Sunday, February 08, 2009

Perspective and belief.

Everyone's seen sand. Not everyone will have been to a beach (and there is nothing to recommend them unless you enjoy the scent of frying flesh and sand in every orifice) but sand is inescapable. It's everywhere.

Pick up a grain of sand. Just one. Hold it on the palm of your hand and consider it. Try to relate it to all the sand on the beach, or in the building-site pile you found it in, and consider this.

The relationship between that sand grain and the beach is not the same as the relationship between humanity and the universe. Not the same as the relationship between Earth and the universe.

What you hold in your hand relates to the beach as the galaxy we live in relates to the universe.

What's more, we can't see all of it. I can't recall the exact distance, but something like 40 billion light years is as far as we can see. There is no reason to suppose the universe ends at that point. Just as when we look out to sea from the coast and see nothing beyond the horizon, that does not mean other countries aren't really there. It's as far as we can see, and beyond that, there is a lot more. Without a handy atlas, we have no way of knowing how much more.

Look at that grain of sand again. Deep within it, imagine a single atom of silicon shifting in its lattice. It has just moved further, in relation to the whole grain, than the Pioneer probes have travelled in relation to the galaxy.

This is why I cannot bring myself to believe in a God, and why I cannot accept the arrogance of many scientists in denying the same thing. We cannot know.

Because we know nothing. We think our great body of literature encompasses all there is to know but we have travelled nowhere and seen little. Most of science is still based on assumptions. True, many of those assumptions are accepted because they have not been falsified but equally, they have not been definitively proved.

We assume that the physical laws that apply to our corner of the universe apply to all of it. That might be true. We have to assume it because we have no way to test it. We haven't really been anywhere else. What if the light that arrives here conforms with local laws only because it has passed into local space? What if, outside our little region, things are different?

Science presumes an unspeakable arrogance, not with its assumptions, but with its assertion of them as the Only Truth. We cannot know until we get there. We have been nowhere near 'there'.

Likewise, I must levy the same accusation at religion. In all this unimaginable vastness of space, we assume that there is a God who cares only about one small planet around one nondescript star and all the rest is just for show. It's too much. I cannot believe, in the sense of religious belief, that there really is nothing else out there. I cannot believe, in the sense of scientific belief, that we are somehow special. (Those are interchangeable.)

This planet has a finite life. On that we can all agree. It will end. Whether Man or God or Astrophysics brings this about, it will definitely end.

All our pomposity, all our literature, all our art, all that pretentiousness and self-importance will be gone. Not one word will remain. None of those strange shapes that now pass for statues. No shark in formalin. Not one of Darwin's books. Not even the rather excellent one on the formation of leaf-mould by earthworms (he wasn't a one-trick pony, you know). Not one Bible, Q'ran, Bhagavad-Gita. None of it.

To think that the universe will mourn our loss is wrong. To think it will even notice is a supreme arrogance.

The place we live is not the earth. It is the universe, and if we manage to reach another star we will have achieved as great a distance of travel as a virus turning over in its sleep. Don't waste time picking up on that. I know viruses have no concept of sleep.

So, is it likely that our God pays special attention to a particle within one sand grain on the beach and ignores all others? Is it likely that our severely limited reach is all science needs to understand everything?

We don't even know everything about the Earth. We know remarkably little about the human condition. Religion is rigid and dogmatic. So is science. Both pretend otherwise.

Perspective can be depressing but it can also be uplifting. Against the odds, here we are. Thinking and building and inventing. There is a chance that we will find another planet to live on before this one is gone. If it is suitable for life then there is a good chance it already has some. That will be interesting and, I suspect, sufficiently brutal and shameful that I can be pleased I won't be alive to see it.

I wonder what will happen to the ghosts. Will they follow us or will they stay on a ghostly image of this planet orbiting the remains of the sun? That will be for future investigators to study.

In the meantime, it's best to see the petty squabbles of people for what they are. Irrelevant and pointless.

The universe really doesn't care.


Southern Writer said...

Fascinating perspective, but I still believe in God.

Oh, you are going to love this verification word -- no reflection on the author of this blog, btw:


boring moron!

Romulus Crowe said...

The perspective doesn't deny the existence of God, but it does make me wonder why he'd concentrate on such a small area in all of creation.

If we met an alien race who had an equivalent to the Bible, I'd have to seriously reconsider my position on this!

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