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Physicist: If Humans Died Out, the Galaxy Might Lose All Meaning

Ahead of a big climate change conference, Brian Cox assesses the prospect of other habitable planets or their civilizations much more soberly than we often hear

Ahead of the big climate change conference COP 26 (31 Oct – 12 Nov 2021), physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox offers an ominous warning which also raises some questions. Speaking in connection with his new series, Universe, he presents a starkly different picture from much that we hear:

Humans might be the only intelligent beings in our galaxy, so destroying our civilisation could be a galactic disaster, Prof Brian Cox has warned leaders in the run-up to Cop26.

Speaking at the launch of his new BBC Two series Universe, the physicist and presenter said that having spoken to the scientists around the world advising the show, he thought that humans and sentient life on Earth “might be a remarkable, naturally occurring phenomenon” and that was something that “world leaders might need to know”.

Tara Conlan, “Earth’s demise could rid galaxy of meaning, warns Brian Cox ahead of Cop26” at The Guardian (October 19, 2021)
Brian Cox

Indeed? The messages we hear more frequently are more like this: There could be 300 million or 6 billion habitable planets in our galaxy and more than 30 intelligent civilizations.

In any event, if all intelligent beings were wiped out of our galaxy, for whom, exactly, would it be a disaster (apart from ourselves)? Rocks don’t experience disasters.

Cox ends up supporting the Privileged Planet Hypothesis (Earth is special):

“The more I learn about biology … the more astonished I am we exist at all”, adding that while astronomers said there were about 20bn Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy, “so we might expect life to be everywhere”, “almost every biologist I speak to says, ‘Yes, but all it will be is slime at best.’ We live in a violent universe and the idea you can have planets which are stable enough to have an unbroken chain of life might be quite restrictive.”

Tara Conlan, “Earth’s demise could rid galaxy of meaning, warns Brian Cox ahead of Cop26” at The Guardian (October 19, 2021)

The opposite view, that Earth is a pale blue dot — a mediocre planet (the Copernican Principle) — was championed by Carl Sagan (1934–1996), among others. While Sagan was concerned about environment issues, he strongly believed that there were other intelligent civilizations in the galaxy and that contacting them was an imminent possibility. Stressing the uniqueness of Earth might lead to uncomfortable questions.

Cox, of course, is okay with the uncomfortable questions:

Cox said there were very few places “where atoms can think … Meaning exists in our minds”, so the demise of Earth could wipe out meaning.

Tara Conlan, “Earth’s demise could rid galaxy of meaning, warns Brian Cox ahead of Cop26” at The Guardian (October 19, 2021)

But if “meaning exists in our minds,” then we must reckon with the fact that our minds are immaterial and so is the meaning we ascribe to things like protecting the environment. Otherwise, we would be as unaware of environment degradation as the dinosaurs were of a potential asteroid strike. Far from being an impediment to science-based action to address climate issues, a traditional philosophical approach to the mind may be a necessary, missing component. A modern materialist idea such as that the mind is an illusion may be an impediment to taking action.

Cox seems to sense this. He told Conlan,

He said some of his ad-libs during Universe were more philosophical and “religious than I intended” than in his previous series, and that was because he wanted to explore why we cared about stars and the part they played in creating life.

Tara Conlan, “Earth’s demise could rid galaxy of meaning, warns Brian Cox ahead of Cop26” at The Guardian (October 19, 2021)

Well, yes. Decades of striving to show that humans think like animals is not an especially good approach to getting billions of people to care enough about abstractions like “the environment” and “the climate” to be motivated to change their behavior. It would be hard to say how much of that is “religion” and how much of it is just common sense.

Note: Cox’s BBC series, Universe, looks interesting but can only be watched in the UK (Britain).


You may also wish to read: The UFOs Carl Sagan was convinced of but couldn’t talk about. Sagan had already been denied tenure at Harvard, a sci-fi screenwriter reflects, and he couldn’t afford to take more chances. Writer Bryce Zabel recalls a dispute with Sagan on the topic in a parking lot 40 years ago, during the Voyager 2 flyby — which changed Zabel’s career.


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Physicist: If Humans Died Out, the Galaxy Might Lose All Meaning