Time Out From Politics For A Look Up

When I was very young, I became fascinated by astronomy. I read books about it and learned as much as I could. And so when I would go out and look at the sky at night, I had a pretty good idea of what I was seeing, at least for a kid. Where I grew up, the sky was dark enough to see numerous stars and that wonderful band across the sky, our own Milky Way galaxy, to which I and all those stars I could see were somehow connected. Since I knew what that band across the sky was and what it represented, I was totally awed by its magnificence and its beauty.

And I miss it. I miss being able to walk outside my house and look up and see it. It somehow comforted me to know it was there, that the Earth, though small in comparison, was part of something so spectacular. These days, though, I live here in Joplin, where the city lights make it impossible to step outside the door and see that beautiful band, our real celestial city, the Milky Way. Thankfully, today there are other ways to see it.

According to National Geographic, this week the European Southern Observatory, located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, released a composite image—187 million pixels—of our galactic plane, an image that took almost three and a half years to produce from more than 700 separate observations. It is called the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy. The APEX telescope is more than 39 feet in diameter and sits more than three miles above sea level in one of the oldest and driest deserts on the planet, a perfect place to put a telescope, since there are few clouds and almost no light or radio interference.

The amazing image of our galaxy was produced using wavelengths of light that fall between infrared and radio waves and thus reveals details invisible to our parochial eyes. As National Geographic described the image:

It reveals finer details of the galaxy than seen in earlier images, including most of the places where new stars are born—such as the mysterious Galactic Center—and cold regions where dust and gas hover mere fractions of a degree above absolute zero.

Just below is a beautiful 8-minute video of the image, set to music. I urge you to put it on full screen and watch it in a dark room with the music turned up. Just sit there and appreciate who we are in this universe. Our galaxy may have as many as 400 billion suns in it and is some 100,000 light-years in diameter—588,000,000,000,000,000 miles! And our galaxy is just one among what may be 200 billion galaxies out there. So, sit there and appreciate the strange beauty of it all, from its size and composition to the possibility that some other forms of life may be living somewhere in that image, forms of life we will never know. Perhaps above all, appreciate the amazing and inquisitive earthbound minds that desire to and can produce and utilize such unfathomable technology for purposes of peace, for purposes of expanding our knowledge about the universe in which we live, rather than for war and defending and perpetuating religious dogma.

18 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  February 25, 2016

    Magnificent!!!!!!

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  2. Indeed, the more we learn about reality, the more real reality becomes! (How’s that for a faux Yogi quote?)

    But seriously, I share your awe at the cosmos, reminiscent of Sagan’s famous perspective on our lonely blue dot. I suspect that many planets in our and other galaxies are teeming with life, very similar to Earth’s. People often wonder why we haven’t heard from other life forms, but this belies the reality of the vast distances and time scales involved. It is entirely logical that programs such as SETI only listen and not beam signals to any one of the tens of billions of suns in our own galaxy.

    The recent confirmation of gravity waves is only the latest evidence of reality. The universe is what it is. Space and time are not separate things but an inseparable something, spacetime. The Big Bang is a real thing. It happened. The Earth and everything we know, everything that has ever happened, condensed out of star stuff, and cause and effect are evident in the entire process.

    When these insights present, I become a deist. Why, why is there anything? What mysterious force is behind the universe and all its parts, setting it in motion? Is there a purpose? The human mind demands it, but there is no evidence that there is. It is the ultimate conundrum. But meanwhile, as you demonstrate in this post, it exists in vast and glorious beauty.

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    • Well put, Jim. And how amazing was the confirmation of those gravity waves? How fortunate we were to have had Albert Einstein and his imagination around so long ago!

      These days I move, depending on my moods, from a really untenable theism (his or her inexplicable absence in the face of evil is a hard one to get around) to a cold deism to agnosticism. Most of the time I’m just plainly agnostic. Don’t and can’t know what to make of it all. But the question of why there is something rather than nothing is a haunting one, for anyone who dares to think about it. And from the time I have been able to think about such things, I think about that a lot. It’s sort of a curse.

