Philosophical Implications of an Open Universe

Despite all these more recent indications, why the long-standing reluctance to see the universe as "open" rather than "closed"? Could it be that despite the usual nuances of these two terms, it is really an "open" universe that most seems to close off the future, where is a "closed" universe that paradoxically appears to offer some hope for the long-term future despite the fiery cataclysm such a "Big Crunch" scenario implies? No doubt about, or as one astronomer who was interviewed recently on a PBS documentary put it, a "closed" universe, is "more philosophically satisfying" -- apparently because many seem to assume it offers hope of a self-rejuvenating universe, by means of repeated big bangs. However, not all physicists would agree that it would, at least for more than a few repeats at most (see Joseph Silk, The Big Bang, revised and updated edition, W.H. Freeman & Co., 1989, pages 390-91. Martin Rees of Cambridge University and who is also Great Britain's official "Astronomer Royal", despite his entertainment of the possibility of other parallel universes, appears to be rather doubtful about the possibility of such successive big bangs. See Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others, Helix Books/Addison Wesley, 1997, esp. pages 194-95.)

Nevertheless, the idea of a closed universe somehow retains that aura of an eternal universe, captured so well by the late Carl Sagan who began the first chapter of his book Cosmos (New York, Random House, 1980 -- see page 4) with the capital(ized) statement that "THE COSMOS IS ALL THAT IS OR EVER WAS OR EVER WILL BE."  But it seems that where Sagan was simply trying to describe everything we know about the physical universe that science can describe, others, instead, are looking for something more. Once you go beyond that, from physics to meta-physics, you have passed into the realm of philosophy, the science of  ontology or of being-as-such.

Although in all probablility the universe last another 15 billion years or more, it is no wonder that, no matter how vast a time scale we're talking about, there should be a deep uneasiness with the vision of a Big Bang universe that is a one-shot deal, a flash in the pan of space (in its original sense -- that of a complete void) or of a movement of time that will come to a definitive end. If it is true that the most basic philosophical question of all is "why is their something rather than nothing?", then perhaps the most disturbing answer would be to say that the answer to that question won't make any difference as there will be nothing left in the end. Philosophically speaking, such an answer appears to raise the spectre of nihilism -- at least in the more radical meaning of the term.

While there seems to be enough in life to keep most of us busy or distracted from such disturbing questions most of the time, it seems to have been more or less taken for granted by most people, down through history, that the universe -- even if it had a creator of some sort -- was always there and would always be. If this seems illogical, one must take a a closer look at the philosophical notions of "cause" as we shall see shortly. But as Leon Lederman's whimsical question in the subtitle to his altogether serious book on particle physics,The God Particle (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), put it: "If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?" The problem with the open universe scenario is that the universe isn't the answer. Indeed, it would seem that in the case of an "open universe" its existence, both now and in the future, poses the biggest question of all!

To answer this question, several other tactics have recently been employed. One has been to suggest that the coming to be of the universe may have been due to nothing more than initial quantum fluctuation of some sort. In other words,  while the universe as we know it had a beginning, still there may always have been an unknown something -- a "primal atom" or "singularity" of some sort -- which, at the beginning of time, underwent some radical transition. Curiously, this suggestion uses much the same kind of language as that used by Lemaitre when he first proposed his theory -- before Hoyle dubbed it as "the Big Bang" -- apparently out of fear that the former's religious convictions were influencing his physics. Perhaps they were, but Lemaitre seems to have gone out of his way to avoid assigning them any specific theological content. But either way, whatever interpretation is given to this sort of language, philosophically speaking , such answer only seems to beg the question, as if assigning a matter-energy source alone could supply all the answers to the full range of philosophical understanding of the concept of causality.

Another alternative tactic would be, even if the prospects now look dim for any kind of scenario involving a succession of "universes", would be to assume the existence of more or less simultaneous universes.  After all, if up until only seventy years ago (the time of Hubble's discoveries) most people thought the whole universe consisted of our own Milky Way galaxy, could we not be repeating the same mistake, assuming that the observable universe is the whole universe or the only one?  

Nevertheless there are some real problems to any such approach.  One of them is a very practical as far as science goes -- the limits of the "observable universe". It is not only possible but even probable that we'll never see all of the one universe in which we find ourselve, no matter how big our telescopes or how far we travel in space. The "event horizon" -- the farther we see in space the further back in time, the present always eluding us the farther out we look -- prevents us from ever seeing it all, even all of our own universe, quite aside from any other "universes".

