ORIGINS

He who examines things in their first growth and origins will obtain the clearest view of them” (Aristotle).

 Origin. Origin of what? In the past people were very much concerned about their own personal or extended-personal, i.e.  tribal, origins. But, because of Nazism, all this has become suspect, at any rate for contemporary Westerners (though approved of and even encouraged in ethnic minorities). With some exceptions (e.g. Mormons) we in the West are today interested exclusively in the origin of (1) humanity, (2) ‘life’ and (3) the universe. §

Origins can be distinguished as (1) deliberate, i.e. the result of a definite decision, or (2) non-deliberate ─ what happened just happened. Contemporary science emphatically considers all three origins (of humanity, life and the universe) to have been non-deliberate. This is not just informed opinion but scientific dogma.
Most scientists today  believe that intelligent life evolved ‘by accident’, because of certain fortuitous circumstances and  mutations that are random by definition. As for the universe, one popular theory has it that it started because of a runaway ripple in the quantum vacuum.
Such a schema marks a decisive break with Western cultural traditions: it fits much better with certain Eastern world-views, e.g. that of Buddhism which sees the physical universe as a cosmic accident, or Taoism which views the emergence of the physical world as an entirely ‘natural’ process. And this at the very moment when the East is frantically trying to catch up and outdo the West at their own game (physics-based technology). §

All theories of cosmic origin inevitably go beyond what can be directly tested, though that does not mean they lack evidence or rational support. But fashions change and typically swerve to the opposite; where once intelligent design (by God) was de rigueur and the idea of ‘spontaneous generation’ was ridiculed, today ‘emergence’ has become respectable and any notion of intent or purpose is heresy. From Paley to Dawkins via Darwin.
One unexpected result is that Chance has become a very big player indeed on the world scene. Whereas science was typically    defined as ‘applied determinism’ (by Claude Bernard), today indeterminism is enshrined at the heart of the most successful physical theory we have, Quantum Mechanics. §

But in certain respects the discussion, though mathematically much more abstruse, has not advanced that much from Aristotle or Aquinas. ‘Why bother with a beginning at all?’ one might ask. Because a causal world where one event gives rise to another seemingly requires it, cries out for it. If causality exists ─ which few in practice doubt ─ there must be an end to the backwards chain of cause and effect. And, moreover, this ‘universal origin’ must itself not require an origin if we are to avoid infinite regress.
In practice, extremely few cosmologies have adopted a schema of ‘more of the same’ going backwards (and forwards) indefinitely. The Stoics preached something along these lines and, reasonably enough, posited eternal recurrence. For the only way to avoid beginnings altogether is to make the ends of a line segment join up to form a circle: the ‘no-beginning’ theory of Hawkins-Hartle is a contemporary version of the same schema.
And, against all odds, orthodox science has returned to belief in an origin ‘in time’ ─ at least for our universe. Positing a multiverse with universes popping into existence all the time (sic) merely pushes the problem further back: either this multi-verse is the Origin or it requires one. §

Essentially the problem is this: there are things that require an origin and things that don’t, and almost everyone is now agreed that our physical universe falls into the first category.
If, then, the present physical world falls into the first category, it seemingly requires the existence of something radically dissimilar to itself. The idea that this ‘original something’ was in any sense a person, with a will and purpose of its own, seems to have outlived its usefulness. But this is not the important point. What is the important point? That the universe, and us within it, require something radically ‘other’ from which it and we derive.
Being so different from what we can observe, anything said about this ‘other thing’ tends to sound weird or absurd. Since the physical world is palpably material (or so we like to think) this ‘other thing’ must be in some sense non-material. The more sophisticated versions of Buddhism posit an original ‘Emptiness’ (Sunyata), while today we have the quantum vacuum, a ‘nothing’ seething with energy and ceaselessly spewing forth ‘virtual particles’. §

