Monday, August 25, 2008

Travelers In Endless Space


Astounding as it may be, our solar system barely registers as a blip in the Milky Way galaxy, as pictured above.

As anyone who knows anything at all about astronomy knows, our Earth is one of eight planets (or nine, for those Pluto loyalists!) that orbit that gaseous ball of light and heat at the center of our solar system that we call the sun.

But if one is to take the Book of Genesis literally, the God of the Bible made the planet Earth on Day One and the sun, all of the planets and other bodies in our solar system, all of the stars (and the unmentioned planets that orbit them) in the Milky Way galaxy, and all of the billions of galaxies filled with their billions of stars and planets three days later! However, there is absolutely no evidence outside of the Bible that any such thing occurred at all.

Of course, a Biblical literalist will likely counter that by retorting that there is no evidence that it did not happen that way. If God is all powerful, then God could have made the Earth first before making the sun around which the Earth revolves. Perhaps, but not likely. Maybe it's just me, but when it comes to judging such claims, I have this annoying little quirk of requiring supporting evidence to provide independent confirmation. What criteria might suffice? How about making the Earth the only planet in the solar system, or better yet, the only planet in the Milky Way galaxy? With the discovery of increasing numbers of exoplanets, that is, planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system, it is obvious that planets are a common phenomena in our galaxy, and presumably in other galaxies as well. Therefore, if planet Earth was the first thing created in the universe, then why is it just one among presumably countless numbers of planets orbiting a star?

According to Genesis 1:16-18, "God made two great lights - the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness." In other words, the rest of the universe, according to the Bible, matters only in its relation to the Earth, amounting to little more than some sort of cosmic window dressing. The lesser light that governs the night is generally believed to be the moon, but whoever wrote the creation account in Genesis fails to note that (1) the moon has phases, and in the "new moon" phase it does not provide us any light at all, and (2) quite often the moon appears during the daytime. And while I am in a quibbling mood, the Almighty did not seem to see fit to telling whomever He passed on this tale about the creation that at certain times of the year in the polar regions, there is no lesser light to rule the night sky because the sun does not set.

As for the stars, if they provide any light at all to the Earth, it is but a bare fraction of the light they provide for their own planets. If there are any intelligent beings living on another planet in the Milky Way, I think they would find it quite amusing to be told that the star that gives light and warmth to their planet really only exists in order to provide humans with a point of reference for navigating at night on an Earth that is some hundreds or thousands of light years away. Talk about a geocentric bias!

Beyond that there are all of the stars in the Milky Way that we cannot see with the naked eye, either because they are too far away or their light is obscured by clouds of gas and dust. And then we have the other galaxies in the universe filled with their countless stars. Of course, there are a handful of galaxies that can be seen in the night sky, most notably the Magellanic Clouds. The Andromeda Galaxy can also be perceived without the aid of telescopes, though to the naked eye it appears as nothing more than a tiny fuzzy patch. That Andromeda is a star filled galaxy on the scale of the Milky Way would have been beyond the imagination of anyone before the advent of the telescope. As for the rest of the galaxies and all else that the universe contains, their existence could not even be guessed at by the priesthood of a confederation of semi-nomadic tribes who deluded themselves into thinking that they must be the chosen people of the being they believed created all that they could see. It would be analogous to an ant surveying the visible world from the top of his ant hill and assuming that everything he saw was created with him in mind.

One of my standard answers to the oft' asked question by believers in the Bible "what would it take to make you believe?" is if the Bible got the cosmos right. I mean think about it. The Bible is supposed to be the revelation of the creator of this vast, practically infinite universe to us humans here on Earth. What could this god have revealed to us in revealing the creation to us? How about clearly stating that the Earth revolved around the sun? How about the existence of Australia, Antarctica and the Americas? How about the circumference of the Earth? All of these things, when discovered, would have been devastating evidence in favor of the Bible being a product of divine revelation! Instead, it would not be until the late fifteenth century and onward (the brief Viking presence in Newfoundland aside) that Christendom would even have an inkling of these things. Again, we are told to believe that the Bible is God's revelation to us, but what discoveries has humanity made about the Earth or the universe that were facilitated because of what is written in the Bible? I can't think of anything offhand, though if any reader would care to enlighten me, I should be greatly appreciative.

