Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The human search for satisfying answers to cosmic questions

Cosmic Understanding: Philosophy and Science of the Universe, by Milton K. Munitz. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 288 pp. $25. Whether pursued as a scientific discipline, a leisure-time interest, or a basis for philosophy, an acceptable picture of the universe has been sought for all of recorded history. As Milton Munitz tells us in ``Cosmic Understanding,'' this search for a satisfying cosmology comes from two principal motives. The first is purely intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder. The second derives from the need to situate humanity in the universe.

This book is a philosophical quest. Munitz himself has spent a long career searching both philosophy and modern scientific theory. He is distinguished professor of philosophy emeritus at the City University of New York. In 1957, he edited ``Theories of the Universe'' - a collection of cosmologies from Plato and Aristotle to Hubble, Einstein, and modern cosmologists. Earlier he wrote ``Space, Time and Creation,'' a critical evaluation of cosmology.

About these ads

Munitz has set an ambitious goal for his readers in ``Cosmic Understanding.'' He says: ``By studying the materials of contemporary scientific cosmology, a principal goal of the present inquiry is ... to come within sight of the main outlines of an ontology (a world view) in which we can discern the principal lines of differentiation and interconnection among three crucial ontological dimensions of existence - namely the universe as existent, human existence, and Boundless Existence.''

Modern cosmology differs a great deal from earlier attempts to understand the cosmos. Modern measurements have produced a large number of facts. Modern cosmologists demand that as many as possible of these facts arise from the simplest possible first cause. At the present stage of inquiry, there is the curious case of a very low-intensity radio noise signal that may be a clue to the beginnings of the universe.

In the 1940s, George Gamov, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman put forth an idea that the universe began in a highly condensed state and at a very high temperature - a big bang. From this beginning, they predicted an expansion that in our time would result in the existence of a universal background isotropic microwave radiation at about 5 degrees Kelvin. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Laboratories discovered an ineliminable microwave noise signal in their radio antenna, which they were able to show was isotropic and extragalactic in source. This microwave radiation is characterized by an extremely low temperature of about 3 degrees K. Could it be the ``glow'' of a uniform gas of photons that has undergone cooling during the expansion of the universe since its original big bang?

At about the same time, theorists were using Einstein's ideas of space time to develop cosmologies. At first these models were static - that is, no big bang, no beginning - a rather uninteresting situation. Then, in the early 1920s, Friedman showed that the field equations of general relativity allowed solutions that were nonstatic. This allowed the big-bang ideas of Gamov and others to be included in the framework of relativity, and eventually led to the current theories of an evolutionary universe.

Philosophical ideas on concepts of God, nature, and the limits of knowledge have similarly evolved in recent times.

Spinoza introduced some very interesting ideas, which Munitz explains lucidly. ``He [Spinoza] was concerned, as were traditional religions, with becoming aware of and appropriately responsive to the ultimate source of our being. For what Spinoza wishes to ask, at the bottom, is how the world in the astronomic, cosmologic sense - whatever its detailed structure is said to be - is related to God (ultimate reality). And to this question Spinoza has a definite and, for his time, revolutionary answer. For he maintains, far from being distinct realities, God, Nature, and the cosmos are one and the same.''

Although Spinoza built on the scientific theories of his day, a lot has happened since in the development of physical theories of the universe. And being a philosopher, Munitz must eventually ask, ``For does not the prominence and widespread adoption of an evolutionary cosmology, with its broad endorsement of the view that the universe had an origin and will have an end, make such a reexamination once more an urgent one? Should we not turn - or return - to a belief in God to fill out a sound conception of the Boundless?''

About these ads

In what follows, Munitz does not rehabilitate the traditional view of God but suggests a different view of the boundless.

``Not everything which is unknown is unknowable. Are we justified in saying that there are some ... limits to cosmic intelligibility and knowledge that will never be overcome, no matter how far pursued or how successful the process of increasing scientific understanding may be?''

This is where modern philosophy fits with the high-powered, mathematically driven, observationally proven and disproven cosmology of the scientist. Munitz - with a discussion of others philosophies, and modern physics - raises the questions of being.

This is a book to be argued with, argued from, listened to, objected to, learned from, respected, agreed with, and disagreed with.

Munitz, far from proposing all the answers in either the philosophical or the physical discussions, poses the questions and provides tantalizing directions of inquiry for the reader. As Munitz himself points out, ``Whatever the similarities or continuities of our own situation with the problems faced by thinkers in earlier epochs may be, we must do our own work afresh.''

Paul A. Robinson Jr. is a staff scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.