Unity and the Universe




Unity and the Universe



The universe contains different sorts of unity. There is the kind of unity found in conscious subjects (psychic unity), the kind found in animals and artifacts (telic unity), and the kind found in inanimate objects like pebbles or snowflakes (geometric unity). There is phenomenological unity, functional unity, and symmetrical unity. There are also things that lack unity, such as random collections of rocks in a desert or splashing water: here the parts (if we can call them that) are not organized according to any unifying principle—they just exist as separate entities. We can form sets of them, such as the set consisting of this cup, that fern, and the spider under the table, but there is no natural unity here, no coalescence or collusion. Merely being found next to something else does not a unity make.

            Is the universe itself a unity? I want to say not. The universe consists of a disorganized distribution of bits of matter in space with no internal cohesion or pattern. It is not a psychic unity or a telic unity or a geometric unity. In particular, it lacks symmetry: its geometry is nothing like the geometry of a circle or rectangle. It has no more unity than a sprinkling of rocks in a desert. No doubt such a sprinkling had its causes and was brought about by laws of nature (which might themselves be unities), but what was brought about lacks unity—it is just a mess. Perhaps we can say that planets, stars, and solar systems are unities, but the layout of galaxies forms nothing similarly unified, despite being the result of laws. The distribution of matter across space is chaotic, disorganized, and formless. It is so much spatial noise. It exhibits neither logic nor purpose. It is hard to see how it could be planned or thought out—it just happened that way. It’s all higgledy-piggledy. You would think it had just been thrown there, scattered about, rather than carefully arranged or made obedient to some principle of symmetry.

            We have discovered this to be so. The universe was not always thought of this way: we used to believe that it was a unity. There was the idea of celestial harmony (“harmony of the spheres”), but also the more concrete idea that the universe had the unity of a home—that it had the telic unity of a designed artifact. The earth was our house, the sun our heating system, and the starry sky our backyard. God created this home for us and his own unity was stamped upon it: all the parts were laid out to serve a purpose, with nothing jarring or gratuitous. The universe was not a disorderly mess in which we contingently happened to reside. Even when astronomy went heliocentric, this comforting picture survived: still the universe was conceived as a harmonious unity, a place of purpose and pattern. But twentieth century astrophysics put an end to that picture: not only is the universe unimaginably vast and impersonal; it is also formless and chaotic, a complete shambles. We have discovered that it is not a unity but a plethora: a bunch of stuff scattered about without rhyme or reason. It is not like a home or an animal or even a snowflake. It is a hodgepodge, a jumble, a shapeless agglomeration.

            This discovery has reverberations. First, it puts the idea of a divine designer into serious doubt: for how could an intelligent creator put together such a meaningless assemblage? Wouldn’t we expect at least some pleasing symmetry shaping all this widely distributed matter—a kind of cosmic snowflake? Instead it looks like a child’s rumpus room with stuff scattered all over the place. The impressive extent of the universe seems to confirm God’s majesty (but what is the point of so much space and matter?), but its sheer untidiness doesn’t fit our image of God—what was he thinking?  [1] The galaxies are just dotted about the place without regard for aesthetic or functional form, and their internal structure leaves much to be desired (each one a veritable dog’s dinner). The problem becomes acute if we try to follow Spinoza and identify God with the universe. For Spinoza, God is the infinite and perfect substance, so the universe itself needs to be infinite and perfect. But how could a perfect unitary substance such as God stand in the relation of identity to the formless unorganized universe we have discovered to exist? The universe is not really a substance at all—any more than a random collection of rocks in a desert is a substance. The universe is not a unity, so how can it be God? Surely God can’t be a mess! Haphazardness is really not what we expect from an almighty and discerning God.

Secondly, putting the question of God aside, there is the psychological or spiritual impact of astrophysics. It is often noted that the sheer vastness of the universe, compared to our puny dimensions, is an affront to humanity’s self-important view of itself: we are so small and it is so big! But there is also the disquieting fact that we exist in a vast and chaotic world: space stretches out to astronomical distances (literally) and all that space is populated with disorder and chance. It isn’t even like a city that has grown up over time; at least that has some point and form to it. It’s more like matter has just been chucked there, like so much litter. It mocks our attempts at order and pattern: there is no system, no intelligible arrangement. It’s just one damn galaxy after another. The microcosm has system and unity—atoms and molecules—but the macrocosm is a giant disorganized heap (it would be different if it had the form of a crystal, say). The elements of the universe form no overarching unity beyond that of mere spatial aggregation. The universe has about as much form as your average rubbish dump or junkyard. Come to think of it isn’t that the aspect under which the universe presents itself—as a repository of junk? What are those billions of galaxies but so much astronomical garbage, taking up space but serving no purpose?  [2] Biologists speak of junk DNA; well, aren’t vast swaths of the universe so much astronomical junk? You could make a bonfire of it all and lose nothing of value. The universe is a pile of pointless old garbage (even if there are some nice glittering jewels amidst all the dull lumps). Who needs the asteroid belt, for example? It isn’t as if we have found the universe to be some sort of mathematically marvelous super-entity with all sorts of lovely symmetries and a cosmic purpose to boot; no, we have found it to be a disorderly dumping ground for chunks of old matter nobody wants. Unity is the last thing it has on its mind.

