Alone in the Universe

Posted by on May 26, 2010 in Thoughts | 12 comments

We live in an imperfect universe, one where the objects that inhabit it are constantly under the strain of outside forces. And while, as was pointed out in the comments from my previous blog, there are moments where systems may work together cooperatively, these systems are just as much under pressure from forces that can easily send these systems out of balance and toward destruction.

Crescent Earth from the Departing Rosetta Spacecraft via apod.nasa.gov

Crescent Earth from the Departing Rosetta Spacecraft via apod.nasa.gov

When we speak of life forms, all have a finite lifespan. We may think of these lifespans as long, as in the case of the quaking aspen of North America , or short as in the case of a fruitfly, but always relative to the lifespan of a human, but in each lifespan, the organism will eventually fall into a lesser state, that of death, decay and entropy. The one thing that is certain in the universe is change and a general trend from the complexity of objects toward a simpler state.

The fact that we always associate the lifespan of an organism (or for that matter, a celestial body) is an indicator of the human perspective, that we will always, at least on an objective level, make our assessments of the universe around us based on the dimensions, perceptions and possible experiences as a human being.

As mankind has evolved our minds and bodies have evolved too to deal with distances we can travel by foot, amounts or units we can count to in our heads, and ideas that we could somehow relate back to the very familiar. When we were unable to explain something, we would try and work out why something was or how something existed. Being creatures who are forever seeking answers, sometimes the wrong answer was better than no answer at all.

So until recently (let’s say the past few thousand years), humans in general have only ever had to deal with what we were already, at some level experienced with. But more recent developments in understanding of the universe have allowed us to see beyond the blue of the sky, and inside the walls of a cell to see what lies beyond.

A lot of denial of the sciences is based around the idea “What are the chances of that?” or “That probability is so low that it could never happen.” I think that is a fair answer, in most cases. Occam’s razor states that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” and is often misunderstood. And many people can use Occam’s razor as an argument against the probability of life forming spontaneously on earth, or against evolution. This is however a misuse of this principle. In actuality, Occam’s razor is meant as a way of keeping things within the realm of the probable and the simple, not to muddy the waters of understanding with the ethereal and the mystical. To say “God did it” is not an explanation at all.

Startrails over Annapurna vie apod.nasa.gov

Startrails over Annapurna vie apod.nasa.gov

To say that the numbers in the probability of life arising spontaneously are so mind boggling, or that the distance to a far off galaxy are too large, are half the problem. Our minds were never evolved to deal with such astronomical figures. We struggle with the concept of “light years” and “nanometres”. We find if difficult to comprehend the complexity of organisms. We can hardly even fathom how far it is to the sun from the earth.

So it is no wonder then that scientific denialists exist. These unfathomable numbers and probabilities seem like fairytales, and therefore seem as falsehoods. It is human nature to disregard what we don’t understand.

But the human species has done a lot of maturing over the past few thousand years, and with the help of advances in communication and technologies, we have managed to accelerate our knowledge of the universe at an exponential rate. These numbers and probabilities now seem to be within our grasp and our comprehension. And with these numbers and these amazing distances come the human realisation of the isolation of earth form our nearest neighbours. It would take just over 200 days for a man to reach Mars with current technology, and between 2 and 6 years to reach Jupiter. And these planets are within our solar system! Imaginations of travelling to distant galaxies are still so far from our grasp as to make it impossible, at least in one human lifetime. It makes the idea of extra-terrestrial intelligence ever visiting us here on earth seem a little absurd.

We are an immense distance from anything “out there”. The idea of humans moving on in the cosmos, to populate space, is still a dream. We are here on this planet, and the more we learn, it is an increasingly improbable and unique planet.

But we have come this far. We have made the most amazing discoveries and breakthroughs in science, technology and medicine. We can now do things that were mere speculation only a decade ago. We can look back over the path that our little plant has travelled, and w can see our follies and triumphs. Our historical prejudices based around which book is the “the true word of God” need to come to an end. We need to use our collective knowledge, our collective histories and thoughts, and move forward. We owe it to ourselves to see where the human journey can lead.

