What’s it All For?

If one is inclined to look at life with a scientific lens, then it’s difficult to avoid an uncomfortable possibility. What if the whole thing is pointless at the bottom of it all? The universe continually recycles from creation to destruction. It doesn’t matter where you look it mostly comes out the same. Here on Earth the evolutionary process seems exceedingly wasteful. Scientists estimate that more than 99.99% of species that have ever existed are now extinct. In the far distant future it doesn’t look much better. In about 5 billion years the Sun will turn into a red giant; expand and extinguish any possibility of life on our plant. And there is no reason to believe that the universe at large is any different. Noble prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg put it this way, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

The universe goes on and on indefinitely, without a care in the world; it is us who are left to ponder its usefulness. Does the universe have a purpose? For some reason this question rarely comes up. What is it about this question which seems to be off-limits at a time when so much can be talked about openly? It could be that the usefulness of the universe is simply taken for granted. The logic being that such an immense creation must exist for a reason, or perhaps a purposeless universe is just too much to concede. In any event, let’s look at this question in a little more detail.

God’s Plan or Higher Power

There are a wide variety of ideas on what God may have planned. So I will focus my attention on a concept which cast a wide net, specifically heaven or the afterlife. Given that life on Earth is finite, the idea of continuation after physical death is very appealing. This is a common theme for numerous traditional religions, past and present. If one is a firm believer in a traditional God concept, then the usefulness of the universe seems to follow. Surely, if God created the universe, there must be a purpose for doing so. The thinking here is that the universe becomes a means to an end and thus retains its purpose as a stepping stone to the next life. Although, another equally difficult question is this: What is God’s purpose? What is he/she/it getting out of it?

A higher power (also sometimes referred to as a greater power) is a term I’ve heard a number of times as a defacto replacement for God. There is a larger degree of ambiguity with a higher power than traditional God concepts. Although, from the vibe I get from people who use the term, it suggests a purposeful universe. When people say they believe in a higher power they may not be able to articulate what they actually believe in. However, one gets the feeling that it’s enough to do the job. I think the logic here is that the universe has a purpose for being here, even though we may not understand it. 

Earthly Purpose and the Universe

Of course purpose is easy to find here on earth; all higher animals exhibit it on a daily basis. Human life is largely purpose driven; we can look to the future and plan ahead. We build things with a purpose in mind. We undertake activities which we enjoy or find rewarding. As far as the animal kingdom is concerned, their purposes are mostly survival related, such as building shelters, sex or hunting for food. But can this principle be extrapolated to the universe at large? Our purposes usually have goals in mind but what goal can be attribute the universe?

It may be worth considering how much importance human beings have (or any terrestrial beings) in the grand scheme of things. When one puts aside any idea of God or greater power and looks at existence from a purely scientific perspective, the universe appears to be spinning its wheels. In time scales practically unimaginable, the universe continually creates and destroys with no apparent goal. We may be misguided to assume that beings like ourselves matter to the universe. It could be that the universe exists for no good reason and we are just along for the ride.

Perhaps a New Kind of Purpose

A common human inclination is to think that things which are lasting have greater meaning than things that are temporary. I am not immune to this type of thinking; however, I often find myself questioning my own instincts in the face of the evidence. It was not always so clear that all things are impermanent. Ancient cultures would have been keenly aware of constant change in the world around them, but not so much on a grand scale. For example, there was no way of knowing that the Sun would not shine forever, and the Earth would someday be a victim of the Sun’s demise. Today we know that there is no ambiguity here, impermanence is the way of the universe.

A scientific understanding of things points to an ever-changing and evolving universe. In other words permanence cannot be found, both on a small or grand scale. This leads me to ask: is permanence necessary for deep purpose? Perhaps many have been thinking about this incorrectly, and a new perspective should be put forward: can experience be a worthwhile purpose? If all existence is temporary, then the clock is ticking on us all. If we don’t have forever, each moment, each event, each experience may actually gain in purpose. We should not take lightly, the opportunity we are given to experience the world.

 Experience Matters

If not for conscious beings, why would any of this matter? Why would it matter what the universe is doing? It would just go on and on without any observers. Metaphorically, we are the eyes of the universe. I am not just referring to humans here, but any being which acquires the faculty of experience. Of course not all experience is positive, but what is the alternative?

Whether one subscribes to a God, a higher power or something closer to the view of physicist Steven Weinberg, I think all would agree that experience matters. Actually, experience might be the only thing that matters (in particular the quality of experience). In closing, the universe may or may not have a purpose, but again it comes down to consciousness. Without it, the universe would almost certainly be pointless.


 

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Science and Ethics

I am a proponent of science, as the best method for uncovering facts about the world. In its purest form, science is morally neutral; it’s about finding out how things work. The relative easy in which we live our lives in the developed world is largely due to the scientific effort. In spite of its major contributions to civilization, there can be a dark side to the application of science. The power associated with knowledge and technology makes the miss-use of science a real concern. History has shown us that science has at times been a destructive tool.

The 20th century is perhaps the most devastating and deadly period in human history; more than 100 million people have died in wars and conflicts. The scale of human suffering is unfathomable. Clearly, the blame lies in human beings and the propensity to inflict violence on their own kind. Human history is a tale marked by wars, and the borders of the world map have mostly been drawn by conflicts. The role of science in 20th century warfare is difficult to quantify; however, the invention of weapons of mass destruction made the devastation much worse.

Modern science has giving men unprecedented power; that power was unleashed for good and ill. The two world wars immediately come to mind as a turning point in human history. Never before had conflict reached such a scale. The First World War was a major cause for the Second World War that followed, as it set the stage for Nazi Germany. Perhaps both wars could have been avoided had the world leaders realized the horrific potential of their new weaponry. By the early 20th century the potential to do harm had never been greater.

Growing Up Too Fast

Scientific discoveries came about so fast (in comparison to the evolution of civilizations) that the world had not yet developed the foresight to predict its consequences. Was humankind equipped to responsibly handle such power? Perhaps we were a little naive at the turn of the 20th century. People were asking: How could science make life better. The idea that science could lead to unintended and destructive consequences was probably an after-thought.

Some notable examples of science gone astray are:

  • Trying to capture the essence of heredity allowed for the misguided eugenics programs (made infamous by the Nazis, but also implemented to lesser degrees elsewhere).
  • The large number of chemicals introduced to the public and environment was followed by many unforeseen negative effects.
  • Medical science also has its share of outliers, such as the thalidomide babies born with birth defects (from 1957 – 1961).
  • No one could have foreseen that the industrial revolution would eventually contribute to climate change.
  • Probing the atom would unexpectedly lead to the atomic bomb.

On the flip side, understanding the fundamental nature of the atom has led to modern information technology. This is one of the best examples of how difficult, or perhaps impossible, it is to predict how a scientific discovery will affect the future. It starts with uncovering how nature behaves under certain conditions; usually it gets expanded on by other scientists. The applications of technologies and industries follow, and that is where the dark side of science can creep in.

Has the power and speed of introducing technologies outpaced our predictive and ethical judgement? Looking back at the last century, like a child forced to grow up too fast, humankind has not always used good judgement. In some ways, it is paradoxical that in our haste to improve life both positive and negative results ensued. Today, having learned from history, there is more awareness of the potential downside of scientific applications. And that’s a good thing. A benefit in one area could trigger a negative effect in a non-target area. And short-term gains have to be balanced with considerations for longer term risks.

Genetics and Ethical Concerns

In terms of science and ethics, genetic engineering is a modern-day example of the complex questions that can arise with new discoveries. Today, with the hindsight of history, a cautious approach is usually the norm with cutting edge science. Just because we can do something it doesn’t mean we should, but it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. For instance, a new genetic editing technology developed in 2012, called CRISPR, is showing great promise of essentially cutting and pasting DNA. CRISPR can cut and remove a sequence of DNA, or cut and replace a sequence of DNA. However, it is too early to tell if the process will be a smooth as it appears. There may be unpredictable complications ahead.

New advancements in genetics introduce a number of ethical questions: one type allows for eliminating or editing undesirable genes, such as a gene responsible for a deadly disease. Another type is genome enhancement; this would be identifying desirable traits, such as intelligence or physical strength and engineering those traits at the genetic level. Of the two ethical questions, genome enhancement seems more ethically murky. The attempt to alleviate pain and suffering is a noble cause, while improving a species by a subjective rating system is another matter. There is also the value of diversity in a gene pool to consider (a natural protection against any unforeseen threat).

