Is there a universe?

For the majority of Western intellectual history, the universe was a single place. It had a center and a periphery, and these locations had real physical significance (notice that geocentrism and heliocentrism are not really contrary theories: the theory of geocentrism involves the whole universe, whereas heliocentrism, at least as we understand it, is a theory about a vanishingly small part of the universe.) The physical events at the center were under the control of the events at the periphery, and this order of causality arose from a real division in the order of being, since the causes at the periphery were immutable and changeless whereas the events at the center were corruptible. This difference in being required a real difference in the physical structure of the things in different places, and the places themselves had a natural order among themselves. Notice the picture: the universe is a single unified place, where all the parts have degrees of being and orders of causality, and all that we can go out at night and look out and up at is an organism whose action we can trace back to a single action with a single time.

But all that’s false. So now what?

The unity in the universe is no longer a causal unity of all the parts working in concert. There might be a gravitational pull of everything on everything, but it doesn’t give rise to a gravitational system, that is, to a hierarchy of gravitational masses. The gravitational center of the universe is not the sort of center that gives rise to a hierarchy – it appears to be an accidental result of the mere sum of gravitational attractions – and similar considerations apply to all the forces of nature. Whereas Aristotle could assign a meaningful physical position and causal power to any celestial body, we are unable to see any compelling reason why any one of them should be there as opposed to in any other random place. It doesn’t even make sense for us to assign a position to the stars, as though the place we see them at is a part of any order to the whole.

The upshot of all this is that we are able to raise the question of whether all this stuff is a universe at all. If by “the universe” you mean “all the physical stuff there is” then there is certainly a universe, but it doesn’t appear to be anything beyond an entity we make by fiat. One could just as well assign a name to “all the cultures there are”, but to name such a thing doesn’t make for a single natural entity, even if we can find some common features among all of them or give some narrative of how one came from another in an historical progression. From where we stand now, it appears that “all physical stuff” is like “all governments”: neither forms a concrete unity outside of thought, even though we can find some common features among all of them (that all physical stuff arose from one big bang does not make it one single organism). Aristotle’s idea that the unity of the pure act is reflected in the universe by making the universe a single unified act is, for the moment, a failed hypothesis.  The truer hypothesis appears to be the Parmenidean and Platonic idea that the universe is a more homogeneous and undifferentiated stream of becoming which we understand only according to its phenomenal character and not according to universal relation of in the things themselves. There is still involve some real relation of the universe to the unchangeable, but it is the unchangeability of thought as such, whether the thought of a human mind, or of that which transcends the whole of this order of becoming. As a consequence, metaphysics or wisdom becomes more sharply cut off from science, as everyone appears to believe it must be.


  1. sancrucensis said,

    September 17, 2011 at 11:28 am

    I think Sean Collins’s paper on force shows another way of defending the unity of the universe. Since he takes all of “space” as being a single (though ‘defective’) substance with respect to which other bodies maintain constant positions. Moreover, the whole soup is constantly reconfiguring itself for the sake of higher orders of “place”.

  2. September 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    A discussion of his views would be a good start. He isn’t very optimistic about the possibility, however, and he would be the first one to admit that it will call for a massive retooling of cosmology.

    I don’t see myself here as speaking of “place” in the same way Collins was, but in the more intuitive sense of place (a “location in an immobile space”) that is no longer tenable. This sense of place is gone forever, as far as I can tell.

    I don’t know what Collins would think of the claim that there is no universe, just as there is no one culture or cuisine. He doesn’t advocate any sort of theory of the universe as a whole that I know of. His theory of orders of being is localized, and doesn’t need to be related to the universe as a whole in order to make sense.

  3. September 17, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    sancrucensis writes : “Moreover, the whole soup is constantly reconfiguring itself for the sake of higher orders of “place”.”

    can the same be said of a pond?

    • sancrucensis said,

      September 18, 2011 at 10:19 am

      It’s more like dough with raisins in it than like a pond. The raisins keep there “place” in the dough, but the dough itself is being kneaded…

  4. September 17, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Norris Clarke takes the term Universe to mean that all that “stuff” visible and invisible can be considered a whole because of the mutual relations each has to the other. In this view a ridgid hierarchy is unnecessary. He claims that this is the view of Aquinas in his mature thought. Hence, place and location are no longer necessary in a robust cosmology. Rather, the realationality of part to part and part to whole becomes the essential organizing principle.

