In 1917, Albert Einstein admitted to what he would call the “biggest blunder” of his academic career – the inclusion of a ‘fudge factor’ in his paper on cosmology. If the fudge factor had a positive value, the universe would be expanding; if it had a negative value, it would be contracting.
Even though that paper proved to be the starting point of an interesting but complex field of study called cosmology, Einstein did not write it just because he had discovered he thought it lacked, but because of the philosophical overtures he possessed that he thought should extend to his scientific beliefs. Enamoured to a visible extent by Mach’s principle, Einstein wanted the universe to be unchanging and perfect – think of a sphere that does not undergo any changes through time. For that to happen, he modified his equations in the general theory of relativity to include a ‘cosmological constant’.
In 1922, a Soviet mathematician by the name of Alexander Friedmann began to solve the equations of general relativity. Each solution represented a state of the universe at some point of time, and so each of Friedmann’s proposals came under great scrutiny. The most famous amongst them was the Big Bang theory (BBT). In 1931, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, Georges Henri Lemaitre, published a dissertation called ‘Hypothesis of the primeval atom’, which turned out to be a detailed discussion on Friedmann’s BBT. Around this time, quantum mechanics was perfected and honed to the point of no-debate by its three founders, Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, sparking off debates on the validity of the BBT.
In 1948, there was a contender. Fred Hoyle put forth his ‘steady state theory’ (SST). Many people are of the impression that this model dictates that the universe is more like Einstein’s Mach-influenced unchanging sphere. That is wrong. Hoyle’s idea was that the universe constantly expanded, but remained statistically unchanged as new matter was forged within it. For about 20 years, the two theories mixed to form a morass of ideas in the scientific community – not to mention the many philosophical slugs that partook in the debates.
In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two radio astronomers, made a remarkable and notable discovery: relic radiation. Also known as ‘cosmic microwave background radiation’, its discovery meant that it was something that the two contending theories had to account for in order to survive as a scientific principle.
According to the BBT, the universe was compacted once, and the resulting glow of the hot hydrogen plasma filled it and made it look like pea soup. However, once the universe began to expand and become cooler, stable atoms began to be formed that could no longer absorb the thermal radiation. Since the remaining photons had to fill a bigger and bigger universe, the light they carried grew fainter and less energetic while still refusing to die out. This illumination is invisible to optical telescopes, but through a radio telescope, a faint glow can be seen in the night sky, extending uniformly in all directions. The SST had no explanation, and was duly forgotten.
As if all these formulations weren’t enough, another doubt dawned in the minds of men: “We know how it all began, but how is everything going to end?” Although it does seem like the time and money devoted to exploring the answers to that question could have gone into curing, say, cancer, it is a valid cosmological riddle nonetheless. People with such amounts of time and money don’t like such riddles, especially if they have the brains to go after it.
To that end, there were four contenders: the Big Bang, the Big Bounce, the Big Freeze, and the Big Rip.
- The Big Bang says that the universe will keep expanding with no acceleration.
- The Big Bounce says that the universe will expand first, then begin to contract as the internal gravity becomes too strong, collapse on itself to reissue a singularity which would again explode in a second Big Bang. This idea postulates that the state of the universe is oscillatory.
- The Big Freeze is similar to the Big Bounce, but has one difference. The mass and energy contributed by all the stars, galaxies and planets (and all their cousins) in the universe goes to form a parameter called the critical density of the universe, whereas just saying density will take into account the vast empty volumes the universe also encompasses. If the density of the universe is greater than its critical density, the gravitational pull would result in a Big Bounce state. But if the critical density is greater, then the universe would continue to expand for ever. At some point in the future, then, the universe will be so cool that everything within it would form an entropy and result in a cold death (or a heat death).
- The Big Rip is more dramatic. It states that the universe is expanding, alright. But now, there’s such a thing as dark energy now. According to the Big Rip, if the energy density of the dark energy goes beyond its negative pressure, then the universe will be forced to accelerate faster and faster, at one point defying all of the gravitational and electromagnetic forces within it. In such a state, all scale factors would shoot to infinity and everything would be ripped apart. Hence the name.
And where did the liberty to pursue such luxurious hypotheses come from? It came from knowing that the oompa-loompahs of science were fast closing in on a strange particle called the Higgs boson (the last of the Standard Model particles family to not have been observed), the notorious and elusive ‘God particle’ (though aliased by some physicists as ‘the champagne bottle boson’), that could explain away for all eternity the theories of… well, everything particulate.
So, the scientists are not sure about how the universe would end. The scientific data at their disposal does not aid any of the four causes much, leaving them to philosophically debate it out. Now enters the philosopher, ever altruistic and condescending, unmindful of the condescension that scientia had doled out to him decades earlier. Even though most, if not all, scientists are who they are because they need more than empirical evidence to supplant their imaginations, many philosophers have denounced the insularly methodological approach that scientists maintain to be irresponsible for the continued existence of errors. In fact, for many philosophers, the thought experiment portrays a greater meaning than the techniques of naturalized epistemology.
