Friday, November 9, 2012

The Great Space Gospel, A Meditation for Carl Sagan Day

As many of you know, especially if you were a reader around this time last year, today is the birthday of Carl Sagan, one of the most influential and well-known scientists of the 20th century. He would have been 78, but, as one more piece of evidence that we live in an undirected, uncaring Universe he succumbed to a rare blood disease in late 1996 at the relatively young age of 62. You can read last year's entry to learn more about the influence he had on me as a boy and teenager as I struggled to figure out the world. During the ages of about 10-16, I was engaged in a long process of questioning and research, and one of the results of this was a gradual letting go of the religious beliefs that my parents and others had tried to instill in me. It was also during this time, largely due to the influence of Sagan's writings as well as how he engaged with the world, that I adopted an outlook on the Universe that I have since come to call the Cosmic Perspective. Here, as a little refresher, are the six tenets:

1. The Universe is incomprehensibly huge.
2. Humanity occupies no privileged place within it.
3. Our existence is the result of a convergence between a number of random processes, one that may or may not have occurred elsewhere.*
4. The continuance of that existence is not guaranteed.
5. The development and settlement of outer space and other worlds is the best strategy for continued existence.
6. All else being equal, existence is preferable to non-existence.

*Of course one of the processes we owe our existence to is evolution, which contains the decidedly non-random feature of natural selection. But since natural selection only acts on what random mutation produces in the context of environmental variation, one cannot ascribe any purpose or goal to it, which to me preserves the random element.

All of these conclusions are pretty easy to arrive at after even the most rudimentary dabbling in astrophysics, biology, and geology; and once you finally grasp the reality that there is no supreme being holding the reins (or at least not any that is evident) any barriers to accepting and incorporating them into your worldview swiftly crumble. At least they did in my experience. But once you have fully integrated these conclusions, what comes next? Last year I expounded somewhat on each of the six tenets, and to me the answer to what one does with this information is that you become an advocate for bringing about the goal presented in #5. That, my friends, bring us to the Great Space Gospel.

Over the years since I began living openly as an atheist, many religious people have asked me how I have dealt with what they perceive to be this sort of existential dread they think should come with accepting the reality that there is no afterlife to look forward to and that death is the final end of your tenure as a sentient being. Sometimes they phrase it as "How can you still get up in the morning when you think that this (emphasis mine) is all there is?" Well, see #1. The brute fact expressed there is that, even when just talking about normal matter (which to the best of our knowledge only makes up about 5% of it), there is actually quite a lot of this. So much this that it is nigh impossible to really wrap our heads around it. Thus I find there is more than enough of this to satisfy even my own outsize curiosity about it. I also know that I am part of this, and even though my consciousness will be around for barely a blip in the life of the Universe, due to the conservation laws everything that has, is, and will be part of me will never be completely destroyed, which is an immortality of sorts. And if I happen to do something that gets remembered by consciousness that comes after me, then so much the better. It is true that the comings and goings of my daily life are completely confined to the relatively narrow sphere that is the surface of the Earth, but just knowing that there is so much more beyond and that there is the strong possibility that at some point humanity will step out into it fills me with a great deal of hope, even if I may never get the opportunity myself.

Against all of this, religion doesn't really stand a chance with me, because the people who ask me variations on that question always assume that I am operating under the same limited scope that they are, and which prompts them to ask it in the first place. Their perspectives are small, and therefore their gods are too. The vastness of the Universe was not revealed to us by any religion, and as such no religion that I know of has truly absorbed that reality and adjusted its teachings accordingly. Some people may talk about how big and unknowable their god is, but they betray their arrogance and selfishness when they talk about having a personal relationship with it. Sure, I love the Universe, and want to understand more about it, but I don't expect it to be my therapist.

