Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We Humans on the Ancient Earth

The human line hails from humble origins. An unsurprising fact, since most life does. The rise of humanity from a lemur-like creature to an ape-like creature to an upright-walker to today’s humans is a remarkable story, one far more imaginative, universal, ancient, and more solidly based in fact and observation than any religion. If God were to have a way to create life, evolution would be a far more amazing and beautiful way to do it than making things instantly appear as they are. Evolution gives living things a history, an ancient and glorious heritage.

The Earth is a greater thing than us. It has been around for 4.5 billion years, and has been teeming with live for 3.5 billion years of that. The Paleozoic era alone is 325 million years long (570 - 245 million years ago), and is even divided into seven smaller periods, each lasting from 30 to 70 million years (thumbnail the image right to view it larger). To really think about and comprehend these numbers bewilders me. Each period in Earth’s history sees further development in living things, with scores of brand new species and scores of extinctions from the previous period. The relatively rapid change that evolution is capable of guarantees a great amount of variation, increasing with time. As Carl Sagan once said, evolution “makes life more beautiful as the aeons pass.”

Using the theory of evolution and comparative anatomy, our picture of hominid evolution is quite complete. The “missing link” is no longer missing. Those claiming a lack of transitional fossils in evolution need only look at our own hominid tree (and other very complete transitions like those of horses, whales, and tetrapods) to see a smooth progression from ape-like species into more human-like species over a period of 6 - 7.8 million years.

When we look at nature - at plants, animals, fish - we see beauty. The evidence shows us that all this beauty evolved over time, over billions of years. The overwhelming ancientness of life places us as a very young and fledgling line. After all, the first known civilization of humans was Sumer, dating back to 5400 BC, and only 10,000 years ago all humans on the planet were hunter-gatherers. These are very small lengths of time compared to even the smallest period in the Paleozoic, a mind-blowing 30 million years. In fact, the entire hominid line has only been around for about 0.2% of the history of life. Humans may be the first life with higher intelligence, but we are demonstrably not the reason for the Earth’s existence.

This fact however does not make our existence meaningless. The same beauty that we see in nature is also present in us: we came about in the same way. We are part of life’s grand story, and we are special in our intelligence, imagination, and drive. To be part of nature, not just an observer of it, is enthralling, fascinating, and, dare I say it, mystifying.

- Evan

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Universe: one big family

This is the story of the universe, according to science:

1) The Beginning: 14 billion years ago, everything in the universe was contained in a single infinitesimally small point. This point, smaller than an atom, had an infinite density and contained all the matter, space, and time of the universe. The point began to rapidly expand, and as the volume of the universe increased, the heat decreased, and atoms were able to form. The first atoms consisted of mostly hydrogen and helium, since these are the lightest, simplest elements. Through the force of gravity, these atoms began to accrete and accumulate in progressively larger and larger clumps.

2) Creation of Elements: Especially large clumps would be stars, which would get so massive that the matter on the inside of them experienced insanely high pressure from gravity. This pressure produced incredible heat, so much heat that the hydrogen and helium atoms were moving fast enough to overcome their repulsion to one another, and began to crash into each other and fuse. Bigger, heavier atoms began to form. Stars that were very high in mass were able to heat their cores enough to create every element up to iron (fusing iron takes more energy than it gives out), and if one of these stars died in a supernova explosion, the massive heat of the explosion was able to create even heavier elements than iron. The dusty, gassy remains of these dead stars were the building material for new solar systems. Our sun and planets formed through the same gravitational accretion process, and each had on it many elements, including those of life: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.

3) Life Stirs: After our planet cooled and formed its huge bodies of water, organic molecules began to form naturally form. There are a few different ideas on how life first began, and none are confirmed, but the following is the most plausible. The first life forms could not have been anything like a cell today; modern cells are far too complex. The first life may have been a single self-replicating molecule, a predecessor to RNA. In the water, there were organic molecules which had one end that was repelled from water and one that was attracted. This led to naturally forming spheres. If self-replicating molecule got caught up in on of these spheres, it would be protected and had a better chance to reproduce. These were the first cells: a self-replicating molecule surrounded by a layer of other molecules.

