Friday, August 30, 2013

The Universe Is Too Big

I've been of the opinion that anyone who can look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and not see the need for space travel is a terminally boring person, and recently the ALMA radio telescope captured a star being born. It's wonderfully amazing stuff, but it carries with it a set of petty problems: The universe is just too big.

We're all clinging to the outer shell of a pebble floating in a void so huge it might as well be infinite. We can't see the ends of it, because light itself takes billions of years to cross such distances. We can try to understand it, incrementally, one faltering step at a time, but we will never have anything close to a complete understanding of its intricacies.

And when it comes to even contemplating the universe, we run headlong into a major obstacle. Our brains are very good at understanding other people. We can read intent and emotion from subtle gestures; figure out what a person will do from their posture; even figure out what people thousands of years ago may have intended and done from the artifacts they left behind. That's what our brains do, and that's what our brains are good at; we are society-forming by nature, and so evolution has selected for brains that are well-suited to living and coping in a society. The problem is, the universe shows no indication of being manmade, and so understanding it is firmly outside our brains' area of expertise.

Yet my brain is all I have to think with. I'm trying to contemplate the universe with a tool made for fitting into society. Brains are wonderfully plastic things, and so I can freely contemplate the universe with it; people can study the universe, measure the universe, learn about the universe, and share that knowledge with future generations, but fundamentally, that's just not what our brains are "meant" to do. The scientific method, with its constant tests and retests, is fundamentally a workaround for the fact that our brains are wired to make all the wrong assumptions. Double-blinding compensates for confirmation bias; repetition of results accommodates for our innate failure to guess probability; peer review compensates for our tendency to favour pet ideas and dogmas even in the face of contrary evidence.

So when I try to think about things bigger than everyday life, I find myself overwhelmed in a manner hard to replicate elsewhere. I'm trying to understand something far too big to be understood; to impose purpose for no other reason than my brain is built to read purpose. The universe defies my understanding, and what little we do know about it just makes what we don't that much more intriguing. I suppose in a sense, the universe is literally awesome.

I suppose, though, that a post on the wonder of the universe would be incomplete without mentioning religion, if only because some knob is going to comment on their pet faith so I might as well head that off as long as I'm typing. As I said before, our brains are adapted to read and understand people, but the universe shows no evidence of being manmade. Religion is the failure to recognise that fact. Religion is the assumption that because your brain is adapted to understand manmade things, the universe must be manmade, because you have a hammer so that something may not be a nail is simply inconceivable. This is why the vast multitude of religions, though they agree on very little, all seem to reach the conclusion that the universe was made by humans (for an expanded definition of "human" at any rate).

That's not to say religious people are stupid; in fact, religion is probably the perfect culmination of our brains' inherent faults. Religion assigns the entire universe to the category of "manmade things," which exploits our desire to do what we're good at, and our natural tendency to anthropomorphise, while entrenching itself with confirmation bias, and our tendency to cling to pet ideas, as well as our natural societal instincts to follow authority and follow the group. Religion is the dust that collects on the white decor inside our heads, or the fingerprints that collect on the polished black surfaces.

Religion is also an arrogant declaration that the entirety of existence is limited to what we, personally, are good at doing and a fundamental failure to understand and compensate for the inherent flaws in our brains. Religion is the dogged insistence that you are the be all and end all of existence itself; the center of the universe, whose personal flaws and foibles dictate what is possible or impossible. An infant believes an object disappears if he stops looking at it, and an infant species believes that a thing is impossible because they have trouble understanding it. Religion is a phase that we as a species are just starting to grow out of, and any comments claiming otherwise will be summarily deleted.

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