There is an order of things of an entirely different kind lying at the foundation of the physical order”, wrote Schopenhauer.
For many clever people this ‘hidden order’ is mathematical. Pure mathematicians have always been secret Platonists but today, 2,600 years or so after Plato, a well-known theoretical physicist, Tegmark, has actually gone so far as to identify physical reality with mathematical reality. This is in some ways an appealing option (at least to mathematicians), but one feels it may simply be a matter of projecting onto the beyond one’s own preoccupations and capacities. A musician would most likely prefer the Vedic doctrine, “In the beginning was the sound”.
Lao Tse lived at a time when the spoken word was the dominant communication system. Today, he would probably phrase the first line of the Tao Te Ching thus:
“The tao that can be mathematized is not the original Tao”. §

All contemporary physical theories of ultimate origin, with very few exceptions, make the ‘laws of physics’ transcendent : they somehow exist prior to, and independently of, the actual universe. Philosophically, this is a very difficult position to defend.
In Newton’s time such a viewpoint made a lot of sense. All the early classical scientists were firm believers in God (not necessarily Christ) and God was, amongst other things, the supreme mathematician. He was also, thanks to the Judeo-Christian tradition, a Lawgiver. Needham has suggested that one reason why China, at one time centuries ahead of the West technologically, did not give birth to the scientific revolution was that it lacked this vital notion of ‘physical law’. Moreover, the idea of an all-powerful God laying down rules that matter must obey was a far better theory than Plato’s idea of perfect (but totally inert) ‘Forms’ that actual objects and beings strive to emulate.
Eventually, God was dispensed with, of course, partly because many of the leading scientists became anti-clerical for political reasons, and partly because successive generations had so refined Newton’s schema that there was no need for any further tinkering on the part of the Almighty (which Newton himself had envisaged in extreme cases). Laplace famously said to Napoleon, “I did not need that hypothesis”, meaning God. But Laplace needed the ‘laws of physics’ more than ever. The latter, bereft of their divine ancestry, became omnipotent in their own right and by and large remain so. §

What we, the public, the ‘ordinary people’, want is some sort of explanation of why things are as they apparently are. And we want an explanation that is not simply ‘correct’ (in the sense that it is not logically flawed or contradicted by the evidence) but one that is believable. But contemporary science, though apparently ‘correct’ (as far as we can judge) is not believable !
The editor of the New Scientist a few years ago made the astonishing admission that he didn’t really believe in Quantum Mechanics because it was so different from the world he (thought he) lived in. Einstein himself, of all people, was sometimes troubled by doubts about the real-life implications of his own theories, remarking notably that “scientific descriptions cannot possibly satisfy our human needs” (quoted Smolin, Time Reborn). The thoughtful student ─ not the same thing as the intelligent student ─ is in fact more likely to be repulsed by, than attracted to, modern physics (as I was myself).
One or two physicists recognize that there is a problem here. But generally, they trot out the sort of reply d’Alembert gave to a student who confessed he had misgivings about the Calculus, namely “Allez à l’avant, la foi vous viendra” (“Keep going, faith will come to you”). Again, if challenged, physicists simply pass the buck, arguing  that it is not the job of science to answer the ‘why’ questions but only the ‘how’ questions. This is both cowardly and dishonest ─ dishonest because they know very well that people without advanced mathematical training feel themselves to be unable to pronounce on the matter. §

