We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of 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.
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.
Getting back to cosmology, however, for the moment…
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.
As we grow older,
That which is older grows upon us.
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.
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.