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Posts Tagged ‘Is There a universe’

Countering this potentially theistic trend that Brownlee had placed on the table with his Rare Earth, Stephen Hawking made the desperate gambit of suggesting that there might be an infinite (really infinite, or just virtually infinite?) number of “bangs” – some Big Bangs, some Little Bangs, and just this one that we inhabit being the fortuitous size that allowed human life. In an infinite time, all possibilities can be tried. His reasoning was based on some physical considerations that are beyond the scope of this discussion; you can read about the Copenhagen Interpretation. But fundamentally, there were unrecognized philosophical issues behind this bid, as Jaki points out in his Is There a Universe? Hawking, like Hoyle before him, needed matter to arise mathematically from nothing – in this case from the probability that was believed to govern electrons. That probability could generate matter was a passing odd position; nevertheless Hawking has a vast following, and, in truth, God does not force our hands — or our minds. Belief, atheistic or not, has a certain latitude for choice; the evidence is never absolute because men and their information are never absolute. Hawking had made the case for an accidental universe: Yes, our universe is finite, but it is set within an infinite cosmic foam of other universes. It’s just the one that works for us.

But there was more evidence coming in.

The next salvo in the battle for a genuinely finite universe was the book Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez. He and several colleagues have gathered evidence that the earth is not only uniquely fitted for life, which it would have to be or we wouldn’t be talking about it, but also uniquely fitted for discovery, which is not necessary to life, even to intelligent life. Interestingly, however, they discovered that the same conditions that are essential to life area also the conditions for discovery.

For example, our Earth is the only place in the solar system from which the Sun is fully eclipsed by another body (our Moon) so that the corona is visible. This fact has been very important in the study of stars – the Sun is so bright, and the stars are so dim, that both are very difficult to study. The corona of the sun, the beautiful display that is visible for just a few minutes during a total eclipse, gives lots of information, which was otherwise unavailable until the launching of artificial satellites. It is essential to universe discovery.

At the same time, the Moon is essential to life because it stabilizes the rotation of Earth, without which the seasons would vary too strongly and life would not be possible.

That the same planet suited to life should also be suited to discovery of the nature of the stars, and therefore of the universe, deeply disturbs the accidentalist case. It makes the universe look like a home.

(The next post will be the end of the talk.)

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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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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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