Who’s afraid of the Universe?

I can’t think of a topic more daunting than one that combines cosmology and philosophy. The former has as its object of study ‘the Universe’, something that is defined as all that exists or, better said, everything that exists in a physical sense—a terrible lot to analyze! The latter is no less boggling. It deals with questions relating to existence, knowledge and ethics—oh, vast notions! Philosophy of Cosmology goes beyond focusing on all things that exist in the physical sense; it encompasses the ‘metaphysical sense’ too.

Though intimidated by the topic, a recent book review in The Economist reminded me I had, for some now obscure reason, been interested in Philosophy of Cosmology a while back. Or, at least, I was then curious enough to print a 50-page manuscript on ‘Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology’ written in 2006 by the brilliant cosmologist George Ellis. It was not until yesterday that I properly read the text. And it was not until today that I felt brave enough to write a post about the relation between cosmology and philosophy.

The Economist review, labelled under ‘Physics and Philosophy’, introduces a book by David Deutsch entitled ‘The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World’. In doing so, it briefly discusses whether or not science is limited. They write: “recent arguments have examined not only whether the discipline itself is limited—or, indeed, whether the explanation of everything so lusted after by scientists actually exists—but also whether the human mind is equipped to understand everything.” (Deutsch himself is of the opinion that science is infinite. I suppose I have to read his book to understand what that means.)

Cosmology fits nicely into all of this. Once seen as a “speculative enterprise”—indeed, it is still studied in the realm of philosophy and metaphysics—it changed “into a data-driven science that is part of standard physical theory,” to quote from Ellis’ article. But cosmology cannot be seen only as a scientific subject because cosmology as a science is limited.

Classifying the discipline as a science is iffy in itself. Its object of study is unique (there is only one Universe that we can observe) and it can’t be subject to scientific experimentation (we can’t re-run the Universe). Still, as Ellis mentions, modern cosmology is data-driven, which does give it scientific credibility. For example, the standard cosmological theory for the beginning of the Universe, the Big Bang model, was preferred to the alternative, the Steady State model, because of observational tests. The latter states the Universe has no beginning and no end, it is unchangeable. The Big Bang theory, on the other hand, claims the Universe originated in a hot and dense state, very different from what we see today. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a remnant from a period in the history of the Universe when its temperature was higher than at present, killed the Steady State theory.

The modern view may be that cosmology is a science, but it is also that it is not only a science. As cosmologist Sean Carroll writes in his blog, “[cosmology] has extended beyond the observable part of the universe.” There are questions being asked and theories being proposed about stages in the history of the Universe that we cannot reach and places that we cannot observe. So we make philosophical assumptions about it.

One of these assumptions is the cosmological principle, a premise rooted in all cosmological models. Typically, it is stated as “Viewed on a sufficiently large scale, the properties of the Universe are the same for all observers.” As far as we can see, this is a plausible assumption: for example, the large-scale distribution of galaxies looks the same whether we point a telescope to our right or to our left. But it is still just that, an assumption. We cannot possibly confirm that it is true because we can only see small parts of the whole that is the Universe. Wikipedia quotes astronomer William Keel explaining that the cosmological principle “amounts to the strongly philosophical statement that the part of the Universe which we can see is a fair sample, and that the same physical laws apply throughout.” He adds: “In essence, this in a sense says that the Universe is knowable and is playing fair with scientists.” If it weren’t for philosophical choices, cosmology—the science—could not progress.


Slices through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey 3D map of the large-scale structure of the Universe. The Earth is at the center and each point represents a detected galaxy. Credit: M. Blanton and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

By bringing philosophy to the table, we give a wider scope to cosmology because philosophy carries questions that cannot be treated scientifically. Why do physical laws exist? What was there before the Big Bang? Why does the Universe allow the existence of intelligent life? Why does anything exist? Tackling these queries results in philosophical assumptions becoming dominant in cosmology “precisely because the experimental and observational limits on the theory are weak,” as Ellis explains in his essay. The more we aim to understand the Universe, the more we have to move from the terrain of physical science to the realm of metaphysics.

If science is limited in that it doesn’t consider metaphysical questions, metaphysics is limited in that it cannot provide definite answers to its questions. And if there is no certainty in metaphysics, there can be no certainty in the cosmological issues it brings about. Ellis concludes: “Ultimate uncertainty is a key aspect of cosmology.” We should learn to love uncertainty (or so say the “leading thinkers”) in order not to feel fear or disappointment when trying to understand the Universe.

Whether the human mind will ever be able to hold the key to absolute understanding is a whole different matter. Writing about a talk given by astronomer Sir Martin Rees, Sean Carroll notes “even if there is an ultimate explanation in the theory-of-everything sense, it may simply be too difficult for our limited human minds to understand.”

As someone who felt overwhelmed simply from writing about the basics of Philosophy of Cosmology, I can say, with all certainty and no fear, that my mind is too limited to fully grasp the physical or metaphysical Universe.


10 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of the Universe?

  1. Laura Wheeler

    Thanks for introducing us to the basic concepts of the Philosophy of Cosmology.  I also find this subject mind boggling, especially questions such as, “what was there before the Big Bang?”  and, “Why do we exist?” I guess we can question everything – for instance, “are there other universes?” and, “was our universe specially formed to support life?”
    I am also interested to know if the ideas of God and creation full under this topic, as well as coincidences? If so how they can be tackled?  


