Monday, 9 January 2012

The habitual nature of normal.

The christian colleague I've mentioned before in this blog has come out with a doozy this morning. One of our customers is a property belonging to the Church of Scientology, and said colleague - I'll call her Lily - has just announced that she's not prepared to speak to them because they're crackpots with an insane ideology and belief system.

I don't think many people would deny that scientology is mental - after all, how willfully deluded would one have to be to choose to adopt a religion started by a man who once said "[i]f you want to get rich, you start a religion"? - but I'm always by turns fascinated and depressed by the opinions religious people hold about other religions.  In this case the objection seems to be the proposal that earth has been visited by super-intelligent aliens, as if that's so patently ridiculous as to be self-evidently false.

Here's the thing, though; the mediocrity principle suggests strongly - and the majority of scientists, according to Richard Dawkins (who holds himself an exception), accept the premise - that life in this vast universe is almost certainly not unique to our planet, and may not even be terribly unusual. We do not have definitive proof of this as yet, and because "life" does not necessarily or even probably mean "intelligent life" and/or "life capable of making contact with us" it may never be proven... but nothing we have found so far in the fields of biology or chemistry or any other field furnishes us with even the smallest reason to think we are alone or even particularly "special" by virtue of being alive.  In fact, there is limited (albeit far from conclusive) evidence to the contrary; the "Goldilocks" planet found less than thirty light-years away - on our doorstep on the scale of our galaxy, let alone the universe - and the amino acids found on meteorites, for example.  We don't know how abiogenesis came about, and it is possible that it was an event so chemically and physically improbable as to be for everyday purposes impossible... but with over 100 billion galaxies - galaxies, not planets or even stars - in the observable universe and more than 13 billion years to play with, the virtually impossible can be considered almost inevitable. Even if we were to discover that our planet is in fact the only one in the entire universe to have given rise to life, there would be not the smallest reason to conclude that a supernatural being did it - as a christian would be more than happy to acknowledge if said supernatural being was alleged to have been Shiva or Zeus.  The point is that - at this stage of our research into the nature of existence - the question of "is there other life in the universe?" is not a 50/50 just because we don't know the answer yet, just as "is there in invisible pan-dimensional undetectable magic dragon that eats radio waves in my bedroom?" is not a 50/50 question just because I can't definitively prove that there's not.  Unless the probability of abiogenesis on our own planet was less than one in the total number of planets in the entire universe, it is reasonable to conclude instead that the answer to the question "is there other life in the universe?" is "probably". Aliens are more than possible, in short; they are probable - all that's really up for debate (unless something truly shattering and paradigm-altering is discovered) is precisely where on the continuum from 50.001% probability to 99.999% probability they lie.  Whether there are forms of life intelligent enough to have mastered large-scale space travel, of course, is a different matter, but we know from our own planet that - once life has got a foothold - it is remarkably adaptable and can become immensely varied.  We know that other species such as dolphins, great apes, even some dogs have problem solving abilities. The precise date at which homo sapiens emerged is a topic for debate because it's almost axiomatically impossible to put a date on when one species becomes another for the very reason that an animal of one species does not give birth to offspring of a second species (creationists take note - a monkey giving birth to a human would disprove evolution, not force you to accept it!), but estimates place our species at between 200,000 and 250,000 years old. That's 250,000 years - maximum - between working out to to make a knife out of flint and cloning animals, creating a global network giving access to every bit of information we possess almost instantly from anywhere in the world, and sending a probe out beyond our solar system. Many animals use tools; is it difficult to imagine that - without a rival like humanity to wipe them out - some of them might get as far as we have given a few hundred thousand years? What if the dinosaurs had never been wiped out; might our planet now be occupied not by us but by technologically advanced reptiles?  And with their extra 65 million years to learn and adapt, is it impossible to think that they might not have got round to space exploration more extensive than our own?  In short, extraterrestrial life is - according to most experts - somewhere on the "probable" continuum. The probability of life existing that is intelligent enough to have reached us is less readily assessed, but we know from our own history and achievements that it is certainly not impossible.