One of my favorite quotes of Sagan's is "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." (The Demon Haunted World, pg. 12) To me this sums up why religion as it is now no longer appeals to me. Its petty concerns are as nothing when compared to the grandeur of the Universe, and they have to this point been only distractions from what needs to be humanity's overarching goal: getting off this damn planet. Now, I have nothing against Earth, and actually happen to like it quite a bit, but everything indicates that its days as a suitable environment for our species (and most of the other ones, frankly) are numbered. Even if we suddenly become the most responsible ecosystem managers tomorrow, gradually increasing Solar output will have Earth looking like Venus outside of a billion years or so, and that's if something else doesn't finish it off first. And when you realize that humanity as a species is a lot more fragile than the Earth as a whole, the need to spread ourselves around becomes even more urgent. Yet religion's priorities appear to be a) what's going on in your bedroom, b) headgear, and c) some stuff about maybe treating your neighbor like a human being, but only if they conform to arbitrary and often contradictory rules in some collection or other of ancient writings. None of these actually contribute to us leaving orbit, and in many instances religions hinder it, first by not recognizing the need exists, and second by actively working to inhibit the research and development necessary to accomplish the goal. And that is a shame, really, especially when you consider that if the evangelistic ones were really serious about it (evangelism, that is), they'd be the ones most chomping at the bit to leave, because who knows how many trillions or quadrillions of other intelligent beings are out there in need of salvation?

Religion may have the Gospels, but I have the Great Space Gospel, and it wins hands down in providing true hope and freedom for humanity, not to mention it being based on actual evidence. That is why I do not despair, that is why I get up in the morning (assuming a crying child doesn't do it first), and that is why I spread the word. Now I'm going to go stream me some Cosmos.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Election post-mortem

I admit I am still basking in the glow of this Tuesday's election results. After several months of vitriol, hate-mongering, and a near constant stream of statements from Republican candidates that made me seriously question what century they were in, the American electorate for the most part rejected their desperate attempts to sow fear and division. And that makes me feel pretty darned good, especially with how things turned out in Minnesota. Continuing our tradition of having among the best voter turnout in the nation (something like 75%, meaning there is still plenty of room for improvement) we soundly rejected both the badly written Voter ID amendment and the spiteful Marriage Amendment, and threw out the Republican bums in the state House and Senate that wasted our time and money by putting them on the ballot in the first place.While true marriage equality will still require legislative action to change existing law, with the DFL controlling both chambers and the governor's office the hurdles to this are now much lower than they might otherwise have been. Indeed by putting the Marriage Amendment on the ballot the Republicans not only badly hobbled their own electoral chances, they may hasten the exact thing they were (in theory) trying to prevent. The irony is quite delicious. And while I am pretty sure Minnesota will not turn into a progressive paradise overnight, the next two years present a golden opportunity to put the state's fiscal policy back on sound footing and make badly overdue investments in infrastructure and education.

Nationally, there were also many great strides made. Obama will get the chance to fully implement many of the reforms he set in motion, as well as potentially pick a couple more Supreme Court justices. The GOP Rape Brigade was sent home with their tails between their legs in a trouncing that will hopefully make sure attacks on reproductive freedom are never again a winning proposition. The Senate will be getting a true financial cop on the beat in Elizabeth Warren, where she can use her bully pulpit to make Wall Street play by the rules and ensure that the fraudsters get iron handcuffs instead of golden parachutes. And while the House remains in GOP control, which given the advantages of incumbency and the relative safety of gerrymandered districts was not surprising, they now have fewer Senate allies and will face an emboldened president who knows he no longer has to take their shit.

Most important of all though, is that the writing is now clearly on the wall for the White, conservative, fundamentalist brand of politics that has dominated the Republican party for the past decade. Race-baiting, fact-denying, rights-restricting, and inequality-exacerbating are no longer going to win them statewide (except in the old Confederacy) or presidential races, so in order to remain relevant the GOP will need to, in classic Darwinian fashion, adapt or die out.

I have seen a fair number of election cycles, some of which have left me satisfied and others dejected, but this is the first time I am coming out of one with true elation. Politics, they say, is the art of the possible, but after Tuesday's results those possibilities have become much more hopeful, and make me proud to be both an American and a Minnesotan.