Another important distinction is the difference between somatic gene editing and germline gene editing. Somatic cells are most of the cells in the body, like skin and blood cells. Somatic edits do not get passed on to offspring. Germline edits involve sperm, egg or embryos. With germline editing, changes made to DNA are passed on to offspring, thus affecting future generations. There is a major difference between the two.

Genetic engineering could improve health and well-being; however, it could become subjective or lead to unintended consequences. Who should perform genetic alterations, and when would it be an acceptable practice? Some people believe we should take a cautious approach and suspend the use of some technologies until we know more. While others think we should embrace the new technologies.

We are still in the early stages of genetic technology, however, I can foresee a day when genome sequencing will be part of a normal heath plan. A person would carry their genome with them in the form of an identification card (a more personal social insurance number). A doctor’s appointment would begin with the question: “Can I see your genome?” This hypothetical scenario may be good for some, but for others, the knowledge that they are susceptible to die of a heart attack at age 50 is undesirable. I suppose it would be a good thing if measures could be taken to avoid a potential problem. However, if your future is read through your genome and it says you are prone to be inflicted with an incurable disease, it would be comparable to a death sentence.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

There is no going back and pretending that we should not interfere with nature. We are already too far implicated. In response to the often used phrase, ‘We shouldn’t play God’, co-discoverer of the DNA structure James Watson replied: “If we don’t play God, who will.” Beyond finding solutions for problems we have already created, we also have to determine when to hold back or when to implement existing knowledge. My hope is that history has been a valuable teacher, and that humans will view progress with a more skeptical eye.

Scientific thinking is trending towards holistic concepts. We know too much to arbitrarily divide the world into neat little models. Everything affects everything else, or at least everything affects something else. Our awareness of this simple fact makes implementing new technology more complicated. Adverse side effects could come in ways that are totally unpredictable. The assertion: ‘What could possibly go wrong,’ sounds a little over-confident.

Knowledge is powerful but preferable to ignorance. Scientific knowledge can be viewed in the same light. Humans have not always used science in a positive way, but that does not point to an inherent flaw in the scientific process. All knowledge is ethically neutral, and only when it is applied can ethical questions arise. To continuously grow our knowledge base is a worthwhile endeavor, as the pros far outweigh the cons. Ever since the scientific revolution, we (in the developed world) have enjoyed progressively better lives. Nevertheless, with knowledge there is power, and with power lies responsibility.

References: How CRISPR lets us edit our DNA | Jennifer Doudna, TED Published on Nov. 12, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdBAHexVYzc&t=643s

DNA Episode 4 of 5 Curing Cancer PBS Documentary, Pam Begley Published on July 28, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRzb0DqTo0M&t=5152s


 

 

From Simplicity to Complexity

What makes the existence of life and the universe seem so improbable? Without question, the incredible complexity of all things is at the heart of the improbability dilemma. And it requires some form of explanation. In order to properly examine improbability, we must first address complexity. How can complexity be explained?

The complexity of the universe is staggering, in some ways beyond human understanding. For many, this fact alone can’t be accounted for without a design, particularly when the only alternative considered is chance. With this comparison, design usually wins over chance, and design implies a designer. Ancient civilizations observed a universe that was much simpler—in their eyes—than the universe we know exists today. Nevertheless, it would have appeared complex enough to invoke a designer. Even a number of natural phenomena that are easily explained today were attributed to gods.

Our present understanding of the universe reveals a universe that is far more complex than the ancients could have imagined. We have the opportunity of looking back in time for answers—back to a time when the universe wasn’t nearly as complex. Through a series of scientific discoveries, simple origins were found to be the precursors of the present universe.

Darwin opened our eyes, albeit slowly, with his insights on evolution. As it pertains to life, Darwin showed us a different way of thinking about the emergence of life. His theory of evolution by natural selection broke down the complexity of life into incremental steps. He managed to shift the focus from the finished product (or the present product) to the steps that led to it. According to Darwin, and verified by other more recent discoveries, life has evolved from simple beginnings—simple relative to its present state. It all began with single cell organisms, and perhaps only one. Now we have a world full of diverse and complex life forms, some containing trillions of cells. Darwin showed that from simple origins, complexity could arise over time, and by a natural process.

Even the life that we see today starts simple, and grows in complexity. For example, a tree begins with a single seed, and grows to a complex structure of roots, branches and leaves. When I look at a seed I find it difficult to imagine that a tree can come out of it, and yet it does so naturally. Like the seed of a tree, a human being also has a simple beginning—we were all initially a single cell. You could make the argument that a cell is complex on its own, and it is, however, millions and trillions of cells working in unison is several orders of magnitude more complex. Keep in mind that what we classify as the origin of life—a single cell—is somewhat arbitrary. Even a cell has to be constructed from simpler chemical processes, which at some point we call life. Although life, especially the origin of life, is an amazing and mysterious process, we can clearly see that it moves in a direction from simplicity to complexity.

Now let’s turn our attention to the universe as a whole, and see if the same principle applies. After Darwin had provided an explanation for the evolution of life, it was not automatically assumed that the universe evolves by a similar process. In fact, the idea that the universe was eternal and unchanging was a long-held belief by the general population and scientists alike. This idea took some time to overthrow. But by the mid-twentieth century, new discoveries were pointing directly towards an evolving universe; one which had a beginning.

The big bang is analogous to a cell. Just as a single cell can be viewed as the origin of life, the big bang can be viewed as the origin of the universe. And as I mentioned earlier, a cell can also be thought of as complex, but nowhere near as complex as the life that arose from it. The universe can also be viewed in a similar light. Although the big bang was not necessarily a simple event, it was nonetheless simpler than the universe that emerged from it.

Scientists theorize that a substantial amount of activity occurred at the initial moment of creation. The basic forces of nature emerged (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), as well as a host of elementary particles (such as photons, protons, neutrons and electrons). Space and time as we know it were also created.  All that and more happened in a tiny fraction of a second. On the surface, this seems to present a problem as far as a simple beginning is concerned, however, there is more to consider.

In spite of this initial creative activity, for the first 300,000 to 500,000 years the universe was nothing more than an enormous cloud of hot expanding gas. Complexity would then increase gradually over time—in a sort of cosmic natural selection. It took one billion years before stars and galaxies formed. A few more billion years before supernovae explosions (the death of stars) created and distributed the heavier elements necessary for life. Simple life on earth emerged 9.9 billion years after the big bang. And from there it would take over 3 billion years of evolution to arrive at modern humans. From this simplified timeline, we can see that the early universe was much simpler than it is now—the result of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution.

There is another point worth noting that relates to the discussion. The big bang theory is a theory that describes the universe a fraction of a second after the universe came into existence. The big bang theory is silent on the cause of the creation event. Although scientists speculate on what the cause may have been, the big bang represents the edge of our present ability to understand the universe, a theoretical time barrier that we have not yet crossed. I like the way Bill Bryson wraps up the discussion regarding the cause of the big bang. In  A Short History of Nearly Everything, he writes:

“… it may be that space and time had some other forms altogether before the Big Bang—forms too alien for us to imagine—and that the Big Bang represents some sort of transition phase, where the universe went from a form we can’t understand to one we almost can.”

Like a cell, which is created by more elementary processes, the big bang could have been a transition phase that was precipitated by a simpler pre-existing cosmos. Some scientists even suggest that the universe may have been created out of nothing. And by nothing, I don’t think they really mean nothing, but perhaps something very small that we don’t completely understand. Physicists now believe that you have to incorporate aspects of the quantum world in order to understand the big bang. And if you go by quantum theory, particles can spontaneously come in and out of existence from nothingness. That is the nothing that scientists are talking about. Bryson writes: “It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.” Therefore, if the universe was created from nothing or very little, you can’t get much simpler than that. And if this is even remotely correct, the principle of things moving from simplicity to complexity definitely applies to the universe as a whole.

Having said all that about complexity, let’s insert improbability into the equation. Both life and the universe evolved from simple origins, and through incremental steps, have grown in complexity. Although this does not explain how the simple origin came about, it does show that complexity can be achieved by gradual steps, even if the finished product seems improbable—improbable by means other than design. Also, an after the fact approach of looking only at the finished product can be deceiving, that is in terms of what improbability entails. If something is improbable, does it mean that it can’t happen? And because the existence of life and the universe appears improbable, does it mean that it came about by design?

