The Skeptic's Guide to The Universe

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Observation and thoughts derived from the book The God Delusion: Chapter 10, Dawkins wrote the statement that 96 percent of the population of the United States thinks that they will survive their own death. If one was to say that should I jump off this 12 story building unaided, after I hit the bottom of the pavement, I will survive that fall. Any reasonable person would have no other recourse but to find the nearest phone and call 911 for emergency services. Because my statement would surely reflect a total disconnect to the reality of the Universe. But, if one has a belief in a dogma that tells them that no matter what death they face, they will survive their death, based upon a religious dogma. The general population in the United States will think that they are a person of deeply held religious beliefs.
To even believe to survive after one ’s own death when no known physical reality, experiment or study can support or attest to that possibility, is surely the zenith of a person with a grand delusion. Even marginalized concepts, such as ghosts, trolls, spirits, angels and so forth, boarder on the absurd when one is dealing with the reality of their own life. I tried to come up with some sort of comparison, which would be a simile with that concept. The closest one I could come up with was, if someone believed that Alice in Wonderland was based upon eyewitness evidence instead of Lewis Carroll's imagination. Even this is a poor example to show the level of self deception and blind faith one must go through in order to accept such an absurd premise. I really cannot imagine a more bizarre and unbelievable concept. But as Douglas Adams once wrote, [to paraphrase] The more unbelievable the idea is, the more virtuous the person is that believes it or as Richard Dawkins wrote, “Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief.” I assume that must have been the idea behind The Electric Monk idea in Adams' writings.
Other observations and views from The God Delusion. The premise that life originated on Earth, is one that is abiogenisis. While no one can for sure know the way life began on Earth, the evidence that there is life on Earth leads one to investigate with scientific means, as to what life is and how long it has been on the planet. These areas are supported by many areas of scientific research including: Biology, Physics, Chemistry, paleontology, Plate tectonics, Molecular Biology, archeology, genetics, climatology, astronomy, cosmology and many other disciplines of scientific research.
One question that I have not seen addressed or answered was on a multi-genesis of life on Earth. When dealing with the probability of life and the processes that are needed to be in place for it to occur through chemical and physical forces, one must conclude that the possibility for more than one origin of life on Earth is as likely as a single source of life on Earth.
I bring this point up not as a scientist but as a layman that finds this question interesting. Is it possible that the origins of, say, plants and animals and fungus , all began with different points of origins and that the most convenient way to transfer molecular information is in the form of DNA nucleotides? I don't know and I have not heard this addressed. Could DNA simply be the “Lego blocks” of the biological universe and on our planet it makes for the most convenient way to have life.
I did attend a lecture of Richard Dawkins in Norman, OK and asked him this very question. I have looked for the video on line , and as of the date of this writing, it is not available. I do know that it was recorded.

He made the allegory that when you lose your keys you look under the lamp post because that is where the light is. (This relates that there is the possibility that other life may have evolved and died out prior to it taking foothold. We can only find something in the areas where we are able to examine.) But, there is still a possibility that non DNA based life is on Earth. A chance but very remote. There isn't any chemical or physical reason why it cannot happen.

He mentioned the work of two scientists, but I do not recall their names. The result of the research touched upon the view that DNA research had determined once DNA was established, the four chain nucleotides were "'frozen in place." This indicates that since all life known on Earth is based upon the four series that the conclusion is that all known life had a common origin. [xvii]
Dawkins mentioned that it is possible that life could be based upon some other set of building blocks, even here on Earth. This was toward the end of his answer. But this really points to discovery of life extra-terrestrial. As of right now, we only have life on Earth to compare life to.
He didn't give a "yes" or "no" answer, as a good scientist should avoid, but the conclusion I gather is: Yes there could have been multi-origins of life, but if they did, they were evolutionary dead ends or those organisms became food for the current set of DNA based life. As far as Biology and other science “know”, only DNA based life is known to exist in The Universe.
The point went something like this. Regardless of how common or rare life is, it has happened at least one time. (this got a chuckle from the audience) "We know this because we are here." But depending on the yet to be discovered million and millions of stars and yet undiscovered planets to find life on, this will lead to an answer to this type of question.
In another part of the lecture, Dawkins said there are also countless questions that we do not have answers to. This seems to be one that we can ask but not answer from our limited place in space and time. Thankfully, science looks like it will have plenty of work ahead of it for many years to come.

