My article, “Understanding Believers’ Cognitive Dissonance” , just came out in Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 37, No.2, March/April 2013, Pg. 50. If you don’t subscribe to it, then go buy a copy! Well, what are you waiting for? Go read it!
Where did the universe come from? This is a question that has taunted humans probably since we first became sentient.
Most of the attempts to answer this question over the millennium have come from religion, but in the past 20 years or so, real progress has been made in physics to answer this question. Science seems to say that the universe could have been created from nothing.
The renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawkin has postulated that the universe could have arisen from fluctuations in the quantum foam. Others, such as physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, in his new book, “A Universe From Nothing”, suggest something along the same lines.
I’m not going to go into the science since it is far beyond my capabilities. I’m also not going to get much into the religious and theological arguments. What I do want to look at is a basic, simple premiss: we, as humans, don’t understand time.
We experience time in a linear fashion. This means that we have memories of a past, experience the present, and have expectations of the future. Therefore time, to us, seems have a past, present, and future. Physicists call this phenomenon The Arrow of Time, and due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as well as other factors that involve mind-numbing math, it always flows in one direction.
The most important thing about time, and the hardest one to wrap our heads around, is that time is not separate from space. Time and space are inextricably linked and are collectively referred to as space-time. Time can not exist without space. One of the consequences of this is that time has only existed as long as space has.
Space-time, and the universe it’s self, began, as closely as we can currently work out, 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang, from a singularity (a point of infinite mass), similar to the singularity in the center of a black hole (in fact, some scientists postulate that our universe exists inside of a black hole, but that’s a post for another time).
Scientists have a pretty good idea of what happened as the universe expanded back to about 10^−11 (one hundred billionth) seconds after the beginning of the Big Bang. What happened before that time is unclear. Here, at the very beginning, as in the heart of a black hole, the laws of physics as we know them break down. Nothing inside the singularity can be glimpsed from the outside, but we should be able to, theoretically, go back to the very instance of the beginning. We are close, and the more we study sub-atomic particles with tools like the Large Hadron Collider, the more we are able to learn about these very earliest moments.
The important thing to understand here, for the purposes of this discussion, is that time did not exist before the Big Bang. Since time did not exist until the moment the universe began, the question, “What existed before the universe?”, is non-sensical. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a “before”, it is just that our minds are incapable of conceiving that particular state of things. It most likely was not a time, or a place, or an anything that we can define in terms that human language can express. Only mathematics can express this situation and translating those mathematics into human language is likely impossible, simply due to our innate inability to grasp a concept that literally doesn’t exist in our universe. We just don’t really, and can’t really, understand time. We are trapped in the flow of time, just as a leaf is trapped in the flow of a river. Traveling helplessly onward.
Therefor from my thinking, asking ”What existed before the universe?”, is meaningless. Wether it was created, or if it sprang into existence due to some fundamental laws of physics that we don’t completely understand really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that once it was in existence, everything in it has been subject to laws of physics that are, as far as we can see, so deeply woven into the fabric of space-time that they can not be broken.
The upshot of this means that our universe is self-contained and is subject to those laws. This precludes the existence of a personal God: one who can answer prayers and perform miracles. If there is a god, then it is entirely outside of the universe, and as such, unable to influence, or even know of, anything within it. Hence, worship or prayer to it is useless, except as a way to give ourselves solace if we so choose.
Call it god; call it a quantum fluctuation; call it George, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we are here, if only for the very briefest of moments. Let’s make the most of it.
I saw an interesting TV commercial for a product called TagAway, which supposedly remove unsightly skin overgrowths (those icky lumps of skin that just seem to appear out of nowhere as we get older). The ironic thing about this product is that is is being sold as a Homeopathic remedy, but apparently contains actual ingredients. These include, “Thuja Occidentalis. Other ingredients include Cedar Leaf Oil, Melaleuca Alternifolia Leaf Oil, Ricinus Communis Seed Oil” * What is ironic is that nowhere does it say anything about the X scale of the preparation. From what little I could find about TagAway, it would seem that it is a “real” product, not just water, like “real” homeopathic products (making it a fake homeopathic remedy (a redundant phrase if there ever was one!). I can’t verify much about TagAway’s real effects, except that you shouldn’t ingest it. Buyer beware.
