Dark Energy and the Death of the Universe. (01/04/2002)

One proponent of the idea that the universe will eventually die, Dr. Steven Weinberg, has recently noted in his book, The First Three Minutes, that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." This statement is predicated on the "discovery" of what has been called "dark energy," an apparent force that permeates the area between objects in deep space and counteracts the effects of gravity by continually pushing objects, which were once thought to attract each other (through gravity), away from each other in an ever-escalating drive toward radical separation. In time, objects will become so radically separated that each galaxy will exist in total isolation, so far from its nearest neighbor in fact that one will not even be visible to the other. Objects within galaxies are also moving away from each other in the expansion and each will eventually become so isolated that they too will achieve the same kind of inevitable invisibility, each to the other. The sun is expected to expand as well and will eventually, in some 2 billion years, turn the earth into a cinder. One scientist involved in this ongoing research project into the nature of "dark energy," and the dire predictions its has engendered, has cautioned us against panic.

Panic? He must have been speaking ironically. Why would anyone panic over the possibility of an event that was scheduled to occur 2,000,000,000 years in the future? Put differently: don't plan that New Year's Eve party for 2,000,002,002 AD just yet because the earth is going to be incinerated by the expansion of the sun 12 days before Christmas, even as early as Thanksgiving, that year. It is this eventuality that prompted Weinberg to suggest that human life is somehow pointless. He elaborated that idea in a book review in the NY Times by saying that "Though aware that there is nothing in the universe that suggests any purpose for humanity . . . one way that we can find a purpose is to study the universe by the methods of science, without consoling ourselves with fairy tales about its future, or about our own" (quoted in an article in the newspaper on 01/01/2002, as a kind of New Year's greeting to a doomed world, I suppose). I always feel somehow disjointed when I read such statements, totally out of step with whatever impulse it is in the human psyche that demands such reassurances, somehow isolated, like a drifting galaxy losing sight of my nearest neighbor, from the wider context of a human community because I cannot imagine what is lost to being human by the realization, even if only potential, that we do not enjoy the guarantee of an eternal presence in space and time. No matter what I do, or what I imagine myself doing, I cannot find solace in the fact that I must do it for 2,000,000,000 years, or worse, for eternity, before it becomes significant as a purpose for the whole of humanity.

I recall Kant's argument here that it would take any human being an eternity to comprehend the summum bonum (the highest good devised by God for human felicity and purpose) as a proof of our collective and individual immortality. That the earth will some day be incinerated by the expanding sun and prevent the contemplation of the highest good from reaching a proper conclusion, since eternity is required for that, means, I suppose, that the Creator did not plan things out very well before He started making the universe ex nihilo. Kant argues, of course, that this contemplation be done by the human soul, as distinct and separate from a human body, and so the destruction of the earth by natural means of an ever-expanding sun does not have any direct or meaningful impact on whether or not God's ultimate purpose for humanity reaches its proper and inevitable conclusion, since it is a spiritual, as opposed to a physical, endeavor. Having nowhere to be, if you are a pure soul, and not a body, constitutes no problem at all for a purely mental activity. Western ideology, specifically Christianity, has always maintained that the world will end anyway long before the next 2,000,000,000 years have transpired. The difference between one thing and the other, of course, concerns the agency of that destruction. By natural means, and as a result of the pure and immutable laws of physics, which are inevitable and irreversible, that destruction becomes agent-less, and hence, even pointless and meaningless. If God, on the other hand, does it deliberately, in His own time and by His own choice, predicated on the irredeemable sinfulness of His flawed creation and its human creatures, then there is purpose and meaning in the act, even if only one based on the notion of a Godly vengeance against human wickedness, as most religious read that story.

So, here we are, standing just beyond the threshold of the 21st Century, and the best we can do is console ourselves with the idea that human purpose is predicated on the ideology that God will destroy us if we do not kill each other in holy wars against the infidel, Jew or Muslim if we are Christians, Christian or Jew if we are Muslims, Muslim and Christian if we are Jews, and so on and so forth, but not to the exclusion of Buddhist or Hindu either, where India (Hindu) is about to go to war with Pakistan (Muslim), etc., and where our only hope seems to be that the sun will expand sooner rather than later and deprive God of the pleasure He will gain by destroying us Himself before that happens. Is it just me? Or is there something wrong with this picture?