Bizarre though it is, Quantum Mechanics is not the least believable theory of modern science: that prize must be given to the ‘block universe’ version of General Relativity. Such a theory, which is currently supported by the majority of physicists, is at once very difficult to dismiss and even more difficult to take seriously.
The argument may, very roughly, be presented thus. All first year mathematics undergraduates and even most ‘A’ level students know that it is fairly easy to show mathematically (given the postulates of SR) that whereas for me events A and B occur in a given order, for another ‘observer’ somewhere in the universe the temporal order of events is reversed. Now, this does not mean that this, usually  distant, observer knows what is going to happen to me before it happens as it were, nor that he or she can in any way give me a warning (since this would break the speed of light barrier). Practically speaking, the alleged time reversal is not of the slightest significance ─ but conceptually it is. My perception of the order of events is true for me but a ‘reverse-order’ sequence of events is just as true for the other ‘observer’. According to GR, every possible observer’s version of events is equally valid and there is, in Einstein’s world-view (as opposed to Newton’s) no ‘absolute’, i.e. universally true order of events.
Considerations such as this have led some contemporary physicists to declare that time is an illusion, and a noted theorist, Julian Barbour, has written a book whose title says it all, The End of Time. For Barbour past, present and future have no universally valid, objective existence or, as I would put it, everything that can have occurrence, already has in a very real sense, occurred. This completely rules out the possibility of ‘free’ individual action! In Barbour’s schema, ‘my’ death (and his) is already what he calls a ‘Now’ time-capsule in Platonia, and there is certainly nothing that either I or Julian Barbour can do about this. (Maybe Julian Barbour can live with this but I certainly can’t.)
The only possible objection I can see to this argument is logical, not mathematical. Supposing for a moment that it is true that all events in ‘my’ future have in some sense already happened, it remains the case that I am not aware of their having happened ― since in my blinkered, deluded state  I become aware of these future events successively, one by one. However, this step by step awareness of what (for me) is yet to happen  is not out there in Platonia, or, if it is, I am not aware of it &c. &c.  Thus we either get something that goes contradicts the hypothesis or infinite regress. I nonetheless don’t feel entirely satisfied by this line of argument.   §

It should be emphasized that Einstein himself was very much aware of this problem and, to some degree, faced up to it. Smolin quotes a significant passage from Carnap’s autobioigraphy:

“Once, Einstein said to me that the problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something essentially different from the past and future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation.” Carnap, Intellectual Autobiography quoted Smolin, Time Reborn
Interestingly, Einstein was not satisfied by Carnap’s glib assertion that physics would one day prove equal to the task (of dealing with the problem of Now). He (Einstein) said, “There is something in the Now that is outside the realm of science”. Quite.
In the end though Einstein’s attitude of resignation got the better of his dissatisfaction since, on the occasion of the death of his lifelong friend, Michele Besso, he wrote to Besso’s widow:
“In quitting this strange world, he has once again preceded me by a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, however tenacious”. §

We have thus a situation where what science says is, for many of us, literally unbelievable ─ without it being apparently wrong. Has this situation occurred before? Yes, and the outcome is instructive.
Newton’s Principia, got a mixed reception on the continent. The general feeling was that Newton’s mechanical explanations were entirely convincing when he was dealing with contact forces and the dynamics of moving terrestrial bodies. However, very few people were prepared to take on board Newton’s celestial mechanics since they viewed the hypothesis of ‘universal attraction’ as fantastic, indeed the very sort of ‘occult force’ that they were trying to expel from physics. Newton himself admitted in private that he had no mechanical explanation of the workings of gravity and even went so far, in a letter to Bentley, to suppose it had something to do with “God’s presence in the universe”.
Nonetheless, the theory of gravity worked whereas Descartes’ rival vortex theory didn’t and eventually even Newton’s continental opponents adopted it, stifling their rational scruples. It is interesting to note, however, that it was precisely this aspect of Newtonian mechanics that Einstein attacked head on and, as most people today would say, did succeed in eliminating from physics. Although we still talk in Newtonian terms, there is strictly speaking no ‘force of gravity’ in Einstein’s universe, the alleged force being replaced by the ‘warping of Space-Time’, a very different concept. So, the tiny chink in Newton’s plate armour let in the poisoned dart that felled him.
I would certainly hope that the weak point in the theory of Relativity has something to do with time, i.e. that pace General Relativity,  time, i.e. succession, really does exist since, without it, life loses its savour. Maybe, one day, this chink will be decisively exploited by someone ─ Smolin himself has written a book entitled Time Reborn. For the Block Universe version of General  Relativity is not a psychologically acceptable theory, it is not liveable. Do contemporary physicists ever actually console themselves, when a loved one dies, with the thought that “in physics there is no past, present and future”? §

It is notable that ‘Will’ is something science does not recognize or ever take into account ― because it is not an empirically testable attribute or phenomenon. Contrast this with Schopenhauer’s view, that the universe is at bottom nothing but will (and therefore hateful) or Nietzsche’s, that the mainspring of human action is the Will to Power and that, perhaps with one or two minor reservations, we should wholeheartedly embrace such a fact. Both these philosophers emphasize and throw an intense light on the biological origins of human psychology. §

