Being in the Universe

How do we live in this world that science has imagined for us?

For starters, we live on a spinning rock circling around a mid-sized star that is one of 2-400 billion stars in a mid-sized galaxy. Light can travel around our planet in about 0.13 seconds, but would 100,000 years to travel across our galaxy. The closest neighboring galaxy (the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy) is only 25,000 light years away, but most major galaxies are over 2 million years away. In fact, our galaxy is just one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies in the universe, and our sun is just one of about a septillion (1024) stars. The universe is currently about 46 billion light years across, but we will likely never see all of it because it is only 13.7 billion years old and still expanding. There has not been enough time for light to travel even one-third of the way across the universe. Our planet is about 4.5 billion years old—one-third the age of the universe.

The numbers are just as daunting in the other direction. The vast majority cells, often considered to be the most basic living things, are not visible to our eyes. Our bodies are made up of at least 100 trillion (1014) cells. 90% of these are gut flora, made up of over a thousand species of independent organisms doing much of our metabolic work. An average cell contains about 200 trillion atoms—amounting to about 200 septillion atoms for the entire body (2X1026). If atoms were stars, we would have around 200 universes inside our body. The comparison is not totally absurd, because the universe in our body is just as empty as the universe out there. Each of those atoms is well over 99 percent empty space—and this is only if we imagine that the nucleons have size. If nucleons are made up of quarks which (like electrons and photons) are essentially one dimensional objects that take up no space, then we are virtually empty. And so are the stars and galaxies that make up the universe.

It is one thing to calculate the vast empty spaces. Quite another to understand them. In both directions we really have no idea what we are talking about (well, maybe the mathematicians do, but they still have had little success translating that into a universe we can imagine). On the smaller scale, the fundamental units are impossible to perceive. Subatomic particles sometimes behave like waves, and sometimes like particles. Some people say they are fields. Others depict them as knots in a fabric, or as one-dimensional oscillating strings. If we try to figure out where they are, we can’t see how fast they are going. When we measure how fast they are going, we have no idea where they are. We can only statistically estimate the probability of their turning up within a certain space at a certain time—a statistic that is only meaningful and that only creates solid objects when we have millions and billions of the darn things.

And what does it mean to say the universe in 13.7 billion years old? The speed of light seems like a reliable constant by which to measure distance. That speed does not change relative to how fast we are going (unlike, say, our perception of a flying bird which changes whether we are standing still or in an airplane). But the ‘geometry of space time’ warps around objects of large mass. When you look into a black hole the speed of light slows down. When you look away, it speeds up. Things that move quickly experience time more slowly; and things that move slowly experience time more quickly. A photon will have no experience of time. Yet this is what we use to measure time? What does it mean to quantify the age of the universe when that quantification may have no relevance to substances that make up the universe?

And all of those atoms that make up molecules, cells, bodies and stars of the universe—in other words, that have made up the substance of this account so far—only account for 4% of the entire mass-energy content of the universe. 23% is cold dark matter, and 73% is dark energy. Which seems only like another way of saying that we really have no idea, that our cosmological theories are just wild guesses that have shot wide of the evidence. The incomprehensible numbers are there. Our speculations on them are phantasmagoric.

But what a phantasmagoria it is! Most scientists imagine that the universe began as a point of infinite density and temperature where the current laws of physics did not apply. In the first few seconds after the explosion, matter, energy and the basic laws of physics started to differentiate. Some imagine this universe contains multiple dimensions, at least 11 but possibly as many as 26, most of which are folded up, imperceptible and inhabited by vibrating 1-dimensional strings. Others imagine multiverses that are all the products of different quantum possibilities that were unrealized in this universe—both backwards and forwards in time with nearly infinite permutations. Others have postulated that black holes are the locations of other universes, implying that our universe is just a black hole in yet another universe, and so on and so on. Perhaps all the parts of our universe, or of all the diverse universes, come together in some neurological network that is part of a greater cosmic consciousness—or more likely something else that is entirely incomprehensible to our consciousness. These are the kinds of places where science imagines we live!

Even at more manageable scales of time and space, science leaves us in an ever-changing landscape of uncertain footing. We are just one of a few million species of life on earth (only about 2 million are identified) and of perhaps a few hundred million that have ever existed. The ecosystem we live in is the product of millions of species emerging and changing and going extinct over hundreds of millions of years. Bursts of species production and development often came upon the heels of great disasters. The rise of mammals—and hence us—would never of happened without the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, probably as the result of a huge asteroid impact. In the overall development of the global ecosystem, particular species and organisms are but passing phases; symbiotic parts in a much greater system that exists across time.

Some species develop in competition with others, and some in symbiosis or collaboration with others. Overly-adapted species become narrow and unchanging, susceptible to extinction when their ecosystems change. Successful species can often overproduce and destroy their own ecosystem, undermining their own success. A few increasingly complex species like us are the occasionally produced. But if success is to be measured in diversity of species and length of existence, we primates are losers. The world really belongs to the insects, the fungi and, above all, the bacteria.

