catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 25 :: 2009.12.25 — 2010.01.07


The birth of the universe is not the cause of the world

Dr. Brian Cox, a physicist working at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) recently gave a talk about the birth of the universe. The talk was given at a TED conference in February 2008, to explain the inner-workings of the Large Hadron Collider, a machine designed to make protons crash into each other at nearly the speed of light. 

At 27 kilometers in circumference, the collider straddles the French and Swiss border, representing the work of over 10,000 physicists and engineers from around the world, and is the largest scientific experiment ever attempted. By creating the conditions present less than a billionth of a second after the universe began, scientists hope to capture a colossal Kodak moment with highly sensitive cameras poised to gather empirical evidence of the Big Bang and its accompanying theories.

Dr. Cox makes a case that the legacy of CERN will extend well beyond the birth of the Internet and the freeing of physicists from the demands of the nuclear arms race.  According to Cox, the work at CERN ought to be understood in the broader context of modern physics and its contribution to the many creation stories that have been told throughout history.

At the end of his presentation, Cox projects two striking images on the screen behind him-a graphic depicting the events that gave birth to the universe and a picture of the earth at night, the lights of civilization clearly visible from space.  " I just want to give you a different perspective of what I think particle physics really means to me-particle physics and cosmology," he says.  “I think it’s given us a wonderful narrative, almost a creation story if you’d like, about the universe from modern science over the last few decades.  I’d say that it deserves…to at least be put up there with these wonderful creation stories of the people of the high Andes and the frozen North.” 

Cox then launches into a brief description of the birth of the universe from the perspective of modern physics:

The story goes like this:  We’ve known that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago at an immensely hot, dense state much smaller than a single atom.  It began to expand about a million billion billion billion billionth of a second — I think I got that right — after the big bang.  Gravity separated away from the other forces.  The universe then underwent an exponential expansion called inflation.  In about the first billionth of a second, also, Higgs Field kicked in and the quarks and the gluons and the electrons, the makers of gut mass in the universe, continued to expand and cool. 

After about a few minutes there was hydrogen and helium in the universe.  That’s all.  The universe was about 75% hydrogen, 25% helium.  It still is today.  It continued to expand about 300 million years, then light began to travel through the universe.  It was big enough to be transparent to light (and that’s what we see in the cosmic microwave background…described as looking at the face of God).  After about 400 million years the first stars formed and that hydrogen, that helium then began to cook into the heavier elements.  So the elements of life, carbon and oxygen and iron, all the elements that we need to make us up, were cooked in that first generation of stars which then burned out of fuel, exploded, [and] threw those elements back into the universe.  They then recollapse into another generation of stars and planets.  And on some of those planets, the oxygen which had been created in that first generation of stars could fuse with hydrogen to form water-liquid water on the surface.

On at least one and maybe only one of those planets, primitive life             evolved over millions of years into things that walk upright and left footprints about 3 ½ million years ago in the mudflats of Tanzania and eventually left a footprint on [the earth’s moon] and built this civilization…that turned the darkness into night [sic] so you could see the civilization from space. 

As one of my great heroes Carl Sagan said, these are the things…Saturn 5 rockets and Sputnik and DNA and literature and science — these are the things that hydrogen atoms do when given 13.7 billion years…and the laws of physics.  The right laws of physics, they’re beautifully balanced.  If the weak force had been a little bit different then carbon and oxygen wouldn’t be stable inside the hearts of stars and there would be none of that in the universe.             

And I think that’s a wonderful and significant story.  50 years ago I couldn’t have told that story because we didn’t know it.  It makes me really feel that civilization, if you believe that scientific creation story, has emerged purely as a result of the laws of physics and a few hydrogen atoms…[and] it makes me feel incredibly valuable.

Dr. Cox’s admission that he feels valuable in a world where “civilization…has emerged purely as a result of the laws of physics and a few hydrogen atoms” is more than just a “Gee, I’m sure glad to be a physicist!” sentiment.  There is a genuine sense of wonder in his acknowledgement:  “Look what the laws of physics can do!”

If it seems strange to think of laws as having the capacity to do anything of themselves — to form or initiate processes; it may be easier to do so as a physicist involved with the Large Hadron Collider.  Thanks to the LHC, these laws of physics are not abstract theories with no bearing on reality, but tools to be put to use in the making of empirical evidence.  The LHC allows the laws to be manipulated and controlled.  It provides scientists the means to control the very laws that create universes!  The LHC makes it possible for humans to re-create one of the most important moments in history, a moment that might have occurred billions of years ago in a fraction of a second and can now be repeated over and over again in a controlled environment and measured with precise accuracy. 

