Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘universe

Science, the limits of human knowledge, atheism, and religion. Part II.

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Yes, the last post was going somewhere. Or at least I thought when I wrote it, it was an extemporaneous post, so I’ll see if I can pick up on it. In the previous post I tried to make the case that the Universe we live in is vastly larger and more complicated than humans can really comprehend. That’s not to say scientists haven’t made great strides in understanding the Universe around us, on the contrary, our understanding of the broad strokes so to speak is breathtaking. It’s just that it’s clear that there is vastly more to learn, and the Universe is richer and more complicated than humans ever dreamt of until recently. In the mid nineteenth century scientists actually thought they were on the verge of figuring it all out so to speak, boy, were they wrong.

So that’s the science and limits of human knowledge part. Now we come to the atheism and religion part. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in the Yahoo Answers Religion and Spirituality section. An experience I strongly advise against, it would be more aptly named Evangelical Trolls vs. Atheist Trolls. Leave it to people with no feelings, decency, and common sense … like professional bloggers for example.  And I noted a common theme there among the science deniers, primarily Evolution and Big Bang deniers, but they usually generalize to all science. And the theme is this, they are constantly looking for gaps in scientific knowledge, and using same to claim that science doesn’t have all the answers. The implication being that if science can’t explain it, a supernatural agency must be the cause.

There’s two major problems with this line of reasoning. The first, as I laid out in my premise, is that there are always going to be gaps in scientific knowledge. The second problem is that because science doesn’t understand something, doesn’t mean there must be a supernatural explanation. As a long time student of science and the history of science, I can safely say that it’s almost unknown for a scientist to say “science can’t explain this, so God must have done it.” And in the past 400 years, as science has expanded its knowledge of our Universe, there’s always been some religious type claiming “Science doesn’t understand this!” Then when science does indeed understand it, the religious type just moves the goalpost to some new area that science hasn’t yet explored. And it goes on. At this point one would think that literal Bible defenders would long ago have realized that challenging science to explain some unknown aspect of reality is a lost cause. It’s clear now that the amazing Universe we live in is in fact internally self consistent, and that no invisible hand of God is required to make it work.

Which brings me to my thought, and the reason I am rambling on about this nonsense instead of pounding my forehead bloody on my keyboard parsing the Olympic class nonsense certain Republican candidates are espousing. My thought is, why the hell are Evangelicals so terrified of science? At this point huge numbers of religious people have accepted science for a century or more. The vast majority of my friends and relatives practise a religion to some degree, and they all have no problem with the scientific understanding of the Universe. Why do the Evangelicals reject the scientific understanding of the Universe? I used to think that it was because it contradicted Genesis, and they were threatened by anything that made out the Bible to be less than  perfect, and reduced man’s central role in their ideology.

And, to a certain extent, that’s still true. I think there’s a deeper reason though. They are afraid of God. Or more on point, they are afraid of a God that makes their petulant, one dimensional, predictable, old testament God look like a loser. If God created the Universe with the Big Bang, which scientifically is the only viable God hypothesis remaining, it means God created a Universe that is almost infinitely grander than the fairy tale posited in Genesis. An entire Universe sprung from a single point, expanding and evolving and creating new stars and galaxies and forms of life for billions of years, with no end in sight. A Universe so magnificent and complex and perfect on so many levels that humans will never be able to completely understand and comprehend every aspect of it. A Universe where God is truly grander than the insignificant worms crawling around on a minor planet orbiting a minor star. A Universe where God expected people to think for themselves, not base their lives and morality on the pronouncements of a talking bush. A Universe where God is real, not just a fairy tale in an old book.

That’s what truly frightens Evangelicals and why they are still sticking their heads in the sand centuries after science showed that Genesis cannot literally be true. If they admit science is true, then they have to admit that the God of science is far greater and far more frightening than the Teddy Bear God they cling to so fiercely. A God that expects his creations to act like grown ups and think for themselves, not scared little children repeating their lessons. Evangelicals are like children telling ghost stories around a fire, terrified of the dark … and even more terrified to throw more wood on the fire to see what’s actually out there.

“But of the tree of the knowledge of science, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
Genesis 2:16-18

(The above image as created by me, not God, using the tools of science. Credit and copyright: Doug Stych © 2012, all rights reserved. I used the image because it gives me pleasure. Tomorrow, back to ranting about something or other. )


Written by unitedcats

February 28, 2012 at 8:32 am

Science, the limits of human knowledge, atheism, and religion. Part I.