You may think I am being too hard on the universe, not giving it its due. You may think I am overstating the universe’s disarray, its charmless lack of structure (as if it is ungrammatical), but consider what we know of its origins. It came about from an explosion (the big bang): there was a previous universe, an antecedent reality, which literally exploded to form the current universe.  [3] This universe, our universe, consists of debris from that explosion, flying out with great velocity into space. And what does debris from an explosion look like? It looks like an unholy mess—anything but orderly. Explosions don’t leave pleasing unities; they leave chaos and disorder. Our universe is the result of an explosion and it has just the properties you would predict from that fact. Our universe is a bombsite, a blast scene, a debris field. It is the result of a shattering and splintering (“the splintered universe”). We can reasonably suppose that the previous universe had some sort of inner unity–enough to constitute a bomb at least, and maybe more (it was not itself the result of an explosion). Then the big bang was the undoing of this unity. The previous universe killed itself in the big bang, destroying its unity and replacing it with the chaotic remains that we see today. If we think of it as analogous to a pane of glass, then the big bang was the shattering of this pane’s unity into a million shards: from organized unity to shapeless heap—or better, an expanding front of fragments whipping through space.  [4] Explosions convert unities into non-unities—surviving fragments, formless debris. Thus we live amidst the ruins of a previous world. Compare the demolition of a building: from a cohesive structured form it instantly turns to dust and jagged fragments. That is our universe: the result of a previous universe demolishing itself. Some unitary parts may survive demolition, but the whole entity does not. Our universe contains some unities, possibly prefigured in the previous universe, but not the original cosmic unity; all that is left is a random distribution of dispersed elements. We live in a razed and ruined city. The universe we know consists of the ruins left behind when the previous universe violently put an end to itself. We could call the big bang the “big splintering”. We are accustomed to thinking of it as an act of creation, but it is also an act of destruction. All explosions create something—their remains—but they are mainly destructive. From the point of view of the previous universe, the big bang was anti-creative: it destroyed what went before. True, it created the bombsite in which we now uneasily reside, and that bombsite has taken on a life of its own (as architectural ruins often do). But the process was a destructive explosion, leaving only debris (initially the big bang produced nothing but formless gas). Given the nature of the universe’s origin, then, we should expect chaos and disorder—the usual results of an explosion. Bits of matter are distributed according to the initial explosive event and whatever forces the bits themselves exert. The expanding universe is simply the universe as it acts after an explosion has propelled it into space.

We know little if anything about the nature of the previous universe, but it seems reasonable to suppose that it was unified—a unity. What kind of unity? In principle it could be anything from our three categories—psychic, telic, or geometric. Or maybe it had some other type of unity whose name we don’t know. The question seems worth investigating: is it possible to infer anything about the nature of this unity from the results of shattering it? What we do know is that the universe that succeeded it is not a unity; and we know why—it’s a debris field. It isn’t the result of a de novo act of constructive creation; it’s the result of a pulverizing act of destruction—the dismemberment of a prior cosmic unity. The big bang destroyed in order to create; or better, it destroyed and accidentally “created” (we don’t create ruins). What we call Creation could equally be called Destruction. You can create a desert by destroying a city, but that is not a terribly impressive form of creation. The previous universe might have been a beautiful unity, only to be replaced by a broken landscape of charred remains. Our universe is like the smoking remnants of a once great metropolis. We have eked out a place in it, like rats in a bombed-out building, but we can’t deny that it is a palace brought to ashes.  [5] We literally live in an exploded (and still exploding) world.

It can take a while before scientific discoveries sink into the human imagination. The heliocentric view is still sinking in, and Darwinian evolution has yet to penetrate deeply and widely; the big bang and associated cosmology have not made much of a dent in old preconceptions. That is, our imagination is stuck in an earlier epoch; we need imaginative forms of expression to make the reality of the universe vivid to ourselves (even if we grasp it abstractly). It is not enough to know it; we have to feel it—feel its consequences and ramifications. Science needs poetry. Here I have tried to articulate what modern cosmology is telling us by emphasizing the lack of order in the layout of the universe and the meaning of the big bang as an act of destructive creation. The universe is less a magnificent cathedral than a pile of remnants. At the moment of the big bang the previous universe was literally vaporized, existing as nothing but free-floating gas, formless and devoid of unity, the very picture of destruction, as if the previous reality had gone up in smoke. But even when gravity began to form pockets of solid matter the universe was still in the throes of the initial destructive act, and the onset of life did not change that. Life on earth evolved on a piece of debris flying through space after the initial cataclysm. We humans live among the remnants of a universe-busting event, a place of disarray and disorder. It is nothing like the friendly and harmonious world depicted by world religions and the mathematical speculations of the ancient Greeks.


  [1] Everyone knows the story of Russell extolling (but also lamenting) the vastness of space and Ramsey replying that he wasn’t much impressed with bigness, since he was quite big himself; the human mind was what impressed him. I wonder what both men would say about the unending messiness of the universe.

  [2] You might reply that they could be home to advanced civilizations or at least contented animals, so they are not junk to them. But they might not, and even the ones that are will be mostly redundant junk. Face it: the universe looks like the work of a particularly determined and indiscriminate hoarder.

  [3] I will speak of a “previous universe” though I could make the same points by speaking of previous states of theuniverse. This seems a more apt way of speaking to me, given that the pre-big bang universe must have been radically different from what we see today.

  [4] I should note that on the standard interpretation of big bang cosmology space did not pre-exist the big bang but came with it: space was created by the big bang and expanded as matter was accelerated by it. However, this does not detract from the truth that the big bang was a type of explosion: an abrupt radiating force stemming from a spot of exceptionally high density, pressure, and temperature.

  [5] Of course, I don’t know that the universe before the big bang was a “palace”, but grant me some poetic license. It must have been something other than scattered debris from a prior explosion, since debris doesn’t explode. Astrophysicists speak of a “singularity” and that captures the idea of unity I am working with: the pre-big bang universe was not a sundered mishmash but a concentrated oneness.

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