Let’s begin with a simple exercise. Do you remember what you did yesterday? I mean everything you did yesterday. If you went to work, think about the route you took, and the exact location of the cars you passed. What about the people you met and the exact time you met them. Then there are the phone calls or emails you received. Where did you have lunch, what did you eat, and with whom? What tasks did you perform? And what about after work, what else happened? You get the idea. Although you may think you had an ordinary day, the fact is that the exact details of your day will never happen again. Yesterday, just as it occurred, was extremely improbable. And today, tomorrow, and every other day will unfold in a way that is also improbable.

Now let’s look at another example, something more profound than an ordinary day—your own existence. In order for you to have a life, an almost endless series of events had to occur. Think about the coupling of your parents, and their parents, and every ancestor that came before that. In order for you to exist, every combination of ancestors had to mate, and possibly at the exact time that they did. I will spare you the trouble of going any further down the evolutionary line, but the basic idea is that your life is extraordinarily improbable. And so is my life and everybody else’s. Just because something is improbable, does not mean it can’t happen. The fact is that as long as you have a universe, something has to happen, and that just about everything that happens is improbable.

Therefore, if improbable things happen all the time, does it have to come about by design? I am certain that many would say that it does. They could also argue that the existence of life seems so improbable that it implies a higher order to the universe. Although that may be true, it does not necessarily mean that life was designed. The universe’s enormous scales of time and space allows for limitless opportunities to create. Given the mind-boggling numbers that are involved, what seems improbable or impossible does not necessarily apply to the universe.

We know that the universe allows life, because we find ourselves on a planet that allows life. On the other hand, on all the planets that don’t allow life, there is no one to count the failed attempts, or whether any attempts were made—no one to contemplate why it wasn’t designed to allow life to exist, or if it was designed at all. Although we can’t definitely confirm that life exists elsewhere, we know that life is rare relative to the size of the universe. If life was plentiful, we probably would have found some elsewhere by now. This means that vast regions of the cosmos are without life. And if we could closely observe those regions, we wouldn’t think that they were anything special. We would see planets orbiting stars and swirling galaxies, but this would go on for eons, without any conscious experience. Keep in mind that the process that led to life here on earth is essentially the same process that led to the lifeless regions. Of course, there are a few exceptions. One of which is the earth’s special location.

The location of the earth is an example of something that appears improbable, and thus appears designed. The earth’s location has been called the Goldilocks Zone, taken from the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The obvious reason being that its location is just right (just the right distance from the sun to support life). Of all the possible locations that couldn’t support life, why here? Again you could say that it is by design. But it doesn’t have to be, simply because improbable things can happen, especially with large scales like the universe. With a universe as vast as ours, it is inevitable that some planets will be located in Goldilocks Zones. It may be that we just happen to be here. Not necessarily because it was designed that way, and not merely by chance. But rather by an evolutionary process on a cosmic scale, which moves in a direction from simplicity to complexity. It is a process that creates stars, galaxies, and planets. Sometimes when the conditions are just right, it creates life.

Goldilocks Zones are not only applicable to planets, but the same principle is also present in nature. For instance, let’s examine something that is closer to home, such as the life cycle of a tree. A mature tree can produce at least several thousand seeds in a growing season, which are eventually deposited on the ground. The vast majority of these seeds will never become trees. Usually, only a very small percentage will germinate and grow to become trees. They are seeds that fall in Goldilocks Zones. In this context, a Goldilocks Zone would include fertile soil, sufficient water, sunlight, shade, etc. The probability of any one specific seed becoming a tree is very remote; however, when all the seeds are taken into account, probabilities can be viewed in a different light. We know that some seeds will become trees, because they will benefit from conditions that are just right. What we don’t know is which seeds will be selected by this process.

There is another analogy that I have heard a few times, which deals with the improbability question. This analogy has been used in support of design, and it goes something like this: the world’s oceans, with the comings and goings of its tides and waves could never construct a sand castle. The argument being that it requires a design for something constructive to emerge, and this applies to all the complexity we see today. The problem with this view is that it evaluates design against only one other alternative—whether chance alone could construct the sand castle.

There is another way to look at this analogy, which in my opinion, better shows how seemingly improbable things emerge. I agree that the ocean could not directly construct a sand castle, but it could do so indirectly. Life emerged from the ocean, and gradually made its way on land, and over billions of years evolved into more complex forms. One of these forms, a child, walked on the beach and built a sand castle. Consequently, the sandcastle came about from a complicated natural process that can’t be broken down into simplistic explanations, such as the polar opposites of design or chance. If we could go back in time a few billion years, we would think that the likelihood of a sand castle appearing on any of the world’s beaches would be very low. And yet today, sandcastles regularly appear (and disappear). Therefore, whether we are talking about living planets, trees, or sandcastles—and even if the finished product seems improbable—it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

 

References: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (London: Black Swan, 2004), 31, 32.


 

Super-Size it

If you live in a rural area, as I do, outside of the influence of city lights, you can often get a clear view of the night sky. I don’t normally make a special effort to look at the night sky, but on occasion I am drawn to it. I usually notice the stars when I return home on a clear evening. As I get out of my car, and before I enter the house, the night sky often grabs my attention. I pause for a moment, and try to absorb the enormity of it all. There are no words that come to mind, no thoughts, or even a sense of time. I find it difficult to focus on any particular star or any region of the sky. It’s as if I am staring into infinity—it really is an awesome sight.

The feeling of wonder that one gets when looking at the night sky is as much about the sheer amount of space, as it is about the stars that occupy that space. However, the experience doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the actual size of the universe. The size of the universe is difficult to grasp, as there is no experience in everyday life that can relate to the numbers that are required to measure the universe. The measurements of time and distance, along with the number of stars and galaxies are hard to get your head around. Nevertheless, I will try to put it in some kind of perspective.

We can all relate to a thousand, so let’s begin there. Imagine having one thousand dollars. We can do that without too much trouble, but as the numbers get larger and larger, it may not be quite as intuitive. Millions, billions and even trillions can begin to sound alike, as if there isn’t much difference between them, but there is a huge difference. One thousand, a thousand times is a million. One million, a thousand times is a billion. And one billion a thousand times is a trillion. That’s a lot of money. But it is stars and galaxies that concern us at this time. So keep these numbers in mind as we move forward.

How big is the universe? The fact is that scientists don’t know, and here is why. Light travels at 300,000 km per second, which is the fastest speed in the universe. We can never hope to see a galaxy that is farther away in light travel time than the universe is old—the light emitted hasn’t had the time to reach us yet. This cosmic speed limit prevents us from seeing anything that is farther away from us than 13.7 billion light years (the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years).

Now here is where it gets a little tricky. The most distant galaxies we can actually see are about 10 to 12 billion light years away, however, we are seeing the light that was emitted 10 to 12 billion years ago. Keep in mind a light year is a measure of distance—the distance that light travels in one year. We know that the universe is expanding. Galaxies are moving away from each other on average. Those galaxies are presently much farther away than 10 to 12 billion light years. We know at least that much. That being said, scientists can still estimate the actual size of the universe by factoring in the expansion rate since the birth of the universe.

Estimates for the rate of expansion can vary widely, and are debatable. If some of the larger estimates are taken into account, much of the light emitted from the universe will not reach us until the sun and earth have died out. To put these distances into perspective, it takes only 8.3 minutes for the sun’s light to reach the earth. If the size of the earth is used to represent the entire cosmos, the part we could see, even with the best telescopes available, would be less than a grain of sand. Wow! Although it is possible that these larger estimates are wrong, even some much more conservative estimates would still reveal a cosmos that is unimaginably large. As vast as our universe might be, we can’t rule out the possibility that there could be other universes—perhaps an infinite number of universes. The possibilities are mind boggling, but before we get carried away, let’s get back to what we know.

The speed of light and the expansion rate of the universe give us an idea of distances. Now let’s take a different perspective and look at content: the number of planets, stars and galaxies. The earth and our solar system are a small part of the Milky Way galaxy, which could be described as a stellar disk about 100 thousand light years in diameter. Our sun is located about 1/2 to 2/3 away from the center of the Milky Way. Galaxies are plentiful, as there are well over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe alone. In an image known as the Hubble Deep Field, the Hubble Space Telescope was focused on a dark spot in the sky for a period of ten days. The spot was about the size of the opening of a drinking straw, and it covered only two parts in a million of the whole sky. In this very tiny spot 10 thousand galaxies were observed.

