15 December 2010

Science Saved my Soul

The Apprentice Philosopher recently sent me a video recently and after three viewings I realized I had to share it.   At the beginning of the video, its author recounts an experience he had encountering the Milky Way -- stepping out into the night,  struck by the grandeur and majesty of the Cosmos but being able to appreciate it all the more because of his understanding of modern cosmology.  He then compares this moment of soul-stirring clarity to the feelings religions attempt to reproduce and gain a monopoly on.  As he talks, beautiful imagery and subtle, but effective music plays in the background. It's in the spirit of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow.  Selected quotations are below.

The Milky way itself contains 200 billion stars, give or take. These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them some part of the human mind protests that 'it cannot be so'.  Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is, and if you take that conclusion out on a clear dark night and look up, you might see something that will change your life. This is what a galaxy looks like from the inside -- from the surburbs of our sun. Through binoculars, for every star you can see with your naked eye, you can see a hundred around it, all suspended in a grey-blue mist.  But through a modest telescope, if you wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and get the focus just right, you will see that mist for what it really is -- more stars,  like dust, fading into what tastes like infinity.  But you've got to have the knowledge -- seeing is only half of it. 

That night, three years ago, I knew a small part of what's out there -- the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things. The violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance -- but I feel safe, because I know my world is protected by the very distance that others fear. It's like the universe screams in your face: Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?  And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, "Dude -- I am you."

When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye along a narrow beam of light to the surface of another sun. The photons my eyes detect, the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact came frm that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it crosses the void and touches me. I might never have known.  My eyes saw only a tiny point of light, but my mind saw so much more. 

There's no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation. The reason for that is that every time someone has such a mind-gasm, religion steals it -- simply by saying, "Ah, you've had a religious experience."

To even partially comprehend the scale of a single galaxy is to almost disappear -- and when you remember all the other galaxies, you shrink one hundred billion times smaller still.  But then you realize what you are -- the same facts that made you feel so insignificant also tell you how you got  here.  It's like you become more real, or maybe the universe becomes more real.  You suddenly fit. You suddenly belong.  You do not have to bow down -- you do not have to look away. In such moments, all you have to do is remember to keep breathing.

The body of a newborn baby is as old as the Cosmos. The form is new and unique, but the materials are 13.7 billion years old -- processed by nuclear fusion in stars, fashioned by electromagnetism. Cold words for amazing processes -- and that baby was you, is you. You're amazing -- not only alive, but with a mind. What fool would exchange this for every winning lottery ticket ever drawn?

When I compare what scientific knowledge has done for me, and what religion tried to do to me, I sometimes literally shiver. Religions tell children they might go to hell and they must believe -- while science tells children that they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe.  I've told plenty of young kids about stars, atoms, galaxies and the Big Bang, and I have never seen fear in their eyes -- only amazement and curiosity. They want more.  Why do kids swim in it, and  adults drown in it? What happens to reality  between our youngest years and adulthood? Could it be that someone promised us something so beautiful that our universe seems dull, empty, even frightening by comparison? It might still be made by a creator of some kind, but religion has made it look ugly -- religion paints everything not of itself as unholy, and sinful, while it beautifies and dignifies its errors, lies, and bigotry like a pig wearing the finest robes. In its efforts to stop us facing reality, religion has become the reality we cannot face.

Look at what religion has made us to -- to ourselves, and to each other. Religion stole our love and our loyalty and gave it to a book, to a telepathic father who tells his children that love means kneeling before him.

There might yet be a heaven -- but it isn't going to be perfect, and we're going to have to build it ourselves.


CyberKitten said...

sc said: I've told plenty of young kids about stars, atoms, galaxies and the Big Bang, and I have never seen fear in their eyes -- only amazement and curiosity. They want more.

Aren't kids great? I try and keep that sense of wonder close to me at all times.

sc said: There might yet be a heaven -- but it isn't going to be perfect, and we're going to have to build it ourselves.

Well said... and nice piece.

J. J. said...

Full transcript and video: http://zepfanman.com/2010/11/science-saved-my-soul-transcript/