Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Getting it all wrong again: When does it end?

Just like Fred Phelps, who can be counted on to endlessly make Pavlovian responses like the dogs baited to salivate when confronted with fresh meat (from Pavlov's original experiments), a certain bilious "pastor" never fails to meet our own expectations for him (which are always near zero in the rarefied realm of deep understanding). I'm not going to expose all the gazillions of bits of codswallop on his latest blog effort - but will focus on one or two particular statements.

He writes:

"Now , if there is no God , then both mankind and this universe are inevitably doomed so life has no purpose or meaning for a universe cannot generate its own meaning or value ."

Of course, this is non sequitur and nonsense. Merely because there is no external or imposed purpose, doesn't mean meaning or purpose doesn't exist. As long time atheist Victor Stenger has put it ('The New Atheism', p. 235) instead of a purpose-driven life (where the purpose is supposedly supplied outside us) the atheist chooses to have a life-driven purpose.

As for the universe "generating its own purpose", this is now more than ever seen as total wishful thinking. While further conceptual/conceptual development remains (the work of science is never final) it is clear that any postulated innate purpose of the cosmos can already be regarded as a redundant anachronism. If the cosmos can “bootstrap” itself into existence via quantum fluctuation, and acquire “order” (even in highly limited domains) via the implicit laws of statistical and thermal-quantum physics – then it has no need of a “creator” (or “designer”) and no purpose other than to exist.

This is a hard nut for many evangelicals to process, but there it is. Until they at least remotely grasp the basis for spontaneous inception via quantum bootstrapping, they'll always be a day late and a dollar short, conceptually. From that point of view, we must try to be tolerant and generous of their mental or psychological shortcomings.

The bottom line: No extraneous being is necessary to ensure the cosmos' continued stability or existence. More bluntly, the addition of such a being doesn’t advance the quality of our research, or improve our predictions by the most remote decimal place. Hence, to all accounts such a being (or purpose) is totally superfluous. Thus do humans, as generic offshoots of the cosmos, have any purpose other than to be. If they seek an additional purpose, they must craft and forge this subjectively of their own accord – rather than looking for it on high.

Does this mean that all concepts of “God” are outright null and void? Not at all. It merely requires that believers carefully re-think the concept so that it is consistent with the absence of higher or extraneous purpose. As Bernard d’Espagnat notes [1]:

The archaic notion that is conveyed by the words ‘Lord’ and ‘Almighty’ will presumably never recover its full efficiency for lulling the ontological qualms of mankind. For a religious mind, turning towards being should therefore become a subtler endeavor than the mere acceptance of the heavenly will stated in the Bible, formulated by the priests, and exhibited by miracles.”

Finally, the abolition of extraneous higher purpose should not incur any insuperable psychic loss for humanity. As Marilyn French has aptly observed:

"It is a loss of dignity to define humanity as a race defined to please a higher Being, rather than as a race whose only end is to please itself. The ‘gift’ of purpose to the human race is thus very expensive: one can fulfill one’s God-given purpose only by sacrificing felicity while one is alive"

The fundie blogger, unperturbed, continues:

"This universe , as I mentioned in talking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics is running out of useable energy and will one day burn out and all matter will collapse into black holes . "

Of course, this is palpably and immeasurably WRONG! I don't know where exactly this guy has learned his physics, but perhaps it is from comic books, or maybe from fundies online who also don't have a clue what they're writing about. (Which may be a good reason for him to buck up and take the basic physics test I posted:


to see if he is qualified to discuss any physics topics at all! (Caleb Shay did it, and passed with flying colors, and I'll be posting the ones he got right!)

Anyway, let's look at Pastor Perplex's physics errors. First, and foremost, he mangles entropy and the 2nd law. He forgets that Noether's principle applies here (universe at large), and in case he forgot it, we remind him: “Energy is that quantity that’s conserved because of time-displacement symmetry”. The last segment, “time-displacement symmetry” refers to the constancy of physical laws in time. Time goes on, but the laws of physics retain a constancy of their properties within it.

In ordinary texts, energy is usually defined in a limited way as “the ability to do work” but this operational definition depends in no small part on the fact that the total amount of energy in the universe can neither increase nor decrease – in other words, mass-energy is conserved. (Since, as an aside here, mass and energy display equivalence via the well known Einstein equation: E= mc^2) Again, this is the embodiment of Noether’s principle.

Apart from this, bear in mind the 2nd law only holds for closed systems. It is not at all clear, however, that the universe is closed. First of all, it is possible that the fact 73% is comprised of dark energy (vacuum energy with repulsive gravitation) plausibly means the universe as a system isn't closed, hence isn't constantly losing "useable" energy, since so much is dark energy (actually now responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe), and second, if the universe is really one of a multiverse (see all prior posts pertaining to this) then also a single universe can't be said to be "open" or "closed" with certitude. (Recall I gave the topological conditions under which an inter-penetration of cosmi can occur, see: http://brane-space.blogspot.com/2010/09/more-on-multi-verse-concept.html

What about the universe ending by being sucked into "black holes" as he claims? Not likely at all, since black holes are one component of the dark matter in the cosmos, but this only comprises some 23% of it, while dark ENERGY comprises nearly 73%! Thus, dark energy will actually have the "last word" diluting the cosmos in some 10^88 years hence (see: http://brane-space.blogspot.com/2010/09/dark-energy-overwhelms-cosmological.html)

He prattles on:

"Mankind is therefore slowly dying so we are like prisoners on death row just awaiting the execution call . Has our life really no purpose or ultimate significance? "

Again, he exaggerates and makes stuff up. No one is "dying as a prisoner", certainly as any "hostage" to the ulimate fate of the cosmos. (Humans will end long before then, and likely not because of anything the cosmos does or doesn't do, but because of a calamitous, human-caused runaway greenhouse effect that will eliminate most crops, and useable water by 2400 AD) But, like it or not, mankind isn't special in any case, and no one in his right mind ought to believe so! As Benjamin Franklin put it oh so indelicately: "No Supreme Being of the universe would ever be concerned with such an essential nothing as Man".