When numbers get significantly large they start to run together and become difficult to digest. That’s where analogies can be helpful, and when it comes to the total number of galaxies in the universe we almost need something we can visualize. How much is 100 billion galaxies? If galaxies were scaled down to the size of frozen peas, they would fill the old Boston Garden (this has actually been computed). For those of you who are not sports fans, the old Boston Garden is where the Celtics and Bruins previously played professional basketball and hockey respectively. If you don’t like peas, let’s try hamburgers. If we used hamburgers to represent galaxies, and lined them up end to end, there would be enough burgers to circle the earth fifty-two times. That’s not all. You would still have enough burgers left over to stack them to the moon and back. You may think that’s a lot of peas, burgers or galaxies. But hold on to your hats, we’re just getting started.

Galaxies are not individual objects, but vast groupings of stars. The amount of stars contained in galaxies varies by a large extent. The Milky Way contains at least 200 billion stars. The nearby Andromeda Galaxy—relatively speaking, about 2.5 million light years away from earth—is much larger than the Milky Way, and contains 1 trillion stars. From there, the numbers can get even bigger; the largest galaxy ever discovered consists of 100 trillion stars. Once again, only analogies can put these kinds of numbers into perspective; however, the sheer number of stars is so staggering that even an analogy is somewhat limiting. According to the 2010 NOVA (PBS) documentary Hunting the Edge of Space, there are more stars in the observable universe than grains of sand on all the beaches and all the deserts on earth. Yes, that’s not a misprint—all the beaches and all the deserts on earth. As difficult as that is to grasp, there is more. Imagine if you can, how many planets could be orbiting these stars—and of course you probably can’t. Out of the unimaginable number of possible planets (hundreds have already been discovered), how many of them may be able to support life? The potential is truly enormous.

I have omitted one important fact in all of this, and that is the vast amount of space that separates galaxies. Typical galaxies are usually separated by millions of light years of space, and due to the expansion of the universe the space between galaxies is increasing. Everything we can see, stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies, make up only a tiny fraction of the entire universe. Although scientists are discovering that space may not be empty after all, in the conventional sense we could say that the universe is dominated by empty space.

When I look up at the night sky, in a way, it is the emptiness that is striking, emptiness sprinkled with twinkling yellow dots. And speaking of dots, one is suddenly reminded of just how insignificant the earth seems to be. In the immense scale of the cosmos, we make our home on a pale blue dot in an ocean of tranquility. Everything we treasure, everyone we love, our hopes and dreams, and all of human history has transpired on what is essentially a dot. And most people spend their entire lives on only a fraction of a dot. With the number of stars out there, I wonder if somewhere in a far away galaxy, someone else is also contemplating a similar situation. Due to the distances that are involved, we may never know for sure. But I think it is likely that there is intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. After all, the basic chemistry and physics is believed to be essentially the same throughout the universe. And given the number of planets that likely exist, the opportunities for life to evolve seem plentiful.  Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, the earth appears to be a small and lonely place, but it is all that we have—our only home.

 

References: 2010 NOVA (PBS) Hunting the Edge of Space


 

Acts and Consequences

The unfolding of the cosmos does not appear to have any moral direction. Natural events seem to occur in arbitrary ways, unconcerned with human implications, or any other life forms for that matter. For example, in a period of drought, a timely rainfall can save vital crops and prevent hunger or even starvation in some parts of the world. Hence, the suffering of thousands or even millions of people will be averted. On other occasions the rain does not come, crops fail, and widespread suffering ensues. Sometimes the rain is so relentless that flooding causes as much suffering as a drought would. Where and how much precipitation falls is just one example of the indifference of nature.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to natural events. Some events are relatively harmless as their effects on the population are minimal. In other cases, these events can be devastating to human life. Take, for example, natural disasters, such as the tsunamis that struck Thailand in 2004 and Japan in 2011, or the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. Had they occurred in unpopulated areas they would have been afterthoughts. Natural spectacles with no human casualties, they would have been easily forgotten. We all remember the events, because of where they occurred, and how it affected the population. Nevertheless, we don’t attach a moral component to any of these events. We live in a geologically active planet, and that’s the only explanation that makes sense.

In ancient times, natural events were probably interpreted much differently. The ancients may have questioned why nature favored some people, while others were devastated by it. Possessing little understanding of meteorology, geology or the precise workings of nature in general, they would have turned elsewhere for explanations. Nature was closely associated with the Gods, and pleasing the Gods was of paramount importance. The idea being that Gods could intervene to show their approval or displeasure. From their level of reasoning, there was a human behavioral component attached to nature’s consequences.

Today, no clear-thinking person would attach a moral component to any natural event. Everything I know about science and nature, as well as my life experience suggests that nature is morally neutral. Nature does not act morally. Most of the time nature is helpful, but sometimes it’s destructive. Either way, it doesn’t care. Also, nature doesn’t care whether human beings act morally. It’s not in the business of handing out rewards or punishments based on moral grounds. In terms of morality, the universe is also on equal footing. The universe is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong—it just is.

Are we innately moral beings, or is morality primarily learned? As to where morality comes from, it may be a question of nature versus nurture. It is difficult to quantify if or how many innately moral characteristics we possess. I suppose there is a case to be made for evolutionary reasons for moral behavior. For the continuation of our genes it is necessary to love and care for our kin. As for the species, there are plenty of reasons to consider the well-being of our social group. The better we act towards one another, the more we increase our chances for survival. By pooling resources, collectively we gain a survival advantage. “I scratch your back and you scratch mine” is the basic idea. Then there is altruistic behavior to consider. When we act selflessly towards strangers with little chance of having the favor reciprocated, where does that kind of behavior come from? There is little doubt that altruism creates a better society and ultimately a better world. The benefits to the individual acting selflessly may be intangible, but in the end, all of humanity gains, both socially and evolutionary.

The other side of the same coin is that immoral behavior could also have evolutionary advantages. At times in our evolutionary past resources would have been scarce (mainly food or shelter). It was probably necessary for survival to steal from or even kill off rival tribes. The farther back in time one envisions, the closer humanity would have resembled the animal kingdom. In fact, in the wild, selfishness is often a virtue; many animals must kill and eat other animals in order to survive—there is no other choice. Therefore, moral behavior as we would generally describe it is closely linked to cooperation, and immoral behavior is closely linked to competition—both necessary survival skills. For modern societies to thrive we must get beyond primal evolutionary drives. For the most part, humankind has gradually progressed from tribalism to organized societies, where the common good of larger groups needs to be considered.

Apart from survival instincts, morality can also be learned. The wide range of moral norms present in diverse cultures is clear evidence of this. Although some people adhere to moral absolutes, such as, “do not steal” or “do not kill,” a good deal of morality appears to be cultural. Right behavior in one culture can be wrong behavior in another. For example, in some cultures women are expected to cover their faces or heads in public. By many in those cultures it would be considered immoral behavior if women disobeyed this rule. In other cultures, it is seen as absurd and degrading that women are subjected to covering their faces in public.

Morality can also be historical or circumstantial. What is acceptable moral behavior at a given time and place can be deplorable elsewhere. For example, slavery was the norm for long periods of human history. Many of the ancient empires were built on the backs of slave labor. Today, one could not make a case for slavery as an acceptable moral practice. Circumstances can also muddy the waters when it comes to moral absolutes. A clear example of this is wartime activity. There is perhaps no stronger moral rule than “do not kill.” Yet in warfare killing is not only accepted, in some cases it is celebrated. Even the killing of innocent civilians is considered acceptable at times. Collateral damage is the term often used by military leaders. This makes it sound more palatable to the general public. Granted there is a self-defense component to some war activity, but here also, there is an eroding of moral absolutes. My point is that there are fewer moral absolutes than some of us would like to think or are comfortable with. It may be comforting to believe that certain actions are clearly right while others are clearly wrong, but such is not always the case.

By-products of morality are the concepts of rewards and punishments. This leveling of the score is perhaps as old as civilization itself. These concepts are ingrained in most of us in childhood. As we grow up we learn that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is frowned upon. In society at large, judicial systems hand out punishments in an attempt to administer justice. When a crime is committed there is a feeling by the public that if the criminal is punished, then justice is served. I suppose it is necessary for practical purposes to hand out punishments when certain laws are broken. For one thing, punishment can prevent the guilty from re-offending, and also be a deterrent towards other potential violators. However, in many cases a criminal act is the last domino to fall in a long series of events. If we were to trace back the lives of many criminals we would find that a number of factors likely played a part in the criminal behavior. For instance, parenting, social environments, poverty, lack of education or opportunity, mental illness and more. From a practicable point of view, not much can be done about these circumstances—after the fact. But one should keep in mind that the offender is not solely at fault.

