Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Lottery-Winner Theory of Human Behavior (or: Aliens, Atheists & the Environment)

There are two things that are very important to me: atheism, because I have never believed in the existence of the God of the Bible (or any other god), but I do believe that religion is doing more harm than good; and the environment, because it's critical to life, and it's the only one we've got. I've become even more concerned about the environment since having children of my own because even at conservative estimated rates of environmental degredation, my children's children are going to be living on a planet that's in much worse shape than it is today. And that hits a little too close to home.

I like aliens, too. At least the idea of them. They're not necessarily important to me (I spend much more time thinking about atheism and the environment), but the thought of having neighbors somewhere in the universe is at least plausible. With sextillions (yes, that's a real measurement - ten to the twenty-first power) of stars and likely sextillions of planets in the universe, it's not too hard to imagine that at least a handful of them have conditions suitable to life.

Some have tried to estimate how many inhabited planets might be out there. Perhaps the best-known attempt is The Drake Equation:



where



N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate;


and


R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy;


fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets;

ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets;

f is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point;

fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life;

fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space;

L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Early estimates put the total number of civilizations with which we might communicate at 10, though more recent conservative estimates put the number at two. But keep in mind that this is only an estimate of the number of civilizations that might be willing to communicate - it's not an estimate of the number of planets that may harbor some form of life. That figure is likely much higher.

But whether there are two intelligent civilizations in the universe or 200, there is a simple analogy that can be drawn to a common activity here on earth - the lottery.
We, humanity, won the cosmic lottery. (So did every other species on our planet, but I suspect they don't appreciate it quite as much.) When the universe burst into existence, there was a certain chance that life would develop on any given planet. The chance was very small, as is the chance of winning any terrestrial lottery. But we won.
Our behavior since winning this lottery, particularly towards our planet, parallels that of many lottery winners past who squandered their newfound resources and found themselves bankrupt within a relatively short period of time. You can read about a few cases here and here.
What makes this behavior especially dangerous is that the winnings we are squandering aren't cash - they're our planet. And if we destroy our planet, we don't just get to start over with a bad credit rating. We lose. We die. And as far as we know, there aren't any habitable planets within a few light years.
It's frustrating to me that theists seem to have little regard for our environment. But the reason isn't surprising. The Christian Bible says two things in particular that don't bode well for conservation efforts: 1) God created the earth for humans to do with as they please, and 2) The world is going to end one day anyway.
The second statement is the most disturbing, since many evangelical Christians view the degradation of the environment as a biblical sign that the "end time" is approaching. And some argue that hastening the degradation will bring the end time sooner. This is frightening.
As an atheist, I live my life in direct opposition to Pascal's Wager. For those that don't know, Pascal's Wager is a piece of decision theory developed by 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal which determined that it's a better "bet" to believe in God, because the benefits of belief are theoretically infinite (i.e. eternity in heaven), while the benefit of non-belief is nothing (or possibly worse). I prefer to function under the assumption of the Atheist's Wager, which says:

"You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in God. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he may judge you on your merits coupled with your commitments, and not just on whether or not you believed in him."

But it goes beyond that. I'm not personally concerned about getting into heaven. I'm worried about the state of the earth as we leave it for future generations. We should live our lives to make this world the best place possible for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We should assume that the world is not ending soon, but rather that it will be here for thousands, if not millions, of years to come. We can and must choose now whether our descendants are going to live in a cesspool of industrial pollution and greenhouse gases or not. The future is much closer than we think.
The main reason that I want to hitch the atheism wagon to environmentalism is that I believe they both have a bright future with a lot of room to grow. The future of the environment is renewable energy resources. Currently, renewable energy accounts for about 10% of the energy used in the United States. Interestingly, atheists make up about 10% of the population in the United States.
I do believe that both of those figures will increase dramatically during the next couple of decades. The only question is whether or not they will reach a critical mass soon enough to avoid the irreversible destruction of Earth.
Our existence is a test of our intelligence, whether or not God exists. We have two methods of producing energy for this planet: fossil fuels, which are polluting and finite, and renewable sources such as wind and solar power - which are limitless and clean. The fossil fuels were the first that humans figured out how to harness the power of. But it has become clear that the future of these fuels is not much of a future at all.
With that, I again pose the question to theists: Does it make sense that there is a God? If there is, and he created the earth, he was kind enough to give us enough rope to hang ourselves with. If we burn all of the estimated remaining fossil fuels that can be extracted from the ground, we're in a heap of trouble - to the tune of a 15-degree Fahrenheit rise in average global temperature, plus a rise in ocean levels of about 21 feet among other gruesome statistics. If you believe that God created the earth, then you must believe that God created all of the materials that make up the earth. If this is so, then why did God set such an environmental trap while neglecting to tell us about it?
Like evolution, global warming has been happening relatively slowly. The effects of global warming are not yet very pronounced. However, while evolution has occurred over millions of years, global warming will go from start to fatal within 200 to 300 years. The theist and the atheist can argue about evolution forever - but we have no such time luxury when it comes to global warming. So, unless you're absolutely certain about when the world is going to end, I would suggest to theists that they should get serious about environmental preservation. Personally, I think we're going to be here for a while.

1 comment:

Kold_Kadavr_flatliner said...

Fascinating. But, alas, we all will croak. Then what? Nuthin? Nope. Then, comes our General Judgment. Follow our logic, dude --- If you think of it in this perspective, you’ll swiftly come to the conclusion we all have a short time to live: ALL of U.S. will croak at some point in our lifelong demise, thus, our indelible spirit rises-up to meet our Maker - absolutely nuthin we can do bout that: our soul wants to be loved, nourished, enveloped, return-to-her-maker-thing. Jesus doesn't have a sign outside of Heaven saying, 'Those who don't believe? C’est la guerre. C'mon in. Guess I wasn’t as forthright as Marvel Comix'. Be on the pro-LIFE-eration side, don't be on the side which'll swiftly LET/LEAD you down. I’m a small 'peAce-de-resistance' of a Larger Picture: give your soul that final chance. Repent and believe. God bless you with discernment.