I saw this quote from famed magician/atheist/television personality Penn Jillette‘s new book on kottke.org:
There is no god and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.
Now, this might be true or it might not be true â€“ it’s a thought experiment with no way of verification. It’s an assertion, not an argument. Thus, from the very beginning, the appeal to empiricism is weakened.
But this claim â€“ “it would never be created exactly that way again” â€“ is true of anythingÂ rooted in the passage of time: history, art, literature, even the progress of science itself.
If everything related to human rightsÂ were erased from history, would it be recreated? Who could possibly know? Does that mean it’s foolish to support human rights or hold them as a core belief?
What about literature? If all traces of Shakespeare’s entire canon were erased from the earth, they would be lost forever. Does this mean that English professors are wasting their entire lives? (On second thought, don’t answer that.)
Science itself is rooted in history. If science were restarted from zero, I’m sure that many things would be rediscovered, but many important aspects of modern science â€“ the divisions between disciplines, theÂ classification of species, the technology required to conduct certain experiments, the prioritization of certain questions over others â€“ are, in many ways, historical accidents, the results of specific actions and decisions made by specific people at specific points in time. Why else do we hold certain scientists (Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc.) in such high esteem?
Further, as a recent Nova special discussed, time itself (and therefore all of history, including religion) may actually be an illusion. The past, present, and future might all simultaneously exist and be equally real. Physicist Brian Greene, summarizing some implications of Einstein’s theories:
BRIAN GREENE:Â Just as we think of all of space as being “out there,” we should think of all of time as being “out there” too. Everything that has ever happened or will happen, it all exists, from Leonardo da Vinci laying the final brushstroke on the Mona Lisa; to the signing of the Declaration of Independence; to your first day of school; to events that, from our perspective, are yet to happen, like the first humans landing on Mars. [Emphasis added.]
To put this another way, the religious “nonsense” that Penn Jillette criticizes for being Â irreproducible may be as firmly rooted in the fabric of the cosmos as any scientific discovery. If you accept the view of time described by Greene above, then the development of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and every other religion was inevitable from the very moment of the Big Bang.
Of course, not everyone shares this view of time. It’s shocking, I know, but the relationships between science, religion, and philosophy may â€“ mayÂ â€“ just be slightly more complicated than as described by comic magician, even a magician as talented and clever as Mr. Jillette.
[An aside: In my own study of religion and philosophy, certain ideas doÂ seem to be reappear over and over again, across cultures and centuries. For example, when I shared the above quote from Nova on Facebook, a friend who studies cultural perceptions of time noted that contemporary physicists are reenacting theological debates about the nature of time from the 12th through 14th centuries. There’s a reason why “big names” like Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Augustine, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), etc., remain current. Even if you disagree with them, their teachings get at certain fundamental ideas of human nature and reality that cannot be ignored if you want to study those matters.]