Friday 13 October 2017

Herzog and Hope

The film director Werner Herzog explained his philosophy of life last week, on Mark Kermode's film review podcast. It resonated with me, and I believe it's worth transcribing in full.

(The relevant part of the podcast is here, starting at 1:56.)
Werner Herzog.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I think it's not a view that I hold. It's a monumental evidence out there that for example Mars or Saturn or the Andromeda nebula cannot care less about us. It's so evident, you don't even have to explain it. It's just an ocean out there, and the sky, the universe, nature itself, the most evident quality is that it cannot care less about us. There is a monumental indifference and everybody here in this theatre knows it.

What I really think is what everybody sees and knows. Of course I deduct from what I see and observe. When you look out at the star skies at night, you see there is, number one, it's very messy. It's a mess. You know, it's unfriendly, it's unfriendly.

Even the solar system, the sun is the centre, it looks benign to us. It allows life here on our planet, but it's very unfriendly. There's hundreds of thousands of atomic reactions and explosions at the same time, all the time. And it's just tiny, minor, in comparison to some of the big ones out there. It's absolutely unfriendly.

And that we exist is some sort of utter statistical anomaly. We shouldn't be there, and of course we are busy making it more and more impossible to live on this planet. It seems to be an impetus, busyness, among many of us just to destroy the habitability of our own planet.

So it will eventually happen that the human race will disappear. It's a very fragile kind of creature that's out there. You have much better chances as a cockroach, or as a lizard, or as a microbe. That's where you have some better chance. But even they do not have a a long term chance. I do not believe anything; I see what I see.

On the face of it, this may seem a philosophy of despair; but it fills me with a strong and profound sense of hope.

To start with, Herzog is unquestionably right on the facts. Most of the universe does not care about us. It cannot care about us.

Consider these two facts. The observable universe is 93 billion light years in diameter, give or take. Radio waves travel at the speed of light; nothing in the universe can go faster.

We have been sending radio signals into the cosmos for barely more than a hundred years. The earliest radio transmissions, for example those sent by Marconi in 1901, have travelled a mere 116 light years from Earth. Someone with an extraordinarily sensitive receiver, around the star Algol which is 93 light years distant, might now be listening to radio signals we sent in 1924; maybe reports of the Paris Olympics held in that year.

Algol is a near neighbour, though. Algol is hardly any distance away at all. Algol is one-billionth the diameter of the observable universe from us.

Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 100 000 light years across. Our oldest transmissions have barely covered a thousandth of that distance. Andromeda, our nearest galactic neighbour, is more than 2 million light years. Marconi's radio has reached less than one part in seventeen thousand of that distance.

As I have said, the observable universe is ninety-three billion light years across. That's nearly 800 million times the distance travelled by Marconi's transmissions.

Let's suppose some advanced civilization sent a probe to our solar system long ago. It watched as life evolved, and the very first anatomically modern humans appeared some 300 000 years in the past. It could have told the rest of the Milky Way about these clever apes who hunted with stone tools. It couldn't yet have told Andromeda; its report would have travelled barely a tenth of the way there.

The point is not merely that, as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy put it, space is really big.

The point is that most of the universe does not know about us. It cannot know about us. To the best of our understanding, it is not physically possible. If it doesn't know about us, it certainly won't care about us.

Given all this, it would require extraordinary arrogance to declare the universe exists for us. We are infinitesimally small in both space and time.

Ah, but what about God, some might say. Well, so what?

I don't find it comforting to suppose that some all-powerful entity could intervene to end hunger, disease, and the mediocre record of the Scottish rugby team, but chooses not to. I don't want to be part of a divine plan.

Should there be a God (and I can find no reason to suppose there is), I don't see anything reassuring in being told that I am a pawn on an unfathomably huge cosmic chessboard. Since I live in such a vast universe, I'd rather just live in it, instead of worrying about what some mighty and inscrutable intelligence wants with me.

The universe described by Herzog may be vast and lonely, but it also offers freedom. We are tiny sparks of awareness in an immense and hostile emptiness. That does more to signify our importance than any religious assurances, based on writings from a few thousand years ago --- a span of time which is trivial next to the immensity of the universe.

As Terry Pratchett put it in Small Gods:
  1. This is not a game.
  2. Here and now, you are alive.
In all this expanse of space and time, we are the only intelligence that we know of. Each one of us is unique. This life, this world, is the only chance we can be sure of to do things right.

It may be a frightening perspective, but it is a true one. It can be bracing and strengthening, like a drink of cold, fresh water.

Given this perspective, much of what we squabble about seems a total waste of time. Our responsibility is to live well, to be good to one another, to try and leave a world worth living in to our descendants. That is a worthy task, and it doesn't need the word of a deity to make it important.

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