The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why I Don't Believe Part 3 - The Origins of Life

Ancient peoples not only puzzled over how the Cosmos and our Planet came to be, but also wondered how it is that WE came to be, how life came to exist on this tiny blue planet of ours. The importance and divisibility of this question is best illustrated by the fact that even the most ancient peoples tended to separate creation from life. In the Bible, for example, God first creates light and darkness. The Lord then creates the sky and separates it from the waters. He follows that by the creation of the earth and the creation of plants. The sun, moon and stars follow. Then He creates the creatures of the seas, the creatures of the land, and finally man. Even the earliest humans, with no scientific knowledge or understanding whatsoever, intuitively grasped that the creation of the cosmos and the existence of life were two separate phenomena, likely stemming from the fact that simply answering the question ‘Where did everything come from?’ did not necessarily answer the more specific question of ‘Where did WE come from?’

In answering that second question, ancient peoples again turned to mythology. One of the most amusing and enduring traits of humankind is that when we don’t understanding something, we make something up. We tell stories utilizing things we do understand. Which is how we end up with the creation myths that have endured to this day.

The Atheist delights in the fact that we can accurately describe the formation of our world. We can literally describe with stunning clarity the processes by which our planet was formed! We UNDERSTAND! And the story of the birth of our world does not require any magic or any deity? Indeed, the story of the birth of our world is even more amazing, profound and powerful because of the wondrous serendipity by which it arose. Even more profound than the physical formation of our world is the rise of life. The evolution of life on this planet is cheapened if it is reduced to some manner of divine laboratory experience. Because the truth about how our species arose, the truth about how we came to exist on this planet is one of the most elegant, beautiful and meaningful events this planet has ever experienced. The power and beauty of the story of life deserves to be told and understood in all of its glory, not cheapened with fevered tales of magic clay and stolen ribs.

The reality is that our tiny planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago from the remnants of a star that died tens of thousands, possibly millions of years earlier. As clouds of gas were excited and compressed, gravitational attraction caused the gas and dust to coalesce. The vast majority of the mass in our immediate vicinity gathered in the center of a vast accretion disc, forming our sun. The tiny fraction of mass that was not pulled into the center by the inexorable tide of gravity formed a thin disc of gas and dust, slowly revolving around the common center of mass. Gradually, the matter in the accretion disc itself began to coalesce along its lines of highest density, forming the eight planets we know today.

In the beginning, the Earth was a flaming hellscape, utterly unfit for habitation of any kind. In those early years, cosmic debris in the form of asteroids and comets regularly bombarded our tiny planet. As the drumbeat of cosmic collisions died down, the Earth once again cooled and the gases that had surrounded our planet began to coalesce. Eventually, the temperature of the water vapor began to drop below 100 C and it began its inexorable fall to the Earth. The ensuing rainstorm is thought to have raged over the surface for millions of years, ultimately blanketing the entire surface of the planet and transforming our planet from a molten ruin into tumultuous water world.

It is unclear exactly where life on this planet began, whether it began with chemosynthetic organisms in deep sea vents, extracting energy from the superheated, chemical rich water welling up from near the Earth's molten mantle. Or with more familiar, photosynthetic organisms that derive their energy from the sun. Regardless of where life first arose, it is clear that even in the earliest days, Earth possessed all of the raw materials necessary to facilitate life.

Earth possesses an abundance of Carbon, the fundamental element for all organic chemistry. Carbon's unique bonding capabilities allow it to form long, complex molecules with all kinds of other atoms. With minor amounts of energy, carbon has been shown to easily forms the basic organic buildings blocks necessary to form life, amino acids, lipids, sugars, hydrocarbons. More importantly, due to the unique bonding capabilities of carbon, organic molecules tend to combine and recombine into ever more complex organic structures. And at some point, some 900 million years after its formation, this frothing mass of organic molecules in our great global ocean did something extraordinary, something that would forever alter our planet.

It began to organize. It began to extract energy from its environment and use that energy to replicate itself.

