"In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever beasts invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'--yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die."
Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense."
If everything must come to an end--and I mean EVERYTHING--should that cause us to worry?
For instance, recently some astronomers have reported the first direct observation of a star eating a planet (De et al. 2023; Naoz 2023). If this shows us what is likely to happen when the Sun eats the Earth, should we worry about that, because it means the end of the world as we know it? Or should we say that since this deadly fate of the Earth is probably at least 5 billions of years in the future, this is too far off to bother us today?
Should we worry that not only must the Earth come to an end, but even the entire Universe? If the Universe must end, when and how will it end? If the Universe must end, is this the "most terrible truth" of Lucretian science--as Leo Strauss said--so terrible that we cannot think about it without becoming sad because it deprives our life of all meaning and purpose? Or should our understanding of this truth fill us with awe?
Can we answer such questions by Reason alone--through the science of cosmology? Or should we have a religious faith in the Revelation of eternal life after death with "a new Heaven and a new Earth," with a final divine judgment of the saved (going to Heaven) and the damned (going to Hell)?
Can we resolve the apparent tension here between Reason and Revelation? Does the freedom of thought and speech in a liberal social order rightly allow for an open debate between Reason and Revelation over these questions about our place in the cosmos? Or does any morally healthy society require the enforcement of religious orthodoxy about the ultimate meaning and purpose of human life in the universe? Must that enforcement of orthodoxy be legally coercive? Or can it come from the natural associations of familial life and the voluntary associations of civil society without legal coercion?
I'm sorry. I do have a bad habit of asking too many questions to which I don't have the answers. But here I go anyway.
THE END OF THE WORLD?
The New York Times article on astronomers spotting a dying star swallowing a large planet says that this shows us "a grisly sneak peak of the literal end of the world." But identifying this as the "end of the world" depends on what one means by "the world."
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the primary definition of "world" is "the state or realm of human existence on earth." But one of the secondary definitions of world is "the material universe or the cosmos." In the first sense, the end of the world will probably come in five billion years, because from what we know about the evolution of stars, the Sun will by then expand into a red-giant star, which will incinerate all life on Earth, and later the Earth is likely to be absorbed by the expanding Sun. But while this would end "human existence on earth," we can imagine that if the human species survives for five billion years, by then humans might have migrated elsewhere in the Solar System or even beyond the Solar System. Or, the human species might have evolved into some transhuman species or cyborg.
Even so, the end of human existence on earth might seem "grisly" as the reporter says, because it's the end of the world as we know it. But there's an even grislier prospect--the end of the whole "material universe"--because this would be the end not just of human life but all life, and even all ordered structures. This would be what Leo Strauss identified as the "most terrible truth" of Lucretian atomistic evolution--that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable."
We must wonder, then, whether modern cosmology confirms this terrible truth, and if so, what does this mean for our sense of purpose or meaning in the cosmos? Or can religious eschatology persuade us that there is an eternal life that is lovable?
THE END OF THE (OBSERVABLE) UNIVERSE?
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have recently produced an online interactive map of the universe. Using the data collected by astrophysicists, artist Pablo Carlos Budassi has produced a logarithmic map of the observable universe.
What you see here are the large-scale outer limits of the observable universe. The Big Bang is dated at about 13.8 billion years ago. At about 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the first atoms (hydrogen and helium) were formed, and these atoms released photons that can still be detected today as the cosmic microwave background radiation. This is the oldest direct observation we have of the universe. This is the outer limit of the observable universe. So, on any map of the universe, the period before this is dark because it is not detectable by human observers with telescopes.
Moving down to the small-scale limits of the observable universe--the atomic and subatomic particles and forces--the limits are set by our instruments for detecting microscopic reality--microscopes and particle colliders. Beyond the limits of the Large Hadron Collider, the subatomic world is not detectable.
I have written about this previously as showing the limits on the scale of human observational experience of nature. Here is an image of the "Ends of Evidence." The white area is the range of scales within human experience. The grey area is outside that range. You can click on the image to enlarge it.
FIVE WAYS FOR THE UNIVERSE TO END
Cosmologists have considered five possible ways that the Universe could end: Heat Death, the Big Crunch, the Big Rip, Vacuum Decay, and the Big Bounce. The Wikipedia articles on these five possibilities and on the "Ultimate Fate of the Universe" are all pretty good. But the best account of all of this that I have seen is Katie Mack's book The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) (Scribner, 2020). She also has some good YouTube videos.
Katie Mack on the Death of the Universe
In my next post, I will examine those five cosmological theories of how the Universe might end. And then I will consider how this scientific cosmology compares with religious eschatology.
De, Kishalay, et al. 2023. "An Infrared Transient from a Star Engulfing a Planet." Nature 617 (May 4): 55-60.
Mack, Katie. 2020. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). New York: Scribner.
Naoz, Smadar. 2023. "Planet Swallowed After Veering Too Close to Its Star." Nature 617 (May 4): 38-39.