The Horsehead Nebula

Photo courtesy of NASA

"A Long Climb to Insignificance"

“I know now that I know nothing”…..Socrates

Preface (by George Krantz) to a not yet written book

My life has been divided into distinct segments of time, more so than most people, based mainly on where I’ve lived—my father was a missionary and minister, and we moved a lot, and moving is always a major event, particularly in the life of a child.  Each place has of course influenced me, but I’ll mention just two, separated by half a century, many miles, and radically different cultures.

From 1963 to 1967, as a young teenager, I attended a Methodist mission school in Santurce, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where religion was an integral part of the curriculum. In seventh grade my religion class was “World Religions”, which presented the development of religions around the world as a long climb upward from superstition and polytheism to the pinnacle of western civilization, monotheism. This was presented as being much like the parallel developments occurring in the sciences, as people climbed out from under superstition and embraced the scientific method to understand our world and beyond.

Ever since I’ve spent a lot of mental energy considering science and religion, and I’ve ended up in a place I’m sure was not where the deaconesses who taught us intended me to be. Of course those elderly church ladies, generally well-meaning (and often mean as well), have long since passed away and are nearly forgotten, so they no longer care; but what I did learn from them, eventually, is partially the basis of this small book……nothing ‘supernatural’ actually exists, and that includes the concept of some divine presence guiding, directing, and involved in human affairs. However, there is a huge caveat to this–what was once  considered real is now considered supernatural, and what was once considered supernatural is now considered ‘real’. In the middle ages, all sorts of things such as sorcery, a place called “hell”, and a whole range of miracles were considered ‘real’, in that they actually existed or happened. We now think much of that is baloney, but on the other hand, we today have beliefs that are just as rabidly believed and enforced, but for which there is no evidence, or evidence to the contrary. The basic belief is that “what we believe today is right, and what our ancestors believed was wrong”. A few more semi-controversial examples include: “all men are created equal”, “that democracy is the best form of government”, that “anyone can grow up to be president”, that “all human life is sacred”, and that the way “I” see things is correct. An interesting one is that life itself is something with a beginning and end, strongly believed by everyone because we personally live and die within a set lifespan.

 And, science can’t take the place of religion because it’s not a belief system, but rather a method of thinking, learning, and discovering. You don’t find morality in science, despite how politicians attempt to use it now. Note that this doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things we simply don’t know or understand, usually considered supernatural but aren’t, which will also be explored. 

 

The Butterfly Nebula

I’ve also concluded that we humans have virtually no idea how the universe works or what it is, or what life is, or what we are. In fact, if there is intelligent life out there amongst the stars, and it is aware of our existence, and if it has a sense of humor, they must find it hilarious when we debate if there is “other” intelligent life out there in the universe somewhere. We are, literally, barely out of the caves, and were it not for a few extraordinary individuals and fortuitous accidents, we’d still be there. And given our propensity for extreme violence and the ephemerality of the Internet, the human race’s knowledge base, we might very well end up there again.

Jumping ahead fifty years to the present, living on a horse farm in rural New England, when I’m no longer young and there is a semi-pandemic still semi-raging (or at least slightly upset), I again have plenty of time to think about things. But I also try to socialize, mainly within the family thanks to COVID-19, and that often involves watching something on TV. Were I watching alone, I’d just watch football or the same movies (The Godfather, Stripes, My Cousin Vinny, Major League, and above all else, Margin Call) over and over; but when socializing, my wife and I lean towards documentaries, with the general goal of learning something interesting. There, for lack of ever finding an interesting topic not full of corny reenactments of people in period clothing, demonstrating whatever is being described by breathless announcers trying to maintain our attention, we often default to watching nature shows.

The big problem with nature shows is that the plot is extremely redundant. It’s always the same—a constant and endless struggle for survival, and although there are different actors, they play the same roles over and over…..a lion eats an antelope, a crocodile attempts to eat a baby elephant very unsuccessfully if the mother elephant is present, etc. This isn’t a problem with nature documentaries. It’s just how nature works, and since we are a part of nature, the same laws apply to us. All life on earth is in a constant struggle for survival, in an ongoing war that ebbs and flows, but with one outcome deciding the victors--who reproduces, passing along their genetic makeup.

The Darwinian concept “survival of the fittest” generally describes what is happening, but it implies a morality to nature (being fit is good), when there really isn’t one. In reality the process is better described as ‘survival of the fittest for the particular conditions that exist in any given moment.’ For instance, the native population of the Americas was surviving just fine until Europeans showed up, with their diseases, superior technology and vast populations. One major event changed everything. Similarly, the dinosaurs were ruling the earth for hundreds of millions of years until a comet smacked into the Gulf of Mexico…..and suddenly the dinosaurs were completely unfit for the new environment. All of these type events were giant ‘black swans’, and are completely fortuitous. It doesn’t get any more random or unexpected than the earth being hit by a giant comet. At least, if we blow ourselves up in a nuclear war, it’ll be our own dumb fault. The dinosaurs did nothing wrong. 

So this short book is not a science book, which I’m not qualified to write. It will no doubt contain scientific errors. Rather, it’s a philosophical book, which I’m as qualified to write as anyone, and it looks at who we are, and why we act like we do. Along the way it looks at what life actually is, why we are prejudiced, how we think and make decisions, how we justify decisions, why right and wrong is relative, how we learn, why we are so hypocritical, where we are heading, and most importantly, how we are not at all different from other animals except perhaps in a small degree.

At the end of reading this essay masquerading as a book, you may feel the way I do…..that when we send up fighter jets to intercept UFOs (which remarkably seem to be appearing a lot lately, as if a big event is soon to happen),  we resemble nothing so much as those Amazon tribes flinging spears and shooting arrows skyward at planes that fly overhead. There is so much we don’t know, yet we’re currently in an unprecedented “belief gap” where superstition is no longer believed, but nothing has yet taken its place. Science sort of fills the gap, but really can’t because so much is unknown or not understood, and despite how it is perceived in the popular mind, science is a methodology rather than a belief system. Plus, in today’s culture and politics, science is far too often used as religion used to be--to justify existing opinions, while ignoring or even suppressing facts when they go against the current moral beliefs of society. There is a whole lot of “Galileo knew the earth was round and not the center of the solar system or universe, but he wasn’t about to admit it when the church put him on trial”. He brilliantly renounced his scientific ideas, as any sane man would, opting for lesser penance and no torture. Nothing much is different today except what ideas are and are not considered acceptable, and how torture is applied or penance displayed.

As a word of warning, the ideas presented here often inexorably lead to conclusions that deviate substantially from the accepted orthodoxy in the United States and much of the western world, but hopefully by that point those conclusions will be inescapable to the reader, because they won’t be spelled out so much as to get me strapped to today’s version of the rack. And, just in case this book is actually completed, read or even sells, I’ve used a pseudonym.

Consider this: A well known philosophical concept is “Occam’s Razor”. This theory states that if there are two conflicting theories for why something ‘is’, the simpler theory is most likely correct. If William of Occam were alive today, which fortunately for him he is not, having lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, he would be considered a racist, transphobic, a heretic, and much more, and he would be “canceled”. And for those of you who can relate this particular concept to many of the problems in the world today, you’ll see why even mentioning William of Occam in this context might be problematic for the author.

 

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