Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The two chief world systems

We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world. We give little thought to the machinery that generates the sunlight that makes life possible, to the gravity that glues us to an Earth that would otherwise send us spinning off into space, or to the atoms of which we are made and on whose stability we ultimately depend. . . . In our society it is still customary for parents and teachers to answer most of these questions with a shrug, or with an appeal to vaguely recalled religious precepts. . . .

Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein's famous question about whether God had any choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a creator to do.

-- Carl Sagan

Stephen W. Hawking, having heroically survived the efforts of Her Majesty's government to murder him as part of the UK's ongoing eugenics program, still holds the professorial chair at Cambridge University once occupied by Isaac Newton. He published A Brief History of Time in 1988. The above quotation is from Carl Sagan's foreword. One of our readers disputes the basic scientific picture of our universe and accuses scientists of "arrogance" because they do not accept the possibility that the biblical account of the cosmos and of history is correct.

This strikes me as a highly tendentious accusation because, obviously, preachers absolutely believe that they are correct and that people who disagree with them are not only wrong, but condemned to eternal damnation. That seems quite a bit more arrogant to me, especially when you recognize that scientists do not, in fact, hold absolute or unchallengeable beliefs, except for a commitment to a way of thinking.

Unlike religion, science is not a body of belief. It is a program of exploration. Religion forbids exploration. You are told what to think as a small child and from thenceforward, not the slightest deviation is permitted. Unfortunately, many people obey these oppressive ideologies and proudly proclaim that their minds are closed forever. I would urge anyone in that state to reflect anew.

While science always allows for the possibility that conclusions will change if new evidence is discovered, as we continue to explore the universe some findings become so convincing that it would be inefficient, indeed quite silly, to question them. For example, the moon certainly revolves around the earth, and the earth-moon system and all the planets certainly revolve around the sun. No sane person can doubt this because we have actually flown people to the moon and sent robots to explore all of the planets, and they arrived on schedule based on the assumptions about the mechanics of the solar system which guided their paths.

Yet this is contrary to the Bible. We know that the stars are objects like our own sun, and that they are not fixed in a crystal sphere or a firmament but scattered through a vast 3-dimensional space because we have telescopes powerful enough to resolve the nature of the nearby stars, and we have carefully measured the apparent change in position of nearby stars against more distant ones as the earth moves in its orbit. This is also contrary to the Bible.

I won't take the time here to explain how it is we know the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, but there is a simple way in which we know it is much, much older than the chronology in the Bible. This is because each year, in places such as Antarctica where the temperature never rises above freezing, the snow that is deposited each year is compressed by new snow that falls on top of it and eventually compacted into ice. Annual layers can be easily discerned in the ice because of seasonal changes in snowfall, temperature and subtler changes in the air which is trapped in the snow. That these layers truly are annual can be proved by correlating their contents with known historical events, particularly dust from volcanoes. At Vostok Station in Antarctica, Soviet and then Russian scientists have drilled an ice core which contains a continuous record going back 420,000 years. They stopped at that point for fear of contaminating a vast lake under the ice called Lake Vostok. If you don't trust Russians, U.S. and European scientists have drilled cores elsewhere in Antarctica and in Greenland.

Now, if you wish to dispute the conclusions of science, the first thing you have to do is to study science. You don't need to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. A great deal of literature exists which explains the reasoning behind our understanding of cosmology and biology in terms which lay people can understand, although it may take a bit of work and concentration. For example, you can read Stephen Hawking's book. You can also read Darwin.

Unlike the vast majority of Christians, I have actually read the Bible, from cover to cover, more than once, in two complete translations and parts of others. Most Christians, were they to actually read the Bible, would be quite disconcerted, I am sure. It is filled with internal contradictions, moral depravity, and manifest nonsense, as well as a great deal which is just tedious and silly. Much of what it contains, I assure you, is radically opposed to contemporary Christian belief. (Marriage is between one man and one woman? Not according to the Bible! Abortion is murder? Not according to the Bible! Try reading it.)

Anyway, it is feckless to try to attack science by asking questions to which you do not know the answer on the assumption that scientists must not know either. For example, there is the old chestnut, "If people evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" Wrong on two counts, obviously. Scientists do not believe that people are descended from monkeys, but even if they did, that would not mean there could not still be monkeys. That is like asking, "If you are descended from your father, why is your father still alive?" Scientists do in fact believe that people are descended from fish (though not specifically any fish which are still extant), and obviously there are still fish. That may seem even more improbable to you than the idea that people are descended from monkeys, but if you study evolution and in particular try to appreciate the time scales over which it occurred it will become easier to accept.

Similarly, if I tell you that the solar system condensed from a disk of dust around the young sun, it is silly to challenge me by asking, "Where did the dust come from?" because I happen to know the answer. Hawking's book will tell you, but I will briefly explain that nuclear fusion reactions in the first generation of stars after the so-called Big Bang created complex nuclei such as the silicon, iron, oxygen etc. that make up our planet. Some of these stars exploded as supernovae, spewing these elements out into the galaxy where they became part of the mix that condensed into later generations of stars and star systems.

All of this understanding is very hard won. It is much easier simply to believe the stories that people made up in ancient times, when they didn't know very much. Also, when people make up stories, the stories are shaped, consciously or unconsciously, to seem intuitively persuasive and to provide us with comfort or to flatter our pretensions about ourselves. The truth has no such built-in appeal. It is what it is, like it or not, and so naturally some people resist it. But whether a story feels good or seems culturally or emotionally useful has no bearing on whether it is true.

That is the cold fact about the world. It is not here for our benefit, we just happen to be in it. It's up to us to make the most of it.


Youness said...

Fully agree. Carl Sagan is awesome, and so is Hawking! Here's a shirt a friend designed helping us science geeks better communicate our reverance for Carl...

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