In Theory

By: Arthur W.

I have always been intrigued by the overlap between scientific theory and philosophical thought, particularly in the context of the existence of our universe. Independently, both science and philosophy seem to fall short in our pursuit for answers to the most fundamental questions, like why we are here and what everything means. While we have made much progress in discovering and understanding the laws that govern nature and the behavior of what we consider a physical reality, there are inevitable limitations to scientific endeavor we simply cannot get around, at least not for the time being, because we cannot always evidence the abstract. Even when science confirms and we learn something new, it is only true in what we consider a physical reality. We are somehow able to question and ask, yet have to bear the burden of possibly never knowing because some things are ‘beyond the realm of science’.

That’s not a bad thing though, on the contrary, because it keeps us thinking and challenged. What I am trying to convey is that the interface between philosophical thought and scientific theory is fascinating and vast, and paradoxical in a sense because they, in both directions, cant keep up with one another. With this article I aim to introduce some of the thought-provoking ideas regarding ‘the bigger picture’ in both philosophy and science (theories concerning the existence of our universe), in no particular structure, to put on the table that which can let your mind wander like nothing else.

Physical

Firstly, it goes without saying that scientific theories proposing anything related to the existence of the universe are incredibly complex and interwoven with other fields. There is, unsurprisingly, incredibly much to say about each one – look them up. The mentioned ones fall under no particular category- one concerns the origin of the universe, the other its fate, the next its development, and another its fundamental composition.

The multiverse isn’t just one theory, but rather comprises several theories that all reach, in essence, a similar conclusion: there are a number of universes rather than just one. The theories overlap, merge, and conflict, and despite sounding absurd, are the subject of much scientific debate.

Some propose the universe follows cycles in cyclic models. The oscillating universe theory is one, suggesting an eternal big bang-big crunch cycle. The Ekpyrotic scenario says our universe was formed as a result of a collision between two three-dimensional worlds in a space with a fourth spatial dimension, and there is a theory that suggests this too is cyclical in nature.

String theory (also superstring theory, M-theory) attempts to provide a unified description of the fundamental structure of our universe, extending the Standard Model of particle physics by proposing all its components are different configurations of the same basic ‘building blocks’: one-dimensional entities known as strings. It is an attempt at providing a complete and unified description of the universe’s fundamental structure, and in doing so, brings in up to 10 dimensions.

The Big Rip is hypothetical scenario in which the expansion of the universe is accelerated to the extent that all matter in the universe and even space-time itself is torn apart. It relies on the existence of a hypothetical form of dark energy known as phantom energy, which drives this expansion up to the point where interaction between particles is impossible.

Philosophical

Solipsism says that nothing apart from one’s own mind is sure to exist, and that knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is uncertain. There are many varieties of solipsism, one example being metaphysical solipsism, which says that one’s own mind is the only existing reality, and that the “external world” is therefore only an idea, a representation of that same mind unable to exist independently. How do you know a reality exists beyond what you are presently sensing?

Idealism is the collective term for a number of philosophies that claim reality is merely a mental construct, but one that exists independent of the human mind. The only real world is the world of ideas; matter and energy do not exist, but are just products of the mind. When we understand an idea, our mind conceives something in the ideal world. For example, a perfect circle does not exist in the physical world yet our mind understands it.

Presentism is a philosophy of time that says only the present exists, and therefore the past or future do not. Eternalism opposes this view, taking the view that any one point in time is equally real as another. To complicate things further, the growing block universe theory of time says the past and present are real but the future is not. Some philosophers take inspiration from the theory of relativity – the central difference between the views may be the result of the way time is modeled. If time is viewed as the passage three-dimensional space “moves through”, only the present instantaneously exists, but if time is considered as a dimension the same way space is, all regions of time always exist and the future is “already there”, realized as the present changes.

Phenomenalism: Objects cannot be said to exist in themselves, but only as perceptual phenomena. Things only exist if they are perceived, and we cannot experience anything beyond that which perception allows. The classic philosophical thought experiment “If a tree falls in the forest with nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?” certainly comes in here.

To conclude, scientific theories and philosophical ones aren’t always as clearly distinguishable as one might think. One is the other and the other is the first, and some arguments are just as philosophical in nature as they are scientific. Physics, and all science for that matter, inherently meets metaphysics, but you do have to open yourself up to it.

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