Sunday, February 18, 2007

Philosophical Musings from An Agnostic Perspective

One danger in expanding one's view of the universe, is the troublesome aspect of insignificance. When one looks at the grandeur of the universal; at its utter vastness, we are confounded, and forced to find words to describe the length and breadth. We use words such as Infinite, and Boundless, with distances in the light years and parsecs. We cannot fathom the expanse of it all, and yet, it is all around us. We are barely able to come to terms with our place in the order of things without including religion to uncover some significance of our being. Looking at something in such magnitude, it is no wonder that many are forced to concede to some unattainable, omnipresent force that keeps some form of order. We cannot believe just how insignificant our existence means to the universe, so we invent concepts to inflate our egos and put ourselves on pedestals above other creatures. We are so convinced of our own superiority, that once the reality of our place in the universe really sinks in; once the insignificance of our lives in the universe may mean to the rest of the universe, we become nihilistic entities, giving up on what should be the most amazing realization. The universe does not need human beings to function as it does now, so we aren't important to its composition, but what we forget is that our sentience gives us the ability to probe the vastness of it all.

Going back 500 years, even learned theorists had mostly thought the Earth to be the center of the universe. After Copernicus, we came to terms with the sun being the center of our planetary system, yet the downgrading was just beginning. Soon, we realized that the solar system was but one of billions in our own galaxy, and less then 100 years ago, we came to know (thanks to Edwin Hubble) our galaxy, the Milky Way, to be one of Billions. Not only is the sun an ordinary star, but the galaxy that we live in is not much different then millions of others. Our sun is about half way away from the center of the galaxy, rotating every 250 million years or so around the center, and for most of Earth's existence, life was oblivious to all of this. Therein lies the kernel of philosophical salvation. We as human beings, may be insignificant to the universe as a whole, but we are significant to each other. Just as an ant may seem insignificant to human beings, its existence within the colony is more significant then its existence to us. Thus, existence itself is a relative concept. The trend towards nihilism is easily reversed when we realize just how fortunate we are to contemplate our place in the vastness of the universe.

Before delving into the improbability and wonder of our existence, an important clarification must be made. I am not leading up to a support in existence of some sort of deity, or supernatural force. It may seem that way at first, since we're trained to automatically assume that anything improbably must be a result of something beyond ourselves, but in this case, this is not the conclusion I am achieving to reach. As a functional agnostic (separate from the philosophical agnostic, which is an actual belief structure), I am neither in support or in denial of the existence of what some may call God, others the Holy Spirit, or whatever unseen force may be guiding things. My goal is to highlight just how amazing our universe is, and how we must embrace the existence of other's like ourselves who can similarly appreciate it.

In order for our atoms to have formed in the manner in which they did, our Universe had to have the right physical qualities to ensure our existence. The strong nuclear force, holding the intrinsic properties in our atoms (Quarks) together, must be the specific field strength that it is. If it differed by even a millionth, our universe would not be able to form the stars that eventually formed the heavy atoms that resulted in our bodies. There are thousands of other physical qualities that must be as specific as they are for our universe to resemble what it does today. Had the matter in the beginning of our universe not won out over anti-matter, there wouldn't be anything to build atoms with. Consider the fact that matter just barely edged out anti-matter during the initial stages of the universe's growth. Only 1 particle of matter out of a million was able to escape the mutual annihilation to eventually dominate the battlefield. Furthermore, had the laws of expansion been any different (Hubble's Constant), the universe would collapse on itself or expand out so quickly, there would be no time to form the matter in which we see today. Similarly, changes in the gravitational force, or the electromagnetic, would equally alter the universe in which we live, making life all but even less possible.

Coming back down to Earth, even the process of evolution, if changed at any link along the chain, would not result in human beings dominating the planet today. Indeed, we are fortunate enough to be here contemplating our existence, considering all the possible outcomes where homo Sapien would not have evolved to consciously dissect the physical world, and attempt to find the processes that resulted in our being. As an example, had dinosaurs survived the cretatious/tertiary extinction event, mammals would have probably remained in their small nocturnal states. Had a supernova exploded near our system 500 million years ago, perhaps the first multicellular organisms would have been wiped away, and life would evolve in a different manner. There are just so many possible thought experiments to go through, and all of which yielding to the conclusion that our existence, though not impossible, is quite near improbable. Had the clock been turned back to the first instance of Universal expansion, things would certainly have turned out differently. The probability of humans re-evolving as we have would be next to near impossible. Our lives are indeed special, and although compared to the vastness of the universe, we may not make much of an impact, we certainly effect the bearings of others like us. We are in effect, relatively important to each other, and should people sheathed in anger, just pause and appreciate the improbability of our existence, they would come to realize how to treat others. Although war is a product of our inherent genetic predisposition for territorial supremacy (among many other genetic causes), we have culturally evolved through philosophical thought, ethical and moral progressiveness, to understand the consequences of our actions, and think beyond our cold genes. We realize how important the environment is in shaping our genes, and ultimately, with prime importance, we know that cultural growth can extend beyond our genetic tendencies.

If more people strived to understand the physical nature of our universe, we would realize that although our position in the vastness of this infinite structure is infinitesimally small, our relation to each other is equally as vast. Perhaps one day, the human race will be in position to extend our influence beyond just our own planet, but those days will be forever lost when we continue destroying each other, and lying to ourselves about the nature of things. It may be easier for some, without a solid background in the sciences, to sit at home and decide that the diversity of the species on earth, and the beauty (from our perspective) of the universe, have a divine cause, then to look at the majesty of life and the universe and realize the physical processes that shaped it. Let us not take credit away from the physical forces of nature that helped shape our being, when it's easier to decide that just because we don't understand the physical world, it needs a supernatural explanation. To some, not enough has been explained to appreciate the beauty of the physical world as it is without resorting to some paranormal or supernatural belief. Yet with enough knowledge of the workings of our universe (without the meddlesome nature of religion), we may come to appreciate our fellow human being more then religion has allowed us to do. After all, religion in context of culture and evolution is a unifying force in grouping human begins within extended clans. Once we realize this, and move beyond religion and into the realm of what we can scientifically test and validate, people will become more appreciative of others. It is my experience, that those involved in the field of sciences tend to be the least socially judgmental and the most accepting of individuals. I am not discounting something beyond our physical world, but since we cannot test or validate the existence of that, then they stay in the realm of philosophy and belief. Beliefs can be shattered (such as the world is flat), but physical truths cannot (such as the laws of gravity). It's possible for scientific theories to be invalidated, or refined, but ultimately, there are physical laws that exist which we must uncover. With beliefs, they don't function in that manner. There are 6.2 billion people on the planet all with different sets of beliefs, and although groups of those people can be placed together along similar beliefs, each individual is ultimately an island in what they believe. Some grouped closer then others, but just because there are majority beliefs, don't necessarily validate those. If as an hypothetical example, 2 billion people today believed that the Earth was still flat, that would not necessarily make the Earth flat. With the physical world, it's not majority belief, but the uncovering of what the actuality is. There are physical truths that are unalterable. The same physical principles that govern the nature of our sun, are the same all across the universe. We can be certain that those physical laws apply the same everywhere. The speed of light should invariably be the same here as it should be 50 quintillion parsecs away in any direction. The properties that govern stellar evolution should be the same all across the spectrum. Similarly, closer to Earth, evolution as a process should function the same now as it did billions of years ago (with random mutations, and natural selection: aka survival of the fittest). That's the beauty of the universe; the mysteries left to uncover that allow us to understand aspects all across the infinite expanse.