Mahler’s Farewell

Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) wrote in his essay Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,

“I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity…How do the young stand it? How can they keep their sanity? If I were very young, sixteen or seventeen years old, I think I would begin, perhaps very slowly and imperceptibly, to go crazy…If I were sixteen or seventeen years old…I would know for sure that the whole world was coming unhinged. I can remember with some clarity what it was like to be sixteen…I was in no hurry…The years stretched away forever ahead, forever…It never crossed my mind to wonder about the twenty-first century; it was just there, given, somewhere in the sure distance.”

Thomas was referring to the threat of nuclear war, which is still very much with us. Now, can you imagine as bad as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, what a nuclear war would be like? We need to rid our planet of these weapons, now.

As I was listening to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the Adagio, this past Monday, I was also thinking, of course, about the frightening ravages of COVID-19, but also climate change and the precipitous decline in biological diversity caused by humans. All of this is driven by the fact that there are too many people on the planet, and the answer is not to kill (by whatever means) people who are already here, but to bring fewer children into the world so we can lower human population to a sustainable level in the coming generations. We could all have a higher standard of living without trashing the planet.

On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, PBS aired a new BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts. I was riveted by the program, presented by Sir David Attenborough, who will turn 94 next month the day before I turn 64. David Attenborough is an international treasure. Watching him so expertly present, as he always does, the urgency of this climate crisis and remembering his many outstanding documentary series such as Life on Earth and The Living Planet, I became teary eyed knowing that he will not be with us for very much longer. You wish someone like David Attenborough or Carl Sagan could live for hundreds of years. Because, when our life is over, we will cease to exist as a conscious entity, for all eternity. I am now certain of that. Realizing that this is our one and only life gives one a very different perspective on what we are doing to this world—and to each other. Humanists value the sanctity of each human life more than anyone who believes in an afterlife. Humanists fully understand the enormous responsibility each of us living in this current generation has to ensure that our civilization does not descend into a dystopian existence. There will be no salvation, just unimaginable pain, suffering, and destruction of all that is good, if we fail.

I am so inspired by young Greta Thunberg, who features prominently in the documentary. Greta and the many other young activists around the world give me hope for the future. Her words and conviction brought more tears to my eyes. I may be 63, but I’m with you 100%, Greta. Sign me up!

In 1908 and 1909, Gustav Mahler finished his last completed work, the Symphony No. 9. There was much turmoil and tragedy in Mahler’s life prior to the writing of this symphony. His beloved oldest daughter, Maria Anna Mahler, died of scarlet fever and diptheria on 5 July 1907 at the age of 4. Immediately after Maria’s death, Mahler learned that he had a defective heart. And his relationship with his wife Alma had become strained. Gustav Mahler died on 18 May 1911. He never heard his Symphony No. 9 performed. It received its premiere on 26 June 1912 in Vienna with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the Adagio, is one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard. While listening to it, one thinks of all the beauty that was and is in the world, and how terribly much we have lost.

The most expressive recording of the Adagio I have heard is by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca 473 274-2). If this movement of 24:37 does not lead you to weep, I don’t know what will.


Climate change is a serious problem requiring immediate attention. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere as fast as possible. Half measures will not do. We are rapidly running out of time before the quality of life for all humans on planet Earth declines, especially for the economically disadvantaged.

A precipitous decline in biological diversity due to habitat loss and extinction of species is of greater concern, and yet it gets very little attention in the mainstream media. While climate change will render large areas of the Earth uninhabitable, biodiversity loss will lead to a partial or complete collapse of the ecosystem humans depend upon for food.

Getting even less attention is the cause of both of these problems: overpopulation. If you were born in 1973, the world’s human population is now twice what it was then. If you were born in 1952, there are three times as many people alive now than there were then. We have a climate emergency and a biodiversity emergency because we have a population emergency. The number of humans on this planet needs to decline, and the only humane way to accomplish that is to have fewer children. It is that simple.

And, yet, we often see this or that news article lamenting the fact that the birth rate in this or that country is too low. That’s crazy! A low birth rate should be a cause for celebration given the current state of the world and its environment. Certainly, a low birth rate does lead to some economic challenges, but these pale in comparison to the challenges we will face if population (and consumption) continue to grow.

As a humanist, I believe that we should do all we can to alleviate and eliminate human suffering. It is our highest moral calling. To be sure, some human suffering is inevitable and necessary when an individual makes poor decisions and suffers the consequences before hopefully making a mid-course correction. But the kind of suffering I am talking about is suffering that is imposed upon a person through no fault of their own, be it the cruelty of other human beings, or the cruelty of nature.

