…And they’re all dead as doornails, naturally. So welcome, friends, to yet another discussion of scale, science, and the saddest thing in the world, this installment focussing on the ONE THING that nobody ever bothers to notice about Creationism…and I don’t know why no one ever does, because it’s a lot more critical than Creationism’s fumble-fingered attempt to undo evolution, and yet so much easier to defend…and along the way in defence of it, you pretty much can’t help but drop a million-volt razor-wire fence around evolution, too, just as a necessary consequence…
So where’s Richard Dawkins when you need him?
The answer to this: somewhere over yonder letting Creationists frame the “debate”, is where he is. But this is not really something he deserves blasting for (although I confess in the past I’ve quite enjoyed letting loose the occasional blast at him), because the mistake he makes is the same one you or I might make, and to the degree he looks foolish it’s only because he ‘s been suckerpunched the same way we might have been, were we Richard Dawkins instead of him.
Here is how it happens: a bunch of Creationists start “questioning” evolution. Of course we know that they are not just “questioning evolution”, that in fact they are not even primarily “questioning evolution”…we know that’s just a cover, for their distinctively American cultural and religious agenda…not that I tar all Americans with this same repulsive brush, but “distinctively American” is just the sort of evil poison these fuckers believe in, so I figure to hoist them with their own petard…but then having seen through that thin-skinned deceit of theirs (I mean, do they think we’re idiots?), we go out and do battle with them on the fields of biology anyhow, not taking our time enough to see there’s an intermediate step here. And thus we receive the suckerpunch: as we allow ourselves to get charged up with righteous biological ire.
But there’s something more fundamental at stake, here, than mere ire, or mere biology…than mere evolution, for that matter.
Because a Creationist worldview is also (I hope you will recognize) deeply hostile to astronomy…
…And through that hostility it gets down to an intolerance so basic that there is no Bill Of Rights on this planet (or any other!), that would possibly ever come to its defence.
Simply put: it’s the measure of distance that’s at stake here.
Which is the one thing in the universe we simply cannot ever do without…!
…And which is the basic tool of astronomy, too, and hence the conflict. Because the funny thing about astronomy is that there isn’t any such thing as a sub-discipline called micro-astronomy, that it supports. No. It’s not just all about distance, but it’s about all distance…whether it’s relatively big, or relatively small. And there’s the stumbling-block right there, you see. Creationists love to make the artificial distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolutionary principles all the time…if you breed up corn from a plant the size of a baby’s thumb to a thing suitable for stuffing an exhaust pipe with, that’s micro…that’s just Man exercising his God-given dominion over the world, because the corn still started as corn, if you see what I mean. Macro, on the other hand, is saying that what we call “sight” is something that began with the pseudopod. Thus, the creationist moves to exclude the scientific by making a show of accepting the empirical…but only so far, and no farther. Say whatever you want to about corn, so long as you don’t say corn isn’t corn…
Which is, it must be admitted, a neat trick. Try it with astronomy, though, and you’ll whang yer thumb with the hammer…because astronomy’s all about telescopes, all about “how far away is that shit?”, and the first understanding it requires is that most of the time, corn isn’t corn. Because “cornness” is rin the eye of the beholder, cornness is relative, all part of the continuum of distance measures; in other words part of the most empirical thing in the world, a set of observations stretching back to ancient Egypt…but these observations all have consequences, and all the consequences have consequences, and in the end science is impossible to exclude from it all. If you want to debunk Einstein you’ll first have to debunk the hands of the clock; if you want to assert that the sky’s a dome covered in flaws, through which God’s magnificence shines through, you’re going to have to mean it as a metaphor…because that’s exactly what it’s been discovered to be. And, because astronomy is old. The Amish know about heliocentrism, for heaven’s sake. Therefore one cannot stand up in public and say “I don’t believe the Earth goes around the Sun” without Amish people ridiculing one for one’s stubbornly reactionary ways…
But, too: accept one thing, and you must accept all the rest of it.
