Category Archives: Later, on science

Caring for Our Common Home

Pope Francis this summer issued the encyclical Laudato Si’, a letter “On Care for our Common Home.” Although an encyclical letter is defined as a letter from the pope to the bishops of the Catholic Church, he addressed this letter broadly to “every person living on this planet.” Our “sister”—Mother Earth—he writes, “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” Putting it bluntly: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Would-be presidents in the United States may debate whether or not climate change is real and use the debate as an excuse for doing nothing. The letter from Pope Francis is a lesson in leadership. He reminds us that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” Climate change, he warns, “is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.” It is, he believes, “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” and he urges us “to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced.”

Having acknowledged the science of climate change, the Pope’s letter expresses his concern for the poor. These are not separate concerns, he tells us. Care for the environment must be joined with care for humanity:

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”

Yet our response to “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” has been weak. We seem disinclined to address these problems or even to acknowledge the crisis.

“As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

Pope Francis emphasizes that “everything is interconnected.” We cannot regard nature as something separate from ourselves. The environment is not a setting that surrounds us; it is the relationship that exists “between nature and the society which lives in it.”

“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

The response that is necessary requires a new way of thinking. It requires a “profound interior conversion.” Laws and regulations alone are insufficient. Francis tells us: “to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond.” Thus, the necessary response to climate change is not a contest of policies but a transformation of hearts that reaches into the spiritual dimension.

“We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.”

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    The next chapter is tracking six focus issues during the current presidential election process. TNC has summarized the positions of the presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Now that the candidates have selected their running mates, TNC is looking at the positions of Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike…
  • 59
    The next chapter is tracking six focus issues during the current presidential election process. TNC has summarized the positions of the presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Now that the candidates have selected their running mates, TNC is looking at the positions of Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike…

Believing In A Natural Purpose

In the newspaper recently, I read about the “debate” between Science Guy Bill Nye and Ken Ham, self-styled biblical creationist and founder of the Creation Museum. The public debate, which occurred on February 4, was held at the Creation Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and live-streamed online.

Ham believes that the universe is 6,000 years old because the Bible—or specifically the Book of Genesis—says so. Or so he says.

Mr. Ham had asked for the debate in response to Nye’s earlier comments about creationism. In Nye’s opinion, creationism is “a completely unreasonable explanation of the Earth’s natural history that is useless from a practical standpoint.” Nye has expressed his concern that young students who are the scientists and engineers of the future should not be “indoctrinated into that weird worldview.”

Nye agreed to debate the issue: “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?”

Now, I have to wonder just what the Science Guy was thinking. What did he hope to accomplish by his appearance at the Creation Museum? By framing the issue in scientific terms, Nye may have thought that the answer was obvious—that by any rational scientific analysis, Ham’s version of creationism is not a “viable model.” The flaw in this reasoning is that belief in creationism is not the product of rational scientific analysis. It is a matter of deeply held belief (or, as Ham would have it, biblical authority). It is incredible that Science Guy did not understand that. Ham, himself, rests his conception of creation on Genesis and not on any scientific inquiry.

It seems as though Nye believes that he was participating in a real debate—and he believes that he won. But this was not a debate. It was a creationist’s wet dream. My guess is that Mr. Ham was pleased by the outcome.

Following Nye’s own critique of his preparation for and performance in the Creation Museum spectacle, Ham commented via Facebook: “Sadly, Bill Nye wants generations of kids to be told they are just animals that arose by natural processes—thus ultimately, life is without meaning or purpose.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about “purpose,” and so the notion that life might have no meaning or purpose makes me pay attention.

Having a “purpose” seems to be an essential ingredient in the mix that makes retirement satisfying and ultimately enjoyable. I did not think about “purpose” so much before I retired. My work seemed to supply a sufficient sense of having a purpose. The job served something larger than myself. I felt that I was part of something that produced a public benefit, and I derived feelings of satisfaction from that.

Those were simpler days when all that was required to experience purpose in life was to devote my energies toward doing my job. In retirement, I am untethered from a job and detached from its purpose. My career has run its course. “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” (Bob Dylan, My Back Pages).

Now, purpose must grow from another source. Purpose, I suspect, must come from someplace within myself.

Which brings me back to the weird world of creationism. According to Ken Ham, if we are all animals that arose by natural processes, life ultimately has no purpose. The idea is bizarre on its face. Aside from the question whether humans belong to the animal kingdom, are the lives of all animals lacking in purpose?

Mr. Ham is not retired, so his personal experience is limited. He likely derives his own sense of purpose from his work on building a “full-scale, all-wood ark” based on dimensions provided in Genesis and operating it as a theme park just down the road from the Creation Museum. Although the ark will contain exhibits and “edu-tainment” features, there are apparently no plans to include “of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort” (Genesis 6:19).

Like Bill Nye, I accept the idea that natural processes have been at work on Earth for millions of years. Though a definition of my purpose eludes me now, I reject the illogic that there can be no purpose in life absent a belief in the supernatural.

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    The English version of this post is Believing in a Natural Purpose. The Spanish translation is my own and may contain errors. I invite native speakers of the language to comment on my errors and to suggest corrections. Aquí está una traducción en español de Believing in a Natural Purpose.…
  • 37
    In the hour of my death, would I regret that my life had no meaning? Should that be a regret, after all? It seemed that some people—often those who offered sage advice about aging—advocated a search for meaning in one’s life. It was seemingly a noble cause. If you wanted…
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