Sketches on Atheism / This God Fellow

Pillow Fights with Gods

Stupidity is a given.

What hasn’t proven as predictable over the ages is the depths of sheer and utter mindlessness to which we naked apes will invariably dive to.

Case in point: On the 1st of April, 2010, a sun-blistered wooden runabout manned by a handful of Somali men armed with assault rifles, two ageing Soviet-era RPG’s and an impressively bad idea opened fire a 140 meter long, steel-grey behemoth otherwise known as the USS Nicholas (FFG-47); a guided missile frigate boasting 40 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a 75mm artillery rifle, two triple-tube torpedo launchers, four .50 caliber machine guns, and a 20mm computer-automated, electronically-powered, six-barreled Vulcan Gatling gun capable of hurling 5,000 vacuum cleaner sized fists of metal per minute… a mechanical skill demonstrated with devastating effect shortly after the commencement of the Somali pirates ill-fated assault.

Unfathomably stupid, yes, but these hapless, evidently near-sighted pirates do not even begin to hold a candle to 30 year old Jordanian plumber ‘Id Salid al-Jahalin who on the 1st of February, 1994, entered the already darkened Salwa cinema with a heavy bag over his shoulder and a terrible idea in his head. Concealed in the shadows al-Jahalin found an appropriately centralised seat, slipped the bag between his legs, set the ten minute fusing mechanism on the acetone peroxide bomb contained inside, and naturally prepared to make a hasty exit. As he did something however altogether unexpected happened. His eyes caught a glimpse of the images flashing not-so innocently across the screen and he became instantly fixated. Having never before seen a pornographic film his mind fought to be in two places at once, his knees protested then buckled, and against all better judgement ‘Id Salid al-Jahalin settled back into the seat for a minutes quiet viewing. Eleven minutes later al-Jahalin had misplaced his legs, his genitals, most of his ass, and presumably any sense of self-respect he ever possessed.

Luckily for us naked apes where there’s a down there’s also typically an equal or, on occasion, greater up, and nowhere have we demonstrated our adeptness in producing more moments of “up” than in the field of play.

Now of course play is not an entirely human thing but we can claim with some level of confidence to have taken the art of fucking around to an altogether new level; a supernatural level, it could even be said. Many species, particularly those who rear their young for an extended period of time, love to horse about in the sandpits of their choosing. Bears, cats of all sizes, otters and monkeys amongst countless other higher order beasts take every opportunity afforded them, especially when young, to have a good romp. Even rats fancy a frolic and giggle as revealed by the neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, who famously tested and recorded rat laughter. Still, when it comes to messing around with the trinkets we invent or discover through our wonderings and wanderings no one does it better than us.

With a little educated weeding and a dash of mischievous reengineering we played with fertile wild grasses until wheat buds were producing their own SP +40 sun block. We skipped and danced and toyed with 1,000 degrees wood fires until we were roasting atoms at temperatures fifteen-times hotter than the surface of the sun. We messed around with four pressed-mud walls and a roof until we stood back and looked up a little astounded at the Sydney Opera House. And we have teased the wheel to the point of fashioning space-going magneto plasma drives.

To a casual observer, an alien for arguments sake, it’s simply what we naked apes like to do. We play with things, even time. In October 1971 four cesium atomic beam clocks were flown in opposite directions around the world just to measure the miniscule time difference between the fast-moving objects and clocks on the surface. Short, however, of actually making a black hole, or at least something close to it, our ability to play with time has been frustratingly limited to measurement, which in all honesty is about as fun as prying your eyelids open with toothpicks. Only on blackboards can we make it bend, twist, go backwards, or even disappear entirely. To get around this annoyance one thing we naked apes have really liked to do with time is to instead capture and display it in ever more awe-inspiring mechanical zoos, and to those ends one of the greatest time zoos ever unveiled fitted into the pocket of one Henry Graves.

Graves was a competitive, mildly eccentric New York banker who together with the famed Ohio automaker, James Ward Packard, shared an obsession for horology; mechanical computational features beyond ordinary seconds, minutes and hours. To service this somewhat odd passion the two men entered what would amount to be one of the strangest and most expensive private competitions ever recorded. In a nutshell, Graves and Packard set about to outdo each other in precisely how much ‘time’ they could quite literally shove in a single handheld device: a pocket watch.