      Duane

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      • King Beauregard

         /  February 29, 2016

        The presence of evil is, in my mind, something like the vast uselessness of the universe. By which I mean, if humankind is so overarchingly important, then why have only a few thousand years out of billions mattered, and why just on this tiny ball of dirt? Sure seems like almost all of time and space is being wasted, if all that matters is how we apes behave.

        Which is not to say there can’t be a God and/or greater plans, but if they exist, they probably don’t have a whole lot to do with the choices we apes make.

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        • When you talk about “the vast uselessness of the universe,” it reminded me of a passage in a book about Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity that I read a long time ago. I wish I could get my hands on it right now, but it had something to do with the idea that the vastness of the universe could be conceived such that far from being useless, it sort of had to be that way in order for us to be here, for us to essentially be the consciousness of an otherwise unconscious cosmos. It seemed to me at the time (because I was still an evangelical Christian) that it was some kind of non-religious variant of the anthropic principle, but I don’t exactly remember.

          As far as your argument about the long passage of time and the “tiny ball of dirt,” I have wondered the same thing for as long as I can remember thinking about such things. Even as a conservative evangelical Christian, I wondered about the eons of time and the strange earthly relevance. I read a lot of theology books trying to find a decent explanation for those issues. Never did. I did, though, learn that there are some people out there who actually believe that not much time has actually passed since the universe began. I still have a book in which an argument was made that God actually created starlight on its way to the earth and things like fossils in the ground to sort of test the faith of those who were truly pledged to him. I know. It’s crazy. But there are those out there who just won’t let go of a theistic explanation of our existence, no matter the strange arguments they have to advance to support it.

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    • Jim, don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but I have an essay on my Absurdity Index Blog, “You Can Only Get Something From Nothing If Nothing Is Something,” that tries to illuminate some of the paradoxes of our universe. As we are all anthropocentric, we can only understand the universe and each of its parts fromthe confines of our anthropic reality.

      https://theabsurdityindex.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/you-can-only-get-something-from-nothing-if-nothing-is-something/

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      • Jim, I didn’t look far enough down the page on the referenced post. I see you and I had a discussion there last year. Sorry I didn’t notice it. So, never mind.

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      • Herb,

        I know we have discussed this before, but I can’t help myself. You said, “The question, then, of why there is something rather than nothing is incoherent.” I don’t think so. In fact, it may be the only coherent question worth asking because its answer would entail an understanding of how we, as conscious human beings, stand in relationship to all the components of the universe, particularly why we have the capacity to even ask such questions and whether that capacity itself has any “meaning.” In other words, its answer, whatever it happens to be, would necessarily result in a coherent understanding of whether our minds, the seat of consciousness, are part of a purposely coordinated whole or just an ultimately meaningless by-product of our particular, and perhaps peculiar, biological evolution.

        My point is that the question can’t be incoherent if its answer would give us a definite sense of just where it is we “fit” into the cosmos.

        Duane

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        • My argument was, or tried to be, that we live in a universe of causes and effects; that nothing – no thing – cannot exist because there is an infinite regression of causation. If God created Man, then who or what created God? And who or what created the who or what that created God? Etcetera ad infinitum.

          That being the case, then there has never been no thing but there has always been some thing. Therefore, the question of why there is something rather than nothing is incoherent since nothingness is not and cannot be a causal agent and cannot exist. It’s a little like saying there is such a thing as a square triangle. Such a thing can’t exist under the meanings we have assigned to the ideas of square and triangle, and is therefore is incoherent.

          Now, I appreciate that, while this may be a valid argument, it may not be true. And truth is subject to falsification. But this is a paradox, because there is no way to prove the existence of no thing.

          Ah, reality. It’s a bitch isn’t it?

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          • @ Duane & Herb,

            . . . an infinite regression of causation.

            Makes sense, agreed, there has always been something. Reading this good discussion, then, it occurs to me that the something may be outside the continuum we call spacetime. In other words, a causal agent outside of time. Can’t think it beyond that – I’ve got no context for it.

