Atheism and Curiosity

Extraterrestrial Life

Life on other planets—does it exist?  We want to know.  Why?  Perhaps we suspect that life on this planet is ultimately doomed and so we hope that the opportunity for life exists elsewhere.  Is it that we simply find life fascinating, and any new exotic form tickles our wonder?  Is it because we are looking for a greater intelligence from which we may learn?  Are we seeking new friends?

Whatever the driver, this idea of life on other planets tickles our curiosity—particularly that of atheists.  But there is no direct evidence that extraterrestrial life exists.  Existing clues merely suggest plausibility.  Statistically speaking it may seem likely.  But at the moment, there is no solid reason to believe in ET life.  And yet curiosity persists.

Look at the science fiction films that atheist nerds so adore.  This ET life motif is so thoroughly pervasive in these stories, e.g., Star Trek and Star Wars.  I suspect that if it was somehow proven that life only exists on Earth that these tales would be robbed of their soul; they would no longer be compelling, rendered irrelevant and uninteresting. Atheist sci-fi fans would be desperately saddened with this revelation.

There is no proof for ET life, and yet as long as there exists no proof that it does not exist, our curiosity is not dissuaded.

After all, isn’t speculation with regard to the plausible, yet not provable, kind of what makes science fiction interesting?

In fact, one might say that the possibility of ET life seems so plausible and even so likely that to not be at least a little curious would be arrogant geocentrism.

Layered Reality

We derive the term atom from the Greek atomos which literally means “not cuttable”.  The funny thing is that, as we use the word today, it is a misnomer.  Once upon a time it was thought that the atom was the lowest level of reality, but we now know that it is not.  Atoms are composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons.  Additionally, protons and neutrons are made up of quarks.  Calling an atom “atom” was premature satisfaction that we had “found it”.

But science will never be satisfied that it has finally discovered the lowest foundation of reality.  Why should it?  In retrospect we see that up to the present, to have stopped at any stage of this exploration would have been grave error.  The deeper we explore, the more we uncover.  We can’t stop searching.  We see that our tenacious curiosity has served us very very well.

And yet, in this quest, do we not expect to eventually encounter the “not cuttable” particle?  This grand stage set on which all things do what they do, that we call the universe, must have a floor or a wall somewhere, right?

In the final scene of the Truman Show, the bow of Truman’s boat literally pierces a hole in the wall of his universe.  What is his reaction?  Is he satisfied that he has discovered the edge of the world and so he goes home?  No, he beats his fist against the wall in frustration and then finds the door that leads him off the stage to a layer of reality entirely new to him.

What will we do when we run into the wall of our universe?  Is that where we throw our hands up in the air and our curiosity stops?

Of course not.

This reality that we perceive—is that all that there is, or is there something beyond?

Another recurring sci-fi theme is the notion that the reality presented to us isn’t the only one, e.g., The Matrix and The Truman Show.  As is the case with ET life, there is no direct evidence of any layer of reality other than our own, and yet atheist sci-fi fans continually indulge their curiosity with the possibility that there might be.  Again, these stories would be rendered irrelevant if it was somehow proven that our reality was it.

We know how plausible is the notion of multiple layers of seemingly real existence because, technologically speaking, we are so close to creating it ourselves.  We know that it is only a matter of time before technology allows us to directly project virtual reality on the mind.  The direct neural virtual reality experience of The Matrix is coming.  Imagine only ever existing in the virtual reality world depicted in The Matrix, yet seeking the foundation of that “reality” just as scientists do with our reality here and now.  You would eventually break reality down into bits in computer memory or pixels on some finite resolution display apparatus, and then have no access whatsoever to the underlying system that makes the bit or pixel seem real.

Perhaps quarks are the bits and pixels of our reality?  Maybe, maybe not.  Doesn’t matter.  When we finally discover the bits and pixels of our universe, not only will we not feel satisfied in “finding it”, we will desperately look for the system that makes those bits and pixels real to us.  And, in fact, atheist sci-fi fans haven’t waited for the exploration of quantum mechanics to stall; they are already speculating.

Again, science fiction literature speculates with regard to the plausible, yet not provable.  To speculate about multiple layers of reality seems entirely reasonable for a rational atheist.

There is no proof for multiple reality layers, and yet as long as there exists no proof that they do not exist, our curiosity is not dissuaded.

Knowing how plausible it is to create a perceived alternative reality with technology, it would seem to indicate not only arrogance to conclude with certainty that our universe is, in fact, the only layer of existence, but also a profound lack of curiosity.

What About God?

So what is God?  Isn’t God a combination of these two speculative sci-fi motifs?  Isn’t the idea of God merely an ET life form existing at another layer of reality?  Is it outside the bounds of plausible rationality to speculate on the possibility?

What confuses the matter is that, in our world, theism is almost entirely predicated on manuscripts such as the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and/or the Koran—manuscripts thought to be inspired.  Smart people have subjected all of this literature to rigorous criticism, and to atheists it all reads as something less than divine—a collection of stories loaded with insoluble contradiction that impresses as, frankly, purely human weakness: pride, envy, greed, and wrath.  And hell, if religion demands reverence for a God that actually writes this stuff then they are damned by their own thought-crime; they are incapable of sincerely respecting and worshipping such a God.

So it seems pretty clear that an intelligent atheist cannot honestly believe or endorse this stuff.  It’s all superstitious mythology written by not-so-thoughtful people—just normal everyday people.  If you’re one of The Smart Kids, you are out on this crap, right?

