GEGEN DEN UNTERGANG: Peter Kafka (HOME) > Six Essays > On the World‘s Ends (1976) x



On the World’s Ends

The ideas of this essay developed since 1968 in occasional talks about cosmology and evolution to various audiences. It was written in early 1976 at the request of the editors of “The Encyclopedia of Ignorance”, a book which collected articles about open questions and speculative ideas in various branches of science. I was supposed to write about the future of the physical universe. Since I didn’t stick to my theme, the editors wanted to publish only the first two thirds of the manuscript. So, I withdrew it. Copies were, however, widely spread among parts of the astrophysical community and the general public – particularly among people interested in the question of extraterrestrial life. Later, it was printed in Munich Social Science Review 1978/2, 91-99. – When Freeman Dyson spent a year (1977/78) as a guest of the Max-Planck-Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich, we had many lunch-discussions on similar topics. He then dug deeply into relevant fundamental problems of physics, biology and information theory and published an excellent comprehensive review of his findings: F. J. Dyson, Time without end: Physics and biology in an open universe. Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 51, No 3, July 1979, 447-460.

Looking forward to billions of years makes us long for a path of knowledge. Unfortunately, science is the path of ignorance. It is the art of asking simple questions. So simple that they can be answered, and that nature repeats the same answers whenever we ask. Most scientists adhere to the superstition that, eventually, all questions can be reduced to such simple ones.

The world around us started investigating itself less than a million years ago. Apart from problems with daily bread and daily violence, the questions asked have been the same through the ages: Whence do we come? Where do we go? And why?

Science has just reached the level of the first aspect of this trinity of questions: The world’s origin.

As long as the social environment did not change significantly during the life of one generation, the ideas of a static God and a stationary world were natural. Hence, when physical science appeared, its task was considered to be the search for unchangeable laws. Like all good conservatives, many physicists clung to the eternal unchangeability not only of laws, but also of the state of the world. Even Einstein initially thought, and always felt, in favour of a static universe. If taken consequently, this concept implies thermodynamic equilibrium. Man would have to be a statistical fluctuation.

Today we know that our world – that is all we can see or experience – is not in equilibrium, but has been evolving from extreme simplicity to greater and greater complexity. It seems that there was the birth of man, the birth of life, of the stars, of matter, of space and time. Scientists of all disciplines are revealing the drives behind this procreative power of the universe. Cosmologists are already asking questions about its very beginning. For instance, one can inquire whether basic physical laws allow a derivation of the present state of the universe from an initial state of maximal simplicity – maximal in some sense of extreme order or disorder. We may instead find that our initial conditions are not distinguished in such a way but are rather accidental. Then we may go in for statistics about worlds with various initial conditions, embedded (physically or mathematically) in some meta-world which lies beyond our direct perceptivity. Conservatives may even please their minds’ longing for steadiness by considering the meta-world to be in equilibrium, thus making our own world a fluctuation phenomenon. But however unlikely it may appear from such a point of view, within our world evolution to more and more complexity must have been inevitable.

It seems possible now, and even likely, that science will answer the question of whence we come: Out of simple symmetry, or chaos, or nothingness. All we need may be some mathematical building instructions (the basic physical laws, still largely hidden), and an initial state of sufficient impetus to cause the expansion in space and time, thus preventing equilibrium. It may not be fully proven yet, but assumed as a reasonable working hypothesis, that these two provisions entail, for purely statistical reasons, the formation of increasingly complicated structures and, hence, the whole subsequent evolution.

Let us quickly go through history. Make the age of the world 12 billion years (it may in fact be a bit older) and squeeze those into 12 months. Let it be New Year’s Eve today.

Remember: On last New Year’s Eve the whole world which we see now was extremely near us, perhaps in one point with us, totally structureless, at least orderless, but endowed with the impetus to expand against gravity and with the rules of how to build structures. In a minute fraction of the first second of the first of January, elementary particles are created in this primeval medium. Matter appears in the form of Hydrogen and Helium. It becomes dominant after a while (on January first or second), for expansion thins radiation faster than matter. When the radiation is cool enough to decouple from Hydrogen, matter can follow its tendency to escape from the expansion and form lumps. But instead of fully submitting to gravity and collapsing into Black Holes, it has to assemble in very long-lived structures, with gravity balanced by rotation or various kinds of pressure.

Before the end of January the galaxies and the first generations of stars have formed. From now on stars brew the heavier chemical elements. Dying stars enrich the interstellar gas with such material. Laws of nuclear physics let Carbon become especially abundant, laws of atomic and molecular physics enforce the formation of organic molecules on the surfaces of dust grains in the gas surrounding stars. (During the past few years, radio astronomers have detected more and more complicated organic molecules in such conditions.)

By the middle of August, our sun and its planetary system are formed in a contracting cloud of gas and dust. It takes less than a day for the sun to achieve approximately its present properties and supply its planets with a more or less steady stream of high-temperature radiation. The formation of an atmosphere and oceans on the earth leads to an ideal environment for the kind of chemical evolution which radio astronomers find in irradiated circumstellar clouds. The earth’s atmosphere does not yet contain free Oxygen, and thus ultraviolet light can reach its surface. Laws of statistics favour the formation of complexity in a system receiving high-temperature radiation and re-radiating the energy at low temperature.

Is it only due to my ignorance that I wonder whether auto-catalysis is already effective even at this level of pre-biological evolution? Does the rate of formation of some molecule in a mixture containing its constituents, and given luminous or chemical energy, grow with the concentration of this molecule? It may be a matter of taste to decide when to call the earth’s surface alive. The main condition for the genesis of life seems to be that it doesn’t exist yet: it would consume the primeval soup of organic molecules.

By the middle of September the oldest rocks on the earth’s present surface have formed. From the beginning of October we have the first news about organisms: fossils of algae. The first vertebrate fossils date from December 16. On December 19 plants conquer the continents, and the fish form jaw-bones. On the 20th of December the land is covered with woods, and the atmosphere becomes rich in Oxygen. (Strong ultraviolet light is no longer desirable. More complexity is allowed with softer radiation!) On the 22nd and 23rd, when our coal-beds are formed, amphibious quadrupeds originate from lung-fish and conquer the damp lands. From these, reptiles are born and settle on dry land on December 24th. Warm blood is invented on the 25th. Late in the evening there are the first mammals, living a paltry existence beside the dinosaurs during the next two days. In recesses, hidden from the mighty, intelligence prepares. On the 27th birds form out of reptiles. On the 28th and 29th mammals and birds take over the power from the dragons. During the night before the 30th, the (still continuing) formation of the Alps and other young mountain ranges begins.

Up to now, essentially all biological information is fixed in molecules of nucleic acid. On the 30th of December, storage in large protein structures – the brains – begins to supplement this genetic fixation: Learning becomes important. Soul and mind start evolving. In the night before December 31st the human twig shoots off the branch which led to the present primates. Now, we have one day left to develop ourselves. With about twenty generations per second this seems easy. But documentation is poor. Only from about ten in the evening we have the relics of Olduvai gorge. Five minutes before midnight the Neanderthal people thrive, with brains about as big as ours. Two minutes before twelve, we sit around the fire, shouting and whining and rhythmically clapping our hands, paint deer and bison on thewall of our caves, start asking our three questions, and put weapons or honey and grain into our fathers’ tombs. History has been handed down for fifteen seconds in China and Egypt. Five seconds before twelve, Jesus Christ is born. One second before twelve, the Christians start the extermination of the American civilizations. How many living species do we now exterminate every day? – Gong! – Here we are in the new year. What will it bring?

