Chapter 2: Cosmic Perspectives


What Happens When the Universe Dies?


What does life amount to?  We have tumbled, as though through error, into a universe which by all the evidence was not intended for us.  We cling to a fragment of a grain of sand until such a time as the chill of death shall return us to primal matter. We strut for a tiny moment upon a tiny stage, well knowing that all our aspirations are doomed to ultimate failure and that everything we have achieved will perish with our race, leaving the Universe as though we had never existed.


The words quoted above (Teilhard, 1964, p. 104), and ascribed to Sir James H. Jeans (1877-1946), Cambridge University physicist and another of one of Great Britain’s esteemed “Astronomers Royal”, may vibrate with its overtones of Shakespearean drama. Yet I know of no other statement which so eloquently sums up the human predicament in the face of a universe that Jeans, although he long proposed that the universe was constantly recreating itself, nevertheless described as being “indifferent and even hostile to every kind of life.”

Astronomers and planetary scientists (Sagan, 1982, p. 30) tell us that life began on this planet over 4 billion years ago, and will likely cease to exist in any form after about 4.5 billion years more, when the sun enters its red giant stage (Audouze & Israël, 1988, p. 25) and comes close to swallowing up the earth. Even if subsequent discoveries may suggest that life may have arisen on some other planets elsewhere in this vast universe, this same pattern will most likely repeat itself. Thus Jeans’ prediction of the eventual extinction of the human race is in all probability correct—not withstanding Martin Rees’ dream of our finding a refuge on Mars.

Aside from this grim, even if far-off fate, it is only natural that we humans, even as individuals, should be concerned about what happens to us when we die. After all, if even supposedly “dumb” animals instinctively try to avoid death, what makes us think that we, who can consciously reflect on the inevitability and meaning of our own death, would be any different? Some may think that this concern is childish and egocentric, but without this instinctive fear existing in each one of us as individuals, no species would have survived for long. Besides, along with that concern for our own survival, there is the concern for the survival of all whom we love.

Added to these concerns there has long been another major reason for human beliefs about the possibility of, or even the necessity for, an afterlife.  It has to do with our sense of justice.  It just doesn’t seem right that bad or disreputable people often get away with so much and that good people so often are cheated out of their just rewards in life.  For no matter how convinced we may be that this world could someday be a better place, the truth remains, especially viewed from the perspective of this world only, that life really isn’t very fair, and despite our best efforts, is probably fated to remain that way.  So we naturally look to an afterlife to somehow even up things.

       However, recently a new level of concern has begun to spread throughout the human race, a concern more universal than just our own survival as human beings or even a craving more justice in this world.  It is a question about the survival of life itself on earth—all  life!

       Perhaps it all began with those breath-taking views of “spaceship earth” captured by the Apollo Mission astronauts between 1961 and 1975.  It was only then that we could really begin to get a sense of the fragility of our planet as a haven for life.  With ever more accurate instruments recording changes on the earth’s surface and in its oceans and orbiting satellites detailing alarming and life-threatening changes taking place in the atmosphere, this concern can only be deepened all the more. 

       However, more recent space explorations, like those carried out by the Hubble Space Telescope and its successors, are having a paradoxical effect.  For instead of looking back at the earth, these orbiting telescopes, along with an array of huge new earth-based optical and infrared wave instruments, are stretching our horizon of awareness on a time and distance scale barely imagined even just a few years ago. 

As of  the beginning of 2013, NASA has estimated that 2,740 “exoplanets”, that is, planets outside of our own solar system have been discovered—461 of them “earth-sized” with about ten of them within a “habitable zone”, that is to say, where water can exist.  Calculating from this sample obtained by the orbiting Kepler “photometer”, which has been surveying only 1/400 of the sky since its launch in March 2009, it is now being guessed that there could be at least seventeen billion earth-sized planets within our own Milky Way galaxy!

 Add to this the realization, based on estimates from sample deep space surveys by the Hubble Space Telescope, that (according to the same authority’s website 2008 report) there are “hundreds of billions” of other galaxies in the universe, and it is rapidly becoming impossible to believe that we are alone.  And if this is the case, then we must question whether the universe really has all that much to lose if humanity some day ceases to exist.

Nevertheless, these new discoveries are leading towards an even more unsettling question, one dealing with not just our fate, or of our world, or even of life elsewhere, but of the whole universe. While the estimate of the age of the universe as being about 13.7 billion years old (recently updated to 13.8 billion) is virtually unanimous among cosmologists, the answer to the question of its future longevity may still vary.  However, estimates based on hard science—that is, on observational astronomy and particle physics—indicate that the universe is accelerating in its expansion, apparently to the point that it will eventually be subject to a cosmic “heat-death”—a rather paradoxical term considering that eventually the universe will grow cold and devoid of energy of any sort, that is, it will reach what is described in scientific terms as a state of complete and total entropy. This means, in terms of the second law of thermodynamics, that the final state of the universe will be without any free energy, thus unable to sustain motion or life (Randall, 2011, Chap. 20).

Although there still are a few cosmologists who remain advocates for a steady state or what is termed a “flat universe”, or possibly, as a second best, an oscillating universe consisting of repeated big bangs, the majority scientific opinion, at least so-far, is that the universe as we know it, is eventually doomed. If that is really the case, then the only real argument remaining is when and how. 

