My good friend Adam Lee, also known as Ebonmuse, who runs one of the most popular and enduring atheist sites Daylight Atheism, wrote an essay today that exceeded even his very high standards of excellence.
So I’m taking a short break from the daily and weekly grind of lambasting hypocrisy, stupidity, and just plain unevolved thinking from both the purveyors of mainstream religion and my own personal family embarrassment, the Church Universal and Triumphant. The latter would and should be consigned to utter obscurity–but for that dwindling yet stalwart army of mindless replicators of anti-intellectual delusion in Corwin Springs, Montana. For anyone who wonders what I live for, and how atheism can be a satisfying and coherent life philosophy, I present Adam Lee’s outstanding post, The Age of Wonder. [Link expired. Here’s a link to another of Adam Lee’s excellent essays about wonder. –Ed]
Walter Maunz, you set me on this path long ago–so I hope you are reading:
If you search the internet, it’s not hard to find New Agers and others who think that the dawning of the age of reason was a mistake. They envision a more “holistic” approach, one that properly pays heed to the mystery and complexity of existence, and castigate science for being cold, unfeeling, heartless in its probing, reductionist scrutiny of the natural world. For example:
“The reason things are advancing so slowly… is that science has neglected the (spiritual) indications necessary for its efficient performance – “with all your heart and all your soul….” — indications that govern higher creativity and exist for the specific purpose of breaking the cosmic bank. The upshot is that science has become excessively expensive, bureaucratic and materialistic. The integration we need, external and internal, requires an incomparably more intense confrontation between the spirit of the researcher and the natural phenomena he is contemplating than what is currently practiced by even the most zealous of researchers.“
And yet, the age of reason is also an age of wonder. The devotees of superstition and pseudoscience do not know what they are missing. In grasping after fool’s gold, they have missed the true vein. The universe is a grander, more majestic and more beautiful place than any human being has ever imagined, or can imagine. The unsubstantiated and anthropocentric claims and inventions of people can never compare to the true wonder and mystery held by reality as it truly is, and now that we truly have begun to understand how the cosmos works, we are at last getting a glimpse of that awe and wonder.
Consider what we witness when we peer into the cosmos with our telescopic eyes. We see light born billions of years ago in the crucible of dying stars, shining out across the cosmos and becoming ever more diffused, until at last our telescopes captured the lonely few photons that arrive bearing news of stupendous, ancient catastrophes. We see colliding galaxies, matter swirling into the abyss of black holes, and stars exploding with titanic force, sending out jets of energy visible across the known universe.
Our astronomy bears witness to births as well as deaths. We sift invisible light and see the ripples in the faint microwave glow that bathes all of space, distant echoes of the incomprehensible cauldron of heat and density in which the universe itself was born. We see dense nebulae where new stars are being born, burning away the dusty cradles of their formation like sunrise through fog. We see young planets circling their parent stars, their gravity cutting clear swaths through the veils of gas surrounding them. Most of the planets we have detected are hot Jupiters, but perhaps in some of these systems lurk embryonic Earths, awaiting their chance to cool and condense and one day become cradles of life of their own.
Turning closer to home, our emissaries have explored the solar system and brought back news of the other shores that await us. We have seen the shadows of the setting Sun creep across the mountains of the satellites of Jupiter, and we have seen the Earth rise in the night sky from [behind] the Moon. We have traveled the surface of Mars with our robot rovers, and sent landers parachuting down to the methane seas of Titan. Our age, for the first time ever in our planet’s history, has sent ambassadors voyaging so far beyond our own shores that they could look back and see the Earth itself, our one and only home, as a pale blue point of light drifting in infinite dark.
Closer still, we have turned our gaze back upon ourselves, exploring our world in all its complexity. We have learned of the web of evolutionary kinship that connects all life on Earth. Everything – from human beings to redwood trees, from the lowliest cyanobacterium to the fluorescent tube worms on the ocean bottom – is a branch of the same family tree, every living creature a cousin, however distant, to every other.
We have delved down to the molecular roots of life itself, glimpsing the intricate choreography that turns inanimate molecules into living, growing cells, and the equally intricate assemblage that builds living cells into living beings. We have begun an effort to survey the tree of life, discerning the family relationships among countless species living and dead, and mapping the vast, frozen structure branching multi-dimensionally through those sections of design space that evolution has so far explored.
Traveling down into Earth’s history, we have learned to read the record of the rocks and the chronicles they tell. We have retraced the multimillion-year drifting of the continents and learned of the planetary convulsions that wiped out whole branches of the tree of life and ushered in new ones in their place. We have glimpsed primordial eras long before humanity and envisioned the strange landscapes that once existed where we now place our feet.
