Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Pale Blue Dot

The late astronomer Carl Sagan once claimed, "the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever shall be." This is a pretty good definition of naturalism.

With the picture to the left in mind (which was taken from Voyager 1, 1990), Sagan delivered these words in a commencement address in 1996 just prior to his death:

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

When you really consider the enormity of "this vast cosmic arena," in many ways it is difficult to deny Sagan. Astronomers tell us that the diameter of the observable universe is at least 93 billion light years. For perspective, our galaxy is 100,000 light years across and roughly 2.5 million light years from the nearest sister galaxy (a light year is a unit of length equal to just under 10^13 Kilometers). In a world where astronomers now estimate the existence of billions of galaxies like the Milky Way, our pale blue dot seems to many scientists "the product of a mindless and purposeless natural process which did not have us in mind" (biologist George Gaylord Simpson). Many scientists believe that the earth is a fairly typical planet orbiting around a fairly typical sun in a spiral arm of a fairly typical galaxy positioned in a fairly typical universe (John Lennox, God's Undertaker).

But from modern physics and cosmology a new idea is starting to emerge, calling into question the concept of a "typical" earth; instead, it contends for an earth that is "finely-tuned." Proponents of a "finely-tuned" earth believe that the sustainability of life on earth demands an explanation that is more than mere chance. Among the examples of "fine-tuning" from the fundamental constants of nature are our abundant carbon supply (modify the resonance of the nuclear ground state energy levels by 1% either way and life on earth no longer exists) as well as the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force (had it been different by 1 part in 10^16, no stars could have formed). In fact, if you increase it by only 1 part in 10^40, then only small stars can exist (Lennox).

Just what is 1 part in 10^40? Glad you asked. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross provides this illustration to explain. "Cover America with coins in a column reaching to the moon (236,000 miles away), then do the same for a billion other continents of the same size. Paint one coin red and put it somewhere in one of the billion piles. Blindfold a friend and ask her to pick it out. The odds are about 1 in 10^40 that she will" (Lennox).

Those examples however pale in comparison to the precision necessary for our current rate of entropy in the universe. The mathematician Sir Roger Penrose states: "it would be relatively 'easy' to produce a high entropy universe...but in order to start off the universe in a state of low entropy - so that there will indeed be a second law of thermodynamics...the 'Creator's aim' must have been accurate to 1 part in 10 to the power 10^123, that is 1 followed by 10^123 zeros, a number which it would be impossible to write out in the usual decimal way, because even if you were able to put a zero on every particle in the universe there would not even be enough particles to do the job" (Lennox).

On a smaller-scale more pertinent to earth's "fine-tuning" including surface gravity, temperature, rotational speed, distance to the sun and so on, Ross "makes a rough but conservative calculation that the chance of one such planet existing in the universe is about 1 in 10^30" (Lennox).

The real impetus for this blog entry came several months ago after watching The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W Richards. Their main point is that the earth is the most ideally suited place in the universe in which to observe the universe. In other words, not only is the earth "finely-tuned" for habitation, but it is similarly "finely-tuned" for science. In other parts of the universe there would be too much starlight, or an atmosphere too opaque or translucent rather than transparent, or the visibility of the sun would not be possible without a perfect eclipse from the moon. And as they point out, other more specific examples are abundant.

They conclude: "And yet as we stand gazing at the heavens beyond our little oasis, we gaze not into a meaningless abyss but into a wondrous arena commensurate with our capacity for discovery. Perhaps we have been staring past a cosmic signal far more significant than any mere sequence of numbers, a signal revealing a universe so skilfully crafted for life and discovery that is seems to whisper of an extra-terrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we've been willing to expect or imagine" (Lennox).

When pondering the content of The Privileged Planet several ideas occurred to me.

First, the infinite mind of God as the author of creation is truly a stupefying notion, especially when all that we see in the created universe only represents six days of an eternity. As Bridges has written, "what he has brought to light only shews how much is concealed."

But then, when considering the universe and our pale blue dot as a terrestrial metaphor of a greater spiritual reality, something even more telling about the nature of God with respect to man comes to the surface.

Is it possible that something seemingly "obscure" on a "very small stage in a vast cosmic arena" is actually the most "finely-tuned" of all?

Could a "lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark" really be more significant than the wonder and splendor of all the world?

If you read him with a right perspective, Sagan's words might actually point to The Truth, albeit a different truth and one more significant than he had intended - "it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

To Gonzales and Richards' point about the earth - our pale blue dot - being the only capable place of true observation of the cosmos, of seeing reality without the obstruction of an opaque or translucent atmosphere, of seeing more clearly the function of the sun during a dark and very rare solar eclipse, consider the implications of this notion as a spiritual reality as well.

Do you see the Pale Blue Dot?

Perhaps those who have lost the spiritual for the material and the Creator for the creation need only consider more deeply the spiritual significance of the Pale Blue Dot?

Now, understanding more clearly our vast universe and the place of the pale blue dot within it, perhaps the implications of Paul's first chapter of Romans are even further reaching than even he might have realized when it was penned?

Perhaps the implications of spiritual life reflected by creation run deeper than we have ever considered?

