The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - The Great Chain Part 4

The Milky Way Galaxy, even considering that it is merely a single galaxy amongst an endless sea of galaxies is still an unimaginably huge and varied structure. Spanning over 100,000 light years across, the Milky Way is mindbogglingly vast. To put that figure in more human terms, it is approximately 587,796,000,000,000,000 miles across, meaning the fastest spacecraft ever built would take approximately 1,917,142,857 years to travel across it. Traveling at a more modest 65 miles per hour, it would take some 1,032,307,692,307 years which is about 78 times as long as the Universe itself has existed. The Milky Way is easily the largest structure that is visible with the naked eye and as anyone who has ever sat out in the wilderness on a clear night knows, the Milky Way is a marvel of unsurpassing beauty.

And despite all of its majesty, our entire Galaxy would be but one faint point of light in the Hubble Deep Field image.

Level 4 - Galactic Phenomena

Assuming that God is interested in our Galaxy, it should be noted that there are no shortage of marvels in this Galaxy, any one of which is equally worthy of divine attention or use. Given its massive size, it is unsurprising that the Milky Way contains some 200,000,000 to 400,000,000 stars of all ages, size and brightness. The Milky Way also contains enormous clouds of gas, brilliant nebulae, supernovas, supernova remnants, diamonds the size of burnt out stars, magnetars, pulsars, innumerable stellar mass black holes, four spiral arms and a single supermassive black hole.  Given the huge variety of phenomena within a single galaxy does it necessarily follow that God is interested in stars rather than the panoply of other pheonomena swirling in the interstellar medium?  Of course not.  Religious understanding simply assumes that God must care about stars and their attendant planets because we happen to live under those conditions.

Virtually none of these individual features are able to effect anything outside of the Milky Way in any way whatsoever.  Indeed, few of these features are able to impact more than a tiny portion of the Milky Way itself. Indeed, with a handful of notable exceptions, in terms of meaningful association, few of these features impact anything else in the Milky Way in any meaningful way at all – the distances are simply too vast.

The supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, is probably the most noteworthy feature of our galaxy as it forms our gravitational center and has an approximate mass equivalent to some 4,000,000 suns crammed into an area the size of our planet. This gravitational behemoth probably has the single greatest impact on our galaxy as a whole as the majority of the mass in the Milky Way has been drawn towards its center. When an unfortunate star falls within its gravity well, it is simply ripped apart and absorbed by the black hole.

Most of the other features in our Galaxy rarely, if ever interact with one another in any meaningful way. Stellar mass black holes occasionally cross orbital paths with stars or gas and will simply devour them, but such occurrences are rare. Of far greater importance in a galactic sense is the death of a massive star. When stars much larger and more massive than our Sun die, they explodes in an indescribably violent explosion. These supernovas can decimate nearby stars with both the shockwave of the explosion and the lethal radiation that follows. Such explosions, however, also serve as the single most important act of creation in the Universe.  When such stars explode, they spew their innards out into the galaxy, seeding the surrounding space with heavy elements, oxygen, carbon, iron, silicon that otherwise would not exist.  The shockwaves trigger new rounds of star formation within the galaxy. It is the death of these stars and the deposits of heavy elements and new star formations they leave behind that allow individual stars to have the most meaningful association with the Milky Way as a whole.  The death of such massive stars dramatically enhances cosmic evolution.

Seen from another Galaxy, the Milky Way's most striking features would clearly be either the massive bar of stars in the galactic bulge at the center of the galaxy or its graceful spiral arms. Seen from any distance, individual stars appear negligible.  Yet Religious understanding assumes that God is not really interested in most of the staggeringly beautiful and monumentally powerful galactic marvels spread across our night sky, but is really most interested in stars, more specifically, OUR star.

Level 5 – A Grain of Sand in Sea of Stars

Assume that God prefers matter over energy, further, that God is interested in ordinary matter over dark matter, and that out of all the matter in the universe, God prefers gravitationally bound structures, and that out of the approximately 200,000,000,000 to 400,000,000,000 galaxies in the portion of the Universe we can actually see, God has chosen our middle aged, mid-sized, galaxy, the Milky Way. Assuming that God has chosen our Galaxy out of the virtually endless sea of galaxies, further assume that God is truly interested in Stars rather than some of the more exotic and clearly more powerful phenomena that exist in virtually all galaxies. Even if one assumes that God prefers stars and their attendant planets over all such phenomena, it should be noted that the Milky Way contains between 200,000,000,000 and 400,000,000,000 different stars. Our sister Galaxy Andromeda contains nearly 1,000,000,000,000. When you consider the sheer number of stars that exist in our own galaxy, let alone ALL of the other galaxies, the idea that God would be interested in our Star over and above all others is an utterly ludicrous conceit.  The pinnacle of narcissism.

Without question, stars are an incredible physical phenomenon. Stars are the furnace of the Universe, the crucible in which all of the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are forged. Without stars, the carbon atoms that comprise our bodies, the iron that makes up our blood, the oxygen that makes up water and our breathable atmosphere simply would not exist. Stars are beautiful, luminous marvels.   Massive cosmic structures where the mass of the object becomes so great and exerts such tremendous pressure that the hydrogen atoms in the innermost regions are driven close enough together by the force of gravity that they overcome the physical forces that normally keep them apart.  The massive gravity creates tremendous pressures and temperatures, eventually fusing hydrogen into helium and releasing incredible amounts of heat, light and energy in the process. As this process continues, a chain reaction begins and the star begins to burn with nuclear fusion.  The heat generated then acts to counteract the gravity of the star's mass, creating a perfect sphere of burning plasma.

Throughout a star's life, it fuses hydrogen to helium then begins fusing helium, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, silicon, etc., gradually producing heavier and heavier elements, finally reaching iron. At this point, the star cannot produce any more energy from fusion and cannot generate the heat necessary to counteract the force of gravity.  The star then either collapses in on itself and becomes a white dwarf star, or collapses into a black hole, shedding its outer layers in a massive supernova explosion and spewing carbon, nitrogen, silicon, oxygen, and all of the heavy elements that comprise life on earth out into the Universe. It is these heavy elements, forged in the hearts of massive stars billions of years ago that forged the atoms that comprise our terrestrial planets. Without those prior generations of long dead stars, no small rocky planets like earth could exist. So assuming God is interested in stars, and why wouldn't he be, they are amazing, beautiful, and incredibly powerful, why would he be interested in our star?

To be sure, our star, The Sun is Awesome, at least in comparison to our level of existential association. Indeed, The Sun is so central, so essential to our existence and life on this planet, that for the bulk of human history, the Sun has been either directly worshiped as a God, or directly associated with one. This is unsurprising given its role in our solar system. The Sun comprises approximately 99.86% of all of the mass in our Solar System. It is easily the most dominant feature in our Solar System and easily the most important single object in our cosmic neighborhood. In one second, the sun releases more energy through nuclear fusion than has ever been produced by humankind throughout its entire history. The sun provides virtually all of the energy necessary to power our weather and and through the process of photosynthesis, provides nearly all of the energy every living being on this planet has ever consumed.

Our Sun is absolutely critical to all life here on Earth and is the foundation of our very existence, yet despite its indescribably profound impact on OUR existence, our Sun is fairly unremarkable in a galactic sense because it simply exists on an entirely different level of existential association than the Milky Way. On a galactic scale, our star is merely another orb of plasma whose heat and gravitational attraction do not even reach its closest neighbor. To put it in perspective, our sun is slightly larger than average, slightly brighter than average and contains slightly more heavy elements than average. It is nowhere near the largest or most massive of stars, nor near the brightest or most powerful. Indeed, the Sun will likely never meaningfully associate with the galaxy as a whole because it is too small to either form a black hole, or generate a supernova.

Despite its preeminence in our lives, the Sun is in almost every way, an average star occupying a region of average stellar density as it orbits the center of our Galaxy every 225,000,000 to 250,000,000 years or so. While it is the easily the most important object in our lives, in the cosmic scheme, it is but one more brilliant orb of plasma in a galaxy containing some 200,000,000,000 to 400,000,000,000 similar orbs.

The Atheist can examine our star's place in the Universe without fear.  The Atheist can analyze the Sun's humble role in the cosmos without fear of offending any ancient tradition.  The Atheist need not come up with reasons why the Sun is important, or why it would catch the attention of the Sovereign of the Great All.  The Atheist is free to accept that we are but one among many, that we are small, that our star and our world are not the focus or the center of the Universe.  The Atheist is set free by humility and unfettered by the cosmic arrogance of Religious understanding.

Religious understanding necessarily shrinks God.  Religious understanding anthropomorphizes God in an attempt to make the incredible vastness of the cosmos relatable in human terms.  This does violence to the scope and majesty of the Great All.  Religious understanding, in its epic arrogance and narcissism seeks to place great cosmic importance on our existence that is wholly unwarranted.

Religious understanding is terrified of science, terrified of looking at the true size, scope and scale of the Universe because in actually looking at the Universe, it becomes clear that the stories passed down by our forebearers are not true.  It becomes clear that far from being the center of the Universe, we are merely passengers on a small planet orbiting a small star in an endless sea of stars themselves swirling endlessly within an ocean of galaxies.  Religious understanding, chained by its adherence to ancient texts, and the guesses of ancient peoples must always shrink the Universe and enlarge our importance.  The Atheist has no such need and is liberated.

But for the sake or argument, let us assume that God IS interested in our Star, perhaps because of the collection of tiny planets in its orbit, perhaps, because of one planet in particular and the spectacular array of life that dwells upon it.

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