Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pale Blue Dot

Adam has passed along a video which illustrates a speech (heard in the audio) given by the late astronomer Carl Sagan over two decades ago. Sagan offers a great perspective on the smallness and meaninglessness of life on earth from the standpoint of a naturalistic metaphysics.

He once declared that the cosmos is "all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be." If that's so, then, as this video illustrates, life on earth really is a pointless, insignificant, "tale told by an idiot."
In the speech, Sagan opines that a proper understanding of our place in the universe rids us of the pretension that we are somehow what it's all about. The universe is so old and vast, and life on earth is so recent, and earth is so tiny, just a pale, blue dot, that it's ludicrous to think that somehow we are at the center of it all, or so Sagan believed.

His argument was plausible thirty years ago, perhaps, but it's much less so now. There've been so many discoveries in the last couple of decades which point to a universe which seems to be exquisitely and intentionally designed to allow life to exist somewhere in it that it seems as if Sagan's pessimism is quite unwarranted. Moreover, the vast size and age of the universe appear to be precisely what must be the case in order for life to exist anywhere in it.

In order for all the elements needed for life to be formed stars must go through a cycle of birth and death, crushing protons together in the unimaginable heat and pressure of the stellar cores to form elements like carbon, oxygen, and iron and a hundred others. Then, when the star explodes at the end of its life, those elements are strewn across the vast stretches of space until they cool and form a planet like earth. These elements are crucial to life, but the life cycle of stars takes billions of years, and all during that time the universe is expanding. Thus, in order to form the elements needed for life to exist the universe has to be as old as it is and therefore as big as it is.

There's good reason to think, pace Sagan, that the universe, so far from being a fortuitous accident, is actually deliberately made for us and that we really do, in some sense, inhabit its ontological center.