But then again, it is only from the perspective of a "finely-tuned" Pale Blue Dot that one can truly see into eternity.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Comforting Light

It is 1am.

I am illuminated to an idea that I have never really considered before. In scripture the metaphor of light is undeniable. And usually, the metaphor points us rightly to the holiness of God - the bright whiteness of his moral righteousness. But there is another dimension to the reality of light that I cannot deny - light is a comfort as well.

Let me briefly explain.

Having gone to bed at around 9:30p, I am now up per our current routine, awakened from some sort of RIM cycle by the cry of my two month old boy. As I, still half asleep, feed him a bottle of milk in our mostly darkened living room, I notice three sources of light.

The first light is unapproachable yet desirable - it comes from the heavens. If you have never seen the stars from 7200 feet above sea level, away from the city-glow, on a clear night, you should. Just over my right shoulder, the big dipper is positioned downward between two small mountain peaks, like an ice cream scoop poised to rake down upon some unsuspecting frozen goodness. The sky is bright with stars tonight. And I find the illuminating light comforting at this late hour.

The second light is approachable yet undesirable - it comes from the earth. Across the small frozen lake behind our back yard sits O'Malleys Irish Pub. The bright lights there are colorful and neon. The blue, green, red, yellow lights are distinguished enough to know what they represent but not clear enough to read from here. While the beauty of this light pales in comparison to the light from above, I must admit that it is somewhat comforting in a strange way to know that I am not the only one awake at this late hour.

The third light is approachable and desirable - it is the reflection of heaven upon earth. As I hold my son in front of me, the light from the stars reflects off of his face. I can see his eyes; his forming features reflect enough light to be distinguished in the dark. I approach his face with a kiss on the cheek. Although the other lights are brilliant and interesting, I find more life in this light than the others. I also find this light is most comforting of all at this late hour.

With perhaps a few flickering and interesting lights surrounding them across the countryside, a brilliant light from above that caused them to rejoice with great joy and a third light that reflected from the face of the One whom they traveled so far to worship, there is little doubt that these wise men were impressed by the holiness and innocence of the little One before them.

But perhaps at that late hour, they were made to feel the comforting light of heaven upon earth as well.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Goddess of the Market": A Book Review

Formidable, irascible, incorrigible, and eerily prescient: Ayn Rand.

In a recently released biography of every misanthropic, libertarian college student’s favorite philosopher, Jennifer Burns captures both Rand’s undying fervor for her philosophy as well as her personal failings. "Goddess of the Market; Ayn Rand and the American Right" is a must read for both Randophiles and political conservatives who have heard of Rand, but who may not have the time or perseverance to slog through "The Fountainhead" or "Atlas Shrugged."

Burns clearly holds admiration for Rand, but is not mired in the sycophancy one often finds with self-identified Objectivists, making "Goddess of the Market" the most even-handed discussion of Rand I’ve ever read.

Three areas of Burns’ biography of Rand were especially interesting to me: the discussion of Rand’s early childhood and move to the states; an explication of Rand’s personal life with her husband and paramours; and Rand’s atheism.


Born Alisa Rosenbaum, Rand came into this world in Russia, at a time when millions of Jews were emigrating from that country due to rising antisemitism. Rand’s father was apparently an erudite, irreligious man who owned a chemist shop. As the Bolsheviks took over czarist Russia, they took Mr. Rosenbaum’s chemist shop, in the name of the burgeoning dictatorship of the proletariat. Mr. Rosenbaum was permitted to reopen his shop at some point, only to have it confiscated once more. At this point, portending John Galt, he refused to work.

Rand was a precocious child, and her parents encouraged her education. At some point in her teens, Rand discovered Aristotle and his syllogisms while a student in Russia; she was never the same. Rand even attended university in Russia, studying history and philosophy. Of course, all of her classes had a Marxist tilt, but Rand was able to overcome pedagogical brainwashing. She was exposed to Herbert Spencer, Plato, and began reading Aristotle and Nietzsche, her two greatest influences. The only thing Rand loved as much as Nietzsche and Aristotle was the movies.

Through a family connection in Chicago, Rand was given the opportunity to flee Russia in favor of the land of the free. It was on her way to the states that the Alisa Rosenbaum transformed into Ayn Rand, taking on the new name just as would a Hollywood starlet. Eventually, Rand matriculated from Chicago to Hollywood, armed with the hopes of someday having a script made into a movie. Rand had a knack for script review, but a face for radio. She was probably on her way to becoming a spinster until she met Frank O’Connor, a young actor with Hollywood looks.

Ultimately, her big break, professionally, came when a producer saw potential profit in a gimmick employed by Rand in a play she wrote. The climax of the play was a courtroom scene with an impassioned plea by the protagonist, a person who broke the law standing up for his individualism. Rand wrote two alternate endings to the play, depending on whether the jury (made up of audience members) found the hero guilty or not-guilty.