It was Packard, not Graves, who took an early lead when early in 1927 he unveiled the world’s most complicated watch; an astonishing 16-complications time piece which was then matched but not bested by Graves who presented in April that same year a 10-complications watch that included a celestial-chart. Neither could claim outright victory and so the combative Graves secretly commissioned Patek Philippe & Co. in Geneva – the same company who’d produced both earlier watches – to do to time what no one had ever before done. It took five years of design and pushing the very limits of mechanical precision and miniaturization but on the 19th of January, 1933, Henry Graves took delivery of a 24-complications bad boy simply named, The Supercomplication.

At $11 million it’s by no means advisable but an argument exists that one cannot dismantle The Supercomplication and throw its 900 separate pieces into the air and have them all fall precisely back in working order. Fair enough. Only a lunatic or a supremely optimistic gambler would even consider the challenge but this supposition has been tossed around since the 1800’s as one of the great ‘proofs’ of Gods existence. It is the ‘teleological argument’ – the grandfather of 20th Century, Christian-championed, Intelligent Design theories – which at its most basic asserts that ‘design demands a designer.’

First mouthed by Socrates, elaborated on by Plato, then polished up by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, the idea was then again refined in the 1800’s so as to work out from the premise that complexity proves intelligence. This meant for something as complex as The Supercomplication to exist there had to be a master watchmaker, which in this instance is absolutely correct. The Patek Philippe & Co. watchmaker is a far more complex than The Supercomplication. The argument follows then that as the natural world is inherently more complex than all its parts it could not have possibly materialized by chance which, by extrapolation, denotes intelligence and as such leads the enquirer to the inevitable conclusion that God is to the natural as the watchmaker is to the watch.

It’s an eloquent thesis and was no doubt a supremely eye-catching one when first debuted in 1802. The problem for William Paley, the Christian apologist and Utilitarian who’s credited with the idea, was that the logic didn’t neatly stop the moment it arrived at God and the thought exercise simply folded back in on itself. God is evidently more complex than the natural world, and if complexity proves intelligence then something must have designed God. It’s an impossible loop where the notion of an intelligent creator cancels itself like some ever expanding (or contracting) Mandelbrot Set.

“Nothing created God!” is of course the apologists hastily arranged solution to the impasse; an answer hyping back to the brilliantly conceived Zoroastrian concept of the uncreated creator found in Ahura Mazda. It seems like a fair fix – a wonderful and far reaching notion for the Middle Bronze Age – and might have stood the test of some mild scrutiny had it not been for the arguments central claim of complexity proving intelligence. The supposition collapses under its own logic, but in the 1800’s it was a noble, poetically persuasive, although ultimately futile attempt to fit God into the gaps that naturally peppered early scientific theories.

The attempt to find some logical establishment for the existence of God – any God – could have and probably should have just stopped there with William Paley. Religions, like flu’s, have however proven stubbornly hard bugs to shake; doubly-so when such demonstrably lucrative cash cows grazing freely over fertile fields of ignorance. The Renaissance was proof enough of that. Despite dashing the church-championed concept of an earth-centred cosmos (a revelation actually arrived at 58 generations earlier by Aristarchos) Copernicus’s astronomical observations weren’t exactly announced with great fanfare then published in European Sunday newspapers ready to be digested over medieval breakfast tables. Generational ignorance – assiduous illiteracy – is the pretext and vehicle for dogma’s survival and a global effort to fight mass ignorance only truly began with the establishment of secular public governance and, in particular, schooling as recently as five generations ago.

Persistent flu or not, after the onset of the Age of Enlightenment “God did it” was simply no-longer an acceptable answer. There was no room for ‘faith’ in the empirical search for truths but this did not discourage the most ardent of apologists who after the 1859 publishing of Darwin’s treatise, On the Origin of Species, found themselves holding a product – scripture – which belonged more alongside Asgard, Mt. Olympus or Castle Grayskull than at the front of a classroom or around cabinet rooms.

Moreso than Copernicus’s observations Darwin’s theory of evolution annihilated all supernaturally inspired creation myths, and without those religion really didn’t have a product to sell. Time, the very thing the priestly classes – the En’s – had claimed ownership over hundreds of generation earlier, was snatched away from the costumed clergy and placed firmly back where it’d always been: in the natural world. Evolution spoke in tremendously vast spans of time that could be verified on demand by geological records; records that did not speak of supernatural intervention but rather told the story of a relentlessly patient natural movement from simplicity to complexity and our species strikingly juvenile role in that ancient drama.

