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Just a note to say that I have collected some of the cosmology blogs and put them in better order on the Cosmology page. This should help you keep track of what has been said.

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Most Incomprehensible

According to Jaki, Einstein’s favorite personal saying was that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

For this pithy word, Jaki gives him vast credit, because although he did not have the tools to consider the philosophic ramifications of his remark, he had the intuitive sense to love this great mystery: that we can know the universe.

What does that mean?

Is it accidental?

For the Darwinian who sees mankind as accidental, and for a man like Whitehead who sees the universe as going through all possible forms, this mystery can be only one accidental event among quintillions of quintillions – nothing worthy of note. This accidentalist approach to reality became increasingly pervasive through the 20th century, even working its way into the arts, though it was never totally triumphant.

Einstein challenges this world-view that keeps layering accident upon accident, in a campaign to bore the human heart out of its natural wonder. He correctly observes that of all the wonders we meet in this stunning universe, the possibility of man knowing the universe is the most stunning.

It is also one of the most instructive. Why is the universe knowable – and by one of its constituent parts? That is the key to one vast part of the question: Is there a Universe? It is a philosophic key, not a scientific one, but it is important: Yes, Linde, consciousness is part of the universe. Consider, Mr. Whitehead: not every possible form of physical universe would allow consciousness, and whatever form forbids it is not part of this universe.

Give that some thought. This universe is the physical totality that allows a self-reflective entity to develop within its boundaries and subject to its laws yet free to evaluate their meaning. That’s the kind of universe it is.

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“An Old Insensitivity” is the title of chapter two of Jaki’s book, Is There a Universe? The insensitivity that he has in mind is the insensitivity to philosophy, which is so common in the scientific mind, and in particular an insensitivity to the philosophic dimension of the concept of the totality – the universe. The student of the natural sciences, disciplined to accept only measurement and numeration as proofs for his propositions, easily forgets that there are realms where measures cannot be taken, but nevertheless rational thought still flourishes.

In other words, he forgets that a conclusion may be rational even if its argument is not subject to measure. It may be Scientific in the larger sense, where Science is defined as reasoning from evidence to conclusions, even if it is not scientific in the sense of the natural sciences where the allowable evidence is restricted to things that can be measured.

In the case of the universe, these non-measurable aspects of the evidence crop up for two reasons, or perhaps I should say in two dimensions:

  1. Man himself is part of the totality of the universe, and the functioning of the mind of man takes place in relation to a physical brain that is subject to measure but which whose products, including judgments about love, beauty, and wonder are not.
  2. Even considering only the physical realm, there seems to be no definitive way to measure the strict totality of the starry realms. Boltzmann’s suggestion of universe segments at 7 x 10100th lights years distance of separation is a way of keeping excessive gravity and light out of the way, but who can prove whether such distant objects really exist? Hawking’s foam is a mathematical consequence of some ideas from quantum mechanics, but there is no orderly way to measure the existence or action of the multiverses he proposes. Worse, nobody is even proposing to lay out how some alien form of matter, which is presumed subject to the different physical laws of another universe and which could pop up right within our own universe, might interact with our matter.
  • The most one can do for measure is say something about the measure of the universe that runs by our laws of physics, and this has been done. But any reason for accepting or rejecting the Hawking/Boltzmann multiverses must come from other lines of reasoning.

Facing up to these restrictions is hard for scientists, who, with a habit of insensitivity to philosophy, and usually with about zero training in it, simply ride roughshod over the issues and don’t even realize what they are doing.

Examples of insensitivity

Here is Andrei Linde trying to define the word universe: “Different people use the word differently. For anyone who tries to understand it, at least, the universe is everything which exists. However, this may not be the last word on the subject, since, first of all, the question arises whether we should include consciousness in the definition of everything which exists.”

Different people use practically every important word differently. The way to say something useful is to tease out the half-dozen or so most significant definitions, stake your own territory, and then say something that moves the conversation forward. Obviously Linde is troubled about the human dimension; this is wise in its way, but what next?

Here is Jaki’s description of Alfred North Whitehead’s cosmology: He says Whitehead rendered the universe “amorphous through the claim that it was bound to assume all possible forms through infinite ages.” A universe which assumes all forms cannot be said to be characterized by any form, can it? So what is to be said of it? Whitehead’s implicit response is found in the title his book Process and Reality. Like Darwin, he is ready to substitute a concept of history for a concept of reality.

To that extent, he would be saying, “No, there is no universe” – since none can be effectively defined.