Frank O’Connor, it turns out, was a dutiful wife to Ayn Rand. It was clear early on in their marriage that Rand was going to have a brighter future than O’Connor. Every time the couple moved from one city to another, it was at Rand’s behest, even before the couple was wealthy. Once Rand became the breadwinner, O’Connor found solace in gardening, and later painting. Rand loved entertaining at her house, especially when college kids or twenty-somethings were on the guest list, and O’Connor was always the amiable host. Rand was inevitably mercurial at her salon, exploding at those who deigned to disagree with her. O’Connor was always there to smooth things over and douse rhetorical fires, usually sparked by Rand’s incendiary treatment of friends or admirers.

Rand’s philosophy was as near a complete worldview as a single person could develop, complete with political, religious, and even relational precepts. At the core of Rand’s philosophy were a rejection of altruism and an embrace of selfishness. Holding selfishness as a first principle, of course, led Rand to become an impassioned defender of capitalism, especially in light of her Bolshevik experience. She fancied herself a philosopher in the mold of those predicted by Nietzsche, who could offer a moral code sans religion. Although Rand’s morality, such as it was, made her a friend to capitalism, it impelled her to views of love and sexual expression that were abhorrent.

As Rand reached her fifties, she was idolized by tens of thousands of college students who rejected the status quo, but were not taken in by beatnik culture. One such young man was Nathaniel Blumenthal, who later changed his surname to Branden in honor of Rand. Branden, at one time, was tapped as Rand’s philosophical heir, and was the only person other than Rand permitted to be called an Objectivist, as opposed to a student of Objectivism. At some point, Branden and Rand shared a kiss. Rand called a meeting at her apartment, requiring the attendance of Branden, his wife, and Frank O’Connor. At that meeting, Rand stated that she and Branden would require a few hours alone each week. Bam! Rand made Frank a cuckold right there to his face. He sought solace at a local bar.

The flame burned out, and Rand was left confused. According to Burns, Objectivism taught "that sexual love was a response to values and a reflection of self-esteem." In Rand’s mind, to be shunned romantically was to have her whole philosophy rejected. This was unbearable for her, and she could not accept that a man thirty years her junior might simply be more attracted to a more nubile gal.

All that is not to say Rand wasn’t devoted in some way to Frank O’Connor. She needed him, and he was the emotional rampart the outlandish Rand required.


Like many with a libertarian bent, I’m a great admirer of Rand, and tend to disregard her atheism. After reading "Goddess of the Market" I’m now convinced that Rand’s atheism is an essential part of her philosophy, and makes Rand a dangerous influence on the political right. (On the flip side, Rand hated the idea of Ronald Reagan, arguing that his religion made him far more dangerous liberalism.)

Rand sought to make capitalism and individualism distinctly moral issues, but did so in the Nietschean mold: atheistically. However, as much as Rand fancied herself a rational Aristotelean, accepting only what she could observe and deduce logically, her view of rights was more a premise than a deduction. Rand seemed to start from the premise that men have rights and are equal, without proving it up. She stated, "all men are free and equal, regardless of natural gifts." She held as a principle the immorality of the initiation of force, but her atheism prevented her from being able to support that precept. While traditional conservatives like Buckley could support their values with their religion, Rand was attempting to be the philosopher of the ubermensch. Her philosophy contained no room for a god, other than her.

Objectivism was a quasi-religion in Rand’s day. Rand was constantly followed around by The Collective, a group of youthful disciples. Branden started an organization to disseminate Rand’s ideas all over the United States. In New York, Branden’s seminars were presented by him in person, while in other cities students gathered to hear Branden’s instructions from a tape recorder placed on a table in the front of a room. And like most religions, Rand, as the leader, was not to be questioned negatively. Rand loved interacting with students of Objectivism, but she would denounce questioners she disliked by having them removed or dismissing them as having low self-esteem. One student wrote to Rand, "Last spring I discarded my religion, and this past fall I took the Principles course in Washington. Two better choices can hardly be imagined."

Rand maintained her atheism to the end. When Frank O’Connor died, she told Phil Donahue that she would commit suicide to be with him if she believed in an afterlife. I would add that after reading "Goddess of the Market" I found the Donahue interview on You Tube, and I have to admit that I didn’t realize that Donahue was such a good interviewer 30 years ago.

I highly recommend reading "Goddess of the Market." Someone, I can’t remember who, once stated that history affords great men and women one sentence: Lincoln freed the slaves; Washington was the first president; Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. I reckon Rand’s sentence would be, "She was the author of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’" She would have preferred to be remembered as a great philosopher, but both in life and in death it’s difficult for scholars to take Rand seriously as a deep thinker. She never published in academic journals, and the greatest expressions of her philosophy are contained in her fiction. But she did predict the big-government nature of environmentalists almost 40 years ago, and of course foresaw the exponential growth of the nanny state.

I’m certain Rand was brilliant. And her success story is truly American—Russian girl from an impoverished country comes to America to follow a dream. But she traded godless communism for godless capitalism. In the former, men are the highest order of creature; in the latter, Man is (to paraphrase from the book).
Go here for part 3 of Phil Donahue's first interview with Ayn Rand. Go to the 2:30 mark for a discussion on sin. Go to the 8:15 mark to see Rand's vitriolic response to a questioner who disagrees with her.