Posts Tagged ‘Jaki’

On pages 76-7 of his “Is There a Universe” Jaki has this interesting passage:

It should be observed, parenthetically, that Munitz [whose work on cosmology he has been critiquing for a few pages] is wrong in thinking that the idea of a cosmos “as an ordered totality that binds all phenomena in a universal scheme and whose details are accessible to patient rational enquiry” is a bequest of the Greeks of old to human civilization. For all Greek philosophers, and notably for the greatest – Plato and Aristotle – among them, the universe was partly ordered, partly disordered. Emphatic insistence on the full orderliness of the universe first appears only centuries later, in the anti-Arian writings of Athanasius. It was he who claimed that a fully ordered universe could alone issue from the creative power of a fully divine, and therefore infinitely rational, Logos.

It’s just an unavoidable fact that the idea of a Creator-God who is all-powerful is linked to the idea of a universe in which all parts are related, and that this in turn is linked back to the idea of God who is all-wise. When the idea of God is not the idea of an all-powerful One, then the universe is not conceived to be a genuine and meaningful totality. If God is not real or is irrational, then so is the universe not quite real or not quite rational – therefore not fully subject to rational study. No matter what anyone says about an accidental and survivalist evolution of the universe, it always turns out that this irrational concept is linked to an empty concept of God and then also to an empty concept of his children, a denial of human dignity.

So it was a saint fighting a heresy about the nature of Jesus who clearly saw that when St. John said, “In the beginning was the Word… and all things were made through Him” he thereby laid the foundation for a certainty that the entire universe is rational. It’s hard to understand, but it’s rational. It’s big, but it’s ordered throughout.

The universe, simply the totality of material reality, is such an overwhelming idea that people who don’t habituate themselves to the vast by thinking about God simply can’t face up to it. They look as far as they can, and then they say that beyond that horizon is the void, if not of material reality, of ordered material reality.

Beyond my vision, chaos. How silly is that?

Jaki quotes Bertrand Russell as saying that the idea of the universe was “a mere relic of pre-Copernican astronomy.” In other words, Russell was saying that there could be no possible way of conceiving of a genuine totality, and everyone who thought there was had been out of date since the mid-16th century. Copernicus – and presumably Bruno – had made nonsense of totality.

Russell said this in 1917, just as Einstein was offering a coherent definition of space. In other words, he said it just at the moment when it was shown to be certainly wrong. And way back at the beginning of rational cosmology, it was a saint and a theologian who had the ability to see out to the edges of the universe and affirm its rationality.

There is a universe, Bert.

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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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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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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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