The Human Condition:

Knowing and Believing – July 20, 2014

Total honesty

As noted elsewhere, I am an atheist, not a believer in any god. This is not because I’m too smart to be taken in by organized religion, but because I lack some mental apparatus, maybe genetically related, that would allow me to see or hear beyond the limits of human senses. When I’m very quiet and trying to listen, I simply don’t perceive any presence that might reflect a superior being that exists outside my own imagination.

And I do have an imagination, as well as a sense of proportion. The god as advertised in most religions is a mass of superlatives: omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, standing outside of space and time. None is bigger, smarter, and stronger than he/she/it. I try to imagine a presence with a recognizable intelligence and a personality—that is, a set of traits, preferences, affections, and skills, as well as all their negative aspects of dislikes, disaffections, and failings—on such an immeasurable scale … and I come up empty. Any discrete being so vast and complicated would not be recognizable as a fellow intelligence. It would be more like a galaxy-sized black hole with a maelstrom of an accretion disk that devours suns and expels jets of white-hot plasma that span lightyears. I can’t imagine such an intelligence taking much interest in the workings of a single planet, let alone the daily business, affections, and destiny of a single human on that planet, such as I am.1

In the same way, I try to fathom an eternity of the sort promised in most religions … and I draw a blank. I can imagine living a few hundred more years, being allowed to continue my journey, to grow and learn, but I know that human life and its attention span are shaped by death. It is the prospect of an end that gives intensity and urgency to life in the present. In a universe that humankind’s most subtle probings now suggest is physically and temporarily bounded, that thirteen billion years ago endured a phase transition which was very like a beginning and will one day endure another transition which will seem very like an ending, I find it vastly improbable that any inhabitant of this universe can confidently expect to endure for the stated eternity.

That genetic defect—plus the fault of having had a mechanical engineer for a father and a landscape architect for a mother, both of them grounded in practical science—makes me approach questions of omnipotence and infinity in a cold, rational, measuring way. I tend to favor postulates over beliefs, proof over hope, and questions over answers.

I do love science, although I’m not qualified to practice it professionally, having been trained in literature as a writer, a creature of imagination, and a dreamer of things as yet unseen. But with that genetic and parental background, my imagination and my dreams run toward structure, mechanics, and the ordering of the universe. My fantasies are made up of artificial intelligences and working engineers, rather than wood sprites and wizards. I do not hold with any kind of abracadabra magic, although I believe with Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic in the eyes of a human being from the here and now.

But science as the province of observing, testing, recording, and knowing does not preclude the need for faith. To be sure, science is a promising enterprise. In the past two thousand years—and even more so in the past two hundred—science has vastly increased our understanding of nature and the universe. But so many questions and mysteries which we don't understand (e.g., the fundamental workings of gravity, space, and time2) still remain that the dimension allotted in human endeavors to faith—the expectation that answers will be found and that meaning exists where none can be proved—must also be great.

I believe that science will eventually tell us all about the nature of the universe as far as detection allows.3 Science will eventually describe and enable us to control all of the chemistries and their reactions that create and define this improbable reversal of entropy that we call life. Science will even probe the nature of our own brains and the minds which arise from their chemical and electrical interplay. But it has become clear that the more we know, the farther the edge of knowledge recedes before us.

To take a simple example, consider the sequencing of the human genome. When this task was started in the mid-1990s and its end state was only imagined, researchers believed that all of the DNA in a cell was used to produce the proteins required by the living organism. That was part of the “central dogma” of molecular biology: DNA transcribes to RNA, which translates to proteins. So any DNA that didn’t directly code for an active protein was just old junk, carried over from our evolutionary past, and slowly becoming mutated into nonsense, like a shipwreck sinking into a sea of chaos. But after the entire genome was sequenced, the protein-coding genes were found to be only about ten percent of the genome’s three billion base pairs.

Scientists at the time4 were skeptical that the cell would contain, replicate through each division, and carry forward so much junk. But then, in the last ten years or so, we have opened up new fields of study into microRNAs, RNA interference, epigenetics, and proteomics.5 The chemistry of life and cellular development and differentiation is now much more complex than we imagined just twenty years ago, when the central dogma was considered basic science.

But as fast as the enterprise of science proceeds in staking out the map of human knowledge and pushing back the frontiers marking the as yet unknown, some things will remain beyond its reach. Science can tell us how life came about, how we exist as organized beings, and even how our minds work. But it cannot tell us why we exist. Science cannot give us a purpose.

If I have a faith, as an atheist, it is that there is nothing that is unknowable, indescribable, or unintelligible. Yes, I understand that the universe is not all Newtonian clockwork, that some of its functions and results must be described only by probabilities rather than by exact measurement. That is one of the discoveries of the last hundred years or so. But I don’t believe in any forbidden and hidden mysteries.

And still the question of why, of the purpose behind the universe and the human experience, remains. One of the most damning notions to arise in the last hundred years is that science, in undermining and abolishing religion, has removed the purpose of human life. The idea that life is absurd and without meaning has greatly damaged—if not destroyed—intellectual discourse in our time. It gives rise to the untested hypothesis that humans are simply blind animals, creatures of chance, foolish and doomed, more akin to microbes and worms than to angels and gods—those powerful beings which are imaginary anyway and don’t really exist.

In my scientific fantasy, humans create their own purpose and meaning. With our huge brains, our subtle understanding and complex reactions, and with the tool of communication—not just from mind to mind through articulate speech, but from group to group and generation to generation through the mechanics of writing and mathematics—we are able to choose, to seek, to determine, to decide, to build, and to admire.

If humans don’t create meaning and purpose in their lives and for the world, then no one else will do it for them.

1. And then, I can sense all too clearly the origins of the human yearning for a loving, benevolent, and caring god. As mammals—especially as the helpless, big-brained offspring of narrow-hipped primates—we depend on our parents for our very lives during early development. And later, when we discover in adolescence that mother and father are just human beings and fallible after all, we still yearn for that sense of a protective parent. And so we come to believe in a sky father and an earth mother to watch over us and guide our actions. I sometimes imagine that sea turtles, who break out of their shells and race across the sand toward the water, never having any sense of a guarding and guiding parent, might choose to worship as a god. Perhaps they would venerate a luminous presence in the sky, like the full moon that pulls the tide close to the nest and guides them to the sea. See One True Religion from April 15, 2011.

2. See Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics (I) and (II) from December 30, 2012, and January 6, 2013.

3. Up to the limits of quantum mechanics, where probabilities and statistics take over from direct, impactful observation.

4. This was when I worked at Applied Biosystems as a technical writer. The company made the genetic analyzers used in the Human Genome Project and other applications, and I was in daily contact with scientists and engineers working on these issues.

5. Essentially, that other ninety percent of human DNA is involved with the timing and cuing of cellular development and the differentiation of cell and tissue types. Think of the protein-coding genes as the body’s parts list, and the rest of the genome as the assembly manual. When we have finally mapped out all these relationships, I believe we will be looking at the most elegant piece of natural art in the universe.