Cosmology: An Incomplete Gaze into the Void

I began this exploration of cosmology as an exercise to trace out ideas from Robert Pirsig‘s Metaphysics of Quality and Alfred North Whitehead‘s Philosophy of Organism. It is an exercise in speculative philosophy and should be viewed as nothing other than entertainment – with no additional practical value or application(s).

When it comes to the nature of the universe, it doesn’t seem to matter what opinion you may have and express, someone is going to disagree with your ideas – perhaps vehemently. This happens because your opinion, whatever it may be, may just contradict the metaphysical perspectives that someone else has utterly devoted themselves to – again, perhaps vehemently. With that in mind, this is an incomplete, ongoing and subject to change essay where I first re-assert my non-expert status in anything at all. I am not an authority and I don’t always get things exactly right. This gaze into the void of cosmology is an enthusiastically non-authoritative assessment of some available information and concepts. If you disagree with the direction or detail of this exploration of a novel depiction of the universe based on your individual and alternate (and quite possibly, more authoritative) insights – thank you for taking time to browse these meandering paragraphs.

In Zensylvania we try as often as possible to proceed from a motorcycle-zen position wherein metaphors help point to reality the way a finger points to the moon. So let’s kick things off with consideration of one of our favorite metaphors, the internal combustion engine

Internal Combustion Engine

With a piston engine, the piston moves up and down within a cylinder to generate power which may be turned into motion. Below is a diagram of a four-stroke engine’s cycle of intake, compression, power and exhaust. A four-stoke engine is called “four-stroke” because there are is a series of four events when the piston moves along the cylinder. The intake and power stroke are in one direction while the compression and exhaust strokes are in the opposite direction. This is the engine’s process. It seems reasonable that this moving up and down (or back and forth, if you prefer) of the piston entails a moment when the cylinder stops moving in one direction and starts moving in the other direction.

But this observation which seems reasonable is a kind of fallacy. The piston never stops moving. If the piston stopped moving, there would be some serious problems for that engine. There’s a scene in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which depicts what happens when a piston stops moving in the cylinder:

In a seizure, the pistons expand from too much heat, become too big for the walls of the cylinders, seize them, melt to them sometimes, and lock the engine and rear wheels and start the whole cycle into a skid. The first time this one seized, my head was pitched over the front wheel and my passenger was almost on top of me. At about thirty it freed up again and started to run but I pulled off the road and stopped to see what was wrong. All my passenger could think to say was “what did you do that for?”

Pistons don’t stop moving. If they stopped moving, the crank shaft would also stop moving – and as we can see from Pirsig’s anecdote, that would not be a pleasant experience for a motorcycle rider.

What happens is that pistons change direction within their continuous process of movement. The crank shaft that the piston is attached to is in continuous motion in a circle and this creates an illusion that the piston is moving upwards to a top dead center position and then moving down to bottom dead center. There is no stopping.

Cosmology – Do You See Where This is Going Yet?

I find in the process of an internal combustion engine a useful analogy to considering the nature of the universe. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting the universe is exactly the same as a four-stroke internal combustion engine (ICE). Nor am I suggesting that the universe operates exactly the way an ICE works. It is an analogy. A metaphor. A finger pointing at the moon.

It is possible that at one phase of universal existence there is infinite compression of time, space and matter. In that phase (or expression), duration is infinitely brief and therefore experience is essentially meaningless. It is a kind of top-dead-centre. At the opposite phase of universal, time, space and matter there is infinite dispersal. Duration is infinitely long and therefore experience is again essentially meaningless. This is our metaphorical bottom-dead-centre.

Perhaps the universe progresses between these two extreme states in a continuous change of direction which does not stop – and does not start.

No Big Existential–Metaphysical-Cosmological Bang

I once spoke with a quite engaging individual who happened also to be a quite well-known scientist, professor and published author. On many topics, I found this person to be engaging and informative. He expressed the opinion to me that many people have a very significant challenges with giving-up the idea of that they have “free-will”. It’s an interesting and rather thorny issue and not what I’m considering in this essay. But it comes to mind as many people from both a scientific and a theological point of view would have difficulty in giving up the idea of a concrete beginning to the universe. It’s baked into their metaphysical, cosmological comprehension of how the universe works.

But what if that’s just the way it is? What if the universe seems to have had a beginning only because we are so focused on one part of the machine that we haven’t (yet) observed other parts which negate the premise? Speculating about “how the universe began” presupposes that there was a beginning and it does not seem to me that this can absolutely be presumed. Perhaps the big bang was just the universe going through a particular phase (yes that was an intended pun).