The reason is clear: on a realistic cosmic scale, humans represent another randomly evolved and purposeless species, which may be viewed as no more exalted than a cockroach to a vastly more advanced (say, alien) civilization, of which there may be millions in the cosmos. Even if not one alien species exists superior to humans, our species still doesn't represent any pinnacle. Indeed, if this is the best a god could do, all I can say is it must be a pretty pathetic god! But god or evolution, humans are as subject to extinction as any other animal species, which is what we are. And, if we err like other animal species, say by overpopulating beyond the ability of the planet to support us, we will end up just as extinct as dodo birds, or dinosaurs.

Again, "ultimate significance"? No way. There's no such uppity critter in the cosmos!

Now he engages in more fanciful moralizing:

"Ironically , atheists think that if they could get rid of God , they can live free from the shackles that bind them . Instead , they discover that by removing God , they remove the ONLY meaning for their life . Paradoxically , often the most ardent atheists are keen to push what they regard are meaningful agendas , and are extreme feminist , pro-abortion , anti-prayer , environmentalist , homosexual and animal rights lobbyists . If there is no meaning in life and no future for this planet , why do they care so much?

First, all atheists and secularists wish is to live free from the shackles of the psycho, Giant Paddler you worship as a god. Keep this thing to yourself and all be well. As for living free from natural limits, no - we aren't that dumb. We understand if we are not proper stewards of this world, we will become extinct. We understand the need to care for it, and not let it become inundated with pollutants, wastes, and CO2 or other greenhouse gases, which will convert the planet to a real hell hole.

As for why we care so much, about the "agendas" you identify, it's because we believe other humans are autonomous individuals who deserve some quality of life, via their OWN choices, not having them foisted or forced on them by a false god.

Thus, humans SHOULD be able to make their own sexual choices! Women SHOULD be able to exert governance over their own bodies! People SHOULD be allowed to protect their shared environment and expect the government to also cooperate in this, via proper protections and regulations- say like not allowing rocket fuel (potassium perchlorate) to get into our watersheds, and engender millions of cancers each year!

As for prayer, we have no objections to it - once done in private or silently. Or in the head. Outward praying is not needed, and you and I both know only done to make others - such as non-Christians, feel isolated.

As for caring for the future of the planet, if there is no ultimate cause - well, THAT IS precisely the point! In this sense, the philosophy of Materialism-Atheism posits species survival as paramount. A genuine Materialist also accepts that death is final obliteration, and consequently reveres life, but not life without life quality. (e.g. living in a toxic polluted world) His philosophy, unlike many Christians, directs him to abhor violence and seek harmonious co-existence with his fellows in so far as possible without loss of his own integrity.

My underlying premise is that the true Materialist-Atheist recognizes one life to live and acts accordingly. He treasures the material world and acts to ensure it’s preserved for the benefit of all. Since there is NO hereafter, we have to make sure this HERE is the best it can be!

And lastly:

"Another problem for atheism is that if there is no God and all our thoughts , desires , actions are just random chemical processes in our brain governed by the fixed laws of nature then there is NO FREE WILL ! For if man is a totally material entity , then any apparent freedom is illusory as the "fixed laws of nature" govern our actions . The Oxford University chemist and prominent atheist , Peter Atkins said as much : "Free will is merely the ability to decide , and the ability to decide is nothing other than the organized interplay of shifts of atoms" ( P.W. Atkins , The Creation ; WH Freeman & Co , p.7 ) . So , why do we even waste our time trying to punish criminals if their behavior is fixed by the environment or genetics?

Actually, this isn't just a "problem" for the atheist - but all of us. The atheist, at least, recognizes the problem and doesn't delude himself like most theists into believing the "free will" myth. Even Einstein, as you may recall, had no use for the free will bunkum, as he wrote (in his Ideas and Opinions):

"The man who is thoroughly convinced of universal causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events- provided of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causation really seriously.

He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity – internal and external- so that he cannot be responsible….any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motion it undergoes.”

But as I said, since the atheist values one life to live above all else, he also understands that, despite the non-existence of free will, humans must still be held accountable for their actions - else all would devolve into anarchy and violence. This is why we have the legal infrastructure, and also a highly evolved neocortex to fashion laws, to control our baser instincts. As I noted before, the basis of a LEGAL morality evolved long before gods entered the picture. Humans in agricultural tribes and communities knew that unless they devised sanctions, the weaker members would be unprotected from the predation of the stronger.

THIS is what Dawkins meant by saying we can "outsmart" the Darwinian imperatives that inhere in our more primitive brain regions (like the reticular formation). We have the more advanced brain (neocortex) to do it and don't have to depend on a god or the vagaries of a god's morality (where he protects some tribes one minute and slaughters them the next)

Of course, to those who only perceive reality in a limited way, this will never be grasped, in whole or in part. Chalk it up to evolution coughing up some subset of brains just bound and determined to screw things up for the rest of us! Oh, and inventing a god to justify the magnitude of the screw-up!

[1] d’Espagnat, B. 1983, In Search of Reality, Springer-Verlag, New York, p. 158.

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