In this light we can see that our economic systems, governments, and most religions are utterly failing us. Nothing short of drastic changes will solve these problems. May wisdom, intelligence, ingenuity, and compassion guide us, rather than fear, ignorance, hatred, and dogma.

There is an organization dedicated to stabilizing human population throughout the world by lowering the birth rate: Population Connection. I encourage you to support their work as I do.

YearPopulationGrowth Factor

World Population Prospects 2019, United Nations.; 17 January, 2020; Dover, Delaware, U.S.A.

Where Cosmology Meets Philosophy

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

The physical explanatory power of inflation in terms of structure formation, supported by the observational data on the fluctuation spectra, is spectacular.  For most physicists, this trumps the lack of identification and experimental verification of the underlying physics.  Inflation provides a causal model that brings a wider range of phenomena into what can be explained by cosmology, rather than just assuming the initial data had a specific restricted form.  Explaining flatness (Ω0 ≅ 1 as predicted by inflation) and homogeneity reinforces the case, even though these are philosophical rather than physical problems (they do not contradict any physical law; things could just have been that way).  However claims on the basis of this model as to what happens very far outside the visual horizon (as in the chaotic inflationary theory) results from prioritizing theory over the possibility of observational and experimental testing.  It will never be possible to prove these claims are correct.

Inflation is one compelling approach to explaining the structure we see in the universe today.  It is not necessarily the only one, but it currently has the most support.  Basically, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded dramatically.  Around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang the universe had a diameter on the order of 1.2 × 10-27 meters.  To put that size in perspective, the diameter of a proton is between 0.84-0.87 × 10−15 meters.  So, when inflation began, the entire universe had a diameter almost a trillion times smaller than a single proton!  10-34 seconds later when the inflationary period was coming to an end, the size of the universe was a little over half the distance to Alpha Centauri!

The basic underlying cosmological questions are:
(1)  Why do the laws of physics have the form they do?  Issues arise such as what makes particular laws work?  For example, what guarantees the behaviour of a proton, the pull of gravity?  What makes one set of physical laws ‘fly’ rather than another?  If for example one bases a theory of cosmology on string theory, then who or what decided that quantum gravity would have a nature well described by string theory?  If one considers all possibilities, considering string theory alone amounts to a considerable restriction.
(2)  Why do boundary conditions have the form they do?  The key point here is, how are specific contingent choices made between the various possibilities, for example whether there was an origin to the universe or not.
(3)  Why do any laws of physics at all exist?  This relates to unsolved issues concerning the nature of the laws of physics: are they descriptive or prescriptive?  Is the nature of matter really mathematically based in some sense, or does it just happen that its behaviour can be described in a mathematical way?
(4)  Why does anything exist?  This profound existential question is a mystery whatever approach we take.

The answer to such questions may be beyond the limits of experimental science, or even beyond the limits of our intellect.  Maybe, even, these questions are as meaningless as “What lies north of the north pole?1because of our limited intellect.  Many would claim that because there appears to be limits to what science or human intellect can presently explain, that this constitutes evidence for the existence of God.  It does not.  Let’s just leave it as we don’t know.

Finally, the adventurous also include in these questions the more profound forms of the contentious Anthropic question:
(5)  Why does the universe allow the existence of intelligent life?
This is of somewhat different character than the others and largely rests on them but is important enough to generate considerable debate in its own right.

Well, a seemingly flippant answer to this question is we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t, but that begs the question.  Perhaps intelligent life is the mechanism by which the universe becomes self-aware, or is this just wishful thinking?  In the end, I am willing to admit that there may be some higher power in the universe—in the scientific pantheist and humanist sense—but I will stop short of calling that “God” in any usual sense of the term.

The status of all these questions is philosophical rather than scientific, for they cannot be resolved purely scientifically.  How many of them—if any—should we consider in our construction of and assessments of cosmological theories?

Perhaps the limitations of science (and, therefore, cosmology) is more a manifestation of the limitations of our human intellect than any constraint on the universe itself.

One option is to decide to treat cosmology in a strictly scientific way, excluding all the above questions, because they cannot be solved scientifically.  One ends up with a solid technical subject that by definition excludes such philosophical issues.  This is a consistent and logically viable option.  This logically unassailable position however has little explanatory power; thus most tend to reject it.

Let’s call this physical cosmology.

The second option is to decide that these questions are of such interest and importance that one will tackle some or all of them, even if that leads one outside the strictly scientific arena.  If we try to explain the origin of the universe itself, these philosophical choices become dominant precisely because the experimental and observational limits on the theory are weak; this can be seen by viewing the variety of such proposals that are at present on the market.

And let’s call this metaphysical cosmology.

1Attributed to Stephen Hawking

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.

Ryden, Barbara. 2003.  Introduction to Cosmology. San Francisco: Addison Wesley.