Sunday, March 27, 2011

Scientific Cosmology and Eschatology (27 March 2011)

"One does not have to be especially spiritual to experience awe at the infinity of galaxies we can see in the night sky.  Our human consciousness does not merely make possible the question Why?  It insists that the question be asked.  The urge to know is a defining feature of humanity: to know about the past; to understand the present; to glimpse what the future may hold.  ... The night sky is full of unanswered questions.” (389-340)
- Richard Leakey  Origins Reconsidered (1992)

Meditating on the Universe and this planet from the perspective of a scientifically grounded cosmology, I often center down and reflect on the nature of life itself.  Understanding Life requires an existential hermeneutic; it requires poetic reflection upon what is known and what is hoped for, what is dreamt and what is already proven.   Life arises out of the processes set in motion at the Big Bang.  It has come into being on this planet as a logical though not necessary consequence of the various particulars of the dust & gases that were available when our sun began to coalesce coming together and then, as planetary bodies – perhaps dozens of them in the early days of our solar system – began forming, either being blown out of existence by collisions with other bodies being formed or else being drawn into the creation of larger bodies through gravitational attraction.  Soon after our planet came into being, the potential for life must have existed as a matrix in its material systems.  Life did not have to happen.  Yet it did, and in that becoming many wondrous beings have come into existence and then passed away again into extinction, over and over, down across the eons of time since the genesis of life on Earth some 3.8 billion years ago.
When I meditate on my life as a manifestation of this great web of being & becoming that has been evolved by natural forces on this planet, I stagger in amazement!  There are billions of people on this planet; each one of us a manifestation of Nature.  I am a ‘child’ of Nature.  You are, too.  We are Here.  Yet Nature is not just here for us.  When I think of life like this, I’m given over to both spiritual and philosophical wonder.  What are the implications of life in such a universe as science now describes?  How are we to grapple with our own existential horizons, and what meaning can be gleaned from understanding the processes of cosmological formation and extinction?  I’m fascinated with the scientific understanding of the cosmos!  That science has come to the place where it can posit both a beginning and an end to the universe means that it has finally reached the point where it can rival religions for an explanation of our being here; for existence as we experience it.
Most religions posit a beginning and an end to the cosmos.  In the Christian tradition there is the account of “Genesis” and various accounts of “the end of the world” as laid out in its scriptures.  While I used to live within those mythological bounds, I now find myself much more at-home in the Cosmos as constructed by scientific observation, experimentation and explanation.  It is within the scientific understanding of the Cosmos, its beginning and end, that I now live and breath and have my being.   My own spiritual horizons have shifted significantly in the last few years, as a result of this shift from a mythological to a scientific cosmology.  I’ve gone deeper, spiritually and existentially, than I ever have before.  Both the beginning and the end of all that is or ever shall be is being revealed by scientific inquiry and the empirical exploration of the cosmos.
There is much to meditate on in the scientific story of the universe.  Most people are aware of the Big Bang as the cosmic beginning,  However, astronomical observations have also revealed various major events in the future of our planet, our solar system and our galaxy.  To contemplate these ‘eschatological’ events is a profound exercise in the spiritual tradition of ‘reflections on our mortality.’  Like monks meditating on the fact of their death and consequently seeking the ‘place’ of their own ‘resurrection,’ I find myself desiring to participate imaginatively in the cosmic adventure of “finding a new home” where humankind can go to expand its existence.  Will we go to Mars?  Will we create great ‘ships’ in space where humanity can survive?  Will we terra-form one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn or Neptune, taking a dead world and making it into something habitable by our species and by other creatures; plants and animals – that we would need to sustain life on another world?  While such a future seems improbable, it may be necessary, if we are going to survive the fate of our planet.  Eventually our Sun will age and become a Red Giant.  At that point, it will grow large enough to engulf the Earth_ making life here impossible.  Facts like this constitute the stuff of a naturalistic 'eschatology' -- a study of 'Last Things.'
While my own end will come long before such a ‘cosmic’ event as the end of our planet in a solar holocaust, meditation on this fact contributes to my sense of finiteness in a way that parallels the effect that meditating on the Christian version of the end of the world had when I was grounded in Christian mythology.  I will end, with my own death; and everyone else alive on the planet today will also eventually die, and then their descendants will die, too.  But beyond even that mortal horizon, our planet itself will not go on for ever.  If that were not enough, the Andromeda galaxy – our nearest neighbor in the cosmos – is on a collision course with our home galaxy; the Milky Way.  The two will start to ‘interact’ between 3 and 5 billion years from now, bringing an end to ‘the galaxy as we know it.’  If we are still around by that distant time, unforeseen experiences may await our descendants.  There are also closer threats at hand.  There are comets and asteroids with which to avoid collision.  Then, as we fly in the galactic arm of stars in which we are held by gravitational forces (or is it dark matter and dark energy?), we may be on a near-miss or even collision course with black holes that we can’t yet see and won’t see until we get close enough to them that they “become active” and start eating the outer planets and then our own world.  Our solar system makes one complete circumnavigation around the center of the galaxy about every 225 million years, so the last time we were near our current position was in the middle of the Age of the Dinosaurs!  As we’ve made some 16 to 18 trips around the Galaxy since our planet formed, it is likely that a lot of the cosmic dangers have already been experienced.  Still_ there may be unknown dangers lurking.  Everything comes to an end; even planets, stars and galaxies.  If that doesn’t constitute a ‘meditation on our mortality,’ I don’t know what would!
As I reflect on the cosmic origins and expansion of the universe, I am also struck by the fact that everything is in flux; everything is in motion – even things that appear to be ‘stationary' are actually moving, as the Earth is moving, the solar system is moving within our galaxy and the galaxy is also moving!  The universe itself is expanding.  Newton was right; Aristotle was wrong.  Movement is the natural state of things in the universe, not stasis.  _And in a similar sense this applies to life on our planet as much as to the ‘heavenly’ bodies.  One of the defining characteristics of life is that living things ‘move.’  Life is ‘animated.’   This motion is relative.  Sponges, for instance, do not seem to ‘move’ much at the macro level; but when you peer into them with a microscope, their internal workings become evident!  They are feeding, removing waste, fighting off intruders and reproducing.   I am moving right now_ typing these words.  All living things ‘move.’  In another sense, our species is ‘on the move.’  Our ancestors left Africa in waves and colonized every habitable continent.  We have, today, populated the planet to what may be ‘the groaning point,’ and many people imagine that a movement away from our planet is the next logical step in our evolution as a species.  Whether this is possible or not is the subject of much scientific investigation, science fiction and ordinary speculation.  What would it be like to live on another planet?  _To live in space on a ‘star ship’ or on a constructed ‘world’ like a huge space station?
When I consider the scientific understanding of cosmic genesis and eschatology, I am reminded just how urgently humanity’s vision needs broadened by a cosmic education.  I am struck by how far we have to go, and I often don’t feel in the least proud of ‘how far we have come’ since the beginning of the modern scientific age, though the ‘progress’ is certainly genuine.   There are still so many people lost in outmoded forms of superstition; who are easily deceived by charlatans of every ilk; religious, political and secular—pop-gurus of every possible persuasion.  Education in the United States has come to be more and more chained to what people already believe; “you can’t teach that to my kids_ because its not what we believe!”  _This prejudice has put a stranglehold on general education in America and is threatening to undermine higher education.  There are so many ways in which we have not yet outgrown the ‘tribal’ mentality that was once a survival tactic, but which now leads to wars and threatens us all with extermination at our own hands.  I wonder_ Will we ever get off our own planet and go to dwell on other worlds in humane and sustainable ways; ones that won’t just transplant all of our imperfections from here to there?.  How can we get our act together so that we can do what will ensure the humane survival of our species?  'Survival at any cost’ is not what we should be aspiring to_  We need a new philosophy; one that will enable us to let go of our faults and avoid the fate that seems to be waiting for us if we don’t soon change course.