In cosmology, there is one question about the future which can be answered by extrapolation from the past: Will the universe expand forever, or will it re-contract? The answer is simple: “In my beginning is my end”. Like a missile that is shot from the earth’s surface into space, it will go off toinfinity or fall back, depending on its initial velocity. So, if the initial impetus was sufficient, universal expansion could never be stopped but only slowed down by gravity. If it was insufficient, however, gravity would win and reverse expansion into contraction some time in the far future. Our entire visible world would then return to an extremely dense state, perhaps to one singular point. Then, “time must have a stop”.

Present theories say that a world which is finite in time, also has a limited space, whereas the ever-expanding world has infinite space. To decide which kind of world we live in, we need to make more observations; but if the law of gravity is that of Newton and Einstein, and if there is not much more invisible than visible matter around us, observations favour the everexpanding model. However, should the world eventually re-contract, it would first continue to expand for at least as long as it did so far, and the subsequent contraction phase would last exactly as long as the expansion. Can it be a reasonable question what our far future would be in either of these models of the universe?

Looking forward to billions of years, we may find our curiosity withered. It does not seem possible to find our ends in our origin. The origin was too simple. What matters, is the front of evolution, here and now.

In our neighbourhood, the time-scale of evolution has become shorter and shorter: Billions of years were needed for physical, chemical and biological selection, until that beautiful organism, the system of life, covered our planet. But a few million years were enough to create man, the latest organ or blossom of that organism. And man realizes that he is not just another animal: Post-biological evolution has set in with him. In addition to genetically fixed behaviour, traditions are built up and inherited through education. Biological mutation and selection lose their governing influence. Revolutionary thinking and inventive planning are the mutative forces which change tradition. With its new organ, life changes its environment much faster and more radically than before. Technology incorporates more and more matter into the process of life. New and extremely complicated structures develop, such as libraries, or the art of the fugue. Such structures are not in themselves reproductive, but self-reproduction and, hence, personal death have gained a new quality: Whereas the essence of a plant or an insect lies in its genes, and is reproducible, the essence of man is not. In spite of communication, a great man, or a loved one, seems to take much more with him than he leaves. Even with libraries and other means of tradition, human death appears as an irretrievable loss. We would like so much to have another world for our souls.

Can we renounce that wish, and learn to love ourselves and each other as mortal parts of something unknown beyond us, evolving from us? Can’t we die in peace, even if we have no biological offspring, and if we can scarcely discover traces of our own soul and mind in the world? Our traces must be there and must help shape the world, contributing a tiny bit to the evolution of God, even after we have disappeared as physical and biological entities. The laws of physics and biology are no longer dominating the fight at the front of evolution. This front has moved from the level of physics through chemistry and biology to technology and noology. Further we can’t see. But is there any reason to think that we are the end?

Yes there is.

Like at the last turn of a millennium, but now with far more justification, we may fear that the world’s end is near. We talked about noology and hushed up the fact that technology has rudely pushed aside soul and mind. Within a few generations, science and technology have become rampant like a malignant tumor. Evolution rages towards a singular point in the history of the earth, a crisis which has never before occurred: Its time-scale is becoming as short as the life-span of the individuals at its front. But for our genetically and traditionally fixed abilities of adaptation, acquired in the course of several hundred thousand generations, will be inadequate or even fatal if we change our world significantly during our life-time.

It is not at all clear whether such a critical point can be overcome. As our line of life approaches it, complicated feed-back mechanisms seem to force it nearer and nearer, more and more rapidly. With an approximately exponential expansion of population and technology, every finite space will be exhausted very soon. On the other hand, as we hit the walls (or rather our neighbours), socio-economic pressure grows and accelerates technological development even further. Therefore, the psychological and sociological strain connected with the precipitation in time, must coincide with the strains due to lack of space and resources.

Do we have time to find economic, social and spiritual frames in which mankind can survive? And are we even searching in the right direction?

