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Posts from the ‘Science’ Category

Mind Travel

Space_Shuttle_Discovery

I’ve been a bit of a hermit lately, for reasons I will save for another post. But from inside my bedroom, where I have spent most of the past few days, I have traveled all over the world. All over the universe, in fact, in search of what there is, and what is real, and what is true, and I have made a few discoveries (well, ideas new to me, at least), all thanks to Netflix, and the “interwebs” and some good books, and my own imagination and reason. Which brings me to the first of these new insights…

1) IN MY MIND, I AM FREE. Absolutely free. It was Stephen Hawking who presented this fact to me. Those were his exact words, in fact, spoken from the wheelchair he inhabits every day, unmoving, depending on a computer for communication, and on numerous machines and caretakers to meet his basic needs. And while it seems like a given now that I’ve thought about it consciously, I never had before. It seems somehow inappropriate to take Stephen’s words – so profound in his case – and apply them to myself. And yet I think any human being could do it justly.

We are all constrained in so many ways by the circumstances of our birth and biology. We will never experience first hand another time, another perspective, another set of DNA, another childhood, besides the ones chance bestows on us. But like Hawking, all of us still can experience infinite other worlds, unconstrained by location or genetic ability or socioeconomic privilege. Our memories and imaginations, together, can take us anywhere – to bygone moments of our own previous lives, or to infinite other worlds, past, present, and future, so long as we can dream them up…or look them up on the world-wide-web.

And our minds can do this instantly. At one second this morning, I was jogging past a newly remodeled home, enjoying the neighborhood scenery, mentally constructing my to-do list for the coming work day; the next, I was breathing in the scent of fresh-cut wood and standing in my sixth grade shop class, seeing it all through the somewhat hazy lens of memory, but feeling acutely – for just a brief second – all the angst and wonderings and insecurities of middle school life in the 90’s. Smell is a powerful vehicle for mental travel, isn’t it? Like a time machine inside your brain. And speaking of time…

2) TIME IS NOT CONSTANT. Did you know this?!? I guess it has been common knowledge since the early 1900’s, but somehow it escaped me. Turns out, time flows, like a river, sometimes slower and sometimes faster. There are a couple of things that slow time down. One is proximity to mass. The nearer one is to a massive object, the more slowly time moves. Did you know that the 36 satellites orbiting our planet, which together support our global positioning system, each contain a super-precise clock that measures time to the billionth of a second? And that, in addition, this clock contains a mechanism to correct for the difference in time between earth and space (approximately 38,000 nanoseconds per day) that would otherwise accumulate and render the GPS system useless?

The other thing that slows time down is speed. The faster you travel, the more slowly time passes. As with proximity to mass, the difference in the passage of time at higher and lower speeds in miniscule. It is not until you are moving super, super, super quickly that there will be a significant difference. And of course you wouldn’t notice a difference. If you were traveling in a train around the earth at a crazy-fast speed, and had a very precise clock aboard the train with you, both you and your clock would perceive time as passing normally. However, when the train came to a stop and you stepped out, you would find that your clock was slightly behind the clocks that had remained stationary outside the train, where stationary people (and their clocks and watches) had also perceived time as passing normally. Crazy, huh?!?!

I guess Albert Einstein calculated/predicted these things in his Theory of Relativity. A lot of people didn’t really believe it completely, though, until we started messing around in space where we (and our fancy-schmancy super clocks) were removed a sufficient distance away from the mass of the earth and, likewise, able to achieve speeds that friction from the atmosphere on earth made previously impossible to attain. I don’t know where I was when they taught this in grade school. Maybe too concerned with those angsts and wonderings and insecurities I was talking about earlier. But Stephen explained it to me yesterday on Netflix, and now I am just like, WHAAAAAT?!?

I have been telling my mother since the time I was 11 or so that time is weird. And my conviction of this fact keeps growing.

