On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

By Gene Wilburn

“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in” ~ Kenny Rogers

Every year around birthday time (June 10 for me), I like to take stock of what I believe in. Where do I fit with the cosmos? What are my bedrock, fundamental assumptions? This year’s thinking mirrors very closely what I’ve thought for several years, but age has perhaps lent them more clarity.

Let’s start at the beginning. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.” For each of us our cosmology starts somewhere, and for me it starts with the Big Bang, which I’m told was not really so much an explosion as an expansion — a very dramatic expansion in which a primordial soup of plasma emerged that was so hot not even atoms could form. As it expanded it created space and time. The universe was born. About 13.7 billion years ago, if our measurements are correct.

If it helps you to believe that this was a result of God breathing across the waters, so be it — we each have our favourite narratives. The question of how something can come of nothing is a profound one, and physicists have some thoughts about this: that there really is nothing such as nothing. Particles and antiparticles evidently come into and out of existence billions of times per second and usually annihilate one another, but, at least once, it is possible that particles accumulated faster than antiparticles forming a singularity and, well, boom!

So, that’s belief number one: the universe came into existence. This had implications. Chemistry was born. Eventually particles changed into quarks as the plasma cooled, and later, hydrogen atoms formed. Concentrate enough hydrogen atoms together and what do you get? Fusion. The birth of stars. Then, over time, some stars die in a spectacular explosion called a supernova in which most of the rest of the naturally-occurring chemical elements are created, spewn forth as stellar dust and ice. As these clouds of stellar material concentrate and condense, new stars form, with planets around them. One of these we call the sun, and the planet we live on, which we call earth, formed about 4.5 billion years ago, give or take a million or two.

Which brings me to belief number two: Out of inorganic matter, life began. How is still unsolved, but researchers are exploring the tantalizing possibilities of RNA and other life-critical molecules developing in places like deep-sea vents and evolving into a self-replicating thing that we might call first life, or even protolife — ancestors to the prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms without a nucleus, like bacteria and archaea. Somewhere along the line a bit of luck (for us) happened: two prokaryotes combined to form nucleated cells, which we name as eukaryotes.

Which brings me to belief number three: life evolved. Over great periods of time, eukaryotes developed along plant and animal lines, oxygenating the atmosphere, and eventually some pioneering life forms ventured from the oceans to the lands to colonize the barren geology of earth, turning it into large organic ecosystems.

Belief number four is that, for the most part, the universe is random. It is not willed, or fated, or progressive, though randomness can lead to increased complexities. Using some basic structural parts, nature evolved through random genetic changes into extraordinarily rich organic landscapes and seascapes, filled with the plants and animals of its day. The PreCambrian Explosion, various extinctions, and random events, such as comets crashing into the earth, diverted the path of life several times, until, after eons, the great age of reptiles was over and land mammals had the chance to fill the empty ecological niches.

Belief number five is that the emergence of human beings, in the form of Homo sapiens, was not preordained. We’re a branch of primates that evolved in particular ways to adjust to our environment and we had cousin species, Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc., who did the same. We’ve only been on the planet a short while, in geological terms, but we’ve become a new force. After nearly perishing from extinction ourselves, we made it, and we developed a complex brain that would allow us to discover agriculture, mathematics, and art. Not to mention learning how to sew reindeer hide into warm clothing for the Arctic.

Belief number six is that we originated in and emigrated from Africa. Down deep, we’re all Africans and, living in a very warm climate, we were all probably dark skinned because extra melanin in the skin protects against overpowering UV radiation. Those of us who migrated to colder climates lost some of our melanin because whiter skin helps absorb the sun’s rays better in colder conditions and not as much protection against UV radiation is required.

Belief number seven is that we developed into a language-oriented species that loves narratives. We acquired strong imaginations to accompany the impressive encyclopedic knowledge of our environment we learned through hunting and gathering. Tales around the campfire, stories of our ancestors, legends, myths, and, of course, gods. We’re a species that wants to participate in its own narrative, even if that narrative is unreliable.

