UK paperback

Scale confusion

On our ‘cosmic homelessness’

My review in today’s Guardian is reproduced below. The point about the “meaning” of the universe in the last paragraph has doubtless been made more elegantly by greater minds in the past. More relevant to thinking about certain kinds of Unspeak might be the authors’ concept of “scale confusion” or “scale chauvinism” . . .

• The View From the Centre of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos
by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

Let’s try an experiment. Take a piece of chalk and draw a circle around yourself on the ground. Think of something else for a minute. Now look down. You’re in the middle of a circle! Doesn’t that make you feel special?

This is the recommended therapy for people suffering from a kind of transgalactic ennui. Blame scientists. Ever since they showed that the Earth goes round the sun and not vice versa, humans’ place in the universe has seemed increasingly marginal. As the cosmologist Carl Sagan put it: “We live on a hunk of rock and metal that orbits a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy comprised of 400 billion stars in a universe of some hundred billion galaxies …” How insignificant we are, on the vast scales of space.

Such is the received wisdom and, like all received wisdom, it is worth challenging. Husband-and-wife team Primack, an astrophysicist, and Abrams, a philosopher of science, understand our pain. They know the temptation of what they call “the existential alternative”, as exemplified by Sagan. They give the feeling a rather beautiful name: “cosmic homelessness”. And they promise to prove, using the latest cosmological discoveries, that the idea is wrong. Science itself, they say, demonstrates that we are actually central to the universe . . .

The book is a superb pop-science primer on current cosmology. There are gorgeously clear explanations of relativity, dark matter (which Primack was one of the first to propose, and the existence of which seems more likely after recent observations of two distant galaxies colliding), the stages of the universe after the Big Bang and so on. The language is imagistically immediate – “violently relaxed halos of dark matter” – and there are some fruitfully head-spinning thought experiments about reality on galactic scales.

But whenever the authors move from scientific exegesis to the deduction of our centrality, the philosophical rabbit they pull out of their hat crumbles to bits – becomes, as it were, a dust-bunny. We are, for example, said to be at the centre of the “cosmic spheres of time”. It turns out that it just means that we are at the centre of a time diagram, drawn around planet Earth, now. Well, yes, by definition we are. Along the way there have been some striking concepts, such as this one: “Light and other forms of information are already travelling towards Earth and will arrive in 10 years, a hundred years, a million years from now. That information has been on its way for possibly billions of years. Much of our future already exists – it just hasn’t gotten here yet.” That is a pleasingly illuminating thought, but it doesn’t prove our centrality to anything except our own viewpoint.

Another argument goes like this: we are all made mostly from stardust – heavy atoms produced in the nuclear furnaces of stars. But actually the vast majority of stuff in the universe is not like us: it’s dark matter, or dark energy, or interstellar gas. This means that we are at the top of the “cosmic density pyramid”, represented by a shining eye. Why are we at the top of this pyramid? Well, just because the authors have drawn it that way. They could equally have inverted the pyramid and put us at the bottom; or represented our form of matter as a mouldy spot on the surface of a Krispy Kreme doughnut. But that would not have been so inspirational.

There is a kind of promiscuously New Age bent to the book. A whole section considers ancient creation mythologies; there is talk of the Kabbalah, reference to the Norse sagas and speculation about contact with wise aliens who “may have nurtured themselves over millions of years without depending on material growth, instead powering their culture largely by creativity and shared commitment”. Do not wonder, please, how the wise aliens invented radio and space travel while avoiding the vice of “material growth”.

One of the authors’ best examples is the surprising fact that human beings are roughly in the middle of all possible sizes of anything, from the quantum scale to superclusters of galaxies. This, too, is made distractingly fey by drawings and chatter about a cosmic uroboros, a snake eating its tail. Even so, it provides one of the book’s most interesting and useful ideas, that of “scale confusion”. The authors explain how in physics, for example, the strong atomic force is irrelevant outside the nucleus, and gravity is irrelevant at tiny distances (until the very smallest). Things in general are only important at certain scales. Thus the question “Does God exist?” is an example of scale confusion, because “existence” only really means anything at our own size. “On a small scale, do electrons exist? […] there is no solid thing, only a ‘probability cloud’ […] In the same way, very large-scale things [such as galaxy clusters or constellations] can only metaphorically be said to ‘exist’.”

