The question came up recently about what people believe in, and a friend of mine quoted G. K. Chesterton: “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing; he believes in anything.” My friend, who knows I am an atheist, was then quick to say he wasn’t talking about me in particular, but about nonbelievers in general.
I’ve stated repeatedly1 my non-belief in a supreme, all-intelligent, all knowing, all-powerful being. I am not hostile or contemptuous of those who so believe, but if some gene happens to code for a protein that attunes a person’s brain to religious experiences, I lack it. If some circuit in the brain receives messages from the infinite, I never developed it. I have a pretty big and active imagination, but I also have a sharp and hair-trigger squelch circuit that helps me distinguish the inner promptings of my own imagination from the external cues of reality.
Still, belief and faith shape as much of my world as they do everyone else’s. If you define faith or belief as the act of accepting as true a proposition which either you have not proven for yourself or you lack the skill or experience to prove as true, then we all take much of the world around us on faith. I have been to Paris, so I know from experience that Paris—at least the parts I’ve seen and experienced—exists. I have never been to Timbuktu, don’t even recall having seen pictures of the place, and couldn’t describe its heyday in history within a century, and yet I’m prepared to believe in the existence of Timbuktu because it is generally accepted to exist in the accounts of others. That is, I’m not prepared to claim Timbuktu is a mythical place or merely a figure of speech because I haven’t been there.
In the same way, we take much of what we know about science on faith. I daily experience the effects of gravity, but I have never measured its acceleration for myself. Yet when physicists write that its pull at Earth’s surface is 9.8 meter per second squared, or just over 32 feet per second squared, I take their findings on the faith that serious people have performed the proper experiments and reported their results accurately. For the last couple of centuries, Western civilization has been engaged in a vast enterprise of analysis and discovery, guided by the accepted principles of the Scientific Method,2 and supported by the practices of formal reporting, peer review, widespread publication, and experimental replication. In most cases, if a new finding is written up in a peer-reviewed publication, I am prepared to believe it and accept it based on my faith in the method.
In most cases … However, in certain areas of modern physics we are beginning to deal with propositions and discoveries derived more from elegant mathematics than from testable and falsifiable experiments. Some examples are the outer edges of quantum mechanics and its suggestion of particle symmetries that must exist, simply because the mathematics says so; conjectures about infinite multiverses beyond the visible universe we inhabit and where other laws of physics must apply, simply because it’s such a lovely and compelling idea; alternative descriptions of matter and energy, such as string theory, that rely on multiple spatial dimensions that cannot otherwise be detected, simply because the mathematics can thereby resolve gravity with the other physical forces; and conjectures about massive but invisible particles, such as “dark matter,” or unexplained forces, such as “dark energy,” simply because without them the oddities in our observations of the universe spoil the theories we have already accepted. If there are parts of the system we can’t explain, I find it better to say, “We don’t yet know,” rather than let our mathematical reasoning and our imaginations run away with us.3
I need hardly mention in the context of these “other cases” the current rush of climate scientists to project either rising or falling global temperatures and their dire consequences on the oscillating, cyclical, complex, and poorly understood processes that the rest of us call “weather” and “climate.”4
What then, do I believe? What do I take on faith because I cannot prove the proposition?
I believe that the universe is an orderly place. It responds to principles and rules, and we are able to understand large parts of it through our observations, hypotheses, and experiments. However, the universe at different scales presents different appearances and may respond to different rules and principles. I am not bothered that the principles which obtain at the quantum level of subatomic particles may not apply evenly to stars and galaxies. I can also accept that working alongside these principles and rules are the actions of chance and probability. When an atom splits or a star explodes, we cannot always predict in which direction the constituent parts will fly or where they will end up. This may be a failure of our observing power and the subtlety of our mathematics, and it may simply be the nature of the universe to remain unpredictable in certain cases. I believe we will eventually understand almost all of what’s going on when we have had time to gather more information, perform better experiments, and refine our concepts. But some fraction of the universe will forever be unpredictable.