Our species has existed on this Earth only 200,000 years: about 0.004444% the age of the planet. We expanded across the planet over the past 70,000 years during a period of enormous climatological swings—changes of 5 to 15 degrees within periods of a couple thousand years. The last 10,000 years of a relatively warm and stable climate is uncommon, but has helped us to flourish even more. The social world as we know it has largely came into being over the past 200 years since the industrial revolution. It has only been in place 0.1% of the entire existence of the human species, hardly a blip. But it has been a significant blip. The human population has increased seven fold to over 7 billion individuals in these two centuries, a rate of expansion far faster than ever before. We are rapidly consuming fuels and minerals that have been residing and brewing in the earth’s crust for millions of years, now depleting them at rates that have not been seen for millions of years. We are also spewing many of these chemicals into the atmosphere and changing the climate—although the warming of the past century is still trivial compared to swings in the past.

Thinking at the scales of science is thinking statistically. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to living in the world that science has imagined for us, because it means thinking in terms of populations and patterns across populations rather than individuals. It is thinking about long term trends; about the likelihood that an electron will be found here and not there; about the tendency of energy to dissipate and of order to decay due to entropy; and about the likelihood of events that may be probable but never inevitable (although, when the sample is large enough, the difference between inevitability and probability becomes vanishingly small). It places humans in much larger contexts that are often beyond our control.

Statistical-type thought includes not only bell curves, probabilities and trends, but power laws, the organization of networks and complex behavior. It is a kind of thought that can show semi-regular patterns but rarely predict specific events. These show regular distributions of large and small events in complex environments; tipping points between disorder and structure; networked conditions in which massive changes in connectivity may have no effect and in which tiny shifts may lead to massive diffusion or cascading failure; patterns that replicate yet always with tiny variations; and complex situations in which all predictions are impossible. Many of these patterns are as applicable to humans as they are to molecules, microbes and sand. Free will or not, when we are considered in large numbers we behave no differently than any other object. The rise and fall of states, stock markets, book sales, journal citations, residential patterns and daily habits, follow these same patterns that shape galaxies, earthquakes, sand hills and the spread of slime molds. Yet individual choices (and chance contingency—the same thing?) may still matter—if they happen to take place in spaces and moments in which cascading failure or the generation of new structures is likely.

These same patterns can create self-organizing systems and emergent behavior. Most forms of organization tend either towards a static stability (think atomic nuclei or rocks) or formless chaos (gas). But at the critical boundary between these two forms—when units interact in the context of a few simple rules or structures—new systems can emerge that are complex, dynamic and self-reproducing. And as these systems themselves begin to interact with each other, some produce new and even more complex systems. Think of quantum particles coming together as atoms, which come together as molecules, to cells, to organisms, to ecosystems, and to human collective learning and self-awareness. At each level, the rules change. To be sure, brains, organisms and ecosystems are ultimately reducible to sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics (i.e., to inconceivability). But we can never explain the behavior of these new emergent systems through resort to atomic physics. We find new patterns of interaction, new rules, new collective behaviors. And yet certain macro-patterns such as power laws, networking and self-organization itself may still hold across several, or even all levels.

Consciousness is perhaps the most challenging of emergent phenomena. The brain is made up of at least 85 billion neurons. Our thoughts and self-awareness are surely reducible to a dance of firing electric charges. But knowing that tells us nothing. The shifting patterns and reorganizations of those firings, the self-referential loops, the creation of abstractions and categories to guide subsequent firings, the constantly imperfect reproduction of memories and concepts are among the many things that have made an understanding of consciousness totally elusive. How can self-awareness be aware of itself? Some scientists try to cordon consciousness off as a trivial epiphenomenon. And much of it may indeed be an unintended artifact of neuronal developments that evolved for other purposes such as throwing rocks, getting laid, collective hunting or bipedalism. But it has taken on a life of its own. Indeed, consciousness has made science possible in the first place: language, memory, learning, reflection, plans for the future, ego, vanity, critical self-awareness, our ability to transform thought into material action, and the incredible feedback cycle of our mind creating the world which then creates or minds and so on.

Some scientists say that if we can understand the evolutionary contexts that created certain behaviors we can better understand moral behavior and make effective policies in the present. But this does not capture the constant change and plasticity of our brains. Neurons change and rewire according to our interactions with the environment. Epigenetic rules create certain structures and rules that may then produce an enormous variety of behaviors and body shapes, depending on how they interacts with other epigenetic rules, with the environment, with our parents, and with social norms. There is a nearly infinite variety of possible outcomes. And yet all those variations only happen within certain constraints—be they genetic, cultural or environmental. An even greater number of possibilities will not happen.

At even more mundane levels—such as the social and material world created by our species over the past 200 years—things are no less incredible and fantastic. We can ride in huge metal tubes that fly in the sky. We are surrounded by an invisible world of radio, television and telephone waves that can, at our mere pleasure and bidding, take form as sound and image in little plastic boxes. We can manipulate atoms (even if we can’t really understand them) into huge bombs and electricity-creating reactors. We can make incredibly complex information channeling machines at microscopic levels. And we continue to poke optimistically into the complexity of our bodies, our food, our environments and our own creations—sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But always with no real idea about where it will lead in the end, despite all the project proposals, grant applications and business plans that we write to claim that we do.

