When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
The dimensions and the nature of the Universe overcome our understanding.
The earth is an insignificant blue dot in the Milky Way, and our sun just one among millions of other suns of a small galaxy, which is just one among hundreds of millions of galaxies, where constant explosions of materials and gases are always happening, thus permitting the formation of new suns and planets.
Life is solar: all its ingredients were forged in a sun, and then gathered up into a planet after being spat out by an explosive solar agony.
We are on the third planet of a sun knocked down from its central throne, turned into a lost star of a peripheral galaxy, between millions of galaxies of a Universe in expansion.
Physics has discovered a Universe of rage, violence and war, with explosions and implosions of stars and planets, collisions of galaxies, and stars that live off and devour each other as cannibals.
Without ceasing stars switch off and explode and planets freeze; without ceasing fragments and dust of dead suns and planets gather, whirling round over themselves to give birth to new galaxies and new suns.
E. Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, Method V
My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose… I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, by any philosophy.
J. B. S. Haldane, Scottish biologist, Possible Worlds and Other Essays
Scientific View of our Place in the Universe
Life is formed from materials born in the midst of stars and ejected to space.
When we drink a drop of water, we drink the Universe, because a molecule of water, the H2O, gathers in itself the hydrogen – a vestige of the initial explosion, the Big Bang -, and the oxygen, produced in the furnace of the stars and exhaled by them.
Michel Cassé, French astro-physicist, Desafio do Século XXI
When observing the stars, you should see them in another perspective. Take into account what they really are: the mothers of the atoms from which we are constituted, the atoms that constitute the mortal and thinking species that admire the sun as a god, a father or a nuclear power station.
The particles that were composed at the beginning of the Universe, the atoms that were forged in the stars, the molecules that were constituted on Earth or in another place… all that is also inside us.
Michel Cassé, French astro-physicist, Desafio do Século XXI
Blaise Pascal: Why Are We Here? Why Were We Born?
The scientific view of the universe and the awareness of its incomprehensible dimensions created astonishment and grief in philosophers such as Pascal (in the seventeenth century).
What’s the meaning of life in a cosmos like the one described by science? Man is a nothing in such a grotesquely gigantic universe. Man isn’t in the centre of Creation as religions described; traditional views of man and God lose sense.
The Universe conceived in the past – populated with souls, lights, life – was a universe where life had meaning, where the Earth was at the core of God’s purposes. The Universe as revealed by science is dramatically different.
The eternal silence of infinite spaces frightens me.
Why now rather than then? Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time have been ascribed to me?
We travel in a vast sphere, always drifting in the uncertain, pulled from one side to another. Whenever we find a fixed point to attach and to fasten ourselves, it shifts and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desires to find solid ground and an ultimate and solid foundation for building a tower reaching to the Infinite. But always these bases crack, and the earth obstinately opens up into abysses.
We are infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, since the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from us in an encapsulated secret; we are equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which we were made, and the Infinite in which we are swallowed up.
Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662, physic and mathematician, Thoughts
Modern Thoughts on a silent and hostile universe
Our conscience and intelligence have detected a silent universe, profoundly uninhabitable to man, profoundly hostile, where life is impossible, where man is a stranger. What’s the meaning of life in such an absurd Universe, so different from our dreams, where we are a solitary and conscious voice?
Man knows finally that he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the Universe, from which he emerged by accident.
Jacques Monod, 1910-1976, French bio-chemist, Le Hasard et la Necessité
This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.
Richard Dawkins, English biologist, River out of Eden
The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.
Albert Camus, 1913-1960, escritor e filósofo francês, The Myth of Sisyphus
We are sons of the cosmos, but our conscience, our soul, make us strangers in that same cosmos, from which we were produced, and which still remains secretly intimate to us.
Earth life is unique, or at least particularly rare in the cosmos, and our conscience is perhaps solitary in the living world.
Man is a marginal creation in the animal world, the development of which has increased his marginality. We are alone on the Earth, among the known living beings.
Our thought, our conscience, gives us knowledge of the physical world, but simultaneously drives it away from us.
E. Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, Method V
we and the nature and purpose of the universe: from pascal to the scientific modern view
The questions of the first western philosophers – Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Empedocles… – involved the Universe: what is the Earth’s shape? Which are the principles, or elements, of things? Why is there the world, things, and not nothingness?
Before the Greek philosophers, the Hindus also speculated about the creation of the universe, and the role of God in it:
«Nobody could ever be able to create the Universe. How could an immaterial being create what’s material? How could God make the world, without raw material?»
But in general, the oldest questions and answers about the Universe, and its nature and the role of man in it, were fundamentally mythical and fanciful. Many peoples in the ancient Mediterranean world saw stars in the moving and shining sky as a sort of transit of the souls of death, and the ancient Egyptians saw a sort of platter copying the Nile and the geography of their earthly world.
These visions were not very different from the version present in Shakespeare’s poetry, when he designates the stars as «night candles», or from Lord Byron’s when he described the Milky Way as a «broad and ample road, whose dust is gold, and pavement stars».
The enchanted and fanciful visions of the Universe began to dry up in the seventeenth century. In 1690, when Christian Huygens speculated about the existence of a great number of populated earths, as beautiful as ours, the subjacent conception had very little to do with the one present in previous poetry and myths. Huygens was deeply influenced by the modern visions of the Universe, as put forward by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.
Feynman, an outstanding contemporary physicist, criticizes the incapacity of today’s poets to write about the strange composition of the Universe, as revealed by science: «Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter as if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?», he asks.
The answer to Feynman’s question is not difficult: the human soul is not positively impressed by the scientific vision of Jupiter and of the Universe. The Universe revealed by science is extremely inhuman. It isn’t easy for poetry to describe it.
Our role in the Universe, according to a scientific view, is purely accidental and gratuitous. «Physics have discovered a Universe of rage, violence and war, with explosions and implosions of stars and planets, collisions of galaxies, and stars that parasitize and devour each other cannibalistically» (Edgar Morin).
Science has revealed that the Universe wasn’t created for us, and that we have no significant place in it, contrary to our ancestral myths and religious considerations. The Universe, when seen through Gamma rays, X rays, infrared, and modern cosmology, has nothing to do with what our eyes spontaneously detect, and what our dreams would like it to be.
In the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal described the existential discomfort caused by the revelations of modern science about the universe. He was astonished and anguished with the first descriptions of an infinite universe, composed of millions of stars and planets, making the Earth and man simple microscopic scraps. From the point of view of a Universe that we can’t help feeling as cruelly empty of the possibilities of life, crushing, and unbelievably big, strange and extensive, his thoughts remain extremely current.
The more recent elements introduced by science about our origins and nature are also far from being comfortable for our dreams. In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin revealed to an incredulous humanity that we are descendants of other species, of apes, and, even descended from bacteria. In recent decades astrophysics has revealed that we are also descendants of atoms formed in the interior of the nuclear power stations of the stars, and ejected by them into the interstellar vacuum.
When compared to former mythical or religious visions, and our human dreams, this scientific vision is indeed uncomfortable. But notice the way Blaise Pascal expresses his surprise and fright:
«When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Why now rather than then? Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time have been ascribed to me?»
And look at the way scientist Michel Cassé describes our connection to the universe, and the fact that we are literally sons of the stars:
«When we drink a drop of water, we drink the Universe, because a molecule of water, the H2O, gathers in itself the hydrogen – a vestige of the initial explosion, the Big Bang -, and the oxygen, produced in the furnace of the stars and exhaled by them». «When observing the stars, you should see them in other perspective. Take into account what they really are: the mothers of the atoms of which we are constituted, the atoms that constitute the mortal and thinking species that admire the sun as a god, a father or a nuclear station».
And meditate on the way Edgar Morin describes the dynamic of the creation of the elements that compose the Universe:
«Without ceasing stars switch off and explode and planets freeze; without ceasing fragments and dust of dead suns and planets gather, whirling round over themselves to give birth to new galaxies and new suns».
Isn’t there true poetry? Blaise Pascal, Morin, or Cassé may not be poets but when they described the universe and its mechanisms the way they do, they wrote and chanted the poetry that Feynman claimed.