Summary of PHYS 795/02 -- 13 October 1995
"Touching the Limits of Science -- Cosmology and our View of theWorld"

Class Outline:

  1. Discussion of the size of the Universe (from last class)
  2. Discussion of the beginning of the Universe (also from last class) (Moebius' theory)
  3. Brockelman: philosophy = answering questions outside the realm of Science (eg relationship between religion and science; spiritual side of life)
  4. Hermeneutics and "true" nature of mythology (eg mythology not meant to explain origins scientifically, but to provide a sense of belonging in the universe)
  5. Thesis: the spiritual numbing of the West -- divorcing spirituality from reality, driving god-concept out of the knowable universe, has negative consequences for humanity
  6. Discussion of the history and role of organized religion and traditional mythology (control vs. community)
  7. Cosmology as mythology -- novelty in the universe; bringing humanity back to original unity of universe [Note: during this summary, when referring to the concept of a deity, I shall use "god" (little g); and when referring to the Judeo-Christian god, I shall use "God" (big g).]

Major Points of Discussion:

1. From last class, Dr. Moebius expanded on a question about the actual size of the 300,000 year old universe; specifically, the radius of the universe versus the age. These are related by the formula:

R(t) ~ t^(2/3)

This formula yields a radius on the order of 10,000,000 light years. We find that light could have only crossed a small portion of the 300,000-year-old universe.

2. The beginning of the universe: we discussed the possibility that the "Big Bang" may have been set off by a fluctuation in total energy over some small amount of time (as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle allows for). This is problematic as there was no actual time "before" the universe began; can we have a fluctuation without the concept of time? Dr. Moebius compared this phenomenon with that of turbulence, where a system may function smoothly over a range of velocities, but at a certain point, the system becomes chaotic -- this is not a gradual increase in the amount of chaos present, but an immediate, sudden occurrence, much as the Big Bang was.

3. There was a brief discussion on the need for philosophy in life: it functions to answer (or at least think about) questions that science cannot answer. For example, one may speculate about the nature of beauty, but science suggests no answers -- this is a subject about which only one's philosophy can provide enlightenment.

4. Hermeneutics and the study of mythology: examines mythology in a philosophic rather than a scientific light. The practice of hermeneutics is the interpretive understanding of the meanings behind a given mythology -- for example, in the hermeneutic interpretation of the celebration of Passover, rather than it being by necessity an accurate historical account of events, it is more of a celebration of community, of finding one's way in the world and beginning the journey to a new place. In the same light, the book of Genesis is (by hermeneutic standards) not a scientific document, but rather a backdrop for the subsequent events taking place in the Bible. It provides a framework for the introduction of "evil" into the universe, as well as making early cultures part of a larger reality -- giving the universe a personality, most specifically that of Yahweh. This mythology, like others, also provides the opportunity for the experience of wonder -- in this case, something akin to "How great this God is in scale and in works, and how lucky we are to be His chosen people" or the like. The question "Why take religion apart?" was raised, and it was suggested that in doing so, one may find lessons in how to live. Mythologies exist to explain humankind's longing for "something more" -- something beyond the physical universe -- and to give context to explain some primordial split from a fundamental unity into the parts that exist today.

5. History behind the spiritual numbing of the West:

  1. Began with the marriage of Greek and Judaic thoughts
  2. Platonic sense of the universe -- seeks to explain rather than interpret, and this is brought over into Western religion (esp. modern Christian Fundamentalism and related schools of thought). This epistemology is dialectic; one may approach the god-outside-the-universe by thought, but not by direct observation.
  3. Aristotelian tradition: god resides outside the universe, an "unmoved mover;" one may speculate its existence through inferences of "natural law," but in this case, any understanding is found only because it is sought (self-fulfilling prophecy).
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas: (13th C.) synthesized the above ideas into modern Catholicism (and Protestantism to a great degree). Theorized that God could be understood through understanding five main principles and proofs, and that its existence followed logically through the First Cause argument, wherein each effect has a cause, so somewhere back in time there must be a causeless cause, which is assumed in this case to be God.
  5. Enlightenment: during the new rage of mechanics, god was seen as a divine watchmaker, an observer who merely set the universe in motion and left it alone from there. (See the "watchmaker" argument.) Dr. Brockelman suggested that this notion of "Deism" made religion more impersonal, destroying the possibility of direct mystical experience, making god unknowable and even making its existence impossible (since anything outside the universe is technically nonexistent).

6. Questions about the changing roles of the various churches and of organized religion in general were brought up. In particular, the following points were discussed:

7. Cosmology as Mythology: according to hermeneutic principles, modern cosmology serves the same function as previous mythologies. Aside from its obvious scientific merit, it provides us with a link to our past (eg since all matter was possible from the Big Bang, all matter is related); it gives us a sense of wonder, specifically concerning the scale of the universe and the chance that brought Earth and humanity into existence; and our sense of novelty is fulfilled with the constant influx of new things (eg matter, light, galaxies, life, humans, us...) into the universe.

Personal response:

I was encouraged by the willingness of the participants in this preceptorial to engage in discussions on the place of religion in society -- in particular, on the subject of organized religion. In the future I would hope to see a greater integration of science and religion in the discussion.

My personal philosophy is that religion has no place in science. I did not, however, come to this conclusion as a result of my involvement in scientific academia. The very reason I am in physics is because of my atheist beliefs. My years in school have only served to reinforce this opinion. My hope in this matter is to learn what other find in religion, so that I can, at least, understand this seemingly irrational philosophy.

-David Heirtzler

For the Next Session:

---> Continuation of last Friday's discussion of religion and science

---> The New Cosmology (see handout)

---> The Spiritual Significance of the New Cosmology (handout)