A blog by Paul Wallace

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    I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.

    -Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

    Forget the beach. This summer visit PSO J318.5-22


    It has been an outstanding month for astronomy.

    On 20 January it was announced that there is strong evidence for the existence of a ninth planet, a real honker orbiting far beyond Neptune (and also beyond poor disrespected Pluto). Then of course there was yesterday’s unveiling of our first direct evidence of gravitational waves, rippling distortions of space and time produced by the most violent and exotic events in the cosmos. The latter discovery is truly, staggeringly mind-blowing. Thinking about it makes me giddy with happiness.

    I will not seek to explain either of these discoveries here; other cosmonerds have already done this, few more clearly or with better humor than Phil Plait.

    Instead I will take this Friday afternoon to share with you another, simpler astronomical discovery: this collection of supersmooth NASA posters inspired by retro travel advertisements. Check them all out. Some of them cover vacation spots within the Solar System and some go beyond, out to super-distant exoplanets. I have posted some of my favorites below — click on the images for higher-res versions. You can also see some of the old ads lined up with their cosmic counterparts at the Atlantic.

    They’re just such a joy to behold. So very cool. I hope you love them as much as I do.

    Which is your favorite?





    Major thanks to Alert Reader Keith Pierce for bringing these posters to our attention. As for everyone else, keep on sending us interesting pieces when you find them — the Internets are huge, and we here at psnt.net are oh so tiny.

    Can you forget how to believe in God?

    Destin forgot how to ride a bike. Can we forget how to believe in God? See more excellent videos by Destin at Smarter Every Day

    Keith, my brother in law, is a Baptist (like me). Unlike me, however, he has spent a number of years in the Episcopal Church. One of the things he’ll tell you is that Baptists know how to teach children and Episcopalians know how to teach teenagers. Baptists know how to tell the story to little ones in a hundred creative and memorable ways but Episcopalians do better when the waters get deeper and the questions grow difficult.

    I can’t speak for Episcopalians, but I can affirm — for my case at least — the Baptist piece. I was raised in that tradition and got a good sense of the story as a child but things got a little vague as I entered the youth group: there was no confirmation process and I never felt like church was a good place to ask my questions.

    Be that as it may. The other day I ran into the video above. It is excellent. I urge you to take eight minutes to watch it. It shows, through a perfectly transparent experiment, the power of unchallenged ideas and the difficulty of changing the way we think.

    In the video Destin Sandin tries to ride a trick bicycle. At first glance it looks normal, but the handlebars are connected to the front tire via a simple gear system in such a way that the bike goes left when the rider turns right, and right when the rider turns left.

    He fails spectacularly and repeatedly. His brain is simply not wired to do the job. As a youngster he learned to ride a bike and over a lifetime of riding that skill — that way of thinking — became entrenched, hard-wired into his brain. And then a new situation was encountered in which the old skill not only failed to work but actively confounded his efforts.

    After months of working on it he learned how to ride the backwards bike.

    It is not easy to rewire one’s brain.

    I suspect that, like knowing how to ride a bike, ideas about God often get pretty much fixed at a young age. Kids innately believe in God (isn’t there a study somewhere?), but I’m not talking about belief versus disbelief. I’m talking about what kids — and the grownups they become — believe about God.

    Like all other concepts, God-concepts are associated with particular sets of neural pathways in our skulls. Large parts of these concepts and pathways are certainly products of our early experiences and educations and are hardwired as surely as bike-riding knowledge.

    Maybe your idea of God’s love is deeply influenced by your parents’ devotion and constancy. Perhaps your belief in a watchful God is the result of a childhood in which you were granted no privacy. It may be that your concept of God’s judgment is wrapped up in the story of Noah’s flood, which used to give you nightmares. And maybe the nativity story has prompted you to see God in out-of-the-way people and places. These ideas go in and stay with us. Over time, the pathways are set.

    Do those God-concepts and their associated neural pathways last a lifetime? I suspect they do if they’re exercised over that long a span of time. What I really want to know is: Do our beliefs last because they’re true or because of the way our brains work?

