Posts Tagged ‘universe’

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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What do we mean by “the universe?”

Here is a brief introduction to the universe as we know it – because I don’t think it is well known, and because for many people the very concept of the universe is rather vague, abstract, and generally intimidating. I would like you to have a glimpse at what we are talking about. Very simply, the universe can be laid out in just fifteen nested steps, each a billionth of the one before, and I have made representations of these steps on nested Matreshka dolls which, when I speak, make a helpful visual aid.

But first: a billionth – what is that?

Think of a barn, a large barn, 10 meters (11 yards) tall, wide, and deep. Fill it with blueberries, the big commercial kind.

Let one blueberry roll out the door.

Ah! That is one billionth of the volume of the barn.

With that in mind, the universe may be laid out like this:

1027 The whole universe is perhaps 1027 meters in diameter. Not more; possibly less.

1024 A billionth of that, 1024 meters, would be the size of one of the great walls of galaxies such as were discovered in the late 1980’s by Margaret Geller.

1021 A billionth of that would be the size of a single galaxy, such as our Milky Way.

1018 A billionth of that, 1018 meters, (one blueberry rolling out of the barn of the Milky Way) might be the central portion of one of the large structures in the galaxy, such as Barnard’s Loop in Orion. It is also the distance to the most distant stars that we see, naked eye.

1015 A billionth of that is a tenth of a light year, half the diameter of a planetary nebula such as the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

1012 A billionth of that would be the size of the Solar System out to Jupiter or Saturn, not all the way out to Pluto and the comets, or even Uranus.

109 And a billionth of that would be the size of the Sun.

106 A billionth of that would be the size of our largest asteroid, Ceres, or of a ball whose diameter was the size of California.

103 A billionth of that would be the size of a small mountain, just a kilometer high, such as the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica.

100 And a billionth of that would be one meter, the height of a young child, or, in three dimensions, the size of a young family such as could sit together in a chair one meter tall, wide, and deep.

10-3 A billionth of that is the size of a gnat;

10-6 And a billionth of that is the size of a chloroplast.

10-9 A billionth of that is the size of an ordinary small molecule such as an oil molecule.

10-12 A billionth of that – well, a thousandth of that would be the size of an atom; a billionth would be the size of the lower reaches of one of the larger atoms.

10-15 And a billionth of that is about the size of a proton.

There is reputed to be an entire zoo of particles smaller than the proton, but none of them have sizes or weights, so we will leave them aside for now and just reflect on this universe whose dimensions, carefully considered in both directions, leave the imagination stupefied. It is easy enough to say a billionth of a billionth of a billionth – fourteen times; one must weep if the imagination should try to follow. An ordinary man could be forgiven if he thought the larger reaches to be “almost” infinite – but we are not ordinary! We are philosophers enough to understand that vast-beyond-imagination is not so much as a pinhead compared to infinity.

The universe is unimaginably large. It is not infinite.

Yet as post-Copernican cosmology unfolds, we will see that the impression of infinity recurs again and again before the awesome depths of the universe, always in concert with a certain inclination to paganism and its associated despair, a despair based upon a firm and irrational belief in cosmic irrationality and the consequent meaninglessness of our lives and our theology.

Neither the infinity nor the despair is scientific. It does not result from reason or anything that can be measured in the manner appropriate to scientific research. And while we hope the religious leaders of our time are confronting the despair, the religious science teacher can, I believe, and should, present science as a refuge of the finite and of rationality.

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