Scale confusion reappears in the book’s final section, which seeks to apply our new cosmic insights to life right here, right now. “Since civilisations cannot behave like individuals and vice versa,” the authors argue, “to describe individual acts as civilisational may be a kind of scale chauvinism (the logical fallacy in which a favourite size-scale is considered more fundamental than the others).” Politicians are incontinent scale chauvinists, always muddling concepts of individuals, families, nations and civilisations to deleterious effect. This is a useful observation, well expressed. Other applications of science to society are less persuasive, for example that a mixture of “circular” and “random” motion could help us withstand the “gravity” whereby wealth inevitably clumps together in the hands of a few. The scientific metaphors do not add much to the laudable social concern.

It becomes clear, indeed, that the motivation for making all the dubious claims about our centrality to the universe has really been political. The authors at last confess: “There is nothing in modern cosmology that requires the existential view, nor anything that requires the meaningful view.” But isn’t talk of the “meaning” of the universe analogous to scale chauvinism, a kind of category mistake? To ask what is the meaning of the universe is like asking what is the angular momentum of Much Ado About Nothing. None the less, the authors fear that giving in to “cosmic homelessness” may induce apathy or amorality, so we must adopt the view of universal meaning. In one sense this is like the way proponents of “intelligent design”, because they think that evolutionary theory has eroded our basis for morality, demand that religion in pseudoscientific disguise be taught instead. Of course, Primack and Abrams do not lie about the science: they are on science’s side, and narrate its discoveries brilliantly. But their warm and fuzzy interpretations of it are, finally, a matter of choice and mood. If you feel peckish, there is even a recipe for a chocolatey Cosmic Dessert, which sounds delicious.

  1. 1  Luke  October 21, 2006, 3:15 pm 

    Nice review, sir. I was particularly pleased by your invocation of the notion of a category mistake, such mistakes being things I have chewed on for well over a decade. You might like to look at the most recent entry on the above site for a lengthier comment. Best wishes, LDOS.

  2. 2  Steven  October 22, 2006, 1:58 am 

    Hi Luke,
    Interesting post on your blog, thanks. I agree with you that one should be cautious about invoking category mistakes if that is to deny any kind of creative interpollination between two fields such as art and science. This I certainly don’t deny. (I think Sokal/Bricmont in Intellectual Impostures go too far in not allowing a place for any kind of metaphorical usage, for example.)

    PS it turns out that I am doomed to repeat myself, since in a review in 2003 I said:

    the meaning of life is like the personality of a banana: a category mistake.

  3. 3  Graham Giblin  October 22, 2006, 5:36 pm 

    It’s hard for us humans to cope with our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. As well-known Australian intellectual/broadcaster/erstwhile film-maker and adman, Phillip Adams (whom you may have met during writers’ week, Steven?), once wrote, “the scale of astronomy annihilates the ego”. For many of us, that is a very uncomfortable feeling… It’s one thing to consider it intellectually. It’s another to see it but, in his “Reflections on a mote of dust” (, Carl Sagan managed to bring that perspective to us through an image of Earth captured by Voyager 1 when it was about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away. Earth is caught in a “sunbeam”. It constitutes a single pixel in a large, otherwise entirely empty, image. The only place I’ve managed to find the wide-angle image is here:
    What Sagan did in his comentary on the image was to remove any confusion about where we stand:

    “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light…[In] all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us….To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

  4. 4  Tom the Peeper  October 22, 2006, 7:17 pm 

    Wriiting of space – the Bush administration took its already legendary hubris to another level declaring an effective “ownership” of the undending cosmic void last week. The quest for global hegemony has become intergalactic. Bush asserts that the US has the right to conduct whatever research, development and “other activities” in space that it deems necessary for its own national interests.

    This could be construed as:

    1. Either as a clumsy sleight of hand on a remarkable scale – forget about the foreign policy disasters that are happening on Earth – look at the SKIES!
    2. Or a preliminary justification for possible eventual attacks on communication satellites. Much easier to stop an Al Jazeera satellite (or that of any other broadcaster who should diverge from the state approved media message) from working at source, rather than engage in cack-handed attempted murders of journalists through the bombing of hotels etc.

    When you think how well the current conflicts are going in the “War on Terror”, to pick a fight with Space seems, at best, ill-conceived. As Einstein said: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity”. One would almost hope for extra-terrestrial life to prove it’s intelligence by coming down and kicking George W’s ass.

  5. 5  Steven  October 23, 2006, 1:21 pm 

    Yes, though if Independence Day is the reliable guide to extraterrestrial psychology that it appears, they may not stop at the White House.

    It seems likely that the US’s real target is not going to be al-Jazeera but Chinese military satellites, etc. From the Washington Post report:

    The issue of possible hostilities in space became more real last month when National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald M. Kerr told reporters that a U.S. satellite had recently been “painted,” or illuminated, by a laser in China. Gen. James E. Cartwright, the top U.S. military officer in charge of operations in space, told the newsletter Inside the Pentagon last week that it remained unclear whether China had tried to disrupt the satellite.

  6. 6  DJ Da Vinci  October 25, 2006, 12:32 am 

    It’s interesting that man’s position in the cosmic scheme of things seems to have come full circle. As you point out in your article, the view that mankind was at the centre of the universe was shattered by the Copernicus’ discovery that the earth orbits the sun, and not vice-versa, and that shift has been solidified by numerous astronomical observations since.

    However, the recent upsurge in popularity of the cosmological theorem called the Anthropic Principle seems to be reversing this trend, and putting mankind back at the centre of the universe, at least metaphysically. I’m not a cosmologist, but I understand the nuts of it to be as follows: the universe is the way it is because that otherwise we wouldn’t be around to see it. In other words, our existence restricts the possible values of any physical constants, such as the mass of an electron, the fine structure constant, or the speed of light, because simply to be observed, the Universe must allow life to exist. For example, if the strong nuclear force were just a few per cent stronger, the Sun would burn all its hydrogen fuel in less than a second—not long for intelligent life to evolve.

    This is a hotly-debated issue that is be too large to outline here (even if I did understand all the nuances of the various strengths: the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP) and the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (CRAP)). Many physicists dismiss the idea as being inherently unscientific as it is difficult or maybe impossible to test, and the idea has as such received support from the proponents of Intelligent Design, presumably much the the embarrassment of the theoretical physicists that advocate the idea. However, although the idea seemingly introduces the element of the ‘specialness’ of humanity, that the universe is fine-tuned exactly for our benefit, the corollary of the principle is that there are infinitely many alternate universes, or a multiverse, which each have constants and values of the fundamental forces of nature. Which of these support life and which do not is something about which we can only speculate.

    Whether humanity is reseated as the lord of our surroundings, or doomed to an eternal cosmic homelessness, it is refreshing somehow that metaphysical ideas are being investigated at the vanguard of science. I have always liked the fact that scientists were once termed “Natural Philosophers”. At the boundaries of theoretical physics, this term seems more relevant than ever.

  7. 7  Steven  October 25, 2006, 12:56 am 

    Ah yes – though I didn’t get around to it in my review, the authors of this book mention anthropism briefly, and plead that theirs is not really “anthropic” thinking.

    As I understand it, some people look at the fine-tuning of physical constants and forces of which you speak and say: “Hey! The universe is somehow spookily constructed so that intelligent life like us can arise!” And other people look at the same thing and say: “Huh. If the forces/masses etc were different, we wouldn’t be around to see it, so given that we are here it’s not surprising the universe happened by chance to turn out the way we find it. Nothing spooky about that at all.”

    Personally I find the first reaction a bit problematic, partly because of the dubiousness of calculating the probability of something that is already known to have happened. Hey, what are the chances that this particular oxygen molecule, out of all the oxygen molecules in the world, just floated in through my window? Spooky!

    On the other hand there are, as you say, nuanced and interesting versions of it by very intelligent people.

    I thought from my reading that multiverses were invoked more by those who want to nullify anthropic arguments, as a way of saying, well our universe is just one of uncountably many where the forces etc were such as to permit beings like us to arise. So it is mere chance rather than any kind of fate or cosmic destiny. Primack and Abrams talk about this; there’s also lots of stuff about it in string dude Michio Kaku’s headtrip, Parallel Universes.

    I like your invocation of “metaphysical ideas at the vanguard of science”. The boundary between physics, in particular, and metaphysics has always been rather leaky, it seems (viz. Newton etc, and maybe even increasingly with 20th-century quantum weirdness). Metaphysics may be necessary to the enterprise, as a spur if not as an encompassing truth.

