Stumbled across this interesting (and short) essay by Rüdiger Vaas, “Time before Time: How to Avoid the Antinomy of the Beginning and Eternity of the World” (.PDF):
Immanuel Kant (1781/1787), in his Critique of Pure Reason, argued that it is possible to prove both that the world has a beginning and that it is eternal (First Antinomy of Pure Reason, A426f/B454f). As Kant believed he could overcome this “self-contradiction of reason” (“Widerspruch der Vernunft mit ihr selbst”, A740) by the help of what he called “transcendental idealism”, the question whether the cosmos exists forever or not has almost vanished in philosophical discussions. This is somewhat surprising, because Kant’s argument is quite problematic (cf., e.g., Heimsoeth 1960, Wilkerson 1976, Smith 1985, Wike 1982, Schmucker 1990, Falkenburg 2000). In the twentieth century, however, the question became once again vital in the context of natural science, culminating in the controversy between Big Bang and Steady State models in modern physical cosmology (Kragh 1996).
In recent years, it has reappeared in the framework of quantum cosmology (Vaas 2001b & 2002a), where, on the one hand, there are Instanton models that assume an absolute beginning of time (Vilenkin 1982 & 1984, Hawking & Hartle 1983, Hawking & Turok 1998), while other scenarios suppose that the Big Bang of our universe was only a transition from an earlier state (Linde 1983 & 1994, Blome & Priester 1991, Khoury et al. 2001, Steinhardt & Turok 2002), and that there are perhaps infinitely many such events.
And this is where scientists start to worry. A prediction of something infinite is often a sign that the theory you are using to make that prediction has reached the limits of its applicability. For example, imagine you are an aerodynamicist wanting to predict the speed of an air flow. If your model is very simple, for example if it ignores the friction of the air, then it might predict that something changes infinitely quickly in a finite time. But no aerodynamicist would believe that this is what really happens. They would take that prediction as an indication that you have to go back to square one and make your model a little bit better, for example by introducing the friction of air. When you then solve the equations you will find that things change very, very quickly, but not infinitely quickly.
So what cosmologists are working very keenly on today is a possible extension of Einstein’s theory of gravity, one which includes quantum theory, which can give a more accurate description of the apparent beginning of the Universe. Nobody agrees on exactly how to do this: it’s right on the edge of current research. Some theories predict that the Universe doesn’t have a beginning at all, but that if you follow it backward in time, it eventually bounces, almost like a ball, into a previous state in which it was contracting. The Universe may behave cyclically — contracting, expanding and contracting again — or it may be that it bounced into expansion only once and will keep on expanding forever. Another possibility is that the Universe began in some rather uninteresting stationary state, and then started to expand due to the effect of quantum fluctuations. In that scenario, the expansion has a beginning, but the Universe itself doesn’t necessarily have one.
Read the rest (and see some pictures as all, also helps me) here.
The mad scientists at Geneva’s CERN will be running an experiment tomorrow in the Large Hadron Collider which begins an effort ever to shed some light on the fundamentals of the universe. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will fire particles around its 17-mile tunnel. It will then smash protons — one of the building blocks of matter — into each other at energies up to seven times greater than any achieved before. As I undertand it, scientists are hoping to reveal why most sub-atomic particles have mass (probably signalled by the appearance of something called the Higgs particle), reveal why nature prefers matter over anti-matter, and maybe even overturn the Standard Model, a collection of theories that embodies all of our current understanding of fundamental particles and forces. Cool. I wonder if this will have any philosophical consequences, I’m especially thinking of the correlationist/anti-correlationist distinction Meillassoux draws in After Finitude (see here). Hopefully, the LHC won’t create a black hole that will suck up the world as we know it. Anyway, if it works as planned there will be some rather exciting things to talk about. The Telegraph has a nice article about the experiment (see here). Here’s some science smarties commenting (also from the Telegraph): Continue reading →