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Richard Bentley was a younger contemporary of Isaac Newton. After Newton had formulated his law of gravitation, he observed, in a letter to Richard Bentley, that if all the stars are drawn to each other by gravitation, they should collapse into a single point. One will be drawn to another; that star will grow and pull in still more and more. In time, everything must be drawn in.

How is the universe constructed so as to prevent this from happening?

It did not occur to Newton, or perhaps to anyone before the 20th century, that the universe is a changing space-scape. It has a history, at the start of which (in Big Bang theory) its matter was ejected apart; so far, it does not have the energy to re-gather everything in a universe-crushing event. Or maybe I should say that its momentum is still too great to be overcome by its gravity. Either way, it could face gravity collapse, but not yet.

Bentley’s Paradox (which maybe should be called Newton’s Paradox, since it is odd to name an insight after its first recipient, rather than its author) is similar to Olbers’ Paradox in that it does suggest a finite universe: an infinite universe would have infinite gravity and would certainly collapse.

Well, again, perhaps you’d have the Kelvin/Boltzmann suggestion of a universe with pieces far enough apart not to respond. But this suggestion only serves to indicate the distant (really distant!) possibility of a kind of multiverse. Unless it can be tested, it is not a scientific hypothesis, though it is an interesting thought experiment.

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Simply put, Olbers’ thought was that if the universe were infinite with stars distributed equally throughout, then such stars would provide an infinite amount of light to shine upon any point in space. Even if dust inhibited some of the light, the sky would be brilliant at all times.

But the sky is dark.

How can that be? How can the universe have an infinite amount of light and yet offer its inhabitants a dark sky?

Ordinarily, the word paradox refers to a pair of statements that seem to contradict, but, upon closer examination, turn out to be unexpectedly compatible. In the case of Olbers’ Paradox, however, something different is going on. Some people are seeing a contradiction and concluding that the universe must not be infinite. Others are so committed to an infinite and eternal universe that they persist in calling it a paradox and trying to find a way that it can work.

History of Olber’s Paradox

Olbers’ paper on this subject dates only from 1823, but though he got his name on the idea, it seems to pre-date him by a good 200 years or more. Thomas Digges, who was the first to discuss Copernicus in English, and whose life falls between the death of Copernicus and the very early teaching career of Galileo, talked about the problem of so much light.

Shortly afterwards, in 1610, Kepler talked about it, and concluded that the universe must be finite.

The first detailed presentation was given by Lord Kelvin in 1901, and he proposed to resolve it by considering that the distance to some of the stars was so great that their light had not reached us. One wonders how such a state of affairs could arise, given that the light has an infinite amount of time for its travels, but of course the lives of individual stars are not infinite, so perhaps the universe proposed by Boltzmann was the right approach for maintaining the idea of a paradox.

A material totality

Still, this takes us back to the question of a genuine material totality.

  • Material objects can be counted.


  • An infinite universe with an even distribution of stars must have an infinite number of stars, which cannot, therefore, be counted.
  • Therefore: there can be no such no such universe.

Boltzmann’s proposal, so far as I read it, did not necessarily present an infinite universe, just one so large that its parts did not interact. I wonder what he thought kept the parts apart?

But Kelvin was really going for infinity, and the reason for this was pantheistic at heart. Remember that if the universe is so segmented that its parts do not interact, then there is nothing scientific to say about any part except our own. Even the assertion that those other parts exist is not scientific. Why would you say it? Only because you find an infinite universe comfortable or because you are uncomfortable with the metaphysical implications of a finite universe. There’s less room for accident.

A matter of philosophy

Still, even if you have unworthy reasons for believing the material universe is infinite, unworthy reasons do not, by themselves, make a proposition wrong. False premises do not make a false conclusion; they make a conclusion with uncertain truth value.

So Jaki goes farther.

He states, as a point of philosophy, that countability is part of being material, and that there cannot be a collective material entity that does not have a countable totality. In other words, he is proposing a philosophical proof for the existence of a finite material totality.

At least this is how I understand his writing.

Note that since we are a part of the universe, it is not really like other scientific or astronomical objects. You can study all stars without taking human life into account  – or all leaves or all bugs or all atoms. But the universe includes us, and its nature must be understood to include the fact of our presence.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, the proposed infinity of the universe was merely a Euclidian extension of “empty” space – without Einstein’s definition of space. Even as late as 1917, the Milky Way was generally thought to be “the universe” as far as material objects were concerned; other galaxies visible in the sky were thought to be nebulae – bright little gas clouds – within its confines. Shortly after 1917, however, stars were resolved in the galaxies, doubts were raised, and 8 years of uncertainty followed concerning the placement of the galaxies. The debate finally yielded to Edwin Hubble’s identification of a Cepheid variable in Andromeda. A Cepheid variable is a star whose light varies over a period of time; its actual luminosity is exactly proportional to its period of variation. Knowing the “real” luminosity of a star makes it possible to judge its distance by its apparent brightness. By this means, the Andromeda Nebula was definitively located far outside our Milky Way galaxy.