What is the evidence that life is formed from a single source? Isn't it DNA itself? I know about the mapping of genome and the matching of similar genes in different species. But isn't that also the most convenient way for life to exist? Again to refer to Douglas Adams, Isn't this hole nicely suited to me, so “says” the water held in said puddle.
Simply put, DNA may be the most convenient way for life to sustain itself regardless of what form it took in basic form. Plants, animals and fungus all could be part of a cosmic factory that made several attempts at life and only two or three were sustained with the natural forces of the planet working both for and against life. As far as the planet Earth goes, there is no reason to have life on it than any other planet. There were millions of years with no life on Earth and there will be millions of years in the future that no life will be on Earth. We just got lucky that our time is now. Imagine the cosmic queue for life yet to come. There is no divine plan for creation of anything that is alive. There is life because there is life. We beat the odds.
So what drives the forces of life on Earth. It could be the basic idea that life itself is an oddity and that life seeks to sustain itself because it “knows” it has no right to exist. The truth of the matter is rocks , water, metals and other non-living things on Earth have the “right” to be here well before any bacteria, fish, bird, shrub or tree do. For the inorganic and non living are what most of the known universe is made up of. They are the majority.
Now the exclusivity of life is based upon all the known places we know life exists, namely Earth. There has been recent evidence that life may have existed on ancient Mars and even the possibility that it could currently exist subsurface on the Mars. But in view of the inability to analyze any samples of what life may be on Mars, the comparison to life on Earth must remain , at best, a subject of conjecture and preliminary data. There has even been hypothesis put forth for life on other places in our solar system. One of the more bizarre ones is for floating life in the clouds of Venus. That indeed would be a most usual life form. I feel that one is at best a wish.
Why is this question relevant? I would like to try to address this since the idea seems to be among homo sapiens that we somehow have a privileged or special place among the life on this planet. What is the chance that life would happen on Earth? There were indeed many overwhelming factors that had to be overcome for just the change of life to occur. Based upon calculations from Drake's Equation, [xviii] one could figure that the chance of life to occur starts in the billion to one or even trillion to one. This, of course, is a high hurdle for life to overcome. But with each step life did indeed make the next step and we are here, alive on this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy, in this universe. So regardless of the unlikelihood, we are here to prove that life did, indeed, on at least one planet, on Earth. This equation doesn't require any outside influence of a supernatural for life to occur. The signs of life through out the universe seem to support the Drake equation, but as we only have one source planet of life, that is a bit disingenuous. But in The Milky way we are looking now with the Kepler Space observatory to find other planets that could support life.
But it is not beyond reason or even probability. It is somewhat amazing to me how the critics of evolution will point out the “impossibility” of DNA or RNA from forming in the hostile environments of ancient Earth but have no problem with saying that man was scooped up from the ground, like so much kitty litter, and then a god blew on it and it magically came alive. Science can offer such evidence of life making processes as the experiment to show how these building blocks may have formed.
Creationists counter with, “because the Bible says so,” and “Scientific experiments that point the way to origins using natural processes are wrong and miss the fundamentals. God made life by speaking it into existence.”
The hurdle , that the nucleic acid had to over come to use amino acids and proteins to carry genetic information, is low compared to the “Supernatural to Natural Transference Device” hurdle that is “required” for immaterial things to become material. If I was to gamble on these two outcomes, even bet my life on it, I would take the long term evolution train every time.
I have heard an Intelligent Design advocate ask a question. [Isn't it true that the basic amino acids required to form DNA are not able to form in the primitive Earth?] This is an area of ongoing research . And while an answer is yet to be gained, there is an understanding of the process that these elements could come together using several possible models. The Miller-Urey experiment, in 1952, is well known for using the gases present in the young Earth, based upon conditions determined at that time, forming basic amino acids under laboratory conditions that are needed for life.
