Wednesday, December 6, 2006

A Meta-ethical Pondering on the Ultimate Fate of the Universe

For a while now, I have been contemplating the ultimate "end" of the universe. Although I have forgotten most of what I was taught in Astronomy 102 two years ago, I do remember the discussion of density parameter (or Omega) and what it's value means for the fate of the universe. Basically, depending on Omega's value among other things, the universe will either end in a "Big Crunch" wherein all the matter in the universe contracts and eventually expands again (in effect, another Big Bang) or in a "Big Freeze" wherein the galaxies will continue to accelerate away from each other and eventually lose all their energy so as not to be able to sustain life any longer. There were others, but these two were certainly those which fascinated me the most.

I asked a deist friend of mine what his opinion was on the matter. His answer struck a chord with me; he replied "everything in this universe is cyclical. Why should any other creation of God be different?" I thought much about his reply and devised a thought experiment which was originally intended as a test of a deist's "faith" but I presently found that it was a much deeper philosophical inquiry than I had previously thought it would be.

The experiment runs as follows:
Suppose it is the far future. Human beings have not only established control over all livable space in the known universe, but have nearly completely mastered the physical sciences and have unspeakable technology, including the ability to move entire galaxies. In addition, this human society would be considered somewhat utopian; there are no more wars, everyone works for the good of everybody else and there is virtually no physical suffering. This society's "anti-suffering fetish" is quite extensive; no living things with central nervous systems are consumed for alimentation, nobody has birth defects or even needs to exercise because there are nano-machines and pills which allow everyone to reach an optimum level of physicality without suffering.

One day, a meeting is called by humanity's high council of scientists, philosophers and ethicists. It turns out that the universe is headed for the Big Crunch, that is, all the matter in the universe will eventually collapse upon itself and the Big Bang will take place all over again. Even though it used to look like the universe was accelerating indefinitely, it was later discovered that the acceleration would eventually halt, thus paving the way for contraction. An ethicist sees a problem in this. "If we allow the universe to collapse and thus re-form," he argues, "then there's a good chance that life will form. Such life will probably evolve over thousands of years and with it an enormous amount of suffering. To solve this ethical problem, we should use our galaxy-moving technology to segregate the galaxies so far apart that eventually everything will freeze over. Life will indeed die out forever, but at least we will know that there will never again be any suffering of any kind." Upon hearing this, a philosopher leaps from his seat and cries "But that's blasphemy! Everything in the universe we have observed is cyclical, including life. Don't you think whatever created the universe wanted it that way?"

Deism aside, I realized that there are other normative motives regarding the implementation of this Big Freeze. One might argue one or more of the following:
We should implement the Big Freeze because (1) if we don't and another benevolent human society arises in the next universe and decides to implement the Big Freeze, then we are at a net gain of 0 because we could have prevented all of the useless suffering. Also, (2) if we don't and a malevolent sapient society becomes the ultimate constituents of the universe and decides to implement the Big Freeze (maybe they consider all other potential races unworthy to control the universe), then there would be a net loss because we could have prevented so much more suffering. Also, (3) we don't know whether the next dominant race of the known universe will be good or evil thus making the option of not taking the risk more attractive.

One argument to the contrary would contest the third premise on grounds that a benevolent race would be more probable.

Another would contest the ethics in aforementioned society on some sort of assumption that life has intrinsic value separate from happiness and suffering.

Another might contest the first premise arguing that we would have a positive net gain if another benevolent society.

Personally, I believe-again, deism aside-that all things we see have intrinsic value; I am not a nihilist. This instrinsic value is of course manifest in the universe and all lifeforms it harbors. In short, I would elect not to play God. I imagine, however that many would. Would you?

1 comment:

Ben said...

I suppose my initial response is the ethicist's argument against suffering. If you take his line of reasoning to it's natural end, he would argue that in this day and age (where everyone is guaranteed to feel pain and suffer at least a little) everyone should be euthanized.

From my own personal experience, suffering can be actually helpful. We can grow stronger through it... and if I had the option not to suffer, I would not take it. But that's my view.