The Philosophical Consequences
of the Expanding Universe
Essay First Submitted: AS 102: Introduction to Astronomy Part 2
Wilfrid Laurier University. 2014
It seems impossible to begin a paper on such a profound topic as this without risking descending into cliche’s about the immense importance of the implications discussed within. The nature of the universe itself, in so far as it is observable, testable, and either directly or via models indirectly verifiable, is a topic that rests almost exclusively within the purview of the scientific disciplines. The approaches of thinkers such as Einstein, his contemporaries, predecessors and successors, remain the most effective means of addressing the behaviour of our world, the stars above it, and the expanse that contains them. However, the inability of science to explain anything beyond the bounds of the observable and theoretical universe is as certain as it’s effectiveness at defining what lies within those boundaries, and thus results in the most intellectually infuriating consequence any thinker can be confronted with; that the entirety of explainable existence lies on a foundation that is impossible to explain or quantify. Understanding the gravity of this issue therefore begins, rather ironically, with an old theological argument from the middle ages that provides unknowing insight into what could have led one of the most brilliant scientific thinkers in history to cling so tenaciously to an idea his own model refuted.
One of the most concise explanations of the problem posed by a universe with a definite beginning was first raised almost 800 years before Einstein was born. In 1266, Thomas Aquinas formulated an argument from causality known as the First Cause Argument. Essentially the argument is that if the universe is governed by cause and effect, then every effect must necessarily have a cause of some kind. Thus we are presented with the problem of a potential endless regress of causes and effects unless we admit that some causes are either self caused (the result of themselves), or uncaused and hence the first event in the chain of existence. Aquinas uses the idea of an uncaused cause to support his belief in the christian God, and because he believed the idea of an infinite regress to be an obvious logical absurdity (without a first cause, there is no way for the sequence to begin, and therefore the sequence could not exist). Einstein and theorists who support the idea of an unchanging and unmoving universe instead choose to take side that appears to lead to an infinite regress of cause and effect. While Aquinas believed that this led to an unsalvageable logical mistake, there are indeed ways of overcoming the consequences he first enumerated.
The argument against the infinite regress is simply that there is no logical way for it to begin if there is not something to begin the chain. Thus,without a beginning, the chain of cause and effect itself could never exist to begin with, yet the universe clearly exists. Therefore it seems self evidential that there must be something to begin the chain. Despite this seemingly conclusive point, the argument against the infinite chain of cause and effect rests squarely of a fallacious assumption, namely that not having a beginning is equivalent to saying it cannot exist. Instead, all that follows is that the universe has always, and will always operate the way that it presently does, with no need for a beginning or end. The universal applicability of the laws of physics would even appear to support this point during Einstein’s own time; if the laws of physics are present and hold power across the entirety of the universe, then the matter and energy that exists in the universe (which by the laws of conservation of energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed), has always existed, and has always behaved through various mechanisms to create the conditions that exist throughout the universe. Thus while individual arrangements of atoms and molecules would naturally take place, the basic fundamental framework in which they exist would remain both infinite and unchanging. However, while this logic overcomes the objections presented by Aquinas, there is another component that more directly explains Einstein and other’s reluctance to accept the universe as a finite, expanding entity which is rooted in a more practical concern.
In terms of the reasons behind the belief of Einstein and others that the universe was infinite and unchanging, there are two important factors to bear in mind. The first is that Einstein’s own belief make sense based on the view of the universe that was available at the time. During Einstein’s life, conclusive evidence for the universe as either expanding or contracting was still decades from being discovered, and ultimately his theory was making predictions that far outstripped the time period’s body of knowledge to even test, let alone verify accurately. In the absence of certainty, the human mind quite naturally will default to speculation, hopefully based on logical conjecture. Thus in the absence of evidence supporting one explanation or the other, the choice in model to accept becomes one governed largely by personal preference. Philosopher, psychologist, and one of the founders of pragmatism William James stated that the “[human being] saves as much as he can [when learning new things], for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives.” This means that even when presented with undeniable evidence of the falsity of a belief, we will always work to save as much of our existing belief structure as we can, rather than abandoning all of it. If this is indeed the case, then it seems clear why Einstein and others would wish to hold onto the old model of the universe they had become so familiar with if there was no outright reason presented to change it. As the scientific method emphasizes, in the absence of greater evidence to the contrary, there is no need to abandon a model that works in favour of a new one, unless it provides some tangible benefit to those using it. Thus the scientific model is prone to the same issue that any other belief is subject to; they are inextricably tied to the circumstances in which they are formulated, including the opinions and existing beliefs of the person who formulates them. Philosopher Thomas Kuhn, after examining the nature of the evolution of science as a discipline that such ‘paradigm shifts’ are clearly tied to more than simply the facts surrounding them:
“...is sensory experience fixed and neutral? Are theories simply man-made interpretations of given data? The epistemological viewpoint that has most often guided western philosophy for three centuries dictates an immediate and unequivocal, Yes! In the absence of a developed alternative, I find it impossible to relinquish entirely that viewpoint. Yet it no longer functions effectively, and the attempts to make it do so through the introduction of a neutral language of observations now seem to me hopeless.”
It is clear that Einstein himself both recognized and regretted his modification of his theory to serve his own habitual interests. The price for accepting the old view was too much relative to the benefits of his new theory and what it promised. However there are understandable reasons why one so dedicated to uncovering the factual truth of the matter would want to prefer the infinite universe to a finite one given.
The ultimate consequence of the universe having a beginning rather than being a temporally infinite state of affairs returns us to the original argument by Aquinas. There is now clear evidence that the universe began at a specific point in time and has been expanding ever since, thanks to the discovery of the cosmic microwave background and its theoretical necessity for overcoming Olber’s Paradox. However, this also means that the option of an infinite regress model for explaining the origins of the causal chain observed throughout the universe is now no longer an option. Thus we must choose between one of the other two options presented: Self causation, or a distinct first cause. The first option, while ruled out by Aquinas as impossible, may in fact be applicable in the case of modern physics pertaining to the origins of the universe. Given that the laws of physics, and thus time as an associated phenomenon are entirely unpredictable at time zero, there may still exist a unique condition in which the universe could have been it’s own self cause. This is nearly impossible to verify, and far beyond current scientific ability, but the possibility does still remain a valid area of inquiry and the only recourse left for science to be able to find a foundational answer to the beginning of the universe.
The other answer, as favoured by Aquinas, is that there must be something that set the universe into motion, being the first cause for the big bang and everything that followed. While this does not necessitate that this cause is a divine entity as Aquinas would have preferred, it does hold an important consequence for scientific investigations on the matter. Science is limited to what is verifiable via empirical observation and testing, thus making a theory beyond such conditions inherently unverifiable. As such, if the universe began thanks to some form of external intervention, be it by an intelligence of some kind or simply a natural force that operates externally or prior to the universe, then there is no way to ever know what that force is using the present scientific method. This also means that the entirety of human knowledge regarding the nature of the universe will ultimately rest on an unanswerable question; and while this will not prevent rationalistic speculation and theories as to what could have begun the universe, and what might lay beyond it, there is ultimately no way to answer these questions with any certainty. Thus the fact that the universe does indeed have a decided beginning may well hold the final answer as to what the boundaries of human scientific knowledge is capable of, and perhaps more worryingly, that such inquiry could ultimately result in a futile inability to answer the final foundational question of the discipline: what started it all?
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