On the end of the world

Astronomy is the most humbling of the sciences.

It is humbling not only because of the reminders of our insignificance provided by the unfathomable depths of interstellar space, or the eons of time in which galaxies form. It is also humbling because, as we know, all stars die. Our sun, being no different, will die too, and our solar system with it, including our precious planet Earth and everything on it. (Indeed, the Earth will be enveloped by the sun and die its own death a rather long time before the sun dies.)

One can take several possible attitudes to this bleakest of certainties about the future.

Bertrand Russell, in his 1903 essay “A Free Man’s Worship”, took the view of unyielding despair.

Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

One must face the facts. When pressed to think of something really certain, a person will often say that it is certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. And it will; but what is equally certain is that one day it will not — there will be no day. There is no escape from the ineluctable slide into disorder, entropy, and the dusty, cold heat death of the universe.

Many years later, Russell in 1927 took a somewhat different view. His essay “Why I am not a Christian” broached the topic, and took an entirely different attitude of almost breezy nonchalance to this cosmic angst:

if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending—something dead, cold, and lifeless.

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.

And this would, it seems to me, be the view of the average practical person, who needs to get on with their life and, even if they are not soothed by the temptingly comforting delusions of religion, have quite enough to worry about in the next few hours or days, and anything on a cosmological timescale is entirely outside their purview.

I cannot accept this view. The argument that we should not think about the bleakest and darkest facts of our existence, simply because they are far away, is in essence no different than the argument that we should ignore other uncomfortable facts about the world, merely because they are remote from everyday considerations. The non-existence of god, the loneliness of individual consciousness, faraway victims of war, or the uninhabitable climate left to future generations — all these are cause for despair, and yet we are superficial, or at least incomplete as human beings, if we do not consider them.

The world is there to be faced. We do better to look it square in the face and understand it for what it is, than to shy away and live an unexamined life. Indeed, another quote of Russell’s seems to be appropriate here:

The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.

Perhaps as a matter of practical advice, for everyday cheer and a sunny (pardon the pun) disposition, one can justify a wilfully blind attitude. But from the point of view of one who wants to understand the world fully, live in it fully, one cannot.

And that brings us to the extraordinary poem “On living” by the Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet. (This reading by Chris Hedges is stirring, but this version, in the original Turkish, with orchestral accompaniment, is beautiful.)

Concerning himself with the question of how to live, Hikmet, writing in 1948, dedicates the final stanza to the death of the world:

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

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Written by dan

September 23rd, 2016 at 3:12 pm

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