Written by Kevin Hower Tuesday, 22 July 2008 14:12
Author Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
The best tool human minds have devised for understanding that reality is the scientific method. The greatest obstacle to increasing public understanding of that tool—especially in America—is that many people view the method itself as hostile to their way of thinking.
More often than not, it seems, people want to believe what they believe in spite of conflicting evidence or with no evidence at all. In those receptive to it, science works to pull back the reins on uncritical thinking.
Regardless of what kind of world we would like to live in, we actually do live in one in which not everything is possible.
Therein lies the difficulty. People want, maybe even need, to be able to explain their behavior to themselves and others. When someone is shown that the ideas upon which they’ve build their worldview are either demonstrably false or at best untestable, it causes cognitive dissonance.
The best way I can think of to avoid or eliminate that problem is for a person to change their beliefs to more closely reflect the evidence, rather than denying it. I think that’s the point at which we can begin asking really interesting questions about what things mean, but that sort of mind-changing doesn’t seem to happen often enough.
When people look around at the universe, most want to see a purpose—because they assume that it actually has one—and reasons why things happen the way they do. They want to believe there will ultimately be justice in another life, since there so often seems to be very little in this one. They want to know why they exist at all and what will happen when they cease to be.
Some seek answers by looking upward for Divine inspiration and guidance, while others prefer their view of life to be grounded in earthly concerns.
Ours is a beautiful but apparently cruel and amoral universe. There are, for example, not just one but over a hundred thousand of species of parasitic wasps that use other creatures as hosts. When the wasp larvae hatch, they slowly devour their host alive. A fascinating example is the Cicada killer, which acts as host to yet another species of parasitic wasp.
Why would a benevolent God choose to either allow or cause that type of suffering? I think that’s one of those interesting questions I mentioned earlier.
I find science compelling because I want to understand and face the world as it really is, not merely as I might want it to be. I want to understand myself, and my place in this universe, as thoroughly as possible within the limits of what’s knowable by humanity.
I’m just blown away when I think about the size of the universe and everything within it. For example, stars form when huge clouds of hydrogen collapse under gravity, crushing inward until enough heat builds up within them to start fusion. When hydrogen is fused into helium, energy equivalent to the difference in their mass is released as light.
Our sun has converted roughly 5,000,000 tons of matter into energy each second, continuously, for about 5 billion years and yet it still has several billion years worth of fuel left.
The largest star we know of is a red hyper-giant known as VY Canis Majoris. If it was placed where our sun is now, its outer edge would extend to the orbit of Saturn. Try to imagine how much mass it has to convert to energy each second in order to avoid losing its constant battle with gravity.
I find all of that totally awe-inspiring, and it reminds me just how tiny I really am.
An appreciation of science provides me with enough of that awe that I don’t feel the need to seek it from the supernatural. Although I often love to read and watch science fiction and fantasy, I find at least as much joy in learning about what actually exists. There’s just so much more we still have to learn about this amazing place we call the universe.