Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


rsz_black-hole-milky-way

Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.

Are We Happier Lying to Ourselves?

I’m not lying to you: scientific experiments have shown that people who lie to themselves are happier than people who tell themselves the truth:

Radiolab: Lying to Ourselves

To begin, it’s interesting to note how the experimenters distinguished the truth-tellers from the liars. There were two ways.

In one experiment, people were asked to pick out their own voice from recordings of 10 different voices saying the same thing. While they tried to do this, electrodes measured bodily signs such as perspiration. Many subjects were not to give reliable answers orally, but the electrodes detected that their bodies could identify their own voice. In other words, their conscious minds were not able to access a truth that they knew deep-down.

In a more amusing experiment, the subjects were asked embarrassing questions, the answers to which are well-known, but which people won’t admit. The most mild was, “Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?” Of course everyone has, but not everyone will admit it.

It turns out that the same people who would not admit the truth in the second experiment were the ones who had the hardest time accessing the truth in the first. OK, so now we know who is most able to lie, even to themselves.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that these people are better at some things. For example, competitive athletes pump themselves up before the big contest by telling themselves, “I’m invincible.” The Radiolab show reported that swimmers who lied in response to the embarrassing questions were more likely to qualify for the big race at the end of the year.

What did surprise me is that people who lie even to themselves are happier. I can recall times when I attempted to hide the truth from myself, and I was not happy.

I recall an episode at Christian retreat when I was young. We were supposed to “spend time with God” by going to a quiet place and meditating on the scriptures. Then, we would meet as a group and share what we had learned. The scripture I chose pertained to God creating the world. During my meditation, I realized that God as ultimate creator must be the source of all love. When I shared this with the group, everyone thought that was wonderful.

But I was lying to myself, for even as I shared my supposed truth, I realized that the same logic would demonstrate that God is the source of all hate. With the help of groupthink and my desire to think godly thoughts, it only took a half-conscious effort to suppress the unpleasant inconsistency. Still, I was uncomfortable.

That was a lie that I caught myself in, but how many did I not notice? Regular readers of this blog know that I have reversed many of my deepest convictions over the last few years. To what extent was I ignorant in my earlier years, and to what extent was I just lying to myself? Sometimes, as at the retreat, I was aware of half-conscious lies. I suspect they were the tip of the iceberg.

The scientists on Radiolab said that people who see the world as it is tend to be more depressed. The show’s closing line was, “We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we’re given the capacity to distort … as a gift.”

Maybe so, but I do know this: I tell myself the truth more often now and am happier for it. I have become a big fan of reality. The lies one tells oneself become a burden. I didn’t realize how heavy the burden was until I crawled out from under it. I suspect that even unconscious lies drain the body of energy.

Even unpleasant reality can hold amusing ironies. Or at least they can be amusing if one cultivates a sort of Buddhist detachment. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe we can only stand the truth if we can stand apart from it sometimes.

What do you think? Are we happier with a little dose of self-deception, or is clear-eyed truth-telling the only way?

How Did We Get to Igtheism?

I learned a new word this week: igtheism. Wikipedia defines it as

…the view that any religious term or theological concept presented must be accompanied by a coherent definition…

So far, so good, right? A “coherent definition” just means a definition that does not contradict itself. This would seem to be a necessary place to start. But Wikipedia continues, and we start to see why igtheism might press our buttons:

… For example, if the term “God” does not refer to anything reasonably defined then there is no conceivable method to test against the existence of god. Therefore the term “God” has no literal significance and need not be debated or discussed.

So is our Western concept of God coherent?

Well, what is the Western concept of God? To start with the basics, the Bible says, “God is love.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that God cares for all his children as we care for ours? Evidently not; he allows horrible things to happen to many of them — things that he can easily prevent and that, if a human parent stood passively by and allowed to happen to his children, we would call evidence of criminal neglect.

I suggest that the word “love” in that sentence has no coherent definition, at least in the context of orthodox, Western religion. (If you can come up with one that takes into account God being omnipotent yet allowing most people to suffer in everlasting fire, you’re more clever than I am. Please leave a comment!)

Believers in the God of the Bible freely admit that their faith embraces paradoxes. After all, why should we expect our finite minds to comprehend an infinite God? As the Bible says,

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

Still, I would draw a contrast between unfathomable and incoherent. I can’t think of any verse in the Bible that boasts, “How incoherent Thou art!”

I think incoherence in religion has arisen because of a sort of arms race. In the beginning, gods were tribal in scope and had limited powers. They controlled the weather, prospered the crops, and helped in battle, but nobody claimed they were the supreme embodiment of Good. Even the Greek gods were capricious, licentious, and not very nice at all. If you could stay out of their way, you were doing well.

Over time, people wanted their gods to be better than everyone else’s. Naturally, a better, more powerful god is more compelling. Over the centuries, the gods that were said to have more superpowers won the battle for hearts and minds. Even within Christianity, the denominations that preach a more high-stakes message (e.g., evangelical denominations) are doing better than their more relaxed, main-line brethren.

As with other arms races, the people involved are so busy upping the ante that they don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into.

We exalt God higher and higher until he is “outside of time and space.” (This is a relatively recent upping of the ante. The Bible never makes this claim; it only claims that God is eternal, which is a completely different thing.) But we also want God to listen to our prayers, so we say he “changes his mind” over time (Exodus 32:14). Putting those two propositions together is incoherent, as far as I can tell.

