The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, March 20, 2016
Philosophy ... Science ... Spirituality ...

Long, long ago, humans trying to find their meaning in the greater order of things could take comfort in the Church-approved notion that the earth was the center of the cosmos. Copernicus and Galileo finally saw through that bit of wishful thinking, but for a few more centuries, the universe still seemed like a relatively cozy place. Only around 80 or 90 years ago did cosmologists figure out that the universe was vastly larger than anything we had previously imagined. The thousands of stars visible in the night sky turned out to only be a fraction of those in our Milky Way galaxy, and our Milky Way turned out to be but one of over one hundred-billion galaxies. And yet, at the same time, the universe turned out to be incredibly empty. All of the amazing things like stars and planets and galaxies were separated by huge, incomprehensible distances.

Our mythological sense of time turned out to be way off the mark too. The Bible deals in hundreds and thousands of years, but the universe turns out to be around 14 billion years old. Human-kind, and even the most elementary forms of life on earth, have occupied but a tiny fraction of that.

So, does the vastness of the cosmos prove that humans are basically meaningless on a universal scale, and that universe is obviously absent of an involved, intelligent and caring creator?

Many modern cosmologists embrace or are generally sympathetic with this viewpoint. For instance, physicist Steven Weinberg
emphasizes human insignificance in his book The First Three Minutes. Here’s a taste of what he says:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning…. It is hard to realize that [life on Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

The ever-popular and media-savvy astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson has also expressed his doubts about finding any special meaning for humankind or for the universe itself. He cites the known scientific facts to argue that the universe is a mess, obviously just a thrown-together set of accidental interactions, devoid of any design or apparent plan. In his own words:

Star formation is completely inefficient. Most places in the universe will kill life instantly—instantly . . . we’re on a one-way, expanding universe as we wind down to oblivion, as the temperature of the universe approaches absolute zero , , , the inner solar system is a shooting gallery. And look how long it took for multicellular life to evolve—3.5 billion years! Obviously not a good design . . . our limited human vision system can only perceive a narrow band of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Anyone who has seen the full breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum will recognize how blind we are . . . we have to eat constantly because we’re warm-blooded. So we’re always looking for food. And what about carbon monoxide? You can’t smell it or taste, but you breath it in and you’re dead.

All of this cosmological pessimism hasn’t gone unnoticed in the fields of literature or philosophy. The “weird fiction” novels of American writer H. P. Lovecraft has inspired a philosophy called “cosmicism”. According to Wikipedia,

The philosophy of cosmicism states that there is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence, and perhaps are just a small species projecting their own mental idolatries onto the vast cosmos. This also suggests that the majority of undiscerning humanity are creatures with the relative significance of insects and plants, when compared to the universe . . .

If you accept all of this wholesale, then be careful the next time you’re outside on a nice evening and the stars and planets and maybe also the moon is shining. You’re bound to get pretty depressed. The scientists have noticed this, and have offered some seemingly-comforting rationales to help you carry on in the face of all this gloomy absurdity. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson himself says:

And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing . . .so here’s what you do . . let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us . . . all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos . . . those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

How nice . . . we’re all part of the universal whole. Ask not for whom the supernova shines and the quasar spins . . .

Another popular physicist, Sean Carroll, has also expressed his doubts about humankind having any special status in the universe, and also offers the consolation that it’s a big whoop just existing in it. In Carroll’s various writings and especially in his recent book “The Big Picture”, Carroll argues that an avalanche of scientific discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning. So, the more scientists that we have and the smarter that we get, the more meaning that we can manufacture. Forget about religion . . . the whole purpose of the universe is obviously to create scientists . . . because they know how to create meaning. (I can understand how a scientist might actually say something like that with a straight face).