What gives rise to such a remarkable technological feat?  What stirs the human imagination to want to give birth to such a machine?  For an answer to this question, we will have to look beyond the words of Dr. Brian Cox.  A physicist’s answer to such a question would only leave us with another string of cause and effect relations going all the way back to the Big Bang.  But such an account does not explain the human soul’s desire to put scientific investigation to use in this way. 

For a more helpful analysis, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger really comes in handy.  In “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger explains that the will to use modern physics as a tool arises in the face of That which threatens man’s sense of mastery.  In the past, many myths and creation stories were created to conceal the chaos that threatened man’s sense of control, but for Western man these myths were not effective enough.  So in the modern age, scientific theories were developed to explain the world as orderly and predictable.  These theories serve as tools to help give man the false impression of control over his environment. 

For Heidegger, though, it is belief in the controllability of the world that is most threatening to man.  On page 27 of his essay, Heidegger writes that “man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth.  In this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct.  This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself.”  The danger, then, is that man does not see the illusion, is not aware of this false encounter with himself. 

“For there is no such thing as a man who, solely of himself, is only man,” Heidegger reminds us.  But in an age of ever more sophisticated tools, this idea does not seem obvious.  The use of scientific theories reveals nature only as a set of principles that can be humanly grasped.  All of nature becomes calculable, measurable.  The laws we “discover” validate our sense of mastery.  Everywhere we look, we see the order we want to see.  And if we don’t see that order, we work to develop a theory that reveals the orderly patterns. 

For modern science, the greatest tool we have to reveal order is causality.  The reason the use of cause and effect is so effective is that it is an airtight method.  Once the effect is determined, all one has to do is look for that which leads up to the effect-and there are always causes to every effect. 

In a technological world, we tend to believe that effects are self-revealing, but they are self-revealing only as human interpretations.  And this is why we like them.  Our sense of mastery and control is elevated when we determine the effect we are trying to find the cause to.  As Nietzsche points out, we only seek the cause when we are troubled, when something has gone wrong or is not to our liking.  If everything’s hunky-dory, there’s no reason to look into why everything is going so well.  So the effect is often a problem we wish to solve and we believe we can solve it with causality.  But our feeling of mastery is only a delusion.     

Heidegger points out that we actually have no control over the revealing that occurs when we use cause and effect.  The tool of causality, then, is our response to a revealing that is beyond our control.  Not only do we have no control over what our technologies will reveal, we also cannot claim mastery over the revelation itself.  Heidegger gives an example:  That which we call “mountain” gathers itself in such a way that we must respond to whatever it is that we are compelled to call “mountain.”  All peoples, no matter what language they speak, are compelled to find a word for this gathering that we name “mountain” in English.  Though we’d like to think that we have brought the mountain into being by giving it a name, this is an illusion.  That which gathers itself into what we call “mountain” calls upon us to give this gathering a name. 

Brian Cox’s creation story is yet another example of our inability to control the revealing.  Though physicists may feel in control of the revelation by putting causality to use, they are actually challenged by causality itself when they are compelled to discover the origins of the universe using causality. Since the universe’s origin presents itself to us as a problem, or threat, in some way, CERN has set out to look for a particular type of origin, one that can be explained by causality.  Though the actual threat to modern physics is not having control over the revealing, modern physics seems to perceive the threat as not knowing the cause.  From their perspective, knowing the cause of the universe would put them in control over the revealing. 

But for Heidegger the great threat to man is the dominance of causality itself.  Revealing all things only in terms of causality also reveals man as subject to this causal framework.  In an age of ever more sophisticated tools, man becomes a tool himself.  Though Dr. Cox might admit on some level that he is a tool of the laws of physics, he feels valuable because he happens to have been born into this moment of history where the laws of physics can be put to use to discover the origin of the universe.  But CERN’s attempt to discover the origin of the universe, based on causality, cannot and will never allow us to see beyond causality itself.  Yes, the LHC can empirically reveal what a science of causality can reveal, but other ways of revealing are then concealed by this orderly, controlling mode of revealing.

According to Heidegger, human beings in the age of modern science are bound by what the philosopher calls “Enframing,” which he describes as “the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve” (p. 20).  Under Enframing, all nature is revealed as something on reserve, that which can be unlocked and used at our convenience.  As long as we are not aware that we ourselves are set-upon in this way, or called, by modern technology to reveal in the way of modern science, we are in danger. 

Perhaps we can take comfort that Dr. Brian Cox does not call his creation story the only-or even the best-of the creation stories.  It is one among many and, though helpful in its own way, not an adequate foundation for civilization.  55 years after Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” was published, the essay still serves as a way of revealing the limitations of modern science’s creation story.  It prepares a way for other forms of revealing.  Perhaps it also makes a way for thinking, for prayerful meditation concerning the Author of the origin, Who is not the cause of causes, but something more, something beyond the human grasp.

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