Friday, April 24, 2009

The smallness of the universe

[I am now thinking that the following line of argument is probably deeply spiritually mistaken. Or, maybe, the issue is this: It is the universe conceived of naturalistically that is small. But the universe that we in fact inhabit lacks that kind of smallness for it images the glory of God. So perhaps there is still an ad hominem against naturalism in the line of thought.]

Suppose I and a few other people were born and lived on the inner surface of a sphere that was a kilometer in diameter. Walk 3.14 km, and you're back where you started. And that was all. As far as I could tell, things had always been in the sphere more or less the same as far back as one could tell, with a small stable population and a simple, self-contained ecosystem. There is nothing particularly mysterious in this ecosystem, and there even is a little library containing books written by my ancestors which give complete systmes of physics, chemistry and biology that fit with all the data.

I think there is an intuition one might have after one had surveyed this meager habitat: there has to be more to reality than this. This intuition could be bolstered by arguments from design or causation, but I think it could also be a self-standing intuition: this can't be all there is.

Now our universe is bigger than that sphere. But I do not think that sheer size is what makes a difference. When I reflect on my stargazing, instead of thinking of the vastness and mystery of the physical world, I have lately been thinking about a certain kind of smallness that it has. Sure, there are untold numbers of stars arranged in untold numbers of galaxies. But even that one kilometer sphere had untold numbers of grains of dust, and that didn't make it all that large. The universe is physically large relative to us, but it exhibits a lawlike unity, and while there are many stars, they can mostly be classified into a limited number of types and subtypes. And this vast universe is, nonetheless, one that is small enough that we can have all-encompassing cosmological theories—that we can hold it all in our mind. It is true that our present theories are not good enough. But we seem to be making progress.

If this is right, then I think it is possible to have a similar kind of smallness intuition about the universe as a whole: this can't be all there is to reality. Reflecting on the universe as a whole—a whole made up of physical parts, indeed largely made up of parts like electrons, neutrinos and/or electromagnetic fields that are pretty familiar to us—can make the universe seem small to the mind's eye. Not small physically, of course. The relevant kind of conceptual smallness is compatible with the universe having infinite spatial extent. Rather, it is small in some deeper sense, despite all its wonder and glory.

I think this may be a way in which the physical universe proclaims to us that it is not all there is, that it is not self-sufficient, that while great and full of splendor, it is, after all, but an image. And unless it is seen expressly as an image, it will pale to us. For a while one might enjoy looking at the calligraphy in a manuscript. But eventually, unless one starts reading what the text says, the manuscript will probably stop being all that interesting. But once seen as pointing to something greater, indeed something infinite (and not just in the uninteresting spatial sense), then it takes on a new, and deeper splendor, one that shines through that natural splendor that was in danger of fading.

7 comments:

Bobby Bambino said...

interesting. Thanks for the read.

Heath White said...

Two thoughts. First, in the sphere you could have the quite concrete, geometrical question of what is "underneath" your feet. In that sense you could certainly believe that "this is not all there is." I don't think there is an analogous question in our universe.

Second, the suggestion you raise makes me wonder what are the conditions under which one could not intelligibly raise the question, "Is this all there is?" E.g. suppose you are told that a deist god created the universe. Mightn't one still think, "OK, is _that_ all there is?" What does it take to halt the regress?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

The ground issue is good point. That does skew one's intuitions. But what if my best physical theory answers the question what is underneath one's feet with: "Nothing--space ends there." Or, better yet, suppose we live in a zero-gravity three-dimensional space with a geometry that ensures that whenever I go straight in any direction for 3.14 km, I come back to where I started. (For instance, I could be living in a space that is metrically isomorphic to the "surface" of a four-dimensional sphere of 1 km diameter. But there is no inside--the "sphere" is just a way of visualizing the geometry.) "Is that all there is?" would seem a fine question.

Alexander R Pruss said...

As for a deist god, I don't know. I think that as long as the god was infinite and sufficiently escaped our understanding, so that conceptually the universe wouldn't be small, the intuition wouldn't apply.

radical_logic said...

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Reflecting on the universe as a whole—a whole made up of physical parts, indeed largely made up of parts like electrons, neutrinos and/or electromagnetic fields that are pretty familiar to us—can make the universe seem small to the mind's eye.
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It's quite possible (probable, I would say) that the smallness comes from a lack of understanding--not understanding the nature of the parts and the dynamics of their interrelations with each other and the whole.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That could be. But one may also have the intuition that what one doesn't understand is a "matter of detail". I don't know how one could justify this intuition, or what exactly it means that something would be a matter of detail.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am now thinking that this line of argument is probably deeply spiritually mistaken. Or, maybe, the issue is this: It is the universe conceived of naturalistically that is small. But the universe that we in fact inhabit lacks that kind of smallness for it images the glory of God.