Cosmological Phenomenology

Cosmological Phenomenology

There are many types of intentional object, each with its associated phenomenology: physical, psychological, mathematical, linguistic, ethical, aesthetic, spatial, temporal, non-existent. I will be concerned with a rather extensive object—the universe. How does the universe present itself to consciousness? What suite of seeming (if I may put it so) is peculiar to this intentional object? What meaning does it have for us? The first point to note is that this meaning has changed over time, dramatically so, because astronomy has changed. I am talking about cosmic phenomenology under contemporary astronomy in contrast to pre-modern astronomy. I won’t rehearse the modern astronomical picture, or the old one, assuming that it is familiar enough.[1] We used to think there was one sun that revolved around us, and we had no reason to doubt that other planets (“stars”) had other civilizations on them. We now know that there are billions of stars just like the Sun, and we have every reason to suppose that life is rare in the universe, certainly in the nearby universe. So, there has been a kind of reversal in our picture of the universe: we thought the Sun was special and unique, while conscious beings were common and plentiful; now we see that the Sun is just one among a great many such objects, while conscious life is markedly confined in scope. The Sun is nothing special, but life is very special, only occurring in isolated pockets of the universe. Stars are ten a penny; minds are rare gems. Conscious beings are common on Earth, to be sure, but planets like Earth are few and far between. From an economist’s standpoint, stars are not scarce in the universe, and thus a dime a dozen, while minds are in relatively short supply (so far as we know) and therefore worth a king’s ransom. Stars are also just condensed clouds of dust (hot squashed dirt), while conscious beings are impenetrable mysteries of nature. What even isconsciousness? How did it arise? It isn’t squashed (or stretched) anything. Thus, our perspective on the universe has changed quite drastically: suns don’t command worship anymore, but conscious beings arguably do (reverence at least). Animals on Earth, particularly humans, are now the gods of the universe, not those glittering points of light in the night sky. The extraterrestrial universe has been de-mystified, naturalized, demythologized.

How else has our cosmic phenomenology changed? There are three basic aspects of the way we now view the universe, which I abbreviate to SIC—Small, Improbable, and Contingent. We now appreciate how small we really are compared to the rest of the universe, i.e., how small our neck of the woods is; even everything visible to us is only a tiny part of all there is out there. In the past we had no reason to think the universe much larger than the Earth (the Sun seemed relatively close and small); now we appreciate how miniscule our sector of the universe is compared to the whole. Thus, our current cosmic phenomenology is that of unimaginable distances and sizes. Second, we now understand that we are extremely improbable: it is only by remote chance that we exist at all; in most parts of the universe there is nothing like us (as far as we know). On the earlier conception, our existence was not improbable at all—we were what the universe was designed for. We were the point of the whole thing, what it naturally leads to or accommodates. Now we see that it was a just a massive fluke that we came to exist at all. Third, our existence is highly contingent: we are not a necessary feature of the universe. We used to think of ourselves as essential to the universe, but now we see ourselves as radically contingent—much more so than the stars and planets. This makes us feel alienated from the universe: it is not generally hospitable to us, but inimical to us. There are very few places, apart from planet Earth, where beings like us could survive. The universe could easily have skipped life and consciousness altogether, as it has for vast stretches of its geography. The universe is an in-itself that contains no hint of a for-itself that takes itself as intentional object. It is mind-indifferent in its general nature, only producing mind in isolated spots, possibly only one spot among countless billions of other potential spots. We are not at its ontological center but in its anomalous periphery, a freak exception. There could have been no beings like us and the universe would have existed in its present form nonetheless. The thought of the universe is thus the thought of something that is sublimely indifferent to our existence. Big hot stars are part of the predictable natural order, but we sentient beings are just a kind of local curiosity, despite our importance to ourselves. This is all part of the phenomenology of our intentional relation to the universe as it is now constituted.  We used to be the point of the whole arrangement, but now we are just a point. We have been demoted in the great scheme of things. We just happen to be, and will die out as unceremoniously as we arrived. We are small, improbable, and contingent—a mere blip in the universe’s history. This is what modern astronomy has taught us, shaping our consciousness of the universe and our place in it. It is not easy to digest.

