Philosophy

 

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 evidence.

   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 particles—one positive, one negative, so that conservation laws are not violated—are 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 does—the 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, too—out 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 see—and are—today.

   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 inflation—the name he coined for this superfast early-universe expansion—has 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'

and

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.

 

 

* Copernicus was not the first to come up with the sun centered theory.  This was a hypothesis of the ancient Pythagoreans.

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