In a word, the human species lost its godly backstage pass. The Wonker bar Golden Ticket so desired by Charlie Bucket was a forgery. We – especially those believing in the personal God sold in all three branches of Yahwehism – were cast out from a family relationship we were never a part of; ostracised from our own imaginative circus. Shakespeare’s “paragon of animals” was still an awfully impressive creature, a dexterous champion of the natural world, but Darwin’s treatise revealed that we humans were but one of hundreds of millions of species to have evolved inside a dangerously thin, blisteringly violent, staggeringly indifferent biosphere orbiting a middle-aged star that was falling in a straight line over a curved space anchored at the centre of a spiral galaxy.

Unperturbed, religious polemicists, particularly those of the Christian ilk, stepped forward and fired the second salvo in what would amount to a peculiar 150 yearlong game of Whack-a-Mole where anything science couldn’t immediately explain suddenly became ‘evidence’ for Gods existence. To these ends proponents of the original Teleological, or Watchmaker, Argument localised a gap in scientific understanding presented in Darwin’s treatise and in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries doubled-down on ignorance by claiming Life Demanded a Life-Giver. Now, although Charles Darwin never tried to explain the origin of life rather demonstrate the processes by which life precedes the arguments strength was based on the fact that despite efforts science had not been able to ‘make’ life in a laboratory.

This claim is in-part entirely correct. It is also in-part categorically wrong.

In 1953, Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey set out to test Alexander Oparin’s and J. B. S. Haldane’s hypothesis that conditions on the primitive Earth favoured “chemical reactions that synthesized organic compounds from inorganic precursors,” and through their experiments successfully cooked up the first manmade Amino Acids in the lab. Since then NASA’s Stardust probe triumphantly returned to earth in 2006 with Amino Acids it’d captured after intercepting the comet 81P/Wild (Wild-2) around Jupiter, proving that these fundamental building blocks of life occur naturally on earth and are found equally naturally in space.

The process of how life emerged on earth follows then that the first membranes inside which Amino Acids could join to build strands of proteins formed from Fatty Acids fashioned naturally and regularly inside thermal vents; geothermal pools on land and not as common perception would have it in the oceans. These protein strands became very primitive forms of RNA: the first organic encoding device which over time and through natural mutation became more complex and eventually gave rise to DNA, or cellular life.

‘Life’ here may be described as any self-contained chemical system with the capacity to store, retrieve, and pass on information to succeeding generations, demonstrate stimuli-induced reactions, and which exhibits over time a tendency – an urge – to increasing complexity. It’s a frosty definition, a cold stab at something quite marvellous, but it’s a definition that works perfectly well here on earth.

More recently, in 2009, Dr. Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute and his graduate student, Tracey Lincoln, pretty much nailed primitive ‘life’ – a progenitor of life if you like – when they developed a molecule composed of nothing but RNA enzymes in a test tube that replicated and evolved, swapping genes for just as long as the conditions were right to do so. Doing what molecules do it Xeroxed itself by using its own basic structure as a scaffolding from which to build new copies from pairs of smaller molecules. Incredibly, when incorrect copies were made mutations arose and the molecule quite happily passed on those changes to the proceeding generation, and so it slowly evolved. Although not technically speaking ‘life’ Joyce and Lincoln’s work was an astonishing in-road into a beautiful albeit strikingly simple process first teased-free by Darwin five generations ago.

Also in 2009 John Sutherland of the University of Manchester went even further when he successfully cooked up two of the four ribonucleotides found in both RNA and DNA molecules and by doing so created the first stirrings of life on earth. Unlike other researchers before him, Sutherland and his team did not jump right into sugars and nucleobases rather they started first with a host of simpler molecules most likely around in earth’s primordial goo. They diluted the molecules in water, heated the solution, and then allowed it to evaporate so as to replicate sequential changes in conditions which was then irradiated with ultraviolet light; a process which left behind hybrid half-sugar, half-nucleobase molecules. To this residue they again added water, heated it, allowed it evaporate, irradiated it, and repeated the process over and over. Remarkably, with each passing phase the molecules became more and more complex and when phosphates were added in the very last stage Sutherland found himself staring at two ribonucleotides; half a naturally built RNA molecule.