Blaise Pascal (in Pensees, 1656) contemplates the enormity of the universe in an early scientific perception of it with the following statement:

"When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?" (205)

And following that : "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." (206)

Pascal, of course, finds consolation in his Christian faith, in the sure knowledge that God is responsible for his being here rather than there and now rather than then. The silence of space still haunts his resolve against that terror, of course, because he has no sure proof that God actually exists; or as Pascal puts it:

"I look on all sides, and I see darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred times wished that if a God maintains Nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause to follow." (229)

He claims he would be perfectly content one way or the other, though he surely prefers to be reassured: "My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity" (229). What strikes me as odd, though it probably should not do so, is that as soon as science began to emerge from the purely religious world of the high Middle Ages, an historical occurrence made possible by the various kinds of corruption that infested the church itself, those people most surely drawn to its practice and pursuit were punished by self-doubt, by fears and terrors, that they were bound to discover the absence, rather than the presence, of God in the natural world scientifically evaluated. The fact the church punished Galileo for parting company with Ptolemy, a fact not particularly rational in as much a Ptolemy was just another pagan heretic, where Galileo was at least a Christian, suggests part of the reason science started out with a bad name. The rest of that reputation grew out of the association some aspects of inquiry had with the ancient traditions of pagan Alchemy, with devil and spirit worship, and with the fact that Christianity had always disparaged the traditions of learning associated with Greek Philosophy. Not surprisingly then, many early Christian scientists felt a certain, even inescapable, estrangement from their communities of faith.

Another early practitioner of science, Sir Thomas Browne, an Englishman and Protestant, as opposed to Pascal's French Catholicism, and who might be identifiable as the world's first archeologist, since he speculated on the age and origin of burial urns discovered near Walsingham (in Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial, 1658), uses the occasion of his essay to question and then affirm the validity of human immortality, a concern that can also be said to underlie Pascal's worries about the veracity of religious speculations over the ultimate destination of the human community to which both belonged. Browne acknowledges the disruptive effects of science in Hydriotaphia (Chapter V) when he says that

"In vain do individuals hope for immortality, or any patent from oblivion, in preservations below the moon; men have been deceived even in their flatteries above the sun, and studied conceits to perpetuate their names in heaven. The various cosmography of that part hath already varied the names of contrived constellations; Nimrod is lost in Orion, and Osiris in the Dog-star. While we look for incorruption in the heavens, we find they are but like the earth;--durable in their main bodies, alterable in their parts; whereof, beside comets and new stars, perspectives [telescopes] begin to tell tales, and the spots that wander about the sun, with Phaeton's favour, would make clear conviction."

Browne's response to the "discovery" of a perceptible disorder in the heavens, above the sun, as it were, where people in the Middle Ages assumed that the sublunary realm below the moon was corrupted by human sin and the world above and beyond the sun was incorruptible, as he states here, is considerably less emotionally distraught than the one penned by Pascal at about the same time. He too is troubled by the fact that the use of a scientific methodology, the invention of the telescope, for instance, immediately began to reveal the fact that God's absolute constancy and perfection, symbolized by the perfect workings of the universe, were not nearly as perfect and incorruptible as they had always appeared to be. The reference to comets and new stars, for instance, point to the fact that Kepler in 1610 had demonstrated that the paths of the comets passed through the celestial spheres, which were thought to be solid and impenetrable, and suggested that the spheres themselves did not exist as material reality; while the new stars, whose prior existence was unknown, were lately revealed by the use of the telescope, which seemed to suggest that they had come into existence after the fact of the initial creation. These kinds of radical shifts in cosmology brought the infallibility of the Scriptures into question, since the Bible seemed to support the old views as God's revealed, and immutable, Truth in the Word Made Flesh as Jesus Christ. If the Bible could not be trusted to reveal the truth, then the promise of human immortality, as Browne here suggests, necessarily falls under the shadow of the same doubt too.

