Thursday, 10 June 2010

Insignificant Am I

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drug store, but that's just peanuts to space." - Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy)
For a while, it's easy to forget our place in the universe. Last year when I flew overseas, the journey between Hong Kong and Helsinki looked much smaller on the map than it did flying it - even at 900km/h. While dreams of exploring other worlds litter our culture and capture our imaginations, we as a species have gone only as far as the moon. Not to belittle what is a fantastic achievement, landing on a world 380,000km away is 380,000km is monumental!

But to reflect on the achievement, we are in a universe that is some 93,000,000,000 light years in diameter. By contrast, the moon is 1.2 light seconds away. Exploring the planetary part of the solar system has been possible unmanned, but still we're talking light minutes to light hours. By contrast, the nearest star is 4.3 light years away. This in a galaxy of some 400,000,000,000 stars and we're effectively stranded, confined to our own little patch of paradise.

This doesn't gel well with the ideas of human significance. In all our achievements, our grandeur, our ability to reach out and probe the universe for understanding - all this could be wiped out in an instant. Our eternity as a species is but a blink of the eye, the expanding arc of our reach not even a grain of sand moving in an hourglass; rather like a single bacterium on the moving grain.

To illustrate this, consider the following "what if". What if humanity ceased to be? Say tomorrow a virus wiped us all out, what would this mean for the universe? Our planet would keep on orbiting the sun, as would all the other planets. The star we revolve around would continue to orbit along with the other 400,000,000,000 stars our galaxy. The universe wouldn't shed a tear at our absence.

Meanwhile consider the same event from the opposite point of view. What would it mean for us? That all we've ever achieved would be lost, mountains of knowledge wiped out. A modified landscape without anyone there to appreciate what we've done. On an individual level, all our triumphs and tribulations wiped out. All relationships ceased, our loved ones gone.

The relationship we have with the universe couldn't be any more asymmetric. We are part of the universe, a minuscule part, but a part nonetheless. Our existence is entirely dependent on the universe arranging itself in a particular manner, just as stars, planets, and atoms are. But like an atom splitting or a planet falling into a star, the loss of structure has nothing more than localised effects.

Yet when we look around, we see the obvious marks of humanity. Everything from cellular towers to rubbish tips, poodles and houses, even nuclear waste bears our doing. Even beyond generations, the food we eat goes back to our ancestors thousands of years ago, our knowledge an accumulation through time. The necessity of cooked food for our species, a cultural adaptation possibly going back millions of years; as are tools for hunting.

Indeed our species is only alive today because our ancestors reproduced, invested in their children who in turn did the same. Going back at least 3.5 billion years we owe our existence to an unbroken chain of replication / reproduction, by necessity this is true. And before that, the right chemicals and the right process to create life, and a planet for it to be on. And before that stars to make the heavy elements, and before that matter for the stars to form from. So much had to go right for our existence - and it did!

But forego the temptation to invoke fine tuning. The apparent fine tuning comes with our place in the process, our vantage point is one of hindsight reflecting on what has happened. That we exist necessitates particular conditions that allow for our existence, but that doesn't mean the conditions that necessitate our existence are there for our existence.

By the argument of fine tuning, the conditions necessary for our existence can be no more significant than for silverfish or swans or any other life. Every living thing on earth is part of a 3.5 billion year unbroken chain, that we can invoke reason doesn't mean that the ability to reason is anything special. It's anthropomorphising reality!

That the laws of physics facilitate us means that they are for us is no more to the point that since we are made of heavy elements that heavy elements must be made for us. Stars need to exist so we can exist, but stars can exist without our existence. Indeed they have for some 13.7 billion years, in an extraordinary number. There are something like 1023 stars in the observable universe.

We exist as we are because of a process of mutation and selection, iterated perhaps trillions of times. There are no goals in this process, no inevitabilities to our species. That we've emerged is no more significant than ants or frogs. What works gets passed on, we like every other life-form is an accumulation of working (or neutral) changes over time.

Perhaps the universes are the way they are for a reason analogous to the Darwinian reason that explains life in its current state. There are theories suggesting black holes as a source of universe replication, in which case stars and the fusion of heavy elements are but a bi-product of producing black holes. Whether or not this is true, however, bears not on the fact that between us and the laws of physics such a relationship cannot be established.

This may be a frightening outcome to some, but one that must reflect our understanding of the universe. To derive meaning externally cannot be done. Our connection with the universe, however necessary, is tenuous and inevitably futile. While the universe can seem to turn on the will of humanity, our reach doesn't extend beyond our tiny selves. There's nothing to anchor ourselves to externally, just turtles all the way down.
Nevermore - Insignificant:
"And then one day you'll realise
Just a speck in the spectrum
Insignificant, am I?
And then one day you'll realise
The beauty that breaks down
never learns the reason why"

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