Now I would like to shift my attention towards a much deeper level of justice. Is there such a thing as justice aside from human applications? I can recall a conversation with a group of friends at a dinner party when the idea of justice arose. Several opinions were exchanged, but there is one in particular that I would like to share. One fellow pointed out that he could see no adequate justice in this life for evil deeds. He stated that if there was no retribution for atrocities committed by men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, then there was no real justice. What he was suggesting was that only in some kind of afterlife scenario could these men, and others like them be properly punished for their actions. I responded to his comment by posing a simple question, which may have changed his view on the matter of justice. My question to him was this: “As appalling as the actions of Hitler and Stalin were, would any of the suffering they inflicted be alleviated in any way by their punishment in an afterlife?” He paused for a moment, and then he simply replied, “No.”

You see, punishment in many cases is nothing other than revenge, it doesn’t right the wrongs. The reverse can also be true. Take for instance someone who has made a positive contribution in the world. Will a reward in an afterlife enhance their good deeds in any way? The good that was experienced is set and unchangeable. Furthermore, to expect a reward in exchange for good deeds feels more like a contract than morality. Rewards and punishments are essentially incentives and deterrents respectively. They are practical human concepts, implemented to create a civil society. But, is it sensible to carry the concept of justice beyond this life? Would after the fact adjustments that are handed out in an afterlife correct anything? Unfortunately a lifetime can not be adjusted. As with good and bad deeds, “what is done is done.”

In the absence of clear moral absolutes, in an apparently morally neutral universe, how do we differentiate right from wrong? What makes an action morally right or wrong? Some people adhere to certain rules of conduct that they acquire from some form of authority. I suppose that some rules can be helpful, but I don’t subscribe to simply following rules blindly. Actually this can sometimes lead to destructive behavior, by shielding the consequences of one’s actions. What’s more, firm rules provide little flexibility to deal with real life situations, which are not always as clear cut as rules may emphatically imply.

As far as moral rules are concerned, the Golden Rule is hard to beat. It has been expressed in different ways, but what it basically says is this. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” It is also sometimes expressed in the negative form, such as “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.” Either way, it’s as good a rule as you’re going to find, and it’s not all that complicated.

In the final analysis, morality is about acts and consequences. By consequences, I mean for all the people affected, and also for the person whose actions are in question. If an action has good or benign consequences, then it may be regarded as moral. On the other hand, if an action has bad consequences, then it may be regarded as immoral. Now I know that it is not always possible to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we act with good intentions in mind, and it still ends up badly. That’s another instance where morality falls into a grey area, because moral behavior is as much about intent as it is about the act itself. “It’s the thought that counts,” as the saying goes. Once again, absolutes don’t always work well as a moral compass. No matter what guidelines are used, there are always exceptions; seldom are actions morally black or white.

I think that a life of high moral character goes hand in hand with some level of insight. How can we consistently act morally, unless we can foresee the consequences of our actions? Moral behavior involves some sensitivity towards the common good, which also includes oneself as part of the common good.  Of course, no one gets it right all of the time. We are bound to miss the mark once in a while. Although rules, codes or creeds are helpful and probably necessary, there is no one size fits all that will address morality. In the absence of a universal moral code, moral behavior is at its best when individuals are able to contemplate the consequences of their actions, and act accordingly. Not because we fear punishment or hope for rewards, but simply because it’s the best way to act for everyone concerned.


 

Life and Death in the Universe

It is quite common to think of life and death as two completely opposite realities; one revered and the other dreaded. However, if we thoroughly examine what is really going on, a different picture emerges. Life and death are more related than they first appear. These two realities actually co-exist in complex ways.

The chemistry necessary for life has its origins inside the core of stars, and the eventual death of stars is fundamental to life. The early universe consisted of atoms of hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium. All other heavier elements were forged by stars.  For about 90% of a star’s life it generates its energy by fusing hydrogen to make helium. Eventually it runs out of hydrogen, and begins to fuse its stocks of helium, making yet heavier elements. The fusion process continues producing heavier and heavier elements until the star has nothing left to burn. Of course all this takes anywhere from about a million to hundreds of billions of years, depending on the size of the star. The larger the star the faster it burns, resulting in a shorter life span. When a large star runs out of fuel a delicate balance is lost between gravity, which wants to keep material in, and the outward pressure generated by thermonuclear fusion in the core of the star. It collapses in on itself and then recoils outward in a gigantic explosion called a supernova.

A supernova explosion releases the elements created within the star, and the extreme heat and energy of the explosion creates the remaining elements in the periodic table. Each generation of stars adds to the concentration of elements in the universe, until there are enough to support life like we have here on earth—essentially we are all made of star dust. If it were not for the death of stars, life as we know it could not be.

When life began on earth so did the evolutionary process, where death also plays a significant role. The complex and intricate web of life was made possible by about 3.8 billion years of evolution. The powerful forces of natural selection have shaped life according to its environment. Death is the means by which natural selection removes individuals within species and eventually entire species. Throughout the process of evolution death is there every step of the way. For species to evolve and diverge into more and more complex life, each generation must die, giving way for the next to live. Evolution is a multi-generational process. Without death, complex life—like human beings—could not have evolved from simpler life, and life as we know it could not be.

Death is also present within living organisms, in the form of cell death. Cells are the basic unit of all life. Some organisms consist of only one cell, however, plants and animals are made of numerous cells. For instance, the human body is composed of about 100 trillion cells. A cell is alive as you and me; it breathes, takes in food and gets rid of waste. It also grows and reproduces by dividing. Each new cell is created by a pre-existing cell, and like all other life, it dies. Each day several billion cells in the human body die and they are replaced by new cells. The life span of cells varies widely. White blood cells live about 13 days, red blood cells about 120 days. On the other hand, liver cells live about 18 months and nerve cells can live approximately 100 years. Even in a healthy living human body death is always present.

Contrary to conflicting emotions caused by life and death, they are clearly not opposites, but actually co-creators. All living things carry death with them, and eventually, they will all die. As much as death is dreaded, it is necessary for life and a completely natural process. Instead of thinking about death as some kind of cosmic accident—something that shouldn’t be—perhaps we can view death as something that is compatible with life. There are no free rides in life and regrettably, the price for life is death. If it were not for the reality of death, we could not have the experience of life. It’s that simple.

If one considers the universe as the source of all life, then what do we make of its parts? By labeling the parts we create individual forms that are not completely individual. Every part is related to other parts. The relationships amongst the parts are so intricate that they depend on each other for their very existence. The circle of life is relational between living and non-living things—non-living things such as sunlight, water, oxygen and living things like microorganisms, plants, animals and humans. We are humans, so it stands to reason that we are partial to our own kind. However, our affinity for the human species does not change the reality of life and death, which is natural to all living components of the whole. Why would nature make an exception for human possibilities after death, which is not granted to other species? All life comes into being from life and in the end, goes back into life—there are no exceptions.

From everything we can see it appears that the momentum of life sustains the whole and that individual life is expendable. The natural cycle of birth, growth, decline and death repeats indefinitely, all the while preserving the whole. Living organisms are necessary for a living planet, but no one organism is essential. You could think of individual life forms as leaves from the same tree. A living tree needs leaves, but no single leaf is crucial. As long as the falling leaves are replaced with new healthy leaves, then the tree is sustained. This does not mean that any given leaf is not valuable to the tree. Each leaf contributes to the well-being of the tree. It serves the tree (the whole), and then dies in order to allow other leaves to take its place. Keep in mind that it doesn’t stop there. The tree has a life span of its own. The tree serves the forest as the leaves serve the tree.

In the face of the observable facts of life and death, why then do we ask, what happens after death? Is it because the thought of nonexistence (for eternity) is just about unthinkable? How does one handle the possibility that “what we see is what we get”—that all individual life may be a “one shot deal.” Perhaps a change of perspective can be helpful. We need not dwell on nonexistence, but can be comforted by considering the improbability of us being here in the first place. Richard Dawkins, in the first lines of Unweaving the Rainbow, clearly points out that we have won the lottery of life. He writes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

Then there is the approach taken by Mark Twain as he dismisses the fear of death altogether: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Obviously Twain was not expecting much after death. If one takes that view, there is no reason to be traumatized by the second stage of non-existence if the first stage caused us no harm.

