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...The universe is more vast, more complex, and more surprising than anything our minds can conjure up. Imagination is not enough.

I hadn't thought about it this way before.

Every now and then PZ really hits the nail on the head.

Interestingly, I had expressed a similar thought in one of my commandments back in February:

9. The universe is freaky, and way too big for you to comprehend. Deal. It's way cooler than
anything you could plausibly make up, so don't bother. You're an amateur, and it'll show.

(the post itself was focused largely on other issues, though, so I'm not going to link to it.)

Mike Haubrich, FCD

The part of religious apologia that has always baffled me is the idea that "Science tells us how, but religion tells us why."

The problem is that religion, no matter how sophisticated, never offers much for the "why" than speculation. In some cases, dense, well-reasoned speculation to be sure. The speculation is just not demonstrable, and when we press on the issue we get vagueness at all levels as to how we are supposed to "know."

The fact that religious explorations into the natural world have been entertaining, yet wrong, make me suspect that they really have no good "why" answers. And actually, I really have no need for a supernatural "why." Life is fascinating enough, and fantastic enough without a metaphysical why.

The liars part that PZ alludes to is the notion that religion provides an understanding of the "Why" and that preachers and theologians have a way to reveal it to the rest of us. Their admonishment to read the advanced philosophers and theologians, as in the post that PZ was referring to, is still another lie because the writer of "Underverse" claims that we really aren't atheists until we read the great writers.

The natural world is our oyster. It's beautiful, it's ugly, it gives life but it is exceedingly dangerous. The destructive power of a Supernova is what we are made of. We are Star Stuff. Why do I need religion when I contemplate that all of my atoms came from the fusion of stars and supermassive explosions? That alone is enough to awe me.

Colin M

The Jolly Nihilist presents "The Argument from Mundanity", which elaborates on an idea from Sam Harris:

"[The Bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you."

He then discusses the lack of imagination on the part of Bible authors:

"Although no scientifically aware individual would even give Christianity's metaphysical claims (human resurrection, talking nonhuman animals, et al) a second look, some such people might have previously credited the faith with some measure of creativity and imagination. Sadly, this can no longer be done. Virgin birth, to take just one example, turns out to be a cheap knock-off of preexisting lunatic derangements. Human parthenogenesis is the very height of mundanity."

It's a good read, and an argument I personally find highly convincing. I highly recommend it.


"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."

J. B. S. Haldane

Greta Christina

"The part of religious apologia that has always baffled me is the idea that 'Science tells us how, but religion tells us why.' The problem is that religion, no matter how sophisticated, never offers much for the 'why' than speculation."

That's a really good point, Mike. And even the speculation commonly bogs down into "mysterious ways."

Religion *doesn't* tell us why. It tells us, "We assume there's a why, even though we have no real idea what it is, and no way to figure it out."


As Hamlet told his buddy Horatio, "[T]here are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy." This piece reminded me of your "Blashpemy of Creation" piece.

I was actually wondering what ever became of your HTML poll. I suppose I could've posted this question there.

I decided to allow HTML in comments on my blogs.


I'm reading "The Canon" right now, too! Good stuff!

the chaplain

Good post. You and PZ are both correct: human imagination has failed, repeatedly, to conjure up images that match the fascinating realities of life and the universe.

Alice in Wonderland

"The reality of the physical world is wilder and weirder than anything in their religion, and science has come up with many more things, in the skies and on the earth, than they ever dreamt of in their philosophy."

I'd never thought of it like that before, but I think you have a very good point!


But what about artistic imagination? Creativity, imagination, are not compartmentalized but rather, painting, poetry...the muses are NOT necessarily in thrall to science. The female body in two stanzas by Garcia Lorca is just as "complex" and "truthful" and "mesmerizing" as a peer-reviewed study in an anatomy tome.


Barbibrains, I believe you are misinterpreting the use of imagination here. I believe what both Greta Christina and PZ Meyers mean is that the human imagination is rather useless at explaining our world.

This does not mean that imagination as a whole is worthless. When it is used to create, its abilities can truly shine through. But what is created does not describe the world, what it describes is ourselves.

We find beauty in such artistic endevours because they resonate with us. They spur our imaginations further and invoke any emotions attached. In this respect, imagination is a very useful thing. Just not so much for when you want to understand the universe.


Thanks Chris...I'm still thinking this through... :-)


[This is an idea that we would never in our wildest imaginings have come up with just with our brains.]

Wow, that's just wrong. I guess you never took a introduction to classical philosophy? Hello? Democritus!

Science is most often dependent upon imagination for its insights and progress. It is that very human creativity and imagination that leads us to push the fore of our knowledge. Science and the scientific community, through its use of experimentation and measurement, works in conjunction with these creative insights and qualitative interpretations of the world to produce solid quantitative models.

To ridicule imagination as somehow less than reason, and science as somehow independent of this feeble human imagination is to truly be ignorant of both. Religion lacks a methodology for measurement and experimentation; it cannot generate standard interpretations because no standard exists than mere dogmatic consensus. It has absolutely nothing to do with "religion depends on imagination" as expressed in this and the referenced blog.

bryangoodrich: You are right that perhaps Greta exaggerates unimagineableness a bit, but are you referring to Democritus's atomic theory? That had a void only between atoms, and (in solids at least) the atoms themselves touched, so things weren't mostly empty space.

Greta is referring to the fact that most of the "space" of an atom is occupied by a diffuse electron cloud and the empty space is within the atom. This is directly contradictory to Democritus's idea of an atom as "indestructible and completely full, i.e. containing no empty space".

I don't mean to deny the impressive accuracy of Greek atomic theory, but the extreme concentration of mass in atoms was, as far as I know, completely unsuspected until Rutherford's famous 1911 gold foil experiment.

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