Other Essays

Playing God

Background

In the wake of recent human cloning breakthroughs, religious leaders all over the world have condemned the research. Why? No one will say. It is presumed "evil" to clone human embryos, even for the noble purpose of fighting disease. George W. Bush used his bully pulpit to condemn the idea, which is hardly surprising given his religious leanings. He seized upon the fact that the embryos are being cloned in the hopes of harvesting stem cells from them for medical purposes, saying that it's wrong to "create life just to destroy it" (Good one, George! So when are you going to outlaw all agriculture?). The Vatican, which has made an institution out of fighting progress, naturally condemned the action as well, citing the usual concerns that it goes against the will of God (Oh really! Then why doesn't God simply make it impossible? Why does he need a guy in a funny white hat to explain his wishes to us?). Prominent US senators and congressman were elbowing one another aside to condemn it in the harshest possible language (one even used the phrase "mad scientists"), and my own blithering idiot Prime Minister promptly called for a total ban on such research, without even attempting to justify it.

Even many Christian moderates chimed in, saying that it's wrong to "play God". But why is it wrong to play God? Why don't we have the right? Can anyone explain? It's not enough to simply say "we don't have the right to play God", without explaining why not. It's not enough to simply say something is "wrong" without explaining what's wrong with it. Will it hurt anyone? Will it harm mankind? Will it violate anyone's rights? No one has any answer to these questions, yet they join together in condemning that for which they cannot even form a coherent criticism.

Warning: I feel fairly strongly about a field of research with such great life-saving and life-enhancing potential being suppressed by the forces of religious reactionism. If you are the sort of person who is likely to be offended by a very blunt assessment of Biblical science, then you might want to stop right here.

Are We Smarter Than God?

In the Book of Job, God laid out a series of challenges for Job (speaking with his usual Booming Voice™), to show how he was not worthy of questioning his motives. For Job, these questions were unanswerable. But for us, thanks to science, we can answer them all. Let us look at those questions, and then ask ourselves again whether we have the right to play God by virtue of surpassing his knowledge. I say "yes".

Job 38:4-7: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"

Amusing, isn't it? God thinks that the Earth has a "cornerstone" and "footings", whereas we know today that it is spherical with no cornerstone or "footings", and that under the crust lies molten mantle, not a "foundation". The "solid" Earth is but a skin floating atop a liquid mass. He also makes a second preposterous claim, saying that he stretched a "measuring line" across the Earth. Such a line would give slightly different measurements depending on where he put it (the Earth is not quite a perfect sphere). Moreover, all materials have finite elasticity, which would create a large measurement error in a line of sufficient length to encircle the planet. Our own measurements of the Earth's dimensions are superior to whatever he might have achieved with a "measuring line". He loses out on both of these claims, and the score so far is Mankind 2, God 0.

Job 38:8-11: "Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, `This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'?"

God tries to take credit for setting the boundaries of the sea, whereas today we know that the sea is simply limited by the total amount of water on Earth and the irregularity of its surface. Mankind 3, God 0.

Job 38:12-15: "Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it? The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment. The wicked are denied their light, and their upraised arm is broken."

God tries to take credit for "ordering" the morning to occur, whereas today we know it is a simple consequence of the Earth's rotation about its axis, requiring no explicit orders whatsoever (really, are we supposed to believe that God has to issue a separate work order for each morning? Is this procedure documented under ISO 9001?). Mankind 4, God 0.

Job 38:16: "Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?

This time, God challenges us to go to the "springs of the sea" or walk in the "recesses of the deep". However, we know today that the sea requires no springs (beneath the crust is molten lava, not a deep reservoir of water), and that it exists simply as the storage basin of the Earth's water supply. Moreover, we have sent deep sea vehicles and deep sea divers to the bottom of the ocean, so we have walked in the recesses of the deep. Two more challenges met: Mankind 6, God 0.

Job 38:17: "Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?""

God challenges us to find the gates of death, but we know today that death is merely the cessation of certain biological processes. There are no "gates". Mankind 7, God 0.

Job 38:18-21: "Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this. "What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings? Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!"

God challenges us to find the places where light and darkness live. Of course, we know today that light does not "live" anywhere, nor does it come out from its hiding place in order to brighten our world. It is merely a particular range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, and it is produced by various natural processes. Moreover, anyone with a flashlight can generate light, and better yet, we have generated forms of light which God has never generated anywhere, such as laser beams. And finally, we know that darkness is merely the relative absence of light, so it requires no "place" either. That's three more counts (light, lasers, and darkness) on which we've got God beaten. Mankind 10, God 0.

Job 38:22-23: "Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle?"

Laughable, isn't it? Now he's saying he keeps hail and snow in "storehouses" as a war reserve! Of course, we know today that they are simple weather phenomena, generated by low temperatures and atmospheric moisture saturation limits. Mankind 11, God 0.

Job 38:24: "What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?"

God's laughable misinterpretations of meteorological phenomena are revealed yet again (Omniscient? I think not! This guy knows less than the blonde weather bimbo on channel 3!). There is no "place" where lightning is "dispersed", nor is there a "place" where the east winds are sourced. Lightning is the natural result of a buildup of static voltage potential between the ground and the clouds, and any high school science teacher worth his salt can generate electrical arcs easily with low-cost equipment. As for the "east winds", this is yet another Biblical claim that only makes sense if the Earth is flat, since it implies an Eastern boundary to the Earth (which, as we all know, cannot exist since you can keep going east forever on a sphere). Two more of God's challenges met, two more of God's laughably ignorant claims debunked. Mankind 13, God 0.

Job 38:25-27: "Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no man lives, a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?

Hmmm ... God challenges us to say who cuts a channel to irrigate a desert and make it sprout with grass. Can you say "Las Vegas?" Sure you can! Hell, the Romans had running water and irrigation 2000 years ago. Mankind 14, God 0.

Job 38:28: "Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew?"

Two more questions, two more easy answers. Rain has no father, since it's the simple result of saturated air cooling down and the moisture precipitating out as a result. Dew also has no father, since it's the simple result of condensation. Two more questions which betray staggering ignorance on his part. Mankind 16, God 0.

Job 38:29-30: "From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?"

Hmmm ... could it be that snow comes from atmospheric precipitation, just like rain? Gee, what a tough question. Mankind 17, God 0.

Job 38:31-32: "Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs?"

Yet another meaningless question. The constellations are vast collections of stars, not the mythical symbols we've chosen to assign to them. Orion has no "cords" holding it in place, the constellations exist regardless of season, and neither the Bear or its cubs are being "led" anywhere. Their motion is dictated by simple momentum, not God's instructions. Yet again, God tries to take credit for phenomena which we now understand to be perfectly natural and much different than what he described. Mankind 18, God 0.

Job 38:33: "Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up dominion over the earth?"

Yes, we know the laws of physics (maybe not all of them yet, but certainly far more of them than God, who thinks hail and snow come from "storehouses"). And yes, we can and have set up dominion over the Earth. I don't see anybody kicking us out of here any time soon, and if it happens, it will be something mundane and non-miraculous such as the evolution of a new strain of extremely virulent bacteria or an unfortunate asteroid impact. Mankind 20, God 0.

Job 38:34 "Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?"

We can do better than raising our voice to the clouds; we can fly far over them. I've seen the tops of clouds myself, and it's no big deal. As for covering ourselves with floods of water, we redirect rivers. We build artificial lakes using giant dams. We can shut down waterfalls to a relative trickle, and use them to generate electricity. Mankind 21, God 0.

Job 38:35: "Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, `Here we are'?"

Ah, so now God has to send lightning bolts on their way? And that "way" just happens to coincide with the path of least electrical resistance to the ground every time? How much of this laughable nonsense are we supposed to tolerate? Worse yet, we are now told that lightning bolts actually report to God before being launched! What do they say? Is there a form to fill out? How does a static electrical discharge fill out a report? Honestly, to a modern man, God's challenge in the Book of Job is more of a joke than a serious challenge. Mankind 22, God 0.

Job 38:36: "Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind?"

God repeats the common Biblica-era misconception that emotion and wisdom come from the heart, whereas we know today that the heart merely pumps blood and that all thought, emotive or not, comes from the brain. Mankind 23, God 0.

Job 38:37-38: "Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?"

Now God claims he has the "wisdom" to count the clouds. I can only imagine that "wisdom" in God's lexicon is actually his term for "stupidity", since only an idiot would attempt to count a phenomenon such as clouds, whose number is constantly changing. Or does God expect us to believe that there are a fixed number of clouds in the atmosphere? Worse yet, he claims that rain comes from the "water jars of the heavens" rather than a simple precipitation process. Wow, there are great big jars up there? Curious that we can't see them with our high-powered telescopes, space-based observation platforms, or high-altitude aircraft. Maybe God's just an idiot, because these last two claims are the kind that only an idiot could make. Mankind 25, God 0.

Job 38:39-40: "Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket? Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?"

Hmmm ... could it be that these animals forage for their own food? I don't recall seeing food materializing out of nowhere or falling from the heavens to satisfy these animals when they're in distress. In fact, the only time predatory animals are given food without having to take it by force is when we give it to them. We, as in mankind, not God. Mankind 26, God 0.

Thus endeth the entirety of Job 38. The following chapters (which I refrain from similarly analyzing simply because it would become boring, if it hasn't already) contain similar challenges, all of which are either easy to meet or laughable in conception. In Job 38, God issued a series of challenges designed to prove his superiority and thereby, his inherent right to unquestioned rule. Today, we can answer those challenges, and go one better: we can show, through the wording of those challenges, that the Biblical God has the scientific knowledge of a child.

Conclusion

Do we have the "right" to play God? Based on our ability to surpass God's challenges in the Book of Job and then show him up for the intellectual pygmy that he is, the answer can only be "yes". We certainly have as much right to play God as someone who thinks that hail is kept in a storehouse in case of war!

The reality is that we play God all the time, and we've been doing it for centuries. We breed and feed both plants and animals simply so that we can kill them, wrap them in plastic, and sell them in the grocery store. We manufacture wholly unnatural strains of vegetable, fruit, and animal which are more convenient for our purposes, such as seedless grapes, horses and dogs with all manner of specialized characteristics, turkeys so fat and stupid that they drown in heavy rain, etc. We split one atom in two, and fuse two atoms into one. We redirect rivers, create lakes, change natural geography, alter the environment. We launch technological devices into the heavens, we plant our flag on the Moon (that wasn't an archangel's footprint up there!), we generate artificial lightning so we can play with it or show it to our children, we make our own snow at will (ever seen a snow-making machine?), and we do a host of other things that used to be reserved for the assorted deities of the primitive world. Is this immoral? Only if it's done in a negligent manner, but playing God, in and of itself, is something we do quite regularly, and we should not be ashamed of it.

If you think it's wrong to play God, then don't be a hypocrite and go picket the nearest farm. Otherwise, shut up and get with the program. The world has enough problems without religious reactionaries who want to fight science when it stands at the brink of a breakthrough in the treatment of disease.


Last updated: November 28, 2001


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