Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Cosmological Philosophy

An alien civilization past the asymptotic technology transition will certainly have asymptotic philosophy, just as they have asymptotic status in all fields of science, and science will cover all fields of knowledge. A previous post considered what asymptotic philosophy might look like. This post covers a narrow niche of philosophy and how it might affect star travel and indeed the entire alien civilization.

Cosmology, as Earthlings know it, covers the origin of the universe, its life, and then its death. We on Earth have not been studying it for very long, as its study is predicated on there being a good understanding of astrophysics, and even more importantly, of there being good observational devices. We have built some recently, in the last century or so, and have developed a concept for ourselves of the birth of the universe some thirteen billion years ago, and have developed some competing ideas on how it will end, after some more billions of years. The basic ideas is that the part of the universe we see is expanding fairly uniformly, and will continue to do so, unless it doesn’t, and then it will change to contracting, and compress itself again. These ideas will all be worked out in due course.

In the alternative of continued expansion, nothing much happens except the energy in the universe gets transformed into a diffuse heat, there being not much entropy left. The longest lived stars are red dwarfs, and their computed lifetimes might be in the hundreds of billions of years. So, when an alien civilization is contemplating its future, if its view of cosmology is finite in time scale, that no matter what they do, they will go extinct. All life will go extinct when the stars burn out, unless some way is found to extract a bit more energy from the stuff that is left, and they can live a bit longer on some planet or on a nomad spaceship, until finally all the additional energy they can obtain is used up. To summarize, our cosmology says life is finite in time, and if theirs does too, they have to cope with this in their philosophy. That is the meaning of the title of this post.

Since we are so new at cosmology, this view may not be valid, and the universe may go through cycles of some sort we don’t currently imagine, recycling entropy in a violation of the second law of thermodynamics in some clever way, and the aliens will all figure this out and have a different view of cosmological philosophy. Perhaps so, but let’s assume the very basic ideas of thermodynamics have some say, and life will end, along with everything else. In a macro view, this is sort of silly from a cause and effect point of view, as how did the universe get started, if after it ends nothing changes. But putting silliness aside, what happens to an alien civilization that finally figures out cosmology and it turns out that there is no survival past some time in the future, which might be ten billion years or a thousand billion years. There is a time that they will figure out and it is a definite end to everything.

Now consider these brilliant aliens, all intellectually equal to something smarter than the greatest genius Earth has every produced, with their hands on all of science and engineering, facing a problem that has no solution. In this hypothetical setup, the universe ends at time t, and after that there is nothing. They are setting goals for their civilization. Consider the goal they set related to survival as a civilization. Should they set it as t minus a billion years, or as close to t as possible, or just forget about it and set it for as long as it takes them to use up the resources in the galaxy they inhabit, or take a lesser length of time such as the length of time for their star to burn out, or even shorter, or maybe right away.

Recall that a civilization has a different way of thinking than an individual. Mostly, individuals opt for living as long as possible, with exceptions being when physical or mental pain is too great, or a sacrifice is needed for some good for others, or when depression strikes, or life has become unbearable. Individuals on Earth are programmed that way by evolution, as are many creatures on Earth. Aliens may eliminate the desire for long life in their own members, or not, but whether they do so is not relevant to the decision that the entire society makes. And a society does not have instincts arising from evolution, just memes, which are reviewed by individuals.
So, supposing the alien civilization is reassessing its memes related to its own survival, and is doing so in conjunction with the setting of long-term goals for itself, what do they do about cosmology’s inevitable conclusion that the civilization will be vapor after some time t? They would ask, why are we bothering to worry about the future? Let us just set our goals to be having good lives right now.

The problem is, if you do not set goals for the future, but only for the present, there is nothing to survive for. If the civilization cannot survive past t, why bother to survive past t/2? Why bother to survive past t/10? Why bother to survive past t/100? Why bother to survive past the current generation?

There is no philosophical answer to this. The alien civilization is forced to make a choice as to when it will cease to exist, and there is no basis coming from cosmology that tells them what to choose. They have to arbitrarily make a choice. Should we have a thousand more generations and call it quits? How about only a hundred? Nothing in the universe provides an answer. The memes they have were created during the genetic grand transition, most likely, and didn’t include anything about how long to survive, only to survive as a civilization.

What do they do? Should they go exploring the galaxy, planting clones of their own civilization on other planets, or starting life on other planets that cannot originate it but can support it, or struggle with solving the intergalactic transit problem, or what? Any clone worlds they start will be gone by time t, as will every instance of life they start, along with life on Andromeda or the Magellanic Clouds or anywhere else in the local group. Thus, cosmological philosophy asks a question that undermines their memes. Maybe this is why nobody comes by Earth from another star. They understand philosophy, and are just enjoying a quiet life at home.

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