Christianity, if you accept all the thousands of factions as a single religion on the basis that they worship the same god and follow the teachings of the same prophet (theoretically, anyway - if you measured the prevalence of christianity by the number of people who actually do follow Jesus' teachings to the letter, the religion would all but disappear), is the largest single religion on the planet.  In Britain, you cannot drive more than a few miles without encountering a monument to it; I spent NYE this year at Land's End, and even on a remote hilltop in a howling gale hundreds of feet above the nearest building on one side and overlooking a cliff into the sea on the other, we found a tiny chapel.  The consequence of this saturation is that christianity and the better-known of its tenets are seen as "normal"; we are so used to them that we regard them through a torpor of familiarity, and rarely do we stop to think about whether they actually make any kind of sense.

Now, I'm not for a moment trying to say that scientology is not completely batshit insane.  All I'm trying to do is point out that it's no more insane - in fact, in reference specifically to the provenance of life on earth, it might well be considered less insane - than the more dominant religions that we've simply become used to.  Christian mythology states that Jahweh created the whole of existence in six days. He then made Adam out of mud, and subsequently Eve out of one of Adam's ribs. So far so familiar.

But let's examine this a little - I'm no scientist, but even a cursory glance at what we know about the universe just using common sense will suffice for my purposes here. I'm using the Cambridge edition of the King James bible, by the way, but if you want to check your own bible you can do so; it may use slightly altered terminology, but the meanings have not been substantially altered since the KJV was written.  I also haven't examined every line, partly because some of them are so vague as to be all but meaningless ("the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" - what exactly does that mean?) and partly because I just haven't the time to go into that level of detail. Again, you're more than welcome to examine the lines I've omitted yourself; it is worth remembering, though, that the bible claims to be divinely inspired, and therefore that any factual error should be of concern to a reader attempting to assess its validity objectively.

Gen. 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."  Mmm-K, pretty simple so far. Except that we know the earth was not the first thing to be "created"; the universe had been around for nearly ten billion years before the earth formed.  Even if you insist that Jahweh created existence you cannot, without sticking your fingers in your ears and singing "lalalalala, I'm not listening!" every time anyone mentions anything modern science has taught us, deny that the bible has got the order wrong. Seriously, if you accept that your car works by burning petrol or that nuclear bombs exist you can't pretend that the bible is right on this point. We also have not one iota of evidence to suggest that "heaven" - any heaven, the Elysian Fields and Valhalla are equally undetected - exists beyond the word of various people of various ages and levels of education, all of whom failed entirely to offer any proof whatsoever of the claim and had motives that might be considered suspect at best.

Gen. 1:3: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." This verse always puts me in mind of the Aboriginal Dreamtime myths, in which animals, plants and rocks were "spoken" into being by the Ancestors. In fact, this way of creating stuff is not uncommon among deities; ancient Japanese and Indian creation stories use the same method, as well as many more. Now, obviously you and I can't speak things into existence (if we could, I'd be a millionaire in possession of every pair of Louboutins ever made) but Jahweh's meant to have special powers so fine, maybe he can.  Two problems with this, though; firstly, Jahweh didn't get around to the "firmament" until Gen. 1:6 and he didn't put lights in it until Gen 1:14, so what was the source of this light?  Was Jahweh just emitting photons himself? Did he leave them lying about the place?  Without the sun or even any stars, how did the herbs and plants mentioned in Gen. 1:11 live? To add to the confusion, Jahweh didn't make the stars until Gen 1: 16, so what was the light in the firmament? As you know, Jahweh also finally got around to the sun at Gen 1:16... except he made two lights then; "the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night" - the sun and the moon, presumably. As any child knows, however, the moon is not a "light"; it simply reflects sunlight, which is why it waxes and wanes. This was known in some cultures when the bible was being written; why didn't those claiming to be inspired by the divine word of an almighty and omniscient god know it?

The rest of Gen. 1 is a couple of days of making animals and a sort of synopsis - a teaser for the rest of the book, perhaps - of the creation of humanity (or of man, anyway, because that's the important part of humanity after all).

