Friday, August 20, 2010


"The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is."


Marcelo Gleiser at NPR's 13.7 blog speculates about the ultimate inability of science to explain the first cause of the universe. The fact that there is something rather than nothing may not be a demonstrably empirical matter. I suppose the three great and still unsolved questions are: the origin of the universe, the inception of life, and the development of consciousness. Many have suggested that our minds may not be structured to solve some puzzles, ever.

Of the three, it seems to me that in the long run biology itself, the coming into being from the lifeless muck of self-replicating and eventually self-assembling organic systems, will be the "easiest" to account for. And I think that over time, even if it takes centuries, we will arrive at a decent understanding of how neural networks generate subjectivity, although the specifics of individual subjectivity will always retain some obscurity inasmuch as a particular consciousness is epistemologically a self-enclosed system (i.e. no outside agent could fully understand what it is to be me without in fact becoming me and in the process ceasing to be himself).

But the source of reality itself is a totally different kind of question, and one that may not in fact be scientific at all. For me the strangeness of the matter is that I can't even imagine what an explanation for the universe would look like or how it could possibly be satisfactory. One possibility is that the universe (or rather some grand multiverse from which our universe sprang) has always existed. But somehow I find this kind of infinite regress distasteful. In fact, infinity itself is distasteful except in the abstract.

However, neither am I happy with the notion that the universe had a specific origin, before which or outside of which there was truly nothing (such that "before which" or "outside of which" have no meaning inasmuch as time and space do not exist outside of the universe). The human brain evolved with assumption of limits and of agents. Theistic accounts of creation, while intellectually unsatisfactory in all sorts of ways, nonetheless are easier to relate to. It is somehow emotionally easier to imagine that a stipulated God has simply always been than that a neutral multiverse has always been. I'm not sure why this would be so.

I have the same problem, actually, with space. That is, it is equally disturbing to imagine the universe as spatially infinite as it is to imagine that it would be even theoretically possible to arrive at a physical point beyond which there is non-being. That suggests that time and space are simply limiting frameworks of my contingent mind. So speculating about why the Big Bang happened or where it came from may be like aspiring to stare directly (without mirrors, etc.) at the back of my head.

No, I haven't been getting high or reading Heidegger. But philosophy is a kind of willful stupidity, the refusal to accept the obvious as obvious. To ask why reality not only follows abstract physical laws, but also exists at all (which is not required by those laws) is something like asking how one knows reality is "out there" at all rather than a mere dream or illusion of consciousness; both questions vainly seek for something within experience to justify the basic condition of experience at all. And with that one leaves the desert of philosophy for an oasis of common sense, and the weekend.


Dr X said...

Without any imaginable precipitant for the big bang, theory-of-mind inclines us to see agency behind creation. At least there are referents in our own experience to imagine the universe as an intentional creation. Something that we can imagine probably strikes us as more real than something we can't imagine at all.

But then there is the problem of a God without beginning.

Novalis said...

In terms of a thought experiment and not an argument for creationism, it occurs to me that in some ways God is a very simple concept, and that very simplicity underlies much of its power. An eternal material universe implies infinite and bewildering complexity over time, whereas eternal simplicity is easier for the mind to assimilate.

There is also the semantic fact that the very concept of a perfect God includes eternity, which offers a convenient short cut to the imagination (a twist on St. Anselm's claim that a perfect God, by definition, could not fail to exist).

Again, these arguments have the advantage of accessibility, not necessarily validity.

Anonymous said...

As is often the case when reading your blogs, I 'think' I agree with the sentiments expressed here. On the other hand, I must confess to having little idea, and no way in the world, to articulate the argument. Positing either infinity or its opposite requires more brain power and introspection than I am capable of. The intellectual exercise though is always worth the time.

Novalis said...

Anon, you surprise me--feeling alright I hope?

Retriever said...

Am going for a walk to ponder this fine post. But you could do a lot worse than to read the first couple of chapters of John's Gospel for one theory. A beautiful one.

Novalis said...

Hmm, thank you as always, but I like the Kierkegaardian idea of not allowing any historical "evidence" (even from a volume of such uncertain provenance) to sully reverence owed the transcendent.

Today I was reading Peter Green's review of a biography of William Golding, whose last novel apparently contained one Arieka, a mouthpiece of Apollo at Delphi:

"So we let Arieka herself have the last word. The final event she records in her the offer of a statue by the Athenians to honor her long career as Pythia. What they should rather do, she suggests, is erect a simple altar with a dedicatory inscription: 'To the Unknown God.'"

Flaffer said...

Philosophy as willful stupidity. I like that, and take it in a non-pejorative way. One of the great debates underlying much academic, western philosophy is whether philosophy can actually reach conclusions or rather it just clears the way of muddled thought. Your choice of Wittgenstein as the opener may betray where you come down on this debate, as it would also betray where I sit.

I think it was Hume who said that after doing philosophy, one must still get up out of one's chair. I find a solace in knowing that we know so much and yet know hardly nothing at all. But there are still questions...