ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – THE UNIVERSE – PART IV

“What a wonderful and amazing scheme have we here of the magnificent vastness of the universe! So many suns, so many Earths…” – Christian Huygens.

We have now seen three interpretations of the universe as ultimate reality: (1) propositional – its unity, order, incomplete accessibility, and uniqueness, (2) representational – its instantiation in particulars such as light waves, atoms, and events, and (3) constitutional, i.e. space-time, mass-energy, and evolution (or natural logic). Our last model comes from two recent astronomers: Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think it is fair to say that neither of these brilliant men believes a deity is behind the universe, rather I suspect they would say the universe is the ultimate manifestation of reality. Let’s review some of their more lofty thoughts.

Starting with Sagan, I should say that I do not have a copy of his most famous book, Cosmos, but I do have his last book Billions & Billions with its portentous subtitle Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium written as he faced what turned out to be terminal cancer. Near the end of the book, we read perhaps his last written words describing his understanding of the universe. He begins by admitting one disagreeable ‘by-product’ of the scientific revolution was its undermining of many of the traditional beliefs that comforted humans in this apparently indifferent universe, but then he offers this insight:

“..I see the emergence in our consciousness of a Universe of a magnificence, and an intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors imagined. And if much about the Universe can be understood in terms to a few simple laws of Nature, those wishing to believe in God can certainly ascribe those beautiful laws to a Reason underpinning all of Nature. My own view is that it is far better to understand the Universe as it really is than to pretend to a Universe as we might wish it to be.”

I reproduce this quote exactly as it appears because I believe Mr. Sagan chose his capital letters carefully. Four words – Universe, Nature, Reason, and God – are capitalized, and thus I believe as he approached death, he perceived that these are the four different nuances of ultimate reality as  apprehended by most people. Of course, he does not embrace God as a deity or as the biblical creator, but as a misunderstood characterization of the other three which are better revealed by scientific study than by religious scripture.

(continued next post)

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1Sagan, Carl, Billions & Billions. Random House, New York, NY, 1997. ISBN 0-679-41160-7, page 213.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – THE UNIVERSE – PART III (continued)

Harlow Shapley, we have seen, considers ultimate reality as five fundamental constituents of the universe – space, time, matter, energy, and cosmic evolution. He assures us that this latter term can explain the appearance of ‘protoplasmic life’ via a long chain from ‘mystical hydrogen’ without the need for supernatural forces or divine miracles. It is true that through cosmic evolution humans appear with an advanced brain that permits us to seek distant goals beyond individual fate, but social insects duplicate some of our mores, and life elsewhere may be more ‘perfect’ than Homo sapiens.

He then asks; “Where and why does religion come into the cosmic picture?”5 Referencing anthropology he notes that all human societies have religion of some sort usually to explain the logically unexplainable often with magic or an appeal to spirits. He asks us to advance our distant goals by appealing not to our animal origins, but the angelic or spiritual “in the broadest sense,” that is, by adopting a ‘religious attitude.’ He proffers a modification of Albert Schweitzer’s religion as the ‘reverence of life.’

To me it is a religious attitude to recognize the wonder of the whole natural world, not only of life… why not go all the way and avow reverence for all things that exist, all that is touched by cosmic evolution, and reserve the greatest reverence of all for existence itself”6

But reverence alone may not be enough, Hapley cautions, our creed should be “effective participation in universal evolution.” 7

“Would we be true to the galaxies and the stars, to the vegetation and animals, all of which evolve, if we willfully refused to participate?” 8

At last he brings us back to the domain of human action,

“It is a magnificent universe of incredibly glorious space, time, and energy. Let us go proudly along! Our social and spiritual evolution appears to be in our own hands; it does not await the slow flow or vast amounts of time, such as out bodies would require for a significant step in evolution.”9

Analogous to the fundamental entities of the universe are perhaps five fundamental entities in the cosmopolis of humanity – respect for human life, humility, charity and altruism, reverence for the grand phenomena of existence, and growth in knowledge and spirit. He thinks these parameters lead us to a lifetime of service, world citizenship, world-mindedness, a human bill of rights, and respect for the individual.10

Mr. Shapley’s metamorphosis is complete – no longer mere astronomer, he is both philosopher and theologian. His distillation of key facets of the universe as ultimate reality and his principle of ethics as cosmic are as cogent as any I have encountered.  Full stop.