Browne, however, wrote an argument in Religio Medici (1643) to override the doubt inspired by scientific observations. He drew his ground from the ideology of Alchemy and asserted that he believed the body and soul would be reunited by God at the Last Judgment; that is,

"I believe that our estranged and divided ashes shall unite again; that our separated dust, after so many Pilgrimages and transformations into the parts of Minerals, Plants, Animals, Elements, shall at the Voice of God return into their primitive shapes, and joyn again to make up their primary and predestinate forms." (Section V)

He supports this assertion of belief by relating it to the observations he has heard, read, and witnessed on his own in pursuit of alchemical studies:

"I have often beheld as a miracle, that artificial resurrection and revivification of Mercury, how being mortified into a thousand shapes, it assumes again its own, and returns into its numerical self. Let us speak naturally and like Philosophers, the forms of alterable bodies in these sensible corruptions perish not; nor, as we imagine, wholly quit their mansions, but retire and contract themselves into their secret and unaccessible parts, where they may best protect themselves from the action of their Antagonist." (Section V)

He concludes this argument for resurrection and immortality by saying that

"This is that mystical Philosophy, from whence no true Scholar becomes an Atheist, but from the visible effects of nature grows up a real Divine, and beholds not in a dream, as Ezekiel, but in an ocular and visible object, the types of his resurrection." (Section V)

Browne's vision here, that his "mystical Philosophy" (Alchemy), and the study of nature afforded by the practice of the "Philosophy of Hermes" (Section I), will make him more a "real Divine" than it will an "Atheist," is predicated on the notion that science, since it views the real world of objective reality, and not the one perceived biblically in the dreams of an "Ezekiel," will lead him to an "ocular and visible object" that typifies the true state of human resurrection and immortality. The object Browne refers to is probably the Philosopher's Stone (lapis philosophorum or lapis Christus) that was associated with human immortality from earliest times (see C. G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, Princeton UP, 1976, 101). Browne notes that

"The smattering I have of the Philosophers Stone (which is something more than the perfect exaltation of gold,) hath taught me a great deal of Divinity, and instructed my belief, how that immortal spirit and incorruptible substance of my Soul may lye obscure, and sleep a while within this house of flesh." (Section IV)

In saying that the Stone is "something more than the perfect exultation of gold" and qualifying that assertion by referring to the "immortal spirit and incorruptible substance of [his] Soul," Browne clearly places himself in the tradition of Alchemy that pursued the lapis for the sake of gaining a truer knowledge of the Divine than the one afforded by the ecclesiastical institutions of his age.

Browne's strategy of finding a way to make science and alchemy speak for, and in support of, basic principles of religious ideology, while obviously of great personal value and significance to him, would not have found a particularly widespread audience among continental Catholics (like Pascal) even if several of his contemporaries among the clergy in Protestant England (John Donne and George Herbert to mention two) often employed alchemical symbolism and imagery in the conceits of their poetic production. Over time the attempt to link science and religion, especially because the church generally condemned Hermes as a pagan influence on Christian values, generated more conflict between the opposing perceptions of reality than it did any actual harmony between them. To say that the enmity between science and faith began in the 17th Century, and indeed almost as soon as science emerged, would be short-sighted, since it is true that Christian scholars and writers always maintained a deep suspicion toward any kind of philosophical discourse. The discord between the two that exists today is as old as Christian ideology itself and has always managed to overarch any temporal expression of the two that might seem to bridge the gap that divides them.

To end where this began: the problem with "dark energy," and the death of the universe, if such really is consistent with scientific fact, is that most people seem to believe that human existence can only be significant if it is also eternal. Why no one seems able to fashion a temporal value system, one consistent with the evidence of our collective memory telling us that everything we know is susceptible to death, is the only mystery I know that defies explanation. If one needs the promise and reward of immortality in order to find the good, then our human future really is damned.