Interestingly, some modern historians are attempting to blend the themes of human history together with the vast cosmological perspective which modern science now offers, melding them into a hybrid field called “Big History“. One of the interesting perspectives that Big History has come up with regards the long-term trends regarding flows and concentrations of energy and complexity in the universe. From this perspective, it turns out that humans and human society are pretty special. For whatever reason, the universe started via the Big Bang in a very low state of entropy; the lower the entropy, the higher is the potential to do “work”, to use energy to change things and increase complexity. At least for a while. Eventually, entropy runs down and the level of energy available to do “work” runs down too.

But once again for yet-mysterious reasons, the work-capacity of the universe was used to create stars and then concentrate them into great constellations of galaxies and galaxy clusters. And on the smaller level, the stars and supernovas created the heavy element dusts that allowed the planets to coalesce and find stable arrangements in the shadow of a star. For all the billions and billions of planetary systems that developed around stars, at least one (the planet Earth in our familiar solar system) hit on just the right combination of physical factors so as to allow the eventual evolution of self-reproducing molecular systems. These molecular bundles had not just the capacity to make copies of themselves, but to progressively improve their ability to make such copies.

The net effect of all this was (and is) an incredible concentration of energy flow, at levels unprecedented throughout the history of the universe (save perhaps for the “Big Bang” and hyperinflation event that got it all started). An astronomer named Eric Chaisson has estimated the comparative energy density flow of different entities in the universe, measured as the amount of free energy flowing through a system relative to its mass over a chosen period of time. Chaisson estimates that plant photosynthesis has an energy density flow roughly 1,000 times more than that of a star. The human body on the whole has an energy density flow about 20,000 times more than that of a typical star. And the human brain has an energy density flow 150,000 times that of a typical star.

(Black hole accretion jets also involve a lot of energy flow; but on the other hand, a black hole is extremely massive. Relative to overall weight, humans still manage to concentrate a lot more energy per pound than any violent, x-ray spewing black hole)

If you add in all of the energy that humans redirect from natural sources (such as oil wells, coal deposits, waterfalls) to power their activities (i.e., what we call “civilization”), the density flow is 500,000 times that of a typical star. If we then zoom our focus to energy-hog people in western civilization (like myself), then our brain’s energy density flow could be millions of times larger than a star’s. If you take a look just at some of our gizmos, the energy density flow on an early steam engine as 10,000 times that of a typical star; a modern fighter jet aircraft is 82 million times greater. A modern laptop computer is up at around 280,000 times.

Nowhere else in the natural universe is anything like this going on! But what I think is even more important is the amount and concentration of information that humans are processing. It takes energy and complexity to gather, process, react to and store info. A star sort-of does that; it adopts itself to the chemistry and physics of the stuff from which it coalesced. Some stars have more helium, some more hydrogen, some more heavy elements; through trial and error, stars emerge that have “found out” how to shine forth in their particular environment. But even elementary life is much more information-demanding than a star, and human life is way more information dense. One rough estimate on the amount of information stored in the human body is 150 zettabytes, and the brain can process 11 trillion bits per second. Then throw in what our gizmos store and process . . . just think about what a modern smartphone can do. So throw in all of the other information gathering and accumulation mechanisms that human civilization sets up. By one estimate, the world’s business economy processed 9.57 zettabytes of info back in 2008. Obviously that gets much higher every year. Then add in everything that goes on in the non-profit and governmental sectors. I think that we are talking huge information density, found nowhere else in the universe (except for other planets with intelligent life).

So, humanity is pretty special in the universe after all. In effect, we are like tornadoes of energy and information, information from and about the cosmos. All of that information makes us human . . . it’s who we are. In terms of information flow, we vastly outshine any galaxy, supernova or black-hole quasar.

Well, that’s encouraging !!! So, the universe sets us up as concentration points for its information. In effect, it wants us to do this; in effect, we have a universal mission. But even after we understand this and realize that we do have a special role in the universe, and despite all the information that we inherit in that special role, we are still left with a question — why are we and the universe here in the first place? Why is there something instead of nothing? We have a mission to know many things about the universe, to form a unified picture of it. But what is its point in the first place?