In Gen. 2, as everybody knows, Jahweh made Adam out of dust and "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life".  As anyone who's ever tried clay modelling, things made of mud aren't alive no matter how much you breath on them... but OK, maybe Jahweh's got magic breath, or the mud back then was magic or something. Later on Jahweh makes Eve out of Adam's rib, which has led to a pervasive but entirely untrue myth that women have one more rib than men - the wide acceptance of which makes even less sense when we remember that my kids will not be born without tonsils just because mine have been removed.  Quite how Jahweh made Eve from the rib is unclear, although our own technology suggests that this might not be as farfetched as it would have sounded to contemporary readers; and you know, whatever - Jahweh's magic, right? And Adam was created with magic breath from magic dust, maybe his rib's magic too.  On the other hand, if Adam and Eve existed and if they were the progenitors of all human life... well, how did the human gene pool become so large? Why do we share so much of our DNA with other animals, even with plants and fungi? Why are all the great apes unable to synthesis vitamin C as a result of the same genetic mutation that originated at the same period whichever affected species' DNA is used to date it?  If it comes to that, what's this "God created man in his own image" bit about? So is Jahweh white, or Arabic, or black, or oriental, or aboriginal, or what?  Is he eight feet tall or three, muscular or slender, handsome or homely?

In this post, I'm only addressing the origins of life on this planet.  To believe the christian version of events, you're required to believe that our planet is the oldest thing in the universe. You have to believe that there's a magic way of speaking that will make things exist that you want. You have to believe in a magic light that doesn't work as the light we're familiar with, and that darkness is an entity in its own right, rather than simply the absence of light as every child knows. You have to believe that the moon emits light, or at least that it used in such a way as to leave no evidence of this; you have to believe it's the same age as the sun, too.  You have to believe that dirt, if formed into the shape of a human being and breathed upon, will alter its composition and come to life. You have to believe that ribs can be magicked into sprouting a whole new person, with DNA different from that of the original rib. You have to believe that all of humnanity, with all our variations and differences, is descended from these two individuals, while simultaneously not believing in those pesky genetic mutations that would explain those variations but also rather awkwardly brings evolution and species divergence into the picture (and no, you can't get around that with "microevolution" - microevolution is just standard evolution over a shortened timescale).  You have to believe that all we have learned from the fields of chemistry, biology, geology, physics and everything else in science is wrong, which as I pointed out means that you have to believe many modern achievements are wrong; if evolution were not real, for example, modern medicine would not work, and if our understanding of physics, chemistry and geology are incorrect then petrol shouldn't exist and we should not be able to generate nuclear power.

To believe the scientologists' version of events, you just have to believe that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists.

Which one seems insane now?

A belief does not become less ridiculous or less stupid by virtue of age or popularity. Just because the christian creation myth is familiar to most of us does not mean it makes any sense whatsoever.  No adherent to any religion has any right to pronounce the beliefs of any other religion crackpot, because by definition if you believe in deities you believe in impossibilities for which there is no proof and for which you have no better evidence than a text or two and a whole lot of habit.


  1. Nice analysis, I pretty much agree, most religions are based on stuff so bat shit crazy that if they weren't so widely believed, people would see them for the kooks they are. I mean, someone that believes in talking snakes and invisible zombie friends has a problem with aliens, yeah, right. However, I would point out that science has been getting increasingly pessimistic about both the possibility that intelligent life has any long term prospects, nor is it very likely at all. It's called the Rare Earth Hypothesis, and there are some increasingly robust statistical and mathematical arguments in support of it. The complete lack of evidence for intelligent aliens, despite some very dedicated searches, is also troubling at this point. Thee may be aliens out there, and tomorrow a UFO could and on the White House lawn without violating anything science knows about the Universe, but right now the science is saying that we may very well be alone.


  2. Hi Unitedcats (good name, by the way!). I understand your point and I'll read your link; the point I was trying to make was simply that we know life exists in our universe because we exist; we have no reason at all to believe that invisible all-powerful beings with magic breath exist, yet a person who believes in the latter dismisses the former as if that were crazy. I am familiar with the pessimism surrounding intelligent life - the proposed tendency to self-destruct - and I know we have no evidence yet that there's anyone else out there... but on the other hand, we've been looking for perhaps eighty years (in any serious way) in a universe nearly 14 billion years old. My point is, if you believe in the logically impossible you don't get to laugh at others for believing in the damned unlikely.