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Yes, this is the post where I explain everything. That was a joke. I explain almost everything in this post. Of course dogs are mammals, that was a joke too. OK, this is an extemporaneous post because I had a thought. And like all good bloggers, when I have  a thought, my second thought is, can I make a blog post about this thought? In this instance, the answer is yes. Because this thought is a thought that I want feedback on. Yes, gentle readers, I am using your brains to hone my thinking. Probably best not to even try and visualize that.

Moving right along, the above is an image of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. This is an area of the sky about a tenth the diameter of the full Moon. Astronomers picked a spot with little dust or nearby stars to obscure the view. There actually aren’t too many spots like this in the sky, we really are stuck in a hazy section of a galaxy. It could be worse, though it could be a lot better. That’s the topic for a future post, but I digress. It took the Hubble nearly four months to take this image, it’s the “deepest” image ever taken, showing galaxies that existed about 13 billion years ago, just hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. If one tries to think about the time scales in this image, or the number of stars and planets involved, it’s more or less incomprehensible. At the time of most of the galaxies in this image, Earth and the Sun itself were just atoms scattered over a vast expanse of space, or in stars yet to spew them into space in supernovas. Earth wasn’t even a twinkle in the Universe’s eye when some of these galaxies in this image existed. Our galaxy itself, the Milky Way, didn’t even exist at the time of the furthest galaxies in this image.

So it’s safe to say that this is a data rich image. Astronomers will be studying it for decades. And building instruments to peer even more closely into the Universe, the Hubble II is in the works. And this is just one photograph, albeit a very special one. I could, if I wanted to, list vast numbers of other “data collections,” for want of a better word, that will keep scientists busy for decades. There’s still data being mined out of the Moon rocks and Russian probes to Venus decades ago. In fact it would be safe to say that the data  from the majority of space probes has yet to be fully analyzed. In a lot of cases new technology makes it possible to reanalyze old data, and all the while new data is being added at an increasing rate as newer probes get ever more sophisticated. In other words, despite their ever increasing understanding of the Universe, in a very real sense astronomers are losing ground in that the amount of data to be analyzed is ever growing larger.

And this is just one human field of scientific endeavour. Granted, it may be an extreme example of this, but the same thing is most definitely happening in other fields of inquiry. Museums around the world are filled with artifacts and biological samples that have yet to be analyzed. In fact new discoveries are made regularly by studying stuff in museum drawers. In physics, every time they build a bigger collider, they get results they didn’t expect. And have to build a bigger collider to understand them. New frontiers in archaeology and paleontology open all the time. Otzi is but one dead man, and new stuff is still being learned about him and his times decades after his discovery. Heck, a single finger bone in a cave in Asia recently revealed a hitherto completely unknown human-like species.

My point here, the first one at least, is that while human and scientific understanding of the Universe is growing every day, the body of unknown knowledge is keeping pace or even growing faster. Everywhere we look in the Universe around us, there appear to be layers of complexity that never end, new discoveries always reveal new unknowns.  Or in another way of looking at it, as the body of human knowledge grows, the boundary between what we know and don’t know gets larger! In other words, there will always be stuff for scientists to investigate, at this point it is clear that Victorian conceits about science understanding everything were childishly optimistic at best. The Universe is so  complicated and so vast on so many levels that it’s safe to say that humans in the foreseeable future won’t even come close to understanding it all.

In other words, the scientific understanding of the Universe is that we will never fully understand the Universe. It’s too large, it’s too complicated, and there are very finite limits to what humans can accomplish.  The Universe is greater, older, bigger, and more complex than humans can really grasp. And to me that’s just amazing. As J.B.S. Haldane put it: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” No matter how much human’s understand, there will always be new mysteries and new frontiers to explore. At least in the foreseeable future.

What does this have to do with atheism, religion, and my as yet unmentioned blog post inspiring thought? That’s part II, coming tomorrow.

Part II is here: Science, the limits of human knowledge, atheism, and religion. Part II.

(The above image was taken by NASA and is being used legally within their guidelines. NASA does not endorse Doug’s Darkworld. Hell, NASA is likely completely unaware of Doug’s Darkworld. Probably for the best, they have better things to do.)

