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Monday, January 3, 2011

God, Science, the Universe and Everything

How's that for a modest title?
As promised, a short talk on the nature of God and the universe we live in.

First, let me state up front that I am not going to weigh in on the subject of whether or not God actually exists, because 1) I don't know and 2) it really doesn't matter to me one way or the other. Either God exists and that's the way the universe is, or God doesn't exists and that's the way the universe is. Either way, I have no great stake in the matter and no ability to do anything about it. What I am going to weigh in on is the question of, if God does exist, what must that be, and what must that mean for human (and other) life on earth and elsewhere?

I'm going to look at "God" in three distinct contexts; that which created and maintains the universe, that which is the creator and destroyer of all life on Earth, and that which guides our own moral compass with which we navigate our lives. Whether these three contexts have any relationship to each other or in any way are describing the same thing is a matter for the philosophers and theologians; perhaps the simple act of naming these things "God" makes it so. I do not know, and again I have no stake in the matter.

Oh God, thou art so big, we're all really impressed down here

So, let's start with God as the Supreme Architect of the Universe, that force which created all that is. Arguably, anything less than that cannot really be considered to be God. If the "universe" turns out to be much bigger than our observable universe, as Gurzadyan and Penrose seem to have proven, then God would have to be the creator and maintainer of the entire multiverse as well. However vast the universe ultimately turns out to be, God, in order to be God, would need to be bigger/older/whatever than that.

For perspective, our earth is about 8000 miles in diameter. It orbits the sun at about 93,000,000 miles, give or take 3,000,000 miles. The sun's diameter is about 865,000 miles, or about 110 times that of the earth. The distance from the sun to the earth is one astronomical unit (AU). The outermost planet of our solar system, Neptune, orbits 30 AU from our sun. The nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, is 27,1000 AU from the sun, or 4.2 light years away. Our Milky Way galaxy contains some 400,000,000,000 stars many if not most with planets orbiting them, and it is some 100,000 light years across. There are more than 80,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable universe which is some 92,000,000,000 light years across; the whole universe is many times greater than this, even if it turns out to be only a single universe. It is more likely that there are as many universes in the multiverse as there are stars in the Milky Way. And there may be structures of an even greater magnitude which we cannot yet conceive.

For God to be God, God must be God of all of this.
This God, which happens to be the God of Einstein and Spinoza and Hawking and all of the other Pantheists, does not give a tinker's damn about the petty sectarian squabbles of some primate species crawling on a rock spinning around a tiny yellow star in a backwater neighborhood of some modestly sized barred-spiral galaxy in the middle of mother effing nowhere. The petty foibles and aspirations of one individual of one species living on one world orbiting one of some 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe really cannot be that big of a concern to any entity or intelligence worthy of the name God. By this definition, any God that gives a sliver of a damn about you, or your species, or your world, or your galaxy, is not really God.

And, that's okay. I'm happy to get along in my life without direct assistance from the Grand Architect of the Universe, whatever that might be. It's a big universe, and I don't want to be a bother.

There is only one God, and He is a Sun God, Ra, Ra, Ra!

No that's not me, but it's a great pic!
For so long as humans have existed as a species, and probably long before then, we have recognized or intuited that all life on earth depends directly on our sun. Our sun lives and we live, our sun dies and we die; the sun as the ultimate giver and taker of all life on earth is easily demonstrable and incontrovertible. It is no accident, then, that as organisms living upon the earth we have come to venerate the sun as God. How the sun is portrayed in a spiritual context varies from culture to culture, sometimes male, sometimes female, gentle and benign in colder climates and sometimes vengeful and wrathful in hotter climates. God as the sun has many names throughout the world; Ra, Shakuru, Osiris, Amaterasu, Apollo, Quetzalcoatl, Jesus Christ, Surya, Lugh, Tai Yang Gong, Mithras, Sunna and many others. It's hard to think of a rational argument against venerating the source of all life on earth, by whatever name or image one likes to think of that.

And yes, the Moon also played a critical role in the origin of life on earth, and continues to play a critical role in sustaining it. So long as our species lives on earth, we will hopefully always venerate these lights as Gods, by any other name.

Your Own Personal Flying Spaghetti Monster

From astronomy to neuroscience...God also is that "entity", for want of something better to call it, which guides our daily lives. The fact that so many people from so many different cultures and religions have experienced this God in so many different guises, and also the fact that so many people from so many cultures and religions have not experienced it, leads me to believe that whatever this God is, it is simply a natural part of the human condition.

For sake of disclosure, I myself have had a near-death experience, when I was a teenager, and during that experience I encountered that which I consider to be God, in the sense of that presence which both guides me and by which I attempt steer my life. Subjectively, for me, God in this sense is very profoundly real, at least to the extent that the sun and the moon and the earth are real, and that the universe is real. My own consciousness is the only window I have with which to perceive the world. Through that window, I have glimpsed God. Whether what I glimpsed was actually an entity outside of my existence, or my own "higher power", or simply a natural result of brain chemistry under extreme stress, I neither know nor care. If God as I experience that steers me to make the world a better place I tend to try to follow that, and if God as I experience that tried to goad me into bombing a building with a Ryder truck full of fertilizer I would politely decline, and seek psychiatric attention.

Religion which soothes a child during the loss of their pet goldfish is good, religion which inspires people to burn other people at the stake is bad. It really isn't more complicated than that.

Many Mansions

There is only one universe, or perhaps there is only one multiverse, but regardless the universe for one is the universe for all. The same is true for the sun and moon; the sun I see is relatively (and relativistically) the same sun you see. Whatever name I choose to call that, whatever myths I choose to ascribe to that, my sun is no more or less "true" than anyone else's sun. My own personal Deity is true for me, it may resemble someone else's Deity, or it may not.

All of the world's religions are based on one or more of these three basic concepts of God. As such, they are equally true and equally untrue. If God is infinite, and we are finite, and all finite things are equally distant from any infinite thing, then no one is "closer to God" than anyone else, or anything else. I am no more or less Godly than Mother Teresa or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or a jelly-fish or a carrot. Neither are you.

I tend to think of God as a single jewel with many thousands of facets. Which facet you see most clearly depends entirely upon where you are standing as you look at the jewel. The fact that one facet does not look exactly like another facet is of no relevance, no single facet is superior or inferior to any other. Each of the world's religions is simply viewing a single facet of God. 

Mythology and Science

Nuit at the Beginning of the World
Myths are powerful and beautiful things. To impart wisdom through storytelling and fable lies at the very core of the human experience. It does not matter if the story was created by stone-age hunters or bronze-age herdsmen or space-age film-makers, the power of myth is the thread which sustains and inspires the human spirit and lifts it above the daily drudgery of gutting a sheep or driving a passenger ferry. Even when a myth was created to explain an unexplainable which has since been explained, myth continues to hold power as metaphor. I do not need my metaphors to be literally true in order for them to be useful. I also do not expect a bronze-age philosopher to have had a space-age understanding of the history or cosmology of the universe, nor do I need their understanding of the universe to be synoptic with my own in order to grasp the meaning of their stories.

As we develop better methods of observing the world around us, inevitably some of our myths will be found to be factually erroneous. The earth does not rest on the shoulders of a giant standing on a turtle, the human species was not created by mixing sand and mucus in a seashell, and the universe was not created in six solar days. That's okay, myths are not science textbooks.

Strait of Magellan, however, is a science blog. And so now I depart from the topic of religion on this blog. Really, it has no place here.

Brightest blessings, to all and sundry.