So the galaxies were outside the Milky Way, but what was the status of the concept of total material creation?

In 1928, the famous scientist Sir James Jeans wrote about galaxies as “island universes,” something like Boltzman’s idea only the galaxies are much closer, genuine neighbors. But the phrase “island universes” shows that as late as 1928, the concept of a single universe containing all the galaxies was not fully clarified. It is true that (human) travel between galaxies is impossible since they are millions of light years apart; but no matter how far apart they may lie, galaxies exchange light (that’s how we see them) and they have gravitational interactions which are now obvious, although they were too subtle for the telescopes of the early 20th century. Thus they belong to a network of mutual interactions.

But the understanding of the universe as finite was still a work in progress; and without finity, as I have said, the universe is not really unified. In that case, no science of cosmology is possible.

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I would like to initiate an extended discussion of Stanley Jaki’s book, Is There a Universe?. Jaki had a PhD in physics and also one in theology. His specialization was the history of science, and he wrote a number of illuminating books on the topic of the relationship between faith – a Catholic faith – and science. I remember telling my mother about him, and how she cried, saying if only my father had known him, he would not have felt so alone as a Catholic astronomer.

I have already touched on some of the themes of Jaki’s volume, but now I will take it one step at a time.

The New Science – cosmology

The idea of studying cosmology is new, relative to the history of philosophy, because in the world-view obtaining up to the time of Galileo, it was not clear that the stars or the planets or even the Moon were subject to the same physical laws as the earth. For that reason, the only relevant physics was earthly physics. As it gradually became clear that the planets and even the sun share our physics, and that other stars were suns like ours, there came a time to speak of the universe as a material whole or at least to consider whether it was a material whole. That’s what cosmology really is – the study of the universe as a material whole.

But it was a slow start, because the legacy of infinity as the home of the stars was not quickly shaken, and has been repeatedly resurgent even after it first gave way.

Isaac Newton thought the universe was finite. His dates are 1643  – 1727 and the year of his birth was the same year that Galileo died. The “infinite” mischief came primarily in the following generation.

In 1755, Immanuel Kant argued that the universe must be infinite because it is the work of an infinite God. This quick argument for cosmological infinity is worth addressing, since it has an undeniable intuitive appeal.

First, a word about the possible relationships between just a few objects: Suppose three objects interact. Each one may be aware of itself. Each may be aware of the relationship existing between itself and each of the other two. Each may be aware of the other two and their mutual relationship. Each may be aware of the relationship between the paired others and itself. Each may be aware, from a different perspective, of the relationship of the threesome. Each may be aware of the change in itself due to reflection on each and all of the relationships just listed. Each may participate in changed relationships with each other and with each twosome and with the threesome as a result of those reflections.

Do you see where this is going? A universe with as little as three objects can start pushing into an endlessly complex set of relationships just from that simple starting point and its interactions. In a universe with billions of material objects and also billions of personal beings, you can have a suitable expression of infinite creativity even without an infinite material universe. The relationships can generate an endless network, even if the relational objects are finite in number, and all the more so if God himself is in relationship with the persons in his universe.

That being so, it is arguable, against Kant’s assertion, that an infinite God could please himself in the creation of a finite universe. In saying this, I do not mean to ignore the fact of revelation, which takes precedence over our confused ramblings; but it serves the unity of the human mind to observe, whenever we can, that our theological opinions have also a basis in natural reason.

In 1761, John Heinrich Lambert turned back to finity, stating that the universe had to be finite because there could not be an actually realized, infinite collection of material beings. This did not deter Kant, who was still living, and neither did Olbers’ Paradox nor the similar gravitational paradox described by Bentley – which pointed out that an infinite universe would have intolerable quantities of gravity and light.

In the late 1890’s, Boltzmann stated that the Universe consisted of a whole series of universes, 7 x 10100th light years apart, each with its own physical laws. Since the universe as we now know it is only about 109th light years across, a number such as 7 x 10100th – however easily it slides across the mathematical tongue – is utterly beyond human imagination. I do not know where Boltzmann got his number. Presumably he was trying to have infinity but keep it at a distance where gravity and light would not overwhelm us. His idea is worthy of mention because he was an extremely intelligent and reputable physicist and it sounded so authoritative. The universe would generally – though not universally – be considered infinite from then until 1965.

