Ghada Chehade: Cosmology Beyond Science | Thunderbolts
[Music] We have explored the current crisis in cosmology and what it means to have a revolutionary shift, or change in cosmology. Now let's step back and explore why cosmology matters in the first place. Why does cosmology matter beyond science and to non-scientists? And, how does cosmology impact everyday life? We know that the study of the universe is important to science, but cosmology has impacts far beyond science and has a significant cultural component. Cosmology has impacted everything from anthropology and art to philosophy, morality, religion, and even politics. Cosmology also impacts our worldview and how we view ourselves in the world. Historically, changes in cosmology have
precipitated tectonic cultural and ideological shifts that have shaped, and defined, the course of history. But the relationship between cosmology and culture is not unidirectional. It is far more nuanced than that. Cosmological shifts are also a product of their time and often grow out of, and/or reinforce philosophical and socio-political settings that benefit from, or exploit the ideas promoted and reflected in a new cosmology. Let's look at these points in greater detail.
Changes in cosmology can have tectonic ripple effects that influence the course of history. A classic example is Galileo and the Copernican Revolution and the shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric model of cosmology. This shift was so profound that it sparked a Scientific Revolution. But it also had profound consequences beyond science, as the educational director of the Italian consulate in the United States explains. Quote, “Galileo's ideas
not only sparked a scientific revolution, they initiated a large-scale revolution in human thinking. He changed the way we see the world and, more importantly, how we perceive ourselves within it.” End quote. The shift from an Earth-centric to a Sun-centric view of the cosmos, created an historic opportunity to unseat the power of the church and eventually led to what has been described as, quote, “...the most important idea in modern history... The idea that any person, regardless of his or her individual characteristics, can seek and find the truth.” This meant that the catholic church and clergy were no longer the sole investigators and arbiters of the truth. Putting knowledge within reach of the individual and human deduction was a revolution in human thinking, one that landed Galileo in deep trouble with the church.
However, the human mind as important and worthy of contemplation is an idea that predates Galileo, going back to Greek philosophy. When Socrates spoke of the need to know thyself, he shifted the emphasis of the contemporary philosophy from nature to humans. Promoting this type of thinking, eventually got him executed for atheism. Thus, Galileo fared far better than his philosophical predecessors. This may be due to the environment in which Galileo's ideas emerged.
Galileo's discoveries were bolstered by, and reinforced, renaissance humanism, a philosophy that prioritizes and glorifies the potential of the individual and the human mind, especially in the areas of creativity and the arts. Power structures tend to prop up, or support, the cosmological trends and tenets that serve larger pre- existing notions and agendas. While Galileo was condemned by the church, he was also backed by certain segments of the aristocracy. Specifically, he had the patronage of Lord del Monte, a nobleman and author of several important works on mechanics.
The Scientific Revolution helped bring the fruits of humanism into the realm of politics. It shifted ultimate political power from the church to the monarchy, which was good news for monarchs and the nobility who could now rule without the blessing or approval of the church. But the monarchy supremacy was short-lived, as notions of human importance and self-actualization led individuals to question the absolute dominance of monarchs and rise up throughout history, most notably during the Enlightenment in a manner that eventually gave rise to republics, the nation- state and modern-day concepts of democracy. Overall, Galileo's ideas reinforced and furthered, the tide of humanism and were beneficial to opponents of the absolute power of the church and later on, the absolute power of monarchs. Beyond politics, the technological advancements of the Scientific Revolution also shaped economics and labor, moving the west from a feudal system to economies that are or were industrial and factory-based. It has been noted that quote “...the Scientific Revolution lit a path that, centuries later, with the help of a lot
of steam and coal power, money, and labor, led to the Industrial Revolution.” End quote. This triggered the necessary socio-cultural shift from a predominantly rural population to an increasingly urbanized one. Galileo's impact also affected and reinforced trends in the arts. His influence reaffirmed and expanded upon, the work and focus of renaissance artists of his time, who were obsessed with representing man, and nature, as geometrically accurate and realistic as possible.
Despite the vast cultural and technological impacts, for many, the most profound impact of the scientific revolution, was how it helped shape our understanding of what it means to be human. Implied in the Scientific Revolution is the recognition that individuals matter and can think for themselves. This is arguably the underlying tenet of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, that humankind is a rational thinking being capable of arriving at truth and therefore, enlightenment. Central to enlightenment thought were,
quote,”... the use and celebration of reason-- the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition.” Implied in this belief is a view of the universe as reasonable and understandable. For, how can humans apply reason to understand a universe that is not reasonable or comprehensible? Enlightenment thinkers in England, France and throughout Europe, shared the common enlightenment themes of rational questioning and a belief in progress through dialogue.
