Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In Search of Cosmic Origins

In Search of Cosmic Origins The Great Saga of the Universe
Joseph Mathew
Asian Trading Corporation
Bangalore, 2014, pp. 321 + xvii, 
Price: 280/-
ISBN 978-81-7086-693-0.

The recently published book In Search of Cosmic Origins: The Great Saga of the Universe by Dr. Joseph Mathew is a unique contribution to scientific cosmology and philosophical theology. What makes it different from other books of this class is the erudite philosophical basis on which it is developed, the comprehensive and precise scientific cosmological information it provides, and the philosophical theology it proposes. This book can be read, understood, enjoyed and pondered over with aroused intellectual curiosity by lay readers as well as professional physicists alike without unbearable mental strain that any serious work on scientific cosmology and philosophical theology usually exerts on readers.

The title of the book In Search of Cosmic Origins and its subtitle The Great Saga of the Universe highlight its central concerns. It is divided into three parts: “A History of the Search for Cosmic Origins,” “The Saga of the Universe,” and “In Search of Cosmic Foundations.” The prologue introduces the subject matter of the book—the universe which is the greatest and most majestic object we can ever imagine or think of. The first part deals with mythical, philosophical and scientific search for origins and is, for the most part, historical and epistemological. The presentations of Aristotle’s physics, Newtonian mechanics, Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory provides the reader rare insights into what these scientific ‘paradigms’ are all about, and ‘paradigm shifts’ from Aristotle to Newton and from Newton to Einstein are analyzed thoroughly. The last chapter of the first part proposes a comprehensive concept of the universe, explained with the help of a diagram.
The second part is in fact the main body of the book; it is an extensive and interesting narration of modern theories about the origin and fate of the universe and of the cosmic structures contained therein. By the same token, the sheer magnitude and the colossal dimensions of these gigantic and majestic objects are described in all their splendour and glory. Reading through the author’s presentations of the Big Bang theory, Inflationary theory, ‘Big Fizz’ theory, and hypotheses about the fate of the universe, and of the origin and evolution of galaxies, stars, black holes, quasars, solar system, the earth, and finally man, the lay reader would simply wonder if his/her grasping capacity has undergone a radical transformation. For, complex theories of scientific cosmology about the universe and the cosmic objects are explained in such a simple language and logical clarity without losing anything essential in them.
The third part would be of special interest to students of philosophical theology. An exclusively scientific search into the origins has in fact ended up with the ‘God’ question. Only intellectual honesty can account for it. Not only the author, but no man with intellectual honesty can evade the God question while engaging in scientific cosmology. Thus for instance, the non-theist cosmologist Stephen Hawking concludes his work A Brief History of Time referring to the ‘mind of God.’ He says that if we discover a complete theory of physics, “[t]hen we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God.”[1] Indeed, the description of miraculous ‘cosmic coincidences’ and ‘fine tuning’ in the third part of the book, invites readers to reflect on the ‘mind of God’ revealed in creation.
Finally, the epilogue of the book reflects on the existential attitudes of great physicists and cosmologists towards the universe. This is designated ‘first-person science.’ The author concludes his book In Search of Cosmic Origins affirming the religious attitudes towards the universe—attitudes of meaning, hope and trust—which generate in us sentiments of gratitude and thanksgiving.
 Technical terms in physics and cosmology are all explained profusely in end note references. The map of the universe (60 x 50 cm) attached to the end of the book is a real novelty. A lay man in cosmology can get an easy pictorial impression at a glance about the universe and important cosmic structures in it.
Pope Francis on 27th October 2014, addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences referred to creation and evolution. “When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. . . . The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it. . . . Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”[2] The Pope’s remarks imply that Christian theology is slowly discovering the peculiarity of its language which is in no way incompatible with scientific language. In fact, ‘myth-philosophy-science’ is the sequence of historical evolution in human thinking. The first part of In Search of Cosmic Origins brings out this historical sequence in man’s thought. God making universe in six days and resting on the seventh day is a wonderful mythical story giving us the message that the world utterly depends on God. However, as Pope Francis rightly implies, myth is to be complimented by cosmological theories such as the Big Bang theory which is described comprehensively in the second part of the book. The third part of the book builds on the cosmological data presented in the second part, highlighting the role of the Cosmic Designer. It is in fact propitious that In Search of Cosmic Origins has appeared at a time when controversies rage over the remarks of the Pope on creation and evolution. Hopefully, this book would help to clarify the questions Pope Francis’ references have alluded to.
A few critical remarks about the book are in place. The author seems to make an overuse of the Aristotelian concept of teleology when he concludes from the phenomena of cosmic coincidences that the universe is designed for man. This conclusion is questionable for two reasons. First, it is too anthropocentric. The rarest possibility of life emerging on account of the ‘fine-turning’ of the universe accounts only for life in general, not for human life in particular. It is not justifiable to say that the emergence of human life is the final goal of cosmic coincidences. One must not forget the fact that man is just one species of living beings (and that too, is of very later origin, and that, according to many biologists, has not yet completed the evolutionary cycle). Second, if man is the supposed goal of cosmic evolution, how can we explain the future existence of the universe without human beings for billions of years, as the author himself admits? (cf. p. 205)
In the third part of In Search of Cosmic Origins, the author attempts to establish the existence of God from intelligent design of the universe. Here God is considered as the ‘Master Mind’ in the universe. Isn’t the Intelligent Designer a ‘God of the gaps’? Such an argument for the existence of God does not seem to fill the gap left by scientific theories since the mystery of God always leaves a gap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has warned us about this sort of conclusions. “If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.”[3] However, the author offers quite a novel opening for dialogue between cosmology and theology by proposing the concept of ‘first-person science’ in the epilogue. (pp. 249-59) This concept could be developed as a bridge between science and religion.
Finally, the author acknowledges that there is a re-assurance of meaning and hope for humanity in the completeness of ‘cosmos-anthropos-theos triad.’ (p. 256) But what is the basis of this hope? In the second part of the book “the Saga of the Universe,” we read referring to the fate of the universe: “[F]inally there is the ‘universal’ catastrophe -- the end of the universe. Regarding the ultimate fate of the universe, we [can see] four different possible scenarios: the Big Freeze, the Big Crunch, the Big Rip, and the Big Decay. . . . [In any case,] whatever begins to exist will come to an end. This is true of human life as well as of the universe.” (p. 207) If that be the case, what is there to be hopeful about for us human beings, even if there is an Intelligent Cosmic Designer behind all these? Isn’t our hope a ‘hope against hope’?
Even when we pose some critical questions about the book, this in no way tells upon its scholarly value. The Great Saga of the Universe is in fact a great story that can be read with investigative curiosity and literary ease. The book is written in a narrative style from prologue to epilogue, and it reads like a true story. The language of the book is simple and clear, and the logical flow of the text is impeccable. The expositions of complex theories, one after the other -Newtonian mechanics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum physics, quantum theory of gravity, quantum cosmology, Big Bang theory, Inflationary theory, and hypotheses about cosmic structures- all provide us with up-to-date and comprehensive knowledge of contemporary physics and cosmology. The book displays also the expertise of the author as a professor of philosophy and of cosmology in particular, and as a critical reader of the history of science. This is indeed a book which anyone interested to know about the universe must procure and read with delight. This book will definitely be an asset to students and professors of physics and cosmology as well as to those working on philosophical theology.

[1] New York: Bantam Books, 1989), p. 185.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, trans., Reginald H. Fuller, 1970, pp. 310–312.

1 comment:

Bincy said...

Good book...!