Monday, February 15, 2010

I challenge Copernicus

The Copernican Principle has come a long way since the days of Copernicus. Consider these approximations:
  • All matter and energy in the universe are dark matter and dark energy: we haven't ever directly observed either, or even fully understood their nature.
  • All known matter in the universe is non-living.
  • All known living matter consists of microbes.
  • All known living matter larger than a grain of sand consists of insects.
  • Our concept of time itself is suspect. Consider the perfectly sensible question of what happened before the Big Bang. Turns out that there's no such thing as before. Time itself is an "inside" property of the universe. Time didn't exist when the universe didn't exist.
  • Not only is Earth not at the center of the universe, it turns out that our very concept of 'center' is misguided; there is not an identifiable center anywhere, or if there is, there might be no way for us to know. The reason has something to do with the weirdness of space itself. To tell the truth I don't really understand it, and I like to think of myself as a fairly competent amateur cosmologist.
So, Mr. Copernicus, you have beaten us, no? I say no. We are special, and for one reason only: we are conscious. As Carl Sagan said so beautifully, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

When I first heard that sentiment expressed decades ago, I thought that it was some silly New Age idea. But it's not. It's literally true. Your brain is made of atoms, and those atoms are the cosmos in the same sense that a hydrogen atom in Proxima Centauri is the cosmos. So I, you, we, all of us, literally are the consciousness of the cosmos. It could well be that we are entirely alone, or if we're lucky, we're not the only ones, and other parts of the universe have awakened.

I think that this piece of knowledge is spectacular beyond words. It makes us so amazing. So important. So vital. The universe is our body. We're like infants who are just getting the first glimmerings of motor control, just learning that we can move our eyes when we want to see something, barely able to control any part of the body. That is absolutely not enough for me. We need to grow into this body, learn how to manipulate it, explore its furthest reaches, and eventually figure out what it really is, what we really are.

This really should be our overarching goal as a living being. Sure, there are plenty of us who couldn't possibly care less, but that's ok. We definitely need all of us, so we can explore every aspect of human experience. So race cars, build bridges, make love, do whatever you can to maximize your own happiness and that of others whose happiness you can influence.

But some of us are headed for the stars. We will one day figure out some trick that lets us get around the speed-of-light problem. We have to, in order to get to know this body. We need to find our siblings, other consciousness, wherever they might be. We will move stars and even galaxies when it serves us; they're part of our body. We'll one day figure out how to get past the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Fortunately we have a long time to figure these out, as long as we don't blow ourselves up.

Just think: we haven't figured out yet what time is. What if there's a way for us to live forever? No, I don't mean you and I as individuals. I mean this universal body. Some cosmologists suggest that the universe will continue to expand forever until it goes cold and dark. We could change that. I know we could.

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