Below is a video of the Enigma song Morphing Through Time, which contains a softly spoken line by Sandra Cretu that provided the inspiration for the title of this post, "We are just travelers in endless space." I don't know if it was the intention of the creator of the video, but when watching the brief segment that shows a couple of Christian monks walking through their monastery, I couldn't help but think of how small their beliefs are that our affairs on this world are somehow central to the cosmos when compared to the grandeur of the universe that is evoked in the rest of the video. It reminded me of something that Carl Sagan's widow Ann Druyan said at the Center for Inquiry conference I attended in downtown Manhattan last November about what scientists had to offer in their explanations of their discoveries, "We have a much better story to tell."


13 comments:

Brian said...

Good post Tommy! I've made similar arguments from time to time, but that picture really highlights the absurdity of believing that god created the earth over a six day period and then blipped the rest of the universe together as an afterthought when he was finished designing the earth. I'll have to use that.

Tommy said...

Thanks Brian! Yeah, I figured nothing could drive the point home better than the picture.

tina FCD said...

I liked the video you posted. I wish more people would read your blog, like my sisters. :)

Ordinary Girl said...

Nice post, Tommy. That's the one thing I give for evidence that a god exists. If he could show the creation of the universe or explain it and it was scientifically provable, then I would believe at least that he existed (although I don't know if I would believe he created it).

Tommy said...

Thanks for dropping by Ordinary Girl!

valdemar squelch said...

A brilliant post. One of the many faults of religious beliefs is indeed their smallness. They just don't 'get' the universe, while claiming special knowledge of its creator.

Charlotte said...

Nice post :) I find it really sad that some people can look at all the beautiful and fascinating things in this universe and think that unless it was made for them personally, it is all meaningless* and empty.

*not that I'm implying that there is a purpose behind the existence of the universe, only that human lives do not have to be meaningless without religion.

Baconeater said...

God made the rest of the universe because he was bored and he had a lot of space to work with.

ozatheist said...

nicely put, that old saying "a picture tells a thousand words" is very apt here.

how anyone could believe, 'all this' was created in a few days just for them, is beyond me.

Tommy said...

Hi Oz! Thanks for visiting. As for why "they" believe it, I think it is because they have to, otherwise their entire edifice of belief comes crashing down.

Charlotte, I totally agree.

Thanks to everyone else for their kind words, especially those of you who appear to be commenting here for the first time.

mashmouth said...

It is not critical for a belief in a Young-Earth theory to be orthodox. In fact, as a Christian Theist, it is clear to me that (and I just re-read it this morning) the creation account in Genesis is metaphorical. Those who must take everything in the bible literally are not using their full faculties.
Good post... I liked it. Unfortunately your main premise is that literalists are the norm, and that may not be fully accurate, as we are called to love God with our whole minds as well.
Furthermore, it is amazing that the proximity of Jupiter, and its size, creates a vacuum cleaner phenomenon that helps keep Earth viable for life, along with dozens of other 'Anthropomorphic' constants... in other words, what we find in science, when it's done properly, supports an Intelligent design.
One can agree or not, but the facts are the same and it is the interpretation that is based on each person's presupposition.

mashmouth said...

to add one more note, as I just re-read your post... The Bible does not propose to be a scientific treatise. But when it mentions science, it is right... case in point: The sphere of the Earth, mentioned centuries before, in the book of Isaiah.
Heliocentricity was a man-made reading, and rightfully had to roll over to science, since when Science is done properly and with integrity, is never has disproved Intelligent Design; rather, it supports its case.
Peace,
Mashmouth
p.s. I would give up my faith if the body of Jesus would be found, beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the basis of the faith. I don't try to convert; I strive to give different and consistent interpretations to the same data (Latin, 'given') to those who naively presuppose randomness and chance (which, 'chance' is such a philosophically empty word, but that could be for another post). If there is no God, then why is there any thing at all??

