What Is and What Might Have Been

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis E2: We cannot take the nature of the laws of physics for granted.
One cannot take the existence and nature of the laws of physics (and hence of chemistry) as unquestionable in cosmology—which seems to be the usual habit in biological discussions on the origin and evolution of life.  This is in stark contrast to the rest of science, where we are content to take the existence and nature of the laws describing the fundamental behaviour of matter as given and unchangeable.  Cosmological investigation is interested in the properties of hypothetical universes with different physical behaviour.  Consideration of ‘what might have been’ is a useful cosmological speculation that may help throw light on what actually is; this is a statement of the usefulness of ‘Gedanken experiments‘ in cosmology.

Practical science, engineering, and technology are prescriptive.  If we do a, we know from experience that b will occur.  Using the laws of physics, we can predict the location of the Moon as a function of time, put a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, or build a light bulb that will illuminate.  Though we may be curious, we are not required to know why or how these laws exist—or how they might have been different—only that they do work, time and time again.

Cosmology, though firmly rooted in science, is different.  We are passive observers in a very large and very old universe, and there is no absolute guarantee that the laws of physics that work for us so well in the here and now apply to all places and at all times.  We must attempt to understand the laws of physics in a larger context that does involve some well-reasoned and reasonable speculation.

“Not only does God … play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” – Stephen Hawking

“Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.” – Brian Greene

In politics, governance, sociology, and philosophy, too, I would submit to you that consideration of “what might have been” is useful in helping us to understand what actually is.  Such reflection, en masse, might even lead to substantive change.

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?  We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.  Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?” – Tony Judt

Getting back to cosmology, however, for the moment…

Indeed if one wants to investigate issues such as why life exists in the universe, consideration of this larger framework—in essence, a hypothetical ensemble of universes with many varied properties—is essential (this is of course not the same as assuming an ensemble of such universes actually exists).  However, we need to be very cautious about using any claimed statistics of universes in such a hypothetical ensemble of all possible or all conceivable universes.  This is usually not well defined, and in any case is only relevant to physical processes if either the ensemble actually exists, rather than being a hypothetical one, or if it is the outcome of processes that produce well-defined probabilities—an untestable proposal.  We can learn from such considerations the nature of possible alternatives, but not necessarily the probability with which they might occur (if that concept has any real meaning).

It is easy to imagine a universe without life.  But we obviously do not live in such a universe.  There may be other universes devoid of life.

For the more thoughtful among us, it is easy to imagine a civilization without war, guns, violence, extrinsic suffering1 caused by others, or deprivation.  Obviously, we do not live in such a society.  But how can we say it is impossible, or even improbable?  It would be easy to find many millions of people in the world even today that would never fight in a war, would never own or use a gun, who would never resort to violence, who would never cause others to suffer, and who would make eliminating deprivation and poverty a top priority.  The question for the scientists is: what is wrong with the rest of us?

1Extrinsic suffering is suffering caused by others or circumstances completely outside of one’s control.  Intrinsic suffering, on the other hand, is self-inflicted—through our own failings, poor judgement, or mistakes that we make.

Growing Older

As we grow older,
That which is older grows upon us.
Time accelerates,
And the world seems a smaller place.

The years go by like months,
The months go by like weeks,
The weeks go by like days,
The days go by like hours,
And the hours go by like minutes.

And our world which in our youth was all that we knew
Slowly reveals itself to be a surprisingly alien place,
Full of centuries of hard work, unlikely events, and compromise:
The world could be a very different (and better) place,
Even within the confines of human nature.

Taken to its natural conclusion
Were we each to live for millennia, perhaps longer
We would find eternity in an instant
And infinity at the door.

David Oesper

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

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