3.) DISCOVERY IS AWESOME. One of the most exciting characteristics of life is the potential it holds to change us. In one moment our picture of the world can totally morph, or expand exponentially. To grow in our understanding of the universe and what it contains; to think consciously about it all – even about our own consciousness; and to ponder what it means and what we are to do with the precious, precious thing that it is – this, by my definition, is what it means to really live. I started my third career a few months ago, in a new field, mostly unrelated to the previous two which, in turn, were themselves fairly unrelated. And with each new work experience, I am filling in, bit-by-bit, the pieces of my self puzzle, figuring our what makes me tick. Discovery – for sure – is a big ticker.

I’m thinking about going back to school to get a PhD in neuroscience. Anybody want to fund that? 😉

The Egg

earth_egg

I just read a very short story by a guy named Andy Weir. You should read it too. It’ll just take a sec.

http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html

I have trouble really getting on board these days with any explanation of reality that comes in a story type of package like this one, but a physical/biological translation of it I can definitely relate to.

We give rise to ourselves. Along with physical traits, build, etc, we inherit emotional tendencies and patterns of thought from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and the first living beings that ever were. We are all just different combinations of the same genes, the same chemicals. And different types of atoms are, again, just different combos of even smaller particles. And they all just keep getting shuffled around to change the manifestation of things. But nothing is really changed at the bottom of it all. Nothing is created or destroyed (at least as far as we can tell right now). We ARE all one big Thing, really.

Which is just weird.

And it’s even more weird that all this changing and shuffling matters at all.

But it does. For some reason it matters so much to us. For some reason this stuff that everything is made of has developed self-awareneess. And feels things about itself, and has wants and hopes and fears and questions.

Weird, weird, weird.

I love thinking about this. It kinda freaks me out, but also gives me this shot of adrenaline or something. Like a good-scary movie.

The thought that we are all one, and that every change in my life that I perceive as good or bad is really just a million little shufflings of the universe, makes life more handle-able. It doesn’t make those perceptions less real or emotional, but it makes them all okay. And it makes people more lovable to me, and my own shortcomings more forgivable. It makes fashion and money and love and lust and adventure and accomplishment more of a fun game to be enjoyed, and less of a do-or-die. It makes life more real but somehow less serious.

And as my dear friend (who found this story and thought to share it with me) has somehow known innately since he was probably about six and a half, life should never be taken too seriously.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part IV)

7.) NO ANSWER IS BETTER THAN A BAD ANSWER.

It is true that there is SO much we don’t yet (and may never) know about how the world works, how life got started, who Jesus actually was and how the events surrounding his life (assuming he was a real person) actually played out (and for that matter, what actually went down in most of human history). There is so much that we just can’t explain based on what we currently know, especially when it comes to events (whether biological or sociological) that happened in the very distant past.

And that doesn’t sit well with us.

We humans have this beautiful and obsessive need to understand things. (Perhaps engrained in us by evolution, that we may better predict and prepare for future events and thereby promote our survival…?)

And this need has driven us historically, in the absence of clear, observable explanations, to make up explanations. Weather patterns, reproduction, disease, and so many more natural phenomena we observe have been attributed to the intervention of a god or gods. But as time has marched on and human understanding has increased (in large part due to the development and application of the scientific process) more and more of these phenomena have been moved from the supernatural “shelf” to the natural one.

Today we know that the movement of the stars across the sky is the result of planetary orbit and has nothing to do with any sort of drama being played out by divine beings. We know that earthquakes happen because of shifts in tectonic plates caused by temperature differences between the earth’s core and crust and the resultant convection of molten rock, and not because any god is angry with us. We know that babies are made when a sperm fertilizes an egg, and that children often inherit the diseases of their parents as the result of the random sorting of DNA during meiosis and the uniting of randomly selected gametes, and not because of a family curse.

At one time, these phenomena were completely mysterious and the causes anyone’s guess. Today they are not.

Today, there are other questions that stump us. How could the first protein have been made if it takes a protein to make a protein? How could multi-part molecular systems that work so intricately and elegantly have happened accidentally? How come a few rare people recover miraculously and unexpectedly from terminal illnesses? Why do certain equally rare people have visions and insights and skills that are far above and beyond what most of us ever experience?

And the list goes on.

And just as human beings have done in the past when life is mysterious and unexplainable, many of us are tempted to say, “This is evidence of God. There is no way this could happen without the intervention of a supernatural force.”

