Sunday, June 22, 2008

Einstein's coffee

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I love coffee. Dearly. A life without coffee is just a life not worth living. Of course, not everyone everywhere in the world is as pro-coffee as I am – or, at least, as pro-good coffee. On occasion, I am forced to endure the indignity of the highly artificial chemical compound called 'Nescafé'. However, as someone with an instinctive ability to look for silver linings in black clouds, I can admit that Nescafé at least offers its drinkers an ability to appreciate Einstein a little more.

The chemical compound called Nescafé is best appreciated together with the chemical compound called CoffeeMate - an 'edible oil product' designed to take the place of milk. As CoffeeMate never truly dissolves in Nescafé, the resulting chemical swill usually has a layer of white particles sitting on top. Or rather dancing on top - you see, particles suspended in a liquid never stop moving. They constantly travel around, bounce off another one, travel in another direction, etc.

Their complex little tango is usually called 'Brownian Motion', and its importance to physics is one of the discoveries that made Einstein famous in 1905. If there is such a thing in this universe as true randomness, CoffeeMate particles do float on Nescafé in a truly random fashion.

And randomness can be beautiful. It's a concept I'm perfectly comfortable with. Randomness in the universe may result in terrible things sometimes, but it also results in beautiful things. More importantly, randomness happens whether or not we believe in it.

The same year that Einstein published his work on Brownian motion, he also published an equally important work on the transmission of light through space. Work done in this field by Einstein and others took science, and society, away from the classical concept of the 'æther'. What is æther? Essentially, there were several phenomena in the universe that classical scientists couldn't explain. Scientists came to believe that a lot could be explained if you just 'took for granted' that there was a kind of matter in space called 'æther'. Could you see, touch or measure 'æther'? No. Was there any proof - logical or ortherwise - of 'æther'? No. Did it - does it - exist? No, of course not. But a lot of unanswered questions could be answered by just arbitrarily creating an element 'pervasive in the universe' and attributing to it everything that could not otherwise be explained: 'the æther of the gaps', so to speak.

Æther doesn't 'push around' the CoffeeMate particles. Neither does God. There is no 'right' direction for the particles to travel and no 'wrong' directions. CoffeeMate particles swim around without reason, purpose or plan. It's ridiculous to ascribe a moral imperative to their movement and comical to speak of an independent agent directing their movement for reasons we humans can't comprehend. CoffeeMate particles do not 'move in mysterious ways' - they just move. That's the 'way of the universe'; that's your Tao: it is that is. It just is; no rhyme or reason.

When I was in university, I had a friend and roommate named Jason. Jason was a model human being. He liked the odd beer, but he didn't smoke or do drugs. He ran marathons. His body was a 'temple' and he rarely even got a cold. During his 21st year on this earth, doctors understood that cancer had taken over his body and spread to infect almost every organ he had.

Of the trillions of Einstein's photons that pass through our bodies, at any given time there is an indescribably minute chance that one of them will collide with a strand of DNA or RNA in such a fashion that a mutation will come to pass. The photon doesn't understand that it's causing cancer in a human body, nor does it care. It is behaving without moral imperative. It has no purpose, no master plan. When science discarded the concept of æther, they finally started to understand the nature of the universe. When we discard the concept of God, we can do the same.

If we choose to believe that those who get cancer 'deserve it' and that those who avoid cancer 'have earned' it, we participate in a very dangerous game. If we try to ascribe meaning where none exists, we lose our ability to identify meaning where it truly does exist. If we refuse to believe in randomness, we subscribe not only to faulty science but also to faulty ethics. We enter into a ridiculous moral relativism where we can condemn the victims of random mutations as 'being punished by God'. It's easier, of course, for those who don't have cancer to make this statement. In making this statement, of course, they imply that they - people lucky enough not to have suffered the results of a random molecular mutation - are in some way 'favoured' by God. They manage to imply that their lack of cancer is proof of a moral superiority over those unlucky enough to have cancer.

I dare anyone to tell me that such a thought process is anything but cruel, insensitive and inhumane. Using tobacco, saccharine, lead paint and, for all I know, CoffeeMate may be factors that 'increase the odds', but the end result is still random: some people get cancer, some don't. George Burns celebrated his centennial birthday by lighting up one of the cigars he smoked his whole life. Was he morally superior to my 21-year-old roommate? Or just luckier? Anybody who believes in a God who passes judgement on the living needs to examine their own hearts in order to answer that question.

During the process of mourning for a victim of cancer, a hurricane, an earthquake or any of a number of other fates not created by mankind, it's natural - maybe even healthy - for a family to ask 'why?' I'm not cold-hearted. I know that 'this is God's will and it's beyond our power to understand it' is more comforting than 'it was just random chance and it could have happened to anyone'. But I do recognise this as mere rationalisation. People want to believe this because they see randomness as frightening. They like to believe that our lives have meaning and, thus, our deaths should have meaning as well.

But outside of the scope of a mourning family, if someone sitting in comfort in a television studio or in front of a computer thousands of miles away dares to say 'this is God's punishment', they are not trying to give death meaning - they are engaged in intellectual bullying and they are perverting the comforting concept of God to push their own so-called 'moral superiority' over others. They mock those who have died and those who mourn them. They are cruel and inhuman. Even those who condemn the hurricane victims who 'could have escaped' are balancing themselves on a very unstable tightrope. The stubborn resister to evacuation, the helpless baby swept to sea, the lifetime cigarette smoker, the baby born with cancer: all of them are victims of processes that, at their hearts, are random. We have the right to draw different lessons from their different experiences, but we don't have the right to condemn them - any of them. And we don't have the right to sit in the comfort of our own homes and say that the two adult victims I mentioned were being 'punished by God' while the two babies died because 'God moves in mysterious ways'.

There is no æther carrying particles of light through the galaxy, and there is no God giving cancer and sending hurricanes. Until we learn to acknowledge, accept and deal with randomness, we will do nothing more than waste energy attributing meaning where none exists.


tina FCD said...

Sorry, don't have time to read everything here. Just wanted to say, I will be back and added you to my home page so I know when you post a blog. :)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post.

I hope you don't mind that I've posted the following excerpt from a Biology text used by some Christian private schools and homeschools.

...When the AIDS epidemic began, some people said that the disease was God's judgment on the sins of homosexuals and fornicators since they were the primary ones affected by the disease. Many were offended by such an analysis, claiming that it is unreasonably cruel to tell people in pain that they have caused their own disease. Nevertheless, the Bible does teach that diseases that result from sexual impurity are part of God's punishment of sin (Rom. 1:27). Such punishment is in fact evidence of God's grace. It allows the sinner to experience the offensiveness of his sin and points him to the need for a Savior - "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29)...

Bob Jones Publishers, Biology for Christian Schools (pages 779-80)