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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