Humans Learn Beliefs

Written by John FitzGerald
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“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson

At the time of this writing, humans are not aware, except by rumor, of any other species capable of making sense of these symbols, or whatever light they shed upon human thinking. Many humans believe that there presently exist other organisms or entities comparable or even superior to humans on other planets in other solar systems. Indeed, many well-respected scientists opine that the odds overwhelmingly favor the existence of other life in the universe.

Since 1985, the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has combed the skies with its, “telescope array,” waiting for a, “man-made,” signal from space. Its website boasts employment of over 150 scientists, educators and support staff who agree with the statement: We believe we are conducting the most profound search in human history — to know our beginnings and our place among the stars.

In 1977, I graduated from high school. That same year, NASA launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft on an interstellar mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Thirty-three years later it is still out there, at the edge of our solar system, farther away from the Sun than is Pluto.

It is, in fact, the farthest human-made object from earth, at 17.4 billion kilometers (10.8 billion miles) from the Sun. It is estimated the craft will reach interstellar space around 2015, and it will be forty thousand more years before it approaches the next planetary system. Who knows if humans will still be here at that time.

From the ground, NASA scientists signal the craft at the speed of light.[1] The signal takes 16 hours, one way, to arrive. On board is a golden record, a phonographic sampler of our culture, including natural sounds, music, images, and spoken greetings in 55 languages.

Carl Sagan, who selected the contents of the phonograph, said, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking suggests that intelligent alien life almost certainly exists, but unlike Sagan, thinks it is a mistake for us to try to contact them. In his view, the outcome of an alien visit, “would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves,” he says, “to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

In May of 2008, the Pope’s astronomer José Gabriel Funes, a Jesuit priest, told L’Osservatore Romano that there would be nothing surprising about the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials. He also said that he believed in the Big Bang theory as the most likely explanation for the origin of the universe, and that evolution is a given. On November 1, 1992, nearly 400 years after the fact, the same Catholic Church finally acknowledged its error in trying Galileo as a heretic in 1633, and sentencing him to life imprisonment for confirming the Copernican theory that the earth circled the sun.[2]

That same year, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, defended the church for burning Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600, saying that though it was a, “sad episode,” the Inquisition was, “motivated by the desire to serve the truth and promote the common good.” Bruno had asserted that the earth was not the center of the universe, but that the center was relative to the observer. The handbook for inquisitors (1578) stated that the purpose of its penalties was not, “for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.”

In all likelihood though, an announcement by SETI that a non-organic signal has been received from outer space would profoundly affect human consciousness. We would not even need to be “visited.” The mere knowledge of the existence of others in the universe intelligent enough to emit a signal we can detect would be life-changing.

Not only would our privileged image in the universe be shattered, but we would literally become earthlings. Everyone on earth would be part of the “home team,” united across national boundaries. It is almost as if the church is preparing for this eventuality, or is it, inevitability?

By definition, a belief cannot be known, you either know a thing, or you believe it, but once a thing is known, it is no longer a belief. No one ever knew the earth was flat, they were only told it, and believed. I don’t believe in “royal blood,” yet there are kings, and while I can see why the kings would favor this concept, I see no reason for others to go along with it.

I also don’t believe one needs to acknowledge non-belief in God in relation to the beliefs of those who do. I am not an infidel or kaffir compared to a Muslim, nor a goyim or gentile compared to a Jew. For the same reason I am not an atheist compared to a Christian, any more than I am amythical for not believing in Zeus, awiccan for not believing in witches, or aspectral for lack of belief in ghosts.

One either chooses to accept unsubstantiated beliefs or one does not. To the extent one does not, we already have a word for it: reasonable. To the extent one does, we have a word too: superstitious.

All belief is instilled. And the reason you believe anything is because you trust in or fail to question the source of instillation. No human is born with any particular belief. Even identical twins raised by the same parents do not, upon reaching the age of personal reflection, necessarily share all the same beliefs.

The definitive source of belief is perception, and though we know mirage and illusion exist, belief in our own senses goes mostly unquestioned. One of the goals of scientific experimentation is to guard against the errors of perception. Memory is the accumulated experience of our senses.

