Earlier today I had a discussion with a dear friend who feels her faith is certainty, and she finds science to be dubious. I considered her position to be willful ignorance in the face of the knowledge we currently have, and she found my insistence that things like gravity and evolution and the speed of light and the cosmic microwave background are certainties to be willful ignorance. To her, these are just concepts: “Suppositions” she called them. She sees the sciences as chalk on a blackboard, to be wiped away with the next fanciful presumptions that science claims are truly real. My sciences come and go, but her god and her religion remain unchanged in the face of them.
You speak in absolutes, she challenges me, but you admit science isn’t absolute. Here I feel is the hinge upon which everything hangs in this endless debate between faith and doubt. Christopher Hitchens put it so marvelously in this video I’ll link below.
In case you can’t see the video I’ll endeavor to summarize. He compares the images from the Hubble Telescope to the story in Deuteronomy of the Burning Bush. Which is more awe inspiring, he asks. How can one turn from countless galaxies in the night sky that we’ve only just discovered, galaxies which cannot be seen by the naked eye but upon long exposure are proven to be there, how can one turn away from that and look at the story of a bush burning in a desert some thousands of years ago as if that is the more impressive sight. How can one compare the story of pigs being possessed by demons and forced to drown in a nearby river to the story Stephen Hawking and his colleagues illustrate in their findings about black holes out in space which draw matter and energy so powerfully that even light itself cannot escape the pull?
“We wouldn’t have discovered any of these things if we had taken the religious story for granted to begin with. We would have said we already know enough! We know! God made this! God wants it this way. What’s the need for inquiry? We already have all illumination we need.”
Hitchens then goes on to say it is doubt and not certainty that makes mankind strive to learn more about the universe, and in that he’s absolutely right. The answer “god” stops further inquiry. It’s a finger in the dam. It’s a stop sign on the path. Go no further. God has decreed that whatever is before your nose is enough. You need no more.
Recently Neil Tyson has been hosting a re-imagining of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. In this 2014 revision of Sagan’s work, Tyson also speaks of the event horizon at the black hole, and he and the special effects team behind the television series dare so much as to traverse beyond the event horizon to entertain what he refers to as “a thought experiment.” We are shown three or four alternate possibilities of what may lie on the other side of that horizon. Tyson cautions that here we are venturing beyond the confines of currently known science, and the special effects team dares to get a little 2001 Space Odyssey on us at this point.
Now, some right wing academics and other conservative minds have been criticizing the work of Tyson and Sagan’s wife and the many others behind this new Cosmos program. Ken Ham of the “answers in genesis” scam con organization insisted on getting equal time on network television, to which Tyson reprimanded by saying The Flat Earth Society did not get to have equal time whenever a scientist explains simply that our planet is an oblate ellipsoid. These conservative arguments from Abrahamic believers are to be expected. Par for the course I’m afraid in modern society, littered with a cancerous culture of outdated dogma and blatantly unprovable “suppositions.”
What troubles me however are the arguments from presumably otherwise rational minds, who challenge that the Cosmos series dared to go past that event horizon and illustrate what might be on the other side, when we can’t possibly know what’s over there. Now, Tyson didn’t peer over that edge and insist he saw only one particular thing and that must be the answer. Instead he and his team of researchers endeavored to summarize what’s currently determined by those physicists and other great minds contemplating these questions. Tyson didn’t even indicate which of these answers he personally felt was the actual answer, because he doesn’t know either.
I admit to being partial to the concept that a black hole could be a doorway to other parts of this same universe, or even a doorway to countless other universes like or unlike our own. That our big bang could very well have been the other side of a black hole in an adjacent universe, and every black hole from our universe is yet another universe being created as energy and matter from our universe explodes into a whole other bubble of space time. I don’t know if this is the answer, but given what we currently know, it’s the best answer we have.
So if I were describing this to someone else, as I just did, yes I would sometimes speak in absolutes, out of simplicity, I wouldn’t caveat every single sentence with “or it could be something else.” I’m not going to list all the other possibilities and then add “or other things we can’t even fathom yet” every single time I open my mouth. These should be givens. It should be understood that we are going on what we currently know with the understanding that new information will be forthcoming as we explore and learn and make mistakes and start again and inquire and research and discover and do all the things sciences do but religions don’t.
We are standing on the precipice of knowledge. We are always standing at this event horizon. And when we look into the Unknown, we sometimes see mirages and paradoxes and illusions. We sometimes think we see an answer but we learn it’s not quite what we thought was right moments or years or centuries before. Likewise, sometimes when we look back, our findings confuse us. How can this universe not have been created? Well the current evidence suggests it didn’t need to be created. It might have just happened. Probability and gravity and other things would have been sufficient. There’s also indications that an intelligent designer is not at the helm. Babies get cancer. People lose limbs. The universe doesn’t appear to have been made with us in mind. We evolved to fit in this little planet, it wasn’t made for us to abuse.
Is it possible we will learn information in the future that will change these suppositions? Yes, perhaps. But what’s more likely? Religion is holding us back. Abrahamics has been repeatedly proven to fail. Now perhaps there are bits and pieces of Abrahamics that will later echo in some way into what we see in the Unknowns of our future. That doesn’t mean Abrahamics was always right. There’s a whole long list of reasons why we already know the Bible and Quran are wrong. I’ve illustrated them before.
We don’t have to mention that list every single damn time. We should not have to go over all this over and over and over. “If man evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys?” REALLY??? Are we STILL on this SAME tired question again? We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other primates still alive today, and the other modern apes we share this planet with have also evolved. They are no more exactly like primates of thousands, millions of years ago than we are. Every single generation of life is a link on a chain, a branch in a tree. and it stretches back through the history of this planet. Just because we don’t fully understand how evolution works, that does not mean “GOD” is the default answer.
We stand on a precipice, looking out over the event horizon. We have examined our universe from the Higgs Boson to the largest supernova. We have found no gods. However, what we HAVE found is countless magnitudes more awe inspiring and impressive than any god conjured up by mere mortals could ever hope to achieve. Let us not cower in fear at the Unknown that stands before us, and let us not doodle into the gaps of our knowledge yet more childish drawings of men in clouds throwing lightning bolts about. It’s like putting answers down on a high school test that you know are not correct but you don’t want to just leave the answers blank. we can come back to the questions we can’t answer. we can use an eraser to clean the blanks that we know are wrong. Let’s answer the questions we do know, and see where that takes us. Life is a test. Let’s get it right for a change.