Random AsidesReligionScience


As a skeptic and an atheist, I don’t believe that God or Zeus or even the flying spaghetti monster (I know, I know… call me a heretic) created the world. I believe that the world was created through a series of random events that were constrained by the fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, weak force, strong force, and any others we haven’t yet discovered) as well as by a few scientific processes (evolution, erosion, plate tectonics) that work to maximize survival and minimize energy. I have a very scientific world view. Yet, there are still times when I feel awe-inspired and feel almost spiritual. For instance, when I am sitting on top of a beautiful mountain at sunset. Sitting there watching the light change minute by minute, I am amazed that our world, created through chances molded by science, can be often be so breathtakingly beautiful.

As a scientist and skeptic, I wonder at times how my own sense of beauty evolved. Perhaps I only consider Earth beautiful because I live here.  Just as my primordial ancestors evolved to breathe oxygen because they lived in an oxygen-rich environment, perhaps they also evolved to appreciate the splendor of the seas and then grew legs and evolved to appreciate the magnificence of the mountains. Perhaps there is some real evolutionary advantage to being able to look out at a beautiful landscape and feel happy, peaceful, awe-inspired. Perhaps the future survivors of nuclear holocaust will find beauty in the burnt-out shells of building, and the survivors of global warming flooding will find endless stretches of water more beautiful than land.

At times, though, I abandon my sense of science and skepticism when looking out at a beautiful sunset . I just enjoy, trying to take everything in before the light fades. For a few minutes, perhaps, I can empty my mind, thinking of nothing. As the light fades, however, I inevitably remember that my time on this planet is very insignificant compared with the overall history of the Earth and of the universe… and then feel guilty, perhaps, for not taking time to watch more sunsets. When darkness falls I am brought back completely into the scientific realm and start pondering, perhaps, why humans did not evolve to become nocturnal…. because night vision would certainly be useful for navigating down a mountain in the dark!


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. "perhaps they also evolved to appreciate…"

    I don't think so, sounds like a very implausible just-so story.

    Far more likely this is a side-effect of other brain functions, or even just a cultural thing.

    Check this video by PZ Myers: http://richarddawkins.net/article,2208,n,n
    Part 1 around 33:50 has some criteria for evolutionary explanations.

    Still, pretty picture though. :)

  2. I already find endless stretches of water more beautiful than land… Do you think it's a throwback, or am I the early stages of at least one branch of the human species evolving in that direction?

  3. Rystefn, thanks — that kind of rings a bell now that you say it. So when I go around turning all the lights off to save electricity, it's actually an instinct toward survival and self-improvement? ;)

    Evelyn, I have to say I am pretty stunned about your disbelief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I bet next you're going to tell us you don't celebrate Festivus!

  4. OK, I know the night vision comment was just a side thought, but it’s been bugging me! :P It really does seem like night vision would have been a useful mutation.

    All I can figure out is that since we’re not nocturnal creatures, our bodies need sleep and night vision would interfere with our overall health by not requiring a certain amount of down time. I know there are studies done that say the advent of the electric light has really screwed with our sleep patterns, and that sleep deprivation causes more health issues than we’re entirely aware of. After having had serious problems with insomnia related to my pregnancies and the births of my kids, I tend to believe it.

    It’s an interesting question though — the long-term benefits of more sleep might contribute to longer life, but night vision does seem like it would have been a desirable trait for much of human history, and one that would have eventually become dominant.

    I’m almost totally useless at night though, so I’m glad it’s not a required trait for survival of the fittest in MY case. ;)

  5. That provokes some very interesting thought. If you are a skeptic, then why is it that you do not remain skeptical of even your own mechanistic view of the universe. Because of the kind of personal research that I do, I have seen and understood some things that many people have yet to observe. It is my opinion that the observation of the universe is the root of existence, an extension of “cogito ergo sum” if you want. I think that I began to appreciate some of the more elegant aspects of the universe by studying Cantor and later the realization of complexity and the limits of human understanding. I am quite sure that there is more going on than the specific range of electromagnetic radiation that can cause an electronic state change in photorhodopsin (what meets the eye). It does not help me to adopt a world view where I am a chain reaction element . It may be possible that this is true and that some day a person will be able to compute and understand 10^30 factorial events per picosecond and tell me the outcome, but I will wait till then to retire myself to the used toaster factory.
    This is why I will reserve my final opinion: quantum uncertainty, quantum indifference, 70 factorial, 10 billion years, 6.022 x 10^23, the potential realization that the universe is infinite, and if the universe is infinite…. when will you or I be able to say that with -certainty-?
    The flying spaghetti monster made me type this.