  8. 8  DJ Da Vinci  October 25, 2006, 9:42 am 

    My understanding of it is that the Multiverse is invoked by those Natural Philosophers (as I’m now going to call them) who are proponents of the Anthropic Principle, but who are keen to distance themselves from the first interpretation that you mention above – the one which tips the balance from Science into Theology, and from Random Chance into Intelligent Design. Of course, whether or not an infinitude of alternate universes exists or we really are the only ones around becomes a matter of Hypothesis, or Probability, or Faith.

  9. 9  lamentreat  October 25, 2006, 9:57 am 

    Thanks for an interesting and v. sharp review.
    DJDV: Adorno has thought-provoking things to say in the last chapter of “Negative Dialectics” about images of the cosmos and the remains of metaphysics. He was implicitly (or maybe explicitly, I don’t remember) starting from Georg Lukacs’ notion of “transcendental homelessness”, which seems similar enough to the notion of “cosmic homelessness” discussed here. As always, his position is a kind of quiet haughtiness that everyone else has mostly got it wrong, including astronauts who look back on the earth and naively see God, but that if they only thought about it longer…they might need to think about it some more. It’s bloody hard going, though, that book.

  10. 10  Steven  October 25, 2006, 10:22 am 

    DJ Da Vinci (are you related to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle called Leonardo?) – from perusing Wikipedia, it seems that actually, though I thought it was only Weak Anthropists and non-anthropists who invoked multiverses, some proponents of the Strong Anthropic Principle do too. I shall join you in calling them all “natural philosophers” from now on.

    lamentreat: Lukacs wrote “Philosophy is transcendental homelessness: it is the urge to be at home everywhere”. I think “cosmic homelessness” is almost the opposite: the idea that we are not or can never be “at home” anywhere in the universe, that the Earth has wandered into a scary rough neighbourhood, and it never started out a nice friendly suburb to begin with. I like your characterisation of Adorno’s “quiet haughtiness”.

  11. 11  lamentreat  October 25, 2006, 11:00 am 

    Hi Steven, I’ve no great axe to grind for Lukacs, but I’m not sure I agree. As I remember the opening bits of “Theory of the Novel”, that urge to be at home everywhere is just that, an urge, not a possibility, and so not so far removed from the CH you describe in the book. The urge and the impossibility arise because of a fundamental philosophical change which had taken place in historical time. (For GL, leaning hard on Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Literature”: at some point since the Greeks felt just fine under their starry heavens, whether that point was @Copernicus or @industrialization) His account could be dismissed as based on a crass, question-begging notion of ‘wholeness’ and/or as a familiar philosophy-of-history story of the moderns’ Fall into the existential jitters, (and maybe he believed later that, come the great revolutionary day, all wholeness would be restored) but I don’t think I would read him as suggesting we can philosophize our way out of metaphysical unease. Maybe all these melancholy German can-no-longer-be-Idealists are stuck in a Tragically Ruminative Anthropic Principle.

  12. 12  Steven  October 25, 2006, 11:08 am 

    Hi lamentreat: yes, you are right to point out that Lukacs’s “urge” is not necessarily achievable: probably the two kinds of homelessness are closer than I allowed. (Although it seems Lukacs wanted to grab on to what could be celebrated in this lamentable fact, rather than giving in to a despairing version of it.) Interesting re what he said of the Greeks. Primack and Abrams’s talk about the “cosmic spheres of time” (spacetime) is deliberately reminiscent of the Pythagorean celestial spheres grinding away in perfect harmony. Although of course there were a lot of Greeks who even so didn’t feel “just fine” about their cosmology/mythology, if we are to believe Euripedes etc.

    PS “Tragically Ruminative Anthropic Principle” is beautiful.

  13. 13  JCR  October 27, 2006, 12:38 am 

    You are an excellent writer, Mr. Poole. Your reviews and blog texts are intelligent, interesting and well-reasoned with just the right touch of peskyness. It is a pleasure to read your work.

  14. 14  Steven  October 27, 2006, 8:37 am 

    Thanks, JCR!

  15. 15  almostinfamous  October 31, 2006, 4:47 pm 

    hi! first time reader, first time commenter here. i got here from Dennis Perrin’s place and can understand why he would link you. i can feel my intelligence rising just perusing this place :)

    anyway, will someone please introduce these people to the total perspective vortex (or at the very least, some fairy cake)?

  16. 16  Steven  November 3, 2006, 1:50 am 

    Hello and welcome, almostinfamous. Thanks for the link to Douglas Adams, who thought more deeply, as well as funnily, about these things than most.

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