Written by unitedcats

February 27, 2012 at 5:14 am

Falling Forever

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Another wonderful image courtesy of the Hubble Telescope. This is galaxy NGC 4911, located some 320 million light years away. So that means we are seeing it as it was 320 million years ago. That was the Mississippian period on Earth, so called because the rocks from that area are exposed along the Mississippi River. Earth looked a little different then:

OK, a lot different. No grass, no flowers, no fruit, nothing but ferns and primitive such plants. There were some little lizard like things, animals were  just beginning to move onto the land. Lots of bugs and spider like critters. The first flying insects were appearing. The food chain was rather primitive though. Bugs had just barely started eating plants, and other animals hadn’t started at all. Basically bugs eating leaf litter and decayed vegetation were the bottom of the food chain, and other stuff ate them. The oceans were strange too, while there were corals and such we would recognize, crinoids were very common, and trilobites were still around. The only octopus like thing was the nautilus. Lots of fish and sharks though, in fact the sharks then looked about the same as the sharks now. When nature hits a design that works, it keeps it. Although a point to be made is that while those sharks did indeed look very similar to today’s sharks, they did and do continue to evolve, none of the shark species extent then is still around.

On the plus side, there would have been no noxious pests whatsoever. No mosquitos, ticks, parasites, wasps, or anything even remotely unpleasant on land. No plants with thorns either. Just don’t go wading or swimming and everything will be fine. I mention these idyllic facts because according to Stephen Hawking’s most recent pronouncements, time travel is possible. And yes, in layman’s terms, there are paradoxes involved. In reality, no, there aren’t. That’s because whatever happened in the past … already happened. So a person can’t go back into the past and change anything. Even if someone does go back in time and murders their grandfather, all they will do is prove their granny slept around. I know sci fi movies have really muddied people’s thinking about these sorts of things; sadly, for the most part, sci fi movies are to science what cop movies are to real police work. Time travel may be possible, changing the past isn’t. Deal with it.

I digress, the thing about the Hubble image is that NGC 4911 is falling to its doom. OK, well, maybe not its doom, but it is falling into the Coma Cluster, one of the largest assemblages of galaxies in the known Universe. See the faint clouds around it? Those are stars that are being pulled away from NGC 4911 by other nearby galaxies in the cluster. Eventually NGC 4911 will lose its spiral arms, its satellite galaxies, most of its gas, and be converted into a boring yellowish elliptical galaxy. It will no longer be the stunning sight it is now.  On the plus side, as the Universe expands, the Coma Cluster will stay together due to gravitational attraction, and even when the rest of the Universe recedes into invisibility, galaxies in the Coma Cluster will still be able to see other galaxies. Our galaxy on the other hand will appear to be sailing in an infinite endless void some 50-100 billion years from now.

The Coma Cluster has some mysteries of its own. It appears to be about 90% made of dark matter. Um, dark matter is stuff astronomers can’t see yet but can tell it’s there because of its gravitational effects on visible matter. I should blog on it sometime, if I ever understand it. This is a higher percentage of dark matter than we usually see in the Universe. And to deepen the mystery, the Coma Cluster has an X-ray source in it that no one can explain. Yes, something, something apparently larger than a galaxy, is kicking out a heck of a lot of X-rays in the Coma Cluster.

My point here, is that this is an image of a spectacular event, an entire galaxy being sucked into one of the most enormous structures in the Universe, where it will be completely transformed into an entirely new type of galaxy. And not only is this epic in scale, I mean “one of the largest structures in the Universe” is about as big as it gets, it is also epic in time. For NGC 4911 has been falling to its fate since before animals crawled out of the sea on Earth, and will still be falling after the Earth is a scorched oceanless desert some billion years from now. Quite a show.

And yet no one has even gotten around to naming NGC 4911? Yes, the Universe is so filled with wonders we can’t even count them all, let alone name them.

(The Hubble image above is more or less Public Domain and is being used, not for profit, legally: Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: K. Cook (LLNL) et al. The image of Earth as it was about 320 million years ago is a public domain image. I wrote this post because it pleased me, I may switch back to that strategy for awhile.)

Written by unitedcats

September 14, 2010 at 6:51 am

The Ekpyrotic Theory: Looking for God at the End of the Universe

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It recently dawned on me why so many religions are so threatened by a few branches of science. It’s because certain branches of science, like SETI, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and astronomy are all basically looking for God. They are looking at the origin of the Universe, and the origin of the human race, and even if they aren’t actually looking for God … this is where God is supposed to be in so many religions. Yes, at the origin of the Universe, we should find this big glowing bearded white guy on a plinth, saying “Let there be light.” Well, there might be, but him and his plinth exist in five to nine dimensional space and don’t look like anything our feeble brains can even conceive of. In any event, this is a background and conclusion post to some of my long promised posts about God and the origin of the Universe and how the Universe created itself. I skip over a lot of details here because they would make the post too long, and more importantly, if people can follow my logic here, it will be far easier to go back and clarify in future posts. Also if it turns out I have made some glaring mistake, best to find out now and correct it later, assuming it can be corrected.

