Here is the second of my two talks that I gave at the Seattle chapter of the Ethical Culture Society, this one is from November 4, 2004. (See yesterday's post for the first ...)
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What do you believe?
David M. H. Workman
People can be very fervent in their beliefs.
I’m talking about the good old fashioned argument of science versus religion. By religion, I mean the organizations whose purpose it is to evangelize a monotheistic God.
What do you believe in? Is there a god? Is there a controlling “force” in the universe? Is our existence and our future pre-determined for us?
Our beliefs are based on our own experiences, what our parents and teachers teach us, what we read, whomever we decide is telling us the truth. And what about our sometimes irrational interpretations of all of the above?
We often choose mentors, consciously or unconsciously, whom we look up to and whose opinion we respect – and they have a great impact on what we believe in. Sometimes the respect for another person’s opinion is based on a logical presentation of cold hard facts, sometimes on fear, sometimes on the charisma of the presenter.
As a parent, I am continually afraid of someone “filling my kids head with a bunch of crap”, if you’ll pardon the popular expression. Every parent feels this way – but every parent’s idea of “crap” is different. For many parents, religious opinions are just the tip of the iceberg; you don’t dare talk to their kids about politics, off-color humor, sex education, the right to bear arms, or if the Cubs will win the World Series next year.
Ultimately, we need to guide our children in the beliefs, ideals, and ethics we think are important, but let them choose their own path. Oftentimes, the harder you force a particular point of view, the more likely a child will rebel against it.
I grew up in a fairly religious household – we were not Christian, but my family had a strong belief in the modern idea of a monotheistic God.
One of my mother’s teachings was that science and religion have to go hand in hand. “Science without religion,” she used to say, “results in abominations like the H bomb. Religion without science results in belief in the bogeyman.” While I agreed with the second half of that statement, I never did buy the first part. Early on, I saw that there was a lot of hatred and mass murder in the name of religion. A lack of religion does NOT necessarily mean a lack of ethics.
As any parent would feel when her son’s core beliefs stray from how he was raised, my mother was disappointed in my atheistic views. She was very proud of me as a human being, and my unwavering faith in the innate goodness of mankind. But from far back as early as I could remember, I choose to believe in the “truth” that science had to offer and could not accept the existence of God.
I have spent a good portion of my life studying the laws of physics, and personally, I am quite convinced that the universe is governed by immutable physical properties and interactions that are ultimately describable and measurable.
No, we do not understand all of the laws of physics. Some physical interactions are exceedingly complex. And yes, there are some questions that we will probably never answer to everyone’s satisfaction.
For example: one of the most common “unanswerable” questions is “is there other intelligent life in the universe”. How often have you had this conversation with someone? The most common conclusion is that “With the billions of stars, it is very unlikely that we’re alone in the universe. It would be very arrogant of us to think that we are the only intelligent life.” This is a very safe answer, and a fairly logical conclusion to make. This is a fine opinion to have. But we have no proof either way. The logical next question, however, is a little bit trickier – “assuming there is other intelligent life in the universe, how likely is it that we will ever make contact with them?”
I’ve tried to reason this out logically. The universe is just under 14 billion years old, and some 150 billion light years across with expansion. Current theory is that life cannot exist in “first generation” stars because there weren’t enough metals. So we’ll guess that intelligent life has only existed in the second half of the universe’s life. This leaves us with 6 billion years. So suppose that during the last 6 billion years, a million different planets scattered throughout the universe each transmitted a radio signal continuously for a million years.
Based on my admittedly rough “back of a napkin” calculation, there is a less than 50/50 chance that one of these radio signals would cross the earth’s path for one day during the 5 million years that human beings have existed on Earth. Unfortunately, we’ve only been able to send and receive radio signals for the last 100 years. The vast majority of the million signals will never cross our path. A good portion of the signals zipped by us before the dinosaurs roamed the earth and some are making their way across the universe and will get here in a few billion years. I’m not sure I want to wait around.