4) Adaption and Complexity: Single-celled organisms ruled Earth for billions of years. The most dominant form during this time was cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. These algae are responsible for putting a significant amount of oxygen on the planet, and the presence of oxygen caused a diversification of life. Some cells could now metabolize oxygen, which was more energy-packed. The first multicellular life was colonial, then some cells in the colonies began specializing in one thing. These were the first organs. To talk of our own evolution in detail would be too lengthy, but it had operated on the same naturally selecting powers as the unicellular life before it. The tree of life (for humans) goes as follows:

Bacteria --> Colonial multicellular --> Polyps --> Fish --> Amphibians --> Reptiles --> Mammals --> Tree-dwellers --> Early hominids --> Humans

5) Our Place: According to science so far, life on Earth is literally one big family. All life today are very distantly related cousins; we are all offspring of previous organisms. However, life itself is made of atoms created in the cores of high-mass stars. So the cosmos, while not alive, are by definition our family, because they gave rise to life. Despite any overtones of silly new-age mysticism, the universe is literally all one. We are part of the universe, not merely observers.

- Evan

Monday, January 18, 2010

Might Makes Right: one Hell of a problem

Let us examine the concept of eternity. It is a concept, and is something that our minds literally cannot grasp. There is a video I have linked on the side of this page ("Hell: an excessive punishment") that has a good analogy for how long eternity is. Imagine a huge planet, made completely of bronze. Every hundred years a bird flies by, brushing its wing against the side of the planet. When the planet is completely worn down to nothing, that will have been the first day of eternity. It is too long a time for us humans to even understand. By God’s own book, no Christian should wish death or pain upon a non-believer, but God chooses to burn and torture people for eternity. Because he is all-powerful and this is his universe, he has the power to pull people out of Hell, or make it disappear completely. But no, he consciously chooses to torture people. Christians are more moral than their own God.

What kind of omniscient, perfectly good being would burn and torture a living thing for any expanse of time? You and I certainly wouldn’t. But God is excused because he is so holy that he is above our morality. This creates a problem: is God good because he has good qualities, or is he good because he’s God? The existence of Hell, accompanied by the millions of people God killed in the Bible, leaves us to assume that God is good because he’s God - he is so far above us that whatever he does goes. This is a dictionary definition of might-makes-right, or a dictator. God obviously does not have the good qualities that his followers insist upon, but rather has such a high position that we are victims to whatever he wants. Does this sound like a supreme, perfect, and good being?

Such a supreme being wants and needs nothing. So what is he doing? Why do we concern him? Why did he come down to this tiny planet on the outskirts of one random galaxy in one corner of the universe and make little miniscule, material creations that have to prove themselves to him? Why is he so offended by these insignificant creatures if they don’t worship him? Why does he want people in Heaven? To have company? These questions are simply unanswerable by Christianity; they don’t know God’s true motives or his actual plan for us. All they know is that they must unquestioningly worship and praise him. They must realize that to someone who is outside of religion, it all seems very strange.

- Evan

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Trees Grow Out of the Air

Richard Feynman is a renowned physicist, known for his lectures and interviews, and known in the physics world for his contributions to quantum mechanics and particle physics. In his interviews he often enjoyed talking about everyday objects or occurrences that are “fun to imagine” on the atomic level. There is a “Fun to Imagine” series of Feynman clips on YouTube, and I’d like to share one in particular that blew my mind. In the beginning of the 5-minute video, he speaks of how fire works, then he goes on to explain how a tree works. It’s the tree segment that I will paraphrase:

People think that trees grow out of the ground. In actuality, trees grow out of the air. The substance of a tree is mostly carbon, which comes from the air in the form of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide goes into the tree, and the tree changes it, kicking out the oxygen, and uses the carbon as the base of all the new material it creates. The tree also uses water from the ground, but that water rained from the sky. There’s a little from the ground, some minerals and such, but most of the actual substance of a tree comes from the air.

