I feel the need to warn you right now, this is going to be an extremely long post, and I earnestly hope it spurs some honest and frank discussion amongst you, my loyal few readers. And I’m going to try not to make the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy references too prevalent. This all started on reading an interview with Richard Dawkins, prominent author and noted atheist. Read it if you want, but it’s long too, and I’d prefer you read me first. I worked hard on this!
In this post, I’m going to do something that, normally, I dislike, when I am on the receiving end. I’m going to proselytize. I will try to turn your fundamental beliefs regarding the nature of the universe on their ear. I am going to attempt to convince you that you are an atheist.
That’s right, an atheist. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret — you really are, whether you know it or not. If you believe in even one god, then you disbelieve in thousands, millions, maybe even an infinite panoply of others. If you believe in the Judeo-Christian God, then you disbelieve in Thor, Buddha, Shiva, and the Great Green Arkleseizure.
Think about that for a moment — the fact that you believe in one god means you don’t believe in any of the other possible ones. Even if you have a wobbly sense of what “god” is, and attempt to rebut this point with the obvious “one god, many faces” idea, these gods often have qualities that will make them mutually exclusive. Buddha, being pacifist, is most assuredly not Mars, the Greek god of War, nor is he the vengeful God of the Old Testament. So, now that you’ve accepted that you obviously cannot reconcile every incarnation of every god that humankind has ever believed in (most of which you have probably never even heard of), then that means there are gods that you DON’T believe in. So, what makes the god that you DO believe in, so special and unique? True atheists, as Richard Dawkins is so fond of pointing out, simply go one god further, and say that none exist.
Okay, you ask — so I’m an atheist, what does that actually mean to me? What difference does that make in my life? How does that affect the price of tea in China, so to speak? Well, it’s simple. It means that when you do not understand how something works, you are no longer allowed to automatically assume that there is a supernatural explanation. If you won the lottery, it’s because you happened to pick the right numbers, not because some otherworldly being willed it (someone was bound to hit the right numbers, if enough people played for long enough, or if someone was able to calculate exactly what numbers would come up in the pseudo-randomness of the random number selection). If your house caught on fire, and you happened to be out of the building, and your cat escaped, this does not mean that God protected you and your cat from the fire. It more than likely means that your house coincidentally caught on fire while you were away (and it’s possible that your negligence may have directly affected the house catching fire, don’t forget), and your cat’s survival instincts kicked in and it managed to find a way out as well.
So, ultimately, there’s a scientific explanation for everything that happens, for everything that will happen, and for everything that has happened in the past. This does not mean that the universe is a cold, bleak place. The universe is beautiful, it is wondrous, and it is still deeply, deeply mysterious. We don’t know everything there is to know about everything. We hardly know anything, in a cosmic sense. We’ve figured out a few of the rules by which the universe plays, however we haven’t by a long shot mastered any single branch of science. I’d be surprised if we even managed to hit 1% of all that is knowable in the universe presently, to be quite honest.
Which brings me to my next point, where I backpedal a bit on what I said earlier.
The universe *is* finite. We (by which I mean scientists, the guys on whose shoulders I’m trying to stand) are pretty sure it started as an infinitessimally tiny, infinitessimally dense speck containing all the matter that exists in this universe (picture the end result of a “giant” black hole having eaten *everything there is*), and something happened to cause it to explode violently enough to eject all of that matter outward.
If you say “God did it”, you’re still thinking like a deist. Remember, you’re an atheist now, so play along. I’ll get to your thought on that matter in a moment.
Now, the fact that the universe is finite — there’s only so much matter in the universe, and it all got thrown outward by a violent explosion — means there’s a limit to the universe. Yes, the word finite implies this, but I have to stress this point. There’s a limit to the universe. I don’t know what happens if we were to fly out past this limit — past the point where the furthest star in the furthest galaxy got flung billions of light-years away from here. Maybe you’ll basically expand the definition as to what the limit is, and the universe will contain every star plus you way out stretching the edge of the bubble just by flying out past that border. Maybe you’ll hit something and get bounced back. Maybe you’ll wrap around to the other side. Maybe there’s a whole lot of emptiness for a very, very long time, then eventually a big glass wall.
And you know what? It doesn’t matter. All of that, is irrelevent. Everything that exists outside this universe is totally, and completely, irrelevent. And… guess where God would live? That’s right, outside the universe, being that he would have had to be outside it to create it, or to flick that one atom sideways just enough to cause the Big Bang that started it all.
So. Here’s the backpedal. IF God (or Vishnu or Apollo or Krishna or whatever) exists — which means that I’m wrong about there being no God — then s/he exists outside the scope of that which we, as humans, can know. And since we can’t know anything about that which exists outside our universe, why should it care about us, outside of the actual initial creation event?
But wait, you say. What about miracles, divinely inspired books, ghosts and angels, near death experiences? Why, that’s easy — miracles are simply fortunate coincidences that impress themselves upon your emotions by virtue of their fortunate nature; the divinely inspired book was no more divinely inspired than my blog (no, that does NOT mean you can worship me, dammit!), there’s absolutely zero evidence that ghosts and angels exist, and near death experiences are the brain’s last fireworks show before turning the lights out on your life. Prove that ghosts exist, prove that the afterlife exists, and I’ll start believing in them. Remember, I said earlier that we don’t even know 1% of what there is to know. This leaves a huge range of what-we-don’t-knows, like telepathy (some creature out there in this vast universe may very well be able to tap into a telepathic network that we don’t know about), ghosts (nobody presently understands why networks of neurons happen to form in such a way as to produce sentience, and it would indeed be a shame if this sentience was fleeting), et cetera. So, there’s a lot of room within which all sorts of crazy, seemingly supernatural stuff can exist, we just aren’t able to prove it yet. Maybe some day we will. Until then, there’s no point in pretending that because we can’t know everything, we can’t know anything, and fall back on “God did it”.
