Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Two Easy Pieces

Nothing Lasts

If you look around and pay attention to this old world one thing that becomes obvious is that nothing lasts. I don’t mean this in a negative or pessimistic sense. But, rather, as a bald observation about the universe. No living thing lives forever. There is a copying and recopying mechanism involved in all life and copies of copies of copies ultimately break down. It is true of the construction of cells to the mega-construction of sequoias and elephants. Life itself replenishes itself but not an individual life. Life goes on as they say. . .

Of course the idea can be expanded. The day ends. The season ends. The year ends. Game over. The fat lady sings. And more! Stars themselves don’t live forever. There is a natural progression to the burning that goes on in a star and, as conservation of energy would dictate, it simply runs out of fuel one day and explodes. Our sun will do this in a few billion years. We see the remnants of exploded stars throughout the sky. Of course there is star birth as well. From the remnants and dust left behind gravity will sculpt a new star. And so it goes.

The universe itself certainly had a birth about 13 billion years ago and perhaps it too will die as the galaxies stop their expansion and turn around and race to each other in a hyper universal demolition derby of the entire universe. And then a re-birth? Or, perhaps the galaxies will race away from one another until the universe dies a cold death where each galaxy thinks it is the only one. We’ll see...well, we won’t will we?

By simple observation and a little thought and study we learn that individual things (cells, plants, animals, people, stars) do not last but their off spring and their larger environment goes on. The atoms of the deceased recycled from finger to flower, worm to eyelid, flower petal to sloth lips.

How on earth did christianity get the idea then that an individual somehow gets to continue on in some other dimension after death? This idea is contrary to every possible observation we can make about our universe. You cannot look anywhere and find examples of this. You can’t find any theory on which to base this sort of process. We can only be taught this outlandish idea at a very young age while we still depend on the elders to speak the truth. (We have a biological, evolutionary wiring for this for very good reasons. Humans take a long time to develop. During those formative years the child needs to depend on the adult for support and information. We are naturally, biologically susceptible to the teachings we get at a very early age from our parents. It is then extra hard to change or challenge these lessons.) If one were allowed to be taught by nature itself with the support and critical, logical eye of the adult (master learner rather than teacher) would that individual come to the conclusion that there must be an afterlife and a heaven?

Certainly because we can think, ‘I am’ we all can then think, ‘What then when I am not’? This is the curse of our being sentient. Now just because we are frightened by that thought doesn’t mean that we get to make up an answer that helps to allay our fears. Well, we can and we certainly have but SHOULD we? Should we teach the children an answer that we have only made up which does not come from observation?

“There’s always a reason”

Reason: A justification or power or process of thinking

There is a saying among theists and probably mostly Christians when something bad happens they say, “There’s always a reason”. The implication is that God has a reason but we don’t see it. Interesting.

To make this statement is to walk on both sides of a fence. On one side you live in a world where magic is possible. Water turns into wine, people come back from the dead, cures happen via prayer. These events and others are deemed outside the normal flow of the natural laws of nature. That’s a good thing for a theist because god should be more mighty than the very laws that he invented.

On the other side of the fence we apparently still want the operation of the god to be reasonable. See? We try to make the unreasonable reasonable by simply saying that it is ... but that we can’t know it. How can you have it both ways? How can you invent a god that does unreasonable things (things that are physically impossible) and yet somehow works in a reasonable or logical way?

And what is there to make a reasonable plan unknowable? Is this not just more proselytizing that we are mere mortals and cannot possibly know (we’re not worthy to know) the workings of the god? But if there were a grand plan that the creator was using and if that plan were reasonable what would there be to stop a reasonable creature from understanding it? It could be long. It could be convoluted. It could have hard math in it. OK. But what could make it unknowable by its very nature?

Is is not MORE reasonable to look around this world and conclude that there is no sentient plan and that events are unfolding naturally - to conclude that we are independent and free thinking beings that make our own way or not. Sure the world is big and complicated but to bring in a creator with an unknowable yet reasonable plan only complicates matters more. Nothing is answered. Nothing is gained.

To assume that the creator has a plan and that he represents all goodness means that you have to somehow incorporate the holocaust, the sinking of the Titanic, and the popularity of American Idol into this ‘good plan’. Isn’t that much harder to swallow (ok, I guess it’s supposed to be) than to conclude that there is no plan?

When people began with the Greeks to make a model of the universe they naturally put the earth at the center. This is not stupidity nor is it necessarily arrogance but a very nice observation. If you watch the sun, moon and stars over the course of days, weeks and years they appear to make repeated circles around us. As the data got better things got a little more complicated. The motions were circular but the speeds were not constant. The circles were perfect but the earth wasn’t right at the center. To include the planets in this model you had to have a planet go in a circle around an empty point in space while that point went around the earth. More and more data produced more and more levers, cams, gears inside of gears until finally even the true believers (and that was nearly everyone since the catholic church had already burned the non-believers at the stake.) asked, “Why would the creator make it so complicated? If the heavens are so beautiful and supposedly so perfect, why are these motions so convoluted”? Of course the premise that the earth was at the center was wrong. There was no way to make an accurate model of the universe with the earth at the center. Step in Copernicus to put the sun at the center and all the bells and whistles fall away and you have simple (although not circular but rather on ellipsoidal) motion around the sun coupled with a spinning earth to explain all that we see in the sky.

This has happened more than once in the natural development of ideas. it happened with evolution, with the discovery of DNA, and with the quark model of the nucleus. The point is that when things get very, very complicated we start to worry and think maybe there is a way to simplify, ‘start’ over, and re-think our assumptions.

To assume that there is a creator with a complicated plan answers nothing and leads to further complications and conundrums. We want to pray to him for good things to happen knowing full well that he either allows or causes bad things to happen. This plan has to be hyper-complicated or...there is no plan. Again, this is a grand simplification into which all the known facts already fit.

I’m not kidding. We have a testable model for how the universe evolved from a few nano-seconds after the big bang right up to today. We get how protons and neutrons distilled out of the pure energy of the explosion. We understand how particles would have come together via gravity to form stars and entire galaxies of stars. On our little planet we have a very nice time line from self-replicating cells, RNA, tRNA, DNA and how mutation would lead to ever increasing complexity. We even understand where ‘goodness’ comes from. Since humans were no match for predators physically, they had to turn to each other and stick together in tribes to have a chance. The humans that evolved from those tough times are here today and still have the ability to care for and love other humans. We couldn’t have evolved otherwise. Into this already complicated yet reasonable story where do you insert god and to answer what question? Isn’t this complicated enough? Isn’t this beautiful enough?

What don’t we know? We don’t know if the big bang had a cause. We don’t know if it makes sense to even discuss ‘before the big bang’ as if it was truly the first thing then there is no before. If there is no ‘before’ can there even exist cause and effect? We don’t know the fate of the universe. It may expand forever or stop and rush back toward a center and giant crunch. We don’t know how our brains work or which part (or the whole thing) leads to sentience. I’m sure there are other burning questions in biology and maybe even chemistry. The fact that there are things we don’t know, though, doesn’t mean they are unknowable by their nature. Just don’t know them yet perhaps. One certainly shouldn’t take the giant middle ages leap that the unknown equals the work of the gods. Or of demons. Thunder and lightning used to be an indication that we had angered the gods. We don’t think that anymore, right? Maybe the questions for which we don’t have a ready answer are just not answered YET. Which path is simpler and more reasonable?

Finally, as Dennet would put it, maybe it is time to ask ourselves why we are still carrying around the burden of religion? There is a question truly worth investigating.