Belief number eight is that this narrative of human history is important to study in all its facets, including science, the humanities, and the arts and music. Physically, humans haven’t evolved much in the past 100,000 years or so, but mentally we’ve evolved through many great civilizations in ways that are fascinating and that contributed to our rise as a species.

Belief number nine is that, mentally, we went through our ‘teen’ years between Galileo and Einstein. We began to mature toward mental adulthood by rigorously questioning, observing, measuring, and testing our premises. We bent the planet to our wants and needs with an industrial and scientific revolution.

Belief number ten is that we’ve reached, borrowing from an Arthur C. Clarke title, Childhood’s End. We now possess the ability to destroy the planet for mankind, as well as other species. As adults we must learn to be stewards of our planet and treat it with respect.

I realize I’ve said little about the human condition itself. That is left to explore and think about in the context of the first ten beliefs, but I suspect it will always remain a personal, and sometimes communal, journey for each of us. This is why I write essays — to see what I think about life. We are all part of the overall narrative of mankind and each of us expresses it in a personal way.

To be sure, if we reach mental adulthood intact, the greatest history of Homo sapiens could just be starting. As we look at our current state, we see automation trending ever forward, with artificial intelligence waiting in the wings. We may create a new kind of life form. We may, if wise, develop eco-friendly attitudes about our home planet and change how we obtain energy and food. Our journey as mental adults has just begun. We may even prosper, as long as a random comet doesn’t smash into us again, and as long as we don’t self destruct. Fingers crossed, humankind!

Where is Heaven?

Where is Heaven?

By Gene Wilburn

“They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth” ~ George R.R. Martin

The mythic concept of heaven varies from culture to culture and religion to religion, as does the concept of hell. Homer gave us a Greek perspective of the Underworld in the Odyssey — a murky kind of place where even the famous Greek heroes end up in residence. The Egyptians, with their sky gods and interest in an afterlife thought of heaven as some kind of physical place beyond the known universe and the Book of the Dead describes the process a soul must go through to reach it. The Assyrians believed the afterlife was located below our world and one of their words for it translates as the “Great Below.” Everyone went there, regardless of status, and it seems to have been more of a handy place to store ghosts than any kind of paradise.

The Christian myth of heaven is the one I grew up knowing about, though “knowing about” is a precarious phrase. It’s a particularly unclear myth. Stereotyped as a place of fluffy clouds and angels playing harps and an entry gate made of pearl, it’s always portrayed as stupefyingly mind-numbing. One thing is clear though: its direction is “up.” Certain Christian religious figures “ascended” into it. The mediaeval view places it beyond the firmament, the known universe. And it’s there that selected believers go and meet all their lost loved ones, who presumably made it as well. A more salubrious place than the Greek underworld, perhaps, or the Assyrian ghost closet, and not as strenuous as the Egyptian journey to the afterlife. A comfort myth if ever there was one.

But the thing about the mediaeval world view is that the “known universe” was a much smaller and modest place than the one we live in today. Earth was the centre of that universe and the firmament was fixed and revolved around the earth — with the exception of “the wanderers,” or planets, and alarming things like comets. Heaven was just beyond the visible firmament and some mediaeval drawings portray an observer lifting the edge of the firmament and peeking out at heaven beyond. Everything in its place and God in his (always masculine) heaven.

This cosmological view took a huge hit with a paradigm shift that started with Copernicus in the 16th Century, with his heliocentric proposal, and was refined and modified through the incredibly accurate naked-eye astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe, and embraced in the writings of astronomer Johannes Kepler. The 17th Century was the time of largest early astronomical breakthroughs through the telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei (Jupiter had “moons”!) and the brilliant insights of Isaac Newton, who provided the laws of physics and mathematics that accurately accounted for observable planetary motions. The Church was not very happy with all of this, of course, and forced Galileo to recant publicly, though he never did so in private.

