What Is and What Might Have Been

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis E2: We cannot take the nature of the laws of physics for granted.
One cannot take the existence and nature of the laws of physics (and hence of chemistry) as unquestionable in cosmology—which seems to be the usual habit in biological discussions on the origin and evolution of life.  This is in stark contrast to the rest of science, where we are content to take the existence and nature of the laws describing the fundamental behaviour of matter as given and unchangeable.  Cosmological investigation is interested in the properties of hypothetical universes with different physical behaviour.  Consideration of ‘what might have been’ is a useful cosmological speculation that may help throw light on what actually is; this is a statement of the usefulness of ‘Gedanken experiments‘ in cosmology.

Practical science, engineering, and technology are prescriptive.  If we do a, we know from experience that b will occur.  Using the laws of physics, we can predict the location of the Moon as a function of time, put a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, or build a light bulb that will illuminate.  Though we may be curious, we are not required to know why or how these laws exist—or how they might have been different—only that they do work, time and time again.

Cosmology, though firmly rooted in science, is different.  We are passive observers in a very large and very old universe, and there is no absolute guarantee that the laws of physics that work for us so well in the here and now apply to all places and at all times.  We must attempt to understand the laws of physics in a larger context that does involve some well-reasoned and reasonable speculation.

“Not only does God … play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” – Stephen Hawking

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” – Brian Greene

In politics, governance, sociology, and philosophy, too, I would submit to you that consideration of “what might have been” is useful in helping us to understand what actually is.  Such reflection, en masse, might even lead to substantive change.

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?  We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.  Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?” – Tony Judt

Getting back to cosmology, however, for the moment…

Indeed if one wants to investigate issues such as why life exists in the universe, consideration of this larger framework—in essence, a hypothetical ensemble of universes with many varied properties—is essential (this is of course not the same as assuming an ensemble of such universes actually exists).  However, we need to be very cautious about using any claimed statistics of universes in such a hypothetical ensemble of all possible or all conceivable universes.  This is usually not well defined, and in any case is only relevant to physical processes if either the ensemble actually exists, rather than being a hypothetical one, or if it is the outcome of processes that produce well-defined probabilities—an untestable proposal.  We can learn from such considerations the nature of possible alternatives, but not necessarily the probability with which they might occur (if that concept has any real meaning).

It is easy to imagine a universe without life.  But we obviously do not live in such a universe.  There may be other universes devoid of life.

For the more thoughtful among us, it is easy to imagine a civilization without war, guns, violence, extrinsic suffering1 caused by others, or deprivation.  Obviously, we do not live in such a society.  But how can we say it is impossible, or even improbable?  It would be easy to find many millions of people in the world even today that would never fight in a war, would never own or use a gun, who would never resort to violence, who would never cause others to suffer, and who would make eliminating deprivation and poverty a top priority.  The question for the scientists is: what is wrong with the rest of us?

1Extrinsic suffering is suffering caused by others or circumstances completely outside of one’s control.  Intrinsic suffering, on the other hand, is self-inflicted—through our own failings, poor judgement, or mistakes that we make.

Growing Older

As we grow older,
That which is older grows upon us.
Time accelerates,
And the world seems a smaller place.

The years go by like months,
The months go by like weeks,
The weeks go by like days,
The days go by like hours,
And the hours go by like minutes.

And our world which in our youth was all that we knew
Slowly reveals itself to be a surprisingly alien place,
Full of centuries of hard work, unlikely events, and compromise:
The world could be a very different (and better) place,
Even within the confines of human nature.

Taken to its natural conclusion
Were we each to live for millennia, perhaps longer
We would find eternity in an instant
And infinity at the door.

David Oesper

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Dark Sky Community Prospectus

  1. Rationale
    1. A small community (hereafter referred to as a dark sky community) can thrive without the need for streetlights or any other dusk-to-dawn lighting
    2. A dark sky community would appeal to people who value the night sky and a natural nighttime environment
    3. It will probably be many years before the majority of people will accept life without dusk-to-dawn outdoor lighting
    4. A dark sky community must be located far enough away from neighboring communities and other significant light sources that the night sky and nighttime environment will not be adversely affected, either now or in the foreseeable future
    5. It is better to live in community than in isolation
  2. Community Attributes
    1. A dark sky community should be multi-generational, but since rural employment options are limited, moving to a dark sky community may be easier for retired or semi-retired folks
    2. A dark sky community should be affordable, with a variety of housing options (units that can be rented, for example)
    3. An observatory commons area should be developed for observing and include more than one observatory for use by members of the community
    4. The dark sky community should engage in an ambitious educational outreach program, including the operation of an astronomy resort and astro-tourism business
    5. The business end of the community should be a nonprofit corporation or cooperative that operates the astronomy resort and rental properties
    6. The community should share resources as much as possible, freeing residents from the financial burden of having to individually own everything they need or use
    7. The dark sky community should engage in an ambitious program of collaborative astronomical research and data collection, working collaboratively within the community and with amateur and professional astronomers outside the community
  3. Community Location
    1. The most affordable option would be to “convert” an existing rural subdivision or small town into a dark sky community, current residents willing, of course!
    2. The best location for a dark sky community would be within, or adjacent to, a protected natural area such as a state or national park
    3. Recognizing that there would be distinct advantages in siting a dark sky community reasonably close to a town or city with medical facilities, it would be best (for astronomical reasons) for the dark sky community to be located southeast or southwest of the larger community
  4. Philosophy
    1. In an age of technological wonders such as digital imaging, computer-controlled telescopes, remote observing, and space astronomy, we recognize that there is still value in the experience of “firsthand astronomy” both for ourselves and our guests

For greater detail, see my astronomy village proposal for Mirador Astronomy Village.  I welcome your comments and ideas here.

The Language We Use

Much has been said about how television, movies, video games, and the internet contributes to the culture of violence in our uncivilization, and this extends to even the language we use to describe events, activities, and phenomena.  Even astronomy is not immune from pervasive, perverse imagery.  Little things add up.  For example, why do we call THE event 13.8 billion years ago the Big Bang instead of something like the Great Flaring Forth?  And, instead of telling a group of eager young stargazers, “Our next target will be M13” why not say something like “Our next destination will be M13”?  And why do we call a smaller galaxy merging with a larger one “galactic cannibalism”?  You get the idea.

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) had it right: “Of course, I get angry.  Of course, I get sad.  I have a full range of emotions.  I also have a whole smorgasbord of ways of dealing with my feelings.  That is what we should give children.  Give them ways to express their rage without hurting themselves or somebody else.  That’s what the world needs.”

Think about it.  Then do something about it.