We assume that if we make contact with other intelligent life, it will be with radio waves. A fairly safe assumption, as that is the surest way to transmit information over long distances. Here’s an interesting statement: a message only exists when it is contained in a physical carrier. I have an envelope here in my hand. Do you know what the message is in this envelope? It’s a secret. Currently, this message is printed on the paper in this envelope, and it exists as magnetic data on my hard drive. However, I could also transmit the message over radio waves or by modulating a beam of light. I can etch it in stone or transmit it through the air with sound waves. But all of these physical carriers can be destroyed, whether the carrier is electronic, magnetic, chemical, sound, or printed on paper. If the carrier is destroyed, the message within also gets destroyed. It is irretrievable. I thought about setting the envelope on fire, just to add a little drama to my talk, but I didn’t think it would be appreciated it if I set your building on fire. There’s an argument that you could potentially retrieve the message from the ashes of the paper, and that’s actually quite similar to the forensic detective work that scientists do to decipher radio signals that come from across the universe. For a long distance transportation of a message, radio waves are the best bet.
Is there other life in the universe? I don’t know. If there is, will we ever know about it? I believe the answer to this question is no. That is MY belief.
However, this belief is based upon other beliefs. For example, I just quoted the size and age of the universe. Do you believe the numbers I just gave you? Admittedly, I haven’t actually done the measurements myself. I agree with the generally accepted conclusions that other scientists have come up with, but what if they are wrong? And their calculations are based on the generally accepted limit of the speed of light. Do you believe that the speed of light, as postulated by Einstein, is just under 300 million meters per second? Do you believe, as stated in general relativity, that there isn’t anything that can travel faster than this?
Physics is a process of observing natural events, postulating a formula that describes these events, and taking measurements to verify the formula. But you need to start from a logical foundation. In the late 70’s there was a really popular “pyramid power” craze, inspired by a book of the same name published by Dr. Pat Flanagan in 1973. Do you remember that? We were told that Pyramids could harness the power of the earth.
Ok. You do a little research and find that the proper angle of a pyramid’s side is 52.606 degrees from the floor, and after it’s constructed, the pyramid should be aligned with one side facing the North Star (rather than magnetic north, a very embarrassing mistake of novice pyramid builders). If done right, according to the book, it will focus the Earth’s energy much like a magnifying glass can focus sunlight, and can generate enough heat to fry an egg placed in the middle. So, being an open minded scientist, you decide to try it. Dang. It doesn’t work. You go back and research some more and find you didn’t build your pyramid out of copper, a material which resonates at the proper frequency to maximize the magnification. So you rebuild it out of copper, and in great anticipation, you try it again. Dang, it still doesn’t work.
Was this a logical foundation for a scientific experiment? There are people telling you all sorts of oddball things every day. Who do you believe? Why do believe any of them?
As I said before, we do not know all of the laws of physics. We may discover new properties of physics that seem to be in direct conflict with our existing understanding. This has happened many times – a good example is Newton’s gravitational equations. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Newton’s theory of gravity. His 300 year old equations can be used to precisely calculate how much thrust is needed to shoot a rocket to the moon and model the orbit of the moon around the earth. However, when Einstein came up with his ideas for relativity, there was a problem. The problem was that Newton’s equations did not account for the speed of light. So – according to Newton, if the sun were to suddenly explode to the point where it’s gravitational field collapsed, the Earth would immediately be released from the Sun’s gravity. There are no “time” or “speed” factors in Newton’s equations. However, Einstein says that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and it takes 8 minutes for light to reach Earth from the Sun.
Recent experiments have resolved this issue. We now know, beyond any doubt, that Gravity also travels at the speed of light. For eight minutes, the Earth would be held in the sun’s gravitational field, even if the Sun didn’t exist. So are Newton’s equations flawed? No – they just aren’t complete.