  5. September 18, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Even the notion of a “rigid hierarchy” in the medieval/ancient cosmos is only the unity of order, not the unity of a substance. So even on the old view, there is “no universe” if what is demanded is something stronger than order between substances (an accident). If all that is required for a universe is the unity of its substances according to order, then following Pater Edmund’s suggestion, we still have a universe.

    Further, if there isn’t a universe, then it seems that God’s intention in creation wouldn’t be unified, which is inconveniens.

    • September 18, 2011 at 10:01 am

      If this is pressed against my use of “organism”, then all I can say is that the term is meant as a metaphor, but it is a useful metaphor to describe the unity of order and operation that the Medievals (reasonably) though the universe to have. Replacing the metaphor with “unity of order” doesn’t help much, since what the Medievals thought this meant is false and no one has replaced their vision with anything like it. It is simply not realistic to think, as many Thomists do, that we can just wait for modern physical theory to fill in the details of the scheme that the philosophy of nature sketches out in advance. Where are the equivocal causes in nature? Where is the primum mobile? The cause of species as such? The one cause of a single time for all moving things? The eternal causes of generation existing in a different place from the corruptible? All these things were crucial sources of the unity of order you speak of in the old system, and contemporary physical theory simply has no need for them. No one is looking for them, and they do not appear to have any value in the construction of physical theory. They appear to be nothing but reasonable guesses that no one ever verified, or, at best, things that can be verified in limited domains of experience, but are not necessary when one looks at the whole of physical things.

      (I’m not being hostile, I’m just frustrated. I’ve been asking these questions for almost over a decade now, and have almost nothing to show for it. I’m starting to consider more radical solutions.)

      Pater Edmund’s suggestion was far more radical than you think, since Sean Collins’s call to reform traditional cosmology is far more radical than the tone of your comment would suggest. This is a guy who thinks that motion is an act of a potency, but not the act of a potency that everyone thinks it is. In fact, it’s not clear to me that the termination of motion, taken universally, is anything but a dialectical postulate. St. Thomas obviously didn’t believe this, but he also didn’t have to deal with mobiles that appear to have no extension, the very probable inertial motion of things in space, and, most of all, the collapse of two different scientific paradigms (Aristotle, Newton)

      • September 19, 2011 at 4:23 pm

        Thanks for your reply. I am aware of the nature of Mr. Collins’ theories, having studied them with him. However, perhaps I do not remember them as well as I think or should. I will review his paper. However, isn’t the “dialectical” nature of lower-order local motions such that they are disposed to the order and use of higher-substance local movers via intentionality.

        Is there a problem with a dialectical postulate for the termination of motion if there isn’t that much determination to begin with for lower-order material beings—which don’t have much determination anyways?

        And your “frustrated” questions—some of them seem metaphysical. The existence of the primum mobile seems to be demanded from the nature of motion. So isn’t it the case that we just haven’t found it yet? But it must exist. And if the nature of local motion has less “mathematically sharp” being than the naive Euclidean view of physical space, then the nature of the primum mobile will be changed accordingly.

  6. sancrucensis said,

    September 18, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Hmm, this is kind of puzzling. I suppose a Platonic reading of the kind of unity Collins gives to the universe is quite possible. [Come to think of it, Collins’s “space” is kind of like Plato’s matter (going on my vague memories of the Timaeus). I guess you could take everything as being made of “waves” in Collins’s space (a lot of what people say about sub-atomic particles sounds like this)– like shadows on the wall of a cave…]

    I’ve been thinking a little about what you say about the lack of intra-cosmic universal (efficient) causes. Do you think it would be a Platonic move to place almost all universal efficient causality with separated substances? At first I thought that was the move that De Koninck was making in The Cosmos, but it isn’t. De Koninck insists that separated substances must have an intra-cosmic instrument of generation. “If we are today incapable of identifying that instrument, we are no less obliged to affirm its existence.” (note 85) What you say makes it clearer to me why he is so insistant that there must be an instrument–the unity of order of the cosmos depends on it. And that’s a big deal: unity is the intrinsic final cause of the universe.