However logically fitting, I am aware that for many people Twain’s perspective will not be emotionally satisfactory. If hope for an afterlife is not found in the empirical evidence, then where does one find it?  Despite mankind’s tremendous strides of knowledge, we still don’t know what we don’t know. Mystery will always be part of life. The unknown can be an uncomfortable place to be, however, when it comes to the afterlife; the unknown could provide a ray of hope. Nature may open the door just a bit to an otherwise seemingly bleak outcome. If we are to have any experiences after what we consider our life, then a transformation completely unknown to us (or science) must be in store.

If one looks to nature, amazing transformations happen all the time. I will highlight a few of them, but I am certain that you can think of many more. 1) There is perhaps no greater transformation than the life cycle of stars I described earlier. The fact that all life is made possible by exploding stars is astounding to say the least. 2) Imagine if an unborn child could be completely aware in the mother’s womb. There would be nothing in its surroundings that could possibly prepare it for the world to come. 3) If we did not have the experience of butterflies, we could never imagine the potential in a slow and grounded caterpillar. The transformation from caterpillar to a butterfly could not be predicted from everything we see in a caterpillar. 4) If we had no experience of spring, the falling leaves of autumn would be interpreted much differently. There would be no way of knowing that the trees would sprout fresh leaves after a long cold winter.

The belief in an afterlife is nothing new and it is still quite widespread today. Although I wonder how many people have actually thought it through, that is, what life after death might entail. Does it mean eternal life? If so, how do we account for the time before we were born—that period of time is also part of eternity. Where will we go? And what will we do if we get there? What are we going to do with all that time? There are some people that don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day; how will they handle eternity? After a few thousand years, might it get a little tedious? Also, I wonder what kind of experience we would have without a physical body—without a brain to think, eyes to see and hands to touch.

We all accept that life is a natural process, yet many people believe that something spooky takes over in the afterlife. They view life as natural, and the afterlife as supernatural. But is this a rational way of thinking about life and death? Life and death are both natural processes. So it stands to reason that a natural process will determine what happens after death. Regardless of our hopes or fears, our fate lies in what the universe has and will allow—how could it be otherwise? Acceptance of the mystery of death appears to be the only reasonable approach to the question of life after death.

I will conclude with a fitting gardening analogy. In the late fall, when the gardening season is winding down, it’s the time to plant tulip bulbs. From experience I know what the bulbs will bring to the gardens the following spring. Yet there is nothing in the dull brown bulbs that would indicate that colorful tulips are in the offing for next year’s gardens. The brown bulbs will transform into bright flowers after a long winter in the frozen ground. This transformation happens not because of any hope, belief or wish on my part, it happens as a result of a natural process. The bulbs will grow into the only thing they can become—tulips. On the other hand, if I were to bury a few small stones into the ground, they will remain lifeless, regardless of any wishes on my part.

 

References:  Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 1.

Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/25647,  August 27, 2011, October 29, 2011.


 

The Building Blocks

Have you ever wondered what everything is made of? What gives different substances their distinctive properties? Why are substances solids, liquids, or gases? Why are they soft or hard; light or heavy? And if we probed matter at the deepest possible level, how small would it be? Certainly we are not intuitively equipped to interpret the world at the microscopic scale. When it comes to extremely small things, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Our senses operate on a different field altogether. Scientists, however, have somewhat closed the intuitive gap. They have identified the atom as the basic structure of matter—the building blocks of nature. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes:

“The Great Caltech physicist Richard Feynman once observed that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be: ‘All things are made of atoms.’ They are everywhere and they constitute everything. Look around you. It is all atoms. Not just the solid things like walls and tables and sofas, but the air in between. And they are there in numbers that you really cannot conceive.”

Although understanding the behavior of atoms is far beyond most of us, the basic components and arrangements that make up the atom are fairly straightforward. The traditional visual model of the atom (although not entirely accurate) consists of a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, and electrons orbiting on the outside. In reality the atom is mostly empty space; it could never be illustrated to scale on a single sheet of paper or a computer screen. If we drew the atom to scale, with protons and neutrons a centimeter in diameter, it would take more than 30 football fields to draw out its total diameter. Atoms are 99.99 % just empty space. If that is the case, why don’t we walk right through walls or fall through the floor? This is due to the atom’s electrical charges. We don’t fall through the floor because the electrically charged atoms of the floor repel the electrically charged atoms of our feet. When we walk across the floor we are not actually touching the floor, but levitating at a height of a hundred millionth of a centimeter.

Now let’s get back to the structure of the atom. The electrons and quarks are believed to be the irreducible elementary particles that make up the atom. Quarks are grouped together in the nucleus to form protons and neutrons. Electrons whiz around the nucleus, not like orbits as the tradition model portrays, but more like a cloud of electrons that simultaneously occupy every possible location. Protons and electrons carry opposite electrical charges, which are arbitrarily called positive and negative—protons have a positive charge, and electrons have a negative charge.

The number of protons determines an atom’s chemical identity. Hydrogen, which contains only one proton, is the simplest element. Helium has two protons, lithium three protons, and so on. Every time you add a proton, you get a new element, up to about one hundred that are listed in the periodic table. The number of electrons is equal to the number of protons. This means that generally an atom has no net charge, because the positive and negative charges cancel out. However, certain atoms can lose or gain electrons, and acquire a charge—either positive or negative. This is called an ion. Neutrons have no charge, but they contribute to the atom’s mass. The mass of a neutron is equal to the mass of a proton. What’s more, although neutrons share the nucleus with protons, they don’t influence an atom’s chemical identity. Similar to electrons, the number of neutrons is usually the same as protons, but not always. They can vary, either more or less. In a nutshell, that’s the basic structure of the atom.

When two or more atoms are joined in a stable arrangement, you get a molecule. A molecule may consist of atoms of a single chemical element, such as two atoms of oxygen. Or it may also consist of different elements, such as a water molecule (H2O), which is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Although everything is made up of atoms, an element is the simplest arrangement, which cannot be split by chemical means. A compound consists of two or more different elements that are held together by chemical bonds. Therefore, water is a compound, composed of two elements, which are hydrogen and oxygen.

Another point worth noting is that there is no fundamental difference from one like subatomic particle to another. Every proton is exactly the same, irrespective of the element it is a part of. A proton in a hydrogen atom is identical to a proton in an oxygen atom or a helium atom. The same is true for neutrons and electrons.

Atoms are extremely small, abundant, durable, versatile and useful. It is difficult to get an idea of the scale of atoms. Numbers alone cannot really convey what’s going on down there, but I will give it a try anyway. Let’s start with size. If you examine the metric scale on an ordinary ruler, you will typically see numbers that mark out thirty centimeters. Each centimeter will also be divided in ten increments (those are millimeters). Take one millimeter and divide it into one thousand equal lengths, and you have microns. Now you are down to the scale of microorganisms, but you have not yet come close to the scale of atoms. To get down to the size of atoms you have to divide a micron into ten thousand equal lengths. Finally, you have reached your destination in inner space—the scale of atoms—one ten-millionth of a millimeter.

From our medium world perspective (somewhere in-between the universe’s large and small scales), this is an unimaginably small scale. Half a million atoms could hide behind the thickness of a human hair. And the size of an atom in relation to a millimeter is comparable to the thickness of a sheet of paper to the height of the Empire State Building. You may think we have reached the end of the line, but remember that atoms are made up of even more elementary particles. The nucleus is ten thousand times smaller than the whole atom, and electrons are at least ten thousand times smaller than the nucleus.

With some kind of idea how small atoms really are, there is virtually no point contemplating the actually number of atoms that exist—there are just too many. Atoms practically last forever; they circulate from place to place, and when something has outlived its usefulness, the atoms will reassemble to become part of something else. The atoms that make up you and me have been part of countless other living and nonliving things. Actually, this process of atomic reassembling is on-going. Even during our lifetime, the atoms in our body are continually being replaced by new ones—that is, new for us. Nevertheless, it all comes down to one basic realization. Everything is made from different arrangements of the same fundamental ingredients. Just take a look at the world around you. Even though things exhibit different properties, whether you are looking at water, air, wood, stone and metals—or plants, animals and people—it’s all made of the same stuff.

