Where Cosmology Meets Philosophy

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

The physical explanatory power of inflation in terms of structure formation, supported by the observational data on the fluctuation spectra, is spectacular.  For most physicists, this trumps the lack of identification and experimental verification of the underlying physics.  Inflation provides a causal model that brings a wider range of phenomena into what can be explained by cosmology, rather than just assuming the initial data had a specific restricted form.  Explaining flatness (Ω0 ≅ 1 as predicted by inflation) and homogeneity reinforces the case, even though these are philosophical rather than physical problems (they do not contradict any physical law; things could just have been that way).  However claims on the basis of this model as to what happens very far outside the visual horizon (as in the chaotic inflationary theory) results from prioritizing theory over the possibility of observational and experimental testing.  It will never be possible to prove these claims are correct.

Inflation is one compelling approach to explaining the structure we see in the universe today.  It is not necessarily the only one, but it currently has the most support.  Basically, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded dramatically.  Around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang the universe had a diameter on the order of 1.2 × 10-27 meters.  To put that size in perspective, the diameter of a proton is between 0.84-0.87 × 10−15 meters.  So, when inflation began, the entire universe had a diameter almost a trillion times smaller than a single proton!  10-34 seconds later when the inflationary period was coming to an end, the size of the universe was a little over half the distance to Alpha Centauri!

The basic underlying cosmological questions are:
(1)  Why do the laws of physics have the form they do?  Issues arise such as what makes particular laws work?  For example, what guarantees the behaviour of a proton, the pull of gravity?  What makes one set of physical laws ‘fly’ rather than another?  If for example one bases a theory of cosmology on string theory, then who or what decided that quantum gravity would have a nature well described by string theory?  If one considers all possibilities, considering string theory alone amounts to a considerable restriction.
(2)  Why do boundary conditions have the form they do?  The key point here is, how are specific contingent choices made between the various possibilities, for example whether there was an origin to the universe or not.
(3)  Why do any laws of physics at all exist?  This relates to unsolved issues concerning the nature of the laws of physics: are they descriptive or prescriptive?  Is the nature of matter really mathematically based in some sense, or does it just happen that its behaviour can be described in a mathematical way?
(4)  Why does anything exist?  This profound existential question is a mystery whatever approach we take.

The answer to such questions may be beyond the limits of experimental science, or even beyond the limits of our intellect.  Maybe, even, these questions are as meaningless as “What lies north of the north pole?1because of our limited intellect.  Many would claim that because there appears to be limits to what science or human intellect can presently explain, that this constitutes evidence for the existence of God.  It does not.  Let’s just leave it as we don’t know.

Finally, the adventurous also include in these questions the more profound forms of the contentious Anthropic question:
(5)  Why does the universe allow the existence of intelligent life?
This is of somewhat different character than the others and largely rests on them but is important enough to generate considerable debate in its own right.

Well, a seemingly flippant answer to this question is we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t, but that begs the question.  Perhaps intelligent life is the mechanism by which the universe becomes self-aware, or is this just wishful thinking?  In the end, I am willing to admit that there may be some higher power in the universe—in the scientific pantheist and humanist sense—but I will stop short of calling that “God” in any usual sense of the term.

The status of all these questions is philosophical rather than scientific, for they cannot be resolved purely scientifically.  How many of them—if any—should we consider in our construction of and assessments of cosmological theories?

Perhaps the limitations of science (and, therefore, cosmology) is more a manifestation of the limitations of our human intellect than any constraint on the universe itself.

One option is to decide to treat cosmology in a strictly scientific way, excluding all the above questions, because they cannot be solved scientifically.  One ends up with a solid technical subject that by definition excludes such philosophical issues.  This is a consistent and logically viable option.  This logically unassailable position however has little explanatory power; thus most tend to reject it.

Let’s call this physical cosmology.

The second option is to decide that these questions are of such interest and importance that one will tackle some or all of them, even if that leads one outside the strictly scientific arena.  If we try to explain the origin of the universe itself, these philosophical choices become dominant precisely because the experimental and observational limits on the theory are weak; this can be seen by viewing the variety of such proposals that are at present on the market.

And let’s call this metaphysical cosmology.

1Attributed to Stephen Hawking

References
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.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Ryden, Barbara. 2003.  Introduction to Cosmology. San Francisco: Addison Wesley.

Theory and Observation

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 F1: Philosophical choices necessarily underly cosmological theory.
Some cosmologists tend to ignore the philosophical choices underlying their theories; but simplistic or unexamined philosophical standpoints are still philosophical standpoints!

Cosmology, and indeed all human inquiry, is based on (at least) two unproven (though certainly reasonable) assumptions:

  1. The Universe exists.
  2. The human mind is at least to some degree capable of perceiving and understanding the Universe.

Any cosmological theory will have additional foundational unproven assumptions.  These are called axioms.  Ellis admonishes us to at least be aware of them, and to admit to them.

8.1 Criteria for theories
As regards criteria for a good scientific theory, typical would be the following four areas of assessment: (1) Satisfactory structure: (a) internal consistency, (b) simplicity (Ockham’s razor), and (c) aesthetic appeal (‘beauty’ or ‘elegance’); (2) Intrinsic explanatory power: (a) logical tightness, (b) scope of the theory—the ability to unify otherwise separate phenomena, and (c) probability of the theory or model with respect to some well-defined measure; (3) Extrinsic explanatory power, or relatedness: (a) connectedness to the rest of science, (b) extendability—providing a basis for further development; (4) Observational and experimental support, in terms of (a) testability: the ability to make quantitative as well as qualitative predications that can be tested; and (b) confirmation: the extent to which the theory is supported by such tests as have been made.

As you can see, a theory is not an opinion.  It must be well-supported by facts.  It must be internally consistent.  It must have explanatory power.  The Russian physicist A. I. Kitaĭgorodskiĭ (1914-1985) put it succinctly: “A first-rate theory predicts; a second-rate theory forbids, and a
third-rate theory explains after the event.”  Einstein’s special and general relativity are spectacular examples of first-rate theories.  In over 100 years of increasingly rigorous and sophisticated experiments and observations, relativity has never been proven to be incorrect.

Ellis emphasizes the importance of observational and experimental support in any scientific theory.

It is particularly the latter that characterizes a scientific theory, in contrast to other types of theories claiming to explain features of the universe and why things happen as they do.  It should be noted that these criteria are philosophical in nature in that they themselves cannot be proven to be correct by any experiment.  Rather their choice is based on past experience combined with philosophical reflection.  One could attempt to formulate criteria for good criteria for scientific theories, but of course these too would need to be philosophically justified.  The enterprise will end in infinite regress unless it is ended at some stage by a simple acceptance of a specific set of criteria.

So, even our criteria about what makes a good scientific theory rest upon axioms that cannot be proven.  But unlike religion, scientific theories never posit the existence of any supernatural entity.

Thesis F3: Conflicts will inevitably arise in applying criteria for satisfactory cosmological theories.
The thrust of much recent development has been away from observational tests toward strongly theoretically based proposals, indeed sometimes almost discounting observational tests.  At present this is being corrected by a healthy move to detailed observational analysis of the consequences of the proposed theories, marking a maturity of the subject.  However because of all the limitations in terms of observations and testing, in the cosmological context we still have to rely heavily on other criteria, and some criteria that are important in most of science may not really make sense.

String theory? Cosmic inflation?  Multiverse? If a theory is currently neither testable nor directly supported by observations, is it science, or something else?

References
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.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]