(This review was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, May 21, 2014)
In Chapter 4 Vidal turns to issue of the beginning of the universe. Answers to these questions are no doubt found in the realm of science. “Modern science can successfully connect physical and chemical evolution with biological and cultural evolution … Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that science is an effective method to understand cosmic evolution.” (Vidal, 59) But the multiple challenges for any ultimate explanations include:
a) epistemological – What are the epistemological characteristics of an ultimate theory? Are all ultimate theories either circular or infinite regresses?
b) metaphysical – Why not nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?
c) thermodynamic – Where does the energy of the universe comes from, and how will it end? Can something come from nothing?
d) causal – What was the causal origin of the universe? Was it self-caused? Is its causal chain infinite?
e) infinities – Is the universe spatially finite or infinite? Is it temporally finite or infinite?
Vidal begins by discussing a foundational starting point for the universe–a cause which does not need another cause. Examples of points include a god or the big bang. By invoking a creator god one avoids an infinite regress (the idea that the chain of causation goes back infinitely) but one can still ask questions like: “Where did god come from?” “What was god doing before he created the universe?” Theologians often answer that god is self-caused. Of course one could say the Big Bang was a self-caused starting point too.
To avoid these issues we might assume the origin of the universe has no foundation–that ultimate explanations are cyclical. Cyclical thinking is found in various disciplines: recursive proofs in mathematics and computer science; networks of meaning in linguistics; and feedback loops in systems theory. (Jean Piaget thought that all of the sciences ground each other in a “circle of the sciences.) Might cyclic cosmologies like those of the Stoics and Hindus better explain the origins of the universe? The problem with cyclic theories are many. Cycles appear to have no endpoint, and thus don’t supply an ultimate explanation. Cycles also imply an eternal return–an endless repetitive cycle.
To fully engage these deep issues Vidal encourages us to take current cosmological theories seriously. “It is crucial to take seriously our best theories to answer our questions about origins. Major physical theories like quantum mechanics or general relativity can have counterintuitive consequences, which nevertheless we must take into account. Such theories are more reliable than intuitions coming from our brains, which are mere products of biological evolution. The brain is well adapted to recognize cycles in natural environments, or to recognize starting points in human actions, but not to guess what happened in the Big Bang era.”(Vidal, 75)
Vidal concludes that building scientific models involves the interaction of the external system and an observer who constructs models of that system. And understanding how observers models the world gives us the best chance to avoid the cognitive biases that lead us astray.
Note – For a readable, in-depth discussion of the important topics introduced in this chapter see: Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, (New York : Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012)