Tommy said...

Hi Mashmouth. Thank you for visiting and providing your perspective.

In fact, as a Christian Theist, it is clear to me that (and I just re-read it this morning) the creation account in Genesis is metaphorical. Those who must take everything in the bible literally are not using their full faculties.

My post was directed towards those who do take everything in Genesis literally.

Furthermore, it is amazing that the proximity of Jupiter, and its size, creates a vacuum cleaner phenomenon that helps keep Earth viable for life, along with dozens of other 'Anthropomorphic' constants... in other words, what we find in science, when it's done properly, supports an Intelligent design.

Yes, I have read recently about the role Jupiter plays as a sort of vacuum cleaner, either attracting or repelling killer asteroids, thus limiting the number of major impacts on Earth. But if our universe was "intelligently" designed, why bother to make asteroids at all? You are citing another version of the Douglas Adams Puddle in assuming that some higher intelligence placed Jupiter where it is to serve a particular role, when a god such as one posited by the Bible need not make anything like that at all. When you consider how many solar systems there are in the Milky Way, let alone the rest of the universe, we should not be surprised that in at least one solar system a gas giant like Jupiter inadvertently plays some role in protecting the inner solar system from catastrophic impacts.

One can agree or not, but the facts are the same and it is the interpretation that is based on each person's presupposition.

No argument there! :-)

The Bible does not propose to be a scientific treatise. But when it mentions science, it is right... case in point: The sphere of the Earth, mentioned centuries before, in the book of Isaiah.

If I recall correctly, and I am looking for the passage as I am typing this, Isaiah states that the Earth hangs on nothing. In Isaiah 5:26, it reads "And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth." A sphere does not have an end, just as its center cannot exist on the surface, as some Muslims bizarrely claim about Mecca.

Isaiah 11:12 also refers to the four corners of the Earth, though I allow for the possibility that it is meant as a figure of speech. Isaiah 13:10 mentions that "the moon shall not cause her light to shine." As we know today, the moon does not generate light, it merely reflects the light of the sun.

Okay, I think I found what you are referring to. Isaiah 40:22, which reads "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth." It could be interpreted either as meaning a sphere, or a flat Earth that is flat in the shape of a pizza pie or other circular shape.

I would give up my faith if the body of Jesus would be found, beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the basis of the faith. I don't try to convert

Personally, I don't see it as my mission to turn people away from Christianity. I am far too inadequate for such a task. I merely put out there what I believe and why, and welcome any constructive criticism.

As for the empty tomb, did it ever occur to you that it was written specifically that way precisely because it could never be disproved? Describe a fantastical event witnessed by thousands, and then the story can be dissected. Describe an empty tomb, and doubters have nowhere to go with it. Pure genius on the part of the author of the story, whoever wrote it.

If there is no God, then why is there any thing at all??

That of course assumes that in the absence of a god that nothingness should be the default state. That being said, though I am an atheist, I don't discount 100% the possibility that someone or something made our universe. But even when I open myself up to the possibility of it, I don't find it affirming the Biblical god.

I see the Bible, at least the Old Testament portion of it, as a collection of myths, literature, and some history that Jewish priests put together to give their people a sense of cohesion in a rough and tumble part of the world. That was also the purpose of all those restrictive laws such as keeping kosher and sabbath and such.

Look at it from an outsiders perspective for a moment, if you will. What seems more likely, that an immensely powerful and intelligent being created a virtually infinite universe and then in all of that, on one speck of a planet in one of billions of galaxies, he picks one guy, Abraham, and makes Abraham's descendants his "chosen people," or, the priest and/or leadership cast of the Israelites found it a useful way to maintain a sense of unity and cohesion to survive in a world where they were being constantly invaded and conquered by their more powerful neighbors? Personally, the latter explanation seems the more plausible to me.

Anyway, I've dragged on long enough with this! Thank you again for your comments, and of course you are welcome to provide more if you wish.

Peace and human solidarity.

Tom