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Even those pagans who don’t engage the fantasy of multiple universes are prone to imagine many “earths” at least. Most famously, Carl Sagan quoted an equation (doesn’t that sound objective and irrefutable: an equation!) according to which one should expect to find around 10,000 planets like earth – and therefore harboring intelligent life – in any galaxy such as the Milky Way. Many like him expected to find other intelligent life in short order. This was the 1980’s, and it was based on the Drake equation of the 1960’s.

We have not yet (in 2010) found intelligent life, and the search has been quite sophisticated.

What could be the problem?

In 1978, shortly before Sagan’s utterance, a different expectation was expressed in a small book called God and the Astronomers, by Robert Jastrow. It was part of a 30-page afterword written by John O’Keefe who had worked for Jastrow at NASA, and who was well-known as a believer, as a Catholic in fact. When Jastrow came to write out his new-found perception of the existence of God, he invited O’Keefe to add an essay, and it included a simple suggestion: O’Keefe said that if you thought of as few as 22 independent conditions for human life, and if each of them had about one chance in ten of turning up on a randomly chosen planet, then the chance of all of them turning up at once on a single planet would be 1022nd power, which is about one chance among all the stars of the universe.

The Afterword is a very interesting 30 pages, well worth reading in full, but here, from page 143, is the quotation I refer to:

For my part, I am not so sure that intelligent life exists on other planets. The basic argument for this view is that each star offers life an opportunity, and there are 1022 (ten thousand million, million, million) stars and planets in the observable universe. Even if the chance of life evolving is as small as, say, one in a million, still there must be millions upon millions of inhabited planets in the Universe.

Suppose, however, that twenty-two separate conditions must be met for intelligent life: the star must be single; it must produce visible and ultra-violet light; its planet must have an atmosphere that transmits light but not X-rays or extreme ultraviolet; there must be liquid water; there must be carbon; the star must live a long time; its output of energy must not vary rapidly; the planet must be in a suitable zone of distance from its star; it must have land as well as water; it must not suffer excessive and prolonged bombardment by meteorites; and so on.

These conditions would not be satisfied on every planet in the Universe. If each were satisfied on only one planet in ten, which is not an unreasonable estimate, then if the requirements are really separate, the chance of finding a planet with all 22 conditions satisfied simultaneously would be one tenth multiplied by itself twenty-two times, or 1/1022. This means only one planet in the Universe is likely to bear intelligent life. We know of one – the earth – but it is not certain that there are many others, and perhaps there are no others.

John O’Keefe, 1978

An interesting challenge…

Ward and Brownlee came along several years later (in 2003) with a fascinating book called Rare Earth, in which they showed that the series of requirements for intelligent life was probably considerably more extensive than Sagan had considered, and we might very well be the only intelligent life in the Milky Way, or even in the universe, just considering the problem statistically – how many stars, how likely that one would have planets the right size, the right distance, with water, with plate tectonics, without supernova interference during the development of life, and so forth. It was a direct response to Sagan and to the Drake equation. Brownlee was a friend of John O’Keefe and may well have been aware of his suggestion. In any case, Rare Earth is a very interesting read, and spells out some of the things O’Keefe mentioned as well as others that are quite unexpected. (Who thinks plate tectonics is essential to life?) I never counted exactly how many conditions are listed but several of them required planetary conditions that are much rarer than 10% of what’s out there. Here are some excerpts.

The following year, yet another book appeared: The Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez (as well as a companion DVD by John Rhys-Davies) in which the theme of Earth’s uniqueness was taken still further. Gonzales stated that Earth was not only uniquely placed for the emergence of human life, but also uniquely placed for the study of the universe. For example, it is so placed that our moon perfectly eclipses our sun, enabling certain observations (in the corona) that would not be possible from any other vantage point in our solar system and would be rare in any case. This takes the concept of design one step farther – the universe was designed to give us life – and our universe home was designed to serve our curiosity!


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A completely different multiverse is presented by Philip Pullman whose fictional work is deliberately blasphemous as well as cosmologically foolish. Since his work is popular and, at a certain level, even attractive because he writes well, it’s worth taking a moment to consider his errors.

He states that every time someone makes a decision, the universe splits into two universes: the one where the decision went one way, and another where it went the other way. It’s a way of saying that all possible universes really do exist, not merely on the physical level, as Hawking has it, but also on a personal level.