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5Shapley, Harlow, Beyond the Observatory. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 1967. Page 121.

6Ibid., page 123.

7Ibid., page 171.

8Ibid., page 172.

9Ibid., pages 172-173

10Ibid., pages 173-178.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – THE UNIVERSE – PART III

“The student of astronomy must expect his chief profit to be intellectual, in the widening of the range of thought and conception, in the pleasure attending the discovery of simple law working out the most complicated results, in the delight over the beauty and order revealed by the telescope in systems otherwise invisible, in the recognition of the essential unity of the material universe, and of the kinship between his own mind and the infinite Reason that formed all things and is immanent in them.” – Charles A. Young, Professor of Astronomy, Princeton University, A Text-book of General Astronomy, 1888.

We have already seen two modes of thought on the universe as ultimate reality: (1) etymological/logical – its unity, order, limited accessibility, and uniqueness: and (2) representational – i.e. the instantiation of the entire universe in all its facets including light waves, atoms, and events (with or without an infinite ‘Ruler’). A third understanding is presented by Harlow Shapley, a mid 20th century American astronomer, whose life of study of the heavens that he integrated into a philosophy consistent with science. He starts with a suggestion, “because of its confused meaning, perhaps we should abandon the deity concept altogether. Should we not look deeply and sympathetically for religious beliefs that are founded on science and that grow with science?”1

His replacement: “Although it may not seem to you to be a full definition of God, it is, to many, quite satisfying to equate nature and God.”2 Shapley concedes this is ‘pantheistic,’ but believes it is still ‘operable.’ Ultimate reality in his view involves four basic entities: space, time, matter, and energy; or even more simply: space-time and mass-energy. But there is one thing more, he believes; a fifth fundamental element akin to “drive, direction, consciousness, original breath of life (administered by God),”3 but reflected in the more appropriate term, ‘cosmic evolution.’ The changes in the universe across its long history and the appearance of life with its unending selection imply an evolution affecting both animate and inanimate nature which is perhaps more basic or which permeates the other four basic entities.4

Shapley is not done. We must go one step further into “metaphysics (that dangerous swamp) and reach for the most basic and permeating entity – the one without which all else is a vague nothing – existence.” Perhaps it is even more fundamental, but we cannot know why existence exists due to our limited equipment as a species, though he plans to pull existence as such into the final mix.

(continued next post)

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1Shapley, Harlow, Beyond the Observatory. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 1967. Page 105.

2Ibid., page 107.

3 Ibid., page 108.

4In a later essay, Shapley selects the words ‘natural logic’ to replace ‘cosmic evolution’ but due to limited space, I chose not to address this minor change in my analysis of this thought.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – THE UNIVERSE – PART II (continued)

From light Proctor moves to matter, where he tells us “If a great naturalist like Huxley or Owen can tell by examining the tooth of a creature belonging to some long-extinct race, not only what the characteristics of that race were, but the general nature of the scenery amid which such creatures lived, we see at once that a single grain of sand or a single drop of water must convey to the Omniscient and Omnipresent Being the history of the whole world of which it forms part…In fact, if we consider the matter attentively, we see that there cannot be a single atom throughout space which could have attained its present exact position and state had the history of any part of the universe, however insignificant, been otherwise than it has actually been, in even the minutest degree.”6

He goes further- extending this idea onto future events noting: “We can judge of the past by its effects, but we are almost utterly unable to judge of the future by its causes. Yet we do not doubt that the future is present in its germs, precisely as the past is present in its fruits.” 7 Likewise, “…every event, however trifling, must be held to contain in itself the whole history of the universe throughout the infinite past and throughout the infinite future.”8

The Ruler supervises the universe via the physical laws assigned to the universe which cannot be abrogated and which are sufficient to control all things. His infinite wisdom is proven by virtue of the fact that these laws do not require adaptation or change during infinite time, that is, the whole scheme of the universe is so perfect that direct intervention is at no time required.9 He closes by concluding his scientific analysis reveals that the Ruler has the traits of omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence – i.e. the traditional traits attributed to God by Christianity.

I do not know what religious beliefs Mr. Proctor brings to his astronomical analysis, but even if this final chapter is contrived to conform to religious faith, I think a few of his points are quite exquisite. While his imposition of a ‘Ruler” on the universe seems speculative, his main proposition seems sound. If scientific determinism is correct, then an argument can be made that the entire universe and its history and future is instantiated in light waves and other emanations, in every atom, and in every event. This level of order and the inter-relatedness of every facet of the universe seems to me to describe an astonishing but credible image of ultimate reality.

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6Proctor, Richard A., Other Worlds Than Ours. Lowell , Coryell, & Company, New York, NY, 1870. Pages 338-339.

7Ibid., page 339.

8Ibid., page 340.

9Ibid., page 342.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – THE UNIVERSE – PART II

“Not to this evanescent speck of earth

Poorly confined – the radiant tracts on high

Are our exalted range; intent to gaze

Creation through, and from the complex

Of never-ending wonders, to conceive

Of the Sole Being right.” – James Thomson.

In beginning this segment on the universe as ultimate reality we uncovered four precepts of the human configuration of the observable portions of our distant surroundings into the idea of a ‘cosmos’: unity, order, limited access, and uniqueness. We move now to one early scientist’s rendering of the universe as ultimate reality. Richard A. Proctor was an English astronomer whose accomplishments included the first map of Mars, an analysis of stars, star clusters, and nebulae, construction of the sidereal universe and  star-atlases, theories on the sun’s corona, and a painstaking study of the rotation of Mars, by which be deduced its period with a probable error of 0.005. While he founded and wrote for various scientific journals and was a contributor to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica,1 his book, Other Worlds Than Ours, is intended for the general reader. In an introductory note, Frank Parsons tells us that “Like Huxley and Tyndall, Mr. Proctor sees the poetry of his subject and knows how to bring the largest truths within the comprehension of a child…”2  Be prepared for some propositions unexpected of a traditional scientist.

Proctor starts by arguing that space must be infinite as it can know no boundary, that matter is likely infinite assuming a fairly uniform distribution of matter in space, and that time too must be infinite.3 These modes of infinitude should theoretically be sufficient for our designation of ‘ultimate,’ but Proctor goes further. He inserts a ‘Ruler’ (seemingly the source of order) over the universe: “Now to conceive of limits to the wisdom and power of One whose realm is infinite in extent and in duration is obviously to conclude that the Ruler is infinitely incompetent to rule over His kingdom; For there can be no relation between the finite and the infinite save the relation of infinite disproportion.”4

Proctor goes on to offer demonstrations of the transcendent characteristics of the universe and this Ruler. First he proposes that the Ruler cannot have human senses any more than human appendages such as arms or legs. However having senses, we can readily conceive of senses both different and more acute than our own which may apply. Also our reason permits knowledge beyond sensory experience, such as historical events (e.g. the battle of Waterloo which no living person witnessed); and the same can be assumed for the Ruler. He then reminds us that with our greatest sense, vision, what is seen is what light brings to the eyes not immediately but after a finite period of time based on the distance between the eye and the object perceived. Light then (and likewise other emanations such as sound) convey information from different ‘epochs’ like a newspaper. “By extending these considerations to other modes in which the history of an event is recorded, so to speak, by natural processes, we can see that a much more complete and definite picture of past events than light can convey must be at all times present in the universe.”5 His conclusion is clear; the universe forever contains the whole information of its history and the Ruler accesses that information through higher level senses than we possess essentially giving Him Omniscience.