Now that we’ve established the ground rules for what we can know and what we can’t, it’s time to get into the crazy theories.
Have you ever played The Sims? A game where you can create characters that interact with one another in a virtual house that you can design and manipulate? This is what’s called a “God game”. There’s a God game I’m waiting for at the moment, called Spore, wherein you get to control and direct a species’ evolution from single celled organism all the way up to advanced civilization capable of space flight. What do these games have in common? Three seconds. Two… one.
That’s right, they’re a computer simulation of a universe, which plays by its pre-defined rules.
What if this universe, this very universe in which we reside, is a computer simulation something like that? A “Matrix”, only instead of being a place to keep human consciousness alive to be used as batteries, I’m talking writ even larger. Like, every single molecule, every single atom, every quark, muon and gluon that makes up these atoms, is all stored in some vast bank of RAM including its position in the universe, what it’s doing now, and what it was doing one unit of time ago. Add a CPU to process what these base units of matter are going to do next, and a program that defines the rules by which these particles play (e.g., thermodynamics, gravity, chemistry, etc — if ever we discover a “Grand Unified Theory of Everyting”, then that’s the program by which the universe plays). The only thing you’re missing from that scenario is a computer engineer “one level up”, outside our universe, to turn the switch on, to give that first atom that initial sideways flick. Would that engineer be rightly named “God”? What if some other engineer actually did the programming, or built the RAM, and this guy who we’re now calling God is actually just some slob on the night shift? And do you think he’s constantly playing with the simulation to make our lives better or worse, or is he just sitting back drinking coffee waiting for the simulation to end so he can start looking at the results?
Okay, all of that is way out there, I mean loony bin material. So, forget all of it. Forget the idea that the universe is actually a computer simulation. Why did I say it all, then? Well, mostly because I tend to think in computer terms, and it helps me extrapolate out what the universe is doing and why it’s doing it. Also, the nature of the universe — whether it’s been created by some magical being outside the scope of the universe, or whether it’s all going on inside the databanks of a computer — is totally irrelevent, and thus not worth even pondering, because it happens outside the scope of that which is possible for humankind to know.
So, what IS possible for humankind to know? Well, we’ve figured out a lot already. We know that there exists really tiny particles that, when arranged correctly, create atoms. We know that atoms, when arranged correctly, create molecules. We know that molecules can have a reaction when they touch other molecules, which is called chemistry. We even know that atoms can be manipulated by us, in fission or fusion reactions, usually by making use of properties of chemistry that we’ve discovered.
In the field of chemistry, we know that certain chemicals can become amino acids when they are given an electrical charge. As well, we know that amino acids can self-replicate. When certain amino acids team up, they can work in tandem and survive and multiply in areas where, alone, they would be in danger of being wiped out. This brings us to the subset of chemistry, biology. Our very DNA is made out of these amino acids. Extrapolating backward, one can safely assume that a group of amino acids eventually formed the first single-celled organism. (That’s right, the “primordial ooze” theory.) This organism was also capable of reproducing. And in reproducing, if the next generation happened to have a random mutation, caused by the reproduction process not going exactly right (due to radiation, chemicals, or just plain luck — have you ever photocopied a sheet of paper and had it turn out exactly identically?), and that reproduction with the “flaw” turned out to actually be better equipped to handle its environment than Dear Old Dad, then the reproduction would have a better chance of surviving and thus reproducing. And in reproducing, because you’re basically copying yourself, your mutations would be copied down to the next generation.
And that’s evolution, right there — that thing that so many people seem to be attacking nowadays. Add a few hundred billion years, and countless generations of reproduction, and you’ve basically explained why it is that life can come to exist on a particular rock out in the vastness of space, and all without some spiritual supernatural being applying a guiding hand to the process. How do we know this can happen? Well, because we’re here, and there’s life everywhere, in all sorts of forms — plants, insects, bacteria, mammals, and us. And it can live in every far-flung environment that exists on our planet. So, since the universe is REALLY REALLY REALLY BIG, chances are it’s happened elsewhere as well.
Some religious types believe that religion answers the “why” of the universe while science answers the “how”. This is okay, for some people. It keeps the religious types who are moderate, nice, reasonable, thoughtful people, from deeming science to be evil, heretical and wrong. Unfortunately, there are extremists — people who believe that those that are different from them are evil, heretical and wrong — and these extremists are capable of vastly evil acts themselves, like the jackass in Tennessee that just shot up that Universalist Unitarian church because it was filled with “liberals and gays”. Richard Dawkins believes that those people who allow “religious tolerance” and teach tolerance of faith to their kids, are directly responsible for fostering the environment within which these hateful people have come into being. I would not be surprised if that was the case, but I have been instilled with a respect for other people’s beliefs personally, a respect that I can’t shake even in the face of the possibility of that respect breeding intolerance and hatred in those people whose faith overcomes their sense of reason.
I’m sure I haven’t even scratched the surface of my belief system here. But this is a good start for tonight.
What do you think, folks?