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Nov 22 2010

Some of my older atheism/science posts you probably haven’t read

Judging mostly by the pageview count, that is.

One of my first posts on atheism, Life, the universe, and everything (or, I’m An Atheist And So Can You!):

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.

Why is it so difficult to “come out” as an atheist?

Well, for starters, not believing in gods and devils and ghosts and psychic powers and healing crystals and homeopathy on merely the word of some person who has little or no real evidence for their claims is an extraordinarily liberating feeling. The fact that I don’t feel the need to thank God for my every blessing or pray to God to ask him to fix my every trivial problem frees up a lot of my precious time to actually enjoy my blessings and do something about my problems. It also means I can recognize a chain of cause and effect in advance, and either correctly attribute the good fortune that comes my way to the little nudges I can give them, or do something preemptive about the bad things before they escalate. And it means that I can wholeheartedly embrace the true study of reality as it is, the scientific endeavour to expand human knowledge. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the scientific method.

The “screen resolution” of the universe

What, then, are quarks made of? Does this basic unit have a predefined grid that it has to fit onto? Is movement of everything determined on this grid, however infinitessimally small that grid might be? If so, then the time it takes for that basic unit to move from X=4 to X=5 could very well be the basic unit of time of the universe, one “CPU clock tick” in this computer simulation we call existence. That would imply that the speed of light, which is the fastest that light can travel in a vacuum, might be the absolute fastest that every most basic unit of matter can travel through space — e.g., that every single clock tick the matter is moving one grid point. Which might mean that faster-than-light travel is impossible. Or, we could learn that it’s possible to move two grids each tick, or three, or a hundred. Once we know the most basic unit that exists in this universe, and the most basic unit of time, and the most basic unit of space, then all the doors to understanding the universe will be unlocked, and it will just be a matter of walking through them all, and in the right order so as to actually figure out how this universe works, what its rules are, and how (if it’s even possible) to bend its rules.

Wishful thinking

I’m an agnostic atheist. I believe this universe is comprehensible, given enough time and directed efforts, and I believe (like Sagan) that we are this universe’s way of knowing itself. There is nothing spiritual about that fact — we don’t know how many universes there are, or what rules they run on, or whether life is possible in all of them, but the anthropic principle says we wouldn’t be here to observe and worry about the universe if this universe were not capable of sustaining us, so who’s to say there’s anything special about us except that we live in a multiverse of very, VERY large numbers, so multiple such occurrences were bound to happen? And who’s to say that our understanding of reality is anything close to perfect, and that there is no possibility for as-yet-unexplained phenomena?

Religion as mental parasite

Imagine a healthy human mind — not the brain, but that thing that the theists commonly call the soul, the consciousness that is contingent on the proper functioning of that brain. That mind has several properties built up by the structure of the brain over long aeons of evolution: the capacity for rational thought, a sympathy for other like minds that sometimes extends beyond our species by process of anthropomorphism, an ability to create mental images of people based on mere descriptions of them, a willingness to accept authority, an ability to detect (or, more often, suspect) agency behind something that may have no agency at all. Like all other evolved traits, what might be useful in one respect can also be detrimental in another. In other words, because we were not immaculately designed, our minds, the product of the physical brain, has vulnerabilities. Our mental programming has, shall we say, bugs.

If that’s not enough reading to make up for my recent inattention, I don’t know what could be.

1 comment

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