We mentioned that carbon dioxide is changed by the tree to retrieve just the carbon. How is the tree so smart as to manage to separate the carbon from carbon dioxide? Ah, life! Life has some mysterious way! No - the sun is shining, and it’s the sunlight that comes down and knocks the carbon free. So it takes sunlight to get the plant to work.

What an amazing world we live in. As Feynman himself said, “nature’s imagination is so much greater than man’s, it’s never gonna let him relax!” My explanation can’t give the video justice, you’ll just have to watch it yourself!

- Evan

Thursday, January 14, 2010

School Science Projects > Creationism

Remember when you were in elementary school and you had to do a science project? The steps of your project were to line up with the scientific method, which was taught to you in science class. Here were the steps:

- Ask a question
- Do background research
- Construct a hypothesis
- Test your hypothesis (perform an experiment)
- Analyze your data
- Draw a conclusion

Creationism claims to be scientific. The main argument of creationism is that life appears designed, and is too complex to have arisen naturally. Therefore, the Christian god designed all life. The problem with this is that they skip all the actual science of the scientific method. I have never heard a creationist hypothesis (in the form of “if I do this, then this should happen”), and I have never heard of any creationist experiments or collected data. So let’s plug creationism into the scientific method:

- Ask a question: From where did life originate?
- Do background research: Life is very complex, it could not have arisen naturally (even though evolution has shown that it can), and the Bible says God created life.
- Construct a hypothesis: *missing*
- Test you hypothesis: *missing*
- Analyze your data: *missing*
- Draw your conclusion: God did indeed design and create all life.

The sentence “if life is complex, then God created it” is not a hypothesis, let alone a theory. It is not testable, because God is an immaterial being that does not show himself in any knowable way. There is no known sign or mark that he would leave on material things to show that he has intervened. The only things that are testable are physical realities.

From this, we can safely say that your science project in elementary school was more scientific that creationism (if you did it right!).

- Evan

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Appeal to Ignorance: religion's secret weapon

Ever since humanity’s beginnings, religion has been inserting knowledge where there previously was none. Needless to say, so far no religion has ever been correct about the workings of the universe. For thousands of years, science has advanced its understandings, theories, and methods, while religion has retreated. During the heyday of ancient Greece, no one knew what the sun actually was. This was a spiritual question back then, because not only was it a complete mystery, but the sun was the giver of all life. So the Greek religion claimed that it was Helios, the sun god, riding across the sky in his chariot. No one knew what the seasons were, so their mythology said that the goddess of summer and growth had her daughter stolen by Hades every year, causing winter, then returned to her later, reinitiating summer. Christianity is no stranger to propagating incorrect ideas that align with its theology (i.e. geocentrism, young earth, creationism), so why should we trust Christianity’s claims of today?

The only thing that Christians can do is appeal to ignorance in an attempt to increase the validity of their claims. Even a successful dismantling of evolution and the big bang would merely reduce us to a state of ignorance about life and the universe, it wouldn’t validate some other claim. Today’s religious people move from absolute ignorance to absolute knowledge by saying that because we don’t know the answer, it must be God.

The problem is that “we don’t know” should be the end of the conversation. “We don’t know” in no way justifies any claim about the subject, so it cannot justify religion. On top of this, criticisms from the religious against scientific theories more often than not reveal an ignorance of the theories, research, and methods themselves, and are not even valid criticisms. Such statements include:
  • evolution cannot produce irreducible complexity
  • carbon dating is a lie and shouldn’t be used to tell the age of the earth
  • saying that life evolved is like saying a tornado assembled a jet in a junkyard
  • if crocodiles and ducks are related we should see half-crocodiles, half-ducks today
Not only are these false arguments, but even if they were valid, they would say nothing about whether religious claims are true, only that our science has problems. Christians believe that if science is wrong, then their religion is right.

