Philosophy is written in this grand book - the universe - which
stands continuously open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first
learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It
is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and
other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single
word of it; without these one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.
(Galileo Galilei As quoted by Machamer in The Cambridge Companion to Galileo, pp.64f.)
There's a lot we can learn from man's original view of the Universe in
which the earth was at it's center and everything revolved around it and that is that man
has a tendency to believe what he wants to believe and part of what he wants to believe is
that he's important. There is also a lesson we can learn from the way mankind reacted to
scientific evidence that he is not at the center of the universe which is that man becomes
hostile to those who challenge his cherished beliefs. The story of Galileo is a classic
example of this. Galileo was a mathematician who did not share the church's belief
in the earth centered universe. He believed the Copernican* theory
in which the earth revolved around the sun, was more consistent with astronomical
One morning in 1613, at breakfast, Cosimo de' Medici and
his mother, the Grand Duchess Christina began discussing the truth of Jupiter's
satellites. Benedetto Castelli, Galileo's student, who was present, asked Galileo to
comment on the central point of that conversation, the conflict between the Bible and the
heliocentric doctrine. The reply was the famous 'Letter to Grand Duchess Christina' which
circulated widely in manuscript form at the time. In it, Galileo famously declared that
the Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Galileo's belief in the
truth of the Copernican hypothesis alarmed Dominicans such as Tommaso Caccini and Niccolo
Lorini, and the Inquisition examined Galileo's letter to Christina. Thus began Galileo's
trouble with the Catholic Church.
There were two occasions (1616 and 1632) when Galileo was
called to Rome over the truth of Copernicus' theory. As a result of inspecting Galileo's
letter, in February 1616, it was agreed by the Inquisition that 1) the immobility of the
Sun at the centre of the universe was absurd in philosophy and formally heretical, and
that 2) the mobility of Earth was absurd in philosophy and erroneous in theology.
Galileo wrote the Dialogue on the Two
Chief World Systems, in which the relative merits of the sun centered and
earth centered theories were discussed by three imaginary interlocutors:
Filippo Salviati (a committed Florentine Copernican), Giovanfrancesco Sagredo (an
open-minded Venetian, initially neutral with respect to the theories) and the Aristotelian
Simplicio (a defender of the earth centered theory). By doing this Galileo probably
thought he could avoid getting in trouble for advocating one theory over the other while
demonstrating the superiority of the Copernican theory. If that is what he thought
he was wrong. The sale of the book was suspended six months after its publication.
Pope Urban VIII decided that Galileo should be imprisoned
for life. Galileo was then interrogated under threat of torture, and made to abjure the
'vehement suspicion of heresy'. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Galileo spent the
rest of his life at his home at Arcetri, under house arrest. Pleas for pardons or for
medical treatment were refused.
Galileo's work challenged the dogmatic hold on philosophy
of the church. Other mathematical/physics work has also challenged the Church view
of creation. I started this essay with a quote from Galileo that the language of the
Universe is written in the language of mathematics and that it is impossible to understand
it without mathematics. So what else does mathematics and physics tell us?
Quantum theory holds that probability, not absolutes, rules
any physical system. Quantum theory also holds that things can materialize out of
the vacuum, although they tend to vanish back into it quickly. While this phenomenon has
never been observed directly, measurements of the electron's magnetic strength strongly
imply that it is real and happening in the vacuum of space even now. Probability, however,
dictates that pairs of subatomic particlesone positive, one negative, so that
conservation laws are not violatedare by far the most likely creations and that they
will last extremely briefly, typically for only 10-21 second. The spontaneous, persistent
creation of something even as large as a molecule is profoundly unlikely.
Nonetheless, in 1973 an assistant professor at Columbia
University named Edward Tryon suggested that the entire universe might have come into
existence this way. In a paper titled "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?" he
stated, "I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things
which happen from time to time." Others scoffed at the idea. If a from-nothing,
briefly existing molecule is absurdly unlikely, physicists reasoned, a from-nothing,
15-billion-year-old universe is vastly less likely.
Particle theorists have predicted the existence of a
"false vacuum". A false vacuum is characterized by a repulsive
gravitational field, one so strong it can explode into a universe. A peculiarity of the
false vacuum is that it does not "thin out" during expansion as, say, a gas
doesthe density of the energy within it remains constant even as it grows. Alan Guth a then 32 year old obscure
physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, suggested that the Universe
started as a false vacumn. According to his theory, the false vacuum's expansion,
accelerating exponentially as its repulsive force compounded, actually created vast
quantities of ever-doubling energy, which decayed into a seething plasma of particles such
as electrons, positrons, and neutrinos. As the early universe went along doubling every
microsecond, the stuff in it doubled, tooout of nowhere. The electrons, positrons,
and neutrinos became a sort of hot soup, which 300,000 years later neutralized to form
simple atoms. The simple atoms, like hydrogen, helium, and lithium, were ripped apart and
crushed together to form more complex, heavier atoms inside stars. Exploded into space by
supernovas, they became the matter we seeand aretoday.
The initial bit of false vacuum required by Guth's
calculations turned out to be mind-bendingly small: A patch one-billionth the size of a
proton would do and there was a reasonable probability that a patch that size could come
into existence as the result of a vacumn fluctuation. Guth's theory of
inflationthe name he coined for this superfast early-universe expansionhas
since vanquished every theoretical challenge and grown stronger with each new cosmological
finding. In April of 2001, he received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in physics, often a
precursor to the Nobel Prize.
What was Guth's philosophical conclusion from this:
'Most people really want to
know where we came from. We have evidence. We no longer have to rely on stories we were
told when we were young'
We are approaching a scenario for the creation of the universe that
is compatible with the laws of physics. That raises the question: 'Where do the laws of
physics come from? We are a long way from being able to answer that one.
Another physicist, John Magueijo put forth a competing
theory to the inflationary one of Alan Guth, that also explains the origin of the universe
that depends on the laws of physics having changed, in particular the law that the speed
of light has always been the same constant. So not only do we not know where the laws of
physics come from, those laws may not be unbreakable.
Guth's theory makes it appear that the creation of earth
may have been simply a quantum accident. It's interesting that the biological theory
of evolution explains the existence of living things as the result of random mutations or
accidents as well. Yet Guth also points out that his theory doesn't explain
everything like where the laws of physics came from to begin with.
Biology has not been able to explain how how something as complex and incredible as
the original reproducing cell and the original reproducing genes came about.
To understand how unlikely this is consider the unlikely hood that
chemicals put in a bottle will come to life. Science has not been able to explain conciousness or
beauty or love or free will or the meaning of life. Although scientists have shown
chemicals are associated with different feelings we have thats a far cry from being able
to explain them. It's very important that we don't get confused by science and
math into believing we understand the whole story because we understand part of it.
Recently I took a walk in the woods and it was very peaceful and beautiful and special to
hear the birds chirping and to see the beautiful trees and grass. I remember
thinking there must be more to this than a quantum accident. It almost felt like a
loving creator had put it there. Although it is possible there is a loving creator
or creative force that together with evolution and the laws of physics was involved with
the creation of the world, that does not mean that religious dogma is correct. I
think it is important to question religious dogma and that one of the values of science is
that it has challenged religious dogma. Religions often teach that we should believe
instead of question and that those who don't believe are
bad and should be punished. For this reason religious dogma is responsible for much of
the suffering in our tiny corner of the universe. Facing
reality may be the key to making our little planet a happier place and mathematics,
the language of the Universe has contributed toward mans doing that.