One can imagine how these notions would benefit and be bolstered by powerful or influential individuals that favored republics and parliamentary forms of governance, since these are characterized by dialogue and cooperation between and among the people and/or their representatives. This is an example of the nuanced relationship between cosmology and culture, which can be described as a feedback loop, wherein sociocultural powers tend to adopt, and then promote, those parts of cosmology that can shape and influence present and/or future outcomes and behavior. Relativism is another modern-day example. While much has been noted about Einstein's Theory of Relativity and its influence on relativism, relativism as an idea, goes back to the ancient world. Though it did not gain favor in ancient times and was refuted by philosophers such as Plato, arguments for relativism have existed throughout history. Moreover, there is presently no philosophical consensus on what Relativism actually means. Relativism as I use it here, refers to the doctrine
that knowledge, truth and morality are not absolute. Known respectively as epistemological, or cognitive relativism and moral relativism. I believe that it was not until contemporary powers and interests in politics, academia and/or economics had a need for, and could benefit from, moral and cognitive relativism, that relativism was fully promoted and normalized in the popular culture. Einstein and his Special Theory of Relativity provided a good opportunity and catalyst for this.
Reinforced by the Theory of Relativity, relativism eventually impacted art, philosophy and modern culture, influencing an/or engendering everything from abstract cubist art to postmodern theory and identity politics. As noted in an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy quote, ”...the popularity of the very idea of relativism in the 20th century owes something to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which was to be used both as model and as well as a vindication for various relativistic claims.” End quote. that article points to Gilbert Harman as one of the contemporary philosophers to use Einsteinian relativity as a model for philosophical versions of relativism. Harman has stated that quote, ”According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity even an object's mass is relative to a choice of spatio-temporal framework.... I'm going to argue for a similar claim about moral right and wrong.... I'm going to argue that moral right and wrong.... are always relative to a choice of moral framework.”
End quote. It is interesting to note that Harman wrote this in 1996, which is several decades after Einstein and curiously only a few years before identity politics began to gain serious and ubiquitous momentum as well as the support of the establishment in the West. The 2000’s witnessed the rise of identity politics which is grounded in post-modern notions of relativism and the replacement of traditional forms of left-wing opposition with identity-based movements which are often sympathetic to the establishment. Under identity politics, relativism is exploited to fragment, dilute and/or diffuse, political opposition and ultimately, to serve power.
Let's take a closer look at relativism. Epistemological relativism espouses the idea that there is no absolute truth to be had, since all truth is relative. Similarly, moral relativism holds that morality, right and wrong, good and bad, is also relative and varies from person to person. Such notions fly in the face of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment era's emphasis on the ability of the rational individual to seek and find Truth, with a capital T. Prior to relativism, philosophers argued that there was an absolute truth and an absolute way of approaching various aspects of life, especially with respect to morality and moral obligations.
Moral relativism creates a philosophical slippery slope that can arguably be exploited, or abused, especially by those with power. If there is no such thing as an absolute right and wrong, then we are powerless to point out and confront the wrongs of those with power, since everything is relative. In other words, arguing that there is no such thing as absolute right and wrong, alleviates wrongdoers, big or small, from responsibility and accountability for wrongdoing. How convenient for the wrongdoer. Einstein was not a moral relativist and even recoiled at the misappropriation and misapplication of his theory in the non-sciences.
As Einstein’s most prominent biographer has observed, quote, ”In both his science and his moral philosophy, Einstein was driven by a quest for certainty and deterministic laws. If his theory of relativity produced ripples that unsettled the realms of morality and culture, this was not caused by what Einstein believed but by how he was popularly interpreted.” End quote. Similarly, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, quote, ”It is...worth noting that Einstein did not think that the Theory of Relativity supported relativism in ethics or epistemology because, although in his model simultaneity and sameness of place are relative to reference frames, the physical laws expressing such relativity are constant and universal and hence in no sense relative.” End quote. It seems that Einstein's Theory of Relativity and by extension, contemporary cosmology, was misappropriated and misapplied in a manner that supports moral and cognitive relativism and the host of non-scientific or non-empirical interests they could potentially serve. A common criticism against epistemological
relativism is that semantically, it contradicts or refutes itself. The statement, “all is relative,” holds itself to be absolute, therefore contradicting its original premise that all is relative. Put another way, if the statement “all is relative” is an absolute, then this contradicts relativism. And if the statement is relative, then it does not have to be, or cannot be, accepted as true. For this, many view relativism as a
paradox. I believe paradox may be a contemporary motivation for the misapplication of Einstein. In Western culture, paradox is increasingly presented as a good thing and is even celebrated and promoted in all areas of life, using science and cosmology as a justification for such arguments. For instance in a 2020 article entitled, ”Think Like Einstein: The Paradox Mindset”, the author notes that Einstein was used to conceiving and embracing opposite or contradictory ideas and that many Nobel prize-winning scientists are known to actively conceive multiple opposites simultaneously.