  6. For some reason I am in a philosophical mood today and so I will impart this little tidbit. If I assume the sum of my existence includes the effect that I have on the universe, these words are part of it and it may never be known what the ultimate outcome of your words or my words in response will produce. If I shine a laser into the vast night, will it find a resting place before it reaches the end of the universe ?
    How many -different- images can be presented by a matrix of 1024×768 dots?
    I personally enjoy experiencing the universe and will continue to do so until my endorphins and oxytocin run out.

  7. Evelyn's reverie moves me in some way I can't easily describe. I am a

    blind person, so sunsets, horizons, distant objects in the sky, etc.,

    have only indirect existence for me. I have to "deduce" them, or take

    them on — — faith. But I do have moments like Evelyn's,

    usually also outdoors, more often at dawn (or pre-dawn) rather than

    evening, involving some stirring of air, sounds of trees, a sense of my

    own breathing, and an imagined cosmic bowl overhead. But when sensation

    passes over to imagination, and it fails, I find myself firmly planted

    on the ground again. The moment passes, and I begin to think about

    getting my bearings again, recovering those little landmarks of

    orientation that I put aside a moment before, but which I now need to

    anchor myself. The cosmos is too big to be satisfying, but it's nice

    to know it's there. Or at least I THINK it is there.

  8. My understanding is that humans do have passable night vision is general if they don’t burn it out with stupidly bright indoor lighting or wandering about in the open on those days when the sun is stupidly bright (all too common here in Texas). Even if you have done all that as often as most people, most people haven’t really lost their night vision, so much as neglected to use it. Special forces teams and such “train” their eyes to see relatively well in the dark, for example.

  9. How many -different- images can be presented by a matrix of 1024×768 dots?
    1024*768*n, where n is the possible variations of color within a given dot. On a typical monitor, n = 256^3, giving you 13,194,139,533,312 possible images.

    If I shine a laser into the vast night, will it find a resting place before it reaches the end of the universe?

    Carbonco: We provide solutions.

  10. Carbon:
    It is early in the morning but I will ask the question another way. If I have an array of 32 dots that are black or white, how many numbers can be represented by them(different images)? The answer is 2^32. If there are 786432 dots with only two colors then it would seem it would be 2^786432 unique combinations :)
    That seems to make my calculator growl at me. That alone comes out to 1 followed by 236,739 zeros :) I will count them and see if I missed one. lol It is way too early in the morning for me to deal with virtual infinities.

  11. *sigh* Evelyn, I miss living near the beach.

    Carbon, your math is wrong and Paul's (in his most recent post) is right…..if you want to verify this with a smaller number of dots and colors, try three dots and two colors. You could have









    do you get 2^3, or 8, unique combinations. The number Paul's musing about is going to be really big!! I won't take the fun out of it any more than that.

    Of course, Paul, you're just waxing rhapsodic in your first comment since you know how to calculate the number and just don't want to bother to do it. ;)

  12. smudge, you have discovered my laziness. I also enjoy the beach and the sea. I enjoy watching the dolphins. I think they are laughing at the people with boats as they can swim circles around them powered only by fish and the boats are getting about 1 mile to the gallon of concentrated hydrocarbons. Smudge, thank you for the verification. Evelyn, I have conferred with the "Holy Dark" of the "Flying Spaghetti Monster", and it seems that you assume that all measurable facts to predict the outcome of a state are present in the universe at any given time. Your resignation to the inevitable is self referential and recursive. Douglas Hofstadter had some great ideas on that in GEB and as a programmer I have formed some opinions. My favorite self-referential is one I created, however someone else could have made a duplicate invention of it. "All thing are possible." Which refers to itself. Thus if all things are possible,… The fact that not all things are possible is one of those possibilities. ..This is disproof by contradiction, I presume, but maybe someone can help me. I am still a little confused as I didn't think I would be required to look at and solve that virtual infinity. It always makes me a little confused when I look there. GNU (GNU is Not Unix). Recursion expands to actual infinities. I had better quit now as my tail seems to stay the same distance from me no matter how fast I chase it and I am getting tired.

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