But in saying this, he is also saying that this universe, where you have a history and a character based on your personal choices, is no more real than an alternate universe in which you made opposite choices, one by one. There is no ultimate value, then, in any of your choices, and no ultimate value in your personal character. It’s just one of the universes, part of an endless array of options, all equally real.

And all equally unreal. For if none of your choices actually stands before God as the working of a unique “self” then you are not real. There can be no love affair between God and man, and no meaning to life. Everything you do is immediately undone at the cosmic scale. Every action is instantly offset in its significance by an anti-action elsewhere in the multiverse. Even the most commonsense idea of character development is brushed aside, since every decision is unmade elsewhere the day it is made here.

Of course this is all completely silly, just a piece of fiction, but even fiction affects the thinking of its readers. It is important to look squarely at an idea and take a stand for your own reality and your own relationship with God, or even your relationship with your best friend. No decisions are real and none have genuine consequence in Pullman’s multiverse. Do not let these ideas seep into the corners of your consciousness.

And in the end, Pullman is not quite as democratic as all that anyway. Much of what he says is deliberately blasphemous, with a clear sympathy for what Christians have carefully and clearly identified as satanic.

Furthermore, in the end, Pullman does provide a way for some people to travel between universes – without acknowledging that precisely such travel would mean that there was only one universe, not several. (Remember that if two universes interact, they are really one universe.) Not to mention that the universe pairs that arise from each decision are already related, – identical up to that moment in time – so that it is really not fair to call them distinct universes

Multiverses are always a bad idea, always self-contradictory, always a denial of the creator and of his unique relationship with us. They show more about the philosophical presuppositions of their inventors than about the world of physics, and their primary value is in the exploration of flimsy ideas that show what a wise universe we have. Philip Pullman is simply one more character in the intellectual lineage of Giordano Bruno.

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Hawking’s Multiverse

Besides the infinite universe, there are two other kinds of multiverse that one meets from time to time. (Probably more than two!) One is the multiverse of Stephen Hawking, which has a scientific appearance and reputation; the other is the multiverse of people like Philip Pullman, who has written some spiritually horrible fiction with a peculiar cosmological error based on a philosophical atrocity.

Hawking’s foam

Hawking’s multiverse is the assertion, without any proof or any possible proof, that our Big Bang universe is merely the statistical accident of a universe that made it into long-term existence, while innumerable others didn’t.

  1. Some were quickly followed by a collapse, a Big Crunch, so they never got to the star-making stage.
  2. Some were so explosive that they blew into a powder before they formed stars. (And where is that powder? There must be an infinite amount of it since it has been generated over eternity… )
  3. Some might have long-term existence but with a dubious relationship to our universe. The reason for this uncertainty is that there are a few basic relationships in the foundation of the universe, expressed as specific ratios and known as cosmic constants. They seem to be arbitrary but, on closer examination, turn out to be essential to the working of our universe and its hospitality to life. Other universes in Hawking’s proposal might have different starting constants. It is not clear how their matter would be related to our matter if they overlapped our universe or touched it, whatever that might mean for a different physics.

Hawking imagines a kind of cosmic foam, whose location is undefined since it is not part of any universe, from which universes leap into existence and mostly collapse back. It is a mathematical exercise, not an exercise in physics. None of the other universes can be verified; and the concept itself is curious. Think about the consequences:

My nose itches. Hmmm. Is that because I’m catching cold or have just breathed in some lily pollen, or could it be that one of those multiverses just popped in and out of existence inside my nose? It could happen anywhere, you know. It might make me itch or not. We don’t know how – or whether – these other universes would actually interact with ours. All unknown. All without any measure. All carrying the curious suggestion that odd events in our universe might be the result of interaction with other universes. Just might. You never know.

This is chaos. It is just the sort of chaos that was chased off when Christians said that the universe is our Father’s work, and we, made in his image, are meant to understand it, little by little. It’s the kind of mess that was present in ancient mythologies that presented the universe as a work of chaos. It’s the kind of belief system in which the natural sciences could not be born because these sciences depend, philosophically, on a confidence in universe order. Fr. Stanley Jaki argues that the very reason why the scientific revolution began within Christianity of the 14th century, and not within another culture, was this hearty Christian confidence in a reasonable creation by our Father. (Not earlier than the fourteenth century because the Roman Empire had to be converted and then the Saxons, before the universities could be built. Then science had a chance.)

A multiverse cannot be understood because it doesn’t have universal laws. Science does not develop in a climate of thought that disparages – or dismisses – or doubts – the reality of universal laws.

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