Describing this as a paradox mindset, the author encourages readers to do the same, arguing that quote, “Embracing contradictory ideas is one of the main assets for raising creativity and is a better way forward.” End quote. The author concludes that strangeness is a good thing which ought to be embraced in the workplace. Similarly, in a 2020 BBC article on work culture, the author argues that the paradox mindset is the key to success in the workforce stating that quote, ”Although paradoxes often trip us up, embracing contradictory ideas may actually be the secret to creativity and leadership.” End quote. And in a talk at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, scholars argued that the key to promoting peacemaking and peaceful intervention overseas is paradoxical thinking which they define as quote, ”...information that is inconsistent with held beliefs, and raises the sense of absurdity.” End quote. It is strange and perhaps disheartening
to see paradox promoted as a good thing in the world of politics and peacekeeping. It is also odd to see politics discussed at the National Academy of Science. This brings us back to earlier discussions about science and cosmology being used to justify larger and or pre-existing interests and agendas. It also harkens back to what Thomas Kuhn implied about institutionalized science; that it is hegemonic and functions much like other institutions of power, such as religion or politics or, in the service of power. Promoting paradox and absurdity in politics and political intervention may be a way to disguise or preserve empire and political hegemony. Not least by
framing inconsistency in absurdity as positive political strategy. Rhetoric about the benefits of paradox in politics and the workplace is somewhat evocative of that found in media articles on contemporary cosmology, which embrace and celebrate cosmological weirdness and paradox rather than problematizing it. As I note in a previous show, the increasing focus in mainstream media on the strange and wacky universe presents cosmic weirdness and contradiction as something that is matter-of-fact and non-problematic. Basically, the universe is a weird and unknowable place and that's okay because the universe does not have to make sense. If that's the case, then contemporary cosmology has failed us. For what good are science and empirical observation and analysis if they cannot give us answers? Rather than admit the failure or inability of contemporary cosmology to provide answers and explanations, mainstream science and mainstream media increasingly blame the failure on, or hide the failure behind, the strangeness of the universe. This suggests that mainstream cosmology
is not actually interested in giving us answers. It also confirms what Thomas Kuhn believed about dominant or normal science. That it is hegemonic, dogmatic, and unyielding to falsification and change. At the sociocultural level, the promotion of a paradox mindset could be interpreted as giving people permission to act inconsistently, unpredictably, contradictory and/or without integrity. Rather than admit that systems or policies may be failing or contradictory, failure and contradiction can simply be repackaged as normal and acceptable, just as it is in cosmology. In terms of dominant discourse, this potentially opens the door to and/or justifies inconsistent, contradictory and deceptive discourse and narratives.
As an aside, it is important to note that the paradox rationale is a tool that can only fully be exploited by those in a position of power. For if the average person on the street tried to argue in court that the law is relative or could be interpreted in a contradictory manner, it probably would not go very well for them. In closing, everything we discussed drives home just how influential cosmology is beyond the sciences, and how much it shapes and impacts the broader culture and human thinking. Cosmology and changes in cosmology have shaped and or fostered everything from the Scientific Revolution, to present-day forms of governance, industry, philosophy, and morality. With respect to the most recent sea change in cosmology, that of Relativity and the Big Bang, theories and innovations in cosmology were misappropriated and misapplied by thinkers in the non-sciences in a manner that gave rise to various notions of relativism and eventually fostered a culture and worldview that embraces, celebrates, and promotes paradox, contradiction, and absurdity. This is a stark contrast to the Enlightenment's obsession with reason and rational thinking.
We have been educated with clear evidence that cosmology is presently in a state of crisis and is inevitably heading towards revolution. Given that reality, our next logical step will be to explore what a future cosmology might look like, and how it will impact the broader culture and human thinking. [Music]