Saturday, July 19, 2014

Is the Observable Universe Also a Pale Blue Dot?

Carl Sagan called the Earth “The Pale Blue Dot.” and the famous photo of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft confirmed that our planet is a simple lonely celestial body in our solar system. But for those of us down here it is also an elegantly beautiful world full of biological and human-made diversity. Dr. Sagan would boast that this is the only home any of us will ever know. That we exist on an unremarkable distant planet orbiting a half-used sun in a backwater of a galactic spiral arm. We are also a planet which is also teaming with life and of this life we humans, as a single species of evolved primate, remain just one of many outcomes of natural selection and this biological diversity.

Dr. Sagan was also fond of saying that our planet floats like a mode of dust as we compare its size and place in our solar system and galaxy. But perhaps it isn’t just that our tiny planet is floating like a mode of dust in both space and time. Perhaps it is also our entire universe, this immense 14.6 billion year structure in which our small Earth is just one of billions of planets circulating around one of billions of distant suns.

If our solar system is as dramatically small, this will mean that the scientific tools we’re currently using to judge subjective concepts like “big” and “little” have to be recalibrated.  This also means that we should continue to scientifically investigate, if only theoretically, the possibility that our universe no matter how large or small is like our Earth. That is as Earth is to our universe in size, so could our universe be just as small when compared to multiverses or naturally organized solar system-like structures in other spaces, times and dimensions.

This whole discussion about the size, place and importance of our universe came up recently (thank you Francesca) via a genteel discussion while walking home from - of all places - my local Starbucks. So I consider writing a post about the universe as being perfect since the closest I can ever get to the stars will be the coffee house on every corner of Manhattan.

It follows that if our universe isn’t that spectacular after all, although I am certainly awestruck being so tiny in comparison, we may find that how it came into existence is equally less extraordinary. Especially since its very existence is bound by the laws of nature as observed and governed by our physics and mathematics.

That being the case it is entirely possible that not only can something come from nothing, but also as Larry Krauss so elegantly puts it in his book A Universe from Nothing, there really isn’t “nothing” after all. Even the spaces between the space are actually teaming with forms of energy (think quantum mechanics here) which pop into and out of existence in an instant. Which leads us to the realization that knowing the natural world in concrete terms is a better way to understand just how “something” comes not from nothing, but how something comes from everything.

Now as Einstein and Spinoza agreed, this view of nature allows us to accept the mechanics of the natural world in such a way that knowing how it operates is perhaps the highest form of connectivity to its laws and to each other. There is no better truth than the truth we gain from rationally examining our surroundings and building a collective set of human knowledge and wisdom about the ontological, epistemological and operational aspects of nature.

This is of course an alternative to religious doctrine which in some cases demands and states with blind certainty that our universe no more than 6,000 years old. Equally audacious and slave-like is idea that even if one accepts concepts like multiverses, evolution and the natural mechanics of space-time, the placement of an invisible non-evidenced divine creator at the start is frankly ludicrous. Especially since the Big Bang as it is known may not have been a "start" at all but just a common occurrence somewhere in and at some point of space-time.

As our post-Starbucks discussion petered out, as I conclude discussions like this need a Higgs-Boson amount of energy to continue between lay astronomers, I went back to my Frappuccino.  But we each kept stargazing as we’re both delighted and humbled by our place in nature. In fact just think that in an uncaring and random universe here we are as a species looking up and challenging the universe to reveal secrets for which we humans still only estimate are possibly true.

Just the idea of discovery is a human construct and a human conceit. These laws of nature and natural processes have existed both long before we evolved and before our universe exploded into existence. This means there is too much to learn in our lifetime to ever know everything. And that I conclude is absolutely wonderful!

This also means that it is the human birthright to continue exploring the unknown and to re-verify the known. Science and knowledge are the twin gifts that offers every succeeding generation the ability to know more about reality and the natural world than previous generations only dreamed.

And not knowing makes life worth living because you never know what will be uncovered tomorrow.  It also makes any holy book, theology, metaphysics, religious ritual, and prayer a pale ghost compared to the wisdom we gain from understanding the physical reality of our world and universe. We should each embrace and explore these mysteries and wonders and not fear the unknown or claim a divine being or their representatives on Earth exclusive access to knowledge.

