Recently astronomers used the Hubble telescope to discover a galaxy 13.3 billion light years from Earth that they called MACS0647-JD, so it is now possible to ask the question: is galaxy MACS0647-JD a Philadelphia Eagles fan?
“Philadelphia Eagles fandom” is a well-defined concept. There is an American football team based in Philadelphia called the Eagles, and they have many fans. This fandom has many easily understood properties, for example, an interest in watching Eagles games on TV or in person, a feeling of elation when the team wins, disappointment when they lose, an informed opinion about Buddy Ryan’s tenure as head coach and so on. There are varying degrees of Eagles fandom ranging from a Giants fan who hates them, to a casual follower, to a guy out in the stands in 50 degree weather, shirtless and painted green. There is a notion of magnitude attached to this fandom that correlates strongly with location in space. It’s going to be highest in the city of Philadelphia and its suburbs, less throughout the rest of Pennsylvania (particularly near Pittsburgh), less still in the rest of the United States, and essentially nil (save for perhaps in the heart of a lonely expatriate) on the island of Bora Bora. Compared to many questions that can be posed in science and philosophy, “Is galaxy MACS0647-JD a Philadelphia Eagles fan?” is remarkably coherent.
Here’s the answer: no. This is an idiotic question because galaxies aren’t thinking beings, and even if this one was, there’s no way it would be able to comprehend what an American football team is, much less have the kind of very specific cultural attachment to one that counts as fandom. The only interesting thing about this question is whether “no” is an appropriate response, since it appears to be a category error along the lines of “What is the atomic weight of Johnny Carson?” or “What is the Pacific Ocean’s shoe size?” Regardless of your opinion on that issue, the question is clearly absurd because it requires us to ask whether a property that only applies to human beings can be predicated of something not human. Similarly absurd questions would be “What is the political affiliation of Jupiter’s red spot?”, “Does the Marianas Trench love classical music?”, and “Which of the moons of Saturn are the best at cooking Italian food?”
We’re all confortable with classifying “Eagles fandom”, “classical music”, “Italian food” and so forth as parochially human. But what if I choose an equally human property that has deeper emotional resonance like “love”, “kindness”, or “justice”? And what if I choose a larger more abstract non-human thing whose very mention evokes a certain poetic grandeur? If I then put them together and ask, “Can universe feel love?” “Can the Earth transmit vibrations of kindness?” “Is existence just?”, does it sound as absurd? No fair asking that question after the setup I’ve given, but let me put it another way: what if you told me you would give me a million dollars if I delivered a speech that convinced a roomful of strangers I was a wise and profound man? If you said the speech had to be on the theme of the Eagles fandom of galaxy MACS0647-JD, I’m not even going to try. But you tell me it’s about some permutation of the words “love” and “universe”…well, I’m thrilled because I know I’ve got a fighting chance. So here’s the real question: what does my improved odds of making a million dollars tell you about human need?