Thursday, 4 February 2016

Physics and the Origins of the Universe (I)

Most arguments in physics take for granted a frame of space and time, and the reality of physical existence. Such things need to be explained, not assumed for the purposes of description and analysis. Otherwise physics is a multi-million dollar parlour game (I stood inside the fantastically complex Atlas detector in CERN three times, while it was under construction. The cafeteria cutlery was magnetised, which was impressive).

I covered a wide range of subjects in writing The Sacred History of Being (hereafter ‘SHB’ as my friends now generally refer to it). Not everything the book explores is reflected in the blog postings however.  This range is not the consequence of a lack of focus, but because the implications of the core argument impact on many subjects, including logic, mathematics, physics, cosmology, religion, etc. I was also interested in why we had arrived at where we are, culturally speaking, so that the central argument of SHB can seem to be without meaning.

There are two principal logical modes present in antiquity:  Aristotle’s laws of thought, upon which most everything since has been built, up until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (things became interesting with Cantor’s work relating to the infinite and transfinite groups, and with Russell’s paradox). And the other is a mode of logic present in Plato, but also connected with Pythagoras, and with the Babylonians, from whom Pythagoras is supposed to have received it, when he was present at the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE. The second modality has not been the focus of thorough scholarship over the past two hundred years, and is scarcely recognised for what it is. These two modalities are so different from each other, that they provide radically different understandings of the world. Taking account of the second modality was a major part of SHB. I still haven’t dealt with it properly.

We have turned our understanding of the world upside down during the past three hundred years in the west, without really knowing what we were doing, and what the consequences would be. What that means is that the ancient picture of the world was always built on the idea that there was a question behind its understanding. That question is one which has often been repeated since – it is ‘why should there be anything rather than nothing?’ The question goes nowhere in the modern world, because we have no way of answering it.

In the ancient world, a possible answer would be that our physical reality exists as part of a plenum; as a consequence of the reality and the properties of that plenum. Arthur Lovejoy wrote a book on how important that way of looking at reality was for the history of western culture from the ancient Greeks up until relatively recent times (The Great Chain of Being, published in 1936). In a sense SHB is designed to knock the bottom out of the notion that the idea of a plenum, a plenitude, or Being itself, began with the Greeks. It used to be the natural place to start. Now our understanding is different. A premise of the argument is that the idea can be traced back at least until the 14th century B.C.E. So I wrote a kind of prequel to Lovejoy’s book.

Why a plenum? The power of this idea is that it allows us to accept that there is nothing, rather than anything, at the root of our reality. It is just that it so transcends the common sense idea of nothing, in that it is neither something, nor nothing. It has no presence, and no absence: it is just what it is. A field of possibility, if you like. Undefined, and without limit.

This is the essence of the teleological world view, in which the end and the beginning, the idea of limit itself, is a matter of some significance. This idea was dominant in antiquity. It is very prominent in Aristotle’s writings, but he did not invent it. Solon expresses the idea very clearly in the account of his conversation with Croesus in Herodotus, some two centuries earlier. It underpins the Assyrian picture of the world, and also the Babylonian account of the creation, as expressed in the liturgy of their New Year Festival, the Enuma Elish (‘When on High’).

Originally the idea of the telos was intimately associated with the gods, and with religious cult. The gods were understood to be a product, a consequence of the telos, and of the initial plenum. Later, this association was less well understood, so that the concept of the telos became reified into an intellectual frame in which things had purpose, function, and value (one of my teachers of philosophy once said that ‘a teleological universe is one in which fact and value interpenetrate’, meaning that everything has a meaning in such a universe). For Aristotle, in his writings, everything was ‘rowing towards its end’. Without the idea of an initial plenum, the idea of the telos is insupportable and without meaning. It isn’t a secular idea, though nevertheless it does have a range of presences in time and space, since reality does not adjust itself to suit our point of view. If it is there, it continues to function.

We have let all of the transcendent nature of the telos slip, and we deprecate what we currently understand as teleology, outside religion, poetry and literature, because it is a view of the world which sees purpose and direction in processes and things, which cannot be present. It has for us no meaning, no significance. It lasted longest in biology, perhaps because of Aristotle’s massive legacy for the study of the subject, but it is now nowhere to be seen in any of the sciences. At least not explicitly.

I could take an excursion here into Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes, since we are talking about the final cause. I will stay on course by saying that one of the four causes is the efficient or physical cause. This is now, since Newton, the only cause the west recognises. This is physical force, physical determinism, energy, power, action and reaction, etc. Why only the efficient cause? Because Newton made such a good job of his explanation of the universe in terms of the mathematical description of the consequences of physical force, and of inertia. His work was so profoundly impressive that even the Divines wanted to be part of the new dispensation, in which the universe could be understood in terms of a certain uniformity, a clockwork precision. They presented this uniformity as evidence for the existence and controlling power of god, which was not of course Newton’s intention. This uniformitarian view of the universe has persisted (in various forms) until the present day. The efficient cause rules.

So, when a physicist or a cosmologist is asked: how did the universe come into being, it is hard to give any kind of answer beyond the ‘Big Bang’. The efficient cause always presumes a mover, and when the beginning of the universe is considered, there is no obvious prime mover. And in any case, identifying a prime mover simply moves the question of the start another stage back (‘it’s turtles all the way down!’).The idea of the ‘Big Bang’ exists only because an expanding universe suggests that a primordial explosion might have taken place. It’s an inference. It isn’t a very sophisticated notion, and doesn’t have exclusive explanatory rights. Why did it explode?  What was there to explode, and why was it there? What was there for it to explode into?

The questions have expanded, without the possibility of answers, which is often a sign that the critical model in which something is being examined is crippled.

We can conceive an alternative kind of physics which considers initial cosmological conditions, the idea of creation, the properties and attributes of the plenum and of the creation of visible reality, and the implications of the two opposing logical and inferential frames promoted by Plato and Aristotle.

I’m drawing up something on Plato and Aristotle’s respective modes of logic. I outlined Plato’s views on the logical relations of the Forms with each other in SHB (he’s only interested in the abstract cases), but I haven’t written much about Aristotle’s laws of thought. We think of them as enshrining common sense. 

But Aristotle practiced sophistry (he wrote a text on sophistical refutation - De Sophisticis Elenchis). What he is saying therefore depends on the context in which he is saying it; on who he is talking to and why. Aristotle’s writings on the soul (De Anima) mirror Plato’s closely, which suggests that they are not far apart in their understanding, but chose to come to different conclusions elsewhere. The absurd conclusion of the Nicomachean Ethics, where it is concluded that the gods are unmoving, and limited to contemplation, is a case in point. It would have looked profoundly odd at the time, since it means that the gods cannot act. 

[a text correction and a link added, November 4, 2017]

No comments:

Post a Comment