Beginning with the centuries-old Aristotelian theories which transubstantiated Platonic idealism into the more teleological framework of humanity, hylomorphism has played a very important role in permitting the human mind to reflect its doubts as shortcomings of the self and further extrapolate them as the being called God.
Philosophy is basically the habit of reasoning through speculation to arrive at a logical conclusion. The players in this abstract field will all use their individual experiences as a conclusion to their thought experiments, and then try build around it. This means that since most of us are subjected to completely different experiences in our lifetime, a philosophical idea will gain prominence if it can explain away the experiences of more than one person.
The major concerns of philosophy lie in explaining the existence of the human mind – everything from its origins towhy it is the way it is. There is a clear-cut line between science and philosophy when it comes to defining investigative techniques: for the scientist, what he needs to find out about is already there; for the philosopher, what he needs to find may or may not be there. The neurologist can cut up the brain and tell you where the mind is manifested, but the philosopher will be able to tell you what happens inside that part of the brain that results in the creation of the mind.
Much of philosophical thought attained its logical maturity and stability long before the age of science dawned. The famous Greek and Indian philosophers did not know science – there had been no epistemologically derived evidence that they could build upon, inadvertently doping their theories with speculative overtones. Some of these “overtones” later cascaded into principles of religion, which also served as active ideological carriers of the beliefs that philosophical logicism had encouraged.
However, the idea of the end of the world features more prominently in religious philosophy than in atheistic philosophy – from its first days, religion has borne on its shoulders the onus of constraining all thought and idea to upholding its right to be the dictator of the way of life for those who wish to follow its principles. To that end, whosoever wished to call him- or herself a “believer” had to be a part of a herd; I don’t use that term derogatorily but literally.
Although the separation of the state from the church (or a theocratic domination in general) has often been emphasized, there is an underlying reason that the church posed such a threat as it did to the progression of a free state – both of them operated with the notion called control. Anything that the people feared or obeyed fervently obviously had immense dollops of power in its grasp. Has it not been said that the truest victory lies in being able to stir the hearts of one’s people?
Even though the primitive forms of worship excluded such intentions, the imminent need for a religion to survive by battling out the ideological encroachments of others became not unnoticeable. After all, they were creations of the mind, and cannot by any means ignore the realities of the human condition.
Such a gradual adulteration forced preachers as well as believers to become more rigorous and conservative in what they spoke, habituated and recommended to others. The betterment of humanity as a whole beyond anything else took the back seat as more and more communities were driven to fear something than to aspire for anything else – fear kept the people in check, aspiration didn’t. At that point, much of the thought became diverted to defining holistic elements like the end of the world. If people were to be herded along, they would need answers. Are not answers more satisfying (albeit with questionable probability) when they are well rounded?
Perhaps it is for those very reasons that most religious beliefs include an “end of the world” chapter in their respective holy scriptures. A common structure exists, too, amongst how each religious mythos reaches its portentous conclusion. Take the example of Christian theology: there is a divine being who has been dethroned, then an age of sins ensued, and then there is a dark villain who causes much suffering, and then said divine being is angered and “strikes down” (“Armageddon”) upon him to relieve the people from the tyranny of the “beast”, and finally, the world is rebuilt as something more wonderful. In Hindu mythology, there is Vishnu, the omnipresent protector, who is said to already have assumed 9 avatars, each of which was to rid the earth of an evil. The 10th and final avatar, that of Kalki, is set to happen in the future when the sins of mankind have surpassed the goodness he used to profess in the image of God Himself. Then, there will be a great deluge (“Pralaya”) that will consume in its watery depths all sinners and non-believers while on a massive boat will set sail Kalki, saving only those who are pure of heart and believe in a supreme being. Further, there is the more notoriously known Nordic “Ragnarok”, where Goodness and Evil will clash in a final titanic battle.
The validity of these claims is very much subject to a test simply because they are more than one, just like science itself has suggested four possibilities, each of which is more probable than the other without sufficient data to corroborate one of them.
Because of the reasons I’ve given, theistic (and, to some extent, agnostic) philosophy does not present much conclusive evidence that could serve as the guiding rails as to how the world could end since the connate beliefs refuse to cater to any other purpose but the restriction of the human mind as well as to parallely give its parent ideology a defining wholesomeness. Atheistic philosophy, on the other hand, has undergone a different sort of evolution – if evolution it is. Reflecting the uncertainties of its early and formative years, the formerly mainstreamed philosophy has gradually narrowed down its concerns to be coaxial with an existentialist’s perspective – today, not anyone who calls himself a “philosopher” (or, for that matter, a “thinker”) will have much to say concerning topics like ‘eternity of the human soul’ or ‘the monistic state of the human mind’, and will have much more to say on issues in human ethics. Why?
This could be so because of the general knowledge that when any hypothesis is put forth, it is primarily to discuss a problem. Need has been the quintessential mother of invention, and invention also has a duty to obey the needs of things non-materialistic as well. Today, the most egregious transgressions are manifestations of the violation of the human code of conduct, and because this ‘code of conduct’ is derived from a sense of justice and orderliness that the self espouses as well as seeks to attain, much of precious thought is put into finding a solution that can be suffused into the hearts of men like a catholiconic vaccination.