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"[An] eloquent call for 'humanist eupraxsophy,' a 'practical moral' system based on empathy and scientific knowledge. . . . With vigor and conviction, Kurtz lays out his vision of a civilization grounded in reality and compassion...his final work will give thoughtful readers plenty to think about."
“Paul Kurtz was a voice for a humane secularism before ‘the new atheism’ became fashionable, and his body of writings constitutes an articulate positive vision of what makes life meaningful, purposive, and worth living. We are lucky that he left us with this highly creative summation of his vision, filled with insights and bits of wisdom.”
New York Times bestselling author of The Better Angels of Our Nature
THE EMERGENCE OF SCIENCE
A radical change in understanding nature occurred in history when humans recognized that supernatural explanations could not account for natural phenomena. The earliest pre-Socratic philosophers in ancient Greece sought to explain events by reference to natural causes. They appealed to reason and observation to interpret nature, not faith or revelation, miracles or theology, uncorroborated by objective evidence. Modern science did not develop until the Renaissance. The ancients used reason and common sense (for example, Aristotle observed a lunar eclipse and reasoned that Earth must be a sphere because it cast a round shadow). Modern scientists developed new experimental methods to interpret nature.
Scientists in the modern world have continued to raise intriguing questions about the nature of the universe. They have asked whether it all fits together, and if so, how. And they continue to probe the implications of the scientific outlook for a clearer, more accurate understanding of the human condition. The Copernican Revolution of the fifteenth century achieved a major breakthrough. It placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the center of the solar system. The Darwinian theory of evolution in the nineteenth century replaced former doctrines of creation and intelligent design. The difference between present-day cosmologies and those of the historical past is that modern cosmologies are based on the methods of science, and this includes both mathematical coherence in the formulation of theories and the experimental confirmation of their adequacy.
Modern physics and astronomy began by stepping outside religious authority. The medieval church at first opposed the new science, imposing theological constraints on inquiry. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the natural philosophers (as they were called), including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, rejected occult causes and developed the laws of mechanics based on careful observations and mathematical precision. These scientific cosmologists depicted the universe as a fixed system governed by universal laws. The model was similar to a clock or machine, in which every cog and wheel is interconnected with every other. Within the whole, the picture was mechanistic and deterministic.
There was great confidence in the power of mathematical rationality coupled with experimental observation to unravel our understanding of the universe. The poet Alexander Pope extolled Newton as such:
Nature and nature's laws laid hid in night. God said, let Newton be! And all was light.
If we knew the exact positions and velocities of the material objects within the universe, we could predict with precision the state of all material events in the future, declared the French astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace at the end of the eighteenth century. What is the place of God in the materialistic scheme of things? asked Napoleon Bonaparte. "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis," Laplace was reputed to have replied.
By the nineteenth century, it was widely believed that Newtonian physics would permit the scientist to understand the total state of mass and energy throughout the universe. It was also believed during the Enlightenment that the natural sciences could be extended beyond physics to chemistry, biology, psychology, and the social sciences. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, French philosopher and mathematician Marquis de Condorcet confidentially prophesized that this knowledge would contribute to the progressive improvement of humankind, including free public education, equal rights for women and racial minorities, a constitutional republic, a liberal economy, and democracy. He died in prison, sacrificed by the passions unleashed during the French Revolution.
The revolutionary findings of Charles Darwin, developed during his voyage on the Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, gave a rude jolt to the belief of theologians that all species designed by a divine intelligence were fixed and eternal. Instead, the principles of natural selection were presented as an explanation of how species evolved, including the descent of man. Evolution had been suggested by Empedocles in the ancient Hellenistic world, though it was rejected by Aristotle. For the first time, science took history seriously by attempting to explain how things change throughout time.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the social sciences began to develop daring new ideas. Voyages to unexplored continents led to the comparative studies of anthropology and sociology. Works such as Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince offered astute and often ruthless prescriptions for how to seize and hold power. This led to the development of a realistic study of politics and the eventual emergence of political science in the eighteenth century. Adam Smith's influential book The Wealth of Nations had sparked political economy, which led to the new science of economics, to which David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and others contributed. The founding of psychological laboratories by William James at Harvard and Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig raised expectations that we could understand psychological experience objectively by studying behavior. Psychologists have emphasized the need for testable experimental studies. Today many scientists and philosophers believe that neuroscience will be able to chart the microgeography of the brain and thus understand consciousness in objective neurological terms.
In the twentieth century the theory of relativity introduced by Albert Einstein altered classical conceptions of absolute space and time, and quantum mechanics transformed classical physics by postulating the uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg. The dramatic findings in atomic and subatomic theory in the twentieth century have altered our conceptions of how nature operates. Is chance a real factor in nature? Is the universe open to contingency, indeterminacy, diversity—no longer a unified or fixed system but full of process and change? Astronomy in the twentieth century has extended our conceptions of the universe and its dimensions. For contemporary astronomers the universe is expanding rapidly. The big bang theory was postulated to explain this. By spectroscopic analysis of light from the stars and galaxies, an observed shift of that light toward the red end of the color spectrum indicates that the speed of this expansion is increasing.
THE GENERIC TRAITS OF NATURE
The best approach to understanding the world of nature is to turn to the sciences, which attempt to explain how and why nature operates the way it does. The division of labor between scientific disciplines, however, has proliferated, and new specialties have appeared at a breathtaking pace. As a consequence, it is difficult to find a unitary theory that will explain everything. Rather, a feasible goal is to develop a set of generic categories drawn from the various sciences, which, at the very least, describes the broad contours of nature.
Any attempt to understand the generic traits of nature is in itself not a simple task, given the rapid growth of separate disciplines; yet we need to attempt this on an interdisciplinary scale. To understand nature we need to draw upon our observations of data by means of meticulous descriptions and measurements. We then need to develop hypotheses and theories to explain how what is observed is happening. Scientists historically describe and classify things and their properties, and they catalog different kinds of objects, events, and processes. But their basic interest is to formulate causal explanations of how t
Excerpted from THE TURBULENT UNIVERSE by PAUL KURTZ. Copyright © 2013 by Estate of Paul Kurtz. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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ACT ONE. METANATURE.................... 19
ACT TWO. CONTINGENCY AND CHANCE IN THE BIOSPHERE............. 31
ACT THREE. ADAPTATION AND EVOLUTION.................... 49
ACT FOUR. THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE.................... 75
ACT FIVE. THE EFFERVESCENCE OF EMERGENTS.................... 103
ACT SIX. INDIVIDUAL ENTITIES AND THEIR HISTORIES............. 127
ACT SEVEN. CONTINGENCY AND CONFLICT IN HUMAN AFFAIRS......... 141
ACT EIGHT. MORAL CHOICES IN A RANDOM UNIVERSE................ 187
ACT NINE. ORDER AND HARMONY IN THE UNIVERSE.................. 211
GRAND FINALE.................... 239