Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Asymmetry of Existence
Susan Dolan & Rob Eaton


Summary by Anna Lornitzo

Is there a purpose? Significance of Extraterrestrial Life?


M. Gleiser “Tear at the Edge of Creation” Chapters 48-56

The leaders, Susan Dolan and Rob Eaton, began this week’s discussion by looking at the two basic ideas about “purpose” in the universe. The two camps are: Supernaturalists, who “believe that science plays a role in the explanation of ‘every day aspects’ of life…but as to the big questions, such as the origins of life, universe and what happens when we die, they think science does not play a role”, and the Naturalists, who “look at life through reason alone”. From this, they pose a question for the class to consider. “Given what Gleiser says about the scientific quest, is it within our capacity as humans to accept that there might not be one answer? Or are there many answers and these answers may even overlap?” Many agreed that there is no single answer or unifying truth and, that, for example, the origins of life may very well depend on the initial conditions. The major problem seen with the Supernaturalist view was that having a narrow search for a single truth could cause us to miss other possibilities and revelations.

Is the Universe Set up Just Right for Life?

This portion of the conversation looked mostly at whether the universe had a plan for humanity and life, or whether we are rare life that was a mere accident. Life occurring in this universe does not necessarily mean its existence was the purpose or intention of the universe. We also discussed whether perhaps our own definition of organic life was limiting or could limit our ability to recognize other forms of life. Would we recognize life, if it were to develop somewhere else without the elements we have come to believe are necessary for life to develop? It was determined then that because we do not know how non-living material becomes living, we cannot be sure where life will turn up and what conditions are truly necessary; there is no proof or rule that life (and especially life as we don’t know it) could only develop under the conditions present here on Earth. We have assumptions about what is necessary for life to occur, but these assumptions are based on how life formed on Earth, and such assumptions may cause us to miss other forms of life if they are very different from our own. This being said, it was recognized that because we haven’t found extraterrestrial life elsewhere yet, we should at least consider the possibility that life on Earth is unique, that we are alone, and that this possibility should make us reconsider how we treat ourselves and our planet.

Do we need a new direction for science? Should we be driven by more than the search for a unifying truth or theory? Then would it be a search for knowledge for the sake of knowledge? In regards to a unifying theory, it was argued that physics could never replace economics or biology. They may share some similar components, but they are useful in their own right for different reasons and serve their own necessary and individual functions. Furthermore, there will always be something else to learn, and new language, new concepts will need to be developed from new information. Then is the new direction for science searching for knowledge for knowledge sake? What good is knowledge though if it has no use? Is our own thirst for discovery enough to drive progress and the search for knowledge? But then, what is the thirst for discovery driven by if not to discover a particular something?

The concept of God enters the conversation here, about what would be considered proof of God. It seems the common concept of God was an image of a physical human-like character that could come down from the sky and talk to them and give answers. This certainly is not the only concept of God, which makes a discussion on what a proof of God would look like difficult. There are those who find God in nature, and it is not a physical human-like creator. Since the concept of God is different for every person it is difficult to rationalize by reason and science, which makes it off limits for “proving” with the scientific method. This brought into the discussion what proof is, and it was recognized that sometimes what is once “proved” may at some later point be disproved.

We also discussed symmetry; are we capable of looking at the world in an asymmetrical manner? Meaning, perhaps, can we look at it without seeing it in the context of duality, dark and light, good and evil, right and wrong, hot and cold. The example of matter and anti-matter was given, in that these two properties do not seem to be particularly symmetrical. There is plenty of matter but not a lot of anti-matter. Professor Moebius explained that things are becoming less symmetric and that in order to create something new, the symmetry of what already is must be broken in some way, at some level. There needs to be a certain degree of order, but the development of something new cannot come from perfect symmetry. Infusion of energy of some sort is necessary to set in motion the destabilization of that symmetry. This brings in the idea of entropy, which complements the symmetry/asymmetry idea. If the world is becoming increasingly unsymmetrical, does it mean it is becoming more chaotic, or entropic? Again, Professor Moebius explained that entropy only increases in a closed system, but if energy is being put into the system then entropy will not necessarily take over. An example is the Sun, which continually releases energy.


That there may be many answers was broadly recognized to be a possibility, and that attempting to find a unifying truth may limit our ability to discover other things. A good example is our definition of life. Life is very complex and because we do not know exactly how non-life becomes life, we should assume that all life must for the way it has on Earth. We cannot be sure either way whether the universe has a purpose for us or not. We may be unique, we may not be. If we are, then we must consider how we treat ourselves and our planet. This class, unsurprisingly, leaves many questions to be considered. Is it possible that we need a new direction in science? If so, what should be the driving force of our explorations? Is knowledge for its own sake enough? What is proof, if something could be discovered tomorrow that disproves what had been proven? These are just some of the questions we cannot fully answer yet. Can reason explain it all, or only some of it? I may be missing some of the end of the conversation, I had to leave before the discussion was finished.