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The Universe Is Magical Thinking

By November 1, 2022Culture, Philosophy, Space

By Stuart Greenbaum

Ranked up there with “amazing” and “extraordinary” and “everyone,” the adjective “magical” is among the most misused and overused of hyperbolic descriptors. Very rarely is something as suggested not only baffling in the entertaining sense, but profoundly incomprehensible as well. When describing the universe, nevertheless, magical is more than justified.

Despite purporting they understand the great mysteries of the universe, the only thing the cognoscenti — scientists and theologians, that is — truly have in common is the conceit of claiming to know the unknowable; to exclusively possess superior cosmic insights beyond the comprehension of the rest left to accept the mind-boggling or wondrous explanations, respectively, as factual or gospel, respectively.

How ironic that these de facto authorities adhere to versions of the universe that bear no resemblance to one another. Neither seems humbled by the lack of consensus … let alone the absence of proof. Scientists routinely conflate theories, principles and laws with facts. Theologians blithely conflate Bible stories, beliefs and pretenses with truths.

There are no scientific experiments to prove or disprove the existence of a god or some form of universal spirit being. Ironically, this is a fundamental — arguably fallacious — argument for true believers. The pretense for begging the claim goes something like this: If the universe had a beginning — the event scientists refer to as the big bang — “it had to come from a supernatural, transphysical being,” reasons the popular religious nonprofit Magis Center. And since “nothing comes from nothing,” the group argues, this is “strong scientific evidence for God.” This either/or conclusion erroneously reduces the argument over the existence of God to two choices.

It should come as no surprise that scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. Nor should the ambiguity of the results of the Pew Research Center’s survey on “Scientists and Belief” to inform the debate as to whether the religious or scientific communities possess the only true understanding of the universe.

What both communities do have in common is a broader, sort of magical thinking — an arrogant starting point of view of a universe whereby Earthlings deserve to be center of attention.


A recent New York Times science piece about the universe is sprinkled with words and phrases such as “nonintuitive,” “randomness,” “quantum weirdness,” “spooky action,” “cosmic paradoxes,” “holograms,” “metaphysical turmoil” and “throwing dice in the dark.” Aptly subtitled “Out There,” the article “Black Holes May Hide a Mind-Bending Secret About Our Universe” by preeminent science writer Dennis Overbye exposes as much doubt as discovery about the cosmos. It’s debatable whether thousands of years of scientific study of the cosmos proves or mocks Einstein’s fallback observation “God doesn’t play dice.”

So then why bother seeking or even imagining scientific answers if “God’s design …” is answer enough? Suppose the universe is created by God, why does life only exist on planet Earth? Are humans so unique, truly exceptional? Why instead of resting, didn’t God put the seventh day to use creating more lifeforms amongst the billions and billions of other places in the universe? Seriously, is heaven all that’s up and out there?

Religious doctrine can be comforting. It can be dismissive, too. A case could be made for worship unraveling our critical thinking and limiting our curiosity and imagination. If some sort of transcendent being or supernatural higher power created us, was our inability to comprehend farthest outer space an intentional deficiency? And if so, did this attempt to infuse humanity with an archetypal, collective sense of humility fail miserably?

Religion is simply a way to make the uncertainties of life, such as the universe, less terrifying, Carl Sagan suggested in his essay “Nature and Wonder.” “A general problem with much of Western theology, in my view, is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a God of a tiny world, and not a God of a galaxy, much less of the universe.”

One defense to Sagan’s conjecture is that the right words weren’t available back when the first Jewish, Christian and Islamic holy books were written. Then again with all the beautiful metaphors used in these ancient writings, it would seem most enticing to describe something like the universe and galaxies. If, that is, the storytellers thought beyond their one small world.

Conversely, to be fair, scientists are not immune to myopic thinking. They have not actually “discovered” places and things in outer space any more than Columbus “discovered” America. The great beyond already existed … just undiscovered to the best of our knowledge.

Scientists theorize outer space is edgeless, as in ever-expanding … going on forever. Yet this assessment is based on what is currently observable — 13.8 billion light years away. So, really, scientists know only as far as they know, and not beyond. For now and the foreseeable future, infinity remains incomprehensible.


Devoid of universally recognized evidence, the scientific and theological views of the cosmos are nothing more than euphemisms for “we don’t have a clue.” Or to restate, magical thinking.

The principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor) recommends with respect to competing theories and explanations that the simpler one is usually right. Are we not seeing the forest for the trees? Are we not the center of everywhere, but rather an infinitesimal detail in a much bigger picture?

We need only look skyward to remind us that neither fact nor faith come remotely close to actually explaining the humbling mystery of what’s out there.

Stuart Greenbaum is the author of the new book Humble Sky, about a fictional quest to discover farthest outer space, and lead writer for the Humble Sky culture blog.


One Comment

  • Tracy Huddleson says:

    In addition to a well thought out a opinion, with which I agree, you give us a lovely word like parsimony. Love it!

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