What does this have to do with absinthe, you wonder? Both absinthe and TagAway contain Thujone. Although modern absinthe contains Thujone in very, very small amounts (less than 10 ppm), it is thought that traditional absinthe contained more Thujone and that it was Thujone that was responsible for the supposed hallucinatory properties of absinthe. It turns out that recent studies have shown that absinthe’s psychotropic effects are no different than that of regular alcoholic spirits. The other thing that TagAway and absinthe have in common is that they both contain ingredients from plants and herbs, although, as noted about, don’t drink TagAway (the skin dissolving properties of absinthe aren’t known, are far as I can tell).
What is really interesting about absinthe, at least to me, is that many authors and artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were regular drinkers of the stuff (there is a nice list of them here and here). They sang it’s praises and even wrote poems, stories, films, and painted paintings dedicated to it. There is a mystique and romance surrounding absinthe, something almost magical, from a vibrant and creative period of art history. If you are a writer or artist like myself, absinthe is very alluring and compelling.
Unfortunately, I have yet to try absinthe. After threading my way from fake homeopathy to absinthe across the silky web of the internet, I certainly intend to try it soon.
I just finished watching the documentary, “Indiana Jones and the Ultimate Quest.” It tied the four Indiana Jones movies to real archeology. For the first 3/4 of the show, it was a really interesting, fact based, documentary.
The last 1/4 though, got away from facts and into the ideas that extraterrestrials gave mankind 16 crystal skulls that were spread across the world and would all be found when humans were at a world-wide crisis.
There was no countering that idea with facts or science. Only anecdotal evidence of supposed experts in UFO’s. It was presented as, if not fact, at least very plausible. Of course, every one of these types of claims have been shown to have no evidence at all, and the things they try to explain have been shown to be completely terrestrial.
I love documentaries, but in the past 10 years or so, documentaries have become entertainment, with sensationalism being the driving source instead of facts and evidence. If any of the producers of these types of documentaries believe that they must put this tripe into their shows because otherwise people won’t watch documentaries, they should take a look at the works of Ken Burns, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, or David Attenborough.
I honestly believe that most of us are smarter than the TV network executives give us credit for. I find it sad, and a bit frightening, that even our supposed science shows are dumbed down. What kind of society will be be in another generation if this is now the norm?
I saw a commercial on TV today. Some guy (I didn’t get his name, and it’s not really important) was selling a book that he claimed contained his secret to overcoming any addition. You see things like this all the time. Someone has a cure-all for whatever might ail you.
I’m not going to talk about the details of this guy’s supposed cure. I’m not going to analyze the efficacy of him claims. I want to look at the idea of selling hope; why it is a sign of selfishness and perhaps even sociopathic.
There are plenty of reasons why dubious claims are harmful, just browse the what’s the harm website for a plethora of details. There are many examples there of people who have died because the chose to follow programs that promised a cure for a medical condition. These stories are sad and unnecessarily so.
What what I can’t help but wonder about guys like the one I’ve mentioned here is, if they truly have cure or treatment that is revolutionary and that does what they say it does, then why do they always insist on charging for it? Sure, I know people have to make a living, but I can tell you that if I came up with a treatment that could cure and help a lot of people, I’d want to help as many as I could.
To have a treatment, a real cure, for a disease like MS or cancer, or a treatment that will get people off their addiction and keep them off, would be an amazing thing. The ethical, the moral, thing to do would be to share this with the medical community, to allow others to test it and perfect it, so that it can benefit everyone.
Sure, get compensated. After all, you worked for it. You discovered it. Drug companies would pay millions for something like this. But to horde it, to sell it only to those who could afford your asking price, it the ultimate in selfishness and immorality.