It’s the whole “God of the gaps” idea. And the problem with it is that the gaps keep shrinking, even disappearing, or at least moving to a more theoretical, distant level.

Educated, thinking Christians (and theists in general) may say that in all of our explaining, we’ve really explained nothing. Genetics may be the mechanism of transmission of traits and disease, gravity and inertia may underlie movements of the stars and planets, etc, but God is behind all of that. He created genetics and the laws of physics and set it all in motion. He may not be individually manipulating in real time the sorting and recombination of chromosomes that create each individual person, but he put the materials and systems in place that would eventually lead to the genetic combinations that would make you and me.

At this point in time, with the now overwhelming body of evidence in support of evolution and an old earth, many Christians have had to apply this same reasoning to the development of life, positing that while evolution may be the mechanism God used, he was the ultimate cause and mastermind – the one who laid the groundwork and wound the clock and knew from the beginning of time how and when bacteria and cuttlefish and giraffes and humans would come to be.

And for the sake of this argument, I can concede that. There could be that kind of God behind it all.

Of course, if that is the kind of God you’re going to believe in, there are significant chunks of the Bible you can’t accept as literal. And other parts you can’t accept at all.

At the end of the day, a “god of the gaps” is pretty much useless. For me, the current absence of scientific answers is not reason enough to believe in a god that brings with him so much baggage and cognitive dissonance. It is possible there may be something “supernatural” (i.e. forces we cannot see or detect) at work in the world, but I’m certain (for reasons addressed in earlier posts) that it’s not the Christian God.

From my point of view, it’s much better to leave the question blank and keep searching for a good answer, than to accept a bad one for the sake of immediate gratification.

And this idea of having no answer brings me to my last point…

8.) GOD AS A “FIRST CAUSE” IS NOT NECESSARY.

If you are a Christian, this idea might be one of the most difficult to wrap your mind around. It was for me.

I’d lived all of my conscious life with the assumption that SOMETHING was behind all of this crazy amazing-ness we call reality. Even if we could figure out how it all happened, no amount of time or scientific observation could ever help us figure out why, and in my mind there HAD to be a why, or, as philosophers and theoretical physicists call it, a “first cause.”

And this assumption is held by Christians and theists of all kinds, and probably most people who have lived. Everything we experience in life has a cause behind it, so we conclude that the universe must also. It makes sense to us on a gut level.

We just feel that there must be a reason for the existence of the universe, especially a universe that is so vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. And for Christians, that reason is God.

But here’s the thing. If God is the reason behind the universe, he must be even more vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. So, if we stick with our thinking, there must be a reason or cause behind him, too, ad infinitum.

At some point, you must accept that something just IS. That he/she/it exists without cause.

And I realized that it makes much more sense to accept the universe as the self-existent Thing than it does to push the problem back one layer onto a concept (God) for which we have no objective evidence and which conflicts with observed reality on so many levels.

Now that I see things this way, I can hardly remember what it was like to think otherwise, kinda like looking at a Rubin vase sort of picture. But I tell you, it was a huge leap for me to make at the time…

…perhaps the hugest of them all. (I will have to dedicate a post in the near future to address this, I think.)

But for now, I need to wrap things up.

CONCLUSION

While I continue to value many of the teachings of Jesus, I am not a Christian in the traditional sense. And never will be one again, most likely.

And I promise you it’s not because I don’t want to be.

Life is freaking hard and painful and unfair and overwhelming. And it was comforting beyond words to believe that all the pain and grief of life was somehow going to be made right one day, was somehow going to be worth it.

To be certain that good would inevitably triumph over evil…

To know that when Mom died, when Dad died, when my sisters and brother died, that they would not be gone…that I would be reunited with them forever in a place of perfect peace and joy…

To trust that abused and starving children would be greeted with love and nurturing and warmth and home when they passed on…

To believe that one day I would have a perfect body that would never get sick, never be in pain, never get old or wear out…

To always have someone to talk to when I was feeling alone and confused…

It made life more tolerable, and less overwhelming, and easier to keep living on certain levels, and it was a loss, I can assure you, to have this life-long foundation dissolve underneath me, along with the free, open, honest and vulnerable relationships I’d always been able to share with my parents up until this point.