We might find that our understanding of many of our fundamental laws of physics is incomplete. However, it’s an iterative process … the more we understand the nature of the universe, the more precision we add to our equations, and the higher confidence we have that certain things really do work the way our calculations say they really should work.
What’s interesting to me is that, while the rate of scientific discoveries is progressing, and we’re refining our equations to accommodate the new knowledge, we’re finding less and less actual conflicts with the already known laws of physics.
The speed of light is a constant that has been verified over and over again in many different experiments. The concept of relativity is complex, but almost beautiful in its elegance.
Quantum mechanics, which is a much harder concept to grasp and is NOT as elegant as relativity, has been verified experimentally to within one part in a billion – the measured data agrees with the theoretical equations to the limits of our measurement technology.
Ohm’s law, which states the ratio of voltage to resistance and current, is a very simple concept – it is one of the very first things you learn in a basic electronics class. Simple, yet incredibly powerful. We can now control electrons down to such an amazingly discreet level. We can build computers with hundreds of millions of transistors turning on and off 3 billion times a second, and it all works because the electrons truly do behave the way that the calculations say they should.
It is very similar with gravity, but with a twist. Physicists are still unsure whether the “Graviton” exists as a quantized particle or not. We know quite a lot about Gravity, but there is also a lot we don’t know – and currently we can not control gravity the way we can control electrons. However, if we do find proof of the existence of the Graviton, we will probably make the discovery by being able to manipulate one – if you prove that you can manipulate something, you have proved that it exists. Can you imagine what our world will be like if we learn to control gravitons the way we control electrons?
But in the meantime, we’re stuck with good old Newton and Einstein for our understanding of gravity. And if I hold up this tennis ball and let it drop, I am pretty sure that Gravity will pull it towards the Earth, and it will fall “down” instead of “up”. Let’s try it. Good. Again. We can calculate, based on the balls mass, the Earth’s gravitational pull, the wind resistance and other factors, exactly how fast the ball will travel as it is pulled towards the earth. And without SOME form of external physical force, say a jet of air that creates a Bernoulli lift, we can drop the ball billions of times over billions of years and it will ALWAYS fall “down” towards the earth. This is experimental data that verifies the theorem.
What if you convinced every person on the planet, at the same time, to try to “will” the ball to go “up” instead of “down”? Is there enough “mental energy” to our collective humanity to overcome the weight of a simple tennis ball? I have not seen any plausible indication of such “mental energy” myself – but I do not deny its existence. I only assert that, if it does exist, it must be quantifiable and consistent in its interactions with other physical objects – even if we don’t have the technology to measure it.
There are many people that believe in God, but say that the existence of God does not invalidate the laws of physics. I have read a lot of books on both science and religion, studied compelling arguments of different philosophies, and have run through an unending series of “what if” questions that can lead to an infinite choice of conclusions. But for me, it comes down to a single black/white question:
Are the laws of physics truly immutable, unbendable, everlasting, fixed interactions (whether we understand them and can explain them or not), or can God “bend” the laws of physics ever, even in the tiniest, slightest, little bit?
Let’s go back to the question of trying to contact other intelligent beings in the universe. Can God instantly deliver a message to a planet on the far side of the universe? Do you agree with my assertion that information can only exist if it is contained in a physical carrier? Do you agree with the mathematical formulas that postulate that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and the mounds of experimental data that precisely verify the formulas to within the limits of our measurement abilities?
What do you believe?
I believe we have a moral and ethical obligation to teach our children about science.
I believe that human beings are good.
I believe we can abolish racial prejudices worldwide.
I believe it’s OK to have Canadian bacon and pineapple on a pizza.
I believe it’s better to say “I don’t know” than to make up some cockamamie story just to get people to stop asking questions.
I believe that the universe is governed by immutable laws of physics.
I believe religion is the greatest fraud perpetrated on mankind.
I believe that humanity does have the capability to abolish war forever, feed and educate every person on the planet, maintain the environment, and create a meaningful and productive future for our children and future generations.
And I will ask you again. What do you believe?