Now, where were we? Nine dimensional God, right. Fortunately there are humans whose brains are nimble enough to think about five to nine dimensional space, cosmologists and mathematicians for one, not to mention nuclear physicists. And they seem to have come up with a pretty good, experimentally verifiable, logical theory about what is on the “other side,” so to speak, of the Big Bang. Things are actually pretty exciting in these rarefied realms of science now, but one wouldn’t know it from the popular press. So anyhow, there seems to be a logical and scientific origin for the Big Bang. And not only was  the Big Bang logical, it was also inevitable, it was in fact a natural consequence of the nature of reality itself. The universe we live in is only a slice of reality, a slice created by natural events in background reality. Which has always existed. In other words, if God did indeed create everything, he created a reality where the Big Bang and the creation and evolution of our Universe were natural and inevitable outcomes of the nature of reality.

In other words, if God exists, he created a reality so perfect and self sustaining, that no God is required. In other words, (yeah, will be saying that a lot as I try to understand and explain this,) if the Ekpyrotic Theory pans out … there is nowhere left for God to hide. Now of course this theory doesn’t explain everything, in fact it’s clear now that reality is so complex by definition there will be things we can’t explain, but it does explain how we got here. Reality has always been here, the Big Bang wasn’t the “‘start” of anything, it was just another event in the seething mass of five to nine dimensional quantum reality for lack of  a better name. Well, I think cosmologists call it the “bulk” but that’s both  singularly tepid, and also inaccurate. There’s incredible things going on “out there,” our universe being only one example.

Now there’s two things with the Ekpyrotic Theory that make it particularly attractive as explaining the origin for the Big Bang. For one thing it eliminates the need for a singularity as the source of the Big Bang. What’s a singularity? Um, it’s where you cram a large amount of mass, say up to a universe, into  a dimensionless point. Some trick, eh? Well, no longer needed, since the Ekpyrotic theory says the Universe started as a cosmic string, and that has dimensions. What’s a cosmic string? A topic for another post, trust me. Secondly, the Ekpyrotic Theory does away with the need for the Inflationary Epoch to explain the early hyper fast expansion of the Universe.

So the Ekpyrotic theory, to sum it all up now, not only explains the origin of the Big Bang, it makes the Big Bang Theory  an even more elegant and therefore robust theory. And this will all be tested on the Large Hadron Collider, because if one can look at the basic structure of the Universe at a fine enough scale, predictable effects from these proposed “outside the Universe” realities bleed through so to speak. This is what I meant when I said scientists were going to look for God by weighing “tiny pebbles.” Well, no, much smaller than pebbles. Tiny little bits of our reality itself hurled to speeds not seen since the Big Bang. And at this scale things should be effected by forces “outside” of reality. Well, outside of our Universe, a universe that is but a slice of a much greater vaster reality that has always been here.

No God required is my final analysis. At the very least the “Well, everything has to have a creator” argument  is demolished. Reality has always been here quietly (well, it’s probably a noisy process in a  manner of speaking) spawning universes, ours being just one of an infinite number of them. And if one still wants to believe in God, well, he was clever enough to create a reality that appears to have always existed and doesn’t require the hand of God at any point to work. God’s day of rest so to speak lasts forever. So if you see a big glowing bearded white guy sitting on a beach chair in Cabo with a drink with a tiny umbrella in it, tell him to get back to work. Pretty sure though he’ll just point to his t-shirt which has  “Not My Problem Anymore” printed on it.

(The above image may help some understand other dimensions, pictured is a hypercube or tesseract, a cube in four dimensions. A tesseract is to the cube what the cube is to the square. Notice there are eight areas bounded by six sides, eight “cubes” if you will. The one on the interior, the big exterior one that encloses them all, and the six that surround the inner core. All eight of these cubes are exactly the same size and consist of all right angles, but of course we can only draw a poor three dimensional representation of a tesseract in our reality. Oh, it’s a public domain image too. It future posts I will expand on cosmic strings, brane theory, problems with the Big Bang and other supporting elements of the above, if people are interested.)

Written by unitedcats

June 22, 2010 at 7:11 am