There is still a lot of love between us all, but now there is pain, too. Now there is awkwardness. Now there are walls.

I would give anything to have family be the way it was when I was still a Christian. Family was my thing. It was my happy thought; my reason to get up in the morning. It was what I most valued. It still is. And I hope that someday everything will be okay somehow, but I don’t know that it will.

The point is, my life would be a lot easier and a lot happier in a lot of ways if I could believe again.

But the funny thing about belief is that you can’t fake it.

People always talk about Pascal’s wager as if it’s really an option. But I don’t get that at all. If you are just believing perfunctorily, God’s gonna know it. Saying you believe does not make you a believer.

Either you believe or you don’t. And you can’t control whether or not you do.

You can control the information you take into your mind, to a certain degree. And that is what happened to me. I quit controlling what I let in. In my search for truth (which I was initially convinced would lead me back to God and a deeper understanding of him) I opened the doors of my mind wide.

And a flood of new information rushed in.

And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), learning is irreversible. I can’t un-know things that I now know (unless I suffer a traumatic brain injury or we invent the neuralizer Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had so much fun with in Men in Black.)

And these things I have learned in my recent history, that I didn’t know before, are many. While I have given a brief overview of basic, foundational reasons I no longer believe in the Christian God, there are many, many more details and facts logged away in my mind that have lead me to this conclusion…

And it is those same facts that have helped me form the framework of the wonderful and beautiful new things I DO believe.

Someday soon I will share them.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part II)

5.) THE WAY NATURE WORKS DOES NOT SUGGEST THAT A GOOD, PERFECT, LOVING CREATOR IS BEHIND IT ALL.

One fact that many Christians will offer in support of their beliefs (one that I relied on myself, for many years) is the beauty, majesty, intricacy, and phenomenal complexity of the natural world, and biological life in particular. There is a verse in the book of Romans that is often quoted in conjunction with this idea. It says that God’s, “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20 English Standard Version).

Now, I will concede the first statement. The world IS beautiful, majestic, intricate and MIND-BOGGLINGLY complex. However, it is also cold, harsh, bloody, unfeeling. In the biological world, it is rarely love and kindness and generosity that are rewarded, but rather brute strength and selfishness.

There is so much waste and brutality, and not just incidentally, but intrinsically. So much of what we consider beautiful and inspiring and precious in nature – birth, growth, development, nurturing – would never exist without predation, parasitism, pain, death.

People may suggest that the harshness of nature is a result of the fall, that it wasn’t always the way it is now and someday God will restore it to the way it was meant to be. But if that is the case, the world before the fall must have been an entirely separate reality from this one. If the lion were to “lay down with the lamb” as the Bible says will happen when all is set right again, the lion would starve. Lions are carnivores. Their teeth, their musculo-skeletal systems, their digestive tracts, their biochemistry require them to eat a diet of meat. And that requires the death of other beautiful, sentient beings.

What exists now must be fairly close to what God (if he did indeed create it) intended it to be, as there is no way to extract the death and pain and still have the same beautiful reality. And if it is a revelation of the character of God as the Bible posits, it paints a pretty grim picture.

Greta Christina

I’m telling you, there are some brilliant minds in the world. And the one that happens to reside inside the head of Greta Christina, atheist blogger, speaker, and author of growing renown, is one of them.

My first exposure to Greta was in an article entitled “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God,” which profoundly affected me. I already knew when I read it that I no longer believed in the Heaven-Hell scenario, and while it had been one of the most joyous discoveries of my life that no human being was going to be suffering torment for eternity after all (I had a little, solo crying dance party in my apartment over it) I had also laid awake for a few nights, feeling the weight and fear and incomprehensibility of my own very likely, eventual non-existence, and for the finality with which I would be forced at some point to say goodbye to my parents, my siblings, my loved ones. For a while, it was terrifying.

I think I would have come to terms with it eventually, but her article helped speed the process along.