But there are still other problems, even on the theoretical side. While the possibility of other universes lie within the realm of imagination, or are even calculable in terms of "topological" matehmatics, their existence would always remain, at best, theoretical. For if the totality of this universe remains unobservable because of the "event horizon", even more the existence of another universe remains "unfalsifiable", which is to say, in terms of scientific methodology, unverifiable. So it would seem that such speculations, at best, fall into the category of "ironic science" as described Horgan in his aforementioned book, The End of Science, (reviewed in the intial issue of Dialogos) -- interesting ideas to play with, providing great plots for science fiction, but in terms of scientific method, "unscientific".

But still, supposing there actually are other "universes" -- couldn't they explain something? Perhaps, in a very limited sense, something like the way a lot of eggs can explain a lot of chickens. But given the fact that the whole hen-house full that we know (our universe) can be traced back to one big egg (the Big Bang) what would other eggs (or other hen-houses) really explain? In other words, the old problem of infinite regression. If the universe we know is contingent, revealing itself to be even more dependent than we once thought on something else, be it the quantum fluctuation of a "singularity" as some theorists put it, then what makes us think that any other universes are any less contingent on similar singularities, or that all together they would not be dependent on one such singularity, one which always was and when everything is gone, still will be?

In the face of all this the only logical thing to do is to invoke what is generally known in both scientific as well as philosophical circles as "Occam's Razor" -- the maxim that the simplist explanation for any phenomenon must remain the preferred one. Approached in this way, what all this seems to come down to is that this "singularity" would have to possess that attribute which by any other philosophical mode of reasoning would be tantamount to describing "Being-as-such" -- or what the philosophers of old were not adverse to calling "God". True, neither is the "God Hypothesis" verifiable in terms of scientific methodology or falsifiable for that matter. (See also the discussion of "Can Science Prove There Is A God?" in DIALOGOS, Issue #5 .) But given the logical alternative to an eternal universe or succession of "universes" -- both of which possibilities now seem less likely -- the "God hypothesis" appears to remain the most obvious explanation, even if, for many, not the most comfortable or pleasing one. That scientists like Hoyle are now able to admit that it was partially a fear of such a conclusion that attracted them to other theories is now to their credit. Nevertheless, most philosophers today seem to back away from such conclusions, perhaps frightened off by the example of theologians, who having been repeatedly burned by backfires of the old "God-of-the-gaps" strategy, seem equally reluctant to look to nature or science for the confirmation of their opinions or beliefs.


Theological Implications

When it comes to theology as such, we find a somewhat different situation. Whereas philosophers try to depend on sheer reason or logic to establish their claims, theologians generally claim to work from the "data" of revelation, only depending on reason to better explicate or defend their beliefs. It was Pascal who reminded us that "the God of the philosophers is not the God of the prophets" -- thus reassurring the theologians that they have a corner on the market for eternal verities. But this does not excuse the theologian from the task of keeping up with science. Indeed, it is because the philosophical tools employed by the theologian depend, to a marked degree on the world-view or cosmology assumed by a particular philosophy, that it becomes all the more vital that the theologian be fully aware of the latest findings of science -- much less be distainful of scientists who seem to be increasingly venturing into theology themselves.

Thus, no matter how the theologians may wince at seeming flippancies as Lederman's "God Particle" or are perhaps are put off by those who would describe higher mathematics as revealing "The Mind of God" (the title of a 1992 book by mathematical physicist Paul Davies, who also wrote "God and the New Physics" and "The Cosmic Blueprint"), still, they would do well to play close attention to what is happening in the world of science, particularly cosmology. After all, despite Einstein's refusal to believe in a God who plays dice with the universe, the seeming contradiction between quantum-level fluctuations (chance) and the seeming transformation such chaos into large scale events describable with mathematical precision could give theologians some powerful clues. But this is only if they would read the book of nature as assiduously as they read the book of revelation -- which one would think they would do if believe it is the same God who wrote them both.

In this case, what would an "open" universe tell them? For one, rather fortuitously, it would seem to confirm the intuition of the Western world-view , with its roots in the biblical sense of history, that things happen once for all, and that this world, despite occasional impressions to the contrary, is not primarily a cyclical or endlessly self-repetitious phenomenon. But if this is true regarding the fate of the universe, what about its beginnings?

It would also seem that now, for the first time in history, theologians need not find themselves in the old position held by Aquinas, who held that the idea of the creation of the universe by God from nothing was strictly a revealed truth. That otherwise there really was nothing in nature that could prove that the universe did not always exist -- at least in some form or another -- despite the contingent nature of all phenomena as presently observed. (Contrary to widespread misconceptions of the matter, Aquinas' celebrated five arguments as found in the Summa Theologica I, Q2, were probably never meant to be proofs of God's existence but more demonstrations of how the observed contingency of various aspects of the universe both suggest the existence of a Creator as well as explicitate the fundamental meaning of the word "God".) On the other hand, unlike in Aquinas' time, most biblical scholars to day would admit that neither does the Bible teach "creation from nothing" in the strict philosophical sense, which is to say, without a "material cause", as assumed for so long by Christian theologians. (The book of Genesis speaks of creation from tohu wa bohu, a kind of chaotic emptiness. Two other biblical but much younger deuterocanonical books, give conflicting formulas. II Maccabees 7:28 speaks of God making the "heavens and earth out of what did not exist" whereas Wisdom 11:15 says quite the opposite, that God created the world "from formless matter".)

