Do we live in a universe at all: some thoughts from Mark Robson

John of Sacrobosco's De Sphera
John of Sacrobosco’s De sphera of about 1230, John ‘Holywood’ was an almost direct contemporary of Grosseteste c.1195-c.1256

The Durham Grosseteste Project involves looking at the works of Bishop Grosseteste and trying to understand his ideas in the light of theIMG_1932 conceptual background of an ordered universe. Grosseteste understood himself to be playing a role in a divinely ordered hierarchy of creatures. He was within a Grand Plan, a teleologically ordered whole whose aim was to glorify God and to reflect or even image some of God’s glory. To Grosseteste balance and beauty were expected since they reflected the harmony and beauty of God. He looked at light as the primeaval creation, the first stroke of God’s brush as he expressed His Glory.

Far fewer would subscribe to that vision in the Western modern world.  But the modern vision still insists on one part of the ‘ordered universe’ idea. It rejects the order and the hierarchy of divinely appointed places, but it still says we live in a universe. But in what sense do we live in a universe? We talk about the whole easily as if it is all unified in some way. But what, we may ask, binds the whole together to make it one? What entitlement do we have to talk about a universe except perhaps as a long dead, redundant metaphor?

We might say that the universe is one since, in principle at least, we can travel from one part to another. The distances may be immense, but there is, in principle, a continuous spatial path from A to B, no matter how distant A and B happen to be. This, then, might be part of what we mean by living in a universe. It is bound together by sharing a common space. Other universes, if such there be, would be other universes precisely because there would be no spatial path from there to here. But here we all share a common space. In one very distant sense, a star millions of light years away is our neighbour.

Is there another sense in which we live in a universe? Another way of binding the whole together would be to say that the wholeHydrogen universe is governed by the same laws, and the same elements. There may be alien substances in distant galaxies, but amidst the strangers the friendly familiar elements will be there to greet the traveller from Earth. Go as distant as you like and hydrogen will greet you as an old friend. Force will equal mass times acceleration. G will be G.

This answer, of course, requires that every part of the universe has some of the old familiars, some of the laws which govern our world, or some of the same elements. But do we have a right to expect those parts of the universe hidden from our gaze to be the same, to have the same physics? After all, (according to some measures) that which we cannot observe far exceeds that which we can.

Another way of binding the whole together could be to concentrate upon the claim that we all have the same origin. The whole exploded out of an event billions of years ago – an event we call the Big Bang. It is, so to speak, the Great Granddad or Grandma of us all, our ultimate ancestor. Sharing an origin, sharing a history is a powerful unifier.

Three possible answers, but it is sobering to reflect upon the relative bleakness of this vision. The universe is no longer ordered. There is no appointed place for anyone or anything. There is no direction. That we happen to share the same space, origin, and perhaps the same physical laws seems uncomforting, so impersonal. Others may respond with more joy, but I am struck with the impersonal bleakness of it all. We have come a long way from the grand vision of Grosseteste’s ordered universe.

Mark Ian Thomas Robson

St Robert of Newminster RC School

 Further reading: “The Divine Order, the Human Order, and the Order of Nature: Historical Perspectives” ed. Eric Watkins (OUP: 2013). See especially the essay by Marilyn McCord Adams: Powers versus Laws: God and the Order of the World by some late Medieval Aristotelians.

Mark Robson is a teacher at St Robert of Newminster, whose recent book on creation from nothing was featured in an earlier post. Mark is a core member of the educational team for the project.

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