It’s a ten-digit number to be precise which doesn’t seem so large when put like that. If you were told this number represents the number of atoms in your average household dishcloth you might nod, and continue washing the dishes probably giving it no more thought. If on the other hand you were told it’s the number of komodo dragons being introduced to Western Europe this coming weekend your reaction might be somewhat more pronounced.
Money? A lot. Ants in the world? Not a lot. And so on.
This is a tricky one because the normal way to imagine, or at least the way I think about time is on a linear scale so if I said imagine 4.5Billion years I would immediately imagine a long ruler with one end indicating zero and the other end 4.5Billion. That how I would do it anyway but I still wouldn’t know really how long it was. My ruler would be just a normal ruler after all and I know what they look like.
4.5Billion years coincidentally happens to be how old the earth is. The jury’s still out on what was here before then if anything, and for that matter what happened in the early years, but most scientists agree on this age, +/- 50Million years.
According to science we came along about 200,000 years ago, before that we were just apes or some form of ape-fish-bird thingy and dinosaurs arrived 240Million years ago. They survived for 180Million years by the way.
This means that we humans have existed for 0.003% of time the earth has existed and for 1,000x less time than dinosaurs.
And I’ve been here for 0.0000001% of that time.
Imagine, if you will, that time is a road 45 Kilometres long. The last two meters of this imaginary road would represent the time humans have been on earth and I would have existed for half a millimetre.
Depressing huh? I think so.
But there is an alternative to this. It’s a story we all know very well. One where a supernatural being created every living thing on this planet and then created man (and woman) in his own image. He created the earth, the sun, the oceans, the mountains, fish, slugs, midges, spiders, birds, snakes, cats, red wine and Kim Jong-un. He’s also responsible for heaven and hell and pretty everything else in between. He made it all in a week.
In this alternative world the age of the planet is just 75,000 years old. The road I mentioned before is then shortened by 98% and my measly 0.0000001% existence is propelled up to a far more respectable 0.06%.
Suddenly my existence matters, at least a little bit. In my world I don’t know of anything which is 0.0000001% of anything else but 0.06%…well I know what that is at least.
The other huge benefit of this alternative world is after I am gone I get to go to heaven. Not only do I matter a lot more whilst I am here I also get to go to a wonderful place after I have no more use for this flesh and blood shell.
In the first world I described I can’t imagine the timescales science tells us is involved. Over those timescales mountain ranges are created, worn down and created again. Continents move around the planet with surprising ease, Glasgow moves to the equator, New York to Antarctica, Europe joins North America and then leaves again. If the mighty dinosaurs who stomped around the planet for one thousand times longer than us have now been reduced to coal what chance does anything which exists today have of surviving over those timescales?
I much prefer the alternative. Not only is it more comforting, I would much rather spend eternity in a happy place than end up as a fossil fuel, its more tangible. And dare I say believable. If you have a carefree ignorance of factual and evidential holes that is.
The only problem is, and it’s a big one. I don’t believe it. I really really really want to believe it. But I don’t.
So how about an alternative, alternative?
I don’t think this is beyond the realms of human endeavour. To create a third way, one which takes science but removes the hard-jagged edges, lets take an attractive creationist safety net and wrap it around the ungraspable trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth decimal point fetish that is physics.
There are still way too many gaps or guesses in science for it to be totally believable anyway. No one really knows if there was a big bang, its just a theory based on an observation that things are expanding so logically if you reverse the trend there must have been a starting point. But what came before this point? Does anyone really know? No, so why don’t we fill these gaps with some nice theories for once. We can even keep god if we want.
These new theories don’t have to be absurd or so patently false as to make you question everything. I wouldn’t want to be arguing whether or not Mary had managed to circumvent the unbreakable laws of biology or had just found herself in a tricky situation, again. This would undermine everything.
All they would really need to do would be to increase the importance of my 0.0000001% today and give me some reasonable and fairly believable reassurance about my tomorrow. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.
I would do it myself but that would defeat the purpose. I would know it was made up and if this whole silly, somewhat depressing and slightly nihilistic thought exercise has taught me anything at all, whether its at either of the bookends of science or religion or somewhere in between, its that I need to believe in something.
As the late George Michael once said; you gotta have faith.
Maybe, just maybe, he was onto something.