The Turbulent Universe

The Turbulent Universe

by Paul Kurtz

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In his final book, the late Paul Kurtz outlines his personal vision for a planetary ethics inspired by scientific wisdom. Blending realism and optimism, he lays out the basic principles of an ethical approach that he calls humanist eupraxsophy—that is, the application of practical moral choices inspired by scientific wisdom. Emphasizing the dramatic

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In his final book, the late Paul Kurtz outlines his personal vision for a planetary ethics inspired by scientific wisdom. Blending realism and optimism, he lays out the basic principles of an ethical approach that he calls humanist eupraxsophy—that is, the application of practical moral choices inspired by scientific wisdom. Emphasizing the dramatic character of the biosphere, human affairs, and the physical universe itself, Kurtz has structured the book in terms of an operatic scenario, with an overture, intermezzo, nine acts, and a grand finale. Citing the emergence of a new planetary civilization, he proposes the development of a planetary ethics based on universal human rights, free scientific inquiry unfettered by dogma, an attitude of exuberance toward human potentials, and courage and determination in the face of the daunting challenges of our time.

Kurtz concludes on an enthusiastic note: there is meaning to be found in creative human endeavors as well as a sense of awe and profound reverence inspired by the spectacle of the enormous universe and the prospects for the human adventure.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Humans must “fully realize that they exist in a universe without a God,” argues Kurtz (1925–2012) in this eloquent call for “humanist eupraxsophy,” a “practical moral” system based on empathy and scientific knowledge. The prolific philosopher begins by explaining that pre-Socratic thinkers looked for natural causes to explain the world around them, but the rise and spread of organized religion stalled human progress until the Scientific Revolution. The author credits the invention of human culture, not deities or spirits, for providing the means to pass on the tools and knowledge necessary to survive in a world that has suffered genocides, the fall of numerous civilizations, and at least five major extinctions in the past 570 million years. Kurtz (What Is Secular Humanism?) sums up his hopes with a clarion call for a world government based on “planetary ethics,” which would ideally marshal the best of our intellectual, scientific, and moral resources to solve problems and guide human progress. With vigor and conviction, Kurtz lays out his vision of a civilization grounded in reality and compassion, and while he is less clear when it comes to specifics like gender issues or how to do away with religious fundamentalism, his final work will give thoughtful readers plenty to think about. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"[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."

Publishers Weekly 

“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

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Prometheus Books
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8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013Estate of Paul Kurtz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-736-5






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 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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