Well . . . to try out a stupid answer . . . the point is realized if any of us “concentration points” have but one good moment, one experience of joy, one sweet taste of life and of being. Neil deGrasse Tyson may gripe about how inefficient the process is. He may ask why did it take an incredibly vast universe and 14 billion years and scads of low entropy and usable energy (4×10^69 joules of mass energy alone; add more for radiation and a lot more for dark energy — although net energy is actually zero, as gravity is in effect a “negative energy” that balances out the other 3 forces, i.e. strong nuclear, electromagnetic, and weak nuclear) just to finally set up, in one tiny corner, a conscious awareness that feels and appreciates a laugh, a smile, a flower, a beautiful sunrise. And, if there are scads of lifeless multiverses out there for every universe like ours, the efficiency rating gets even worse! Well Neil . . . despite all the hurdles, the universe (or multiverse) still did it. So it must have been incredibly important! Despite all of the bad design that Dr. deGrasse Tyson cites, somehow the universe eeked out a smile. What is the minimum efficiency standard for a smile, anyhow?

Speaking of multiverses — I realize that modern physicists have a favored hypothesis that deflates the notion of “purpose” behind a universe where conscious life is created; i.e., the multiverse hypothesis, where quad-zillions of other universes are out there or yet to come. But as far as life goes, these myriad universes are like souffles that went flat. The fact that one universe (or very few) out of all of these found the right conditions for conscious life to emerge is just a random accident. Except . . . except that my point about “meaning” remains the same, with just another handful of zeros thrown into the equations. I.e., even in an incredibly vast multiverse, if just one tiny corner of it somehow produces a smile, then doesn’t the whole caboodle, however huge, then take on meaning?

I know that for every smile, there are many tastes of pain and despair. Obviously, that is also somehow important to the universe. Was it all just a meaningless accident? Or was it a meaning-FUL accident? And if it has meaning, then can we really call it an “accident”?

Admittedly, all of this doesn’t put God back in the throne of the heavens. But it doesn’t eliminate that possibility either. Do we alone create meaning for the universe? No, it seems to me that WE ARE the universe’s meaning (and the universe is OUR MEANING). Without some kind of “meaning” that was baked-in at the instant of the Big Bang and its corresponding big inflationary event, we, along with our potential to create meaning, wouldn’t exist.

Where did that original meaning come from, how did it emerge from the infinite? Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts on that. Every metaphysical “big picture” ultimately needs a “brute fact” to anchor itself with. I personally choose to look at that brute fact in terms of relationship. And I call that ultimate, infinite relationship “God”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:11 pm      

  1. Jim, Your post has quite a few things in it that I never realized and that you point out. For instance: How negative some of the “modern cosmologists” are, seeing the universe as “overwhelmingly hostile” and that the universe is a “mess” for two such negatives. I guess I never realized this negativity, not that I have read that much about any of these scientists. Somehow I think that likely this approach to the universe is an expression more of the attitude of the cosmologists themselves than saying anything about the universe.

    I think you’ve got a really good point about the “amount and concentration of information that humans are processing. Your point is a way of putting the cosmologists’ idea in their own “language” yet you state it in a positive way.

    I would like you to elaborate on the point of “relationship” you make. I do not quite understand how figuring out where the original meaning of the universe came from and how it emerged from the infinite constitutes “relationship”. I like your idea very much, but I’d like some further elaboration of how you see this concept. “Relationship” is an approach to the universe that few scientists take, well, except for maybe de Chardin. (Most people think in terms of “relationship” only with regard to people.) But I don’t think Chardin elaborates on the topic too much. Can’t say I’m thoroughly immersed in Chardin, so I may be wrong. But, it seems to me you are the only one who states this concept as “relationship”, and I’d like further elaboration of your tho’t on this topic; I really like the idea as you state it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 22, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

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