The consensus at present seems to be that both ‘life’ and the universe itself came about ‘by chance’. What is meant is that neither the origin of the universe nor the development of life within it was the result of a deliberate act. There was no entity that said “Let there be light”, there simply ‘was light’ (i.e. radiation).
But the explanation according to ‘chance’ has its own problems. Firstly, ‘chance’ is a treacherous word that needs close examination. We commonly use it in the loose sense as the opposite of ‘intentional’  ─  ‘I met him by chance’ ─ or as the opposite of predictable ─ ‘The chance movements of a leaf blown by the wind’. Scientifically speaking, my meeting with a friend or the leaf’s movements are not in the least random: I met so-and-so because our trajectories happened to coincide, the leaf moved to the right because the wind took it in that direction. The true sense of ‘chance’ is, or should be, ‘without cause’ and, prior to the advent of Quantum Mechanics, no physical events were considered to be causeless ─ if an event did not have a cause, how on earth could it have come about? Only since QM do we find science stating categorically that certain events, the radio-active decay of an atom for example, are ‘chance events’ in  the strong sense, i.e. no previous event brought them into being. This is not the sort of assumption that can possibly be proved or disproved.
Is there any other possibility besides belief in determinism and belief in chance? Perhaps. One can evade the chance/determinism dilemma to some extent by the concept of the ‘potential’, a term that is sparingly used in science (except in a narrow mechanical sense). The universe has given rise to intelligent life, this we know ─ at any rate if we class ourselves as intelligent creatures. Therefore, within the universe, even at its inception when it, the future universe,  was nothing but a ripple on the quantum vacuum, it held this potentiality within itself, was pregnant with the potentiality of life, as it were.
Now such a line of thought stops well short of attributing ‘intent’ or ‘aim’ to the universe (or to what preceded it) but nonetheless goes further in its emphasis than a ‘chance’ theory does. Moreover, and here we are getting a little closer to dangerous territory, the combination of ‘potential’ with ‘randomness’ turns out to be a very effective ‘strategy’, always provided one has plenty of time (which the universe has). If only one possibility out of trillions, leads to a deterministic route and on to the advent of intelligent life, then endless random experimentation will (probably) eventually lead to this one pathway. And, once embarked on this trajectory, the ‘universe’ ceases to be random ─ the cosmic fruit-machine always pays out if you stand in the casino long enough. So, given a broad and deep enough ‘potential’, ‘chance’ can lead to its own negation, i.e. to determinism. But the reverse is not true: it is hard to see how causality could ever ‘naturally’ lead to randomness. A deterministic chain of events must seemingly either lead to more determinism or, just conceivably, to the total collapse of the system. §

Curiously, there exists a persistent religious tradition concerning a catastrophic ‘falling away’ from an original state of completeness, purity, unity. (That this is not a uniquely Christian concept is shown by Eliade who shows that many native Amerindian cultures had a similar tradition.) There was, then, abstractly speaking, a prior state which was unitary, continuous, immeasurable and which somehow broke down or, rather, ‘broke apart’, ‘exploded’,  leaving the fragmented world we know and live in. This ‘fallen world’ is alma de-peruda, the ‘world of separation’ as the Zohar puts it. If the mystics are to be believed, we nonetheless retain a confused memory of this prior blessed state, it is embedded within us not just as a ‘human memory’, a ‘species memory’ but even perhaps as a ‘world-memory’. §

In QM we have the “collapse of the wave function” and in cosmology the Big Bang, a collapse of pre-existence into existence. These are catastrophic events, not peaceful ones. The wave function describes a state/object which, unlike the massy particles of Newtonian physics, is ‘all over the place’, radically ‘delocalized’. Once again we have the double schema of a continuous, undifferentiated state which somehow gives rise to a specific, isolated, physical state. In some versions, this ‘collapse’ is attributed to human intervention (i.e. meddling) ─ this is the modern physics equivalent of Adam’s responsibility for the Fall. Interestingly, we talk about the ‘measurement’ problem of QM rather than the ‘intervention problem’, as if measuring, quantifying, something on which all science is based (and which art generally disdains) was the cause of the collapse, i.e. the cause of the fall into materiality, the ‘original sin’. §

