Monday, December 20, 2010

Post Number 3: A Special Place

by Conroy

This is my final post of three that outlines my personal philosophy, or as I've noted in both previous posts, my non-philosophy on man and the universe we inhabit. This post outlines my views about nature and the universe. Links to the first two posts on the nature of man and the purpose of society are provided here:

Post Number 1: The Start
Post Number 2: Smoothed Edges

The greatest achievement of humanity has certainly been our remarkable ability to (1) continually explore and better understand how the universe is composed and how it works, and (2) utilize that knowledge to facilitate the breathtaking explosion of technology. It is the continuous (and accelerating) improvements in technology more than any other human activity that has improved the lives of individual people and buttresses the belief that the future will be even better. Evolving technology, like all other human activities comes with negatives, think pollution or the ability to destroy our society through nuclear apocalypse, but all-in-all, technological development is the great success story of history.

However, what our scientific exploration and higher technology has not been able to solve - and does not seem destined to solve - is the answer to some fundamental questions; including these, which most intrigue me:
  • Where did the universe and everything in it come from?
  • How is the universe evolving and what is its "ultimate" fate?
  • Why is the universe composed of the "stuff" in it?
  • Why is the universe governed by the few physical laws that we've observed?
  • Why did life develop out of this universe?
  • Why are we mortal?

I could list more, but more importantly, I would encourage my readers to explore the current research and breakthroughs and prevailing theories on the following topics that I find deeply fascinating:

The Universe - 
special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, the big bang, the fate of the universe, elementary particles, fundamental forces, entropy, dark energy, and dark matter

Life - 
life, aging (senescence), non-carbon-based life

Humanity -
humans (homo sapiens), brain and mind (consciousness), emotion


So, my research and knowledge (admittedly limited) on these topics has led me to the following conclusions: 

The universe is massive, ancient, and strange. The observable universe, which may only be a fraction of the whole, is about 93 billion light years across. To convert that to human terms, the universe is 54,550,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles across - at least. That's 54 sextillion miles, a number far too great to be conceptualized. It's estimated that there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the (observable) universe, each containing from millions to trillions of stars. The universe exploded out of the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago, again, a span of time that we cannot comprehend. What's more, many models of universal evolution indicate that the universe is in its infancy and will go on to live for hundreds of trillions (or far far more years). To put that in human terms, if the universe lives to be 1 quadrillion years old, a conservative estimate, and we equate that time to 80 human years, the current 13.7 billion year history of the universe equates to less than 10 hours! What's more, this massive, ancient-young universe is full of strange objects, and governed by strange rules. Black holes, pulsars, dark matter and energy, quantum weirdness, and extra dimensions are just some well known examples.

We inhabit this universe, but what we have discovered so far (probably just a tiny fraction of what will be discovered) tells us that reality is almost impossible to even conceive from our common terrestrial experiences.

The universe is almost entirely hostile to human life. For humanity, The Earth is like the Garden of Eden, an oasis where life flourishes and intelligent life has evolved. It is the only place in the universe that we know contains life let alone intelligent life. For humanity, the universe is a cold, empty vacuum, full of forces and particles wholly inimical to life. Imagine human life away from our planet. Its hard to think that it would be anything more than limited to the confines of some spacecraft or station, restricted and dependent for survival on advanced and expensive technologies. No matter the pie-in-the-sky notions of science and science fiction, the only place for man is this planet.

Nature is indifferent to the existence of the individual. On Earth, nature, the natural world, our portion of the universe, is indifferent to any single life. Existence is hazard. My favorite example is human childbirth. For a variety of evolutionary reasons, human children are born helpless and weak, but also large enough to pose a risk to their mother. What could be a better example of hazard than a birth - a new life - causing the death of a mother - the giver of that life? Yet maternal mortality (and infant mortality) were one of the great facts of humanity before the rise of modern medicine. Nature, in its process, cares not whether one life comes into existence or dies.

Mortality is intrinsic to biological life. Perhaps there can be life without death, perhaps there is somewhere in the universe. However, biological life seems to be coded with a termination date. Aging is a fact of life. All beings get old and die. It's this limited time that drives all of human existence. What kind of different world would we have if death wasn't a certainty? What kind of cruelty allows for life, and in the case of humans, consciousness, but requires it to end?

There are no fundamental answers. As we have learned more and more about the universe, peeling layers from the onion, it seems there are as many (or more) mysteries as when our pagan ancestors worshiped the gods of nature. We're no closer to the fundamental answers than we were when we first asked the questions. Consider: Where did the universe come from? What was before the Big Bang? Is there anything outside the universe? What is the universe really, and why? Is there a God?

If there is no greater meaning, or a God, then life is absurd. If in the end the universe grows old and dies in some impossibly distance future, if all knowledge and experience will be lost. If all life is bound to end. Then what is there in the end? Absent something beyond physical existence, human intelligence is just a fleeting trick.


So, to summarize my views, mankind is a product of the evolution of life on Earth. We are designed to meet the exigencies of our existence, which means we are capable of all the good things and bad things that surviving and living with other people requires. We've crafted our society to make our lives (however long they may be) a little easier, by taking the edge off of survival. We live in a universe that is so alien to human existence that it really cannot be understood, no matter how much we learn. I can't say if there is something greater that made the universe and is watching over us, or whether there is an existence for man after death, but if there is not, then all of our lives are absurd and we may as well make the best of it while we're here.

I'll close this series with Shakespeare:

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.

No comments:

Post a Comment