Getting back to Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

As promised, what I want to do now is try to connect this speculated cosmological alternative of a universe with no beginning to the Metaphysics of Quality. I have no idea whether others have attempted to put these things together, but let’s give it a run.

According to Pirsig, Quality underpins his metaphysical system for understanding the world. Quality comes before the matter, time and space. Indeed, matter time and space are comprised of Quality.

Pirsig also argued that Quality can be understood in two different forms: Static Quality and Dynamic Quality. Static quality is the rigid patterns and established values of the good. With an ICE, the static pattern is a process of intake, compression, power, exhaust which produces power. Static quality might otherwise be perceived as those things which we can ascribe traits and values to. Motorcycles, people, books, governments, relationships and a host of other things that we can relate to. Dymamic Quality is the immediately experienced reality. It is the power and motion that the engine produces. It is the experience of interacting with another person.

What Pirsig seems to be saying is that experience itself is the ‘stuff” of the universe upon which all else is possible.

Decades ago, I wrote a poem (which is included in my Leviathan collection) titled Life is a Psalm of Existence which contains elements of this idea:

  • Life is a psalm of existence
  • Will is the strength at the core
  • Truth is a portrait of thinking
  • Care is the light of purpose
  • Love is an echo of beauty
  • Share is the song of resonanc
  • Belief is a scent of mystery
  • Fear is the wall of separation
  • Pain is the touch of exclusion
  • Doubt is the death of the striving
  • Life is a psalm of existence
  • Will is the strength at the core

A slight re-imagining of the poem using Pirsig’s ideas might alter the title-line to ‘Life is psalm of dynamic quality.’

Shifting Gears to A.N. Whitehead

Using Whitehead’s terminology, there is a process which produces our human actual occurrences. This process is dynamic quality. The concept of reality may roughly equate to Static Quality – a particular pattern of Quality which we recognize and value.

Causal Set Theory

In Causal Set Theory, there isn’t a singular(ity) “Big Bang” to be accounted for. Causal Set Theory (CST) looks at the universe differently than Einstein’s general relativity or quantum physics theory by positing discrete morsels of space-time which it calls “atoms”. CST, whether it is correct or not, offers a conceptual way forward to examine how the universe might work. It is a physicist’s model which can be examined via the language of mathematics. While I am not in a position to suggest that CST offers any form of validation of the kind of cosmology I’m posing int his essay, I mention it as an indication that whatever perspectives one cares to propose, there may be new ideas to explore about the universe is. Lack of conformity to or divergence from some other (arguably incomplete or inadequate) theory is not merely acceptable – it may well be absolutely necessary.

Taking the crude analogy of the internal combustion engine, one may readily posit a series of bangs within a cycle. Clearly, what I am suggesting is that the metaphor(s) which Pirsig and Whitehead used to describe individual human experience can be connected to a cosmology which does not rely on a singular(ity) Big Bang.

Diagrammatic models of the universe can be compelling, despite the impossibility for any two-dimensional diagram to adequately depict how the universe works. Clearly a line drawing of a four-stroke engine is not adequate to fully depict the functioning of the universe. It’s hilarious that anyone even attempts to describe the universe in these reductionist ways. This explains why the assertion that “It’s turtles all the way down” is simultaneously wonderful and ridiculous. Analogies only ever work as far as their limitations. Fingers only ever point to the moon. Whether the analogy is words, pictures or numbers hardly seems to make much of a difference in this.

Has the universe always existed?

This question is a matter of cosmology. It pertains to the nature of how the universe works. Depending upon your perspective, it’s either one of the biggest questions one may ponder – or one of the smallest. For those who are oriented to top-end theoretical physics or metaphysical musings via philosophy or theology, this is one of the “biggest” questions. Certainty about any given response is most difficult to attain and validate.

On the other hand, for those who are definitively not oriented to the previously-mentioned theoretical physics and metaphysical musings – then the question, “Has the universe always existed?” is perhaps one of the smallest questions that may be asked. Consider pragmatism – a philosophical perspective that I have a thorough and long-standing appreciation for. A pragmatist is concerned with the practical applications and implications of any given idea or conception. If you happen to be a theoretical physicist or some other specialist who earns their income by answering questions of this type, clearly you’re in a special category for whom their really is a practical application. For most of us, however, the practical implications to the answer of whether the universe has always existed or not are so far removed from our undertakings, that it is a very small question indeed.

Whether it is a big question or a little question and despite and relative expertise one might have, I think we all tend to have some notion about the answer. Some of us are quite vague while others are extremely precise in their opinions.

For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to set forward a perspective that the universe always exists and establish some context for that statement.

What is the Universe?