Related reading
Six aspects of denial: the common strategies of anti-science movements

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12 Comments

  1. The have a little bit of a paradox when we think of entropy in relation to the universe. If the universe is infinite, then the rate of entropy, as a whole, must also be…infinite. I don’t agree that we have any proof our planet is improbable or unique at all. What we have is a technical limitation to KNOW whether it is and the physical limitation of the speed of light. And, of course, the limitation of our imagination to conceive of the kind of time/space around us. None of this is, however, any excuse to start bringing deities into the discussion. The universe is really magnificent enough.

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  2. What I was trying to say is that we are so isolated that we may as well be unique, at least in the lifetimes we have as humans. We will likely not live to see the day that we step foot onto Europa or Enceladus, let alone know what lays beyond our solar system, but it sure is cool to know that someone might, one day.

    When I say alone in the universe, it means “alone for all intensive purposes”. And we should act as though we are, or our tendencies will be to destroy this world because we can always move on…

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    • *grammar nazi* “Intents & purposes” :)

      I think our “uniqueness” is about functionality. While I don’t think we are alone in the universe, (to take a quote from Contact, if so that’s a huge waste of space), I think we are FUNCTIONALLY alone.

      Similar to how an agnostic/deist who doesn’t believe in a personal god is functionally an atheist. In their day to day life, they won’t be praying, making sacrifices, or asking for intercessions. From the outside, that person is essentially indistinguishable from an atheist.

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  3. Ah, well. Point taken. Still, I think it is important not to think of ourselves as utterly ‘unique’. It tends to lead to a ‘everything revolves around us’ mindset.

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    • Indeed! I have also thought about that. It’s a tough one, people can either think “We are unique, so what does it matter what we do?” or “We are unique, so we’d better look after ourselves”. I tend to think the latter.

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  4. Ah, I think about this quite a lot! I remember when I first started learning about “outer space” and all the measurements that come with it back in junior high, one of the most striking sensations was that of not being able to wrap my head around what those numbers actually meant. It was like an error message my brain sent my consciousness – “cannot compute!”

    And then on the subject of probability and who and what we are in relation to everything else – this lecture by Krauss who works at my alma mater, ASU, simply blows my mind – don’t know if you’ve seen it before but if not you may enjoy it, Marty! [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ImvlS8PLIo]

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  5. This video below is a PERFECT example of why I wrote this piece. Enjoy.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD9mjwF71sg]
    From “The Atheist Experience”

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    • What, mike1 wasn’t the inspiration? ;)

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    • Wellllll to some degree Yes Mike “of many zeroes” was aslo an inspiration. In faact I see this as the sequel to that post. :D

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  6. I conceed that we can agree to disagree on something that I need to research more anyways. I would like to briefly comment on the idea of faith. Faith is simply blind belief without truth. Even blind belief can sometimes be correct, so it is not so much the belief itself as the general method that the speaker in you tube should be concerned about. I would say that if faith acts like a good mental shortcut that seems to work reliably then go for it. Otherwise you might want to question its validity. As I pointed out in other comments, there are some things for example many christians (now you know my background. please be nice) don’t understand about their own faith because they blindly accepted the interpretations given to the Bible. For example, there is no spirit gohst that leaves the body when we die. The Bible actually makes it clear that a “spirit” can perish, end, cease to exist. Most Christians never get this. It is in fact the resurrection of “this” body that is the second life. You think there is an eternal hell? Well I’m not absolutely sure but it says in the Bible that the unbelievers will “perish”. That does not sound eternal to me. And I think outside of “the book”. If everything is designed, I need only see how it was designed to understand the intent of the designer. He obviously meant for us to experience joy and pain. He obviously meant for us to enjoy beauty. All these assumptions can be made if you assume there is a designer. So I add what I see in nature to the understanding of my faith. I also look at EVERYTHING the Bible says and not just some of it. There were some very shocking things in it that lead me to see my faith in nature instead of just the book, because if those shocking things are true I had better be double sure. I think some things have been lost in translation. Nobody ever said that EVERY Bible was infallible. That was just an assumption on the part of many.

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    • When I talked about perishing of course I was refering to the mistakem belief in hell.
      Anyways. . . I think Ill be leaving now. It was fun talking about creationism, but bringing up my specific faith has boiled the pot. Its impossible to errase stereotypes via argument with a complete stranger. Was a fun chat. See you again maybe someday.

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