The universe is a huge and wondrous place, filled with great and awesome danger, beauty and sublimity.  There is enough out there – as well as right here at home on Earth – to inspire us to change our minds, mend our hearts, and begin to think of life in ‘bigger’ terms; to get over our parochial biases and prejudices, if we would be let it inspire us.  After immersing myself in scientific cosmology for well over a decade, I now think in cosmological terms when I think about spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.  “Nature” isn’t confined to this planet!  Ecology must be broadened to begin to take into account the possibility of our eventual migration ‘off-world.’  In the future, we will need to become “cosmic naturalists” or perhaps “trans-planetary ecologists.”  As a spiritual species, we need to consider the problems that will be involved in making some other planet our home, and to do it before we get out there.  Yet I realize that the chances of our survival as a species are slim_ even given our great ingenuity and intelligence and our ability – instilled in us by evolution – to adapt readily to new environments.
Thinking about terra-forming other planets, I once had an engaging conversation with a friend about the “shake and bake colonization” of Mars (mentioned in a television program about 10 years ago called Hyperspace hosted by Sam Neill) and how rarely we see this kind of thing portrayed in sci-fi shows.  My friend said that “they always portray life on Mars in static ways, in atmosphere suits and bubble cities.”  We noted the exceptions, but they were few.  When I thought about why this might be, I suggested that perhaps to think about transforming Mars or some earth-like Moon of another planet into a more habitable place for our kind, the writers would have to face the possibility of evolution (Oh dear, the ‘E’ word!) happening elsewhere in the universe.  Perhaps the portrayal of Mars and other planets in static ways hides a subtle underlying bias against evolution?
What if we introduce life on other planets as part of a terra-forming effort; assuming that was an ethically accepable course to take?  What if we introduce plants and animals in controlled environments – in ‘bio-domes’ – while we ‘shake and bake’ a planet the make it habitable?  If possible, what would happen once we introduced those plants and animals into the new planetary environment (after probably hundreds of years of terra-forming)?  The only logical outcome of such an experiment would be evolution!  Any life that we would introduce on Mars, for instance, or any other world, would evolve in time to become better adapted to environments and the forces of Nature as manifest on that planet!  As any environment we might create on another planet will never be exactly like the environments life has inhabited on Earth – consider the gravitational differences, just for instance? – there’s no way any species would remain static!  Over even a few generations they would likely change, as selection pressures would be high!  People living on Mars over a period of possibly a dozen or so generations would also adapt.  Once whole generations are born on Mars – or on some other world – natural selection would influence the survival of individuals and of groups.  What would evolve?!?  How would the descendants of the original Martians – perhaps several thousands of years down the temporal road – be different from their human cousins still living on Earth?  And then it’s startling to have to think that if we colonize Mars – or even some Moon in our solar system – we will eventually also have to leave that planet and move on, because of the aging of our Sun.

I find these kinds of questions spiritually as well as philosophically fascinating!  They raise my sights above the immediate and the ordinary, and I find their influence to be transformative.  I’ve never slept the same since discovering the parameters of the current scientific understanding of the universe; I dream differently!  So much beauty, so much sublimity, and so much to reflect on with deep spiritual passion.  What is our place in this cosmos, as we now understand it?  We are nothing more nor less than enticed observers and revelers with a vested interest in understanding what goes so far beyond us that it leaves us breathless.  Yet our very existence depends upon knowing all we can about our cosmic neighborhood and eventually finding a way to eventually leave our Eden-like home.  Will we rise to this challenge?

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