All these findings far exceed the most fantastic imaginings of ancient mythology or modern pseudoscience, not least because they are true. In what other age of human history has anyone been able to look on a shooting star or a volcano and know what it really is? In what other age have we known the true age of the planet or understood the power source of the sun? These wonders and countless others, most of which are familiar and mundane to us, would have made people of past ages gasp in awe.
Out of the entire span of human history, these breathtaking discoveries have been made only in the last few hundred years, when we began to think and explore rationally. It was not crystals or prayer or Tarot cards that brought us these things. It was not superstition that was responsible, nor mysticism, nor credulous acceptance of extraordinary and unverified claims. It is the scientific method – institutionalized skepticism, rigorously and comprehensively applied – that has given rise to these wonders of understanding and accomplishment. As long as we human beings were willing to blindly accept the claims of others, to be meek and easily led, to believe without questioning, we remained frightened, brutish, short-lived and ignorant. There are some today who would gladly have us return to that state. Worse, there are some whose methods would inadvertently lead us back to that state, even as they hypocritically seek to take credit for the fruits and innovations of science while rejecting its rules.
But as for me, I remain a skeptic. I am proud to call myself a rationalist. And I will always fight against the proponents of darkness and unreason, because I believe that humanity has barely begun to tap its potential, and that if we continue the path of science, we may some day create wonders we currently lack the ability even to dream of.
Seems anticlimactic to add commentary after that gem! But a few further thoughts: The star Sirius played an important part of CUT folklore, as the “Great Central Sun,” seat of galactic government. the home of “Sanat Kumara” and the location of the “court of the sacred fire.” This provides further evidence of a narrow-minded non-scientific anthropocentrism. Sirius happens to be the brightest star in Earth’s sky. But that’s an accident of distance–at 8.6 light years, Sirius is the second closest star after Alpha Centauri.
What about Betelgeuse, or Canopus, both nearly as bright on Earth as Sirius? Betelgeuse happens to be red, which offends the delicate sensibilities of new-agers who associate the color with anger, unbridled passion and violence. It also has a funny non-spiritual sounding name, so would probably bother people whose minds are so small they think beetles or The Beatles are an “astral” creation. Another interesting alliteration there: Astral doesn’t mean “dark” or “evil,” it means “of the stars” in Latin. And in Arabic yad-al-jawza, Betelgeuse means “hand of the central one.” At roughly 5,500 times the brghtness of Sirius, Betelgeuse seems a much better candidate for the designation “Great Central Sun,” yet it too would appear as the size of a mere dot (it forms the shoulder of Orion). Moving down to the sword dangling from Orion’s belt, we see the above picture of the Orion nebula as a fuzzy star. And even so magnified we realize it’s a minuscule fraction of the cosmos.
Why was Sirius chosen even though it’s far less massive or bright than Betelgeuse or Canopus? Probably because people only considered apparent magnitude. Besides, it’s easily visible from the Northern Hemisphere, origin of all man-made Theosophical claptrap. Had Blavatsky and her successors lived in the Southern Hemisphere, Canopus, in the constellation Carina, would have likely served as their ostensible “Great Central Sun.”
The convenient small-minded human subjectivity doesn’t end there. We’re still singling out stars in our galactic neighborhood. To really get a sense of our true insignificance, just take a look at this list of the largest and brightest known stars. The sun is at the very bottom of the brightness list, with Sirius coming in 6th from last. Betelgeuse is just a middling average star, compared to LBV-1806-20 at 38,000,000 times the brightness of the sun. At 45,000 light years away, it’s still within our vast yet ultimately insignificant Milky Way galaxy. If you want to comprehend some truly bright and massive objects, think of the quasars such as 3C 273 in Virgo, which emits 100 times the light of the entire Milky Way.
Believers somehow rationalize that their prayers and endless supplications, sacrifices and deprivations will ensure them the reward of a trip to see these wonders they never bothered to appreciate during their short and insignificant lives. Well, maybe. But it seems they’d be better off–even in God’s eyes–studying “His” creation.
Let’s just pretend for a minute there’s a benevolent God and that we all are granted an immortal eternity after we die. (Yeah! Bonus round!) Any kind of a just God would reward the scientists (who actually cared enough about reality to meticulously study His creation) with an immediate and unlimited “universe exploration pass.” The pious remainder of humanity would be sent back to remedial courses in cosmic classrooms to remove the scales of gullibility and unreason from their eyes. There’d be a lot of wailing and gnashing in those halls. (“Boo-hoo, but you told me if I just believed on you, I’d be saved…sniff.”). Then it’s off to university for at least a decade of science education for the freshly-scrubbed critical thinking graduates. Then of course, God being the ultimate forgiver, would provide his formerly errant students the same “universe exploration pass” as the scientists, and they would finally get to see what we’ve all been missing.
But why count on such a preposterous scenario? And why wait?