Catastrophy Beyond Imagination

All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins. All these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
– Bertrand Russell, 1957.

Thermodynamic decay does not end anywhere particularly pleasant for any of us. While these few years available to human beings might allow for the cultivation of some relative intellectual perspicacity and reflective or philosophical reasoning on the matter, Cosmic heat death seems to be fairly inconsequential in regards to the more immediate and pressing existential burden embodied by that awareness and foreknowledge of impending personal extinction that any individual must eventually encounter as a fact. The even grander and more terrifying scales, depths and consequences of this material reality as indicated by various other intractable facts of existence or physics tend to be so far removed from the secure semiotic coccoon of everyday experience that a person can quite easily live an entire life staring into the indistinct but comfortingly limited and intelligible reflective surface of human culture. It is quite possible to pass from cradle to grave completely oblivious to the concepts of the deep time, space and material contingency which underlie and nourish the very possibility for the existence of a human world.

This very simple, very small and self-obsessed symbolic world within which we find ourselves embedded represents something of an enigma and deep mystery. It is almost as strange that it is quite so simple, given the ready availability of information on all matters of fact (and yes, of falsehood) in this current era, to completely ignore the depths, wonder and improbability of any part or experience of this life by substituting (or sublimating) fascination with much more predictable, limited and culturally-stultifying simplicities and the disassembling-fictions of a shameless and relentlessly self-seeking commercially self-interested symbolic world.

I am utterly disappointed with this world’s serial failures of imagination; at cultural, political and ideological levels. I also suspect that it will be a failure of imagination and of creative intellect which may guarantee the premature termination of human civilisation and while I am not keen to wager on the specifics of this downfall, a collective inability to see beyond the simple means and ends of our individual self-interests already indicates something of a monumental cultural, economic and political blindspot in regards to the strikingly brittle fragility of a human world on the cusp of an irremediable Climate Catastrophe.

Some dawning realities are so vast that we do not even have words, let alone cognitive methods, to characterise or represent them. For this reason it may be no surprise that we are very likely unable to respond rapidly enough to climate change: it is on a scale and of an order of magnitude that we can not intelligibly comprehend it; it is fundamentally outside of the consensus logical bounds of human intellect and culture.

Justifying Imagination in Science

Context: To advance science we need to think about the impossible.

Albert Einstein once opined that “imagination is more important than knowledge” and it may well be that this is true.  Free-range creative thinking (combined with intensive hard work and passionate dedication) is where the greatest ideas and discoveries often come from and this begs several questions.  What can an education system starved of funds can really do in the realms of blue-sky thinking and grand academic omphaloskepsis.  Will private interests and corporations pick up the bill ?  Will an academic system reliant on the likely self-interested biases of corporate sponsorship find itself subsequently enslaved to those interests ?  Does directed research inevitably select for limited intellectual and scientific outcomes ?  What of an earlier-age schooling system in which intellectual creativity and imagination may take second rank after the more pragmatic systemic emphasis on vocational training ?  How do we navigate and negotiate the perceived discontinuities between the concrete workaday world of funding bodies and the outer extremes of possibility represented by the free exploration and open application of creative conceptual vocabularies through scientific thought ?

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.
― Werner Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers