Posts Tagged ‘cosmology’

Turtles all the way down

Bertrand Russell, according to philosophical lore, was once in the course of giving a public lecture on cosmology when he was interrupted by an old lady in the audience. “Everything you have been telling us is rubbish,” the lady vociferously objected. “The world is actually flat, and it is supported by a giant elephant that is standing on the back of a turtle.” Russell, humouring her, asked what might support the turtle. The lady replied, “It’s turtles all the way down!”

– from Why Does the World Exist? By Jim Holt

There are some questions we cannot help asking ourselves, even if we are convinced that there can never be a fully satisfactory answer. “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” is perhaps the most basic question of all. Of course, not everyone thinks the question is unanswerable; and not everyone even thinks the question is valid to begin with. Philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, is particular, is adamant that this question is not even to be asked, as it is meaningless. But, undaunted by this early setback, author Jim Holt sets out to find, if not the answer, at least the various thoughts and ideas that mankind has come up with in relation to this eternal puzzle. He describes his quest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as an “existential detective story”; and, during the course of his detective work, he interviews some of the foremost intellects of our time – scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians; and even novelist John Updike shortly before his death, to consider the views of a creative artist. And the range of thoughts and ideas they all come out with is as bewildering as it is fascinating. His first interviewee, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum insists with some vehemence that the question itself is meaningless; another eminent philosopher, Richard Swinburne, opines that although the existence of God cannot be confirmed, it is the most probable given the laws of Bayes’ Theorem; a mathematician (Sir Roger Penrose, no less) thinks that the laws of pure mathematics preceded the universe itself, have an objective reality, and are immutable; and that the universe had to come into being to satisfy these laws. And so on.

In between these interviews, Holt explains very clearly and with considerable wit some of the subtlest ideas and concepts from the fields of philosophy, physics and mathematics. I do have something of a background in physics and mathematics, but I was still grateful to have explained the philosophical implications of some of the ideas from these areas; and, not having any background in philosophy at all, I was extremely grateful for Holt’s very lucid and elegantly expressed expositions of various philosophical ideas. The result of all this is both entertaining and fascinating, although if Holt’s quest is indeed a detective story, then it is one of those post-modernist open-ended ones: here, at the end, Poirot does gather all the suspects together in one room to reveal the killer; but, instead of doing so, he merely goes through all his hypotheses, before finally conceding that he does not really know whodunit.

As far as my own limited intellectual abilities go, the question asked in the title is insoluble. If every effect has a cause, as Leibnitz maintained, then we can, in theory at least, trace back the causes of all effects either until we get to the First Cause. We may call this First Cause God, as those do who are religious; or we may call the First Cause the laws of mathematics, as mathematician Roger Penrose does; or we may call it the principle of goodness – as one philosopher, John Leslie, does. There are other possibilities also. Or we may move away entirely from this idea of a First Cause, and say, as certain branches of Hindu cosmology do, that the chain of causality is infinite, and that everything, ourselves included, has always existed. If the former applies – i.e. if there is indeed a First Cause – then this First Cause has to provide an explanation for itself, and that is circular; but if the latter applies – i.e. if there are indeed turtles all the way down – we find ourselves lacking an explanation of the existence of this infinite chain of turtles.

Of course, science has peered deeply into this issue. We now know that the universe started with the Big Bang; but, just as any child in scripture classes when told that God created the world asks “Then who created God?”, the question “Why did the Big Bang occur?” seems to me – pace Grünbaum – a legitimate one. What happened before the Big Bang to make it occur? At this point, we are firmly admonished: there was no time before the Big Bang, we are told, and, hence, to ask what preceded it is as meaningless as it is to ask what lies further north than the North Pole. But this answer does not satisfy. Whether there was time before Big Bang or not, why did it occur? Why is there not nothing?

No doubt, scientists will be able to tell us some day why the Big Bang occurred: we know, for instance, that there is never such a thing as a complete vacuum, as even in nothingness there are quantum fluctuations – random spontaneous creations and annihilations of particles and anti-particles. And even out of this the universe may have emerged. But this seems to me to leave open the question: “If the laws of physics are such that the universe could come into being, then why are the laws such?” If our existence is contingent upon the laws that allow us to exist, then is it not legitimate to ask how these laws had come about? Did someone – God, say – decree them? Or did they appear spontaneously out of nowhere for no apparent reason?

And is it in any case reasonable to view it in this manner? After all, that the laws that describe the universe must necessarily be the laws that caused the universe to come into being is but an unargued assertion. And even if we were to accept this assertion, unargued though it is, and accept that a universe capable of supporting life and consciousness came into being because certain laws allowed it to do so, then we are assuming that the laws came first; and this is surely disputable. Is it not, at least, legitimate to see the laws merely as descriptive of the universe, and, hence, only of consequence when the existence of the universe is already an established fact? Roger Penrose, for one, doesn’t think so. For him, the laws of mathematics have an objective reality, and are eternal. But he doesn’t explain why that should be so. The laws of mathematics are for him what God is to the religious – a brute fact, a point where we must stop and not look for further turtles underneath. But this seems to me merely to shift the mystery back a few links in the chain: the mystery itself is not solved.

Even Steven Weinberg, among the most extraordinary scientific intellects of his or of any other age, feels there can be no answer. Or, at least, that human beings are not capable of comprehending them. But, Weinberg insists, science, although it cannot finally and irrevocably provide a solution, can indeed probe much further, and answer many of the questions that so puzzle us now. However, rather intriguingly, he goes on to say that the more explainable the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems. Not everyone feels this way: Richard Dawkins had famously declared that the more we understand of the universe, the more fascinating it becomes; and, in his characteristically imperious manner, he had insisted that we all should see it in his terms on the pain of being damned as obscurantist. That someone so very distinguished as Steven Weinberg can not see it in such terms indicates the importance of differing individual temperaments in these matters.

And this is what particularly fascinated me – even more perhaps than the ideas expressed. If reason is objective, I wondered, then how is it that so many brilliant minds reason themselves into such diverse positions? And it strikes me that it isn’t really reason that has led these luminaries to their very different conclusions: it’s their temperaments. If these same people had been born with the same powerful intellects but with different temperaments, then their reasons would have led them to very different conclusions.

Inevitably, this leaves me wondering where my own temperament leads me. I do not of course possess anything like the level of intellect of the various people Holt interviews, but nonetheless, like Steven Weinberg, I too cannot help feeling that the more we understand the mechanism of the universe, the more pointless it seems. I do not see the point of offering a defence of such a perspective: it is my own temperament, and no more. Speaking for myself (and, I emphasise, only for myself), if we are to live our lives as fully as we can, we must not see our lives as pointless, as lacking significance. And I find myself actually grateful that the full answer to the question will always elude our human understanding.

In short, for me, it’s turtles all the way down!