Cosmology – and all that

Cosmology – and all that

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology

Stephen Friberg, July 22, 2016

I’m writing a paper on Baha’i cosmology – the relationship between the structure of the physical universe and spiritual reality as described in the Baha’i writings – and reading a lot of different books on cosmological topics. Here, I will be sharing some of my thoughts on those books and topics.

The "Eye of Sauron" Nebulae
The “Eye of Sauron” Nebulae

Cosmology – or at least modern cosmology – is a funny kind of animal. It is based on physics and astronomy, draws on an incredible set of visual images of stellar objects captured by our modern telescopic technologies, and almost always assumes that the universe is purely physical (modern western cosmologies differ greatly from the past in this respect). The nearly universal assumption is that the universe and everything in it is based on things like atoms, quantum fields, strings, or some similar fundamental entity. Another common assumption is that there is no purpose or direction involved. (To not make these assumptions is to be thrown vigorously out of the church  – so to speak – so deviation is rarely risked.)

Now, this immediately raises several serious sets of problems, the most immediate being the problem of the mind. Its a fact that the cosmologies that we build – the technologies we use to get the images that illustrate those cosmologies, all the efforts involved in doing the science, and even the very assumptions – are all product of our minds. The mind is the lens through which everything is seen, it is the prism that separates all the colors, it is the true universal acid and the only universal solvent.  All else – all theories, all speculations, and all accumulations of evidence – depend on it.

If everything is material, but every reason we use to argue that it is material is a product of the mind, then we have a conundrum. And it is in facing this conundrum where some of the interesting new efforts are being focused. We are, it seems, moving beyond naive atheisms – those of Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, Dennett, Grayling, and others come to mind – that tell simplistic creation narratives that replace God with evolution and the big bang but retain the fundamentalisms. Such narratives, while still the bread and butter of everyday atheism, don’t seem to really cut it for the more sophisticated any more.

Leonard Mlodinow – a Caltech physicist turned writer – is one of the people I want to talk about. I’ve been reading his 2016 book on thinking about the cosmos. He starts out by describing how his father, imprisoned by the Nazis at Buchenwald, was stripped of everything except his will to think, reason, and to know: “He was imprisoned, but his mind was free to roam, and it did.”

Human beings. he argues, are beings whose minds rise above those of all other animals:

The nobility of the human race lies in our drive to know, and our uniqueness as a species is reflected in the success we’ve achieved …

Does Mlodinow go the next step and start to talk about this mind that is so “free to roam” as being a primary part of the universe in the same way that he sees it as a universal human attribute? This is what religion does. Or does he see it as a derived and secondary part of the universe and purely an accident – a rare stumble – of an all powerful non-God. I don’t know – I’m only starting on the book. It may be that he is celebrating his own intellect and those of fellow-traveling physicists – we will see. But another 2016 book, also by a CalTech physicist, does go the extra distance and it has become the talk of those who love to think about these things. The book is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself and we will be delving into it quite a bit.

References:

Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York, New York: Dutton, 2016.

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. Vintage, 2016.

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8 thoughts on “Cosmology – and all that

  1. Nice to see the blog reboot. One of the trends I have noticed is a paradigm shift from differential geometry to geometric logic in the philosophy of physics.

  2. Hi Abraham:
    Any chance that you can elaborate on the use of geometric logic in the philosophy of physics? Some good references? They seem to be scarce on the ground.
    Thanks.

  3. I read through the papers. Thanks for the giving the first one first. Hopefully I know a little more about the topic now.
    Can I ask how you see geometric logic as playing a role in the philosophy of physics? Or, since we are talking cosmology here, in cosmology?
    From a Baha’i viewpoint – i.e., one that acknowledges that reality is much more than its physical parts – how would geometric logic serve? In asking the question, I’m thinking that the geometric logic we are talking about here is a much more abstract way – a set theory way – of looking at the structure of the universe that may, if the references you gave me come to some kind of fruition in the development of a grand unified theory (GUT) incorporating both relativity and quantum mechanics, or something like a theory of quantum gravity. Both, like quantum mechanics and relativity, imply that our simple geometrical and temporal way of looking at the universe is a necessary simplification of a fuller “material” reality that we access only partially. In other words, there are other aspects folded into the “real” reality of which we are dimly aware of. This a very religious point of view!
    Would love to hear some of your thinking on this.

  4. Hi Stephen, the spiritual implications involve non-mutually exclusive interpretations of texts. It sometimes helps to understand a ideas by studying their origins. While the road to the summit of the highest levels of observer participancy may involve “Hinds’ Feet on High Places”, a favorite book of my elememtary school teacher, there are common observables in our open neighborhood where the “logic of observation” may be useful to consider.

  5. How can it be supposed that belief in the existence of God is the acceptance of contradiction, whereas belief in the uncaused nature of an effect such as matter is not contradictory?

  6. Hi Hasnian.

    One of the interesting things about modern western secular thought is how it struggles with its cosmology – it is shot through with the things that don’t make much sense when you reflect on them. One of those things is what you have pointed out, the view that matter is an uncaused effect of nature.

    Physics – a science which looks on the laws of nature as what allows anything to happen or come into being – does not hold that things are uncaused. Rather the opposite – it currently views a big bang event as the origins of the physical universe and everything in it. The cause is the underlying laws of nature. Physics – then – doesn’t support the view that matter is uncaused, rather it views the laws of nature as the cause. This contradicts the view that matter is uncaused.

    The idea that the laws of nature are God’s way of creating things – the view generally held by the monotheistic religions of the world and one consistent with the religions of south and east Asia – is less contradictory then than the view that things are uncaused.

    Stephen

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