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1Wikepdia, Richard A. Proctor.

2 Proctor, Richard A., Other Worlds Than Ours. Lowell , Coryell, & Company, New York, NY, 1870. Page 1.

3 Of course more recent science suggests that our universe is bounded or curved so that no boundary is needed, and thus matter and energy are finite within it, and that time as part of space-time also is finite at least retroactive to the Big Bang, but Proctor may be correct should the multiverse pan out since in that case an infinite number of universes with infinite space, matter, and time is a more defensible position.

4Ibid., page 324.

5Ibid., page 336.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – THE UNIVERSE – PART I (continued)

After a brief review of the linguistic and philosophical origins of the words ‘universe’ and ‘cosmos,’ and before we examine the purely scientific analysis of them, we must still consider one philosophical issue related to the science of cosmology itself. That key question is whether cosmology is an attempt at a description of the universe or its explanation. It is difficult to assert that cosmology is a literal description since only a portion of the universe is observable by humans. In fact, the actual ‘universe’ may not be fully describable by any finite creature given space-time limitations since the field of view is forever limited to what can be observed at the time of the observer as presented by the speed limit of informational exchange in the universe – that is the speed of light.4 Thus the 21st century observer can only evaluate a galaxy one billion light years away as it appeared one billion years ago, not as it is to that galaxy in its equivalent contemporary timeframe.

The significance of this paradox is far-reaching, because it applies to laws discovered or assigned to the universe as well. Since we can only observe a tiny portion of the ‘whole’ that we mean by the word ‘universe,’ then in fact we are imposing any conclusions far beyond the demonstrable. It is like suggesting the science of meteorology be based on the observations of the weather in Louisville, Kentucky made in one hour in 1996. It turns out cosmology is fundamentally different than other sciences where a more definitive set of observations and experiments can be conducted. Similarly compared to other fields of science where there exist many instances of a phenomenon for study towards an explanation, cosmology is thwarted in explaining the universe where there is obviously only one instance (at least which is observable) available.5

What can we conclude from this analysis? The universe as ultimate reality in the thinking of philosophers and of scientists involves four fundamental precepts: (1) the universe is a unity or totality, (2) the universe instantiates an order governed by laws, (3) any human understanding of the universe is and will always be based on limited access, and (4) the universe is a unique instance (at least as can be observed by us). The theist might brashly, but reasonably, point out that these are four of the main characteristics of deity as well. We will consider the significance of this irony later in the current section.

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4 Stephen Hawking explains this elegantly in the second chapter of  A Brief History of Time referring not to a field of view, but a cone of space-time.

5Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, pages 238-239.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – THE UNIVERSE – PART I

“We have sought for firm ground and found none. The deeper we penetrate the more restless becomes the universe, and the vaguer and cloudier.” – Max Born.

On the opposite side of ultimate reality as the smallest elements of matter is ultimate reality as the totality of the universe. Where atomic and particle physics is the scientific reformulation of ancient Greek philosophy’s metaphysics and ontology, modern astronomy and astrophysics is the rebirth of its cosmology. Today we will look at some of the nuances of this subject from both traditions.

Our starting point is the word ‘cosmos’ which according to my etymologic dictionary first appeared “about 1200, borrowed from Greek kosmos order, ornament, world, universe (so called by Pythagoras who regarded the physical world as a perfectly ordered system). Except for the use in 1200, the word disappears from the record until 1848, in a translation of Humboldt’s Kosmos.1

Compare that now with the etymology of the word ‘universe’: “1589, the whole world, the cosmos, borrowed from Middle French univers, and directly from Latin ūniversum, adj., whole, entire; originally, turned into one (ūnus one + versus past participle of vertere to turn); found earlier in in universe universally, about 1385.”2

So we might say that in this model, ultimate reality is the intersection of our understanding of the words – cosmos and universe – i.e. the ordering of all parts of reality into a unified whole. The key point then is that  the universe as humans conceive it is not a mere inventory of galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals, rocks, molecules, atoms, or quarks, but is something transcendental where all these pieces are bound together into a greater entity.

The Greek philosophers might go further transforming this vague ordering of parts into a more destined or fated order and finally an intelligent order in the thinking of Plato and Aristotle. Both the Greeks and the ancient Eastern philosophers impose the idea of harmony and perhaps justice on this cosmic order which in Roman philosophy becomes Providence. We learn from the Rig-Veda of Hinduism that the ‘seekers of wisdom’ peer beyond deity and the regularities of nature and find an “eternal; and immutable law of order and justice” called Rita..3

The order of nature of ancient philosophy, stripped of any theological suppositions, is adopted by science as a key tenet of the discipline – that is, a presumption that nature imposes consistency in compliance with its governing laws. Science also adopts the idea of the cosmos as the vessel where all matter and energy are located and wherein all events occur.

(continued next post)

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1Barnhart, Robert K (editor), The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY 1995. ISBN 0-06-270084-7, page 145.

2Ibid., page 846.

3Koller, John M., Oriental Philosophies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970. ISBN 684-13668-6, page 21.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – MATTER – PART IV (continued)

In our analysis of the scientific definition of ultimate reality as a final explanation of matter and the phenomena of the universe we have arrived at the pinnacle of scientific metaphysics with string theory. The basic proposition is elegant as well as ingenious; the smallest particles are not points, but “string-like” energy which can stretch and vibrate like rubber bands. Using mathematics unfathomable to most of us and aligning string theory with supersymmetry (extra mathematically described dimensions), some of the great minds of modern physics are working to establish superstring theory (or several such theories) as the actual foundation of the elementary particles, the four forces, the laws of motion, special relativity, and quantum mechanics. Have we at last reached the moment of the revelation of the genuine form of ultimate reality?

Perhaps… it certainly feels close, but one cannot help being disturbed that there are five or more equally coherent models and each requires more than the commonly accepted 4 dimensions – in fact typically 10 or 11 in all (with the extra 6 or 7 being tiny curled up dimensions). The extra dimensions are not visible in the natural world although several physicists, for example Brian Green, have attempted to show it symbolically (I like his example of an ant crawling around a cable). Also while only one constant is required, twenty other constants of the standard model remain unexplained. Most non-physicists will also struggle with the advanced version where the ‘strings’ take on different forms or ‘branes’ with a change in dimension; that is a 1-brane is a string, a 2 –brane is more like the surface of a drum, and so on to a ‘p-brane’ in a ‘p’ dimension. We are no longer in Kansas Toto.

String or superstring theory remains exactly that, a theory. However it is the latest addition to the human corpus of metaphysics, and being identified with science may be the most credible. It leaves the philosopher with a disappointingly physicalist and inscrutable (if presumably simpler) ultimate reality where non-material familiars such as love, friendship, justice, virtue, purpose, and happiness are unsupportable or represent human illusion. If this picture is correct, and we may be forced to accept it for the near term in the absence of counter-proofs or better explanations, we will have to integrate this perplexing understanding of ultimate reality into our conceptual structure of a meaningful life. But that is the task of a later essay.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – MATTER – PART IV

“My ambition is to live to see all of physics reduced to a formula so elegant and simple that it will fit easily on the front of a T-shirt.” – Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1988.

Last time we saw that physicists have learned that atoms are not the ultimate or smallest building blocks of matter, but constructed of still smaller ‘elementary particles’ that are not really particles but fields or ‘structureless points’ housing mass, charge, and spin. Moreover other cosmic features involve dozens of additional kinds of elementary particles with over 300 identified (or created) by scientists in particle accelerators. We find ourselves not with an elegant single or small number of constituents making up matter and the universe – such as the atom of Democritus, the God of religion, or the harmonious yin and yang of Taoism – but a virtual menagerie of cacophonous elements defying human rationalization governed by four distinctive forces. Could this be the final word?

Well it turns out physicists are also disturbed with this outcome and for several decades have been working towards a theory that brings together relativity, quantum mechanics, and particle physics. The logic is evident enough: since a few laws and fundamental numerical constants account for much of the observable activity of the cosmos, shouldn’t the smallest component of matter and the forces in the universe be simple as well, and shouldn’t all the pieces fit together rationally? The quest for a consolidated understanding of the electromagnetic and weak and strong nuclear forces inclusive of the elementary particles is called a ‘grand unified theory’ (GUT) and, when gravity is included, a ‘theory of everything’ (TOE).1 In short the hope is that a single explanation exists for the four forces which unites them as four manifestations of a single force and explains the elementary particles. This it seems is an attempt at a definitive description of ultimate reality in the mind of the physicist.

The best current candidate for a theory of everything is called string theory or superstring theory which is where we will pick up next time.

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1Steven Weinberg, Abdus Salam, and Sheldon Glashow have been able to combine the electromagnetic and weak force into the ‘electroweak’ force.

ULTIMATE REALITY AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – MATTER – PART III (continued)

Last time we looked at the composition of solid bodies as one version of ultimate reality ending on the elementary particles that form the building blocks of matter. While they fit into two basic groups -quarks and leptons – there are a multitude of these elementary particles. Thankfully only a small number are constituents of the chemical elements that fashion most of our material world. These ‘particles of construction’ include electrons, photons, u quarks, d quarks, gluons, and gravitons. The electrons carry a negative charge, but little mass. The photons create the field that keeps the electrons attached to the nucleus. The u quarks and d quarks combine to create the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus with the gluons as the ‘glue.’ Gravitons create the gravitational field through their great number and ‘spin.’3

Of course subatomic physics is much more complex with additional ‘particles of change’ such as W and Z bosons, Higgs bosons, and neutrinos; and ‘bonus particles’ such as c and t quarks, muons, and tauons. Dark matter is also likely some form of elementary particles. So far there are more than 300 known particles, some existing naturally, others found only with the help of atom smashers called particle accelerators. But one thing that unites them with all within the cosmos are the four fundamental forces: gravitation (the weakest of all, but responsible for the celestial mechanics), electromagnetism (which holds atoms together), the weak force (which causes particles to decay into more stable pieces of matter), and the strong force (which binds the nucleus together). This picture of the elementary particles and the four fundamental forces is known as the Standard Model.4

Unfortunately I will have to stop there without exploring designer particles, holes, quasiparticles, the fractional quantum Hall effect, etc., all of which is way beyond my simple understanding. Instead I would like to move now to the philosophical implications of ultimate reality as the elementary particles and the four forces. It seems to me this is the most physicalist presentation of all and likewise the least satisfying. The number of particles is unaesthetically large; the means to identify most of them (particle colliders) is utterly unnatural; and the instability and ultrashort duration of most of them hints at a kind of artificiality. Certainly the theory of a material world constructed from a myriad of combinations of atoms of the 118 mostly stable elements listed on the periodic table is more palatable and more relatable as ultimate reality, even if less complete.

It is therefore not surprisingly that physicists have postulated a simpler and more unified theory of the material world which is the subject of our next meeting.

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3Wilczek, Frank, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2021. ISBN 978-07-352239-05, page 78-86.

4Moring, Gary F. The Complete Idiots Guide to Understanding Einstein. Alpha Books, Indianapolis, IN., 2004. ISBN 1-59257-185-9, pages 334-340.