In the small book NightWatch--one of the preeminent guides available for amateur astronomers—author Terrance Dickinson takes the reader on a brief "Tour of the Universe in 11 Steps" by using a succession of growing boxes. His first cube is 20,000km on each side, which is just enough to encompasses the entire Earth. We actually know this cube quite well, and many of us have personally travelled all of the way around it. Continuing on, however, Dickinson expands his box step-by-step by multiplying each side by a factor of 100 and the results quickly begin to boggle the mind. Each successive box has 1,000,000 times the volume of the previous one, and yet, in all this extra space in box 2, only one celestial object is available for the astronomer to see: the moon. Within the third box, we get segments of the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The fourth box contains very nearly our entire solar system, but the fifth box adds almost nothing to that but empty space. It's not until step 6, now a box that is 20 light-years on each side, that a few other stars first begin to show up. In step 7 we get a few familiar constellations, and in step 8 the entire Milky Way galaxy is contained—an average size galaxy that contains an estimated 400 billion stars. In step 9, 20 million light-years on each side, we get a handful of other galaxies, but mostly just incomprehensible stretches of empty space. Step 10 reveals, however, that even in such emptiness there are bands that galaxies form across. There is a slight structure, a vague concentration, that appears almost like wrinkles across the outermost face of the expanding universe. Finally, in step 11, we get to the edge of the known universe, beyond which we can currently see and know nothing. Among the initial tenets of my evolutionary philosophy, I noted the makeup of this realm in my third tenet:
3. The universe is composed of trillions and trillions of stars and is currently expanding after a Big Bang and 13-14 billion years of evolutionary processes.* We are just another species of animal life on a single planet orbiting one of the stars in the universe. (* The best current estimate of the age of the universe is 13.75 ± 0.11 billion years. The best current estimate of the number of stars in the universe is from 3 to 100 × 10^22 or between 30 sextillion and 30 septillion.)
Now THOSE are some awe-inspiring numbers. I was happy to see that someone had recorded NightWatch's journey through the universe onto a youtube video, but it's 16 minutes long and exceedingly dry. You can watch it if you have ever been a star-gazing geek like me, but I found a much more powerful presentation about the size of the universe in a classic film made by Charles and Ray Eames for IBM in 1977. It's called Powers of Ten, and I've embedded it below. It's 9-minutes long, but I was mesmorised by it and the time flew by.
So, now that we are all suitably impressed by the universe, let's turn to this week's thought experiment, which comes from Douglas Adams's Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which is part two in his series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Ian Ferrier had for years dreamed of building the total perspective vortex. But now, as he stood ready to test it out, he was questioning whether the whole endeavour was a terrible mistake.
The machine, which he had first come across as a piece of science fiction in a late twentieth-century radio programme, would enable whoever went into it to see their true place in the universe. The idea of the original fiction was that anyone who used the machine would find the fact of their own insignificance so crushing that it would destroy their very soul.
Ferrier had cheated a little in building the machine: everyone would see the same thing, since, he reasoned, we are all more or less as insignificant as each other. But throughout the project he had been convinced the machine would not crush his soul at all. He, like Camus's Sisyphus, condemned to push a boulder endlessly uphill only to see it roll back down again, would be able to confront the absurdity of his own insignificance and prevail.
And yet, now he was about to test it out, he did feel more than a little apprehensive. Could he really accept his own infinitesimal smallness in the grand scheme of things? There was only one way to find out...
Source: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams, 1980.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 166.
Baggini doesn't say exactly what's in his total perspective vortex (TPV), but on the Hitchhiker's wikia we get this description from the original book:
"The Vortex is now used as a torture and (in effect) killing device on the planet Frogstar B. The prospective victim of the TPV is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe - together with a microscopic dot bearing the legend "you are here". The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim's mind."