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            • Jim,

              Now we are getting somewhere. And that somewhere supports my assertion that it is quite coherent to ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing.”

              When we talk about infinite regression, we are assuming something that I don’t think can necessarily be assumed. It is certainly true that we live in a universe in which we experience, or seem to, cause and effect. One thing seems to follow another, or to put it another way, one thing comes to be because of some other prior thing. (Let’s ignore, for our purposes, that there may indeed be effects without causes in our universe; things like the apparently random appearance of virtual particles in a vacuum or radioactive decay.)

              But your mention of “something may be outside the continuum we call spacetime,” and the idea of “a causal agent outside of time” is important. We are entitled to be suspicious of the idea that, although we seem to live in a universe of cause and effect, that the universe itself is an effect of a prior cause. It may or may not be. And one of the reasons for such suspicion is that we experience cause and effect in time. And since we know that time, as we experience it, came into being with the beginning of this universe, we can’t confidently claim that the universe itself is part of some prior causal chain.

              It is this sort of thinking that prevents me from being an atheist, from confidently asserting that there is no God. I can’t see how anyone can, with certainty, claim that the universe, or these days the multiverse, is or isn’t part of an infinite regression of causation. In fact, as I understand today’s new cosmology, the assumption seems to be that some quantum vacuum has always existed and has given rise to one or, likely, an infinite number of universes. Okay. But that does’t seem much different to me from positing that a divine being has always existed and given rise to one or an infinite number of universes. In each ease, one is positing something that exists without a prior cause.

              And all of this is why I find it totally coherent to ask the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing.”

              Duane

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              • A fine discussion, fellows. I enjoyed it.

                Knowledge of science has exploded in the last few tenths of 1% of our species’ existence and philosophy is being sucked along in its wake. I have a suspicion that knowledge may be plateauing; we are discovering more and more about less and less. God (pun intended), I really wish I could hang on to see what happens!

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                • Me too! I like what Bill Gates said the other day. If we can manage to live another 20 or 30 years, we will see some major advances, including advances in the fight against cancer and other devastating diseases. So, do hang on!

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          • Herb,

            Yep, reality can be a bitch, for sure.

            Let’s keep in mind what this discussion is about: the coherence of the question “Why is there something rather than nothing.” You claim it isn’t coherent, I claim it is. So, I want to make clear one thing: the question isn’t whether there has always been something or whether there has never been nothing. The question is why is there something at all? We are asking a “why ” question.

            Now, as I think about this exercise generally, I can’t think of a case where asking a “why” question can ever be an incoherent question—if one honestly lacks essential information necessary to know the answer. Let’s take your idea of a square triangle. Of course, to those of us who understand what those terms mean, it is an incoherent idea for the reasons you state. But it is not silly, or incoherent, to ask—if one doesn’t know a priori the meaning of the terms involved and doesn’t understand basic logic—why there can’t be a square triangle because the answer to that question is straightforward and logical and coherent. By asking the question, one finds out some important information about both the nature of squares and triangles and, more important, about a fundamental law of classical logic. For a hypothetical someone who is ignorant of one or more of those things, asking the question provides real coherence because there is a coherent answer to it.

            In a similar but not necessarily identical way, asking the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” is coherent because there is a coherent answer to it, even though we don’t know, likely can’t know, what that answer is, unlike the question about the strange triangle. And simply asserting that there has always been something (which is self evident) and therefore the question is nonsense won’t do. Because we are asking why it is the case there has always been something, not whether it is the case.

            And as I said before, I can’t think of a more fundamental question to ask, if one is contemplating the meaning, if there is any, of our existence.

            Duane

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            • Excellent points, as usual. But I think we’re looking at the premise, “The question, then, of why there is something rather than nothing is incoherent,” from different perspectives. As I understand your argument, the sentence in question is grammatically correct. That is, it’s laid out logically and abides by the rules of rhetoric and as such is therefore “coherent.” But if I made the statement using the same words, “Incoherent is is nothing of question rather something than the then there why,” it is both grammatically incorrect and incoherent.