What hopefully will eventually emerge from the confused and confusing welter of cosmological and mathematical speculation is the paradigm of a ‘universe’ pre-existing in a more compact and  rarefied form which then ‘unfolds’ to give rise to the familiar physical/intellectual one. This is what Bohm is getting at with his theory of the Explicate and Implicit Order though the terms are not very enlightening. §

Although Hoyle never developed his theory into a proper philosophy, the very title of one of his books, The Intelligent Universe, is a give away. According to this view, the Universe contains intelligence which is currently manifested in carbon-based life here on Earth but will perhaps in the future manifest itself otherwise.
“This point of view suggests that in the future the Universe may evolve so that carbon-based life becomes impossible, which in turn suggests that throughout the Universe intelligence is struggling to survive against changing physical laws, and that the history of life on Earth has been only a minor skirmish in this contest.”
The Intelligent Universe p. 222

Hoyle has very  little evidence for this appealing theory though probably rather more than most String theorists for their cosmic theory of everything. Hoyle’s strongest argument is that bacterial life on Earth developed almost as soon as climatic conditions made it possible ― something that has been a serious problem for biology. Hoyle’s explanation is that the building blocks of life (though not life itself) arrived pre-formed: they were seeds sent out by an advanced life-form elsewhere in the galaxy and which fell fortuitously on fertile ground. The point is that life is an extremely unlikely development but, in Hoyle’s scheme, it only needs to take place once in a galaxy ─ since he has given us the details of a supposed galactic dispersal system of the ‘seeds of life’ via comets and meteorites. And, as it happens, Hoyle has been shown to be right at least to the extent that comets do contain chemically complex substances such as formaldehyde ─ but not as far as we know proteins.
Interestingly, during the declining years of the Roman Empire, the Gnostics in North Africa advanced the strange theory that human beings came from ‘somewhere else’ that was very far away and that they retained a vague memory of their distant origin. Humans were thus ‘strangers in a strange world’ and what the Gnostics (‘knowers’) knew was simply this, that the Earth was not their home. Many of them drew the conclusion that they owed no allegiance to earthly authorities, secular or religious, but only to the ‘good God’ of their ancient, infinitely distant  homeland. Initiation into the cult prepared them for the long and dangerous journey back to their place of origin. The strange thing is that, if there is any truth in Hoyle’s theory, the Gnostics were not entirely mistaken! (Hoyle, as far as I am aware, knew nothing about the Gnostics’ cosmological theories.)
What the theory of man’s distant origin would explain is humankind’s deep sense of alienation ― something that material progress seems powerless to eradicate. This sense of being cut off from one’s origins is notably expressed in a Gnostic-type  hymn sung by a future religious sect known as ‘The Remembrancers’ :

    Hymn of Remembrance

“We have forgotten who we are
We have forgotten our distant origins,
We have forgotten the tranquil plains of light,
We have forgotten Zoarr¹ ,
We have forgotten our deepest natures,
Lost as we are within the Web of Sarwhirlia2.
But the hidden self that breathes within us,
Buried beneath the debris of the world,
Caged by these ribs of bone,
Smothered by these cells of flesh,
Deafened by the screams of sense,
Diminished by our thoughts and words,
Submerged, defeated, trampled on,
The everlasting seed of light
Remembers all.

Together we shall leave this ancient prison,
We shall break free from our captivity,
We shall set out across the empty skies,
Fearless, we shall traverse the great Abyss,
A thousand perils we shall undergo,
Our only guide the distant gleams of Zoarr,
And we shall reach the tranquil plains of light,
We shall return to our lost home,
Never to depart again.”

1 Zoarr is the name given to the infinitely distant ‘good God’ of the Remembrancers.
2 Sarwhirlia is the Remembrancers’ name for the Earth. see http://www.webofaoullnnia.wordpress.com

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: