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Why I Choose Reality

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My good friend Adam Lee, also known as Ebonmuse, who runs one of the most popular and enduring atheist sites Daylight Atheism, wrote an essay today that exceeded even his very high standards of excellence.

So I’m taking a short break from the daily and weekly grind of lambasting hypocrisy, stupidity, and just plain unevolved thinking from both the purveyors of mainstream religion and my own personal family embarrassment, the Church Universal and Triumphant. The latter would and should be consigned to utter obscurity–but for that dwindling yet stalwart army of mindless replicators of anti-intellectual delusion in Corwin Springs, Montana. For anyone who wonders what I live for, and how atheism can be a satisfying and coherent life philosophy, I present Adam Lee’s outstanding post, The Age of Wonder. Walter Maunz, you set me on this path long ago–so I hope you are reading:

If you search the internet, it’s not hard to find New Agers and others who think that the dawning of the age of reason was a mistake. They envision a more "holistic" approach, one that properly pays heed to the mystery and complexity of existence, and castigate science for being cold, unfeeling, heartless in its probing, reductionist scrutiny of the natural world. For example:

The reason things are advancing so slowly… is that science has neglected the (spiritual) indications necessary for its efficient performance – "with all your heart and all your soul…." — indications that govern higher creativity and exist for the specific purpose of breaking the cosmic bank. The upshot is that science has become excessively expensive, bureaucratic and materialistic. The integration we need, external and internal, requires an incomparably more intense confrontation between the spirit of the researcher and the natural phenomena he is contemplating than what is currently practiced by even the most zealous of researchers.

And yet, the age of reason is also an age of wonder. The devotees of superstition and pseudoscience do not know what they are missing. In grasping after fool’s gold, they have missed the true vein. The universe is a grander, more majestic and more beautiful place than any human being has ever imagined, or can imagine. The unsubstantiated and anthropocentric claims and inventions of people can never compare to the true wonder and mystery held by reality as it truly is, and now that we truly have begun to understand how the cosmos works, we are at last getting a glimpse of that awe and wonder.

Consider what we witness when we peer into the cosmos with our telescopic eyes. We see light born billions of years ago in the crucible of dying stars, shining out across the cosmos and becoming ever more diffused, until at last our telescopes captured the lonely few photons that arrive bearing news of stupendous, ancient catastrophes. We see colliding galaxies, matter swirling into the abyss of black holes, and stars exploding with titanic force, sending out jets of energy visible across the known universe.

Our astronomy bears witness to births as well as deaths. We sift invisible light and see the ripples in the faint microwave glow that bathes all of space, distant echoes of the incomprehensible cauldron of heat and density in which the universe itself was born. We see dense nebulae where new stars are being born, burning away the dusty cradles of their formation like sunrise through fog. We see young planets circling their parent stars, their gravity cutting clear swaths through the veils of gas surrounding them. Most of the planets we have detected are hot Jupiters, but perhaps in some of these systems lurk embryonic Earths, awaiting their chance to cool and condense and one day become cradles of life of their own.

Turning closer to home, our emissaries have explored the solar system and brought back news of the other shores that await us. We have seen the shadows of the setting Sun creep across the mountains of the satellites of Jupiter, and we have seen the Earth rise in the night sky from [behind] the Moon. We have traveled the surface of Mars with our robot rovers, and sent landers parachuting down to the methane seas of Titan. Our age, for the first time ever in our planet’s history, has sent ambassadors voyaging so far beyond our own shores that they could look back and see the Earth itself, our one and only home, as a pale blue point of light drifting in infinite dark.

Closer still, we have turned our gaze back upon ourselves, exploring our world in all its complexity. We have learned of the web of evolutionary kinship that connects all life on Earth. Everything – from human beings to redwood trees, from the lowliest cyanobacterium to the fluorescent tube worms on the ocean bottom – is a branch of the same family tree, every living creature a cousin, however distant, to every other.

We have delved down to the molecular roots of life itself, glimpsing the intricate choreography that turns inanimate molecules into living, growing cells, and the equally intricate assemblage that builds living cells into living beings. We have begun an effort to survey the tree of life, discerning the family relationships among countless species living and dead, and mapping the vast, frozen structure branching multi-dimensionally through those sections of design space that evolution has so far explored.

Traveling down into Earth’s history, we have learned to read the record of the rocks and the chronicles they tell. We have retraced the multimillion-year drifting of the continents and learned of the planetary convulsions that wiped out whole branches of the tree of life and ushered in new ones in their place. We have glimpsed primordial eras long before humanity and envisioned the strange landscapes that once existed where we now place our feet.

All these findings far exceed the most fantastic imaginings of ancient mythology or modern pseudoscience, not least because they are true. In what other age of human history has anyone been able to look on a shooting star or a volcano and know what it really is? In what other age have we known the true age of the planet or understood the power source of the sun? These wonders and countless others, most of which are familiar and mundane to us, would have made people of past ages gasp in awe.

Out of the entire span of human history, these breathtaking discoveries have been made only in the last few hundred years, when we began to think and explore rationally. It was not crystals or prayer or Tarot cards that brought us these things. It was not superstition that was responsible, nor mysticism, nor credulous acceptance of extraordinary and unverified claims. It is the scientific method – institutionalized skepticism, rigorously and comprehensively applied – that has given rise to these wonders of understanding and accomplishment. As long as we human beings were willing to blindly accept the claims of others, to be meek and easily led, to believe without questioning, we remained frightened, brutish, short-lived and ignorant. There are some today who would gladly have us return to that state. Worse, there are some whose methods would inadvertently lead us back to that state, even as they hypocritically seek to take credit for the fruits and innovations of science while rejecting its rules.

But as for me, I remain a skeptic. I am proud to call myself a rationalist. And I will always fight against the proponents of darkness and unreason, because I believe that humanity has barely begun to tap its potential, and that if we continue the path of science, we may some day create wonders we currently lack the ability even to dream of.

Seems anticlimactic to add commentary after that gem! But a few further thoughts: The star Sirius played an important part of CUT folklore, as the "Great Central Sun," seat of galactic government. the home of "Sanat Kumara" and the location of the "court of the sacred fire." This provides further evidence of a narrow-minded non-scientific anthropocentrism. Sirius happens to be the brightest star in Earth’s sky. But that’s an accident of distance–at 8.6 light years, Sirius is the second closest star after Alpha Centauri.

What about Betelgeuse, or Canopus, both nearly as bright on Earth as Sirius? Betelgeuse happens to be red, which offends the delicate sensibilities of new-agers who associate the color with anger, unbridled passion and violence. It also has a funny non-spiritual sounding name, so would probably bother people whose minds are so small they think beetles or The Beatles are an "astral" creation. Another interesting alliteration there: Astral doesn’t mean "dark" or "evil," it means "of the stars" in Latin. And in Arabic yad-al-jawza, Betelgeuse means "hand of the central one." At roughly 5,500 times the brghtness of Sirius, Betelgeuse seems a much better candidate for the designation "Great Central Sun," yet it too would appear as the size of a mere dot (it forms the shoulder of Orion). Moving down to the sword dangling from Orion’s belt, we see the above picture of the Orion nebula as a fuzzy star. And even so magnified we realize it’s a minuscule fraction of the cosmos.

Why was Sirius chosen even though it’s far less massive or bright than Betelgeuse or Canopus? Probably because people only considered apparent magnitude. Besides, it’s easily visible from the Northern Hemisphere, origin of all man-made Theosophical claptrap. Had Blavatsky and her successors lived in the Southern Hemisphere, Canopus, in the constellation Carina, would have likely served as their ostensible "Great Central Sun."

The convenient small-minded human subjectivity doesn’t end there. We’re still singling out stars in our galactic neighborhood. To really get a sense of our true insignificance, just take a look at this list of the largest and brightest known stars. The sun is at the very bottom of the brightness list, with Sirius coming in 6th from last. Betelgeuse is just a middling average star, compared to LBV-1806-20 at 38,000,000 times the brightness of the sun. At 45,000 light years away, it’s still within our vast yet ultimately insignificant Milky Way galaxy. If you want to comprehend some truly bright and massive objects, think of the quasars such as 3C 273 in Virgo, which emits 100 times the light of the entire Milky Way.

Believers somehow rationalize that their prayers and endless supplications, sacrifices and deprivations will ensure them the reward of a trip to see these wonders they never bothered to appreciate during their short and insignificant lives. Well, maybe. But it seems they’d be better off–even in God’s eyes–studying "His" creation.

Let’s just pretend for a minute there’s a benevolent God and that we all are granted an immortal eternity after we die. (Yeah! Bonus round!) Any kind of a just God would reward the scientists (who actually cared enough about reality to meticulously study His creation) with an immediate and unlimited "universe exploration pass." The pious remainder of humanity would be sent back to remedial courses in cosmic classrooms to remove the scales of gullibility and unreason from their eyes. There’d be a lot of wailing and gnashing in those halls. ("Boo-hoo, but you told me if I just believed on you, I’d be saved…sniff."). Then it’s off to university for at least a decade of science education for the freshly-scrubbed critical thinking graduates. Then of course, God being the ultimate forgiver, would provide his formerly errant students the same "universe exploration pass" as the scientists, and they would finally get to see what we’ve all been missing.

But why count on such a preposterous scenario? And why wait?


Comments (15 comments)

Theo Doersing / November 30th, 2008, 10:27 pm / #1

It’s always been my theory that based on the size of the universe, which appears to be infinite, God screwed up. You see, God, being the First-Mover, Alpha-Male, Charlton Heston type, had created for Himself the largest cock the universe had ever known. But when He looked at His holy pecker against the backdrop of infinity, He became a jealous God, realizing how small it looked compared next to everything.

To make up for the first and largest case of penis envy in all of existence, God created man in His image so that He would have someone he could always win a pissing contest with.

Seriously though, I agree the wonder and sheer awe that nature and existence inspires is plenty reason enough to give meaning to life, but gives one a multitude of spheres of knowledge to disseminate during one’s lifetime. I would have been disappointed had reality not turned out to be this fascinating.

I like the idea of an all-loving and just god that would allow you to live forever and know everything, but it just ain’t so. It’s wishful thinking that takes away from enjoying and appreciating the only reality (and hence, Heaven) we have and will ever know.

Alan / November 30th, 2008, 11:39 pm / #2

Regarding the bit about the quasars and stuff… masha’allah (haha, but really, wow).
From time to time I stumble on a Wikipedia page about the universe and I click for hours, jaw dropped. I was reading Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot recently and some of the stuff he says in there is just awe inspiring. Regarding the relatively small size of our Milky Way, he says something like “some deep sky photography shows more galaxies beyond our galaxy than stars in our galaxy.” That book is about fifteen years old now, so the numbers are wrong, but wrong in the right direction (like, more stars and more galaxies). Surely an act of humility.

I made a funny post on my blog about it. It relates to two phenomenon: the awesomeness of the universe, and the problem of getting lost on Wikipedia.

Alan

Steve / December 1st, 2008, 12:52 am / #3

Sean,

I thought that you might like this:

http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=haught_22_1

In fact, I thought that you might feel inspired to comment on it.

A Longtime Fan (One of Whose Posts, Written Using a Pseudonym, You Published),

:-)

Steve

BlackSun / December 1st, 2008, 9:16 am / #4

@Theo, absolutely! Nature has far more awe and wonder than we could ever appreciate. And science keeps expanding what’s possible for us to appreciate. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and our eyes keep getting better thanks to science. Nature’s not changing, we are–no help from God necessary.

@Alan, you’re not kidding. Knowledge can be dangerous thing–not because it hurts anyone, but because it’s so available. And it’s so rewarding. You could spend your whole life reading Wikipedia. Funny diagram on your post. :-)

@Steve, I’ll check the link. Now you have me guessing?

Steve / December 1st, 2008, 10:37 am / #5

Hi Sean,

I’m an on-again, off-again, friend of Aaron who, along with his writing partner, Patrick, publishes the blog “Duplicitous Primates” (http://duplicitous46xyprimate.blogspot.com). I posted a comment under the pseudonym “Andrew Marks” that you published in your post entitled “Comments: Life is Short and Christianity is Logically Impossible” on 20 Feb 2008.

When I was a teenager (I’m 39 now), I came across one of your mother’s books and purchased it. I read a small part of it, but never thought much about it. Your mother was nothing more to me than a picture on the back cover of the book, alongside an oddly incongruous picture of your father in a white suit.

One day, to entertain myself a few years ago, I googled your mother’s name, came across a reference to Alzheimer’s, read a little, and moved on to other things. Then, early this year, I found http://www.ecprophet.info, and soon thereafter, your own website, which I pointed out to Aaron. Both of us read a great deal of what you’ve written.

I’m incredibly impressed with your sheer intelligence, concern for human life, and lucidity. You and your family have been through so much that it amazes me that you not only survived it, but have thrived. This is a tremendous testament to your resilience and courage.

Sean, I’m a philosopher. While I’m an atheist in that I don’t believe in a deity–or at least have no credible evidence for believing in such–I think that the decisive question as pertains to our lives has nothing to do with the existence or nonexistence of a deity, but the metaphysics of the person and what, if anything, happens to us after bodily death.

It’s most likely the case that nothing happens; we just cease to exist as conscious beings, and our matter is recycled. However, in contemplating such a question, the application of probability theory is metaphorical. While it applies to the empirical world, if we are something that possibly transcends the empirical world, then it could be a category error to try to apply mathematical abstractions to a possible reality that transcends the empirical.

I understand your skepticism. It is well warranted, particularly given your experiences with your parents. However, religion is a man-made, cultural phenomenon. What I’m really interested in is metaphysics (a word sadly usurped from philosophy by the New Age movement, and now used as an embarrassing label for a section of books in bookstores better branded under the fantasy genre).

I take seriously the possibility that NDE’s may point to our being something more than just empirical beings. I’m aware of the many problems associated with this possibility, and I also know that my own desperate wish for immortality–a powerful, emotion-driven, irrational one–biases my thinking. I also take seriously the possibility that there may be something to psi phenomena (if there is such a thing). I’m open-minded enough to explore these in depth, wherever they lead. I hope desperately that biological death does not mean annihilation for us, though I believe that we may never know.

For most of us, life is tragic and absurd, often abusive, and a stressful battle for mere survival: physical, economic, social, and psychological. I suspect that many who get involved in cults believe and deeply feel the same types of things, making them susceptible to charismatic religious leaders and their movements. Philosophy has immunized me against this, but it does drive me to search for any signs of hope that I can find.

While I don’t believe that philosophy can answer any questions–mostly, it strives to ask good ones that illuminate the nature of problems from many different angles–I hope that at the very least, it will impart on me some measure of wisdom with which to live a better life than I might otherwise have been able to do. Thus far, the results toward that end have been inconclusive, but entertaining. :-)

A few weeks ago, I went to my local Barnes and Noble. At one point, I happened to walk past what turned out to be the “New Age” section, and saw an image out of the corner of my eye that I immediately recognized: your mother! It was Erin’s book. I practically lunged at it, sat down in a comfortable chair, and read, and read, and read. Erin did a fantastic job! I wish that everyone who feels the pull to join any religious organization would read it. I suspect that most people make a clear distinction in their minds between a cult and a religion, though in my own mind, the feature that they both share to some degree is an abeyance of independent, critical thinking, and a deep hope that that religion will lead to an alleviation of their suffering–whether physical pain, fear, disappointment, depression, frustration, or any among innumerable maladies.

I don’t know and can’t imagine what, if anything, happens to us after death, but I passionately believe that we should strive to live adventurous lives that actualize all of our potentialities and work together with like-minded individuals to help each other and to make our world better.

I really love your work, Sean. A mind such as yours is a rare and precious thing. I can never get enough of your writing or insight.

Thanks for your efforts, and keep going! You’re making a difference in real people’s lives and, best of all, providing both entertainment and inspiration.

Thanks,

Steve

BlackSun / December 1st, 2008, 8:51 pm / #6

Steve,

That’s high praise, man. Thanks.

Orion77 / December 12th, 2008, 3:37 am / #7

Thanks for putting this up, I would not have seen it otherwise. The first “proper” book I remember being given as a 5-6 year old, was a 200 page A5 fact book on NASA. It detailed all the Mercury, Gemini & Apollo astronauts, all of the mission stats and the launchers, capsules and landers.

I memorised pretty much all of it and still remember some. That gift, has inspired me, to spend a lifetime staring up at the heavens in awe, for the right reasons. A NASA image of a Galaxy Cluster can still give me goosebumps and stir my emotions. This effect comes from an understanding of how little I really understand of this vast universe. The antithesis of righteous dogma.

It was moving to read Adams poetic descriptions. He put into words the dreams that I had as a kid, staring up at the milky way, the planets and the moon. I was lucky to be nudged in the right direction, when I began asking the questions about who we are & why are we here.

BlackSun / December 12th, 2008, 10:14 pm / #8

Orion77,

Thanks for the comment. I went and checked out your site. A very nice collection of erotica you have there. And good atheist material too. Cheers.

bipolar2 / December 31st, 2008, 6:28 am / #9

>> religion belongs to culture, not some supra-sensible existence

Words like ‘god’ ‘theism’ ‘atheism’ are highly ambiguous — they have multiple acceptable meanings. They are also vague — the criteria for employing one meaning rather than another are ill-defined.

To be precise I use one long word, I’m a complete “anti-supernaturalist.” One who opposes any doctrine of any supernatural realm, whether of Platonic ideas, Aristotelian entelechies, gods, demons, spirits, minds, karma, reincarnation.

We godless anti-supernaturalists accept only one world. The world we call *nature*.
Religions belong to cultures embedded in nature. And *cultures* are our distinctive human-all-too-human handiwork. Religions are obsolete, dispensable cultural artifacts.

Any particular religion reenacts and institutionalizes a cultic myth. It gets spread through custom and imitation, financially supported by mores and law, and enforced by intimidation and violence.

Followers of zoroastrianism, judaism, xianity, islam easily became dupes and fodder for highly militarized empires, ancient and modern.

bipolar2 ©2008

BlackSun / January 8th, 2009, 11:24 am / #10

bipolar2,

I'm with you. Anything that exists is natural. The supernatural is a psychic projection of people's imaginations. A desire to "create their own reality." If it's real, it's natural ergo if it's supernatural, it's not real.

sirius / January 8th, 2009, 11:03 am / #11

When the material cosmos in all it's grandure has been withdrawn and time is no more,
the spirit remains. To my recollection, and just as a observation not a staement of belief in the,
existence of the ascended masters per se, have always encouraged their students to seriously study the
sciences to get a better understanding of the working of the mind of the creator.
Concider this, nothing comes from nothing in other words 0 = 0. Who or what, is responsible for the
laws of mathematics. Math is unchanging and completely consistend with itself and I would like to
see the scientist who has no faith in it. Something or someone must have created the laws of logic and
mathematics or alternatively it is just something that is and allways was and allways will be. It's just
part of what we can call existence and existence I AM.

BlackSun / January 8th, 2009, 11:21 am / #12

sirius,

When the material cosmos in all it's grandure has been withdrawn and time is no more,
the spirit remains.

This is the mother of all waffles. A completely content-free assertion.

Math is unchanging and completely consistend with itself and I would like to
see the scientist who has no faith in it.

Actually, Godel's incompleteness theorem prohibits a fully consistent mathematics. But that doesn't mean math isn't tremendously useful. You don't have "faith" in math–you can check your work, and done properly it is self-verifying. Humans created math as a way of symbolically representing the many relationships between observed quantities and phenomena.

It's just part of what we can call existence and existence I AM.

"existence I AM" are you trying to be clever? What you're succeeding in doing is advertising your level of brainwashing into the propaganda of the so-called "masters" organizations, as well as your general lack of philosophical sophistication.

I'm not at all impressed.

sirius / January 9th, 2009, 3:07 am / #13

BlackSun
I guess namecalling is your brand of philosophical sophistication.
right back at you.

BlackSun / January 9th, 2009, 10:15 am / #14

sirius,

Name calling? OK, I guess you could accuse me of calling you "unsophisticated." But your comment speaks for itself. If you want to actually make an argument, rather than just asserting your opinions without backing, I'm all ears. Perhaps you could explain what you mean (in something other than self-referential terms) when you say "spirit."

But that's the problem with the dualist belief system. It's got you so convinced that you don't even see the need to examine or question it. You're satisfied that when you say things like "nothing comes from nothing" it settles the question permanently. Then you get offended when someone calls you on it. Altogether predictable.

I'm tired of being the one accused of rudeness. You come in here, ignore the comment policy, which states that BSJ is for discussing "materialist realism and evidence." You post a baldfaced claim about "spirit," which is something no human has ever been able to satisfactorily describe. You assert with certainty that this thing you cannot describe will survive the end of space and time, then you throw in some ascended master jargon for good measure, and then you get upset with ME for calling you unsophisticated.

I'm fucking sick of the hubris and just plain smugness of people like you. Have some shame and humility for a change. Get down and be willing to examine your ideas. Be willing to live with complexity and uncertainty. That's the mark of sophistication, when you can know that we don't know, and be satisfied with the process of discovery. We're all in this together, and it doesn't help when a portion of humanity walks around with their heads in the fog of the spirit world. We need everyone with their feet on the ground pulling together. Are you up for it?

sirius / January 9th, 2009, 10:17 am / #15

BlackSun
I tried three times to post a reply here but there was a connection error but I'm thinking that this message stating that problem will probably make it just fine. I will try again.

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