When I discovered her blog, it was with great delight. Every mental debate I have had regarding Christianity (or personal-interventionist-God-based religions in general), she has addressed there, it seems, and nearly every “Aha” moment I’ve experienced in which things instantly made so much more sense, she has already lived.

I’m not sure I agree 100% with every single one of her thoughts and opinions, but it is nice finding someone who has not only been where you are and come to many of the same conclusions about What-It-All-Means, but also expresses them so thoroughly, so eloquently-yet-plainly, so frankly, and, to boot, very humorously.

Here is an article of hers I read just yesterday, posted on Alternet.org, on why skepticism is not only NOT a bad thing, but necessary in living life to the fullest: Why We Must Always Be Skeptical.

I’m not even going to try to review it, because I will just end up saying exactly what she said, only not as well. It is longish, for an internet article, but you’re just going to have to read it. It is worth it.

I encourage you to check out her blog, too, particularly if you are interested at all in philosophy or religion. The first time I landed there, I was lost for hours wandering through post after amazing post going, “YES!” “Totally!” “Oh my gosh, duh!” Maybe you won’t feel the need to share with the world your inner acquiescence, but I think – at least on some points – you will acquiesce whole-heartedly.

Before you stop over, a little disclaimer: Greta Christina frequently uses some colorful language. If that is offensive to you, be warned. Also, one of the main topics she addresses in conjunction with religion and other social constructions is sexuality, both in general and her own, specifically. She is quite liberal on this topic. If that makes you uncomfortable, this blog might not be your cup of tea.

Pluripotency Lost: The Suckiest Part of Growing Up

My younger sister and I were commiserating the other day about how life seems to be getting increasingly difficult and depressing as time marches on. Though our respective strengths and staminas have developed over the years in the face of new challenges and allowed us both to cope fairly successfully, life has inevitably lost some of its sparkle as the harshness of reality has become more and more tangible.

There is so much lost in the process of growing up: the security and safety and companionship of family, freedom from financial responsibility and worry, the black-and-white simplicity of a childish worldview…

Perhaps the most painful thing, at an underlying level, is the loss of possibility. Like an embryonic stem cell that may yet differentiate into a nerve, blood, intestinal, or ANY cell type of the body – you possess as a child the potential for everything. When you are a kid, EVERYTHING is possible. You can have infinite plans for your life – marriage and children, traveling the world, writing a book, dancing, exploring outer space, curing cancer, doing something about world hunger…in the future these things are not mutually exclusive. In your imagination and dreaming, they can all live simultaneously. You can be and do everything you’ve ever wanted to.

But in real time, sadly, you must make choices. In choosing one path, you must leave others untravelled…and there is no going back. Time keeps moving forward. Once a stem cell is dedicated as, say, muscle, it loses its pluripotency. A muscle cell is what it must be for life. And it is the same with us.

And that is hard.

As time drops away behind us, dreams and possibilities do too. As much as we like to tell ourselves that we are free to go and do and be anything we want to, at any time, the truth is that we can’t. At the age of almost-thirty, my becoming, say, a professional dancer is no longer in the cards. It’s just not going to happen.

So, as I sit here at another crossroads in my life, trying to decide in which direction to head career-wise, it is making me think hard about what I really want to be doing…and what I am giving up in choosing that thing. And it makes me a little anxious and sad.

On the other hand, that is just a part of life; that we must define ourselves and actually embrace something – ONE thing – fully and completely is a part of the beauty and bittersweetness of it all. We must choose our color and become one real, bright thread in the tapestry of life…and learn how to find joy in whatever role we adopt and whatever place we land.

Because, as we all know, the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill, and no life path is perfect.

Karl Barth, an early 20th century theologian, once said, “Joy in this world is always in spite of something. It is a defiant ‘nevertheless’ against all bitterness, resentment and despair.”

And I think that is true.

I look at my grandparents who are nearing the end of their lives, and find that they are some of the the most patient, loving, grateful, happy, and content people I know.

So maybe having your story all written isn’t really a bad thing. Maybe there is peace in knowing who and what you are, and how it all works out, and learning to embrace it.

Maybe the loss of pluripotency – of infinite possibility in all its overwhelmingness – isn’t so sucky after all.