I hope you are well — and that reading this letter will make a humble contribution to this. For those of you in parts of the US affected by the recent unrest, please look after yourselves — my thoughts are with you. Also, please do not forget that underneath all the chaos, we are living in a global pandemic. It seems reasonable to expect that in the next two weeks, these areas will be hit with a surge in COVID-19 cases higher than any since the state of lockdown began. Wherever you are, please take care of yourselves.
But this letter is not about current events — in general; I do not wish to write about them.
In this piece, I will serve as a messenger of sorts, and I would like to deliver some important cosmological ideas to you. What is our place in the universe? We one day woke up to find ourselves in this strange reality and have been trying to find our place in it since. What is our significance and obscurity in the bigger picture of it all?
A lesson in humility
The late and great Carl Sagan has described our discovery of the cosmos as “a series of great demotions”. To learn about the reality we find ourselves in, is to receive a lesson in humility.
We once believed that we lived on the only world there was, but then discovered there were many other places with as much of a claim to being worlds.
We then believed that we were at the centre of it all, but we learned that the earth went around the Sun.
Well, we salvaged some of our pride. We are still close to the centre, right?
Nope. Our solar system is one of many in the galaxy. It isn’t close to the centre of the galaxy. And our Sun is as ordinary a star as they come.
Alright, but this galaxy is everything at least right?
Nope, there are at least hundreds of billions of them in our universe. We really are in a remote corner of nowhere.
And now we have a view of the multiverse which dwarfs even this picture.
“The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”
“We have not been given the lead in the cosmic drama”
In the rest of this letter, I would like to backtrack on this attitude.
What if there was something a little more special about us?
What if what we were — creative minds — were fundamental to how the events in the cosmos played out?
What does it mean to be fundamental?
“A phenomenon is fundamental if a sufficiently deep understanding of the world depends on understanding that phenomenon.”
David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality, Chapter 8
In other words, if explaining an aspect of nature allows you to explain many others, it can be said that that aspect is fundamental.
If a person understands how genes propagate themselves over successive generations, that is; evolution, they will be able to understand much of the living processes we see around us. If a person studies very specifically the mating ritual of a specific species of insect, this will not necessarily enable them to explain a much of how life works. Here understanding evolution is more fundamental than understanding the mating ritual.
Knowing one means you have a deeper understanding of reality than the other.
In physics, the concepts of time and space often take primacy, to understand how reality is structured at large, it is these that we have to tackle with.
If to understand nature at large, we need to understand a specific phenomenon; it is fundamental.
In his 1997 book, the brilliant David Deutsch made the case that intelligent life like us — that is; creative minds — are fundamental in this very way. You can’t have a complete picture of reality without us.
The Significance of Creative Minds
I first encountered the brilliant David Deutsch on Sam Harris ’s podcast Making Sense. David is a British physicist and is regarded as the father of Quantum Computing. He is also the author of two best-selling books The Fabric of Reality — which I have written about before — and The Beginning of Infinity.
In this conversation, he provided an example of cause-and-effect that has remained with me ever since.
Take a bottle of champagne.
What would lead to the cork popping off the top of the bottle?
If we look at our ordinary understanding of cause-and-effect, we would predict its opening by several reducible physical factors; the pressure and temperature inside the bottle, the biodegradability of the cork, the thickness of the glass and so on.
Enter SETI: The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
They are a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe through whatever means we have.
Let’s imagine they succeed.
They have finally confirmed the existence of alien life in a faraway galaxy by peering into their telescopes.
At last, their long search has come to fruition. How better to celebrate than with a glass of champagne?
Something significant just happened here. Did you notice it?
All of the usual physical conditions that lead to the opening of the bottle have been rendered irrelevant.
Now the most important predictive factor as to whether the bottle will open is; if there is life in a distant galaxy.
The normal flow of cause-and-effect is fundamentally different only because of the existence of creative minds.
The links in the very chain of cause-and-effect have been scrambled by our synapses — the ever rewiring links between neurons in our brains.
