Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Normal is what you're used to.

Natural disasters are a funny thing. Slag yesterday spent some time discussing a natural disaster that is likely to cause a great deal of death and destruction. His answer, of course, as to why we should care is that a great many people could die- which is a considerably more humane reason than the more widely accepted, "it may raise oil prices." That Slag's mind naturally turns to the former rather than the latter is one of the many reasons that I am proud to count him as my friend. While it's easy to blame the focus on oil prices on crass self-interest I think that there may be an element of something else in the mix: natural disasters are a bit mundane. Think about it honestly for a moment- every day around the world people are dying in disasters. There are bridge collapses, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tornados, and on, and on, and on. It isn't that we don't care that people die in disasters but, rather, that it is so commonplace that individuals die from the vagaries of mother nature that we become more or less accustomed to it. I'm not proposing this as a good reason to be calous, but I think it's worth thinking about.

Disasters of all sorts have long occupied a particular position in our culture. We typically refer to them as "acts of god," attributing their occurrence to the whim or will of an invisible but all-powerful deity. Presumably he or she visits all manner of hardship upon those who displease him* in much the same way as he bestows fortune upon the faithful. Or, at least, such was the thinking of Pat Robertson who once threatened the town of Dover, Pennsylvania with natural disasters for allegedly defying god. I've never really understood how someone who believes in a loving, caring god could actually hold such a position. Frankly, I have a hard time believing how someone can believe in a god who intervenes in human affairs at all, given the frequency of serious disasters. In many ways, as we have seen too much recently, our world is utterly inimical to human life. The science fiction author Alan Dean Foster once used this observation as the core of a series of books in which Earth was premised to be an ultra harsh and hostile environment. Before you laugh at the idea consider this: normal is, in fact, what you're accustomed to. If our planet were a comparatively difficult world for intelligent life to survive on, how would we know? Until we go out and look, Earth is the only life-bearing planet we've ever known and, for us, maybe not so bad.

All of this really comes into perspective, however, when we consider recent news that life on Earth might once have been nearly extinguished by an enormous pulse of radiation originating in a hypernova. In short, the explosive collapse of a Wolf-Rayet supermassive star may have once nearly sterilized an area of the galaxy lightyears in diameter. Perhaps more chilling, Astrobiologist Adrian Melott and Paleontologist Bruce Lieberman believe that such an explosion may have caused the second largest extinction event in Earth's history. In the Ordovician extinction the then-dominant Trilobites were wiped out, along with two thirds of all other species. A few seconds of massive gamma ray exposure from a hypernova 10,000 lightyears away were sufficient to alter the chemical composition of our atmosphere, obliterate our ozone layer, and bathe the planet in huge amounts of U.V. radiation, causing catastrophic damage to the DNA of most organisms. And, of course, if another such hypernova were to occur in our galaxy we would have no warning of onrushing doom because the blast front travels at the speed of light. Our entire civilization might be annihilated by an astronomical event that took place before the founding of the Roman Empire.

There is what's known as the "fine tuning" argument- that the universe seems to have been carefully crafted to result in life like out own. Some have taken great pains to support this argument, such as Guillermo Gonzalez with his book The Priviledged Planet, which argues that not only was the universe made for us, but it was made in such a way as to enable us to learn about it. Supporters of this argument see the universe itself as evidence of god's divine providence. I, on the other hand, see something else. We live on a planet, in a universe, where life clings to existence despite extreme hostility. Life has suffered immense defeats, has teetered on the brink of destruction, and has barely held on despite enormous obstacles. Perhaps we live in a universe where it is miraculously possible for life itself to exist, but it is also a universe in which it is all too terribly easy for life to fail. If we overlook this fact much of the time it is, perhaps, because normal is what we're used to, and we choose to see the wonder of our survival instead of the ease of our destruction.

But I think we should satisfy ourselves with the idea that god, if he exists, does not interfere with the unfolding of events in the universe. Given what we know about the universe and our world, the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.**

* Those Christians who somehow believe that god hurls earthquakes and tornados at those who piss him off should, perhaps, feel disquieted at the news that lightning recently damaged a statue of Jesus.

** Okay, in perfect honesty, even if you believe in an omnipotent deistic watchmaker god we still have certain problems, since he set up the rules of the game so as to include such utter hostility to life.*** I think it's much easier, and more reassuring, to simply conclude that there is no god, but that's just me.

*** Don't start with me on "original sin." Most would probably regard it as barbaric to hold children liable for the crimes of their parents, so why do we think it acceptable when god does the same thing?

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