Another preeminent source of belief is reliance on the word of others, which to a certain extent must be trusted if language and social cooperation are to have any utility. Such testimony gains strength according to the fidelity and number of those who support it. Non-evidentiary sources include inferences and coincidences mistaken for causation, such as form the basis for belief in magic; and of course, desire, which focuses attention on what is favorable to it at the exclusion of what is not.

Humans speak about things unseen, including their own internal dialog. And we know humans lie. We know because we lie, and have been lied to.

But even so-called knowledge is subject to revision. If human experience proves anything, it is that nearly all of what we once took for knowledge proved wrong, and was therefore only belief. Yet, in its time, there was no doubt of its infallibility.

For thousands of years, the theory of “spontaneous generation” provided the answer to the question of how life sprung where none had been before. By the time Aristotle wrote History of Animals, he considered it common knowledge that. “some plants self generated,” and some animals sprung, “from parent animals according to their kind, whilst others grow spontaneously and not from kindred stock; and of these instances of spontaneous generation some come from putrefying earth or vegetable matter, as is the case with a number of insects, while others are spontaneously generated in the inside of animals out of the secretions of their several organs.”

Even such thinkers as Newton and Descartes ascribed to this theory. By 1665 Robert Hooke discovered the cell. In 1668 Francesco Redi demonstrated that maggots do not appear in meat when flies are prevented from laying eggs, proving the theory of spontaneous generation false.

The alternative hypothesis was biogenesis –the idea that every living thing comes from a pre-existing thing, or egg. In 1675, van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms, ending the theory that small creatures (like maggots) arose from inanimate matter. In 1861, Louis Pasteur, upon proving that organisms do not spontaneously appear in sterile material was quoted as saying, “Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow struck by this simple experiment.”

In 1871, Darwin addressed the vacuum left by refutation of the theory, suggesting that life may have begun in a, “warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc. present, so that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes,” which is to say, by spontaneous generation. In 1924, Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin in, The Origin of Life, proposed that the spontaneous generation of life theory “disproven” by Pasteur, did in fact occur once, but had since been rendered impossible because earth’s living organisms would now immediately consume any organism spontaneously generated. He suggested a “primeval soup” of organic molecules could be the source of life.

Working independently, British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane arrived at the same conclusion.

In 1952 Stanley Miller and Harold Urey conducted their now famous experiment testing the Oparin/Haldane primordial soup theory on the chemical origins of life. Using a mixture of methane, hydrogen, and ammonia to represent earth’s early atmosphere, boiling water to represent the ocean, and simulated lightning from an electrical spark, they successfully synthesized organic compounds from inorganic materials. Miller reported the soup produced five amino acids, essential molecules to all life, and the building blocks of proteins.

In 2007, scientists revisited the findings using modern techniques, and found more than twenty-five amino acids. All life on earth is produced by combining just twenty amino acids. Still, the question of abiogenesis, or how living things originally arose from non-living material, remains relevant to this day.

Today, for instance, of more than six billion humans on earth,[3] over half believe in the God of Abraham. A third believes in Christ, and a sixth in Allah. Since each of the three religions condemns all but its own adherents, all humans must therefore be doomed.

Humans realize others pray against them, the way two siblings run to a parent each to tattle on the other. So before a battle, opposing factions might pray. And if both pray, the prayers of one must be better than the other, for the request of one is granted only at the others’ expense.

Stripped of their niceties, all such petitions beg that their enemies be disfavored: Let them go extinct, for we are your people, the true believers. Let our prayers be answered rather than the prayers of those who compete against us. Let us be your favorite people.

Thus arises sacrifice. The notion we can do or give something to the object of worship to make our prayer superior. Because when two competitors vie, and both pray and sacrifice and dance, and some have success at the expense of others, it is taken by the devout to mean one of two things: either the prayer of the successful was more deserving – leading to ritual and repetition; or, the successful prayed to the stronger god, leading to conversion of the unsuccessful.

Adherents to such beliefs cannot possibly be questioning their underpinning. Of course, they associate the beliefs with ancient texts they accept as sacred, but the authority of those texts is never examined, though they can be traced back to a culture that adopted them to explain and reinforce what at that time had only recently come into existence – a patriarchal, agricultural economy controlled by a god-appointed elite.