It feels so different without us ♪♫
You know this can’t go on forever, right? Civilisation on earth, life as we know it, I mean.
The very same Sun whose warmth sustains us will continue to do so for five billion years; then it will expand into a red giant, enveloping the planet in flames and destroying the earth once and for all.
The end is coming, or is it?
We know what makes stars shine; it is the process of nuclear fusion happening inside them. The immense mass of the star causes it to collapse under its weight. The nuclei of the atoms fuse — a process we call nuclear fusion — and the excess energy from this process is the reason why stars shine. For most of the stars in the sky, we can predict their temperature, colour, luminosity and diameter for every stage of their development. We can also determine the elements that make them up, which atoms they will produce, and the time frames of each of these stages.
Our theories of stellar evolution is mature, and it is they that we can predict with the future development of the Sun and our seemingly inevitable demise...
But aren’t we forgetting something?
There is a missing piece to this understanding. Us.
The existence of creative minds changes everything.
The expansion of the Sun threatens the end of human civilisation as we know it, but our descendants won’t be very happy about that.
It isn’t clear to me that there will be nothing they can do about it.
Just last week we sent yet another rocket into orbit. This one was the first launch conducted by a private organisation, that is; not a nation’s government. Today there is much in our lives we take for granted that is beyond anything even people a few generations ago could have conceived. The very device you are reading this is more powerful than the computers used to launch the first rockets. We seem to keep breaking our imagined limits.
Imagine five billion more years of progress.
The problems we now consider dire may become trivial.
Dealing with the climate of the planet may be as simple as changing the thermostat.
The problem of preventing the Sun’s expansion is the same. We already know what it would involve; removing a lot of matter from the Sun. It’s all an engineering problem from there.
If we are able to do this, then the theories of stellar evolution that describe the phases that all stars arise and decay will not apply to our Sun.
Therefore the lifespan of a star is dependant on whether there is intelligent life orbiting it.
That there isn’t a complete theory of how the universe at large operates, without understanding the creative minds within it. This does not only apply to the lifespan of stars, but whatever our knowledge can enable us to do (which is to say; anything that the laws of physics do not explicitly forbid).
“The colour of the Sun ten billion years hence depends on gravity and radiation pressure, on convection and nucleosynthesis. It does not depend at all on the geology of Venus, the chemistry of Jupiter, or the pattern of craters on the Moon. But it does depend on what happens to intelligent life on the planet Earth”
David Deutsch, Fabric of Reality
What we are — creative minds — are significant in the overarching development of the universe.
- Closer to Truth: Relevant interviews with David Deutsch, the video “Which laws of nature are fundamental?” is particularly relevant
- Surviving the Cosmos: The first conversation between Sam Harris and David Deutsch
- Finding our way in the cosmos: The second conversation between Sam Harris and David Deutsch
- David Deutsch on Optimism: David Deutsch talking about optimism, which is relevant to claims made in this letter as well as last week’s
In this letter I have broken humanity’s special place in the cosmos down, and built it back up again. We are special not in that the universe was fine-tuned for our existence, but in that our actions have the potential to guide its events.
Speaking of actions, I have been engaging in some of my own. I have been working on the technical side of the website. In the past, there have been some issues with search; it was slow, inaccurate and typing too many characters in the search bar caused it to crash. I have fixed these entirely, and I’ve even added a fun “no search results found” screen.
Let me know if it all works well if you do. If there are any suggestions you have for the website, I’d love to hear them.
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Simply select your favourite quote from this page. Then click on “Buy Merchandise”.
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Please help me in my goal of being able to live from my work.
Thank you once again for reading another one of these letters. I sincerely hope it has improved your week.
This is a conservative number. There is reason to believe there are 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. ↩︎
Well, it's also possible they could survive by escaping the solar system. What also seems unlikely, but nonetheless plausible is that there are physical laws that prevent delaying the end of the Sun's lifespan. ↩︎