“My ultimate goal,” said Sutherland, “is to get a living system (RNA) emerging from a one-pot experiment. We can pull this off. We just need to know what the constraints on the conditions are first.”

Even more recently and perhaps even more remarkably researchers led by Phil Holliger at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge announcedin early months of 2012 they’d successfully made the first synthetic RNA and DNA molecules which they called, XNA: xeno-nucleic acids. They achieved this mind-jarringly colossal leap in constructing artificial life by building synthetic versions of RNA and DNA’s nucleobase ladder rungs. By synthesizing enzymes (what they’ve called, polymerases) they could then bind the XNA molecules to DNA or reverse the process back to a single RNA strand; passing genetic information between the natural and synthetic molecules at will, leading MRC scientist, Victor Pinheiro, to observe “Thus heredity and evolution, two hallmarks of life, are not limited to DNA and RNA.”

As astounding as Joyce, Sutherland, and Holliger’s work might be, it was the earlier discovery of Amino Acids in space that should have put all notions of a personal, thoughtful, mindful, wilful, wishful God to bed once and for all. That magnificent 300 kilogram piece of manmade machinery named Stardust erased any self-indulgent assumption that life found on earth was the express product of a self-aware artist. 4.5 billion years old, the age of the earth give or take, comet Wild-2 (below) was proof giant ‘seeds’ pregnant with the organic building blocks of life were hurtling through space; dormant for now, but full of potential should they just find the right conditions.

Sadly for logic and rationalism and our disturbingly superstitious species at large, it was the subject of ‘right conditions’ which inspired the next great argument to leap from the “see God exists” basket; a clever argument that for a while did indeed stave off the inevitable execution of an uncreated Creator first conceptualised in the Zoroastrian, Ahura Mazda.

That argument: Laws Demand a Law Giver.

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, give him a… we all know the rest.  That same thought cast in a different light however may read, give a child a set of binoculars and she’ll describe the moon in all its detail. Give Edwin Hubble the 2.5 meter Hooker Telescope, a slide rule and a year to calculate the distances to tiny smudges in the night sky and he’ll show you a universe far, far bigger than anyone had ever imagined. Before Hubble’s discovery, just three short generations ago, our Milky Way galaxy was believed to be the fixed composite of the entire universe. That was the going theory and no one had even the slightest cause to doubt it. The galaxy was, after all, so mind-numbingly gigantic that even getting to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away seemed categorically impossible, let alone out to the furthest of perhaps 200 billion stars 76,000 light years away. What we could see was it, and it was huge. After 1923 our backyard however got a lot, lot bigger, and what’s more, it was expanding; a find which rendered the already terribly shaky concept of a human centred cosmos simply preposterous.

Hundreds of billions of galaxies of remarkable shapes and sizes were racing away from each other in every direction which conversely meant just one thing: the universe was smaller yesterday than it is today, and much, much, much smaller 14 billion years ago than it was yesterday. Now, although the physical discovery of this expansion was new to 1923 the concept of a universe in flux was by no means wet behind the ears. In 1791 Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, considered the possible cyclical nature of the cosmos in his poem, The Botanic Garden, where space expands then contracts to near immeasurable smallness only to then breathe out and expand again:

Roll on, ye Stars! exult in youthful prime,
Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time;
Near and more near your beamy cars approach,
And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach; —
Flowers of the sky! ye too to age must yield,
Frail as your silken sisters of the field!
Star after star from Heaven’s high arch shall rush,
Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush,
Headlong, extinct, to one dark center fall,
And Death and Night and Chaos mingle all!
— Till o’er the wreck, emerging from the storm,
Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form,
Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,
And soars and shines, another and the same.

This poem would go on to inspire Edgar Allan Poe who 57 years later coined the term, the “Primordial Particle,” to describe this perceived moment in unfathomable smallness; a singularity that was near-infinitely tiny, near-infinitely hot, and near-infinitely dense from which the universe sprung forth. Poe’s Primordial Particle might have been the poetic imaginings of a brilliant mind but it was an artistic rune which Hubble’s observations seemed to confirm75 years later. The further we looked back the smaller everything got, and the smaller everything got the hotter and denser it became. And the hotter and denser it became the less complex it was seen to be.