 

References: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (London: Black Swan, 2004), 175.


 

The Tower of Knowledge

The scientific method is a well established and solid foundation for acquiring knowledge. Almost everything starts with a question, and progresses to eventually become knowledge. For example, let’s say we start with a simple question, such as, what is water made of? If everything goes well, the scientific method will provide an answer. In this case, water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen (H2O). The scientific method is the process in between the question and the answer. What’s more, the scientific endeavor as a whole acts like a network of checks and balances, which will challenge the reliability of any new discovery.

The scientific method is built on observations and experimental evidence. Scientists begin with a hypothesis (an idea or speculation), which is a prediction that nature will behave in a certain way. A hypothesis is based on observations, but lacks experimental evidence. Then scientists conduct experiments in order to test their hypothesis. If the experiments confirm the original hypothesis, it becomes a theory. Consequently, scientists make a clear distinction between a hypothesis and a theory, which is not always the case in everyday language. A scientific theory has a much higher degree of certainty. It is supported by a substantial amount of observations and experimental evidence. The theory is then scrutinized by other scientists. They may validate the theory, or in light of new evidence, modify or disprove it.

When a theory stands the test of time, usually without change, it is sometimes called a law. However, in this day and age scientists are reluctant to use the word law; they tend to stick to the word theory, allowing for the possibility that it could be changed. The scientific endeavor by its very nature is self-correcting; the book is never completely closed. At the end of the day, we can be confident that the knowledge learned from the various fields of science is the best available at the time.

Science is an active field; research and discovery is ongoing. Consequently, the knowledge base changes from time to time. At this point we are far along in the process. The traditional method of doing science has revealed a great deal of nature’s ways. We know a lot, but there is still more to learn. Recently, theoretical physicists are bending the rules, as they probe into the most extreme limits of nature. For instance, at the very small and large scales, experimentation is not always possible. Therefore, in some situations, mathematics and reasoning are replacing the time-tested methods of observation and experimentation. This is a contentious issue among some scientists. However, it may be that as we peel the layers of reality, the final layers will only be accessible through reasoning. Similarly, any science that is being worked on is also incomplete until it is experimentally confirmed. Nevertheless, established scientific knowledge has been assembled over the years by observation and experiments.

Only when claims are universally accepted by the scientific community are they recognized as scientific facts. This knowledge is built somewhat like stacking bricks, where each scientist builds on the work of other scientists. It is not always necessary to reinvent the wheel, but rather to use the wheel to advance its purpose. In this way, scientific knowledge depends on new discoveries, but also expands on established facts. Over many years, the scientific endeavor has built an indestructible tower of knowledge. It was built by arguably the most intelligent minds that humankind has ever produced. Men like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and many others have dedicated lifetimes towards advancing the scientific knowledge of their time.

This tower of knowledge was built partly in isolation. Small groups of scientists working in specialized fields have added their individual brick. In other situations different fields overlapped, thus joining seemingly unrelated phenomenon into more complete theories. For instance, the theory of evolution is supported by biology, genetics, geology and paleontology. Each separate field provides a unique set of details that can be applied to a larger scheme. Scientific discovery is mainly about details. The only way to get to the bottom of things is by detailed analysis, however, when science is presented to the general public those details are not always necessary. In some cases, the details are incomprehensible to the untrained mind. Nonetheless, the majority of people have confidence that the research was comprehensive, and the conclusions are sound. They accept the individual bricks as factual information, which many aspects of their daily lives are dependent on.

For example, if you needed a blood test for some medical reason, even though you knew nothing about the science of blood analysis, I doubt that you would question the results. You may question the competency of the person conducting the test, but not the underlying science behind the results. Another similar example is the confidence that people have in the science behind computers and other information technologies. It is true that computers break down on occasion. This is due to the mechanical nature of the device, not the fundamental scientific principles in which it operates. If the science could break down, well then, it wouldn’t work at all—it would never work. There are even cases when we trust science when our observations indicate something totally different. For instance, we trust that the earth orbits the sun, even though it appears to us that the sun is orbiting the earth.

Sometimes I question whether the same trust is held for the big picture (the whole tower), as it is for each isolated piece of information (the individual bricks). When it comes to life’s big questions, and when many factors are considered, does science play a significant role or do you turn elsewhere for answers? I suspect that for many, emotions, intuition, individual beliefs, or religious concepts trumps science in the big questions. It is quite common to keep two sets of books, one for everyday life, and another for the big picture. It is possible that for many, the task of coming up with a comprehensible view of reality based on science is overwhelming. Therefore, it becomes simpler to turn to other means. It may be simpler, but is it as accurate?

When it comes to understanding the nature of reality, it is only when we can see the connections between the different fields of science that its full value can be appreciated. I am not referring to rocket science, or brain surgery here, however, I am sure that plenty can be learned from those fields. I mean basic science that is within the grasp of most people. I believe that science has the potential for much more than providing facts and information. Science can be the foundation for a much deeper understanding of reality and of our lives. The scientific endeavor by its very nature can be trusted to separate the known from the unknown. And that is a good place to start.

The towering structure of scientific knowledge is what is known; what is unknown hasn’t been built yet. The question that comes to my mind is this: How many people have actually bothered to climb the tower? Let’s take the analogy of the tower one step further. Imagine for a moment that the tower is located somewhere in a large city, and that we decided to climb to the top. The view from above would be breathtaking. It would not resemble the restricted view that we observed from the ground. From the top of the tower we would get a feel for the whole landscape. We could make out the structures and layout of the buildings; the outline of the streets; the movement of vehicles and people throughout the city.

This is the overall view of science I am referring to—the interconnections and patterns that can only be seen from a wide perspective. From this vantage point, everything blends together, and things are not as separate as they had appeared from the ground. This is the view of reality that science can provide.


 

How not Why

We are often compelled to ask why? Why this and why that? Usually our why questions are directed towards everyday occurrences, and we ask them out of curiosity. For example, why is there thunder and lightning? Why is the sky blue? Why are there high and low tides? As far as the tides go, high and low tides are caused by a combination of gravitational effects, which are exerted by the moon, the sun and the rotation of the earth. That being said, I have not provided an answer for why there are high and low tides. I have explained in simple terms, how high and low tides occur. On these relatively simple questions we ask why, although I think we really mean how. What we are looking for is the reasons or the causes behind the observed reality. We are not searching for a hidden meaning or purpose for the tides. But rather for how high and low tides occur, the causes for the tides, or the thunder and lightning, or the blue sky.

Having said that, other “why” questions are of a more profound nature, and they generally come in two categories. One type of question relates to the deeper mysteries of life. For example, why are we here? Why is life the way it is? And why is there a universe in the first place? Although we may ponder these or other similar questions from time to time, we can usually put them aside without too much trouble. There is some value in just asking the questions, even though there may be no complete resolution.

A second category of questions, which are more disturbing, arises primarily when an event impacts us in a negative way. That is when we tend to ask: why do bad things happen? As opposed to the simpler questions, like the ocean tides, when it comes to the bigger questions, we ask why—and we really mean why. We are looking for a meaning or purpose behind an event that has transpired—an underlying order behind the apparent chaos of our present situation. Conversely, when something happens that we perceive as positive, we seldom ask why it came about. I have yet to hear someone question why their day went so well.

It is very common for people that are faced with a tragedy to ask why. It could be the death of a loved one, or an illness that compels us to ask why. The trouble with this line of questioning is that it very rarely leads to a satisfactory answer. It may be comforting to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” as the well-known phrase goes, however, there may be no why (at least no why that the human mind can comprehend). The random element in life alone, if not for countless other factors, makes it inevitable that bad things will happen. Instead of saying that “everything happens for a reason,” we could easily reverse the phrase and say that “there are reasons (causes) for everything that happens.” We may be able to find the cause (the how) for an event, but trying to find why something happened will leave us scratching our heads.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a couple of friends while watching the evening news. The newscast was reporting on a tragic motor vehicle accident that resulted in several young people losing their lives. There had been a snowstorm the night of the accident and the safety of the vehicle involved was in question, namely the condition of the tires. One of my friends commented, “I can’t understand why young people, with so much life ahead of them, had to die in this way.” The other friend responded by stating the obvious, “It’s just tires and ice.” The accident was caused by icy road conditions, and worn out tires. Although it may have sounded cold and unsympathetic, perhaps he was right. In most cases, the only answer available to us is how.