I went to my Son’s church today to hear him sing in the choir. They were really quite good. The music was a mix of gospel and soul with some latin rhythms thrown in. Of course, the lyrics were all “praise the Lord”, and “Jesus” repeated ad nauseum.
I could see that people were moved by the music; many singing and swaying to the beat. It was inspiring. Not inspiring in a spiritual way, but in a “isn’t this great that we can all enjoy this together” kind of way. I can understand why people would be moved to feel as if some kind of spirt was among them.
I felt that too, but it wasn’t a spirit of gods or angels or anything like that. It was a spirit of belonging and sharing. I’ve also felt the exact same feeling at rock and pop concerts. When I saw Elton John, the crowd sang and swayed to the soulful lyrics of “Rocket Man” or “Candle in the Wind”. When I saw Simon and Garfunkel, it was “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovey)”. When I saw Paul Simon solo, it was “You Can Call Me Al”; Barry Manilow, “I Write the Songs”; Chicago, ”Saturday in the Park”.
These musical experiences were all moving and inspiring because it allowed us, as an audience, as humans, to share common emotions of love, joy, tenderness, and excitement. It is the spirit of togetherness and sharing of emotions that is at play here, not the spirit of the lord or any other supernatural entity. Music unites us and allows us to share our humanness.
The pastor (this was a Protestant service, in contrast to my last church experience) gave a sermon titles “The Dangerous People”. According to him, the people who are truly dangerous, “to themselves and others”, are those who “think they know, but don’t know” (his exact words, not mine). He said that we need to be willing to accept council and instruction from others. He couched this in knowledge of the Bible, using Apollos and Paul from the New Testament as examples.
He said that Apollos was a great preacher and very knowledgeble in the scriptures, but that he only knew of John the Baptist, and since he didn’t know of Jesus, he was somehow dangerous to himself and to others. How Apollos was dangerous he didn’t say. What he did say was that once he was told of the true way of Jesus, he learned from that and started preaching the gospel of Jesus. That, somehow, was supposed to show us how we must listen to wise council and not assume that we know everything.
He never said how we can differentiate good council from bad, truth from falsehood, only that we must be willing to admit that we don’t know everything and to listen to those who know more. He also didn’t tell us who “those” are. I found the message pretty muddled. I suppose that you could take from this that we must be humble and open to new ideas, but I didn’t get the feeling that this was what he really meant. To me, he seemed to emphasize the idea of “dangerous people”, but without ever letting us know how to tell “truth” from falsehood.
One other thing that he said really struck me, because it was so self-contradicting. He said that we have the liberty of praising and doing the will of God. How can you do the will of an all powerful god and still have liberty? This is subjugation disguised as liberty. It is the same as saying that Americans value liberty, but then say that we are not real Americans if we don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, completely missing the fact that by pledging allegiance to anything, be it God or country, we are trading our liberty for servitude to some higher master.
I’ve been learning quite a bit from my forays to church. I’ve learned that there are some wonderful ideas out there about how we can be better people, but they always get watered down by the trappings of religion. Instead of using the example of how we should be humble and admit that we don’t have all the answers in order to think for ourselves so that we can learn and grow, it comes down to just having faith. Well, you can’t have faith and truly think for yourself, because to really think for yourself means to question everything, which faith can not allow.
I find it almost sad to see such potential for real understanding of the human condition and the world we live in lost in a morass of faith, platitudes, and servitude to a “higher power”. This makes us compliant and docile, just like the sheep that the shepherd figure of Jesus requires us to be.
I found a cool pic on FB and shared it there. I also downloaded it so I could share it here. I also sent it to PZ Myers because I thought that maybe he could use it for his Anti-Caterday post. Before I could post it here, PZ actually used it for his Anti-Caterday post! I know it’s just a little thing, and it isn’t the first time I’ve got a bit of extra traffic my way from a blogger (Skepchick) who I greatly respect, but it is cool all the same.