This startling discovery – the theoretical birth of the universe – led to the worst named thing since the English political activist, Praise-God Barbon, named his son, Nicholas-Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon in 1640. Terrible names aside, the “Big Bang” unexpectedly gifted apologist’s two things: a new argument for god in that Laws Demand a Law Giver, and the best hiding place ever discovered; snug behind Poe’s Primordial Particle. Indeed, out there God appeared untouchable which, unfortunately for Yahwehists, was to be the arguments great undoing. That is to say, if something is untouchable it can’t touch back; an awkward realisation first hit upon after the confirmation of black holes in this present generation.

In a nutshell however, polemicists had contended (and many still do) that the four basic natural laws of gravity, the strong and weak nuclear attractions, and electromagnetism could not have arisen at the moment of the atrociously-named Big Bang without a godly nudge and a kindly word. The laws very existence, they argued, are in and by themselves the greatest proof of some ordered and conscious godly entity who was positioned in a locale from which to make a tear in the singularity and bring forth these immutable laws of nature according to which the conditions for life were set. To be sure, alter any of the forces by a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentile and life as we know it could never exist.

It was a compelling argument, and if we are to consider our universe to be singular (a notion broadly discredited today in both String Theory and it’s even more confusing cousin, M, or Membrane Theory) a staggeringly difficult supposition to present a counterargument to. Safe out beyond some perceived ancient particle God – here envisaged as some sort of conscious first mover – appeared free from any further pesky scientific enquiry.

That was until the confirmation of black holes.

Or more specifically, not the supermassive body itself but rather its circular concave lip: the event horizon – the last Schwarzschild radius – beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer.

At the event horizon time, and therefore space, no longer exist; a state of nothing which for want of a better description mirrors the conditions at the so-named, Big Bang. They haven’t vanished as our minds would have us believe rather time and space simply never existed. As a notion it’s virtually if not entirely impossible to wrap our heads around because we are biologically set up to perceive and order events in space which are governed by time; meaning sequenced consciousness. For consciousness to exist it must have something of a differing heat to superimpose itself on. It requires a frame of reference, a sounding board, a curtain of a different temperature (vibration) upon which it can be projected and therefore garner even a rudimentary notion of itself. That curtain requires spacetime, or more correctly, spacetime is the curtain, and spacetime simply does not exist beyond the event horizon. Beyond there is, quite literally, nothing; not even a concept of “beyond.” There is no word or appropriate articulation for it because there can’t be, which presents some rather large mental problems in just trying to approach the concept.

Our brains tell us to observe Poe’s notion of a Primordial Particle as if we are members of a theatre audience watching an actor move on a stage. This makes sense to us but it’s fundamentally wrong. There is no stage, no apron, no orchestra pit, no auditorium, no VIP boxes, no elevated catwalks, no lobby, no box office, and no marquee. The moment cannot be “observed” because at that moment one is the theatre, the audience, the actor, time and space all at once.

Simply put, at the event horizon there is neither the time nor the space in which a God could act.

Said in another way, there was no place for a god to hide, let alone have an idea. There is no “behind” Poe’s Primordial Particle. Nothing was in a position to move on the infinitely small, hot, dense blob which was in effect the four fundamental laws of the universe compressed into one, and order was not brought from chaos. The universe was in fact moving from a point of near-perfect harmony to increasing complexity: entropy. Order is, in effect, diluting with every passing second the universe has been in existence. From the very beginning the cosmos has been constructing magnificent chaos in a process that began with the first protons, electrons and neutrons, then nuclei, and finally atoms of hydrogen and helium at which point the universe breathed out a cosmic microwave background and with that began the age of the stars: the industrial factories of life.

The mass of the universe and the strengths of the four basic forces were not designed that way just so carbon and other chemical elements could be appropriately cooked inside stars starting 400 million years after the Big Bang. It is coincidence, and no amount of imaginative dreaming can explain it any other way. The natural laws are that way for no other reason than they are that way. They are neither beautiful nor ugly. They are neither with nor without design. They just are; the result of tiny quantum fluctuations in the protean universe billionths upon billionths upon billionths of a second after gravity first split off from its three sisters, and as Douglas Adam’s so wonderfully put it: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

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9 thoughts on “Pillow Fights with Gods

  1. “At $11 million it’s by no means advisable but an argument exists that one cannot dismantle The Supercomplication and throw its 900 separate pieces into the air and have them all fall precisely back in working order.”

    Brilliant.
    (I lifted the photo of “I see no God up here”, by the way.)

    Like

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