In sum, science has imagined and even begun to create a world beyond our wildest dreams: more amazing than Buddhist hells and Islamic paradises; more inconceivable than Shiva’s cosmic dance and the kalpas; more bizarre than Star Trek or Star Wars; and more miraculous than the unnatural events that take place in our nightly dreams (which are yet another mundane event about which he have almost no comprehension). It is a landscape of inconceivable sizes; of constant flux and incredible stability; of patterned behavior and complex unpredictability; of endless monotony and unimaginable possibilities; of random events and statistical regularities. The scientific vision can even make the most mundane habits of our daily life—smell, riding a bicycle in traffic, thinking about the events of the day, feeling happy, colors—seem utterly mysterious and incomprehensible both in their massive complexity and in our fundamental failure to understand the basic components. Enlightenment, salvation, realization, mystical revelation, understanding, progress, love: they are all trivial in the face of this vision.

Science even gives us a radical vision of death—just dust and decay; the inevitable victory of the second law of thermodynamics as our atoms and energies dissipate into the cosmic soup. The currently popular model for the fate of the universe follows this trajectory to its bitter end. The endless expansion of the universe and dissolution of all matter until lasts for about 1032  years until we have a universe made up of black holes and nothingness. Then, after a much longer time that dwarfs this initial 1032 years, even the black holes will evaporate and all we will have is an endless, sterile universe of incredibly dispersed neutronic matter. The constant production of complexity seems to conflict with the inexorable workings of this entropy. But even complexity is just a way to more rapidly disperse energy. The more complex something it is, the more energy it consumes, the more fragile it is, and the more likely it is to self-destruct and disperse energy more rapidly. That includes us.

If we accept this universal vision of entropy, shouldn’t our aim be to just ignite those warheads and disperse that energy as quickly as possible? Or perhaps a few more generations of stability is necessary so that we can get the ability to blow the whole darn rock to pieces, not just the atmosphere. But even that will barely register at the scale of the universe, the equivalent of brushing off a couple of skin cells. Nature cares little about us, and there is little we can do to catch her attention.

But science neither embraces nor confronts its own inhuman visions. When it turns towards the human condition, it digs in the heels and spews out platitudes of human spirit and the value of human life. It tries to help us live longer, develop sustainability, halt destruction, promote progress, and protect those ephemeral things which we have accumulated over the recent few decades (goals that are not even consistent with each other). It circles the wagons against the inexorability of change and destruction, refuses to face up to our trivial and ephemeral place in the universe, tries to deny its own vision of death, and treats humans as something outside the relentless processes of this phantasmagorical universe. Even science’s self-justifications about the thrill and nobility of understanding are just platitudes to feed our egos and vanity, and our sense of specialness.

It could be argued that this very obsession with self and self-preservation is precisely the proper activity of organisms of our scale that makes natural selection so effective. But natural selection also shows that any incredibly successful species (such as ours) will soon overreach, and that the evolutionary success of particular species has nothing necessarily to do with progress or increasing complexity. And at the same time we still believe that somehow, with our consciousness, we have escaped the laws of nature—that by our concerted action on the world we can evade our natural fate. But even if we accept this obsession with mere self-preservation as the way things are—is this the extent of the meaning or the good life that the scientific vision has wrought for us?

To be sure, this phantasmagoric vision is easy to ignore. I completely forget it every time I talk to my daughter, have sex with my lover, suffer a back spasm, enjoy a good laugh or live in a nightly dream. For better or worse, we live within the pains and pleasures of our curious, fearful, innovative and repetitive consciousness, feelings and sensations. How can we make these daily experiences fit with this vision of this universe that science has created, other than just denying and ignoring it?

We probably can’t do it as individuals. We can surely give it a shot with psychedelic drugs and yogic or spiritual exercises—or maybe even math. These things can give us experiences that at least feel like we have somehow engaged with the boundlessness of the universe. But I suspect that the most significant way forward to better entangle our self-concerns with the nature of the universe can only be undertaken by the species as a whole, by blending ours strongest emergent qualities—our consciousness and our massive collective learning—into new kinds of complex systems. We can take our great collective skill in manipulating the physical world and use it to work on our consciousness. We can go beyond merely manipulating our environment to creating human-technology hybrids, genetic and physical self-modification, biological machines, expanded trans-human networking and greater trans-species symbiosis. In other words, we can develop a consciousness able to change the foundations of its own functioning, and perhaps create new, unimagined ways of being. It will be reckless (from the perspective our local, ego-centric concerns) and who knows where it will end. But not knowing where it will end is the whole point of any emergent system. Perhaps it can help us return vitality to “dark” energy and matter, perceive the constraints of time and space differently, experience those folded dimensions and quantum uncertainty, see the universe as something other than the dualism of matter and energy—and perhaps even learn to stand outside consciousness. Most likely, it will bring us (them? it? those?) face-to-face with some new self-referential mystery that we once again won’t have the faintest idea how to confront.


Posted on November 8, 2012, in Consciousness, My Bad Science, The Big Questions and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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