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The Uncertain, Disorderly, Changing Universe

Once many years ago I came across a fictional exam paper with questions designed to amuse. One question for example was:

“Captain Cook had three voyages to the Pacific. On which voyage was he killed?”

And another question more germane to this week’s blog essay, was:

“Define the universe and give three examples?”

Notwithstanding that some interpretations of quantum theory admit the possibility of parallel universes, most of us would understand the universe as the totality of all that exists and therefore could not readily admit of two! The universe is all inclusive – the set of all sets! (Mind you from a psychological point of view we each inhabit our own version of the universe and whilst I suspect we inhabit the same physical universe I have indeed no way of being sure of that!)

When we look up into the clear night sky at the uncountable stars, one of the first characteristics of the night sky we observe is how irregular it is. The heavenly bodies are smeared all over the sky in a disorderly array. The visible matter of the universe seems randomly distributed with clusters of stars in some parts of the sky and mere sprinkles of them in others and voids everywhere.

Modern astronomy has also shown how different these bodies are. Their size varies enormously as does their state of development. In parts of the cosmos huge clouds of gas are aggregating under the force of gravity forming new bodies. In other places there are stars that are fading from existence, supernova exploding and matter being inexorably drawn into black holes whose density is so high that even light can’t escape.

And we ourselves are all the products of the disintegration of stars. We are in fact, as Darryl Reanney once observed, “made of star-dust”. Every element which constitutes part of us that is more complex than hydrogen was formed in the fusion processes of stars. The carbon in our tissues, the calcium in our bones, and the iron in our blood all came to be through this process. Our physical bodies are created from the products of the nuclear reactions stimulated by the condensation of hydrogen through the force of gravity in the nuclei of stars. The fourteen billion years of creation emanating from the “big bang” have seen the evolution of the universe evolve with what the French Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin called “the complexification of matter”, its embellishment with the spark of life and finally its crowning achievement – access to consciousness.

But I digress. The point I am trying to make is that the universe is far from orderly. Even the planet we live on is far from orderly. Before Johannes Kepler, astronomers believed that the planets were perfect spheres that circulated about the stars in perfect circles. Kepler however showed that the planets moved in a more complicated way in elliptical orbits. And we know now that our little earth, far from being a perfect sphere, is somewhat irregular in shape wobbling a little on its axis as it spins.

But not only is the universe disorderly it is forever changing. For a start it is expanding and as a result the rest of the universe is moving away from us at great speed. Everywhere we look in the universe there is change and incredible motion. Our earth moves around the sun at 30km/sec which is itself moving around in the Milky Way at 250km/sec which in turn is moving away at some 600km/sec. Naturally all this movement results in an occasional collision and sometimes bodies, by gravitational attraction, pulling others into new orbits.

To an observer this strange universe of ours seems rather chaotic! So what can we hang onto; where should we look for an anchor in all this turbulence?

Well our scientists tell us that what is constant throughout is the application of the Laws of Physics. The classical Laws of Physics included such things as Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Law of Gravity, Conservation of Mass-Energy, Conservation of Momentum, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and the Electrostatic Laws. In the last century these Laws were augmented with Einstein’s Invariance of the Speed of Light which was derived from his Theory of Relativity. Then finally to explain matter at the subatomic level Max Planck pioneered Quantum Theory. This was quickly followed by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theorem. So you would think with so many laws we should be able to predict and understand what is happening in the physical universe. But for we non-scientists this comes as some surprise because from our personal vantage point the Universe seems rather lawless!

And as we have seen in previous blogs physics and mathematics have not handed us tools to make absolute predictions. Heisenberg’s Theorem, for example, tells us the more closely we can define the position of an electron the more uncertain we can be about its momentum.

Similarly in Quantum Mechanics we can not predict a particular outcome only a probability distribution which predicts merely the statistical likelihood over a range of possible outcomes.

We also saw in an analogous way that Kurt Gödel showed that in number theory we could either have a complete theory that would contain undecideable propositions or we could have a theory that was consistent but incomplete!

So in effect our fundamental laws and indeed even mathematics itself, which underpins such laws, are telling us that there is indeterminancy in the Universe and some outcomes are beyond our powers of prediction and understanding.

Now I don’t purport to understand the Universe. I can see by analogy with theology why I might have to resort to “via negative” in describing the Universe just as some theologians did when trying to understand God. They came to the conclusion that the notion of an infinite God is such that they could never know what God is but they could describe what God is not. Well I have started that approach in the title of this essay. I cannot describe the Universe, but I do know that it is not orderly, not static and is littered with uncertainty!

Stephen Hawking once said, “If we do discover a theory of everything … it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would truly know the mind of God.” Paul Davies borrowed from this quotation to title his 1992 book “The Mind of God”, subtitled “The Scientific Basis for a Rational World.”

As seemingly attractive as such an ambition might be, I can’t help but believe it is an unachievable goal. As a miniscule subset of the Universe, albeit an intelligent one, I doubt that we will ever have the capacity to rationally understand the Universe. There will be always gaps in our understanding. Therefore the Universe is destined to always contain mysteries for us. Even if we discover another suite of universal Laws of Physics they will never take away the mystery because the mystery is a reflection of the limitations of the human mind to understand that which it apprehends. (This should provide some comfort for theists because there will forever be gaps for their gods to fill.)

Theologians classify two types of mystery, viz the “absolute” and the “relative”. An absolute mystery is one that can not be discovered directly. But oft times we can throw some light on such mysteries by indirect methods. This is why analogies, parables and metaphors can be powerful teaching methods. But I suspect the mystery of the Universe is a “relative” mystery. This mystery exists because the understanding required exceeds the natural knowing power of the one experiencing the mystery.

And I can live with that. The Universe may always be uncertain, disorderly and changing beyond our ability to comprehend. I am not sure I want to be able to understand “the Mind of God”. As you have no doubt already observed the Mind of Ted is frightening enough!

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  1. 5 Comment(s)

  2.   By Greg Brown on May 29, 2011 | Reply

    Ah yes the quantum dilemma definitely upsets my deterministic world, or does it. Quantum theory predicts the outcomes of events at the quantum level as probabilities so we can never predict exactly what will happen at that level. This leaves 2 possibilities. The outcome is still predetermined but it is impossible for us to know what it is in advance (we just have a probability distribution of possibilities) . Alternately there is a something beyond the universe that chooses the outcome (the God factor). I tend to favour the first option and live in the comfort of a deterministic world. The God factor does have appeal though.

    The other area of physics that dabbles in this space is Chaos theory. I understand it even less than Quantum mechanics (it was not even around when I studied physics). I think it suggests that relatively simple things have an underlying complexity that is quite literally mind blowing. For example the vortex created by water going down a plug hole and the way it twists and wobbles is completely unpredictable to us even with the most powerful computer simulations. Part of the problem is the computational power and part is knowing exactly what all the initial conditions are. If water down the plug hole so complex that no amount of computational power can ever predict what will happen imagine how hard it is to predict the weather. God knows how much global temperatures will rise.

  3.   By Father Robin on May 29, 2011 | Reply

    And who on Earth would wish to live in a certain, orderly, unchanging universe?

    God forbid!

  4.   By Father Robin on May 29, 2011 | Reply

    ‘Brave New World’ Huxley

  5.   By Father Robin on May 29, 2011 | Reply

    The universe throws things at you.

    The question is ‘Who’s in charge?’

    The universe isn’t.

  6.   By Father Robin on May 30, 2011 | Reply

    “Only two things are infinite – the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not too sure about the first.”

    Albert Einstein.

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