Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More of that deep philosophy

Darwin died before we discovered the universe. He figured out the basic idea of how life on earth developed. He knew that the earth was very old by human standards -- far, far older than the biblical story would suggest -- and that life had existed for a very long time before humans came along. That knowledge alone radically altered our place in the world, but it took 20th Century cosmology to completely destroy any idea of the centrality of humanity.

Creationists, obviously, don't just reject Darwin, they reject cosmology as well. I haven't noticed them objecting to the theory that there are billions and billions (and yes, Carl Sagan did to say that) of stars in the galaxy (about 200 billion to be exact) and billions and billions of galaxies in the observable universe, because, well, they can't. Look through the telescope! Those facts alone would seem very much to undermine the belief that humans are important to the creator, but the fundamentalists seem willing to ignore that problem and limit their objections to the claim that the universe is billions of years old, and much older than the earth.

Here is some of what I understand about the cosmologists' universe. By the "universe" they usually mean the observable universe, but there are some vexing metaphysical problems underlying that usage. It is certain that in some sense, the observable universe is not everything that exists, but what does it mean to say that something exists if it can never interact with us in any way?

Here's how we know this: we can only see a radius of a little over 13 billion light years, the distance light has traveled since the origin of our universe in what is misleadingly called the Big Bang. Actually it should be called the Initial Singularity, the IS, but Sky and Telescope wouldn't accept my suggestion for some reason. The expansion of the universe is not limited by the speed of light, because it isn't "going" anywhere. So at the edge of the observable universe, galaxies are actually falling over the horizon -- disappearing from our universe.

From their point of view, it is we who disappear. Every observer in the universe, no matter where they are located, perceives their own location as the center. Got that? It works because the universe is not a sphere, it is a hypersphere. Think of a two dimensional universe consisting of a spherical surface, expanding like a balloon. The galaxies are dots on the balloon. Light rays that appear straight to the flatlanders are actually great circles bending across the surface. So, no matter where your dot is, as you look out you see a circular area, with your dot at the center. We cannot visualize hyperspace, but it works the same way.

So the universe could be infinite in volume. Or maybe not. There is no way to know. But it is finite in time. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of a human lifetime, that is an enormously large finitude. Was the universe created by some sort of intelligence? You know what, it might have been. It could even have been a committee, or a corporation, or a child playing with a toy science kit, or perhaps it was some sort of industrial accident, or a natural disaster, in a predecessor universe. We have absolutely no idea. Maybe we'll get a better idea some day, maybe not.

But whatever the explanation for the creation, it had nothing, and I mean zip, zilch, nada, bupkus, zero, to do with us. We are a minor contaminant in a microscopic layer of slime on a grain of dust on a tiny island in a vast ocean. Less than that. Believe me, that ocean was not created for the sake of that slime.

Is that depressing? Is it terrifying? Not to me. If we are nothing, that means we have no place to go but up. We can become something. We already have, in a way -- we're the creatures whose minds can ecompass the immensity of the universe. Now let's get out there and explore it. What could possibly be more meaningful than that?


RayPublicHealth said...

Do you really support space exploration or did I misunderstand your last paragraph?
Personally I think it's a big waste when we could use all that money for more important things on earth. --Rachel

Anonymous said...

The most powerful influences on earth exist by misleading; and that means everything from religion to cosmology. Mythology is an encapsulation handed down from family to family, and is expected to be defended against every other mythology that it feels threatens by.

Very sadly Cosmology 80 odd years ago went along with the myth that the universe was created, not by an intelligence, but by a Walt Disney character who knew that 'Conservation' had to be included, otherwise all Hell would break loose and the theory would have been more vulnerable.

As observation and common sense has at long last got up and started to question the crazyness of 'singularity/big bang' we can only hope that eventually it will be realised that:- Since light from those most distant galaxies has taken 13 billion years to reach us, and since they will all be shining globally, their light will be shining 13 billion light years into the 'Nonspace' beyond.

Also, since they have been expanding away into the nonspace for 13 billion years, they are not where we see them - they have gone. gone - gone. And so has their light gone beyond by 13 billion light years beyond wherever they are right now.


GenesisContinuous said...

It's about time someone said something here. It reminds me of this crazy debate about dark-matter.

So I reckon it's what's left when you lose your gray-matter.

David - again