I believe that we humans are the best thing going within several light years in this part of the galaxy, maybe even tens of light years. Perhaps whales and dolphins are smarter creatures, individually or collectively, than human beings, and perhaps their ability to make a living as the hunter-gatherers of the sea is the highest expression of life’s purpose. Perhaps building cities and libraries to retain and share knowledge, inventing telescopes and microscopes to explore the world around us, sending information across continents using electromagnetic frequencies, and flying people through the air in jet-powered tubes … perhaps all of that activity is just human vanity and inferior to hunting and gathering. Perhaps, too, the sequoia trees which stand in one place for thousands of years and drink in sunshine, water, and minerals in order to grow quietly are our moral and ethical superiors. But I don’t think so. I believe we’re the best thing this planet has ever seen. We are—among a hundred other definitions—the creature that examines itself, and I am proud of that.
I believe that the universe teems with life, given all the complex reactions that are possible involving chemicals that we don’t normally consider “organic.” One day soon we will discover extraterrestrial life or its undeniable residue, most probably on Mars, and then we will know how unique—or how common—Earth’s particular kind of organic life really is. But much of what actually lives in the universe we might pass over completely and never think of as living. As a child in New England, I played on granite boulders that were splotched with crackly, grayish patches bearing green or yellow speckles that looked like flaking paint or the remains of leaves that had settled on and annealed to the rocks years ago. The patches certainly looked dead and inert. I was surprised to learn in biology class that these were lichens, a composite creature of algae or cyanobacteria caught in fungal filaments. They exist by symbiosis, which is a fairly advanced relationship. When we first step down on a new planet, we may pass right by some of these “paint splotches” without even noticing they are there, much less alive. But even the life forms that move, hunt among the other biota, raise families, and live in herds may not exhibit our kind of intelligence. It might be a greater or lesser form of intelligence, and we may not be able to recognize it. Right now, we can’t all agree on whether whales and dolphins are actually communicating or merely humming to themselves. And we also know this planet existed for half a billion years with complex life that could not speak in complete sentences, write down and read its own thoughts, do simple arithmetic, or push two stones together to make a fire pit—and we might land on such a planet in any stage of its development. I believe that life in the universe will be varied and wonderful, and that exploring it will be a treat.
I also believe that if we discover the DNA-RNA-protein domain in the life beyond Earth’s biosphere, then we will know that our kind of organic life possibly came from somewhere else, perhaps blown in with an extraterrestrial bacterial spore, or discarded inside an ancient astronaut’s lost glove, or seeded here on purpose.5 It will also open the possibility that this chemical system for information retention and transmission, so measured in its mutability and so adept at tailoring life’s processes to form a perfect match with their environment—whatever that environment might be within broad limits—is actually the work of an active intelligence far superior to ours which wants to see the universe filled with living, reproducing, entropy-confounding creatures. These fascinating molecules—DNA, RNA, proteins, and the chemicals that use them in all their complexity—is as close as I can come to the artifact of a divine intelligence.
This is not much of a belief system, I know. It is fragmentary and cursory and still a-building. But it’s the best I can do right now.
2. The method goes back to French philosopher René Descartes, who published it in 1637 as Discourse on the Method for Rightly Directing One’s Reason and Searching for Truth in the Sciences. The modern statement of the method is conducted with seven steps: (1) make an observation or ask a question; (2) do background research; (3) construct a hypothesis to answer the question or explain the observation; (4) design and perform an experiment to test the hypothesis; (5) record the findings and analyze the data; (6) draw a conclusion from the analysis; (7) communicate the results, along with details of your experiment, so that others may replicate it and independently verify your conclusion. The essence of the method is that your hypothesis must be falsifiable—that is, there must be some condition under which your hypothesis can be proven wrong—and your experiment must accurately and convincingly test it.
4. See Getting Serious About Global Warming from December 16, 2012.