In his new book, The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in Cosmological Perspective, philosopher Clement Vidal (@clemvidal) explores the two main trends of the universe: rising disorder and complexity. As a result, his investigation takes us to the most extreme conditions possible in our universe.
We have been familiar with the rising trend of disorder for well over a century. Informed from studies of thermodynamics in the 19th century, our species came to the realization that, slowly but surely, our universe -- currently filled with ordered and organizing phenomena like galaxies, stars, planets, and life -- seems destined to fall apart. And in a cosmological context there is little we can do about it.
After the Stelliferous Era (our current cosmological era, which began 1 million years After Bang (A.B.) and will last until 100 trillion years A.B.), the universe will steadily degrade, losing all of its potential energy and thus all of its structure. This will take an incomprehensibly long period of time and will occur in forbiddingly titled eras (in order): Degenerate, Black Hole, and Dark. In the final era of the universe, there will be no difference, just darkness, forever.
Such a future narrative, though aligned with with current data and theory, presents humans with profound psychological challenges. How can we, a species that embeds our entire existence with purpose and meaning, come to terms with this ultimate fate of the universe? Can we come to terms with a universe that, as technologist Kevin Kelly stated, is destined to become a "hell of uniformity"?
Many have struggled with the universe's ultimate fate in the past. The great 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell famously lamented in A Free Man's Worship (1903):
All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction.... The whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.
A universe in ruins. It is hard not to adopt a type of hopeless nihilism when confronting such inevitabilities. And indeed, Russell's pessimism about the future of humanity is just as relevant today as it was at the dawn of the 20th century.
However, another great thinker, the naturalist Charles Darwin, offered us a hope. After writing his masterwork on human evolution, The Descent of Man (1871), he speculated about the human future, given what he saw in the overarching trends stemming from the mechanism of evolution by natural selection:
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.
Darwin gave humans license to dream. In his new book Vidal takes Darwin up on the challenge and dares to extrapolate the second trend that Big Historians and cosmic evolutionary theorists see: the trend of rising complexity.
The trend of rising complexity has been known for about as long as the trend of rising disorder, but it has not received nearly the same amount of attention or serious academic inquiry. The universe, over its long 13.8 billion years existence, has managed to produce atoms, molecules, cells, multicellular organisms, societies of organisms, etc.
In a cosmic context, humans appear to be on the threshold of yet another major complexity transition, a transition toward becoming a planetary superorganism equipped with a global metabolism and nervous system. What will humans become over deep time? Darwin wondered but never speculated further. Vidal boldly attempts to take us to the very end of what he sees in the rising complexity of the universe.
On this journey into the future, Vidal makes well-reasoned and scientifically grounded philosophical speculations. These speculations stimulate the mind, open up new scientific frontiers for human inquiry, and dare us to find an optimistic cosmic morality and vision in a universe drifting toward complete darkness. Is it possible for order to win the day?
If you want to learn more, you can watch Vidal explore the main points of the book here.