    • September 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm

      It is a very big deal, but we are left sratching our head over what St. Thomas thought about it. First, consider that he proves that a body cannot be a universal agent. In fact, q. 115 makes it very difficult to see how a.) there can be any meaningful sense of hierarchy on the physical world as physical and b.) why we don’t adopt a universal evolution of all things from seminal principles.

      Which makes it extremely confusing to deal with his claims about Saturn preserving all things in existence. this is presented as an opinion, to be sure, and it’s striking that St. Thomas himself never was willing to commit to the existence of inner-cosmic universal agents.

      We find the same problem in CDK, who insists that such causes must be in the universe, and then gives a proof that they could not be either natural or physical in Le Cosmos. But if what is formal to nature cannot be reduced to any inner-cosmic cause, one is hard pressed to divide this opinion from some form of Platonism.

      Dekoninck still remains my light in these things, but now I’m wondering whether Eschmann wouldn’t have done better to hammer him about his cosmology. After all, where is this ordered set of causes that makes for a universe?

      • sancrucensis said,

        September 23, 2011 at 10:55 am

        One could still destroy Eschmann with a Platonic view of the universe. After all it is the order among spiritual creatures that is vital for the Q of the common good.

    • September 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm

      Sorry, Pater had already made my point of the “incapable of identifying” from CDK.

  7. Brandon said,

    September 18, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    I’m not sure we need to give it up, or that (given what physicists typically look for) we should really expect it to be found in modern physical theories, but what would really be lost if we did simply give up the unity of the universe? Some arguments would surely become more complicated, but is there anything really major that would be lost, in the way that, for instance, significant tracts of argument became unusable when it became clear that heavenly bodies are not incorruptible? Or would it be more like medieval discussions of place and time — when you take away the place of places or the primum mobile as universal clock, one finds that what is left is often still serviceable and that on some occasions it can even look like a vague summary of modern physics, the similarity arising from medieval worries about identification and knowledge of the things in question. Say we throw out the ordered unity of the universe; what ramifications would that really have?

    I worry to some extent about hanging too much on the current tendencies found in modern physics; we’ve seen the downfall of Aristotelian physics, and the (lesser) downfall of Newtonian physics; but we know for sure that the physics we currently have is in for some kind of downfall — general relativity and quantum mechanics are famously inconsistent with each other, and the likely way to find some unifying quantum gravity theory is unclear at best. The modern world, unlike most ages before us, has no stable foundation for a strong theory of the universe as such, ironically because we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information about the physical world — we simply don’t know how to bring it all together, if it’s even possible for us to do so.

    • September 19, 2011 at 10:39 am

      I go back and forth about whether we should expect the scientists to find these sorts of things, given what they look for. The sort of operational definitions they give of things, and their indifference for any heterogeneity in being would tend to blind them to the sorts of causes that the Medievals were most interested in, but at the same time the Medieval account of, say, generation demands an account of the sun’s role (and the consequent existence that it must have) that would be easy to confirm in a positive mode – if it were true.

      It does seem likely that the present models we have of the universe will have to give way to some synthesis, and it is imprudent to anticipate this too much. This creates a problem of what to do in the meantime. One Thomist model is to divide metaphysics from physics so sharply that its structure would never (significantly?) reflect a positive finding, and would never change in light of physical evidence. Feser argues for something like this, and something like it is true, but anytime I try to draw all that St. Thomas says about being into a single subject I am so bewildered that it is hard to see how it is a separate science and not just the vaguest possible physics.

  8. September 18, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    Mustn’t there be some shared universe common to existing physical things if they are able to relate and interact with one another? It doesn’t seem necessary to me that separate created things should have any “awareness” of each other unless they are together “in” some sort of common “arena”. If I recall correctly, C. S. Lewis discusses this somewhere. This would seem to me to be a sort of unity that is more than just mental fiat. But, I could be all wet and misunderstanding the post.

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