    Sorry for the ambivalence, but it’s a little bit of both: God exists, however problematic it might be to say so (there’s a problem of vocabulary). I don’t use the word “God” as a high-level reference or metaphor for certain kinds of neural activity, or for the “really real” brain. I think one of the reasons the God concept has been so successful and has survived so long is because there is something to it. I think God is real.

    But concepts — not reality — will, in the best of circumstances, change when they are sufficiently challenged. But changing our idea of God means, among many other things, an actual physical rewiring of the brain, which is fascinating.

    It’s also difficult to do.

    Just ask Destin, who encountered a new situation in which his old ideas simply did not work. In fact, his old ideas aggressively frustrated his success. When a particular God-concept is seriously challenged, we can remake our concept to fit the new reality (alternately, we can resign ourselves to falling over, or to running into walls, or to becoming fundamentalists). It could be the death of a loved one, an addiction, a priest who molests an acolyte, an intellectual challenge that brings down the old God-idea. It could be anything, really.

    The years of my Baptist upbringing painted God as a powerful and inscrutable yet ultimately loving white man in the sky. Nobody ever told me this in so many words, of course, but that’s pretty much what the all the church language, taken together, pointed to. God was a cosmic omnipotent king who watched over us every day and kept tabs on us and went to great lengths to care for us and keep us all safe and happy.

    I don’t believe this anymore, and the shift didn’t happen overnight. It took Destin months to unlearn his bike-riding knowledge, but it took me years to unlearn my God-concept.

    (What I do believe, and how I came to believe it, is beyond the scope of this post.)

    So that’s pretty cool, but the final minutes of the video deliver the real punchline: After leaning how to ride the backwards bike, Destin could no longer ride a normal one. In learning a new skill, not only did he create some new circuitry in his brain; simultaneously, the old circuitry eroded, presumably from disuse.

    Contrary to the wisdom of the ages, it is possible to forgot how to ride a bike.

    He did eventually relearn how to ride a normal bicycle, but it took more time and more spills. And when he rides a normal bike today, it’s not easy. He has to think about it. In the video he looks at the camera and says with a smile, “I can’t ride a bike like you can anymore.”

    Once you expand your horizons — whether bike-oriented or theological — some things that used to be simple, obvious, and intuitive, become less so.

    Which is really interesting to this Baptist.

    Is B.o.B just doing what his science teachers told him to do?


    Image source: theapod.com

    It’s not often that the worlds of rap music and science education collide, but it’s happening.

    You’ve probably heard about rapper (and my fellow Decaturite) B.o.B’s recent tweet storm — still happening — in which he claims the Earth is flat, and about science advocate extraordinaire Neil deGrasse Tyson coming out against him in the name of education and rationality.

    ”There’s a profound failure of our educational system if people come through it and have the absence of critical thinking skills to leave them susceptible to believing that the Earth is flat,” said the King of Science to the Daily News.

    B.o.B is having none of it. “I’m going up against the greatest liars in history,” he tweeted to his 2.31 million followers. “You’ve been tremendously deceived.”

    We have known the earth is round for centuries, millennia even. The ancient Greeks not only knew it was spherical, but also had a decent sense of its actual size. So of course the Earth is not flat. B.o.B is wrong about that.

    But he’s not completely wrong about everything. In this Atlantic article, Lizzie Wade points out that B.o.B is really just observing the world around him. He’s using his sense experience along with reason to draw conclusions, just like scientists do.

    He’s about 25 centuries late to the round-Earth conversation, and that might make for some good jokes, but his arguments do require some effort to refute.

    For example, this one:


    These statements are not self-evidently false. Explaining why they are not true requires a little knowledge of optics.

    I’m not saying that B.o.B is a paragon of reason. Nor do I think it’s a good idea for someone with well over 2 million Twitter followers to promote the idea that scientists are no more than a bunch of power-mad liars (and that those who agree with them — “ballers” — are unthinking sheep), which is what B.o.B’s doing.

    I just think it’s funny that, in his own strange and misguided way, B.o.B is doing what scientists (and science educators) have been doing (and asking their students to do) ever since Galileo turned his telescope skyward: look at the world around you, think for yourself, and question authority.