After all, the world is not flat, it is older that 6,000 years, evolution occurs on it and it is known not to be the center of our solar system. Thanks to science such ignorance is left to the faithful to claim and ponder.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Brief Post: A Meditation

Everyone Repeat:

"The world will only be healed when every house of worship, every center for spiritual prayer and all places used to indoctrinate religion are shuttered or turned into museums which highlight our past human ignorance. 

Imagine a world culture unafraid of death, aware that original sin is an illusion, that the golden rule does not require theology because it is latent in our genes, and which adores science and reason.

The need for holy men and gods would disappear. No one would be able to frighten us about unseen boogeyman or god's eternal wrath. We would be born perfect, grow to be informed and create a peaceful secular and humanistic world.

This is my only wish. I work non-violently every day to be the change for my children and their children and everyone's children. 

And to live long enough to make this happen in my own lifetime."


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

World Cultural History Destroyed At the Hands of Today's Prophets

ISIS at Work
In 391AD, history records the sacking of the Library of Alexandria by a Christian mob. This group of fanatical adherents were engorged with confidence after their doctrine became the official state religion of the Holy Roman Empire.  The switch from paganism to Christianity essentially meant the end of Greco-Roman life under a polytheistic set of gods. Religious political order was replaced by monotheism. In both cases however, while the roles and authorities remained the same, the god(s) who offered their tribute to the humans who created them allowed both kings and priests to lead while the masses followed often blindly.

The burning of the Library was a self-aware and self-acknowledged group action to annihilate the cultural memory of those of the past, those different and those who presented alternative viewpoints. The mob which was acting in the name of religious faith then, like those who claim such right now, contributed to the vanquishing of human culture and worldwide heritage by destroying artifacts, life ways, and languages.

The Library's destruction also meant the loss of knowledge related to science, the humanities and large portions of the history of antiquity. This destruction also contributed to one thousand years of cultural impotence otherwise known as the Dark Ages in Europe. An age that did not end until both science and commerce woke up a sleeping Europe from the grip of the Church.

Let's fast-forward to early 2001 just several months before the tragedy of 9/11 caused by hateful religious violence. Here we find the same Taliban destroying the 1,700 year-old Buddhist Bamiyan Statues.  Why destroy the statues? What geo-political gain was there in firing missiles at two-thousand-year-old stone carvings? The short answer is none. The reason these artifacts of cultural memory were destroyed was because the Taliban felt that they were an insult to Islam. Again we find religion destroying the past and those who present a different alternative and those who are different. These statues, much like Western Culture, are an affront to those radicalized and who want to harm others in the name of their faith.

If only we could say we've moved past this senseless destruction to become integrative and liberated in our thoughts and actions. But clearly history shows us that it is religious faith which retards such initiative.

In the last weeks, the religiously motivated group called The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has begun destroying cultural shrines thousands of years old. In their view such destruction cleanses the palate of the Islamic world they wish to create in Iraq and Syria (and I suspect globally).

These links are easier to share than embed into text:

Organized religion can be imperialistic in nature and at times seeks to pave over individual and cultural memory for the sake of its own survival. This is done through indoctrination as well as through the physical destruction of culture and cultural artifacts. Sometimes religions are amorphous and adaptive, swallowing other spiritual practices, other times faith can be harsh and forced belief can come at the the end of a sword, whip, machine gun, bulldozer, or equally manipulative through the delivery of food, shelter or social and community-based services.

But the fallacy at the core of all faith is the self-given mandate to save others from eternal damnation by the theologically imperialist belief that people will be better off if they all accept an oppressor's faith over their own faith or no religion at all. Jokingly this is why the the crimes of blasphemy and being heretic are actually really victimless crimes.

If ISIS cannot be stopped by outside pressure then they will continue to raze whole communities, shrines and culture for their own political ends. These ends are well known. To destroy what is unpalatable, to claim the right to disembowel memory because it is viewed as contrary to their religious teachings and beliefs and to eliminate any way possible those who will not accept their worldview. This includes the destruction of physical artifacts, whole villages and whole peoples - more ethnic cleansing and refugees- just what the world needs at a time when we could be collectively learning from one another, readying ourselves for exploration and respecting one another humanistically.

It is time to break from the past and create the future. We won't fully be able to do this unless and until we place religious superstition deep in the closet of our own cultural memory.