Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cosmos-Initial Thoughts about Carl Sagan's book

The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject…And so this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them…Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate…Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.
Seneca, Natural Questions, Book 7, first century

I think Seneca was ahead of his time by realizing that we would be ahead of his. So much of what I know I take for granted forgetting how much of it was unknown to those who came before us. Yet everything that I know, that we all know, is built upon the shoulders of those who came before us. And in thinking about that I can’t help but wonder what those who come after us will discover and know that we cannot even imagine? What will people look back and laugh at about our beliefs, theories and worldviews? Before an idea is learned it is invisible to the point of nonexistence but once that idea is learned it becomes as clear and obvious as the daylight. And as always I am searching for more daylight.

I have been reading the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan. So far I have only read the first three chapters but I have read them each three times both out of enjoyment and in an effort to absorb all the information they have to offer. Sagan is a wonderful writer and has a way of making very complex scientific knowledge accessible to those of us without a strong scientific background. He weaves history and stories throughout the pages to connect science to the human experience.

So far perhaps the simplest and clearest thing I have taken away from Sagan’s work is that the universe is inexplicably vast, far beyond anything I can grasp. So large in fact that the idea of or need for any God or gods seems to just vanish. The Judeo-Christian God in particular seems so tiny and insignificant compared to the universe in which we reside. The biblical worldview crumbles under what we now know about the galaxy in which we live and the other galaxies that surround us. I am well aware how many people take the greatness of the universe as proof of some type of designer or creator and yet all I see them doing is creating a creator or designing a designer that simply is not needed scientifically or philosophically. In fact more often then not the creator that is created creates more problems than it solves. Our search for who we are and where we come does not need a god to explain it even if one were to exist.

I want to share just some of Sagan’s own writing to give a taste of both the grandness of the Cosmos and of the writer Sagan himself. All of this comes out of the first chapter in Sagan’s book titled Cosmos.

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

Those explorations required skepticism and imagination both. Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere. Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations. The Cosmos is rich beyond measure – in elegant facts, in exquisite interrelationships, in the subtle machinery of awe.

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.

The dimensions of the Cosmos are so large that using familiar units of distance, such as meters or miles, chosen for their utility on Earth, would make little sense. Instead, we measure distance with the speed of light. In one second a beam of light travels 186,000 miles, nearly 300,000 kilometers or seven times around the Earth. In eight minutes it will travel from the Sun to the Earth. We can say the Sun is eight light-minutes away. In a year, it crosses nearly ten trillion kilometers, about six trillion miles, of intervening space. That unit of length, the distance light goes in a year, is called a light-year. It measures not time but distances – enormous distances.

The Earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion (1033, a one followed by 33 zeros). In everyday life such odds are called compelling. Worlds are precious.

From an intergalactic vantage point we would see, strewn like sea froth on the waves of space, innumerable faint, wispy tendrils of light. These are the galaxies. Some are solitary wanderers; most inhabit communal cluster, huddling together, drifting endlessly in the great cosmic dark. Before us is the Cosmos on the grandest scale we know. We are in the realm of the nebulae, eight billion light-years from Earth, halfway to the edge of the known universe.

A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars – billions upon billions of stars. Every star may be a sun to someone. Within a galaxy are stars and worlds and, it may be, a proliferation of living things and intelligent beings and spacefaring civilizations. But from afar, a galaxy reminds me more of a collection of lovely found objects – seashells, perhaps, or corals, the productions of Nature laboring for aeons in the cosmic ocean.

There are some hundred billion (1011) galaxies, each with, on the average, a hundred billion stars. In all the galaxies, there are perhaps as many planets as stars, 1011 x 1011 = 1022, ten billion trillion. In the face of such overpowering numbers, what is the likelihood that only one ordinary star, the Sun, is accompanied by an inhabited planet? Why should we, tucked away in some forgotten corner of the Cosmos, be so fortunate? To me, it seems far more likely that the universe is brimming over with life. But we humans do not yet know. We are just beginning our explorations. From eight billion light-years away we are hard pressed to find even the cluster in which our Milky Way Galaxy is embedded, much less the Sun or the Earth. The only planet we are sure is inhabited is a tiny speck of rock and metal, shining feebly by reflected sunlight, and at this distance utterly lost.