Let us consider stellar distances. The speed of light has been measured, and the “standard candles” identified — and we conclude it is a pretty big universe, that we live in. So: problem! If it is big, our distance measures tell us it must also be old…much older than six thousand years. I mean you can deny the fossil record if you want to…you can say that anybody can make coal with a couple of pounds of moss and a pressure cooker…you can even say that all the organisms arrived miraculously, fully-formed for Man to enjoy and use, about three hundred generations ago. But what will you make of the light of a distant star, that our measures of distance tell us must have taken four hundred generations to get here?
Or, four hundred thousand generations to get here?
Easy enough to say it’s a miracle. God made it so that the universe looks older than it really is. All right, fair enough: let’s say he did.
Given that, is it still as big as it appears, though?
I mean…is he just making us see a whole bunch of objects that aren’t there, or is he miraculously bringing us their light ahead of time, just in time for the end of the world…
Or is the REAL miracle that none of that matters shut up all inconsistencies are divinely reconciled by pure grace…!
Which would be fine by me!
If only someone would just say it…
But oh, I don’t want to ask too many difficult questions, you know. Truly, no Christian theology goes this far, although all the best Christian theology anticipates these questions…generally. And not specifically. But really quite brilliantly in general terms! But then I don’t want to harp on that so much, because none of that past brilliance would tolerate Sarah Palin’s belief, you know? And yet I don’t want to slag Sarah off just like that, because I want to say my piece about why she’s completely wrong. In other words: I just want to point out that we’re outside the realm of “the scientists haven’t done their job correctly” in these questions of how God gimmicked the universe so our observations would eventually come a cropper. Because yeah, it’s gimmicked: because there are no macro- or micro- distance measures. If we think we know how far away Betelgeuse is, there’s no competing theory telling us we’re wrong, there’s just “sorry, bud, an angel did it”. And, as I said: that’s fair enough. Maybe an angel did do it. But the question is, then what else did the angel do?
Or in other words: what else must the angel have done?
Jupiter is about forty light-minutes away, and the Andromeda Galaxy about a million light-years away…and it takes about one second to bounce a laser off the Moon. But are all these things equally non-miraculous? Or is there a point at which we hit a “ha-ha” barrier, run into the Truman Show boundary where there are no more distances, just illusory projections of distances…I mean I’m willing to accept it for the sake of argument, but where is it, eh?
Does the domain of distance end at the heliopause?
It would be a damn funny thing if it did; because Pioneer 10 already went PAST THE HELIOPAUSE…!
Unless that was an illusion. But how are we to tell if it is? And if it is, what practical difference does that make anyway? And in any case what are we saying here, just how arbitrary is this universe? Just how many theophysical epicycles does it need, to produce what we see through our telescopes? Is it as big as it appears, only somehow invalidated or screwed with or “miracle-ized” in time? But time and space are one, at least so Professor Einstein says…and, MAN! Well does it all exist, or doesn’t it? “Yes, it exists now…but not so’s you’d know.” “It exists in space, but not really in time”. Jeepers, this is a rather hard cosmology though, isn’t it? Mindbending. And there’s not even anything in the Bible to suggest it; nothing to say “extend your intellect as far as you like, but sooner or later you’ll pass a veil where you can’t trust something even as basic as how you can tell how far away things are…”
Well…except, perhaps, there’s one way to suggest this.
I fear the Amish would ridicule it…but there is one.
“Jesus ascends bodily to Heaven”.
Listen, here’s the problem: everything we know about astronomy is what we’ve reasoned out from what we’ve seen. Distance. The concept of distance is the whole and entire root of astronomy. “How far away is that thing?”
And as with any problem, there are two ways of finding a solution to it. One is the Infinity Road: expand knowledge, explode assumptions, accept the innumerability of unknown factors…and give up all notion of control…
…And the other is the Zero Road, wherein one also gives up all notion of control, except it’s done by arriving at a conceptual point-source upon which all thought, or need for thought, is compacted ’til it gives up its structure utterly…and thus there is no longer any need for control. Note that I do not say one road leads to Enlightenment because the other does not…not to get all Rudy Rucker on you, but once you arrive at one of these transcendental poles, you’re no less in the transcendental realm than if you’d come at it the other way. HOWEVER.