BUT!  The fact is that existing manifestations of theistic belief have nothing whatsoever to do with the reasonableness of theistic curiosities.  It may very well be that these individuals who believed strongly enough in God to write the literature were wrong in their writings; maybe they were batshit insane.  But what if those writers were just the sci-fi fanatics of their day?  What if it was all mere speculation on their part?  Should we be so dead set against these unconvincing manuscripts that we completely dismiss any curiosity with regard to the existence of God?

Would this not be something like someone 2,000 years from now saying, “ET life can’t possibly exist; look at how dumb those Star Wars movies were!”

The Smart Kids

Atheism is the domain of The Smart Kids.

Atheists may indulge their curiosity with regard to ET life and multiple reality layers (notions for which no proof one way or another exists) without fear of derision.  They do it all the time.  But if you combine the two and wonder as to the existence of God, then The Smart Kids will consider you an ignoramus.

On this point, have committed atheists arbitrarily stifled their natural curiosity?

Atheists typically highly value open-minded, plausible, rational pursuits of curiosity.  Atheists are welcome to speculate, and even write stories, about ET life and multiple reality layers, stuff for which no proof exists one way or another.  That’s all cool.  You can be curious about these things and you get to stay in The Smart Kids Club.  But if you just take it one step further and wonder whether or not there might be a higher layer of reality, and whether or not someone in that layer wields a lot of control over our layer, namely God, then you get kicked out of The Smart Kids Club.

It may very well be reasonable to dismiss existing religion, manuscripts thought to be divine, and any obligation or fear attached to any of these things.  But does that also mean that mere curiosity as to the existence of God is despicably irrational?

Is the derision related to rational inquiry at all?

Collective Identity vs. Inquiry

Growing up in a Christian household, I was frustrated with the questions that I was not allowed to ask.  Rational inquiry was suppressed with the threat of exile.  There were questions that you weren’t allowed to ask, or even if you did ask them, you weren’t allowed to pursue them diligently.  Questions such as:

How is the Bible inerrant when these passages so clearly contradict themselves?

How is it inspired when it is clearly in error?

How can God know the future perfectly and yet experience so much frustration and anger with what was already known would transpire?  

When I asked these question, people would question my devotion to God.  I was a “doubter”.  I didn’t have enough faith.  If I pushed too hard people would say, “I’m not sure that you’re really a Christian when you ask questions like that.”  The message was that I was not allowed to ask these questions if I was going to be allowed to remain in The Christian Club.

And this makes sense.  Religion, like any other collective group, has to protect its identity.  If they let just anyone call themselves Christian, the idea of “being a Christian” becomes meaningless.

And so I had to drop out of The Christian Club.  I became an atheist.

So atheists correctly note that religious people are more interested in finding a community of like-minded people with whom they identify than in actually seeking truth.  But have atheists themselves managed to escape this same inclination?

What is the atheist’s priority?

It seems that maybe even people who don’t believe in God need a community with which they can identify and engage in fellowship—a community with a doctrinal statement of acceptable beliefs.  A lot of people need this, and that’s fine.  Just don’t call it intellectual.  Don’t call it open-minded.  Don’t call it scientific inquiry.  Call it what it is: collective identity.

As for me, I’m an atheist and I don’t go to church—either the kind with God or without God.

 

    • Mark Wilson
    • January 23rd, 2012 9:22am

    Good thought provoking blog. You mention that we do have an amount of plausibility in the existence of ET life. Even though we have no proof, it seems likely so keeping an open mind and even a hopeful outlook is understandable. However, I am an atheist and I can not believe in an omnipotent, benevolent god of the bible because I find it self refuting and implausible. But if you are to redefine god then I would have to change my claim as well. If god is to be some cosmic energy, well I do believe in energy so I guess I would be a believer. If we discover a different dimension where a powerful entity supremely rules and we call him or it god then Viola’, we discovered god.  But will this being have the same characteristics that theist contribute to “god”? Will it be jealous, will it control the fate of people who don’t worship it? Will it dole out eternal punishment and reward? If not, will we still want to call it god? I think not.  I will try to remain open minded knowing that the future may bring us new realities.

    • D
    • January 23rd, 2012 1:12pm

    The only problem i can see with this ascertain is that we have a current template from which to extrapolate a theory of Extraterrestrial life. That template is our current biosphere and its inhabitants. Since we have actual evidence that shows the existence of other biospheres, predicting eventual proof of life in those spheres in not unreasonable. There is no template from which to predict the existence of an omniscient, omnipresent or omnipotent being. Thus far, all life is mortal, and all life has limitations.

    • Matt
    • January 23rd, 2012 8:20pm

    @Mark Wilson

    Perhaps I have redefined “God”. Traditionally, God is thought to be the one omniscient and omnipotent apex of all existence. Personally, I am curious as to something that may be that, or may be something far less. Like I said, I am merely thinking of an ET life form operating on a different plane of existence. That is nothing but a fusion of existing speculative curiosities that are considered acceptable within the atheist community.

    What the Bible describes does not seem plausible to me at all. I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, in declaring the illegitimacy of any theistic curiosity, it seems to me that we are tossing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Maybe we need a different word than “God”. Maybe that term is too tightly associated with the major monotheistic faiths. There is too much baggage associated with that term. There is so much baggage associated with it that you can’t speak to your own curiosity without encountering eye-rolling.

    • Matt
    • January 23rd, 2012 8:26pm

    @D

    In my mind theistic speculation is merely a fusion of curiosity with regard to ET life and curiosity with regard to higher planes of existence—we are talking about an ET life form that wields power over a lower plane of existence. I cannot see how the atheist community’s tolerance of those two speculative themes does not also require a tolerance for theistic curiosity; to dismiss it seems arbitrary.

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