Sunday, June 26, 2016

Those who increase knowledge increase sorrow

The title of this post comes from Ecclesiastes 1:18. I was reminded of these words as I was finishing Stephen Weinberg's wonderful book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. Most of the book is devoted to scientific arguments (though accessible to a layman) in favor of big bang cosmology. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the epilogue is much more philosophical than the rest. In it, Weinberg lays out the two possibilities for the eventual fate of the universe. Either its density is less than a certain critical number, and therefore it will continue to expand forever and ever, cooling gradually until nothing can live in it; or else it will one day stop expanding, start to contract, and the big bang will be echoed by a symmetric event (a "big crunch").

Either way, the future does not look too promising for living things, least of all human beings. Which leads Weinberg to the following concluding reflection (emphasis mine):
It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,00 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable--fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a futile extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
At least it's a tragedy and not a farce. That is the sole comfort modern science can give us. "Vanity of Vanities, says the Teacher, All is Vanity." (Ecc. 1:2)
I saw that wisdom excels follow as light excels darkness.
The wise have eyes in their head,
but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. (Ecc. 2:13-14)
Before jumping into a critique of Weinberg's point of view, I did want to make it clear that his words are strongly echoed by Scripture. It is not as if believers in God had never noticed how small we are in this vast, pointless universe.

Yet I could never merely accept this view without pursuing further. If our efforts to study the universe reveal that it is pointless, perhaps it is we who are at fault. For one thing, I suspect we are looking for the wrong thing if we search for our own special place, rather than an all-encompassing purpose for everything that exists. But I can't deny that finding our own purpose is equally important. Is it really any less farcical to think that human intelligence has arisen from random processes, only to discover as much and conclude that we really have no purpose, than to go on living like animals? It almost seems like more of a farce--a sick cosmic joke. Except no one is really there to tell it.

What if the problem is this word "comprehensible"? The grand theme of Weinberg's book is that we can understand the beginning and end of the universe because it follows simple mathematical rules. At very high temperatures, everything that exists is governed entirely by the laws of statistical mechanics. There is nothing to look at but averages. Such things as meaning and beauty have no ontological status in this view--only measurable quantities. (I find this terribly ironic, since physicists are attracted to these theories precisely because of their beauty; there is nothing more attractive than symmetry.) Thus "comprehensible" secretly means "quantifiable and predictable," excluding all other forms of understanding.

What if the meaning and beauty we find in the universe, emerging as they do thanks to random processes governed by comprehensible laws, point to a higher reality? What if human beings have access to that reality? (What if other things do, as well? There is no reason to be anthropocentric.) It would not necessarily be a reality governed by mathematical laws. Yet it could intersect with this physical realm, as evidenced by the fact that we catch glimpses of it through concrete experiences of beauty.

The problem for physics is that such a higher realm cannot be understood through mathematical description. Its nature is not susceptible to prediction, and it cannot be discovered through observation and experimentation. It is known only by contemplation, or even by faith. If that is unacceptable for an intellectual of the modern world, I can only say that we are the more impoverished for it.

Not that any of this takes away from the glory of Big Bang cosmology. To think that modern science has revealed to us details about the beginning and end of our physical universe is awe-inspiring. In case I need to clarify, I absolutely love this book, and I think the world is richer for works such as these which make science accessible to general audiences.

It's just that I'm not content to have physics without a soul.

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