We’re not talking about walking through the gates of ivory or of horn, we’re talking about what Sarah Palin might say if she looked through a telescope.
If she chose to walk the Infinity Road, she might think: “shit, that’s one motherfucker of a big universe out there…I might need a God with bigger interests and ambitions to explain it!”
But if she chose to walk the Zero Road, she might think — but never say! — “look, there are four angels circling the planet Jupiter…that must be where Heaven is, BECAUSE JESUS ASCENDED BODILY TO IT, SO IT’S GOTTA BE FUCKING SOMEWHERE UP THERE, I MEAN C’MON.”
Bloggers, do you you think maybe there are people out there — a silent majority! — who pay lip service to astronomy but nonetheless think “look at the angels, look how they shine with the light of their own righteousness” when they look through a telescope?
Well, here’s a funny thing, then: if there are such people, their belief is protected by no law of this land…and no bloody history or tradition of it either, which may very well be why they’re somewhat fearful of speaking it out. All these battles have been duly fought and won and lost, minimum three centuries before the Native Americans ponied up turkey to the bloodshot-eyed sin-vigilant Mayflower crowd. Today I’m free, of course, to start a religion that doesn’t believe in the existence of coffee ice cream, or snorkels, or the emotional component of the sex act…no one will interfere with me. But some things are not just plainly contrafactual, but also basic and important, and belief in their necessary non-existence therefore merits no tolerance, even in a tolerant society. “Arithmetic is an invention of the Devil, meant to mislead the faithful!” “There is no such thing as sugar!” “Whenever you see a basset hound, it’s time to change your name and hop a freight!” I mean, by all means build your church. But don’t expect tax-free status, and don’t expect anyone to be polite to your belief. “All parallel lines will meet if you just extend them far enough!” “The question-mark is really the true period!” “All wrenches are really just retarded hammers!”
“It’s time the heliocentrists admitted that they DON’T have all the answers…!”
The key thing is here: there’s a limit.
And we can find it in astronomy easily enough. Arguing about evolution with creationists is actually kind of stupid, if you ask me.
Instead, ask ’em to POINT TO WHERE JESUS IS IN THE SKY.
And then ask them how far away that is.
Personally, I think they would throw themselves into the cold Alaskan waters, rather than answer.
Although if you think about it, there is a good answer.
But surely the matter of whether one’s beliefs are worthy of respect, must hinge upon whether or not you know that one good answer.
Really, just know where to point to.
And so here we are, here I am — just went through a huge whole day of commemoration of the moon landing. Good God, I couldn’t be happier that people actually remember it. And still know, as it were, where to point.
I swear to God, in my capacity as occasional oracle…we will get there, and we’ll learn a lot. But it’s going to be the most MASSIVE scientific/engineering project since 1969. It’s going to be by far the most EXCITING shit human beings have ever gotten their noses into. The physical conditioning the astronauts will have to undergo will be enormous, but worth it. Several very well-known people will probably say something deeply dumb about it…
…But it will lift the spirits of all mankind, even despite the activities of the famous.
I’ve been waiting for a time like this my whole life. I felt like hope was put on hold, from about the flight of Apollo 17 ’til now. This is my scene, I’ll tellya.
So pay attention when I say this:
If you can give me an honest cosmology that includes both God and the Universe…both God and Fact, without any painfully-obvious bullshit…
Then I’ll probably convert to your stupid religion.
But here’s what’s really stupid.
Why don’t we have any new religions?
Yes: why not.
But here’s my suggestion: watch that Discovery Channel “Japanese Hi-Def MoonView” show, with the sound off…and wait ’til the Earth creeps over the horizon.
This post may be subject to revision. I will give it one day, though.