The universe really is amazing. Each time I read those numbers about the distances between planets, stars and galaxies or the number of stars and planets that exist I keep hoping they will suddenly be comprehendible but they aren’t. I read those numbers and I understand the words but I have no real conception of what they mean in that I have never had any experience that could be even closely associated with those numbers. What do you do with numbers like a hundred billion (number of galaxies) or ten billion trillion (number of planets and stars)? All I can say is sit back take some time and enjoy it. Marvel at it. And not many years ago I would no doubt have taken one more step and seen God in those numbers and rather than marvel at the universe I would marvel at God. But again as I have been shown that God is not needed in any scientific or philosophical explanation of our existence I no longer include him in them. He may serve to fulfill some sort of emotional desire many humans have but I no longer am included among that number.

I had some short but valuable exchanges this week with a friend concerning this topic, “the greatness of the universe,” and the existence of God. It led me to some new thoughts concerning the Christian worldview verses the scientific one. Both Christianity and science hold an odd duel view of humanity as being at the same time both significant and insignificant but they conflict concerning where and how this significance and insignificance coexist. The scientific worldview believes in humanity’s potential. It believes in our ability to better ourselves and our world by the use of our powers of reason and inquiry. The typical Christian worldview on the other hand sees no potential for greatness in humanity rather human nature is fallen and corrupted leaving us helpless to do anything except sin and ravage the good world God created. Humanity’s only hope is in God. And so we see where science would say we are significant, in our potential is the same place where Christianity would say we are insignificant. But moving to the other side of the coin Christianity sees great significance in humanity’s place in the universe. Humanity is the pinnacle of creation created last as God’s crowning achievement. For Christianity humanity truly is the center of the universe. Everything that happens in the universe is somehow connected to us, our lives and our fates. Our lives may be short but they matter more than anything else that happens in some other galaxy. Science on the other hand leads to a different picture of the universe. It exposes humanity as a small and, cosmically speaking, fairly insignificant part of the universe. The universe does not center around us or this planet. In fact we are in the far out skirts of our own galaxy and live lives measured in mere years in a universe whose existence must be measured in aeons if it can be measured at all. So here where Christian sees humanity as significant, our place in the universe is the place where science would say we are insignificant. So are humans the center of the universe but helpless to better themselves, as Christianity says or are humans cosmically unimportant but with all the potential for greatness as science would say? I truly hope the later.

So moving forward in my search I have to follow science and say I don't think we are the center of the universe, we just aren't that important, cosmically. But that is part of what makes our journey this far so amazing. Humans have pushed forward throughout history in search of truth and have come to discover more and more about the universe including that there is far more to it than just ourselves. In this way I see a level of humility in science and the use of reason that I just do not see in Christianity.

These two worldviews also approach the concepts of truth and mystery very differently. For Christianity, particularly evangelical forms, God has revealed the (his) truth. This means he has provided all the answers for this life that matter, which funny enough mostly pertain to achieving life after death, but then calls for a quiet acceptance of everything else left unanswered. Basically, we should be grateful for what “truth” we have been given and not demand more. Mystery becomes like a work of art in a museum, it can be gazed at and appreciated for its beauty but it must never be touched. Science, on the other hand, views truth as something to be gained through research and empirical evidence. Truth must be discovered not revealed. For science mystery is more like a mountain range, something to be gazed at and appreciated for its beauty but also charted and explored. The scientist works for truth while the Christian waits for it.

Death is the great mystery which most of us fear, even if we pretend not to so I can understand people’s desire for answers (comfort) concerning it. And that is where the Christian God becomes so attractive, he promises you life after death all you have to do is accept him. But this acceptance requires you forfeit any further genuine search for truth and instead be satisfied that you have all the truth you need. Instead of encouraging the best attributes of humanity, our capacity for reason and desire for knowledge, the Christian God pats us on our head and tells us to not ask questions or use our minds but rather merely to do what we are told and he promises us a treat (heaven) if we are good. Now, for me that trade off just isn’t worth it anymore. Surrendering the pursuit of knowledge of the heavens for a life in heaven is not worth it. I say, not without hesitance, that I value knowledge above life. Truly, Adam and Eve made the right choice, mythically, because if eternal life is coupled with eternal ignorance that seems to me more like a punishment than a reward. (Maybe that will be my hell) So I say let us be brave enough to use our minds to search for the truth without the fear of discovering our own inconsequentiality. We may not live forever but let us remember that our knowledge is as much for those who will come after us as it is for ourselves. We will not unlock all the mysteries of the universe but let us not stop trying just because some god asks us to. Who knows maybe we’ll find out what he’s been trying so hard to hide from us all these years.

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