The vacuity of materialism

Most people are familiar with Carl Sagan’s famous declaration that “We are made of star stuff,” if only because of that song from a decade ago. It is often referenced to prove that even stereotypically stodgy, lab-coated scientists can have a sense of awe, an appreciation for intangible aesthetics like beauty, and even the occasional turtleneck sweater. The implication of our unity – solidarity sounds a little too punny – with the building blocks of our material universe on the basis of our common heritage from the Big Bang is a strangely resonating notion that science popularist Lawrence Krauss has recently capitalized on.

Krauss’s version of the motif, now a famous infographic, has gained a lot of recent attention for its having caused an Evangelical backlash against Miley Cyrus when she revealed on Twitter that she found it “Beautiful,” despite Krauss’s snarky materialistic send-up of one of the central ideas of Christianity.

There is indeed undeniable poetry in this. And one mark of a good poet is the ability to find beauty even in the sewage.

Conversely, a good satirist is able to expose a common perception of beauty as hardly more than a misidentification of sewage. To me, this comic from SMBC does a good job of approximating philosophical naturalists’ attempts to synthesize from pure matter the persistent human conviction that the universe has transcendent value, which has traditionally been explained by the belief that reality is comprised of more than merely conveniently-yet-coincidentally arranged atoms:

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  • Jim731

    I am sure that Mr. Krauss is a very intelligent man… probably much smarter than I am. But his statement – “elements weren’t created at the beginning of time, they were created in stars” – reminds me of a scene in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which Ben Stein asks another famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, to explain how life originated. Dawkins responds by saying that life on Earth may have come from another planet. Unfortunately Stein did not continue with what I see as the obvious follow-up question for Dawkins (and Krauss): “Ok, but how did life on that other planet originate… (and where did stars come from)?”

    These very intelligent physicists think they are answering the “big” questions, but are actually not doing anything of the sort, for they are only delaying the answer by one more step. 

    I’m no genius, but I wish all these smart guys would quit insulting what little intelligence I have by expecting me to accept their shortsighted “answers” as explanations for things that they are just as much in the dark about as the rest of us.

    • Thanks, Jim.

      Actually, Krauss’s latest book A Universe from Nothing is his attempt to put to rest that very question, usually posed by some form of the cosmological argument, “Can something really come from nothing?” He tries to answer it in scientific rather than philosophical terms and is (typically) quite confident that he has succeeded. I haven’t read it, but I’m a tad skeptical.

      • Jim731

        Steve, I will happily join you in your skepticism. These are all fascinating attempts by physicists to come up with “explanations,” but their explanations are themselves unprovable and untestable. I was watching a TV program the other night about Stephen Hawking and other physicists who have also speculated that there was “nothing” before the Big Bang, and they proposed the argument that the matter for our universe may have originated in some other parallel universe, of which there are an infinite number. Having an “infinite” source of universes seems to be a popular explanation, but of course the idea of “infinite” is itself completely unfathomable, which just makes it all the more handy as an answer.

        Of course, even for those of us who may lean toward a divine explanation, the claim of God’s existence could easily be seen as the one glaring exception to the “rule” that “something cannot come from nothing.” But the idea of a “creator” is still to me a much more plausible explanation than the spontaneous appearance of matter… and then life.

        • Agreed. In the end they’re all going to be “just so” explanations, and I find the divine origin explanation more satisfactory for several philosophical, rational reasons. I wish they’d at least acknowledge that their “reason” (= materialistic philosophy) is not enough for a definitive explanation and stop treating our preferred explanation as of an entirely different order (species, yes; genus likely, family perhaps).

          • Jim731

            I’m all for anyone and everyone developing and standing behind the explanations that most make sense to us… as long as we respect and honor the same for others.

            Regardless of where the cat shit came from we’ve still got to clean it up. But we should still  stand in wonder and awe at the amazing “creation” that the cat is. 😉