Science and the Poverty of Mysticism

Who are we? Where did we come from? What is our relationship to the Universe? These are some of the “big” questions that have been asked by every generation of thinking men and women since the dawn of humanity. We live in the greatest golden age of human history. Thanks to science our generation is among the first in human history with a real chance to learn some of these answers!

The essential quality of science is that we must be free to speculate and dream, but we must be equally careful to separate speculation from fact. Even the most brilliant humans are prone to making errors. For this reason there are no absolute authorities in science; all claims to knowledge are open to the most penetrating scrutiny. Through critical thinking we can weed out ideas that are wrong and thereby arrive at progressively better answers to our questions.

It always puzzles me why so many people turn to religion, mysticism or new-age gibberish to find a “connection” to the Universe. Every day they are awash in overwhelming proof that science holds the power to finding true knowledge, yet they recycle bronze age superstitions that relate the positions of the stars and planets during birth to obscure and dubiously defined personality traits. Or they fabricate the existence of “super” natural beings without a shred of evidence beyond the “say-so” of themselves or others. (I’ve never quite understood how ANYTHING can coherently be described as “apart from” or “above” nature.)

These mystics enthusiastically believe all manner of appealing notions because they want to feel connected with something greater than themselves. They cling to their ideas like a drowning swimmer, no doubt because they derive some psychological illusion of comfort and control from their belief. Yet is this an appropriate basis for determining if something is true or false? Does wishing something to be true make it so? Does science offer its own comfort, if only we will look? Is the clear power of science up to the task of providing the very sense of connectedness to the Universe that most mystics claim to be seeking?

The true grandeur and majesty of Nature as revealed by the methods of science utterly dwarf the fuzzy non-thinking of the mystics, making their most appealing delusions seem as weak and feeble as their arguments in their favour. The difference between them is that science offers us solid reasons to think our beliefs are true, much in contrast to the delusional ravings of prophets and mystics.

Who among us has not stared up at the sky on a dark, clear night and been struck senseless by the spinning gaze of billions of stars peering down upon us? Each of those specks of light is a far off massive ball of molten gas many hundreds of times larger than the earth, the weight of its outer layers crushing the core to temperatures so hot that it shines.

All stars, including our Sun, formed when nearby gas and dust coalesced under the force of gravity into clumps, which continued to grow until the core of the clump grew so hot that the hydrogen gas within it began to fuse into helium, releasing vast amounts of nuclear energy. Eventually all stars will also burn up the gas that fuels their inner fire, producing heavier elements as by-products. Some large stars will explode when their fuel is exhausted, scattering the ashes of their nuclear fire back into the universe in a vast expanding bubble.

These supernova explosions are the only known natural source of heavy elements such as iron, carbon, oxygen, gold or uranium. Successive generations of new stars and planets are enriched with heavy molecules through this process – including all the molecules that formed the earth and our solar system.

The famous scientist Carl Sagan was fond of saying that we are all made of “star stuff” because the molecules that course through our cells, that form the air that we breathe, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, the water that we drink, the gold in our banks and uranium in our weapons were all first formed billions of years ago inside the core of a dying star.

The individual molecules that constitute your body once composed the body of birds and fish, trees and bacteria, stones, dewdrops, planets and stars. Reincarnation of the physical body over billions of years of stellar evolution is a scientific fact.

Where do we come from? Are we a part of something larger? What science teaches us, if the mystics were educated enough to look, is that nature and the universe are indeed profoundly interconnected, and that each of us are a product of that system. Science teaches us that we are quite literally the children of the stars.

Further Reading: any introductory astronomy textbook; Cosmos by Carl Sagan; The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.