A candle in the dark

There’s an amusing post on Pharyngula where PZ Myers recounts his encounter with Thor. It seemed very familiar but it’s certainly worth sharing because it makes a very good point, which I’ll get to in a minute. It also seems to reference Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark which I haven’t read but I would like to at some point. Here’s the section from the Thor story that is important.

“Let me tell you a story,” Thor said. “Imagine that it is midnight, the long hall is dark, and you’re told that an enemy lurks invisibly in the darkness. You would advance with great fear, because it is entirely possible that someone is stalking you.”

“Then you are given a candle; a feeble light that lets you see in a dim glow things that are nearby. It’s possible still that the danger is there, but that it scuttles about beyond the edge of your light, seeing you clearly, but you can’t see it at all — it dodges detection at will.”

“You find a box of candles. You move cautiously through the hall, placing lights in all the likely hiding places. At first you only illuminate a few places and it’s still possible that something hides beyond, but as more and more candles are placed, you become increasingly confident that no other person is in the hall other than yourself.”

“And finally you have lit enough of the hall that you can see the full shape of the room, the furnishings, the doors and windows. There are shadows still and much that could be better illuminated, but no place for an enemy.”

“Perhaps a mouse. You can’t rule out mice. But mice weren’t what you were warned about.”

It’s not exactly a secret that the lurking enemy here is meant to represent god and the candle is science. At one point, and still to some particularly stubborn believers, god created everything and was actively involved in the world. He appeared as columns of fire, he flooded the planet, he would appear and speak to people, he would part seas and raise the dead. That also all happened at a time when humanity was profoundly ignorant of the world. We didn’t know about molecules, atoms, bacteria, viruses, laws of motion, the way the body worked or many other things. At that time those stories were plausible because the world was dark.

As science has advanced god has been pushed into smaller and smaller corners. He’s gone from being actively involved in the world to just setting things in motion. This because god was just a way to fill in our gaps. What we understand as god now is nothing like what he used to be. The claim for god has changed, become more abstract, as we’ve had the ability to look for him and see that there’s just no evidence for him.

There is one position that makes sense in light of all this. It’s still possible there is something there, in the gaps of our knowledge, but historically that has been a bad bet and, whether one wants to call it god or something else, it isn’t what we originally believed was there. The possibility of finding something is growing increasingly small but the cost of holding onto those beliefs is becoming greater. What we need to do now is accept that, for the moment at least, there isn’t evidence for those beliefs.

God’s power over time


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