This is almost exactly what is shown in the videos linked above. Have you watched them yet? Do you now dare? Well I don't know about you, but far from "crushing my soul," I find that it actually lifts my spirits. Why is that? Perhaps it is because, as reader Steve Willey wondered in a comment on Monday's post, "is a conscious brain the most grand thing we have ever encountered in the known universe?" Seeing as how there are more potential configurations of connections in our brains than there are atoms in the entire universe, this isn't as narcissistic and human-centred as it sounds. We may be constructed of the material jettisoned from stars, but we have gained a free will that none of those trillions of suns or their planets could ever have. The size of the universe is grand, but the complexity of life is even grander. Also, in my post on Immanuel Kant, we can see another important component to the reason why the total perspective vortex doesn't crush us. In that post, we see that:
Kant divides the feeling of the sublime into two distinct modes - the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime. The mathematical sublime is situated in the failure of the imagination to comprehend natural objects that appear boundless and formless, or that appear absolutely great. This imaginative failure is then recuperated through the pleasure taken in reason's assertion of the concept of infinity. In the dynamical sublime, there is the sense of annihilation of the sensible self as the imagination tries to comprehend a vast might. This power of nature threatens us but through the resistance of reason to such sensible annihilation, the subject feels a pleasure and a sense of the human moral vocation. This appreciation of moral feeling through exposure to the sublime helps to develop moral character. Given that the meaning of life is to perpetuate the long-term survival of life, it follows that we should feel awe when contemplating infinity and extinction. Exposure to both of these concepts does aid our judgment and moral character in choosing actions that comport with the meaning of life.
Ah, but what is that meaning of life, I can hear you asking. In such a vast, cold, and mostly empty universe, can there be anything more for us than Sisyphus pushing the rock up a hill over and over again? As Camus said of such efforts: "The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." In his absurdist writing, Camus continually pointed to "the conflict between (1) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (2) the human inability to find any." And although he didn't have an answer to resolve this conflict, Camus thought that "individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning." In my Response to Thought Experiment 52, I explained my own take on such a search. I said:
...first we must give an answer to one of the very biggest philosophical questions—what is the meaning of life? I recently finished an excellent book by philosopher John Messerly on this topic called The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. It is an excellent summary of the best modern answers to this question from all the major philosophical positions. In the book, Messerly notes that none of these positions have generated an accepted viewpoint yet, but his analysis along the way caused me to generate my own thoughts on the question, which I shared with him in a private exchange. I wrote:
When asking the question, “what is the meaning of life?”, a fundamental clarifying question must be “for whom?”. Wants and meaning must be applied to someone. The "universe" doesn't want anything, and nothing is meaningful to it. This is why searches for "ultimate meanings" are senseless. They look for emotionally-led oughts where there can be no emotion. But life does want. So life ought to live. (See my ASEBL Journal article.) The scope of the universe is too large for one human life to have an impactful meaning upon it. Our imagination scales infinitely though, so we can imagine that we could. The story of life in general, however, is big enough to have meaning in the universe. And our role in the story of life could actually be quite large. Even if individually a life were not very important, we've evolved to feel pleasure at the scale we can affect life, so our lives can still feel quite meaningful when we accept the size of the role we've inherited. We don’t long for the role of a stellar nursery giving birth to stars, nor are we satisfied with the accomplishments of a mayfly. The 'big freeze' or the 'big crunch' are still possibilities for universal death within this universe, which would render everything meaningless, but maybe those outcomes can one day be affected by life within this universe. Maybe dark energy, dark matter, or something else altogether unknown can be manipulated in such a way as to balance things for survival. Until we can do that, that is a goal which gives meaning to life. We may not be able to answer any ultimate questions now of why the universe and life exist, but maybe someone will be able to someday. It is our job to do what we can to get to that. Survival and scientific progress are prerequisites along that path. Just as Renaissance people (to take one example) could be said to have found meaning in supporting a society that lead to the growth of the scientific method, which helped us get this far, we can find meaning today by doing our job to support a society laying the groundwork for future knowledge explorers too.
Messerly turned this into a blog post on his wonderful site Reason and Meaning, where he quoted my response and said:
I think the reader has it about right. The only way our individual lives have objective meaning is if they are part of something larger. We hope then that we are links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. The effort we exert as we travel this path provides the meaning to our lives as we live them. And if our descendents, in whatever form they take, live more meaningful lives as a result of our efforts, then we will have been successful.
And there you have it. In Douglas Adams's fictional farce, the character Zaphod Beeblebrox is reported to be the only person to have ever survived the total perspective vortex. But in real life, we can all not only survive such experiences quite easily, we may actually use them to help us learn the key to thriving.