We give God the superpower to know and control the future: “I [God] make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.'” (Isaiah 46:10.) However, we don’t want bad things to be God’s fault (after all, we have just said he is omnipotent) so, later in the same speech, we have him lament that things didn’t turn out as he had wished: “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea.” (Isaiah 48:18.) If he knows the future and does all that he pleases how can he say, “If only…”? To me, that’s incoherent.

We escalate our view of the Bible until it is the Inerrant Word of God. Unfortunately, it consistently describes the Earth as flat. Inerrantly preaching a flat Earth? Sorry; that’s as incoherent as drawing a square circle.

What do you think? Has Western theology become incoherent?

For more on this subject, here’s the video that got me thinking about it:

Living in the Questions

From the time I first heard the phrase as a young man, I have struggled to understand why “living in the questions” would appeal to anyone. Aren’t answers the entire point?

As I’ve written elsewhere, I derive much aesthetic satisfaction from my molecules having finally aligned themselves so that they have some clue of how the universe works. The answers — at last!

Or so I thought, until I read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene speculates about nine plausible ways that parallel universes (“the multiverse“) might exist. In fact, most of them entail an infinite number of universes.

Just when you think you have one universe down pat, along come infinity more.

It’s unlikely that I will live to see any of those multiverse theories proven or disproven, but who knows — when my grandparents were born, the existence of other galaxies beyond our Milky Way was not even known. If our knowledge could expand from one galaxy to over 176 billion in less than a hundred years, maybe one additional universe will show up any day now.

We made this progress because we never stopped asking questions. When we found an answer, we said, “Fine. What’s next?”

What if we hadn’t done that? We would be living in the same misery as pre-scientific peoples throughout the world. Misery? Yes, misery: ravaged by disease, driven by superstition to sacrifice their own children, and orders of magnitude more likely to die in war.

So there’s a question for us to ponder, and then ponder more deeply: To what extent do we owe our happiness to ceaselessly asking questions about the world?

 

 

Christianity’s Gift to Western Civilization

This just in from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writing in support of the death penalty:

In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.

Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not with the death penalty, but with society at large.

American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality. [emphasis mine]

If I still believed in God, I would thank him that “the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization” — a moral clarity that brought us

– I would thank him that all this had been replaced with almost anything else.

And how ironic is it that Albert Mohler’s own denomination was founded to support the right to own slaves? And he’s scolding us secularists because we don’t have “a clear sense of right and wrong”!?

I was once a Southern Baptist myself, so I know where Mohler is coming from, but from my current perch it’s pretty hard to take. If I were to give full vent to my feelings on this subject, I would say something I’d regret. Therefore, I’ll give the floor to the endlessly forbearing Richard Dawkins. A transcript follows the video in case you’re in a hurry.

QUESTIONER: Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?

DAWKINS: Absolute morality — the absolute morality that a religious person might profess — would include what? Stoning people for adultery? Death for apostasy? Punishment for breaking the sabbath? These are all things which are religiously based absolute moralities.

I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon — you could almost say — intelligent design.

Can we not design our society which has the sort of morality — the sort of society that we want to live in? If you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people, among 21st-century people, we don’t believe in slavery anymore; we believe in equality of women; we believe in being gentle; we believe in being kind to animals. These are all things which are entirely recent. They have very little basis in biblical or quranic scripture. They are things which have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. These do not come from religion.

To the extent that you can find the good bits in religious scriptures, you have to cherry-pick. You search your way through the Bible or the Quran and you find the occasional verse that is an acceptable profession of morality and you say, “Look at that! That’s religion!” And you leave out all the horrible bits. And you say, “Oh, we don’t believe that anymore. We’ve grown out of that.” Well of course we’ve grown out of it. We’ve grown out of it because of secular moral philosophy and rational discussion.

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.

Why the Big Bang Does Not Imply a Creator

If nobody is around and there’s a Big Bang, does that mean Someone clapped?

Where I come from most people would say yes. As Robert Jastrow famously put it:

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe? And science cannot answer these questions…

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Law of the Cosmos. What a talent that man has for explaining things!

He points out that even in light of the Big Bang, it’s quite possible that the universe is both infinite and eternal. “But wait!” you say. “The Big Bang means there was a beginning, doesn’t it? And how can the universe start from a point and become infinite after only 13.7 billion years?”

While the Big Bang may have been the beginning of our universe, it could have been just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs in an eternal multiverse. The multiverse may be infinitely large and infinitely old.

There was a time when I thought the multiverse was just a wishful invention of scientists who were looking for any scenario that did not require a Creator God. However, as both Brian Greene’s book and Lawrence Kraus’s book, A Universe from Nothing, explain, multiverse scenarios are a natural consequence of the known laws of quantum physics.

Nor are these untestable speculations. You may have heard in the news recently that one key component of most multiverse models, known as cosmic inflation, has received stunning empirical support.

I like this continuation to Jastrow’s story from the Skeptic’s Play blog:

After staying a while to share some stories with the theologians, the scientist begins to explore the surrounding area. Soon he realizes that the mountain goes much higher, but the path is poorly marked and obscured in fog. He points it out to the theologians, but they cannot see the markings.

“How did you get this far?”

“God guided us here.”

“Can God guide you further?”

They cannot agree amongst themselves. Some declare they are already at the peak. Others speculate that there is no peak, and thus no reason to continue. Still others say, “Yes, God will guide us,” and begin to wander in the direction pointed out by the scientist, to become forever obscured in the mist.

The scientist prepares to leave, bringing only a few theologians with him. He slowly continues to scale the mountain, meticulously checking every rock, and occasionally backtracking for days at a time.

Those would not be the last theologians he would pass by.