In one sense, I think of modern science as starting with Galileo because he used a scientific instrument, the telescope, to investigate the night sky. The telescope was followed by the microscope, and extended instrumental observation and measurement gradually became the established norm for exploring the fabric of the universe. It wasn’t even called science at first. It was usually referred to as “natural philosophy.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that astronomers began to suspect that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was not the full extent of the universe and that what was showing as blobs sometimes referred to as “nebulae” on the photographic plates might themselves be galaxies. With better and bigger telescopes and some brilliant analysis, it was not only determined that they were, in fact, galaxies like our own, but we could even measure their distance from ours. The universe turned out to be immensely huge, with, as Carl Sagan used to say, “billions and billions” of galaxies. Not only that, but continued observations indicated that the universe was expanding. And if it was expanding, what was it expanding from? Enter the Big Bang.

The telescope, as both instrument of the scientific revolution, and a symbol thereof, is central to the recent book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff, 2011, a highly readable, well-researched study of why the scientific revolution started in the West, and not in China or the Islamic world.

Telescopes were still at the forefront when I was a kid in the 1950s — the “big” telescope of the day was the huge reflector at Mount Palomar, in California, with its 200-inch mirror Hale telescope. The newspapers frequently printed black-and-white images taken with the famous instrument and there was great ferment over the firmament, so to speak. Exciting times.

It was in regard to this great telescope that I first encountered a fissure between science and religion. I was a run-of-the-mill Protestant kid who attended church with some regularity, but a good friend and classmate of mine came from a more fundamentalist stream of belief. His church, located in a nearby town, was hosting a “revival meeting” that featured two travelling evangelical preachers of fiery words and demeanour, and my friend’s family invited me along to attend one of the evening sermons. I was nervous about this because it was one of those congregations my family referred to as the “Holy Rollers” and its members were prone to burst into tongues and exclamations during the service.

But curiosity, sometimes my friend, sometimes my enemy, overcame my misgivings and I went. At this point we come back to the concept of heaven, for the heaven of this congregation was the “Kingdom of Heaven” returning to create a “New Earth” for the “Chosen,” wrapped up in some kind of event called “the Rapture.” The Christian Bible is an odd thing, at best. Most of it is a disjointed anthology of Hebrew religious writings, some of it dating back from the time of the Egyptians and the Sumerians. Added to that is an appendix called the New Testament, and the appendix to that is a very strange thing called the “Book of Revelation,” that reads like it was composed by a person, or an entire commune, on a very bad acid trip (“don’t take any of the brown acid,” as the Woodstock announcer warned). It’s so weird and vague that you can read into it pretty much whatever you want, but it seems to be the energy source for many fundamentalists.

But the two preachers, in their admittedly riveting, entertaining, and electric theatre, told a blatant lie. They said they had visited the great telescope at Mount Palomar, and that while the “scientists” were called away from the tour for a few minutes, the preachers peeked through the telescope, up into the skies, and they saw, with their own eyes, the Kingdom of Heaven descending toward the earth. The congregation was practically swooning, but I was gobsmacked that a man of religion would lie. I knew that you didn’t look through the telescope at all. You made photographic plates using it and studied the plates. And that started me thinking hard about heaven. If there is such a place, where is it?

There is no physical plane we know of, above or below, that can accommodate such a mythic landscape. Another dimension? That’s pretty science-fictiony and since it offers no method of verification, it’s no better than saying it’s located in some kind of vast, eternal Rubik’s Cube. Or that it fits somehow into Terry Pratchett L-space, though this might be pleasing to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

As an armchair philosopher, I get mentally cranky about things that offer no method of verification, nor any proof of existence. I’m open to evidence, but I don’t see any place in the known universe where a heaven might fit in. So, as a humanist, I can only conclude that heaven, and hell, are actually situated within the living, earthly creatures called humans. The terms represent sublime good times, and ghastly bad times, in the lives of individuals, much of it determined by where we live, our general place in society, and events often beyond our control. To the residents of Aleppo, for instance, any place that’s not being bombed might seem like heaven. The city itself can, without exaggeration, be called a hell.

In the end, I think heaven is a state of mind and that mythic heavens are little more than works of the imagination. And, as many pundits over the years have observed, if there really turns out to be such a place, I doubt many of my friends will be there anyway, so it doesn’t highly attract me.