The exact mechanism that caused the first living thing to spring into existence is unknown, it is unclear whether primitive forms of RNA or DNA began self-replicating externally or whether these complex chain of amino acids somehow ended up inside of a lipid bubble and were activated by the presence of electricity or heat or some unknown chemical reaction, but at some point, some humble collection of organic molecules began to do something this planet had never seen before. It began to live.

Creationists will argue that such a thing is impossible, that the odds of such a thing happening are akin to deriving a working 747 out of a tornado. To be sure, the odds of such an event are indeed low, but consider the simple fact that at the time life first emerged, the entire planet was covered with water, an ocean literally filled with complex organic molecules. The formation of organic molecules in and of itself, is in no way surprising as Carbon atoms love nothing more than to form exotic atomic chains. This is not an act of authorship, merely the natural result of the laws of chemistry. Given the sheer volume of organic components floating in that massive, highly energetic, seething ocean and given countless millions of years over which to combine and recombine and recombine and recombine again into increasingly complex molecular chains, far from being impossible, the emergence of life seems, inevitable.

That first humble organism, was likely an incredibly simple thing, likely capable of nothing more than extracting energy to self-replicate, but it is from these humble origins that everything we are is derived.

To say that life is a truly amazing thing is like stating that the Universe is large, it is quite simply impossible to overstate what a beautiful, graceful, powerful and phenomenal thing life is. At its most basic level, life is about organization, about taking energy from the chaotic, tumultuous world around it, and harnessing it to achieve a specific end. For these first early creatures, the specific end they sought, was simple replication. As these creatures replicated themselves over countless generations and over millions of years, it was utterly inevitable that the replication would go awry and that some variation on the original would be formed. Some of these variations would even be capable of replicating themselves, gradually creating new and different strains of life. This is the very essence of evolution.

Why I Don't Believe Part 2 - In the Beginning

While disagreement over belief in God may represent the signature difference between Atheism and Religion, the far more substantive difference lies in the methodology by which we seek understanding. The Atheist's relentless quest for understanding is unfettered by tradition, by crumbling parchments and ancient wisdom and codes of ethics. The Atheist is unconstrained by the past. Free to work towards understanding using all of the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of human development. The Atheist is free to incorporate information from anywhere and everywhere, from ancient religous texts to the latest advances in cutting edge science. The Atheist is free to seek truth wherever it presents itself. As a result, the Atheist is uniquely free to discard outmoded or obsolete ideas which serve no useful purpose. And free to embrace those ideas that reflect an evolving understanding of the Universe.

As a result, Atheist is infinitely adaptable. The only true requriement is that the adherent seek understanding in all things. The Atheist recognizes and embraces the fact thta every one of us has a unique history, a unique culture, a unique path, unique needs and a unique mind. The Atheist recognizes and embraces the fact that understanding itself often depends on the perspective of the viewer. Acknowledging the reality that morality cannot always be reduced to simple questions of right and wrong.

Unconcerned with offending tradition, the Atheist is free to seek to undertanding in any way possible even from those with whom they disagree. The Atheist is flexible, open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new information. Willing to accept disagreement and criticism and open to the possibility that their understanding may be flawed and need adjustment.

Religious understanding, in contrast, is forever bound to a specific place, a specific time and a specific cultural worldview. Fettered to the specific sets of creeds, views, ideologies and understandings set down in one specific set of sacred texts, most of which were recorded thousands of years ago. Religious understanding must always be filtered through the truths set down in these sacred writings. Contradictory information gleaned from either personal experience or scientific understanding must be either rejected as false or contorted in such a way that it can be marginalized. Religious understanding is ultimately based on conformity with ancient ideals and is therefore hopelessly constrained by history, by tradition, by the past.

Religious understanding views the future with hostility and views new knowledge and new understandings not as progress, but as a threat. Religious understandings are almost always mutually exclusive, explicitly rejecting not only contradictory truths uncovered by science, but the understandings discovered by other faiths. Religious understanding is tainted with the fear that time and greater secular understanding will render it obsolete. As a result, Religious understanding is incredibly hostile to disagreement and criticism. It tends to be incredibly inflexible and dogmatic, slow to change and slow to adapt to even obvious new truths.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Religion's stubborn inability to deal with new understandings about the size, scale and age of the Universe.

Far from a literal creation in which an invisible deity speaks and the world magically springs into being, our Universe and our World are the products of billions of years of evolutionary progress nd change. And the reality of that process, the real story of how our world came to be is far more marvelous than the ancient fables of Creation passed down by ancient man. Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, floating within the seemingly infinite void there existed a quantum singularity. A point in space where all the matter and energy in what we now call the Universe was compressed into a tiny seething mass of incomprehensible heat and density. This Great Singularity was something akin to a black hole. A region of space where gravity and the other fundamental forces of physics and were so strong that all of matter and energy in the Universe could be compressed into this infinitesimally tiny space. If you find this hard to contemplate, consider that the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Galaxy contains something on the order of 3.6 million times the mass of our Sun in a region approximately the size of our planet.

What created this Great Singularity? Was it merely a natural occurrence within the Bulk of some great multiverse? Was it a conscious act of creation by some mind-bogglingly advanced civilization? To that question there is not, and can never be, any answer. Atheism cannot and should not even attempt to formulate an answer to that question. It is utterly impossible to look back beyond the veil to the time before. Indeed, the Atheist can readily concede that it is possible, though improbable, that the Great Singularity that encompassed the Great All of our existence may have been an act of conscious authorship. Such a question is simply beyond answering. And ultimately, as we will discuss in detail later, even if the Great Singularity was in fact an act of conscious authorship, the being that created such a maelstrom is so far beyond our plane of existence that it is utterly ludicrous to believe that such a being would either know or care about our insignificant galaxy, our average star, our tiny world or our species infintesimally brief existence.

Regardless of how the Great Singularity came to be, regardless of whether it was simply a natural occurrence or an act of conscious authorship and creation, we know and can readily describe what happened next. Approximately 13.7 billion years ago the forces holding the singularity together became unbalanced and the Great Singularity exploded in a cataclysmic firestorm of creation. The dimensions and scale of this detonation are quite literally beyond anything humans can truly grasp, a maelstrom of destruction that literally created the fabric of space and time. Imagine literally everything, all of the mass and energy that has ever existed compressed into something the size of an atom exploding outward at once.

After a few hundred thousand years of cooling, as the heat of that explosion diminished from trillions of degrees down to hundreds of billions of degrees and finally down to a few million degrees. Gradually the Universe became cool enough for Hydrogen atoms to form and from that point, gravity became the dominant force in the formation of our Universe. Denser regions of space coalesced together under the influence of gravity into ever denser regions of space, finally forming structures that would seem familiar to us today. Galaxies, stars, black holes, even primordial gas giants like Jupiter.

As stars attained sufficient mass and sufficient gravity, they became hotter and denser until the stars began a process we know as nuclear fusion where Hydrogen is fused to Helium. As these stars continued to burn through their nuclear fuel, they gradually used up their stock of Hydrogen and began fusing Helium together into all of the elements we know today, Carbon, Oxygen, Silicon, Neon, etc. Once these primordial stars had fused elements up to Iron, they reached a point where they could no longer generate any more energy through nuclear fusion. At that point, the gravity pulling the stellar material inward could no longer be held back by the heat generated through nuclear fusion and these ancient stars become unstable, exploding in a Supernova, and seeding the surrounding space with the first generations of all of the heavy elements we know today.

Every single atom of your body heavier than Hydrogen was forged in the heart of a star that died billions of years ago. The Iron in the core of our planet was cast by death throes of a long extinct star. Every single atom of Oxygen you breathe or in the Water you drink was formed in the heart of star that died hundreds of light years away billions of years ago.

We owe the entirety of our existence to the laws of physics which governed the formation of our Universe. As these primordial stars seeded the Universe with heavy elements, gravity once again, caused this material to coalesce into new stars. Now, seeded with heavy elements like Silicon, Carbon and Oxygen, gravity was able to make not only stars, but also small rocky planetoids. And approximately 4.5 billion years ago, one of these rocky planetoids formed in the accretion disc of a star that is very familiar to us. From its initial state as a smoldering mass of rock and iron, this planetoid gradually cooled, allowing the water and oxygen intermixed with its primordial materials to outgas forming an atmosphere. As that atmosphere cooled from its hot gaseous state, it too began to coalesce and under the ever-present influence of gravity, began to fall as rain on the molten surface. As that molton surface gradually cooled under the torrential rains, it became solid, and as it became solid, oceans of liquid water formed on its surface. The rainstorm that filled the oceans of this planetoid likely lasted for millions of years, finally leaving this small celestial body as a swelteringly hot, steamy waterworld.

This planetoid, our planet Earth, was formed not from the hand of some invisible deity, but by the natural physical properties of the Universe. The properties of gravity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, formed our brilliant blue world out of the remnants of dead stars and together, those properties led to something even more remarkable than a marvelous blue jewel orbiting a brilliant glowing ball of plasma – Life.

While we do not know the mechanics behind the creation of the Great Singularity, we understand quite well the mechanics of what happened afterwards. We understand the maelstrom of fire and light followed by the slow creation of Hydrogen, the eventual domination of local gravity, the formation of stars and the formation of the heavier elements within stars. Those events do not illustrate the hand of some intelligent being, they illustrate the grace and beauty of time and space and the physical properties of nature operating on unimaginable timescales. With our advanced optics, we can look up into the night sky and literally SEE the way the Universe was billions and billions of years ago. We can actually look at and understand the evolution of our Universe simply by looking at ever more distant objects. We can even re-create on a small scale, the tremendous energies and particles unleashed during the Big Bang. We can see the evolution of our own creation and it is beautiful.

It is not that the Atheist cannot abide the idea of God, but the Great All, this beautiful planet, the magnificent cosmos, the elegance and grace of the interaction of time, space and matter and the physical laws that govern those interactions are cheapened by the idea that everything was simply created by some supra-advanced space being. The reality of our creation, the reality of the birth of our sun, the reality of the birth of our planet, the reality of the origins of the atoms that make up our world and the reality of life’s first tentative steps on this wonderful planet of ours far are more meaningful and powerful precisely because it is not an act of authorship. It is that lack of authorship that makes our existence that much more precious.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why I Don't Believe Part 1 - Introduction

The highest calling of the Atheist is to seek understanding, to seek knowledge, to seek truth.  In that quest, the Atheist will confront questions that have plagued the human consciousness since the first glimmers of sentience.  And in that quest, the Atheist will quickly begin to face questions that require an evaluation of the concept of divinity.

Nearly all Religions, all faiths, all creeds begin with some variant on the prologue that appears in the Bible. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” God is always a pre-existing condition. This is both understandable and necessary because one of the most fundamental purposes of Religion is to provide answers to the unanswerable questions.

Where did we come from?

Were do we go when we die?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Why does the sun always rise in the East?

Why do the storms come? And why do they always come right after I planted my crops?

Asking ‘where did we come from?’ is one of the most basic, and likely one of the earliest questions humans ever asked. Looking up at the stars, it is unsurprising that early humans deified the sun and the moon and the stars. The sun, afterall, is easily recognizable even to those without any technological or scientific knowledge as the provider of warmth and heat and light and energy. The moon and stars ever present but impossibly distant, unknowable and mysterious clearly captivated the minds of ancient humans as well.

It is therefore unsurprising that nearly all religions begin with an answer to the most basic question of all, where did all of this come from? It is equally unsurprising that the answer to that question in every single creation myth is always essentially the same. In the beginning there is always Darkness, then some supernatural entity or God (be it a man, woman, spirit, coyote, dragon, etc.) speaks of claps or breathes and out of the endless void, creation begins to unfold.  Early humans had no experiential, scientific or empirical methodology for determining the origins of the Universe.  It is therefore utterly rational that our forebearers, in that quintissentially human quest for understanding, attempted to explain the origins of the Universe and our world through the creatures and phenomena they knew - for nothing so vexes the human mind as a question that defies an answer.

One of the fundamental purposes of Religion and supernatural understanding, is to provide answers to questions that cannot be answered based on our experiential understanding of the world. To early humans, most of the forces that governed their lives were utterly beyond their comprehension. They lived and died at the mercy of the forces of nature in a way that we modern humans cannot even begin to comprehend. As a result, they deified and anthropomorphized everything. The sun, the moon, the sky, the stars, the seas, the earth, the wind, the clouds, the harvest, each had its corresponding deity. Polytheistic belief structures were an utterly rational response to a world in which none of the forces governing existence were capable of experiential understanding. It provided a means of understanding and hopefully placating the unknowable forces of the Universe.

As humans came to understand the world around them, however, and began to understand the seasons and began to master agriculture, and began to gain an understanding of the world around them, such deification was no longer necessary because the answers to their questions were within their experiential understanding. As a result, the anthropomorphization of physical phenomena and polytheistic belief structures began a long slow slide into obsolescence.

One of the greatest inventions in the ancient world was Monotheism. The great advantage of Monotheism as a methodological technology is that the monotheistic deity is no longer wedded to some physical or natural phenomena capable of simple explanation. Monotheism is therefore infinitely more versatile. Its’ very abstraction is its greatest strength. Indeed, while nearly all of the deities of physical and natural phenomena have long since succumbed to logical or experiential understandings, only the Monotheistic deity, the omni-deity, the answer to ALL questions has withstood the test of time. And Monotheism has done so precisely because despite the number of questions that are definitively answered without invoking the supernatural, there remain a handful of questions to which Monotheism can still attempt to proffer an answer.

Questions such as how the Universe came to exist, remained unanswerable to ancient peoples. Indeed, they have remained unanswerable throughout the vast majority of human existence. Such questions only began to be definitively answered in the latter half of the twentieth century as astronomers and physicists peered deeper and deeper into space and farther back in time.

As the Atheist relentlessly pursues understanding in all things, it is highly likely that they will eventually come to a point where the notion of God seems silly. One of the foundational pieces of evidence in that understanding stems from the fact that we now know how it is that our planet, our star and our Universe came to be what it is. We actually KNOW the answer to a question that has bedeviled humankind since the moment of our emerging sentience. We actually know!

And the way in which our Universe formed, the actual way in which our star, our planet, our very existence came about is infinitely more marvelous and magnificent than any creation myth ever dreamt up by the human mind. The reality of our existence is made manifestly more miraculous by the truth of our Universe’s evolution. And with the rise of an answer to this most fundamental, most basic of questions, the Atheist is almost certain to begin to reject belief in God and begin to contemplate the meaning and grandeur of the true nature of our Universe. And as that understanding grows, as the true nature of the Cosmos reveals itself, appreciation and love for its beauty and complexity grow in equal measure.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


My name is Jeffrey Alan Myers.

And I am an Atheist.

Atheism may well be the least understood 'ism' in the English language. Sadly, Atheism is often directly conflated with Nihilism, the belief that life and everything in it is meaningless.  As such, Atheists are often considered not only godless, but amoral, worthy of derision and disapprobation.  Shocking as it may be, however, Atheists do not possess horns, cloven hooves, or forked tongues, though based on the reaction I often receive those things are to be expected.

Part of the reason for this disdain is that Atheists themselves cannot seem to sort out what exactly Athiesm is or means.  As a result, Atheists are often defined by those who view them as a threat and an abomination.  Given the fact that Meaning Without God is intended to be a resource for non-believers, one of the most important goals is to redefine what Atheism means and what it does not.

Atheism is not solely about rejecting a belief in God.  Nor is Atheism about denigrating religion or those who practice it.  Indeed, rejecting a belief in God is simply one of the conclusions that Atheists reach in attempting to understand the Universe.  At it's core, Atheism is a philosophy of love and appreciation through understanding.  The fact that Atheists do not believe in God is simply one facet of the way in which we understand the Universe, not the entirety of our creed.

