Monday 17 August 2020

And the Universe Shrugged

Posted by Keith Tidman

It’s not a question of whether humankind will become extinct, but when.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a devastatingly runaway climate; the predations of human beings on ecosystems; an asteroid slamming into Earth; a super-volcano erupting; a thermonuclear conflagration; a global contagion; rogue artificial intelligence; an eventual red-giant sun engulfing us; the pending collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. Nor am I talking about the record of short-lived survival of our forerunners, like the Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo erectus, all of whom slid into extinction after unimpressive spans.

Rather, I’m speaking of cosmic death!

Cosmic death will occur according to standard physics, including cosmology. Because of the accelerating expansion of the universe and the irrepressibility of entropy — the headlong plunge toward evermore disorder and chaos — eventually no new stars will form, and existing stars will burn out. The universe will become uninhabitable long before its actual demise. Eventually a near vacuum will result. Particles that remain will be so unimaginably distanced from one another that they’ll seldom, if ever, interact. This is the ultimate end of the universe, when entropy reaches its maximum or so-called thermodynamic equilibrium, more descriptively dubbed ‘heat death’. There’s no place to duck; spacefaring won’t make a difference. Nowhere in the universe is immune.

Assuredly, heat death will take trillions of years to happen. However, might anyone imagine that the timeframe veils the true metaphysical significance of universal extinction, including the extinction of humans and all other conscious, intelligent life? And does it really make a difference if it’s tens of years or tens of trillions of years? Don’t the same ontological questions about being still searingly pertain, irrespective of timescale? Furthermore, does it really make a difference if this would be the so-called ‘sixth extinction’, or the thousandth, or the millionth, or the billionth? Again, don’t the same questions still pertain? There remains, amidst all this, the reality of finality. The consequences — the upshot of why this actuality matters to us existentially — stay the same, immune to time.

So, to ask ‘what is the meaning of life?’ — that old chestnut from inquiring minds through the millennia — likely becomes moot and even unanswerable, in the face of surefire universal extinction. As we contemplate the wafer-thin slice of time that makes up our eighty-or-so-year lifespans, the question seems to make a bit of sense. That select, very manageable timeframe puts us into our comfort zone; we can assure ourselves of meaning, to a degree. But the cosmological context of cosmic heat death contemptuously renders the question about life’s purpose without an answer; all bets are off. And, in face of cosmic thermodynamic death, it’s easy to shift to another chestnut: why, in light of all this, is there something rather than nothing? All this while we may justifiably stay in awe of the universe’s size and majesty, yet know the timing and inevitability of our own extinction rests deterministically in its hands.

A more suitable question might be whether we were given, evolutionarily, consciousness and higher-order intelligence for a reason, making it possible for us to reflect on and try to make sense of the universe. And where that ‘reason’ for our being might originate: an ethereal source, something intrinsic to the cosmos itself, or other. It’s possible that the answer is simply that humankind is incidental, consigning issues like beginnings to unimportance or even nonsense. After all, if the universe dies, and is itself therefore arguably incidental, we may be incidental, too. Again, the fact that the timeframe is huge is immaterial to these inquiries. Also immaterial is whether there might, hypothetically, be another, follow-on Big Bang. Whereby the cosmological process restarts, to include a set of natural physical laws, the possible evolution of intelligent life, and, let’s not overlook it, entropy all over again.

We compartmentalise our lives, to make sense of the bits and pieces that competitively and sometimes contradictorily impact us daily. And in the case of cosmic death and the extinction of life — ours and everyone else’s possibly dotting the universe — that event’s speck-like remoteness in distant time and the vastness of space understandably mollifies. This, despite the event’s unavoidability and hard-to-fathom, hard-to-internalise conclusiveness, existential warts and all. To include, one might suppose, the end of history, the end of physics, and the end of metaphysics! This end of everything might challenge claims to any singular specialness of our and other species, all jointly riding our home planets to this peculiar end. 

Perhaps we have no choice, in the meantime, to conduct ourselves in ways that reflect our belief systems and acknowledge the institutional tools (sociological, political, spiritual) used to referee those beliefs. As an everyday priority, we’ll surely continue to convert those beliefs into norms, to improve society and the quality of life in concrete, actionable ways. Those norms and institutions enable us to live an orderly existence — one that our minds can plumb and make rational sense of. Even though that may largely be a salve, it may be our best (realistically, only) default behaviour in contending with daily realities, ranging from the humdrum to the spectacular. We tend to practice what’s called ‘manic defence’, whereby people distract themselves by focusing on things other than what causes their anxiety and discomfort.

