One of the most interesting things one can do is to allow one’s thoughts free association, and starting from a given point, go off at a tangent and see where it gets one.
For instance, I was thinking about the beginning of the universe.
For the purpose of this discussion, I will adhere to the widely accepted Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this posits that space and time, and all matter and energy contained therein, originated in a singularity of infinite density some 13.7 billion years ago, which expanded extremely rapidly, forming elemental particles which in the course of time combined to form atoms, and then molecules, and ultimately all matter as we know it today.
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The Big Bang isn’t really in doubt except perhaps amongst people who value religious mythology over hard science, but I don’t exactly have time for those people so I won’t consider them here. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, as the primordial burst of energy expanded, cooled, and formed matter, it rose the crest of an expanding bubble, containing all of space, of which time is a function (since it’s impossible to get from any point in space to any other instantaneously, even if the points are right next to each other).
This expansion of spacetime is not a myth. This expansion is a fact. It can be observed to this day, because the galaxies are still moving apart from each other. The Universe is growing larger.
Now, what happens as the Universe grows larger and larger? If we consider an expanding bubble, ultimately a point arrives when the bubble either collapses on itself or flies apart into its component droplets (bursts). But that holds true for a bubble, which has an external environment. The Universe doesn’t, because as far as we can know from all available parameters, there is nothing outside.
Therefore, the Universe can’t burst, and that leaves two alternatives; first, that it will continue expanding till the end of time, which isn’t quite as metaphysical a concept as one might think; the other is that the gravitational attraction of its own material will ultimately slow down and halt the expansion, after which it will finally begin collapsing, to end in a “Big Crunch” which will possibly create another singularity that might start the whole process over again. (As far as is known till date, there is insufficient material in the Universe to cause gravitational collapse, but research into dark matter may change minds on that.)
Neither prospect is particularly alluring; in the first instance, the stars will grow old and die, with less and less material left over to form new stars; and ultimately the galaxies, filled with the cold corpses of dead suns, will wink out and there will only be the encroaching darkness of endless night. The other alternative is that everything we know will eventually be wiped out so completely that not even the space it occupies will be left – not even the material that comprises your body and mine will exist.
Either way, in the end, everything dies.
Now, let’s take the tangential path and look at it from the point of view of a human life. If we trace our conscious memories backwards, we’d arrive at a point where they peter out; before that moment, there is nothing we can consciously recall, though our minds and brains existed, in a state too unformed to record and preserve memories. Let’s take that as the point equivalent to the one where the first matter began to form, and accreted into what would ultimately form stars, planets, satellites, comets, and galaxies. And as the galaxies form and mature, so do our lives develop, and our minds grow up and form adult patterns.
Thinking back, then, there would have to have been that point of the birth of consciousness, when the brain cells developed enough to be self-aware, though without memory – the equivalent of the Big Bang. That would be the flowering of the life-energy, as it were; and throughout life, our personal universe – in the case of most of us, at least – would keep growing, as we accumulate memories, experience, and modify our expectations in accordance with physical realities (just as all material objects in the Universe are modified by gravitational fields). And, therefore, as long as we live, our universe would keep expanding, but would it be cooling and darkening as physical and mental powers fail?
Now, personally, I don’t believe in any kind of life after death, so for the purposes of this discussion I won’t go into that. Assuming, then, that death does come as the end of life, what of the expanding personal universe? Does it, like spacetime, continue expanding until there is nothing in it left to expand? At what point does actual death come, when there is nothing left to think, or dream about – even if the body still exists, like the cold dark remnants of a black dwarf star?
I’m sure at this point, the theory of the Big Crunch suddenly begins to look more attractive, because it offers the possibility of a rebirth, even if everything we know would be utterly annihilated, and even though there’s absolutely no assurance that there would be a rebirth at all, or that a new universe would obey even remotely the same kind of physical laws as this one. By comparison, a new life might be a completely different life, so utterly different as to be beyond comprehension. Can a human comprehend the mind of a locust or a roundworm?
At this point, I wonder if the entire Big Crunch theory – without the backing, yet, of any hard scientific proof – is attractive simply because it offers the possibility of rebirth? If we were utterly logical creatures, would we have even considered it?
And just how does the Big Crunch hold up against the essential nihilism of the continuing expansion of the Universe and the death of the stars? After all, in the long run, every effort is futile, isn’t it? Everything is going to die.
Is that why most societies fear and dislike nihilism, which says that there is no such thing as a higher reality or purpose? And is nihilism the only clear-thinking philosophical model?
The stars are in the sky, shining. They’ll still be shining when we die. But they won’t shine forever.
I just wonder if, at that time, these questions will have any reply.