Humans, at our most basic, primal, level, are beings who crave understanding.  It is in that vein that Atheism seeks to elevate the human condition.  Understanding is our most powerful evolutionary adaptation.  Understanding it is what allowed us to tame fire, to hunt, to anticipate the seasons, to grow crops, to form societies, to form tribes and nations.  Understanding and knowledge are what drive technology, what enables expansion and it is understanding that drives our most basic emotional desires.  Understanding is the ultimate human achievement.  It is what humans aspire to in all things whether we recognize it or not.  From the first moments of human consciousness, it is the quest for understanding that has propelled us forward as both individuals and as a species.

Understanding is so powerful because it is through understanding and through attempting to understand that we appreciate the beauty, utility and power of the world and people around us.  It is understanding that undergirds our emotional response to the amazing and often mystifying world around us.  Through understanding that we can grow to love this world and one another.  Understanding breeds excitement, it breeds joy, it breeds excitement, appreciation, and contentment.  If you ever doubt this proposition, simply watch a child, or new lovers.  Witness the way in which both are suffused with the joy and excitement of a multitude of new understandings and are filled with life because of it.  For what is love other than our feeble, flawed and often unsuccessful attempts to understand the mind and heart of another?  What is hate other than our failure or inability to understand the minds and hearts of others or our disappointment that what we thought we understood was an illusion?

The Religions that suffuse recorded history have always known this.  Indeed, at the most basic level Religions are methodological technologies.  Systems specifically designed to provide a means and methodology for understanding ourselves, our place in society and our place in the Universe.  Like all technologies, however, Religions become obsolete, outmoded and abandoned over time.  This obsolescence occurs not because any specific Religion is inherently wrong, or inherently evil or stupid.  It is a natural result of progress.  As our cultural knowledge and knowledge of the natural world expands, the answers proffered by Religion are outgrown by our empirical knowledge and naturally offer less in the way of meaningful understanding.

No one in the modern world worships Apollo, or Demeter, or Zeus or Posideon.  This is not because those deities were evil or corrupt or wicked or wrong, or because their worshippers were fools or charlatans.  As our knowledge grew, however, we came to understand the physical properties and principles that actually underlie the phenomena over which those deities were sovereign.  Our cultural need to anthropomorphize physical phenomena therefore subsided in favor of a new and deeper understandings.

In the same way, the great monotheistic religions of the modern world will eventually face the same fate as that suffered by the phenomenological Gods of the ancient world.  Our understanding of the world, of the origins of the Universe, and the origins of life are exponentially expanding.  It is inevitable that eventually our need for anthropomorphized human centered Gods and Demons who possess human emotions, desires and goals will subside in favor of a new, more useful, and more powerful understanding.

That is why I am an Atheist.  I am an Atheist not because I reject God, but because I seek to see and feel and experience the joy and beauty and wonder in all things not through the prism of bronze age fairy tales and ancient superstitions, but through understanding, and through reason.  I am an Atheist becuse I place the importance of understanding above all else.  Because in understanding the true origins of the Universe, in understanding the origins of life, in understanding myself, and in attempting to understand others, I have found joy and peace and love and light that far outstrips anything I have ever experienced attempting to understand the world as an artifact of some divine will.

Atheism is not about rejecting God - rejecting God is simply a likely outcome for those who seek to truly understand the beauty and wonder of the cosmos.  A natural response for those who seek to understand themselves and seek the understanding necessary to propel the human species forward.  Atheism is not about staring into a empty void of meaninglessness, it is about finding the beauty and meaning and power and grace in all of the amazing things and people that surround us every day through a deeper understanding of the world around us.  Atheism is about reveling in the wonder that is life, seeking to understand its mysteries, delving into the deepest recesses of ourselves.  Atheism is about learning to understand and appreciate our chaotic and often conflicting drives to find peace in who and what we are, smiling in the face of our small and insignificant place in the cosmos and working to transcend our existence on this small isolated blue sphere spinning in the endless void.

Atheism is a philosophy of truth and love through understanding.  The fact that our understanding usually leads us into non-belief is simply one facet of our highest calling - to look unflinchingly at the world around us and to strive for understanding in all things.