The alternative — to capitulate, falling back upon self-indulgent nihilism — is untenable, insupportable, and unsustainable. We are, after all, quite a resilient species. And we live every day with comparatively attainable horizons. There remains, moreover, a richness to our existence, when our existence is considered outside of extraordinary universal timeframes. Accordingly, we go on with our lives with optimism, not dwelling on the fact that something existential will eventually happen — our collective whistling past the graveyard, one might say. We seldom, if ever, factor this universal expiry date into our thinking — understandably so. There would be little to gain, on any practical level, in doing otherwise. Cosmic thermodynamic death, after all, doesn’t concern considerations of morality. Cosmic death is an amoral event, devoid of concerns about its rightness or wrongness. It will happen matter of factly.

Meanwhile, might the only response to cosmic extinction — and with it, our extinction — be for the universe and humanity to shrug?


Martin Cohen said...

I'm not quite convinced we need the WHOLE universe to stop existing to reexamine our place within it. I sometimes think all that is needed is to think in earth-terms but move on from human life scales to something more like geologists use. So, we think in terms of the ages of mountains. When the mountains near me - the Pyrenees were built, there weren't any humans. When they disappear there won't be any either. Point is, these peaks have watched over the rise and fall of humanity as hardly a blink. Meanwhile, the snows and rains have changed their shapes, but so incredibly slowly that to those of us here now, there is an illusion of permanence. That illusion, I guess, comes easily to us humans! So we are always unprepared for things to end...

Keith said...

Thank you, Martin, for your interesting perspective on what may be sufficient to ‘reexamine our place within [the universe]’. I agree there are any number of ways to accentuate the remarkable (relative) shortness of our species’ existence. Your mountains make for an effective time-related juxtaposition to human beings — though even they, in the vastly larger scheme of things, will prove ephemerally and humbly incidental. The reason I very deliberately focused on ‘cosmic death’, as opposed to other points of comparison (of which I agree there are many), was the absolute finality and completeness of if it all: no escape, no survivors, no exceptions. Zip! There is, arguably, the absence of ‘no, but what if’. It’s the end of all being as we know it! As a concept, that strikes me as offering us a vast array of complex, existential (and intriguing) metaphysical implications to try to untangle. Cosmologically and philosophically. Including, among all our reflection, what surely must happen to species hubris!

Martin Cohen said...

You will know, Keith, about the theories that there are multiple universes though... and then even if our now is the only one and ends... what's to stop a new one following on? We touch upon issues about existence that are seen in human terms yet maybe do not make sense to be seen that way. The difference between existence and non-existence is not there ultimately. The Ancients saw that, saying everything depended on the other.

Keith said...

As you say, Martin, there are hypotheses about a multiverse rather than just a single universe. (String theory, for example, predicts many parallel versions of space-time, each with its own laws of physics.) All highly speculative. And there are hypotheses about other Big Bangs that might follow our own universe’s demise, perhaps in an ongoing sequence of such events. To the latter point, I happened to give a nod in my essay to that speculation, my saying, ‘there might … be another, follow-on Big Bang’. But mine was deliberately only a nod, the reason being that to me, even if there is to be a follow-on Big Bang, that wouldn’t in any way mitigate our current universe’s projected thermodynamic demise — or our species’ own extinction at some earlier stage in process. In short, even a follow-on Big Bang still leaves this universe and humankind in the same existential pickle. And, more to the crux, still leads to the unavoidably messy metaphysical questions I suggest, in the essay, are deeply consequential in this discussion about extinction — the cosmos’s and ours.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

You write that the alternative -- to carry on in the face of extinction -- 'may largely be a salve'. This assumes the need for a salve.

But why should I make do with a mere salve?

And is the content of the salve important?

Keith said...

To your point, Thomas, I suspect that any ‘need’ for a salve, and what form it takes, depends on the individual. Which includes, to be sure, how a person may choose to define the word ‘salve’ — a term that lends itself to wide-open interpretation and applications — within the context of one’s own life and beliefs.

The need for a salve — with its connotations related to quieting and soothing — is also motivated by how comfortable one already is, or isn’t, with the inferences of humanity’s extinction and the cosmos’s ultimate burnout. And what the ontological implications of these events’ finality are for the arguable illegitimacy of indulgent notions like self-exceptionalism and species hubris.

In short, for some, there’s a need for a salve, or personal balm, to assuage the possible disquiet that may result from what fundamentally matters in pondering this topic of species and cosmic extinction. Aiming to incur reconciliation and peace of mind. For others, there’s not such a need.

As for what that so-called ‘salve’ might be — what you refer to as the ‘content of the salve’ — the possibilities are highly personal and probably many. Some people, in order to recoup a sense of purpose and meaning in life in the face of the realities briefly described in the essay, may turn to religion. Others turn to what the word humanism broadly comprises. Others turn to a personalised ‘philosophy’, even if unassuming. And others, I suspect, may be thrown off by the otherworldliness of all matters connected to the prospect of extinction.

To me, then, the bottom line is that, no, the ‘content of the salve’ is not important. It’s whether it works. Yet, regardless of one’s choice of a salve, assuredly the underlying reality — the ultimate outcome — is existentially the same, anyway.

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