It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with religions and gods, and a lot of my work and writing is theological in a sense (or at times, related to the tensions between science and religion).
I’d like to share just one of the many reasons why I’m obsessed with religions. I’m sure in the future I’ll write about some of the others.
We are a fascinating species, with quite remarkable achievements. Even these words that I’m typing right now, are an archaic, ancient technology, that allow me to carve up my rich, high dimensional, continuous inner world, and butcher them into linear, one dimensional, discretized strings, enabling this simple (albiet less accurate) communication. And I won’t go into the incredible, invisible layers upon layers upon Layers of Abstraction (new project WIP ;) and complexities that enable this string to be received by my computer via switches in my keyboard, stored in my computer’s memory, displayed on my screen, encoded for transport, beamed wirelessly to my router, sent around the world in little packets, received by your computer, reassembled, decoded and displayed on your screen. I’m guessing there is not a single person on the planet (or at least very few), who knows and understands the full process on every level from all of the software components and protocols, to hardware implementations, electronic, electrical and low level molecular, physical and quantum phenomena involved. (A little teaser for an upcoming project ;)
And this is something that we all do hundreds of times a day, we don’t even consider it an incredible feat of science and engineering. We take it for granted. Perhaps because it is so ordinary now, and isn’t spectacular.
What is a spectacular feat of science and engineering? Really spectacular?
Of course there is almost a limitless supply of examples one could give. One that I often like to use, is the fact that we managed to land a little flying robot on a comet. (When I say ‘we’, I personally was not involved of course. I’m referring to ‘we’ as a species. To be specific, it was the wonderful folks at the European Space Agency ;)
This little robot flew through space for over ten years. Think back to what you were doing ten years ago. That’s how long this thing was hurtling through space, catapulting itself from planet to planet (mostly back and forth between Earth and Mars), using the planets’ gravitional pull to gather momentum, and slingshot around, like tarzan jumping from vine to vine. Until ten years later (in 2014) it rendezvoused with its target, a tiny little lump of rock and ice by the name of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
As if entry into a stable orbit of a little comet, travelling at speeds up to 135,000 km/h (84,000 mph) after ten years of hurtling through space and catapulting around planets isn’t enough, this little robot launched an even littler robot to go and land on the surface, and send information back to Earth. (NB. As it happens, it unfortunately bounced into a crevice so didn’t receive maximal sunlight, shortening it’s life on the comet).
One could give countless more examples of such incredible, mind-blowing, spectacular manifestations of human ingenuity, victories of science and engineering in the domestication of the fundamental laws of nature.
And we also have members of the same species who declare (to this day), that the Earth is flat, that there are no comets, or planets, or stars out there. Apparently there is no ‘outer space’, even gravity doesn’t exist. They believe that everything we are shown with regards to anything related to space, is Computer Generated Graphics (just like those movies, Star Wars, Gravity etc).
And the levels that some of these people go to, to try and reconcile their own observations — such as a solar or lunar eclipse — with their model of the universe (*ahem* sorry, world), is nothing short of astounding.
The committment and dedication to experimentation, reasoning, fact checking, hypothesizing and debunking (constained by the requirement to accomodate the orginal belief) to me is more entertaining than, and demonstrates more creativity than anything I’ve seen come out of Hollywood in recent years. (Yes I have spent endless nights in the rabbit-holes of Flat Earth Youtube, and this guy is one of my favourites).
Of course before this very recent explosion of Flat Earthers, we had (and still have) Young Earth Creationists. They promote ideas that not Gravity and all of Physics is wrong (as proposed in Flat Earth), but Evolution, and all of Biology is wrong. Young Earth Creationists believe that the universe is only 6000 years old (this varies depending on the particular school of Creationism), and they’ll goto incredible lengths to ‘scientifically’ prove it (and ‘disprove’ any competing theories, such as, you know, mainstream science). They of course don’t believe in evolution, dinosaurs didn’t exist, and “God put their bones in the ground to test our faith” (Yes I’ve also spent endless nights in the rabbit-holes of Creationist Youtube).
And the fact that these Flat Earthers, and Creationists, then use one of the grandest, and most ingenious of human creations —The Internet, a global network of networks of digital computers — to spread these theories is just the most tragic irony.
But what I find the most remarkable, and (one of) the reasons why I’m so obsessed with these beliefs, is because it’s the same brain that gives rise to them, as does invent and create the flying robots that land on comets. It’s the same basic physical structure, the same design, the same biological principles, that gives rise to such extreme opposites (or perhaps they’re not such opposites?). Simply changing some (yet not fully determined) parameters (internal and/or external) can make the difference between a rocket scientist and a gravity denier; a genetic engineer and a banana evangelist (see video below for context).
In a sense, the existence of such diversity in belief, faith, rationality, reasoning and commitment; is a testament to the incredible flexibility, adaptability and malleability of the clump of neurons and chemicals that we call the human brain.
Note: It’s worth mentioning, while I half-jokingly refer to these beliefs as fascinating and even entertaining, I am in fact very concerned about the impact such mindsets have when it comes to policy and decisions affecting our collective (human+non-human) future. So concerned in fact, that I can’t just obliviously laugh them off. Instead I feel the need to spend endless nights in the rabbit-holes where they are born, incubated and spread, trying to understand how a brain so almost identical to mine, can result in a mind so orthogonal. And while I’ve picked rather extreme and easy targets here, consisting of what we’d like to think of as small fringe groups (though even such fringe groups will push hard if they are not pushed hard back), countless less fringe, but equally (if not more) dangerous examples can be given.