    Beyond “beyond creation versus evolution”


    The old religion versus science duality is perhaps best exemplified by debates like the one that occurred between Ken Ham and Bill Nye nearly two years ago. Dull as this combat might be, however, most popular efforts at reconciliation are not much better. Image source: Christ & Pop Culture

    The following is Copyright © Fortress Press 2016. It is drawn from the Introduction of Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos, available for pre-order at Amazon, or, if you prefer not to feed the beast, at Fortress. It will be released on 1 March.

    I HAVE READ many books, academic and popular, on the well-worn topic of religion-and-science. I have attended (and delivered) more than my share of religion-and-science lectures and watched more than my share of religion-and-science debates. I have taught religion-and-science courses in churches, colleges, and seminaries. These experiences have taught me a lot about the topic and about the great interest many people have in it.

    They have also led me to conclude that, at the popular level, the topic has become dull and lifeless.

    You may disagree. After all, the Internet is full of people arguing about this issue; books about religion and science tend to sell; religion-versus-science debates make for exceedingly popular viewing; evolution continues to divide Christians in America. How can I claim this topic is lifeless? How is it dull?

    Because the issue has utterly stagnated.

    People are arguing and books are selling, but (again, at the popular level) I have not encountered a new argument or sensed any development since at least 1999, well before Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists revved up their scientifically-motivated harangue against religion of all kinds (what’s new about them is their attitude, not their arguments). There is plenty of noise but no life. Nothing new is happening.

    The popular media tend to emphasize the divide between those who embrace science and reject all forms of religion (e.g., the New Atheists) and those who embrace religion and reject science (e.g., creationists). These two groups seem to do little more than heave rhetorical bombs at one another. Such bombast sells books, and there’s nothing like it for fueling Internet rage, but man is it boring.

    Between these extremes is a broad field occupied by those who wish to reconcile religion and science. In general they believe, as I do, that there is no essential conflict between the religious and the scientific. Many in the middle have labored honorably to bring these two great ways of knowing together, and, seeing how neither religion nor science seems to be going anywhere soon, I believe the future belongs to them. I value their erudition and their dedication to the hard work of peacemaking.

    But frankly, I find nearly all of the (popular) middle-ground work to be unconvincing. Much of it is written by traditional Christians who love and understand science, but who nevertheless tend to view science as a problem that must somehow be “dealt with” or worked around by people of faith. They never allow science or the cosmos to shape their theology at a deep level. The driving idea behind much of their work seems to be that if you’re creative and put in enough effort, you can bring traditional Christianity together with the evolving cosmos in such a way that both retain their integrity. And they may even succeed at this, at least in the narrow sense of logical consistency. The academic problem may be solved, but the resulting models are so out of harmony with themselves, so unwieldy, monstrous, oftentimes goofy, and so contrary to lived experience that it seems hardly worth the effort.

    This must be a result of the relentlessly academic nature of the topic. There seems to be a widespread belief that religion-and-science is, at root, an intellectual issue and therefore it must be explored by purely intellectual methods. This is an understandable mistake, for religion-and-science writers must import ideas from (at least) the fields of science, theology, and philosophy. Each of these is a vast discipline — or, to be precise, family of disciplines — with its own language, assumptions, and values. When you bring them together in an attempt to construct a universal model of reality, it can bog down into a head game pretty quickly. Unwieldy, monstrous, and goofy results come as no surprise at all.

    One solution to this problem is to start not with universal principles or concepts but with normal human life. A wise pastor friend once advised me that, whenever an issue is to be worked out, you should do what Jesus did: “Start with the person.” At the time we were talking about same-sex marriage, but I think his suggestion can be applied to religion-and-science. Stars Beneath Us is, so far as I know, the first religion-and-science book written from a consistently — and explicitly — personal perspective.

    “Just as surely as atheism follows conventional theism for many people who face the realities of science and the agonies of life, a new kind of faith and a new vision of God can arise from the ashes of a lost and discredited belief. Paul Wallace tells his story of such a loss and recovery in a way that encouraged and inspired me and I believe will do the same for you.”

    –Brian D. McLaren, author, speaker, and activist, on Stars Beneath Us


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