Friday, January 21, 2005

The End of the World As We Know It

There was an interesting piece on the editorial page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal (sorry, no link):

Billions to trillions of years from now, the stars will have exhausted their nuclear fuel, the oceans will freeze, the sky will become totally dark, and the universe will consist of dead neutron stars, black holes, and nuclear debris. Intelligent life will be huddled next to the dying embers of fading black holds, like the homeless next to small bonfires.
Sounds like pretty bad news. But the author, Michio Kaku, spends the rest of the piece specualting about possible "exit strategies" for intelligent life into other regions of a possible "megaverse," or parallel universes, or higher dimensions, through "worm holes." He even suggests we might just shoot our DNA through a microscopic worm hole using nanobots so we can have them reconstitute us in one of those alternate universes without actually going there ourselves.

Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at CUNY, so I'm going to take it on faith that he's not getting this stuff from watching old episodes of Deep Space Nine on Netflix.

But here's my question for him and his fellow scientists: given your view of things, why worry at all about the fate of intelligent life?

If you're a thoroughgoing materialist -- and I'm assuming that most theoretical physicists are – then "intelligent life" is nothing more than a convenient name we have given to a rather transient set of epiphenomena arising from certain configurations of matter-energy. Those epiphenomena are of no more or less significance than all other epiphenomena arising from other such configurations. They are of absolutely no value whatsoever, since the notion of "value" is itself just another such epiphenomenon – it is not a descriptor of things in themselves.

To follow this argument out to its consequences for the present: why worry about anything, if you hold to this kind of materialism? For example, why be an environmentalist? I'll bet most of my friends in the biology department, who probably hold orthodox, pro-environmentalist views, would agree to the notion that living things are essentially biomechanical automata, which are, in turn, simply epiphenomena of the fundamental forces and particles and their interactions.

But biological epiphenomena are of no more value than the epiphenomena following upon, say, a nuclear holocaust. So why save the snail darter? The fact that they are interesting or beautiful to us is of no real significance, since the concepts of "interest" or "beauty" are entirely parochial.

If the answer is, so we won't die, my response would be, "According to your view of things, the universe is indifferent to our survival, nor is there any more value in us than in any other cosmic debris. You're asking me to contribute to cause which itself just a tiny eddy in the great swirl of quarks and neutrinos. I think I'll just have another martini instead."


chattr said...

I don't see how to track back to you, so I'll post here and on my blog at Insufficient Data For A Meaningful Answer.

Have you read The Last Question by Isaac Asimov?

Joe Guarino said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Your writing is far too good to be confined to the sometimes evanescent impact of cyberspace. As someone who spent far too many years being trained in the various sciences, I do not feel the least bit threatened by your analysis.

Billy Jones said...

I'm reminded of a friend of mine now turned bible thumper-- He works two jobs, scratches, claws, wheels, deals, etc., and has managed to save up a huge nestegg (better than most of us) but he insists that the world is about to come to an end-- maybe tomorrow-- so I ask him, "Why are you putting back all that cash if you think the world will end tomorrow?"

Somehow, the "faith" he claims isn't enough to see him to old age.

Still, I'd like to see us perserve the Earth for the 1000 or so generations we have before the sun goes supernova or someone pulls the plug.