In fact, all investigations focus on “how” questions. For example, when an airline crashes, which usually results in casualties, investigators will focus their attention on determining how the plane crashed. The obvious reason is to prevent a future accident, but also to provide the grieving family members with an explanation. The people that are closely connected to the tragedy may also seek comfort by asking why the plane had to crash, and why those people had to die. Once again, the only attainable answer will be in determining how the plane crashed. As for the passengers, regrettably, they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The strange thing about the randomness in life is that when we are not personally or emotionally involved, we have no problem with it. I doubt that anyone would question why a coin toss turns up head or tails. We all accept without hesitation, the random nature of a coin toss. Keep in mind that the same natural laws that determine the outcome of a coin toss, also apply to the rest of our lives. The random element in life will also lead to inequalities, which may be slight or seem grossly unfair. This may lead someone to ask: “Why is life so unfair?” In some ways life is a numbers game, much like a lottery. Sometimes your number comes up, and sometimes it does not. Look at it this way, if I had 100 dollars to give away, and I chose to give it away by lottery, would anyone say it was unfair?

Aside from our efforts to either prevent or alleviate bad things from happening, it may be that bad things happen for the simplest of reasons. There is no apparent mechanism to prevent it. Another point worth noting is that good and bad are sometimes subjective. Even a single event can be perceived as good by some people and bad by others. This is usually based on how an event personally impacts each individual. Aside from our egocentric viewpoint, there is no reason to believe that the universe will favor one individual above anyone else or anything else—there is no empirical evidence to support it.

For many years, I have asked why, especially when my life was not going as I wanted. Even after considerable reflection, I have found no suitable answer to any of my why questions. There may or may not be an ultimate reason for life’s unfolding. But if there is a why, it lies beyond human comprehension. And for me, when I started asking how, I was able to make some progress on the bigger questions. How did we get here? How is life the way it is? How did the universe come to be? And of course, how do bad things happen? So from now on when I am inclined to ask why, I try to catch myself, and ask how.


 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

It is human nature to have goals, dreams, and expectations. Our ability to project into the future, to plan, imagine and create is a unique quality that separates us from other animals. That being said, it can also be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, in order to accomplish a goal we need to project how we will get from here to there. On the other hand, in spite of our best efforts, there is no guarantee we will ever get there. In fact, there are often numerous obstacles to overcome from the moment we conceive a goal. Contrary to some peoples’ belief, the universe is not conspiring in our behalf. We are but one moving part in a multitude of moving parts. There are many factors that help us, but there are many others that do not.

The odds of reaching a goal increase when many people work towards a common objective. Many of mankind’s great accomplishments have come with contributions from many people. The advances in technology and medicine, and the development of democracy and civil societies are prime examples. Unfortunately, many people have also worked together for destructive aims, which has led to horrific results. The human cost of war immediately comes to my mind. It is difficult to quantify how our individual efforts impact the grand scheme of things. Life unfolds as a result of all its variables.

The modern way of life can obscure our ability to see that we are part of a natural system, and subjected to the same laws. The way our life unfolds is not all that different from how a tree grows in a forest. The analogy is not perfect; however, I think it is helpful in making my point. The genetic information contained within a seed could be compared to a plan, as all the information necessary to construct a tree is present. From the beginning there are many factors outside of this plan that will affect its eventual growth. Will the seed fall on fertile soil? Will the weather conditions be favorable? What will its immediate environment be like? And if the seed sprouts, will it be destroyed by animals, insects, or diseases?

Even if the tree takes root, and grows to a substantial height, it is still susceptible to the conditions of its environment. There are many events surrounding the tree that are random.  Nevertheless, all living things in the forests have a plan of their own (their genetic information), and a drive towards their fulfillment. The state of the forests is determined by the interactions of every life form, as well as the inanimate substances in its environment. There is no plan for the forest as a whole, but the blending of countless plans, which creates a whole.

What the tree needs to grow and prosper is always present in the forest: energy from the sun, nourishment from soil and water, necessary processes from microbes, and protection provided by nearby trees. The environment of the forests will determine which seed (or tree) will grow, and which will not. The same can be said for every living thing in the forest.

Long before we begin to make plans for our lives, many things are already in place. It is our genes that first determine the potential for our lives. Even before birth the traits that we have acquired are set. Beyond these genetic traits the events in our lives are mostly random. For example: we don’t choose who we are, where we are born, and the time period. We also don’t choose our parents, family, and our community. The people we come in contact with and world events also have an impact. Our lives are formed by the environment that we are exposed to. Prosperity, poverty, peace, or warfare, whatever the case may be, is mainly beyond our control. Nothing in nature is in complete control and neither are we. Even our own body is primarily beyond our control, as it is maintained by subconscious processes. We are mostly unaware of the internal functions of our body, and we pay little attention to them until something goes wrong. And just as vital to our existence is the outside world. The air we breathe, the energy from the sun, and the food supply are but a few of many outside factors that are essential for life.

The comparison of the tree in the forest can make us aware that we are not all that different or separate from nature. But with humans, there is a difference in the sense that people have a degree of free will. Some would argue that what we perceive as free will is nothing more than an illusion, but let’s just say that we have, at best, a degree of free will. We have the ability to respond creatively to our environment. We can make choices, learn from the past, and make plans for the future. Our imagination has no bounds, therefore we can dream up any number of possibilities for our lives. That being said, there is a risk that what we imagine or dream of may not always be realistic. I can certainly relate to that way of thinking. When I was younger, I had a tendency to believe that events in my life would unfold as I had planned. As I age, I now realize that life is much bigger than I, and the world is not concerned with my plans. I found that when my primary focus was on my expectations, I would often end up disappointed. Things rarely work out as I had envisioned. What I was doing was focusing on life’s results rather than life’s process.

I now view goals and dreams as potential destinations. They are necessary in the sense that they give us direction. It is obvious that random and directionless processes do not lead to anything constructive. Therefore, we do need to make plans despite the uncertainty of going forward. What we are really choosing are paths, but we cannot know where they will eventually lead. No matter how much we plan, there are always numerous factors outside of our control that will influence our plan. Think of it this way: with all the plans of other people and their actions, as well as natural events, what are the odds that the outside world will fit the plan we have devised in our minds? And if, at a given time everything did come together just right, how long would we be able to sustain it?

The plans that we make for our lives are presumably forms of order that we envision. The more in depth the extent of the planning is, the more variables will come into play. It’s quite simple, the more factors involved, the more difficult it becomes to predict or direct the outcome. In order to move ahead with confidence, it is important to have an open perspective on goals. Life’s unpredictability and uncertainty is the cause for much anxiety and worry, however, it is intensified by our expectations. For me, my expectations have probably caused more anxiety than any other reason I can think of. Although it is difficult to pull off, I find that when I live with no expectations, I am more at peace and more productive in general.

Let me clarify that last statement. I did not say low expectations; I said no expectations. The pitfall with expectations is twofold. One is that you might aim too high, the other, aim too low. This means that instead of focusing on one particular outcome, which can be very limiting, I try to be open to a number of future outcomes. When I am moving in a path that I am pleased with, and actively engaged in life, my life seems to flow freely. I am open to receive the blessings that may come my way, as they usually come unplanned or unexpected. I am also able to place my full attention to the present task at hand, unencumbered by future expectations. Or perhaps the biggest gain is in letting go of the fear of not meeting those expectations; not only my expectations, but also the expectations of others as I perceive them.

Seeing the forest for the trees is recognizing that our life is a minor contribution to an immensely larger system. We are like individual trees in a large forest. Although the forest needs trees, no one tree is absolutely necessary. The forest does not differentiate or favor one tree from another. The sun shines on all; the clouds rain on all. We are not directors of our lives, and the only real control we have is in our ability to respond to events as they arise. Regrettably we can’t make life into what we want it to be. It is a harsh reality that one unfortunate incident can drastically change our lives, or even end it, no matter what we have going for us. There is no certainty beyond the present moment, and the only thing we can expect from life is the unexpected.

The best we can do is to accept life on its own terms, and try to respond appropriately. We can achieve this by being actively engaged in life’s present realities, and moving in a desirable direction. This should at least allow us to move forward, regardless of the uncertainty that lies ahead. We may or may not get to where we want to go. We use different words to define that place: goals, dreams, success, happiness, peace and fulfillment. However, in time we may realize that these final destinations do not matter absolutely. We may also realize that the fullness of life can only be found in the journey and not in the final destinations.