We certainly cannot learn from the past, for evolution was then subcritical. Extrapolation across a singular point is impossible. Therefore, blind trust in a laissez-faire ideology would be foolish. The once useful principles of evolution, our instincts and traditions, together with a degenerating technology, can now lead us only into turmoil and chaos, where we will dissipate all recent achievements of evolution, perhaps destroy terrestrial life itself, and leave scorched earth.

Clearly, something new must happen. Evolution must circumvent the critical point by opening another path, bringing in some new laws of interaction. A new level must be climbed. But it is no longer “nature” that is responsible for evolution. It is us. We are the front of evolution. We have to do it. And what are we doing?

Looking at the activities of mankind, the physicist Max Born said at the end of his life: “Nature’s attempt to produce a thinking creature has failed”. In the years since, we haven’t improved much. There may be some progress in behaviour, but it is usually followed by a quick set-back, and such progress is definitely much slower than in technology. As was always our usage, everybody wants to be at the top and wants to see others at the bottom. It is progress that this division is no longer inheritable. So, it has to be created anew for each generation, and this produces more strain than the old inequality. Children are bent and crippled in school to make a good bottom. Talents and qualifications are mainly used to gain privileges. The idea that they should only bring more responsibilities is not seriously considered in our part of the world.

Another example of progress: Slavery. Formerly all people were needed because there could never be too many slaves. Then, slaves were replaced by machines because these could still be owned as private property. For a while this will work quite well: Production of nonsense and waste feeds more and more people who are needed to ask for the nonsense and remove the waste. But suddenly some resources are exhausted or choked up by waste, or people can’t consume all the absurdities, or the owners may simply have enough – and people find themselves unemployed. Students leave school or university and find that they are not needed, while at the same time most true tasks remain untouched.

One way out is war, isn’t it? People are needed in wars, and after wars. In fact, within the rich part of the world, war without killing would be sufficient. Only the destruction of things is needed to create new jobs. Killing could be replaced by sex and football.

Still more hopeless, of course, is the situation in the so-called underdeveloped countries, where we first robbed the people of their hats and then left them alone in the sun.

But what’s new with all this grousing of bad-tempered old men? Indeed, nothing new, except the nearness of the singular point.

Our planet is full, and technological growth changes it faster than man and the biosphere can adapt. If we compare the recent man-built structures with the biological and cultural wealth they replace, it seems (even if we were to forget about war) that our main activity is destruction. Within the present tenth of a second in our compressed history we are scattering to the winds all of the oil which the sun has helped us to compose during the last ten days, and we are blighting our source and our children with radio-active and chemical waste. In a Darwinian sense, technological civilization seems to have been superior. It has won. But what happens after the best has won and has closed the system? Does evolution simply come to an end if diversity has been destroyed and cannot be re-created by expansion?

Is this the hour of the conservative utopian? Can we reduce the speed of evolution by suppression? Is this, at last, the opportunity to establish the static, perfectly organized state? No! Confinement goes with rigidity. An ordered death is no better than the chaotic one which we hope to avoid. And, anyhow, a static solution would certainly be unstable and would quickly be driven towards the critical point again.

So, what we have to find seems to be a self-organization of mankind that provides for a steady non-catastrophic evolution under the conditions of restricted population and consumption. A main prerequisite will be that expansion takes place on a new level with far more diversity than economic, technological and military competition can offer. Then, the speed of evolution may become sub-critical without repression. Let us assume we succeed. Then, what will follow?

Within my limited view from the path of ignorance, two tracks show dimly far beyond the blurring abyss of the impending crisis. One leads inwards, one outwards: The development of our mental abilities, and the conquering of habitable planets.

There are hints that our present consciousness is but a poor prelude of things to come. Not only great artists or intellectuals make me feel that way, but also the intriguing evidence of extrasensory perception, telepathic communication between minds, or even the direct influence of mind on matter. Especially in those cases where only one mind is involved one can perhaps ask questions simple enough to expect nature to answer in a simple way. But so far this has not been done in a convincing manner. We are still totally ignorant.

