Friday, August 10, 2007

"Let There Be Darkness!" In Just One Story

"Finally, the man spoke. 'You're right. I was late for the show. . . . But religion was late too. So was science. So were you. You weren't there for the Words of creation . . . and I wasn't there for the Bang.'" (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 24)
I haven't read Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, but I have heard physicists tell rapt audiences about the first few seconds of the universe's existence. Amazing, I say, an outsider looking in. The first few seconds! The evidence I hear doesn't seem to come from back then, but from what is going on now, often in particle accelerators.* A skeptical beep goes off in my head.

Then I hear about the cosmic microwave background radiation, which dates from about 380,000 years into the universe's existence. It tells about origins too, but with a less extravagant claim. This is evidence that actually comes from long ago, even if not the first few minutes. You read it the way you would a fossil. No beep.

In a back copy of the New York Times Magazine I read about another early moment, the dawn of religion. Robin Marantz Henig is describing an ongoing debate among evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. Did religious belief come about because it was adaptive in its own right or as a kind of accident, a byproduct of some other adaptation? The experts cited by Henig argue long and hard, but none has any evidence from back then, from the point 50,000 or 100,000 or 200,000 years ago, when religion supposedly originated. Beep.

Someone will have to tell me how you can get inside the head of hominids from 100,000 years ago without the benefit of a written record, or at least of one preserved in art. It can't be done. Contrast the availability of evidence here with that for biological evolution, where two remarkable streams of data flow side by side: the fossil record and the genetic record. Both come from way back then.

So I ask, Can't the first 379,999 years of the universe story remain in darkness, at least until we know a whole lot more? Can't the origin of religion, for which the evidence will never exist?

I love to tell stories in the dark and about the dark. I love to hear the speculation, the musing, the hypotheses. I love to hear about books like Barbara King's Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. Twenty-five years of observing apes, of seeing them mourn their dead for example, has led her to tell such stories. Are these primate behaviors the very ones that led to religion? The stories aren't evidence from back then; they come from now. They can't be science because they're not falsifiable. They're like the origin myths told by religion, tales in and about the dark, speaking of their tellers, speaking of now.

Much as I love these stories, I would like to see one--just one--with the dark places left dark. No claims about origins. No Creation Museums. No special effects on PBS. No gods in the gaps. No strings. Lots of fades to black, occasional shafts of light. Images that reflects the actual state of our knowledge. Reality checks on religion and science.

It's not easy to see in the dark. It's even harder to see the dark itself. I ask for the wisdom--and the story--to make that possible.
*Check an excellent article in Scientific American (June 2007) on the new field of "particle cosmology." Perhaps a physicist could help us out here.
**I'll be taking a few weeks off from writing new blogs. Comments on current ones are still welcome.



Anonymous said...

This reminds me of my partner at work. Having no college education (but he does watch many science shows on Discovery)his philosophy is that religion was created for no other reason than to comfort humans from the reality of death. For him, death is the end. He has no belief in the soul or any type of afterlife.

What makes his theory so easy to follow (for him) is that he needs very little evidence to prove his point.

Anonymous said...

I just finished Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe, and I thought I would add one more comment of Wolfe's. Its along the lines of a human being able to comprehend "everything". Wolfe states he was at a conference of scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, titled, "Limits to Scientific Knowledge," and the consensus was that the human mind is a sort of computer, finite in its capabilities. Therefore the human mind will never have the power to comprehend human existence. Wolfe states, "It would be as if a group of dogs were to call a conference to try to understand The Dog. They could try as hard as they wanted, but they wouldn't get very far. The project would be doomed from the start. The human brain is far superior to a dog's, but it is limited nonetheless. So any hope of human beings arriving at some final, complete, self-enclosed theory of human existence is doomed too." I guess what I'm trying to say is that though many will read your Story of Everything, no one will understand it (according to Wolfe, not me)!

Anonymous said...

I find the topic of the "first seconds" to be utterly fascinating. What I wonder about has to do with how that particular "second" came to be. Was it simply an inevitability resulting from cosmic forces? Then again, would the basic concept of a "second" have meant anything at all way back then?

Anonymous said...

I long have wished that I could at least have taken astronomy 101 and perhaps been able picture the movements of the heavenly bodies, just those visible to bodily eyes during what we call light and dark. I suspect that defining dark as the utter absence of light is pre-101 anything. What others may consider ignorance I hope is a brand of simplicity that will get me through.