It seems only fair to begin with a reasoned definition of terms. The first term I want to deal with is ‘universe‘. I’m going to argue for an extremely transparent definition of ‘universe’ such that it means ‘everything’. There isn’t any physical or non-physical thing, concept, dimension, energy, substance, form, force or what-have-you outside of the universe.

This ought to be a straight-forward principle to work from. It is little more than a trick of language when someone proposes something outside of the universe. I’m going to use the specific example of the ‘multi-verse’ concept where there are proposed to be multiple universes which co-exist in a simultaneous or parallel manner. This is tom-foolery.

I am quite comfortable with the concept of multiple time-and-space-continua which co-exist in a simultaneous or parallel manner. However applying the term ‘universe’ to each time-and-space continuum is entirely inaccurate as they are clearly not ‘everything’ in isolation. Each continuum may well be self-sufficient and complete, but a posited existence of additional continua, means that the term ‘universe’ can only be applied to the collection of all the individual continua and anything else one may care to posit.

What does ‘Always’ mean?

It is exceedingly difficult to phrase comments about cosmology since one’s terminology is bound to include concept of time which are part of the concepts being described. Time itself is a feature of the universe. So my assertion that the universe always exists is somewhat circular because that time element of always is partially embedded within the term universe.

I’ve used the term ‘always’ in its correspondence to the term ‘continuum’. Always is continuity. It is perpetuality. Always is duration itself.

What is Existence?

Existence is the act of being. It is manifestation in any form. Time exists. Matter exists. Concepts exist. Words and ideas exist. Existence equals ‘is’.

Creating a word to represent something does not conjure that thing into manifested physical reality. The idea exists but that does not mean that there is a manifested reality which corresponds to the idea and the word assigned to it. I want to call this an ‘insofaras‘. Vampires, unicorns and anything you care to mention exist insofaras the words and ideas are an identifiable, cohesive and consistent set(s) of meanings but that does not mean the set(s) of meanings have a corresponding physical reality.

In this way, any word or idea has a contingent existence even if that contingency is conceptuality. In this way everything that is must be considered to be contained within the term universe.

To assist, I’m going to invert Wittgenstein’s famous “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” to explain existence. It is not possible to conceptualize anything that does not exist. Once you have generated a novel concept, the concept exists but that does not generate a non-existing thing…it only enlarges the universe by one novel concept. Even if it is a concept of a something that does not have a corresponding manifested time-space physical reality.

The concept of existence goes includes all details of reality – even those that are in addition to time, space and matter.

A Paradox of the statement ‘the universe always exists’

A rather circular and paradoxical character of this statement is that each of the meaningful terms is a dependent of the others. The universe is existence. The universe is always. Existence is always. They are equivalents components of each other with different manifestations.

Models of the Universe

As previously indicated, a line drawing of the universe is utterly inadequate to fully explain how the universe works. It can only point to certain things. One of the most popular theories about the universe is that it began just under 14 billion years ago in a cosmological bang and has been expanding ever since.

What caused this singular big bang and what came before the big bang appears to be fully debatable territory. From my perspective, anyone that posits any kind of anything outside of the universe (which includes everything and all time), has either misapplied the term “universe” or assumed a status of time that is incorrect.

The diagram which depicts the universe as a kind of cone where the big bag is the narrow end and the present is the open end is a compelling image. But is also seems incomplete. This could be a simple deception of trying to use a line drawing to explain the universe. Bu it has offered the metaphorical conceptualization of the universe where there are two funnels which connect to each other within a spherical universe.

This model is visually satisfying as it offers a representation of an ongoing cyclical completion through a process.

What I want to conceptualized here is a perspective on time, matter and space. Time and matter are interconnected. When time and space are very nearly infinitely compressed (inside the sphere, where the cones meet), duration is very nearly infinitely short. Time’s duration is as close to not existing as it is possible to be. This is the singularity. Expect that it is not as a singularity never exists. Matter, time, space, experience, quality and all of the rest of it are never an undifferentiated monism.

At the equator on the outside of this metaphorical sphere, time, matter and space is very nearly infinitely dispersed and duration is very nearly infinitely long. Time’s duration is as close to not existing as it is possible to be. Matter is as thinly resolved as it is possible to be. Space is penultimately null.

I don’t want to give the impression that anyone subscribes to this cosmology. I have no idea if this cosmology corresponds to any theories or ideas that others have previously developed (beyond anything already suggested within this essay) nor whether this meditation achieves anything more than attempting to hand language around a range of accumulated impressions.

The point in all of this is making a case that the universe always exists; that there is nothing else. What can (and does) change is the duration of time, the substantiation of substance, the spatiality of space, the meaningfulness of experience via the mechanisms (physics) of their concentration/density (compression vs. dispersal).

Zensylvania: It’s a state of mind.

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