Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cheers to the Irish, and to Carl Sagan

A short history lesson on St. Pat's Day (Happy Birthday Sis!) -- Thomas Cahill says there'd be no Internet, blogosphere, or literate culture of any kind if the Irish hadn't "saved civilization":

Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment--in some ways, a Third World country... had one moment of unblemished glory. For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature--everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one--a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be. (How the Irish Saved Civilization, Random House 1996).

I raise my Guinness to those scribbling monks!

Meanwhile, Sam Harris continues his crusade to save civilization from religion. In a new LA Times op-ed he writes: Every one of the world's "great" religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. Books like the Bible and the Koran get almost every significant fact about us and our world wrong. Every scientific domain — from cosmology to psychology to economics — has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture.
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-harris15mar15,0,5899452.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail
Trivializing the immensity of the cosmos: that's Carl Sagan's charge in his newly-exhumed 1985 Gifford Lectures, just published by his widow Ann Druyan as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The echo of William James is deliberate; Druyan says Sagan admired James's description of the feeling one can get from religion or science of being "at home in the universe." The point Harris borrows is that a God of earth and its heaven, the "iron age" God, is simply too small. The point he misses, though, is Sagan's genuine agnosticism about the varieties of ways in which people do in fact make themselves at home. Sagan really is a Jamesian in this regard, while Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett are not. Is such agnosticism an "enabling" view, opening the door to religious perfidy?

1 comment:

Observer said...

I don't think it is useful to put Sagan in the Jamesian camp and Dawkins, Dennett and Harris in the other. For all practical purposes, they are all atheists in the sense of not believing in a traditional, personal God. What they might differ is in their temperament in presenting the issue, i.e. advocating a naturalistic worldview. Dawkins and gang might appear more militant while Sagan more persuasive. But this only reflects what has been said. Sagan does not advocate traditional religion as way to truth any more than Dawkins does. And Dawkins does not deny the feeling of awe and religious inspiration that one gets from pondering on the wonders and beauty of the world any more than Sagan does. Dawkins states this very clearly in the chapter on Einsteinian religion in his God Delusion. In fact he is himself a fan of Carl Sagan's writings. What they share is their intellectual honesty in respecting the findings of science and their epistemological viewpoint that only science can tell us what exists (Quine advocated a philosophically more rigorous version of this but essentially they are all in the same boat). All other differences are secondary.

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