Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#5 - The pathetic inadequacy of the “god” myth

American Heathen:  aired: 12 August 2011

Having watched the first episode of Curiosity on the Discovery/Science Channel, I think it’s off to a good start.  The first episode was a more courageous confrontation between mythology and rationality than Through the Wormhole, another TV series I talked about last week.  The “answers” the program provides are those of Stephen Hawking, and do not represent the final, dogmatic word on the topic – this is science, after all, not religion.  All scientific “answers” are provisional and science recognizes no argument by authority, not even Stephen Hawking.  However, the post-program discussion made it clear why a commercial TV channel had the “courage” to air this controversial program – because they gave ‘equal time’ to believer apologetics!  They also should give equal time to scientists after all their so-called ‘science’ programs about the bible, UFOs, etc.  Evidently, it’s only when taking on the American christian majority that the sponsors demand ‘equal time’ for the other side of a controversy.

Every religion, it seems, has its creation myth.  It’s the sort of question people expect their religion to answer.  They all boil down to some simple-minded, self-centered, fanciful human-authored fictional version of how the universe was created by some “god” figure for the purpose of culminating in our human existence.  This is a very narcissistic view regarding the purpose for the universe.  It depends on the actions of a conscious being who created all of this majestic universe for reasons of its own, just for we humans – who occupy a backwater planet circling a boringly common sort of star, on the margins of an ordinary spiral galaxy amidst the vast billions of galaxies in a universe of staggeringly huge proportions. 

How huge is the universe, anyway?  The distance to the edge of the known universe is said by science to be around 23 billion light years away – this isn’t the size of the universe.  It’s simply how far we can see at the moment.  This known universe occupies a sphere of roughly 5 x 1070 km3.  To understand this terminology, imagine a cube that is 1 km (a bit more than half a mile) on a side.  It would take the number 5 followed by 70 zeros of such cubes to represent the volume of the known universe!  Three zeros would be 5 thousand.  Six zeros would be 5 million.  Nine zeros would be 5 billion.  Twelve zeros would be 5 trillion.  Fifteen zeros would be 5 quadrillion … we have no word even to express a number with 70 zeros!  (The word “googol” – not spelled “google” – means 1 followed by one hundred zeros!)

What possible point could there be to create this incomprehensibly vast backdrop for a single species inhabiting a flyspeck planet inside that incredibly enormous volume?  Even if we assume that this putative creator entity did it all for us, for whatever reason, it’s difficult to imagine why such a massive canvas is needed for such a parochial species that can survive only on a single planet out of all that vastness of space.  Don’t look to the creation myths for any explanation of that – it’s simply not there because the humans who actually created the creation myths had no concept of the vast extent of the universe.  The “god explanation” is just late Bronze age myth!

It’s our blessing, however, to live in an age where there’s an alternative explanation for the creation of the universe.  It’s not based on the naturally self-centered admiration of our species for itself.  It doesn’t presume that this huge stage upon which we strut and fret our short lives is there solely for our own use.  It isn’t based on belief in the existence of some supernatural being who can summon infinite powers to serve mysterious ends – ends that many believe to be expressly designed for our benefit as the ultimate crowns of that creation.  Rather, in our world of the present, the demons and gods of mythology have been replaced by a different vision – the rational, evidence-based, empirical vision of science.  Faith isn’t necessary – only evidence you can see and measure, and logic that any rational human is capable of understanding, albeit with some effort.

Science recognizes no authority figures, has no sacred documents, favors no self-centered focus on the human condition as some privileged platform from which to view the universe.  Rather, it seeks to understand the disembodied rules by which the universe operates, as validated by observation instead of the empty words of some “prophet”.  Science postulates those rules and then tests those postulated rules against the observed evidence.  It presumes only that its understanding of the rules is based on the ability of those postulated rules to explain what can be observed and measured.  We don’t know why gravity is the way it is, but we can use the current understanding of gravity to predict the observations of how gravity affects the motion of objects, and those predictions can be tested against the behavior of real objects. 

Using the rules we have deduced about the universe, we lately have come to understand that the Earth and everything on it consists of atoms that originated in stars.  Everything we know, including our own bodies, is made up of atoms that were created deep in stellar forges and by stellar supernova explosions.  Those atoms then were expelled into the vastness of space, eventually to become part of our solar system and the building blocks of our planet and everything on it, including us.  On our planet what we now recognize to be life came to be (by means of a mechanism we as yet don’t understand fully) – and our planet was transformed by that life, which evolved by means of Darwinian evolution, to spread widely on our backwater world, surviving a number of mass extinctions to reach its current stage.  We humans are star debris, come to life and evolved to the point where we are able to contemplate and lately even to understand (in large part) the processes by which we came to be.  Who doesn’t find this to be an inspirational insight?  We live in a golden age of understanding!

How do religious creation myths compare with this awesome story told by science?  According to religions, a mysterious powerful being simply willed us into existence over the course of a week about 6000 years ago for purposes of its own, which we mere humans are incapable of understanding.  You’ll find no mention of how or why this was done in their version of the story.  Creation by the will of a superbeing can serve in the minds of the ignorant to “explain” everything but it really explains nothing.  Compared to the rich tapestry of scientific understanding, this primitive fabrication seems pathetically crude and unsatisfying.  It’s the ultimate deus ex machina [a literary term describing any artificial or improbable device resolving the difficulties of a story’s plot] that fails utterly to provide any credible understanding of why we exist on a speck within the massive, mostly life-hostile space of the known universe.  It leaves us with nothing to substitute for the current laws of nature that explain so much of our universe, including the cosmology that puts us in the here and now.

Yes, science has yet to explain everything.  It likely never will succeed in the Herculean task of explaining everything, but the answers it has so far managed to offer are so much more interesting and worthy of further exploration than faith-based creation mythology, the comparison makes religious “explanations” seem stupid and even boring – a crude, ham-handed rationalization that neither seeks nor provides any basis for further exploration.  To postulate the existence of the universe on the whims of a conscious entity is to trivialize the drama of the true story, insofar as we know it.  If creation depends on this imaginary being, then once we’ve given this entity a name and bowed to this being’s tyrannical demands, that would seem to be an end to the grand mystery.  Why study it further, once we attribute all creation to something we call “god”?  Rather than inviting further study, this religious “answer” seems to stifle further questioning because such inquiries might threaten some part of the religious dogma tied to this mythical superbeing.  That’s been religion’s reaction historically to the discoveries of science.

On the other hand, the scientific version of how we came to be is a stimulus for us to pursue the questions left unanswered, to spurn the easy path of facile, childish, and primitive answers to the great questions of life that we humans find so interesting to ponder.  Science shows us that a true miracle of this universe is that much of its wonders can be understood by mere humans if we only expend the effort!

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.