              However, my intent with the sentence was to state a conclusion to my argument based on the premises set forth in the essay, which I believe to be coherent. I make a number of assumptions and any of those are subject to challenge as to their validity. (By the way, if you read or re-read the piece on my blog, you will see the rationale for my arguments, including the arrow of time, chaos theory, virtual particles, the fact that we humans are trapped in four-dimensional time-space, my challenge to Lawrence M. Krauss’s book. “A Universe From Nothing – Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing,” and much more.

              Obviously, there is much we don’t know about the reality we can perceive. We just recently found out that the dark matter and dark energy make up 95% of the universe, and we don’t know yet exactly what those things are. So, we’re stuck with a revealed universe that is only 5% of the total.

              We have something called “string theory” that has to exist in 11 dimensions. But physicists tell us the proof of this theory can only be determined by possibilities that run to 500 orders of magnitude. String theory, then, is more philosophy than physics.

              On the other hand, we know that a photon can be both a wave and a particle at the same time. And the famous double-split experiment proves that to be the case. Again, based on our understanding of a wave and a particle, it could be said that the result of the experiment is incoherent. And that is because we don’t know why this is possible in nature.

              If I say there is a man with a white beard and a red suit who travels on a sled pulled by eight reindeer who delivers presents to several billion people in one 24 hour period, that is a coherent statement, but it presents an absurd and incoherent idea.

              I will concede that my statement may have been awkwardly stated, but it was certainly coherent. However, the meaning of the statement, derived as it was on the underlying logic, is indeed incoherent.

              Hopefully, we won’t have to start a discussion on Coherentism or the Coherence Theory of Truth and other metaphysical and ontological precepts. I’ve got a headache already.

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              • Herb,

                No worries. It’s about over. I just want to point out that I’m not arguing semantics when I refer to the coherence of the question. I’m actually saying it is an important question to ask, if one is interested in whether our life has any transcendental meaning. It’s nothing like your example of Santa Claus, whose description you describe as “coherent” but “presents an absurd and incoherent idea.” I’m not presenting an idea at all with my question. It is a question not a statement. And for me it is one of the most profound questions one can ask, given the nature of our inquisitive minds. That’s all I’m saying.

                Duane

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            • I like your last comment, “I can’t think of a more fundamental question to ask, if one is contemplating the meaning, if there is any, of our existence.” Good cocktail party conversation.

              I tend to go with the existentialists on this one – Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus. The meaning of life and the meaning of the universe, the questions of why, form the sustenance of many, but not all, religions. To the extent any religion puts forth a narrative that purports to have answers to these questions, those of us who are critical thinkers get very frustrated.

              The other day, I heard someone ask, ”If man was made in the image of God, why aren’t we all invisible?” That sort of sums up my feelings.

              We are evolved beings, coming from multi-celled fauna more than 350 million years or so ago. We have survived at least five major extinction events, built fires, made tools, and invented language. We became planners and thinkers and outsmarted our predators – all except our own species. We became anthropocentric and asked “why” in terms of our own perceived reality, as if we had objective egos.

              The universe was around long before we humans arrived and will still be around long after we are gone. We are like a single grain of sand in all the beaches of the world. But our survival instinct wants to make us significant, a player. So, we invent an afterlife as a coping mechanism for the vicissitudes of life and a supernatural being who invests power in religious leaders to control our freedom and direct our ideologies.

              The universe is not absurd. It is a certain species of animal living on an insignificant planet in a medium size galaxy with the power to destroy its home and all of its fellow travelers that is absurd.

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              • Herb,

                Funny you mention existentialism. I credit reading a couple of very good books on the subject for my final departure from evangelical Christianity. “I want a truth that is true for me,” became my way of escape from the pull of a Christian upbringing and brainwashing.

                By the way, thanks for a fun discussion. This stuff is endlessly fascinating and there are times that I think that, if I could do so competently, I would write about little else.

                Duane

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