Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unicorns on the planet Eris.

In 1930, a 23 year old uneducated farmer from Kansas was somehow given the task of searching for an object in the outer solar system that could adequately explain the perturbations in the orbital path of Uranus. After staring at pictures of dots for nearly a year, this young man discovered the object that was eventually named Pluto. The man's name was Clyde Tombaugh, and he was quite happy to discover something significant enough to garner a scholarship to college.

In the years that followed, the world seemed to develop a weird fascination with what we thought was our littlest brother. Everybody loves to root for the underdog. Everybody loves a Rudy. Further scientific inquiry revealed Pluto's three moons, one of which being so massive relative to Pluto that the pair rotated one another like binary stars. We discovered that Pluto's orbit was more elliptical, and more off-axis from the solar plane than any other planet. Everything was going well for Pluto. A bit of a freak, yes, but clearly the little kid who could. Our small, frail, frozen, cold and desolate lonely outpost of a planet.

It wasn't until 1992 that things got really complicated for Pluto. It was then that we discovered the Kuiper Belt, which is a field of rocks and space debris that stretches from Neptune to far beyond Pluto, and farther away from the sun than we could have even possibly imagined for something still spinning around it. Pluto's ground was shaky, existing in this swarm of rocks,  but we still felt comfortable calling it a planet.

Unfortunately for Pluto, it wasn't long before people started training telescopes on these new found rocks to see what there was to see. What we found were thousands and thousands of rocks of a size similar to Pluto. The bell rung for Pluto in 2005, with the discovery of the object Eris, a spherical hunk of rock about 1.2 times the size of Pluto. Maybe you'll recall slight murmurs about 'Planet X,' well this was it.

And yet Pluto was still standing as a planet. It turns out that no one had really established what the word 'planet' meant. The International Astronomer's Union sat down to figure out a workable definition that would answer the simple question: What is a planet?

And, they came up with several ideas. Hundreds, in fact. The problem with all of these ideas hoping to grow up as definitions was that no matter which way you went with it, you could never get to the number 9. How many planets are there? Well, all of the definitions only had one of two answers: eight, or a couple of thousand. There is no metric that connects Pluto in characteristics to the others planets that a thousand other objects in the Kuiper Belt did not have.The most damaging to Pluto's status was that it didn't clear its own orbit of debris. All of the other things that we call planets have a gravitational field sufficient to pull all the rocks, dust, and space junk down to the planet's surface. Pluto, on the other hand, was the only one of the planets to live in a messy neighborhood indeed.

And so It was decided. The scientific community went with the definition of eight, and Pluto was relegated to 'minor planet' status.

And people went fucking nuts.

New Mexico actually passed legislation saying that within the borders of the state, Pluto was still officially a planet. So did the town of Streater, Illinois...the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh. People feel that Pluto has been taken away from them, and it is unjust, unright, and untrue. We shouting from the rooftops (or, maybe more accurately, mumbling in bars,) Pluto will always be a planet to me.

The thing is though, we couldn't make it work. We tried to keep Pluto as a planet, we really did. But to do so would be going against our understanding of celestial bodies. 'Pluto the Planet' is wishful thinking of the sort that ignores science, reason, and logic in order to make what you want to be true...true.

And, boy, we don't like to slaughter our sacred cows. When we are told we are wrong about things that we know in our heart to be true, the outcome is never pretty. We plug our ears and shut our eyes to the science, and stand with the idea 'Pluto is a Planet' on faith.

We went with 'Pluto is not a Planet' because the only other option was 'there are so many planets of so many different characteristic that the word planet is meaningless. To state this another way: It's "Russell's Teapot," and quite literally. Russell's Teapot, cited frequently by Richard Dawkins, posits that if one were to state that a teapot was orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, you could not prove it wasn't. Well, not only is this true, but also, if Pluto is a planet, than so is the imaginary teapot..quite literally.

We define words, and refine definitions, in order to communicate meaning. If the word 'planet' encompasses every object that exists that is not the sun, then that word no longer holds any descriptive value. It's meaningless.


So, we defined 'planet,' and 'Pluto the Planet' fell out of existence. It makes me wonder what would happen with specific definitions of some other words.

Words like: Soul, God, Heaven, Hell, Faith, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omni-anything, Spirituality, Chi, Eternity, Transformative, Love, Holy, Engram, Evil, Luck, or...Sin.

-Paul Wittmeyer

2 comments:

  1. Hi, I am an atheist concerning the supernatural gods of all religions, but I am quite open to the possibilities they might exist unicorns and super-beings (which would appear to us as gods) somewhere in the multiverse.

    This has to do with infinity: according to cosmic inflation and string theory, there exist an infinite number of universe.

    According to the chaotic movement of matter, each materially possible event is going to happen due to the sample size.

    This is why many scientists accept the existence of Boltmann's brains in some unknown places of the multiverse, that is brain popping out of existence through the chaotic motion of matter, and capable of being aware of their environment.

    Likewise, Brian Green argue in his last book that due to infinity, there is going to be lot of worlds with earths completely identical to ours and copies of ourselves with some variations.

    Owing to those facts, it is quite possible that there exists worlds with unicorns having evolved or even popped out of existence, super-beings like Zeus and Thor and other beings completely transcending our ability to comprehend them.


    This is why I find the unicorn analogy against theism somewhat misguided, since we can not reasonably exclude their existence.


    Against theism, I prefer the following arguments:

    1) biological systems present strong evidence of having been very poorly designed

    2) the human mind is completely dependent on the brain and gets damaged if the brain gets damaged

    3) there exists no free will, human are completely determined by the laws of physic


    There is also one major point where I differ from most atheist: I believe objective morality is an illusion.

    Our moral intuitions are nothing more than gut feelings hardwired by evolution, and now that we know their true nature, we have no reason to take them seriously and act according to them.

    This is why I don't like the moralistic criticism of theism, since I believe moral realism is wrong.

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  2. Anonymous, I appreciate your interest in the multivariate theory of reality implied by quantum physics, your comment on string theory being a little misinformed.

    Even if that were the case,though, there is no evidence that things could jump from one universe (reality) to another.

    I like your arguments against theism but was surprised that you think most atheists accept the idea of objective morality. The intellectual community certainly does not. Philosophers, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and psychologists usually profess a sort of biased moral relativism. We all think our system is best but give lip service to other ways of thinking and feeling. Check out the podcast this weekend:

    http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/reason.

    We will be talking about things which scare us and one of those things will be situational morality. Nazis, Standford, and shocking puppies. When and how those things are right.....

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