One Among Many

The self in social context

My Collapsing Universe

A conversation with Mario Hamuy, astrophysicist

Fate of the universe
Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.   ~ Thomas Nagel

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Don Draper: I hate to break it to you but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.

Stoner: Man, why did you have to say that?

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In Santiago, Chile, I attended a conference on Humboldt (Alexander von). Astrophysicist Mario Hamuy gave a keynote address on how cosmologists came to their current understanding that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Fifteen years ago, few experts considered this possible. The going hypotheses were: [1] There is enough mass to slow the expansion and ultimately reverse it, leading to a Big Crunch. [2] The rate of expansion is constant. [3] The rate of expansion is slowing without ever reversing to contraction. Hamuy and his team looked at very remote supernovae and found that all three hypotheses are false. The universe expands ever more rapidly. A competing team of astronomers obtained similar results, and so it has become difficult to contest their combined data.

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What did this discovery do to cosmology? Instead of panicking, many cosmologists agreed that they could build a coherent mathematical model if they introduced a cosmological constant, which they pulled out of thin air, or out of even thinner intergalactic vacua. Einstein came up with such a hedge constant to mathematically represent a stable universe; Hamuy et al. now use the same device to model a progressively expanding one. What physical reality might correspond to this cosmological constant – perhaps dark matter or even darker energy – remains to be seen (or, actually, not seen – since this stuff is dark).

Hamuy brilliantly and engagingly told one of the great stories of science, a story which began with Galileo and which is still unfolding. He deflty interwove theoretical with methodological developments, showing how they stimulate each other. Now, with the remote-supernovae data, the ball is in the theorists’ court. If they don’t act fast, the empiricists might add new layers of anomalous observations to the mix. The next generation of monster telescopes is being built.

I accepted Hamuy’s arguments as soon as he presented them. I found it impossible to resist the elegance of his narrative and the evident power of the evidence. Yet, as Hamuy was quick to point out, the evidence regarding the universe’s accelerating expansion is anomalous with regard to the three reasonable and theory-based, but now historical, hypotheses. Forced by the data into being, the new hypothesis awaits a theoretical explanation. The cosmological constant is theoretically empty.

Anomalous evidence should be viewed with caution if it has not been replicated and if it forces us to revise many other deeply held assumptions. For these reasons, I never believed the extravagant claims made by parapsychologists. Hamuy’s observations have been replicated and since I am not a cosmologist, I do not have many deeply held and relevant assumptions ready to be threatened. I do wonder, however, how cosmologists think about the fate of accelerated expansion in the long run. Does not acceleration imply that ultimately galaxies will speed away from one another at the speed of light if not faster?

Two days later, I was sitting across Mario at the dinner table. He asked me what paradigm-changing discoveries psychologists have made recently. I sheepishly conceded that we do not have a master theory, but that at least with respect to the ultimate nature of that which we care about, we are no worse off than physicists or biologists. When pressed, physicists cannot explain what matter is, and biologists cannot explain what life is. In this good company, psychologists cannot explain what consciousness is (even if certain philosophers think they can). Mario – we are now on a first name basis – does not object. We agree that consciousness, and mind more generally, is an emergent property of the brain and its activity. Yet, the chances of fully explaining of how this emergence comes about – in strictly reductionist terms – appear about as remote as the supernovae Mario tracks with his telescopes.

At this point, Mario pulls back to make space for the idea that consciousness-mind-soul might somehow exist in ways not yet understood. Having heard him say that 97 percent of the universe’s matter-energy is dark and immeasurable, I wonder if Mario is suggesting that perhaps consciousness is, in part, involved with this great invisible world. Be that as it may, Mario goes on to say that consciousness-mind is special in the sense that it gives meaning to the universe. This catches my attention because now we were talking metaphysics and psychology. Why would he say such a thing? He knows well that this suggestion – that the meaning of the universe depends on us – is not supportable by evidence or logic. He – and I am sure many others – just feel that this needs to be so.

From a logical point of view, the idea that the universe has no meaning without us is vacuous because it is us who worry about meaning. Once we are out of the picture, the question of meaning cannot even arise. The universe existing and us existing as meaning-craving creatures are co-extensive. To think that a meaningful universe might exist even when there are no conscious creatures makes no sense. It is meaningless. Meaning is a matter of perception and judgment, which requires the existence of someone who does the perceiving and the judging. We can, however, imagine the existence of a meaningless universe of which we meaning-seeking creatures are a part, tragically. Various French philosophers have explored this possibility, but they never became very popular among people who need to get up and go to work in the morning. Even these existentialists – if my naïve reading is correct – who deny intrinsic meaning, insist that we must forge ahead as if there were meaning, and regard Sisyphos as our archetype and anti-hero.

Mario does not stop there. He proposes that the universe would cease to exist if it were not for us to be down here observing it. This seems like a bodacious idea coming from a cosmologist who makes a living observing the heavens. I don’t think Mario is privileging astronomers in a display of unabashed ingroup favoritism. Instead, his proposal is fantastically anthropocentric. For context, consider the run-of-the-mill Judeo-Christian variety of anthropocentrism. This mythology tempers anthropocentrism by placing final authority in the hands of the Almighty. It is god’s will whether the universe does or does not exist. He might as well let the universe grind on without people, as he, according to the text attributed to him, came close to doing a couple of times. According to this anthropocentric tradition, humans are the crown of creation, but they do not have the option of collectively jumping off the cliff and thereby snuffing out the entire cosmos.