A vivid illustration of this is provided by black holes (aka “dark stars”). There are two salient features of black holes: their absolute darkness and their extreme power. The black hole is antithetical to life: an inescapable dark place of implacable gravitational force. No light can escape its grip, and it crushes everything that falls into it. There can be no life in a black hole. This is not the traditional image of a cosmos generously created by God for human habitation and flourishing; you can’t raise a family in a black hole, or enjoy a game of croquet. But black holes are everywhere apparently, including at the center of our galaxy; they are inevitable, a result of deep laws of nature. Yet they are totally inhuman—the very opposite of life-affirming. They are life-denying. A lot of the universe is like that: life-denyingly hot or cold, destructively stormy and cruelly crushing, no place for life to take hold. The black hole is the embodiment of annihilating power. This is why it grips the human imagination, shaping our modern consciousness of the world in which we live. That is what nature is all about, its true identity, not soft life and gentle consciousness. It would be different if we had discovered other hospitable planets and nurturing suns, full of teeming life and mind; but instead, we have found lifeless life-denying brute matter—even the water out there is frozen solid for all eternity! Phenomenologically, the universe is a bleak and unforgiving desert. And it begins at our back door: even our neighboring planets are bereft of life and quite inimical to it—lumps of dead rock, basically. We exist by the skin of our teeth and extinction is an all-to-real possibility (global warming exemplifies the destructive power of cosmic chemistry). Our consciousness of the universe is shot through with images of peril, reflecting the universe in its true colors; a welcoming place it is not. The black hole is just an extreme manifestation of the mindless violence of nature. Thus, our cosmic phenomenology is permeated by ideas of death and destruction. Stars are created only to violently destroy themselves; they have predictable life-spans and self-annihilate on a regular basis, sometimes quietly, sometimes spectacularly. The universe itself will one day run out of fuel and end in dark deadness. Starlight will be extinguished completely–there will be no sparkling stars anymore. The intentional object known as “The Universe” has gone from being God’s eternal creation designed for human flourishing to being a death machine destined to annihilate all life and eventually itself. That is the phenomenology that modern cosmology has bequeathed to us, though one seldom hears of its bleaker pronouncements (it’s always reported as dealing with the “the beauties of the night sky” etc.). It hardly bears thinking about and I wonder how much human gloom stems from it.[2]

[1] Readers may wish to immerse themselves in the Smithsonian Universe (2020), edited by Martin Rees, a chastening experience (exhilarating too). The book is as big as its subject (nearly).

[2] This is an essay in philosophical-scientific belles-lettres and should be read as such. It is neither astronomy nor philosophy, except in an extended sense. Still, there is room for such ruminations, perhaps a need for them. There is very real despair at the heart of modern cosmology.

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7 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Your point is well made, though I wonder if Terror and Wonder more than Despair? It is interesting how much Cosmology has developed in the last 20-30 years, after having periods of hiatus in the 20C.

    Reply
      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        It is difficult to imagine a world that can coherently accommodate the necessary creation and growth of black holes as well as the appearance of contingent tiny sentient beings. This challenge to the faith one might have to a principle of “coherent accommodation” of distinct observed phenomena (a way in which the world has always appeared to me, at least until reading this post) could I see lead to despair. Fortunately, someone has written about Mysterianism.

        Reply
        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          Mysterianism can certainly help with intellectual despair, but I was thinking more of the existential despair of living in a universe utterly oblivious of human and animal suffering.

          Reply
          • Giulio Katis
            Giulio Katis says:

            This makes me reflect that the sun’s rising each day is an illusion. The universe you speak of is oblivious to it. Nevertheless, dawn comes after each night (as it is right now while I am writing); until it doesn’t.

  2. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    I think it might be the other way around – we project our own gloom onto the universe.

    Dark energy, dark matter, gravity, cepheid variables, blue shift, red shift, cosmological constants, speed of light as a constant, time – these are very sandy structures when you consider the distances involved.

    The seeming lifelessness may also only be down to the fact that light takes so long to reach us. Google has the known universe width down to 93billion light years. There many be plenty of civilisations whose reflected photons and radio transmissions are yet to reach us (may never reach us).

    What we have thus far achieved is astonishing, yet I find it baffling that some could ever think we could figure all of this out or that we’re even close – being stuck inside the box (or the cave).

    Anyway I suggest Monty Python’s galaxy song as a nicer way to look at it.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      There may be other civilizations somewhere but we have no evidence of it–the universe looks pretty barren. The problem is that the physical universe is inimical to life, just not set up for it. I would say it confirms our natural feeling of gloom (suffering, death, etc.).

      Reply

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