Armchair Awe for Ardent Atheists
“Mass tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells mass how to move.” This is John Wheeler’s comment on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and explains why our feet are well pushed towards the floor, and why sometimes objects fall from a table on our big toes. A mass not only curves the space, but it also stretches the time. That’s why, if we want our GPS to work accurately, we have to correct its proper time following the equations of relativity, otherwise the GPS system would accumulate an error of 10 kilometers every day.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity is one of the biggest achievement of mankind in terms of understanding the universe we live in. I am pretty confident that we will manage to understand even more in the future, because I believe in the capabilities of the scientific method.
As Yuval Harari explains in his book “Sapiens”, the myth of a God was fundamental to put order in large societies, as having a common belief can act as a glue among individuals that are strangers to each other but live in the same territory. On the other hand, God was also an attempt to answer questions about a hostile world full of unexplainable phenomena, as we had no better tools to understand it.
In the latest thousands of years, before science, knowledge was obtained by reading the sacred texts, like the Bible and the Qur’an. They were considered the source of the knowledge about the world, the answer to all important questions and all that was worth knowing. In this framework, when someone wanted to know something, all he had to do was to read something written in the past: rather than searching for new answers, one would rely on an old knowledge. If the origin of gravity is “God”, if the answer to the creation of our planet is “God”, we are not motivated to know more, to search for more, to make questions. “God” is an answer that disfavors questioning and investigating. The Bible told us that earth is 8000 thousand years old, and it was created by a God. This was all that was given to know, and it not only didn’t stimulate curiosity, but punished those who sought for alternative interpretations.
After Galileo stated that the Earth goes around the Sun, the church declared, in 1633, “the doctrine that the earth is neither the center of the universe nor immovable, but moves even with a daily rotation, is absurd, and both psychologically and theologically false, and at the least an error of faith”. To which Galileo replied “I think that in the discussion of natural problems we ought to begin not with the Scriptures, but with experiments and demonstrations.” I am reporting this episode merely to underline that choosing to find the answer to our questions in a God limits the true investigation and understanding of the world, as it prevents a whole process of formulating and testing hypothesis.
In contraposition to religions, modern science assumes that we don’t know anything, admits our ignorance, and therefore aims at obtaining new knowledge by interrogating Nature and making observations. After the first discoveries of Galileo, and his formulation of the scientific method, we went a long way. For example, we know that our planet is five billions years old, and that it was formed together with the Sun and the other planets of the solar system starting from a big nebula that condensed under the action of its self-gravity. And that all the elements that make up our body, the oxygen that we breath, the water we drink and everything is in the universe was created by a star inside its core, during the reactions of nuclear fusion. In this sense we are made of stars, because every atom of our body was once inside the core of a star. Personally, thinking that the atoms of my body were once inside the core of a stars gives me a deep feeling of connection with the universe and with everything else that is around me, without the need of taking into account the existence of a God. On the other hand, as modern science has a much better success at explaining the natural phenomena and the universe that surrounds us, there is no need to take into account the existence of a creator.
Human beings tend to adopt an anthropocentric conceit, an illusion of self-importance from which we stated, for example, that the universe is made for us, and the Earth is at its center. Beginning from Galileo, science has provided a series of demonstrations of our insignificance. We now know not only that we are not at the center of the Universe, but that planetary systems are a normal consequence of star formation, and therefore there must be billions (or more) of earth-like planets in the known universe (thousands of which already discovered in the last 2 decades by our telescopes). Part of the same anthropocentric view is thinking that we are different from other animals, specially created by a God that gave us a particular role in the universe. This view was totally replaced once Darwin showed that species can evolve into another by natural processes, just following the natural selection. As Darwin wrote “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.”
“Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with e lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home” says Carl Sagan in his book “The Pale blue dot”. As a result, science might have discouraged us, fought our delusion of self-importance. It might not be reassuring, but at least leads to deep knowledge. In a universe where there is no God, we finally find our central position, as the health and faith of our planet is in our hands, our wisdom and courage. “We are custodians of life’s meaning” quoting again the wise and illuminating Sagan.
About the author
Edoardo Striani is a PhD in physics, musician and science communicator. He works in the field of high energy astrophysics, and he's author of "Music from the stars", an event of music and astrophysics