  2. Barbara Ferreira

    I find the question "Are there other universes?" particularly philosophical. If the universe is defined as everything that exists in a physical sense, how can there be something else? Surely "other universes" would simply be part of what already is our Universe. Unless, of course, other universes are “metaphysical”! As far as I could gather, the question of the "multiverse" is actually one of the issues at the forefront of philosophy of cosmology.
    Personally, I wouldn’t put God/creation/coincidences and philosophy of cosmology in the same bag. In fact, there is a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to religious matters. Although, of course, if you extend the scope of cosmology (as metaphysics) further and further, you would eventually get there!


  3. Laura Wheeler

    Thanks Barbara for you detailed feedback! The multiverse, or the “meta-universe” is a really difficult concept to grasp. It includes everything that exists, even “things” we don’t understand, and “things” we aren’t even sure exist!
    Thanks for The philosophy of religion link.  I’ve had a good read of it – again another subject I am very interested in.  Taking a slight de-tour from this specifically, I was reminded of a blog post that I read on Scilogs, “The Genetic Priming of Religiosity.” Blogger John Jacob Lyons suggests that religiosity has not been assimilated into the human genome. There is neither a gene nor a clutch of genes for religion. However, our genomes have been primed for religiosity and that we need just a simple trigger from the environment to manifest religious behaviour. I guess this is key when asking philosophical questions related to the universe such as, “Is There a God? If there is a God, then what is He Like?” 


  4. Barbara Ferreira

    Interesting stuff Laura! I had no idea such studies on religiosity and the human genome had been done. Thanks for mentioning it!


  5. john lyons

    Thanks Laura and Barbara for your interest in my ‘Genetic Priming’ hypothesis.
    If you take another look at my contribution on Scilogs you will see that I have added a comment in the last few days that clarifies my general hypothesis that all living organisms are primed for the adaptive behaviour of their species. I have also recently added a summary of empirical work carried out in 1967on the pecking behaviour of neonate chicks that appears to support this hypothesis.
    I would be happy to answer any questions/ comments that you, or others on this site, have about Genetic Priming.


  6. john lyons

    By the way, my hypothesis, argument and evidence for Genetic Priming has only been published on Internet blogs. I would welcome any ideas/ suggestions you have for getting it published in hard copy. 


  7. Laura Wheeler

    Thanks John, I found your ideas thoughtful! Thanks also for the extra summary!  Do you know of any other types of similar research currently being carried out on this subject?? I personally find it fascinating. 


  8. john lyons

    Other researchers I would mention in the area of precocious religiosity are Justin Barrett of The Centre for Anthropology and Mind in Oxford and Deborah Keleman of Boston University.  Justin has shown that very young children seem to have concepts such as god and heaven close to the ‘surface’ of their cognition while Deborah has investigated the hyper-active agency detection (HAAD) mechanism in young children. As you know, I have proposed Genetic Priming to explain some of these results and proposed the mechanism that results in Genetic Priming. 
    The HAAD is probably one of the adaptive predispositions that are positively correlated with religious belief/ behaviour and alluded to in my original article in ‘Biology of Religion’. I think you will find this concept particularly interesting Laura. 


  9. Huseyn Qurbanov

    Logically complete cosmological concept. /due to lack of knowledge of the English language was not able to correct the translation Implemented by Google/
    In order to present the unlimited space originally Elementary:
    1. variety (homogeneous) сompleted – enough to postulate the presence in it of two elements with SIMPLE and COMPLEX /closed systematically manifested the essence/
    2. heterogeneous completed – enough to postulate the presence in it of one more element – the Most High and Almighty God – with open exhibited systemic nature.
    Not hard to imagine that even at the lowest possible deployment intangible components the nature of God – the Spirit of God – for the level of the original downwardly directed continuous deployment the material component of the essence of God, there is a curtailment of SIMPLE and COMPLEX /i.e.. their decay occurs due to blocking of origin upwardly directed constantly deploy components of their intangible essences/, as the maximum possible heterogeneous nature of God to the minimum possible number of cell uniformity (№1h) and God on the basis of the material components of the minimum possible №1 deploys heterogeneous to its essence as possible numerical element uniformity (№2H). The process of clotting №2H begins at a certain point in time God begins at the end of its deployment. Curtailment of the Spirit of God to the level of initial deployment again unfolds №1H – God’s potential for transformation into a №1H in №2H and №1H in №2H limitless!


  10. Cosmological concept which is complete from logical point of view

    Initial composition of boundless space from the point of view of element:

    1.It is suffucient to declare existence of two elements, SIMPLE and COMPLEX, possesing closed systemic appearance in order to imagine different (homogenous) and completed one.
    2.It is sufficient to declare existence of Lord and Almighty in other element, possesing non-closed systematic appearance in order to imagine it as different and incomplete as heterogenous (in other words: various type).

    It is not difficult to presume that simple and complex compression is happened in possible minimal widening from permanent widening level, first, inclination to descending, from material component of God from non-material component of Divine Spirit/separation happened as maximum possible diversity (1H) on essence of God on minimum possible numeric homogeneity regarding with blockage of start of non-material components, permanently widening, inclined to their increase of essence/God widens minimal possible homogeneity as maximum possible numeric diversity (2H) to His essence on the basis of 1H material components. Closing process starts only from time, known to God, starting from completion of 2 H opening process. Closing process reopens according to initial opening level of Divine Spirit 1H-1H process of God to 2H process and conversion possibilities of 2H process to 1 H process!


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