The Universe Is Amazing – guest post by Matt Lacey
One of my major gripes with stories of creation is that they’re cheap. Some being, or collection thereof, with unlimited powers created everything for some reason or other, purportedly doing so entirely for our benefit. It’s not even the arrogance of such tales that bugs me, but more that if there is a deity out there with infinite power then world around us isn‚Äôt really all that impressive. The alternative view, backed by reams of evidence that are still mounting daily, is that everything came about through physical processes; these mechanisms are what make our universe special, they are what make me feel incredibly lucky just to be here.
I moved to Australia from the UK several years ago, and one of the things that particularly excited me about doing so was that I’d get to see the moon from a new perspective. An anticipation that eclipsed even that in the thrill stakes was that I’d be on correct hemisphere of our planet to gaze upon the Milky Way. When I get away from the cities and their resulting light pollution in Australia I can’t help but gawk at the sky; it’s an awesome sight in the true sense of the word, and the feeling of insignificance it can impress on your consciousness is truly humbling. And humble we should be. There are so many stars in the southern sky they look like haze, with some estimates putting the number at 200-400 billion, and that’s just one galaxy out of the hundreds of billions of galaxies in existence. The amount of matter that exists in this universe is staggering, and yet that pales into significance when you start considering the amount of nothing involved.
The stars and galaxies do not exist for our pleasure, our convenience or for our existence. I state this as fact, and I do so because the evidence is entirely on my side, but I could of course be wrong. If you’ve got proof that I am wrong then I’ll be more than happy to change my mind. I’d be astonished, but I wouldn’t let what I want to be true get in the way of what actually is true, and whichever way you cut it, old stories are not facts no matter how old they are. They are most definitely not any kind of reliable evidence.
Recently while staying on the Dampier Peninsula I had the privilege of watching sunrise and sunset for three consecutive days and I have never been so aware of the movement of the bodies that comprise our solar system. From one water-lined horizon to the other the sun would seemingly move, and at night the moon was visible in the same plane of motion. One of our planets, and I’m still kicking myself for forgetting to find out which, was also visible every evening and again moving in that same approximate plane. It all made me feel amazingly thankful for being alive.
Arthur C. Clarke’s rather infamous third law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and this concept rather neatly encapsulates the thinking that resulted in stories of creation and other mythology. Technology is something engineered, created by us, but to those that don’t understand it most definitely looks like magic. As a software developer I still find myself regarding hardware as some kind of dark art, and the behemoth that is the internet is mind boggling yet somehow we take it for granted. The amount of work going on to put photographs of cats on your screen is enormous, but we don’t notice it because it all just works and is hidden away from plain sight. I can pass hardware off as magic but thanks to some excellent books (one of which is titled “How Computers Work: Processor and Main Memory” – http://www.amazon.com/How-Computers-Work-Processor-Edition/dp/1442113987/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1382158624&sr=8-3&keywords=how+computers+work), I do have a grasp of what’s going on inside my CPU, and it’s really all quite simple. At the most basic level circuits inside your processor takes a bit, either a one or a zero, adds it to another bit and comes up with a one or a zero. Amazingly complicated and intricate processes bubble up out of trillions of simple pieces and operations stacked on top of each other.
The processes that go on in the universe, over time periods we can’t comprehend, follow a similar pattern. Before we started down the path of enlightenment through the scientific process we had no way to understanding how the universe came to be, why the sun seemingly moved across the sky and why several minutes of darkness would sometimes occur in the middle of the day. Today there is no mystery around any number of things that were once attributed to super beings, we know how things work and we’re working towards understanding the things that we don’t. The miracles of life itself are similar, despite what a worryingly large number of people have been led to believe (by organisations that profit from them doing so), we actually do know how all of the amazing creatures and plants on this planet came to be. Yes, we’re still working on the very first part, but we know an incredible amount of what came after, and there’s no reason to think we won’t solve that mystery of how it began once and for all.
The fact that we’re even working on such problems is almost unbelievable in itself; our species has only been on this planet for a fraction of time so small it’s akin to the size of this text in comparison to all of the data available online. Even that analogy is likely to be out by several orders or magnitude, but if you’d prefer to think our rocky home has only been around for six thousand years because someone wrote it down then go right ahead. Please don’t impose your irrational thinking on others though; it’s not a nice thing to do. Faith is not a virtue but a celebration of blissful ignorance in the face of stark reality.
Although I’m an atheist I have no quarrel with people believing in whatever they like if it helps them, but as soon as they hurt somebody else because of that religion then I do take issue. We’re inconceivably lucky to have our short time on this wondrous world, and we should at least use that privilege to make the most of it. We should use it to help others do the same. We should not spend this time wishing it away because of some misguided belief that the next step along the journey is eternal happiness; there is no step and there is no journey, this life is the deal we get. As a collective we’re really doing a great job of messing things up for both the animals and people here now and those that are yet to come, but there is time to fix our mistakes. Hopefully sometime soon we will get past petty arguments over things that have already been comprehensively proven, and unite in fixing the very real issues that we have created. Issues that threaten to destroy us, our world, and the unfortunate animals and plants that have to share it with us. Being an Atheist doesn’t mean there is nothing to live for and no beauty in the world, it means precisely the opposite.
You can follow Matt Lacey on Twitter at @LaceySnr.