Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Last Session
Austin Purves & Amy Cunningham


Summary by Peter Marcoulier

Our Presence Matters

Assigned reading for this presentation was Chapter Nine in the text, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, authored by Joel R. Primack and Nancy E. Abrams.


Our presence matters, this was the focus for our last discussion and presentation of the year, and I can’t imagine a topic that would have been more fitting. Our presenters chose to open with a picture titled “Earthrise” taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December of 1968. It was the first picture of Earth taken from deep space and was thought-provoking to say the least. From this picture, our presenters transitioned to a quote from Stephen Hawking in which he said, "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among hundreds of billions of galaxies...". One of the members of the course then posed a counter-point to this statement; asking “Are we?”. The resulting discussion from this was similar to the question first uttered by Bishop George Berkeley, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

We are more than just humans

“We are more than just humans”, this was the title of next slide and the transition to the day’s focus. Our presenters gave five bulleted criteria as to why we are more than just humans. The five criteria were: we are intelligent life, we are conscious observers, we are the “Sovereign Eye” (of Primack and Abrams), we are quantum mechanical observers, and we may find meaning in religion. The question was then injected, “Does being intelligent and conscious make us special, or are we just humans”, which the class discussed at length. Following this, the class questioned the meaning of our in “Does our presence matter?”, and came the conclusion (with our presenters’ guidance) that our existence as “conscious intelligence observers” is important, not our existence as humans. With this last point in mind, the class questioned (with Mr. Purves leading) the definition of person, asking “If there are other conscious intelligent observers, then would that make them people” and grappling with the larger question of “what is a person?”. Further, the class discussed the repercussions that might result from the discovery of other conscious intelligent observers (i.e., extra-terrestrials), and would communication with such a creature even be possible (questioning the possibility of faster-than-light communication).

The Sovereign Eye: Discovering Our Place on the Cosmic Density Pyramid

The next section of this presentation was on Primack and Abrams’ concept of The Sovereign Eye, as presented by Ms. Cunningham. She opened with a quote on the topic that stated “But even though the universe is overwhelmingly larger than those seventeenth-century people imagined, we humans are not insignificant, because we are citizens of the luminous and rare; the tremendous complexity of our minds lets us do what no amount of dark matter or dark energy can ever do"(Primack & Adams, 120). She explained that we, as conscious intelligent observers, are at the top of the “Cosmic Density Pyramid” (this pyramid is comprised of 70% dark energy, 25% cold dark matter, 4% invisible atoms, .5% helium and hydrogen atoms, and 0.01% all other visible atoms – with the remaining fraction being comprised of radiation and neutrinos). Since we are at the top of this pyramid, it was presented that we are “central to the universe”, and it was stated that “Thinking of being human essentially as a limitation is a self-fulfilling prophecy and denies us our cosmic potential. In the expanding universe, human beings are not only significant – we are central, to the current and future state of the universe” (Primack & Abrams, 270). All of this was meant to drive home the point that, observing gives meaning, which was best summarized when Mr. Purves stated that “We can’t change the course of a planet, but the real question is: does the course of a planet even exist before we observe it?”.

This focus continued with the quote “In the absence of observers, our universe is dead” (Quote by Andrei Linde), which led the class to question what was meant by dead; did the author mean lifeless or meaningless? Our discussion continued, assuming the author meant meaningless, with several questions arising. “If the universe is meaningless, what is meaning?”, “Is it a question of us caring?”, and a discussion on “Stars don’t care” were all parts of the class’s dialog. The general conclusion was “meaning is something we [conscious intelligent observers] give”, so therefore, while the universe would be physically the same (on a cosmic scale), it would be without meaning. A reply to this was “Our intelligence is as important to the Universe as its very energy content”, which many took a strong stance against.

Professor Davis then raised the question of distinction between importance, value, meaning, and capacity to influence; as each of the four terms were being used interchangeably in varying statements about the universe. Mr. Purves clarified that they had meant “influencing the universe in a spiritual sense, not a materialistic one” and that “meaning comes from us, any meaning in the universe is ours”. Professor Dorfsman then commented that “meaning is often contextual”, “meaning changes”, and that “meaning is easy to find, but hard to pin-down”. These comments led the class to question the usefulness of answers that do not lay aside their questions.

Quantum Mechanical Observers

Quantum mechanical observers were the final topic that our presenters reached in full (the class ended before they completed their presentation). This section was presented by Mr. Purves, and began with the description of the superposition of electrons and the fact that this superposition of wave states, collapses (in a probabilistic manner), into a classical state under observation (and remain in this state). He spoke of Wheeler’s Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP), which states that “a conscious observer can collapse a super-position of states, simply by observing it”, and the possible outcomes of superposition collapse all having an equal (probabilistic) chance as an outcome. He made it clear that there are many dissentions about the cause of superposition collapse (particularly in what qualifies as an observer and the many arguments over/about/against the PAP), and specifically mentioned Dr. Weinberg’s comment that “"[The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics], I think, is fundamentally flawed. It divides the world into physical systems and observers, and that can't be right, observers are parts of the world, they have to be described by the same quantum mechanical language as everything else…”. As a result of the class’s continued confusion over super-position, Mr. Purves chose to describe the quantum “double-slit” experiment, which went a long way to explaining superposition to the class. From here the class detoured into a long discourse regarding Schrödinger’s Cat (This is a thought-experiment in which a cat is placed into a super-position; making it both dead and alive simultaneously. This discussion was primarily a questioning of what constitutes an observer) and backward causation in time as a result of quantum super-positions.