One may ask how much space and energy, and how many individuals would be needed for further mental evolution. It seems that the earth with its share of solar energy and the present population should by far be sufficient. This might represent an almost infinite spiritual space, and enough land to live on as gardeners of the world. We could easily fulfill all our needs by harvesting solar energy with some kind of biological engineering. Then, why don’t we jump over to that path right now? The problem is that man is still more of a hunter than a gardener. And he loves huge dangerous machines which make him proud of his power over his progenitor, nature. The dinosaurs with their towers of protein had to vanish, and we are proud of our infinitely simpler concrete towers. Who is proud of his cancer because of its growth? Science and technology have brought us to the critical point too early. We may see the other much more attractive path of evolution very near, but it seems that we can’t reach it. We don’t strive to be; we strive to have. We want economic, not spiritual growth.

Then, why not try space travel, where the luxuriant growth of science and technology must be useful? Many could be employed, and all could suffer at least as hard as in war, if we were to prepare for the colonization of our galaxy. Adam was not bored, and our galaxy with its hundred billion stars would offer space to keep Adam’s task for another million years – that is for about the first hour of the new year in our compressed history. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the world, and subdue it. Space ships like Noah’s ark would have to travel for perhaps a few centuries to find a habitable planet. Within another thousand years or so, a new home could be sufficiently populated to start one or a few similar expeditions from there. In this way, mankind could trickle throughout our galaxy and populate all favourable stars within less time than it took to develop man from apes.

This provokes wild speculations: Are we the only living society in our galaxy? If not, why did others not come here? Or did they, and leave us uninfluenced, because they have more reverence for life than we have? Or did they interfere very cautiously? If nobody ever came here, does that show that intelligent life is always a very short-lived phenomenon? That perhaps it can nowhere evolve beyond our type of critical point? Or does intra-galactic communication set in before space travel, and one realizes that the bodies don’t have to expand further in space, because the spread of information is more appropriate for the development of a new superstructure: galactic culture?

Clearly, both space travel and interstellar communication take too long to help us out of our present crisis. This path may be reachable from some safe plateau later on. Now, it is the impending, not the distant future which we have to shape. The abyss has to be crossed first. Therefore, our prospects are gloomy. Even where we seem to have a free vote we will continue to bungle from election to election. choosing mostly ambitious and irresponsible leaders who have to think in terms of four years, and the few people who dare ask radical questions will be ridiculed or pushed out of their jobs or into jail. Not only in totalitarian societies do we admire central power more than diversity. We even establish new bureaucracies in order to organize our march into the singular point more efficiently. And if we cry for jobs we mean productivity, not creativity. We don’t want further evolution. We want the nice old economic growth. We are preparing for collective suicide.

If we fail, it will start again or be tried elsewhere. If we have been alone in our galaxy, it happens in others. We can’t see that far, and it isn’t our task. Still, it would be encouraging, or comforting, to find from cosmological observations that our universe is of the open type, offering infinite space and time. Then, physical laws would allow for an unbounded evolution. And since this type of world would never reach an equilibrium, the drive behind evolution – the drive towards more complexity – would last for ever. As the stars burn out, and one day no new ones are born any longer, as matter and radiation are thinned out more and more, it would certainly become increasingly difficult to live. But it wouldn’t be us who would have to do so. Not even science fiction reaches that far. We cannot envisage the essence of structures which will be at the front of evolution after us. We don’t know ourselves yet. How could we be so arrogant as to ask for the world’s end? The world is open and undetermined. It has to be shaped by man. “Werelt” means “man’s age”. We have to find a way.

A clear mind of our century (my namesake) said: “There is a goal but no way; what we call way is hesitation”. Yes, with all despondency we should know what we have to do now in order to fulfill our liability for evolution. But if we look out to the coming billions of years, hoping to find support from answers to the where and why, we must turn the aphorism round: There is a way, but no goal; what we call goal is a fancy of our impatience.