as our telos - the Greek word for
purpose. On this basis, teleology becomes the study of how we can adapt to
our real niche, rather than the pre-Darwinian teleology which claimed that
God is somehow actively shaping us to fit nature. Operating as a whole,
our niche is largely passive, consisting of natural structures that are set
in place and mostly continue for eons. The activity is on the part of
organisms, which must find their way of living in harmony with these
natural structures if they are to prosper. Like a hermit crab that must
find a suitable shell to protect it, humanity must find our ecological
niche if we are to prosper. God has created us as complex free beings,
with power to choose if we will live by faith or not.

Can this approach reconcile with Christianity? My own belief is that Jesus
Christ provides the model of human evolution through his claim that we can
connect to God through grace. Further, I believe that trinitarian theism is
absolutely necessary in a cosmic sense if we are to develop a vision of
salvation that builds on our scientific understanding. If the niche of
human potential may properly be identified with the Christian God, we are
called to live in the image of this gracious and glorious God, representing
truth through language and establishing the Kingdom of God in the world by
promoting the Christian teachings of meaning, purpose and love.

If God is revealed in the cosmic force of nature, the question arises how
this force can be represented in human life. This is where the Christian
trinitarian conception is so powerful. When Jesus said 'Believe me that I
am in the Father and the Father in me' (John 14:11) he claimed to incarnate
the cosmic spirit of truth. His ethic of love, courage and sacrifice led
him to the cross and the resurrection, whatever that may really mean, and
this ethic continues to reverberate in our world through the holy spirit.
It is not necessary to postulate an anti-scientific personal God as
Heavenly Father to see that God became personal in Jesus Christ.

In grappling with these ideas I have found the work of Christiaan Mostert
immensely helpful, in his God and the Future, a study of the great German
thinker Wolfhardt Pannenberg. Mostert provides a masterly presentation of
an entirely coherent and compelling vision of God, with potential to help
Christian theology engage more broadly with the best of contemporary
thought. Recognising that 'the reality, power and goodness of God are
radically debatable' (155), he supports Pannenberg's contention that the
doctrine of the Trinity provides the framework for understanding creation
and history. The Trinity is often misunderstood, so Mostert's complex
orthodox 'unweaving' of this topic is refreshing - especially his focus on
the relations between the Father, Son and Spirit, and his argument that for
God to be a God for humanity, the Father needs the Son just as the Son
needs the Father. Mostert quotes Pannenberg's statement that 'the
resurrection of Jesus is just as constitutive for the divinity of the
Father as for the Sonship of Jesus' (p196), a confronting idea which really
helps to understand what it can mean to say the infinite God of the
universe cares passionately about humanity. Although Mostert is critical of
process theology, I would claim my own idea of God as revealed in the niche
of the world finds support in his statement that "if Jesus' message of the
coming kingdom of God is taken seriously, our view of God must include
God's power over all finite reality, which can only be awaited from the
future. This is the key point for any theology which intends to do justice
to eschatology' (p.151). The implication is that the power of God will
provide the meeting point for theology and ecology within human history.

Biblical prophecy claims to anticipate the future rule of God and to
explain what people must do to participate in that future. I would suggest
we can get a better understanding of the parameters of that future by
combining the scientific framework of evolution with the Biblical framework
of trinitarian eschatology. This points to three areas where I would be
interested to see Mostert expand; firstly, his understanding of divine
purpose or telos, secondly, the role of the Son in the consummation of
reality (a role Mostert assigns to the Spirit), and finally, his reading of
the Book of Revelation, and whether any of that mysterious book can be
rehabilitated as we seek to understand God and the future.

Robert Tulip
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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And I can tell you that – just in my own life – there’s been a sort of ‘land grab’ of me by atheists, to claim me as an atheist, and my objection is that I just don’t want a title. I don’t want to be labelled, on the grounds that if someone comes to me expecting that I fulfil a title, or some label indicates what I should say, then they will presuppose they already know my arguments in advance. And I’d rather they hear me from scratch, and hear me build an argument and build a conversation, and then we build it together.
Love this, although I feel NDT has stolen my "I am not a lable, I am a conversation" slogan. I think I sum it up more impactfully tho. :D

Better print those t-shirts up quick.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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I feel the same way about political parties. Although I've voted for the Democratic candidate probably 98% of the time (and may never again choose Republican), I don't want to call myself a Democrat. Doing that would identify me with certain positions I may not hold.
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Re: I: Tools of the Trades: Writing Science (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.

I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment...I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

--Viktor Frankl
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