The snuff-out option is, however, what Mario’s metaphysical cosmology amounts to. What does this idea imply? What questions does it raise? Who is this collective humanity? What if most of us suddenly died? How many of us must still be around for the universe to continue its existence? If each individual consciousness represents the whole of human consciousness, the universe would exist as long as there was one person under the sun. This one person – it could be Mario, or it could be you – then has the option of cosmocide by suicide. The idea that one might kill oneself and the whole universe with one stroke is strong medicine. Since you might be this one last person, this idea is not only anthropocentric, but also supremely egocentric.

Mario’s version of The world as will and representation must confront the question of whether the world existed before modern humans evolved until they gained consciousness as we understand it today. Mario concedes that the world existed during the Upper Jurassic when dinosaurs but no hominids roamed the plains. If so, we agree that the universe can exist without humans representing it. So why should the universe stop existing when humans are no longer around doing the representing? The way out of this pickle is an auxiliary assumption – a cosmological constant if you will.

Mario thinks that evolution is intrinsically progressive such that conscious beings must emerge at some point. This is an old idea, which will not die. Darwin worked hard to disarm it. In his theory, evolution has no aim, no end state that one might predict. In contrast, Mario is proposing an old version of teleology, the kind that Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, and Christian theologians like. 

The history of evolution is full of cataclysms. The (most likely) meteor-induced mass extinction at the end of the Cretacious is well known and we are currently living through another one. Suppose humans disappeared during one of these extinctions. According to Mario, the universe would end. Evolution would not be allowed to continue to produce another conscious species at some later time. Hence anthropocentrism. Not only are we indispensible to the universe as a conscious species; we are the only possible conscious species ever to hold the fate of the universe in their hands

Solipsism
Horst Nitschak, a professor of the humanities at the University of Chile, observes that Mario’s version of anthropocentrism amounts to solipsism, the view that only one’s own mind exists. I think solipsism was refuted long ago, and I think that it was Bertrand Russell who wondered why it is that solipsists are so eager to convert others to solipsism. I am no friend of solipsism because it entails weird illogic. While it is true that if there is only my mind and everything else is a projection, I cannot prove the existence of other minds, it is not true that if I cannot prove the existence of other minds, other minds do not exist. I wish I were able to tell Mario that psychology has solved the problem of other minds, but I cannot. Now that would be supernova-like discovery.

We can observe the universe because it exists, but it does not follow that if we lose the capacity for observation because we died the universe goes poof. I hate to say it, Mario, but this is a child-like way of thinking. Small children believe they can will people or stuff out of existence by closing their eyes. When she was still small, my younger daughter played hide-and-seek by lying face down on the floor, much to the delight of her older sister, who had mastered the reverse-inference problem.

Moai
The discussion with Mario gave me the opportunity to explore some very popular but false beliefs. Whether Mario himself believes what he said I will never know. He may have been putting me on all along for his own entertainment. This is what we get with the problem of other minds. The photo of the Moai I took in Viña del Mar. Why did I include it? What was I thinking? What were they thinking?

Epílogo

Suppose the universe ceases to exist when you, the last man, kill yourself. How would that work? The image that comes to mind (at least to my solipsistic one) is that of a lightbulb being turned off. The universal lights would go off. In the case of the lightbulb, the death of the bulb and the end of us seeing no more light are virtually the same thing. What, however, if the universe ceased to exist in the sense that all the stars went out? Light would still travel for billions of years to hit no longer existing retinas. That is probably not what Mario and others have in mind when they say the universe ceases to exist. Presumably the idea is that all matter and all energy, light and dark, is gone. This idea does not fit into any astrophysical theory. At present, we have only the Big-Crunch hypothesis of universal collapse, which Mario's data refuted. His own data suggest that the universe might become unbearably thin, perhaps to the point that we can pronounce it dead. If we accepted the idea of a complete instantaneous shift from being to not-being, we have no grounds to reject the idea that the universe came into being full-fledged, without a Big Bang. With or without a Big Bang, I find no way to stake the appearance of the universe with the existence of a conscious intelligence lying outside that universe. This idea can only be proposed by brute assertion, not proof or evidence.

This is just my opinion - as Dennis Miller loved to say - I could be wrong.

Further study

Perhaps you noticed that the disagreement between Mario and me was about the anthropic principle. He favors it; I don't. For more on this debate, the Wikipedia entry is a good start.

If you decide to look into this a bit more, also consider this angle: According to the anthropic principle, the universe is delicately attuned so that life (and consciousness) as we know it could emerge, perhaps had to emerge. You might argue that if we took life (or consciousness) away (by a feat of counterfactual thinking), the universe could not be the universe that we know. That is tautologically true. It is not true, however, that if (or when) we die out as a species in the natural and deterministic way in which the universe unfolds, the universe will disappear. That is the point I tried to impress on Mario (and you).

In this debate, the unit of analysis has been the human species, but what about you, the individual? The same anthropic logic dictates that the universe, finely attuned as it is to produce that which now is, had to produce YOU. If we counterfactually remove you from reality, the universe would not be what it is. THAT universe would cease to exist (although whatever universe would exist instead might still have the same mega-parameters, like the force of gravity and cosmological constant). When you die, however, THIS universe will go on, thank you very much.

En Brève

The argument that the existence of the universe depends on our ability to observe it treats our consciousness as a cause and the existence of the universe as the effect. If we remove the cause, the effect disappears. This separation of cause and effect means that our consciousness is not part of the universe. If it were, we would have to say that the disappearance of consciousness causes the disappearance of consciousness, which is silly. Likewise, why would we want to say that that our consciousness is not part of the natural universe? The only motive for doing so that I can discern is a God-complex.

 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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