Is the Universe Eternal?

I am currently reading an essay on Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, to which I may return later. (It is a critique of Ayn Rand’s criticisms of Kant.) For now, just a short comment.

I assume you are familiar with Kant’s distinction between statements that are “analytical a priori” and “synthetic a priori”. To take a standard example, the statement “all bachelors are unmarried” is analytical a priori, simply because “bachelor” means “unmarried male”; while a statement like “all bachelors are lonely” is not analytical; it has to be verified empirically by investigating at least a few bachelors (and finding out that they are not all lonely, since some of them go out for a beer or something together with other bachelors). As Kant would put it, the predicate (“unmarried”) is already included in the subject (“bachelor”), whereas a predicate like “lonely” is not included in the subject.

A “synthetic a priori”, by contrast, is a statement where a predicate is not included in the subject, but is nevertheless true a priori; it needs no empirical verification (or falsification). Kant has several examples of this, one of which is the statement that “the universe is eternal”. I quote from the essay:

Or consider again the judgment: “The universe is eternal.” Neither here is the predicate contained in the subject. So the typical judgments of metaphysics […] are synthetic and a priori. Although necessary and universal, their predicates are not linked to their subjects either by empirical observation [nobody is in a position to observe the universe as a whole] or by logical inclusion.

But what is actually meant by saying that “the universe is eternal”? It means that the universe has no beginning in time and no end in time. But then, what is meant by “universe”? It means “the sum of all that exists”. And then, to say that it has a beginning in time, it would mean that before the universe began, something other than the universe existed; and after the universe ends, something other than the universe will exist. And that is clearly contradictory. (If some hairsplitter objects that before the universe, there was nothing, and that after the universe, there will be nothing, that would merely be a case of “reifying the zero” and making “nothing” into a kind of thing.)

My conclusion is that the judgment “the universe is eternal” is just as analytical as “all bachelors are unmarried”. To talk about a “non-eternal universe” is just as self-contradictory as talking about “married bachelors”.

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6 Responses to Is the Universe Eternal?

  1. Daniel Agorander says:

    Just one semantic comment: there can (mathematically) be a multiverse. The distinction thereof is that the universe is that which can be empirically examined, but this can have a cause that cannot be examined. Compare with models of black holes that show how you, from the outside, observe it “sucking”, but the same mathematics that make them “work” (that is, avoiding the infinities and singularities) show that from an inside perspective it is indistinguishable from a “big bang”, wherafter there is a causal barrier as far as investigation goes.

    Similar semantic question exists for the “observable” universe, since causality cannot exist for objects that exist outside of each others expansion horizons.

    There are some other questions regarding time as a physical phenomenon, but that is maths I do not yet understand.

    • OK – but I don’t think this is relevant to my post. I assume that Kant means the same that I mean by “universe”, i.e. the sum of all that exists. If one takes “universe” as something else, my point won’t apply. But then, if there is more than one universe, one would simply need another term for “the sum of all existing universes”. And then, this sum will be eternal.

      Also, I don’t want to get involved in discussions of subject I know virtually nothing about, like Big Bang and black holes, because I can then only give highly speculative answers.

  2. To show what I mean, take the Big Bang theory, which actually says the universe began at some definite point in time. Then one would ask: Did this extremely dense piece of matter exist forever, before it suddenly exploded (and then, what the hell made it explode)? Or was it preceded by a “big crunch” (and then, would it also end in a “big crunch” some time in the remote future)? Or is the theory simply wrong, and will physicist some day arrive at an alternative theory that better explains the phenomena Big Bang is supposed to explain? To all these questions, I will have to answer: “Your guess is as good as mine.” And to give a non-speculative answer I would have to spend the rest of my life studying advanced physics, and my remaining life is too short for that, especially since I would also have to take a repetition course in school physics.

    But all of this has no bearing on my post, which only sought to answer the question whether the statement “The universe is eternal” is an analytic or a synthetic a priori.

    • Daniel Agorander says:

      Well, the Big Bang theory doesn’t quite say that the universe “began” at some definite point in time. That’s what I meant with my previous note – it indicates that THIS universe (meaning those things we can observe, not necessarily everything that ever was) had a beginning. The notion that it began was simply an extrapolation: we saw our observations indicating a universe that is “smaller” the further back in time we look (through looking to large distances, thus seeing old light, etcetera). Drawn to it’s conclusion, the physics of this leads to a singularity – but physicists see this as indicating simply that “okey, current model says it was infinitely small and thus also time stood still and then TIME itself began… this is impossible, thus our models must have an error in them, let’s find it/them”. (Similar to the reaction Einstein had when relativity was shown in mathematics to lead to black holes – surely must be wrong! Sadly he didn’t have the courage of his convictions and tried to explain that even though the maths allowed black holes, the universe wouldn’t. He died before his theory was shown correct. But the popular presentation of the theory becomes… lacking…

      Example of that is the idea of something making the “dense piece of matter” “explode”. First of all, the Big Bang was not an “explosion”. It was an expansion. (Might seem semantic, but in physics this is a huge deal, since an “explosion” is a reaction between particles into somthing – meaning something already existed and there was somewhere for this to exist, whereas expansion means “creation” of space, which is observed and well proven now. From that perspective, the “Big Bang” wasn’t something that happened sometime in the past – it’s still going on! Further, there was no “dense piece of matter” – in fact, matter as we know it couldn’t exist for at least several hundred thousand years after the Big Bang. As for what did exist immediately after and possibly prior is something we’re working on. The physics are so far understood down to about a billionth of a second after the BB. But of course, yes, this is after the BB, not before it – but most cosmologists already agree that yes, there was a “before”. We just can’t observe it from here.

      I think you do however overestimate the amount of time required to investigate these things for yourself as far as getting a workable understanding; I would recommend the Teaching Company lectures on “Understanding the Universe” by Dr. Fillippenko. (And avoid popular press presentations on the subject like the plague – they’ll perpetuate descriptions of Big Bang “explosions” in the hope of explaining it through allegory, while this actually simply causes confusion since it is nothing at all like an explosion. Simplified to the point of deception, basically.)

      That said, yes, the matter is probably irrelevant to the subject matter of your post. I just wished to indicate a possible area of misconception since there has been a descriptive change in how “universe” and “multiverse” is defined. (That is, we needed to get a simple distinction between “all that exists” and “all that we can theoretically observe”, and since “universe” fitted what we previously knew to exist, the expansion into a “multiverse” allowed the old definition to remain largely intact as far as it’s practical implications, just modified for “the stuff we can observe”.)

      • As I said, I know too little about this subject to be able to judge this. Also, I have too many other things on my mind at present. Maybe I will return to this subject later on.

  3. Pingback: Is the Universe Expanding? | The House at POS Corner

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