The disciplines of Theoretical and Applied Physics took a dramatic turn in the 20th Century. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the birth of Quantum Mechanics revolutionized our understanding of the universe. These theories are ridiculously complex and fundamentally weird: Einstein introduced 4-dimensional space that bends, and in the Quantum World an electron can travel the entire universe simultaneously in any moment.
As weird as the world becomes through the lens of these theories, they have been proven over and over again by experiment, extrapolation, and integration with other scientific disciplines. The fields of Chemistry and Astronomy are confined by Quantum Law and Relativity, and could not proceed without them. Nuclear reactors, synthetic materials, and every one of the approx. 10 quintillion transistors manufactured each year owe their existence to applications of modern Physics.
What conclusions must a philosopher (qua cosmologist) draw from these seemingly incomprehensible scientific notions? Some have argued that the scientific community has gone rogue against rational metaphysics. One might object that space cannot “bend” because “space” is a concept we use to describe the lack of existence, and concepts do not bend – they are tools of cognition. There is no such thing as actual empty space; it is only a conceptual reference. All that exists is existence. Should the cosmologist then advise the physicist to abandon such mental constructs as bending space and an expanding universe?
Or: if electrons are confined by the Law of Identity, how can they teleport to multiple locations simultaneously? How could they be in two locations at once, traveling every possible route to their destinations, at the same time and in the same respect? Quantum theorists would have us believe that particles flick in and out of existence in a regular, but partially random way. This too may bristle the cosmologist’s sensibilities.
The history of Quantum theory in particular often seems an exercise in madness. Great geniuses, playing tetris with the known and unknown, formed a bizarre set of notions that was both internally consistent and confirmed through experiment. Heisenberg and others explicitly cleaned their cosmological slates. There were to be no conceptual restrictions on scientific modeling. Physicists use models of bending space, expanding existence, and thermo-dynamics interchangeably when they are mathematically equivalent (as they are in the case of black holes).
Just as literature or auto repair ought not be made the handmaiden of philosophy, so neither should the sciences. Theoretical Physics is the use of mathematical (and sometimes oddly conceptualized) models to broaden the known universe. The cosmologist can help the physicist better explain and organize his conceptual tools, but he is not qualified to regulate the choice of tools – given a shared respect for observational evidence.
The exuberant cosmologist may insist that existence cannot spring out of non-existence, that it cannot expand or collapse into non-existent nothingness, that the universe must be a boundless, seamless plenum, that it may not be random, etc. But the rational scientist can and should ignore such conceptual restrictions. Modeling tools will be examined, integrated, re-verified, and updated as necessary – based ultimately on perceptual evidence. This is not pragmatism, but scientific achievement at its best.
Observational evidence confirming Quantum Mechanics and Relativity continues to pour in. Every day, we are discovering black holes, neutron stars, and the origins of an exploding universe exactly where physicists told us to look for them. We are beginning to understand the micro world – the world of energy and particles -- with similarly increasing clarity. These discoveries have no bearing on metaphysics and epistemology, and are not in opposition to them.
There is and ought not be a war between cosmologists and modern physicists. Both can enjoy the expanding universe of knowledge in the mind of man.