Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cosmic Significance in the ICU

My ICU attending was waxing philosophical about life and death and the meaning of it all.


It interested me that he took the Stephen Hawking position:

"The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies."

Who could disagree that we are NOTHING...?

David Deutsch, that's who. In his TEDTalk "Our Place in the Cosmos,"* Deutsch interprets the opposite conclusion from the same facts. Again, roughly paraphrased:

We are staggeringly special. Statistically speaking, the universe is so empty that, if you were to be dropped off at random somewhere within it, you'd be fantastically lucky to be any near a galaxy, let alone within it, let alone near one of its billions of stars, let alone on the surface of a rocky planet, or one with an atmosphere conducive to liquid water.... Who could disagree that, as subjectively aware beings, we are THE MOST (insert descriptor hear) things we know of in the universe?

I like the David Deutsch interpretation.

Most interestingly of all, back in the ICU, I found myself in complete agreement with my attending's conclusion, although for the opposite reason.

Attending: Life is insignificant, why would we lecture our patient about how to live it?

Deutsch: Life is so important, who are we to lecture our patient about how to live it?

*I couldn't recommend this TEDTalk more strongly. Deutsch exercises the most compelling use of a visual aid to sear a ver profound point into his audience's thinking. Awesome. And his book, The Fabric of Reality, is really quite something too.


Christopher Bayne said...

Life in the ICU is another galaxy in itself, isn't it? I don't at all envy the things those docs do / have to do.

astupple said...

Haha- yes, a galaxy far, far away. Certainly instructive/humbling to see practitioners put heavy philosophical issues to work.