One of the best things about science is that not knowing an answer doesn't end the process. It encourages it. So science and the Theory of Evolution do not have all the answers. That isn't the purpose of science. The idea is , that with reason and study, a more plausible idea of The Universe develops out of factual information than from fictional stories that try to match the dots in the sky with exotic sounding stories.
There is a concept that I use often with people that try to exert their fictional (religious) view of reality as the right one. It can not be conclusively proven that the world of the movie "The Matrix" is not the reality in which we live in. As far as evidence, it is as unfalsifiable as almost every other religion. Any proof that would be offered to counter that view of that reality is in itself the proof that it is part of The Matrix, and thus supports the dogma of one who might believe such a story. The same is true with most other religious dogma.
This whole idea of faith and belief is something that helps support the prejudice of human beings , that we are special and life is unique. As I stated before, the mass of material in The Universe is not in support of life at all. The largest mass of known elements in The Universe are hydrogen and helium. These make up the fuel of the stars. Then when reducing down to planets, we can take an example for our own solar neighborhood that most of the planets are gas giants, made up of the same two elements and other trace elements including metallic hydrogen. However, life, which is made up of some of the more rare elements has most say in how The Universe is viewed on Earth. Life views itself as special and the rest of The Universe as worthless or of little value.
This relates to the seminar that Dawkins gave on "The Purpose of Purpose" which I attended in Norman, Oklahoma. What is the purpose of a bird's wing or a cave or a green field? Dawkins used the terms, archeo-purpose and neo-purpose. Archeo-purpose relates to what an item is for that is naturally occurring. Such as mentioned a birds wing or a certain color or sent of a flower. Evolutionarily, a birds wing has no purpose it serves a function of flight that was the path that natural selection took for the class of animals aves. As we well know not all aves, have the capacity of flight. [thanks to Morgan Freeman] But the wing of an aircraft is created for a specific purpose. That purpose can be to transport people from one location to another location through the air. This human created wing would be called a neo-purpose item.
So humans determine what is the purpose of items we make and because we have the capacity to reason and associate form and function of items and cause and effect of events, we make assumptions of the purpose of the things that natural has in it. This assigned purpose from humans mixed with faith would lead people to have a prejudiced view of the purpose of a naturally occurring event. Such as earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural events. This complemented with man's ability to make up stories and manipulate people and nature makes events seem as if they have a purpose and even a divine one some would say.
Having such a view would tend to minimize nature, which is the dominate force in The Universe, in favor for a supernatural perspective, which is a totally make believe view of The Universe. The steps that would follow with this view, are ones that logic and reason wouldn't be compatible.
If one believes that cows, chickens and pigs are here by a divine purpose that serves man, one would act according to the belief and not see them as co-evolutionary partners but their meat to serve the nutritional needs of mankind. If one overlooks nature and decides that a place exists in the sky were everyone can go to live after they die. [what does that mean?] Then instead of having a purely natural point of view, this will diminish fact based concepts for imagination based concepts of The Universe. Understanding the concepts of archeo-purpose and neo-purpose can greatly work to clarify our place in The Universe.
To ask such questions as, “What is God's purpose for your life? What Would Jesus Do? Why are we here? And other questions that look to a divine for answers, fail to recognize the basic reality of life. This reality is regardless it is for any life period to occur anywhere it has happened. As unlikely as this makes life to occur naturally, the unlikelihood increases even more so, and with increased improbability, if one supposes a god did it. This concept doesn't disprove a god but the evidence for the known nature of how The Universe works versus the addition of the unknown supernatural, while highly improbable, is still the most likely and more probable answer for life , the universe and everything. [xix]
To explain, As an atheist, my view on origins is based upon the ideas presented by astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and other science disciplines. I will be early to admit my limited understanding of advance concepts of science but I do have a healthy overview of the concepts and I can reasonably listen to lectures and seminars by professionals in the fields and generally understand their ideas. With this in mind, I find the evidence that is presented in science and nature to be the most reasonable and reliable answers for how nature works.
The answers rely upon observations, testing, and established scientific method to come up with the steps of how The Universe is formed. Are all the answers there? No. Do I understand all the answers that are there? No. But I understand enough to have a clear picture. Like a mosaic picture of ancient times, if your are too close you can miss the big picture. So I have a big picture understanding of nature. I would charge that anyone that claims to have all the answers is surely a person to be avoided.
Then there is the view of the supernatural, that it has all the answers. [This in itself should make everyone suspect. After all, no one likes a know it all, or a smart ass.] Divine answers to natural questions not only dismiss actual knowledge but but provide answers to question that science may not have answers to yet. Not to mention those adherents that profess to tell their followers the location of an actual Heaven or Hell, Garden of Eden, Nirvana, Shangri-La, Shamballa and so forth. After all if you want people to trust you enough to place their supernatural life in your hands then you better have all the answers to their tough questions. Plus if you are trusted, they are more likely to hand over their hard earned money.
So is science hard to understand? You bet it is. But it is even more difficult to understand why people will believe an answer that only proof of concept is that a person has faith that it is true. Take all the science in the world and a devout adherent can replace it all with faith. Faith and no proof whatsoever. I believe it was James Randi that said that you take the technology of Today back 50 years and it looks like magic. As of this writing that would 1959. Just on the dawn of the space race with the Soviet Union. The idea that you could take a picture with a devise as small as a credit card, call virtually anyone around the world directly, hold millions of songs on a small metal box and play them through tiny ear pieces, To be able to find answers to questions to just about anything in seconds without having to look it up in an encyclopedia or go to a research library is a thing of science fiction 50 years ago.
But there were people then that were not willing to rely upon the best the world had to offer and worked to turn science fiction into reality. Today, the James Bond tracking system seems quite quaint and antiquated for today. Granted the space age laser weapons have not become a hand held commodity but the non-lethal force shock guns certainly have come a long way and are an object that would have been viewed as magic or out of this world at the time. Other such common place items now such as music and TV from space on our home and personal entertainment devices, The ability to record and playback video on a card no bigger then a postage stamp. Physical letters becoming almost extinct as a means of communication, being replace by digital communication with both live and delayed messages.
As humans, we can accept advances in things we do not understand as long as there is a socialize reason to accept such things. Better house cleaners, more entertainment, faster food, more information, cleaner hands, longer lasting tires and more as long as these things improve the quality of life and do not touch upon the reasons for life. For that area doesn't belong in the area of technology but in the area of the lack of technology. Faith needs no upgrading, there is no need to have a “New and improved” faith, of a even “longer lasting” faith as faith just wants to be accepted as simply as it can. Once faith has found a nice home it will grow and grow into other areas like an ivy vine that will cover a yard and wall. Where nothing can be see without it being seen through the ivy vines.
Areas of live that prior to faith were unrelated such as working and sexuality are now joined in the ever entwining vines of faith. Faith consumes reason. As it does it dulls the senses and makes reasonable people reject facts and act upon superstition.
This is to say that the no matter how amazing science proves the facts of The Universe, the idea that a god created The Universe makes the concept of that creator even more complex than the natural solution. In the future the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] and the remaining function of the Hubble Space Telescope and the other space research devices and the thousand of hard working researchers and scientists will shine more light on the origins of The Universe. But there will not be a purpose found in any of this.
To this end I would even assert further that the God delusion is a soft name for the hysteria that the religious suffer. Religion reminds me of Douglas Adams' Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal [xx]. If you do not know what that is, feel free to read his book or any other the other mediums which are "rarely done well."

[xix] Thank you, Douglas Adams

Coming in the next posting: God in Chaos: LARRY KING AND THE GHOSTS HUNTERS part twelve

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