Monday, April 28, 2008

Cogito ergo mundus talis est

I was just flipping through my copy of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's Watchmen, which, I have to say, is every bit as good as the hype says it is. Anyway, I was reading the bit where Laurie was on Mars with Naked Blue Guy (whose name I forget and can't be bothered to look up) and Laurie was trying to convince NBG that the Earth is worth saving from nuclear apocalypse. Just so you know, NBG used to be human, but thanks to an accident (involving radiation, of course!) turned into a super-powerful being with control over Time and Space. Long story short, she inadvertently did convince him, she asked him why and this is what NBG said:

NBG: "Thermodynamic miracles... Events with odds against so astronomical they're effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.

And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter... until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged.

To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold... that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle."

Laurie: "But... if me, my birth, if that's a thermodynamic miracle... I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!"

NBG: "Yes. Anybody in the world... but the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget... I forget.

We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another's vantage point, as if new, but may still take the breath away.

Come... dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly. Dry your eyes and let's go home."

I read these words with many facets of my being clamouring to put forward their opinion. Two stand out.

The scientist in me says: Whoever wrote this dialogue has no grasp whatsoever of the anthropic principle or quarks. There are 3 quarks to every proton. Another 3 to every neutron. There are more quarks in my little finger than there are stars in the sky. As for thermodynamic miracles, let's talk about the anthropic principle.

The easiest description of the anthropic principle is this charming example: Take 10 criminals sentenced to death, 10 riflemen and give them 9 bullets. 9 headshots later, 1 criminal is left. Is he lucky? Of course not! 1 criminal HAD to live! He feels lucky for the simple reason that he is alive to do so. In the same way, this universe, as it is now, is the only universe of countless others that could possibly exist as perceived by me. The egocentric bias experienced by all humans is what compels us to feel particularly privileged to find ourselves in such circumstances. As such, the thermodynamic miracles NBG was nattering on about are a meaningless illusion, which brings me to what the other part of me says...

The Zen-influenced side of me says: There was never any meaning. Nor was there any lack of meaning. It's the mind that chooses, consciously or not, to give meaning to NBG's happy speech. Though the science behind NBG's talk is complete and utter bollocks, one should cut through the veil of ill-chosen words and understand the intent: That Moore (the writer) wanted to instill a sense of wonder about life by invoking it's sheer unlikelihood. And here I find myself conflicted.

Through the eyes of Zen, there is no wonder. What is, simply is. Or as Ayn Rand would have it, A is A. But a very human scientist in me empathises with the wonder that Moore was trying to invoke. It insists that life in all its forms is full of wonders for those who are willing to see. It yearns to help those around me tear down the fairytales they surround themselves with and see the universe in all its glory.

Which attitude would better serve the greater good? Zen's lofty indifference? Or the scientist's passion?

1 comment:

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