Proof may exist, for example, that supposed favoritism of a sacrifice of meat over vegetables is an indictment by pastoralists against agriculturalists, at a time when agriculturists – the current culture of ninety-nine percent of earth – were expanding their fields into the shepherds’ grazing pastures, represented biblically by Cain killing Abel.

The evidence may show that a Semitic people in Iraq invented our way of life many thousands of years ago. And whatever minor changes we’ve made to the structure remain, superficial as a coat of paint. We may have decorated our own house, but those Semitic people built it.

A long line of extinct humans before us demonstrates that it is the ultimate vanity for Homo sapiens to believe its species represents the pinnacle of success, and that evolution stops with them, or that no other way of life could have existed for the millions of years before one particular culture came to equate its invention with the creation of humanity itself, and a God-given right to rule the earth.

There may be proof that a cooperative way of life existed for hundreds of thousands of years before males came to subjugate females, rendering half the human population subservient to the other.

Evidence may establish that human lineage was once traced through females, who built their own homes, tilled and owned all arable land, invented pottery, weaving, and planting, and were the main providers for their offspring with little or no input from the father.

Surely, there was a time before any human understood the connection between sex and the procreation of offspring, so women were revered as magic, and absent the knowledge of paternity, humans seemed to be born of goddesses.

The fact is that humans co-evolve with environment, the Selector of natural selection, but have, to a great extent, selected themselves, and it is the traits and qualities that females favored which presently exist in males, and vice versa.

It may be that humans are not innate sinners, born flawed, with a built in need to be punished, but are instead born predatory animals with an overriding desire to get their own way, and that desire, sometimes interferes with the absolute right of nature.

All organisms go extinct, and a long history demonstrates that Homo sapiens may be a dead end.

The end of every warrior, philosopher, genius, prophet, savior, or king, no matter how holy, wise, rich, or powerful reveals, that life here is life and death is death from which no human ever returned, and that one’s time on earth need not be intentionally suffered through in favor of reward in an afterlife.

Zealots and politicians have argued since their invention over whose ideas are purer, and it’s time to stop. Our history is one of a continuous people, and the only difference among them is their beliefs, none of which are more human than any other. And perhaps anyone could accept these possibilities if they were other than offended, angry and defensive at so much as the mere suggestion that their sacred beliefs be scrutinized by even themselves.

About the Author:
John FitzGerald is a writer and attorney in Santa Monica, California. He was Editor of the Law Review, and has won several writing awards. His three books of poetry are Spring Water (Turning Point, 2005) Telling Time by the Shadows (Turning Point, 2008), and The Mind (Salmon Poetry, 2011).

Back to issue.

Light travels at 300,000 kilometers, or 186,000 miles per second. It takes about 8.3 minutes for the light of the nearest star, our Sun, to reach Earth. Other stars are so much farther away that the distance is expressed in the amount of time it takes light to travel in one year (as measured on earth – about 10 trillion kilometers or 6 trillion miles). This unit is deemed a light year. The next nearest star to the Sun is a red dwarf in the constellation Centaurus, called Proxima Centauri (from the Latin word proxima, meaning nearest to). Light from that star takes 4.3 years to reach Earth. Our Milky Way Galaxy spans about 100, 000 light years. The light from some of the stars in our galaxy can therefore take tens of thousands of years to reach us. Light from stars in nearby galaxies can take millions of years to reach us. The light from quasars, the farthest objects we can see, left their sources billions of years ago, and is just reaching us now. We are therefore looking back in time when we look at the stars.

[2] In 1543 CE Nicolaus Copernicus published his treatise On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, demonstrating that the motions of the planets we witness from earth could be explained by earth circling the sun, beginning a scientific revolution that would ultimately undermine the geocentric worldview. But Copernicus could not prove his theory, and continued to believe in the celestial spheres first posed in the 6th century BCE by Anaximander, as expounded upon by Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy. Beginning in 1610, Galileo used his telescope to discover the rings of Saturn, and provided support for the heliocentric view through his observations of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. In 1632, he wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which led to his arrest by the Inquisition. It would take another 200 years for the heliocentric model to gain popular acceptance.

[3] I believe, though I have never counted them. Indeed, I believe in the number centillion, though there is nothing in my experience to verify it. And I only believe in the Big Bang, because I cannot know it to be true.

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