Life, heat death, and the meaning of it all

Thirteen and a half billion years ago, something happened. Billions, perhaps trillions of years from now, nothing will ever happen again.

For a short time near the beginning of that unimaginable span, conditions in the universe are right for life. For an instant during that window of existence, humans live. And for a brief part of that instant, you and I live.

Yes, I’ve been watching cosmology documentaries again. Sigh.

When I watch shows like Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe,” I can’t help alternating between two very different frames of mind.

I am always fascinated intellectually by the science of the thing. And I am always clobbered emotionally by my own insignificance in the face of that science.

The most affecting moment of the first episode of “Wonders” comes when Cox illustrates the likely time frame for the eventual “heat death” of the universe. I’m sure that I’m not alone in having thought, without much real consideration, that the span of time ahead of now was something in the ballpark of the span of time up to now. Apparently, that’s not true. While it took the universe only some nine or so billion years to go from Big Bang to life on Earth, in an open universe the time to the last movement of the last active photon could be trillions of years. And in all of those immeasurable eons, life as we know it will have been chemically impossible for far more than 99.9% of that time.

It’s one thing to try to come to grips with the shortness of one’s own life, to find a fairly comfortable (or at least endurable) philosophy that keeps one going. It’s quite another thing to try to grasp the idea that life itself is only a momentary burp in the normal, organically-dead state of the universe. And don’t get me started on multiple universes!

I don’t know about you, but for me this greater insignificance has more bite than the mere fact that I won’t be around forever. So much for the fantasy that in some distant future our descendants will have figured it all out, that even if we don’t go on, life itself will certainly do so. No, it seems, it certainly won’t.

Now is not the time for my religious friends to urge me to accept the love of Jesus or the contentment of Buddhist meditation or any other form of “other”-ness. I don’t buy it, I’m not going to buy it. And even if I did buy it in some “no atheists in foxholes” sense, that would make no difference to the truths against which faith fights its endless losing battle.

And the triumph of human physical and moral evolution won’t matter much when the last star goes out. So much for science and technology. What planet do we move to when there are no more planets? And what will out-of-body energy beings do when the very light waves of which they are composed cease functioning?

In this rather roundabout way, we’ve come to the point of this article, which is contemplating the dilemma of unbelievers like me, and like most of you. Without the God fantasy, or the equally-unreal Roddenberry future, what the hell’s the point?

Of course, with neither groundless faith nor unrealistic optimism, the answer is that there isn’t any point. Paraphrasing Camus’s reason for rejecting suicide, who are we to demand that there be a point? What pathetic egocentrism.

So here we are, saddled with fleeting consciousness as fleeting members of a fleeting species of the fleeting chemical beings that exist for a fleeting moment in the timespan of a  universe the future of which is the final triumph of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Are we having a good time yet?

Yet I keep going, you keep going, we all keep going around the cosmic prickly pear, not just at five o`clock in the morning, but all day long. It seems that we just can’t help it. And that, it seems, is the “answer,” although of course an answer is not what it is.

Life has its own impulse, its own pointless point. It’s not a point like a debating point, but it is an impulse, the motivation that underlies all our other feelings. That’s exactly what it is — an elementary motivation.

We acknowledge the shortness of life in many ways, from the compelling bone crypts of medieval clerics to the pop culture mantra that we’re here “for a good time, not a long time.” Yet, we go on. We’re nice to our friends; we love our partners, our children, and our dogs. We feel fulfilled when things go well, and we are determined to do better next time when they don’t.

We just can’t help it. Life has us by the throat, and it doesn’t want to let us go. The Absolute Zero chill of knowing that it’s all for naught, if an enduring or justifying purpose is what we seek, can be a major downer. It can bring on emptiness and pointlessness like nothing else can.

But we keep on being nice to our friends and loving our partners, our children, and our dogs — because that’s what life does. Like Archibald MacLeish’s poem, it “does not mean, but be.”

This is not rational, but it makes all the sense there is, all the same.

6 thoughts on “Life, heat death, and the meaning of it all

  1. Nice post – I do not know if I ever thought very long about the finitude of our human universe – it certainly reminds those of us with aspirations of being the next ‘Einstein’ or that we are contributing to some important scientific or political ‘movement’ that our efforts will ultimately be futile. So much for a life-transcending source of ‘meaning’ – and so much for our self constructed ‘illusions’ to help us deal with the anxiety that maybe there is no ultimate meaning. Yet, recognizing this stuff (and forcing ourselves to remember it from time to time), brings us closer to feeling alive and valuing that very life that we keep trying to extend… I think this is what allows us to have greatest appreciation for our ‘here and now’ moments with other people (even if we frequently misunderstand those people). We’re all in the same metaphysical boat I guess – and I don’t know about you, but that alone gives me a sense of comfort.

    • Yes – thank goodness for that boat – we can all be pointless and alone together. Now if we’d all just recast our moral codes around that image …

  2. That is saying that what keeps us going is relationships. True? Somehow caring for the place has to come into it.


    I have had an observation involving the second law generally and the theoretical heat death in particular for some time now and it has become a short book. I queried a science question and answer service regarding a major aspect of the book for a little confirmation, and confirmation I received. “Since stars are very close to being isolated systems, the second law of thermodynamics states that their entropy can only grow with time. Therefore you are right that the production of helium and heavier elements (in their core) out of hydrogen, and the final explosion of massive stars as supernovae can be viewed as particular instances of the thermodynamic arrow of time.” Alexandre Le Tiec MCFP Postdoctoral Fellow in the Maryland Center for Fundamental Physics at University of Maryland, College Park, working in the field of theoretical astrophysics.

    Although it relates to disorder in certain respects, people often become confused about “entropy,” the second law of thermodynamics, as disorder. So, it is being redefined in many introductory textbooks for physics and chemistry as energy dispersal thanks to retired chemistry professor, Frank L. Lambert. “Energetically, the second law of thermodynamics favors the formation of the majority of all known complex and ordered chemical compounds from the simpler elements. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, the second law does not dictate the decrease of ordered structure in its predictions, it only demands a “spreading out” of energy in all processes.”–Frank L. Lambert, from the website:

    This all comes as a confirmation of something I have wrestled with for some time as a non-scientist, although science does run in my family. Doing a lot of reading that sometimes left me scratching my head in regard to the traditional definition of the second law, (Such as work by Stephen Hawking.), I discerned many processes that would be defined as entropy that also happen to be necessary for evolution and life. Chief among these is the theoretical heat death of the universe some trillions of years from now which strikes me as a kind of nihilistic boogieman of science and the media, especially when no mention is made of the apparent fact that whatever else this boogieman may be, he seems to facilitate our existence. Are we the heat death in progress?

    EXCERPT “Organic cells form, reproduce, and die within complex organisms that are born, reproduce, and die, within species and civilizations that eventually segue into new species and civilizations or simply carry on until they become extinct. All because stars are born, age, die, and are replaced, some former and current stars facilitating habitable planets and life.”

    As the late Dr. Carl Sagan famously said “We are star stuff.” How might this relate to the theoretical heat death? All of these issues are addressed in the title essay in this short book, and there are several poems pondering aspects of science and/or spirituality, often from a Panentheist perspective, one of which appeared in Philosophy Now Magazine.

    “…Latranz is a burgeoning Albuquerque author with obvious skill at his craft.”~Local i.Q. newspaper.
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