This also happens at the macro level in Christian theology. What is the meaning of existence? Why is this universe the way it is? It must be God. It couldn’t possibly be anything else. But why must it be God? Is there an actual reason besides “it couldn’t be anything else”? No there is not. The fact we cannot begin to answer some of these questions yet in no way validates belief in God. When it comes down to it, there is no actual positive evidence that God has done any of the things that Christian theology claims. The dependence of Christian apologetics on these so-called “god-of-the-gaps” arguments is staggering, and is one of my main reasons for not being religious.

- Evan

A Beautiful Reality

My first post on this blog spoke of religious people caring about how their beliefs make them feel, and atheists caring about whether their beliefs are true. However, it is important to ask, why not both? The original purpose of this blog is to show people that being a non-believer feels good, and I have not yet addressed that.

1) Everything is as it is.

You and I are living, breathing, thinking, loving creatures. Our purpose is not to be a servant or a worshipper. The universe is ancient, mind-boggling and strange in every aspect (but always follows consistent natural laws), and living in it is a privilege. Living things come from other living things, they are not created. Evolution allows life to become more beautiful as the aeons pass. When the wind hits your face, it has traveled thousands of miles, from across the planet. It may have even been in the lungs of a Roman soldier or a dinosaur, through the leaves of a plant in the Philippines, or struck by a meteor as it entered our atmosphere. Clouds sit on the gas our atmosphere like ice in a glass of water. We don’t see any spirit realm, no ghosts, no demons, no Heaven or Hell (phew! The idea of spending eternity anywhere is just strange). Just here and now, in this self-propelling, natural world. Now that I am full-fledged atheist (with an interest in science and how the world works), my eyes are open: the universe is so amazing, vibrant, grand, strange, and with such a greater imagination than man. I am humbled, empowered, and awestruck, all at the same time.

2) You do good for the sake of doing good.

When we see others feeling pain, we feel pain. When we see others feel happiness, we feel happiness (we are not the only creatures to do this either). I do good for the sake of doing good, I care about others, I want good things to happen to everyone. This happens not because anyone tells me to do so. It is a result of being human, and we all have these impulses. Problems that I have are my own that I should solve, and the mistakes I make are my own to ponder over. There is no one accounting for my actions but myself, and I am trying the best I can.

This method of living can be said to be more reliable than religion overall, given some facts:
  • atheists consist of 0.25% of the prison population.
  • more secular nations have far lower violent crime and teen pregnancy rates (ex. Japan: less than 10% are certain a god exists, has lowest crime rates and teen pregnancy rates in the world, other good examples include Norway, U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands)
  • high levels of atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, low illiteracy rates, high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality
  • the U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the world, and has some of the highest crime rates and teen pregnancy rates
  • ironically, atheists and agnostics have lower divorce rates, less abortions, and lower STD infection rates than the religious
  • countries that have very low percentages of atheists in their population have either high crime rates, low quality of life, or social and political problems, such as: Somalia, Tanzania, Yemen, the Philippines, Romania, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Iran.
These facts do not prove that religion makes you immoral, only that it doesn’t strengthen society. Atheism, like religion, does not guarantee morality, but it can be said to be more reliable.

3) Reason is awesome.
Going off of evidence is so much more reliable in discerning truth than going off of faith. Not only am I much more secure in what I believe, but those beliefs are completely open to whatever the evidence says (whatever reality is), and that feels good, it feels right. I should never be attached to my beliefs, because then I may then be closed off to changing them, and the malleability of my beliefs to fit reality is essential to finding truth. I rather like this position and strategy for evaluating the world. It makes me okay with not knowing the answer to something, and helps me to recognize that my worldview is completely dependent on what I see. I feel that using reason reflects the nature of human understanding.

There has never been any good evidence for God, supernatural realms and beings, or even an immaterial plane separate from a material one. What the evidence says is what my views will mold to.

- Evan