Given enough “dark [i.e., unseen] matter”, which is needed to explain the gravitational behavior of the observed universe, it would require about thirty to thirty-five times as much dark matter as visible matter to produce a closed universe that would eventually collapse upon itself in a catastrophic reversal of the big bang (Randall, 2011, Chap. 21).  On the other hand, we have the mysterious effect of “dark energy”, a new variation of Einstein’s “cosmological constant”, that is needed to explain its continued, apparently even accelerated, expansion. Whether that additional force is introduced or not, all the observational data suggests that we live in an “open” universe whose infinite expansion will lead to the eventual loss of all usable energy.  All that will be left are the cold dead remains of stars and assorted leftovers suspended in space.  In any case, life as we know it, according to the laws of physics and biology as we presently understand them, no matter how prolonged the present “stelliferous” or star-bearing era lasts, is all eventually destined to end—even though Richard Pogge at Ohio State University estimates that this could be a thousand trillion years from now!

Having brought up this example of truly astronomical numbers (1,000 x 1,000,000,000 or one “quadrillion”?), this is probably a good time to define what we really mean by the word eternity. Philosophically speaking, in a tradition going back to Plato, and passed on by Augustine and Boethius, eternity, as might be guessed from the initial a in the Latin spelling aeternitas, means apart from or without any time, or as the philosopher Spinoza  put it, “Eternity cannot be defined by time, or have any relationship to it”. However, Spinoza had to admit that “If we look at the common opinion of men, we shall see that they ... confound it with duration” (Ethics, V, Prop. 23 & 43). Hence our loose association of eternity with time-related terms like “ever-lasting” or “forever.”

       A similar, but more serious, confusion consists over what is truly “science”. Here and there one can find some speculation about other “universes” (sic) where our laws of nature, such as Einstein’s conflation of Space-Time, might not apply or where new fresh starts at life might continue on, one after another, forever and ever. However, this sort of speculation, as evidenced in such books as Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design, has been judged by less imaginative—or perhaps we might say, more hard-headed—scientists, such as Eric Chaisson, who rely more on what astronomers can actually detect in their telescopes, as being “science fiction” (Chaisson, 2001, p. 9-10).      

Yet even Chaisson, despite all the observations that indicate that the expansion of the universe is presently accelerating, seems to be persuaded that we can find some kind of cosmic equilibrium, a gap between actual and maximum entropies, as a way around the apparent inevitability that entropy will eventually shut the whole universe down (Chaisson, 2001, p. 28-29).  Such a scenario, which he believes is consistent with information theory, postulates that even as entropy increases, organized, complex arrangements of information or “negentropy” (negative entropy) will also increase, although not at the same rate (Chaisson, 2001, p. 127-132). Others have adopted or coined different terms, such as “syntropy”, “extropy”, or “even “entaxy” to explain the phenomenon of life. What Chaisson seems to be suggesting, or at least hinting, is that what began from apparently nothing will not entirely end that way.  One might even think of this as a secular or even scientific hope for salvation.

Thus it appears that few, even among the more sober-minded scientists, are very keen on admitting anything as threatening as a big bang that might eventually be doomed, one way or another, to turn into a big disappointment, a gigantic flash in the pan of eternity’s dark night. We may have begun as “stardust”—a beguiling idea surely—but otherwise it seems that the scenario predicted by science today is that there will be no repeat of the process and we’re all in danger of ending up as ashes scattered across a cold, dead cinder drifting in space.

Such an outcome could only mean that our sense of meaning itself would become problematic and with it the very foundations of human thinking are being turned upside down.   It used to be that the most fundamental question of philosophy was “Why is there something rather than nothing?”—a question that would seem to lead to belief in a Creator or at least a “prime mover” of some sort, but which busy people could quite conveniently ignore. In his own book on the question, cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss claims that quantum physics can explain everything, and thus that literally speaking, the universe has come from nothing. But is this not an evasion of the fact that the laws assumed by quantum physics are themselves not nothing? Thus, like another scientist, Victor J. Stenger, who (in his website review) complained that the title of Hawking’s book implies that there just might be a “designer” after all, Krauss, in his review of Hawking’s book, complained that Hawking did not go far enough in his invocation of quantum physics.

Yet all this argument about where the universe came from, to my mind, misses the point, at least of this book, which is to ask where the universe is headed. After all, if the universe—which planetary scientist Carl Sagan once assured us in his book on the Cosmos  is “all that there is, or ever was or ever will be” (Sagan, 1982, p.4)—really is  the whole answer, then we have a major problem. Or look at it this way: would an evolution that leads sooner or later to a more or less complete dead-end, a so-called “flat universe”, devoid of all life, really make any sense, at least if we can believe the description or definition of evolution (quoted in the previous chapter) that the evolutionary scientists gave us in Chicago in 1959?

Nevertheless, if we believe, as we do, or even argue, on the basis of that belief, that once the evolution of life began then it ought to continue to advance, then we have a problem. Given the probable fate of the universe and end of its ability to support biological life as we know it, and that time puts a restriction on any form of life, then would not life, if it is to continue to exist, itself have to become something eternal, that is, capable of existing apart from or beyond time? If so, then the only logical way out would be some kind of existence that transcends life as we now experience it.

       Does this argument prove that there must be some kind of life that transcends biological evolution as it has occurred on this planet or possibly elsewhere in the universe?  Not really. All it does is show that the most consistent outcome of evolution within the life-generating limits of the universe calls for its possibility. No more than that. It is only a suggestion to try to make some sense out of evolution as we understand it so far. Such a suggestion or possibility remains problematic, but no more, certainly, than the idea of other universes or a so-called “multiverse”. Or perhaps another way of saying it is that, instead of other universes, there is another dimension to this one, but this other dimension is not something located somewhere else out there in time or in space.  Could not it already be existing instead, in some limited sense, within us, yet at the same time, because it is still in its earliest stages of evolution, just barely evident, a mere hint of a whole new world, a whole new dimension of existence, that is still waiting to be born?


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