So, in the same way , it might be argued now that neither does our ignorance of what lies behind the Big Bang necessarily prove the existence of God. But again, particularly in light of the fact that the universe seems headed toward some form of final self-destruction, we find ourselves in a position that is strongly suggestive of a renewed or newly heightened sense of the radical contingency of the universe -- at both ends of its existence. If nothing else, modern attempts to import a more ancient or cyclical world-view, even if revamped in terms of an alternative cosmology, much like Nietzsche's attempt to revive the myth of "eternal return", seem doomed.

Secondly, the same intuition, backed even more strongly by what we know of biological evolution, is probably true of human beings. Basic elements may be recycled, even "life" in a certain sense replenishes itself, but individual lives, particular persons, do not. Each is unique in time, never to be repeated in exactly the same way. The dream of reincarnation, like that of a closed universe endlessly repeating itself is nothing more than a fanciful pipe-dream, at best a pleasant myth. When the cosmic party is over, the chips will have fallen where they may.

This note of finality might be a good place to say a few words about biblical apocalypticism. Often wrongly confused with classical prophecy (as in Hal Lindsay's biblical pot-boiler, The Great Late Planet Earth), this kind of cosmic doomsday style writing, found especially in the Book of Daniel (which is incidentally not placed among the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible but among the "other writings") and the New Testament Book of Revelation, represents a distinct genre' representing a period in which the people's own destiny had gone completely out of their own control. It also seems to have a special appeal today for those who feel much the same, with Harold Bloom, an expert in gnostic religious movements, who ( in The American Religion, Simon & Schuster, 1993) describes apocalypticism as "failed prophecy".  In any case, the likelihood of a cosmic "heat death" in an open universe seems to be quite the opposite scenario from that envisioned by literalistic interpretations of the biblical texts. Maybe the more immediate predicted demise of the earth when the sun reaches its "red giant" stage does superficially resemble some of the apocalyptic imagery, but in terms of its ultimate destiny, the final material state of the universe will, oddly enough, turn out to be a cosmic version of the inner circle of Dante's Inferno -- which is pictured not in terms of fire and brimstone, but instead (surpise) as a vast frozen waste!

But on the other hand, how can this finality be squared with the God of the prophets who is more often than not, unlike with the apocalyptic writers, still pictured as a loving, caring God who always seems ready to give people another chance? This is where I see the greatest challenge that cosmology presents to theology to today. But it is also an opportunity for Christianity and Western religion in general to reaffirm itself. If this universe is once-for all event (or even a series of once for all and otherwise disconnected events) then to what end or purpose? For a creator's play or amusement? Is it a case of a divine Gardener who watches his seedlings sprout forth, flower, bloom and die, then maybe repeat operation again the next year, or years later, depending on his whim? Thus, from this viewpoint at least, the main difficulty that still has to be faced by theologians (or anyone else for that matter) is not proving the existence of God or some kind of initial Prime Mover or "Ground of Being", but rather in convincing people that the God of evolution is a God who cares. The principal task of theology today must be to answer those who, like the agnostic writer and philosopher Albert Camus, question as to whether or not the Universe can have a "heart".

Might not an "open" universe seem even more heartless than a closed one? Certainly, from an evolutionary viewpoint, if we conceive of evolution as having any purpose or aim -- even if it only be the production of creatures who can successfully survive -- then it would seem that an "open" universe, with its closure of any prospects for a recycling of life, is largely pointless in the end . But if, instead, in the face of an open universe, theology can present a vision that opens the way up for a more permanent sharing of existence, one which makes all the cosmic cataclysms, evolutionary twistings, and human failure and triumphs of lasting significance, then it will have made a real contribution to the furture evolution of the human race. And in having done so, it would also contribute to a final outcome that enhances the total Plenitude of Being, both Evolver and the evolved forever, beyond all time.

It is not that a theology that found itself situated with "closed" universe could not do the same. Would not repetition, the opportunity to eternally reenact the evolutionary process, add even more weight to its significance? Perhaps so, but apparently this is not in the cards. Despite what Einstein said, the Divine Gambler appears to be playing for keeps.
(R.W.Kropf  5/6/98)

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