Picturing the universe: Hard – or impossible?

(Illustration by Marco Bellucci)

(Illustration by Marco Bellucci)

After giving two major lectures this past week, questions from the audience made me realize why everyone’s frustrated when trying to understand the universe as a whole. Astronomy is truly divided into two realms. One involves cosmic parts or components like planets or galaxies. Here, tremendous progress unfolds continuously. It’s a wonderful time to be into space science.

The other realm involves the universe taken as a whole. These are the issues that children typically ask, starting at around 7 years old. They are most reasonable questions: What is this place? Do the stars just go on and on? Or is there an end to the universe? If so, what would lie beyond that? Was the universe born? What is the cosmos made of?

Until a few centuries ago, these issues were largely reserved for the clergy. They were also tackled by philosophy and metaphysics. Mystics claimed that the answers were perfectly clear to those who had an experience variously called enlightenment, self-realization, cosmic consciousness, Nirvana, Satori, Samadhi and so on. In other words, you could actually understand everything by direct experience.

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These days, however, this realm has landed in the lap of cosmologists. This field, a branch of astronomy, uses math, physics and logic to get to the bottom of things. Cosmologists have displaced theologians. And cosmologists suggest, on TV science shows, that they are hot on the trail of providing answers to those fundamental questions.

Fast-forward to the issues raised after lectures or on Public Radio call-in shows. People want to understand. But ever since 1998, when the mysterious force that we call dark energy first came to light, it has been increasingly obvious that the universe as a whole remains almost entirely unknown.

The recent quagmires are numerous and growing. As I’ve pointed out on this page, powerful evidence from last year indicates that the universe is infinite. At minimum, no one argues that the observable universe can be no more than 1.6 percent of the actual cosmos – which means the vast majority of the whole shebang must remain forever unknown, no matter what.

On top of that, despite much technical doubletalk to the contrary, nobody has the slightest clue what the Big Bang was, or what may have preceded it. In any case, it was probably just a local event. We also know that 96 percent of even the visible universe is composed of unidentified entities called dark energy and dark matter. Thus, the honest answer to those basic questions is that we are fundamentally clueless.

Underlying all this is a rarely realized problem involving the way we visualize things. Most folks try to picture the entire universe by mentally positioning themselves outside of it, as if contemplating an expanding balloon. But here the critical error – emphasized previously on this page – is that no such vantage point exists, since we can never be outside the cosmos.

Moreover, our minds work by the exclusive use of symbolic or dualistic language. The word “water” is not actual water (which, when directly apprehended, is a wondrous thing). The word “it” corresponds to nothing at all in the phrase “It is raining.” Language is a limited tool. So when we attempt to understand the universe as a whole, using symbolic thoughts or images that can only represent parts, the effort is invariably fruitless.

Our minds simply cannot picture an infinite number of galaxies: the likely reality; or space without end; or eternity, which doesn’t mean limitless time, but rather no time at all. Thus the very questions about the nature of the cosmos as a whole contain within themselves the seeds of their own futility.

So, even beyond all the current problematic science unknowns, the true nature of our universe cannot be grasped rationally. The parts can, certainly; but not the whole.

When I point this out to a lecture hall audience, it is met with a kind of morose, bewildered silence. I love to get a laugh, and this news is taken as a kind of big bummer. I’ve not yet learned how to dress it up in a clown costume.

But our inability to grasp the cosmic Whole rationally need only be a bummer if one believes that thoughts and mental images are the only tools for apprehending reality. As we often see – when dealing with things like love, or swimming the ecstatic, warm, clear waters of the Caribbean, or the lunacy of teenage cats – this needn’t be so. Ultimately, humans may acquire the right tools for this noblest of all quests.