Commentary on John Leslie`s Modern Cosmology and Philosophy

Elisabeth Boetzkes,
McMaster University, Hamilton

According to John Leslie`s Introduction to Modern Cosmology and Philosophy, this fascinating collection raises three main questions: `was there a Big Bang, and if so, how can we know it?`, `Is our universe fine-tuned in ways that make it especially suited to living beings?` and `may there exist many separate universes?` These are indeed themes of the collection. However, being myself subject to the observation selection effect, I was arrested by a number of rather different themes, themes which will be the focus of my comments today. They are:

1) has (or how has) cosmology disrupted the conventional distinctions between scientific and philosophical claims, and does (or how does) this challenge the adequacy of our concepts;

2) what is the significance of human conscious subjectivity?


3) where are the women in these debates?

The latter, of course, is not an explicit theme of the book but an emergent issue whose relevance I hope to make clear in a constructive way.

1) First: has cosmology disrupted the conventional distinctions between scientific and philosophical claims, and does this challenge the adequacy of our concepts? Reassuring as it was to find in McMullin`s very fine piece that philosophy retains its customary task of evaluating methods, examining assumptions and clarifying concepts, doubt about the stability of the disciplinary boundaries appears even in his piece. Thus the question of the unity of the universe, though allegedly philosophical, is nonetheless informed by the success of cosmologists in establishing isotropy and heterogeneity, even for vast distances. Time presents itself as a hybrid of the scientists` singularity (a mathematical creation) and the phenomenon of ordinary experience run through the philosopher`s analytical sieve. Even the allegedly pure philosophical residue of creation and the anthropic principle turn out elsewhere in the collection not to be so pure. For, as John Leslie shows, the anthropic principle can alter scientific prediction (301), and, as Swinburne suggests, can count against multiple universes (in a roundabout way). And creation can render an explanation of sorts for the extraordinary life-permitting fine-tuning of the universe.

But beneath these observations about the flexible boundaries of science and philosophy lurks the deeper issue which received some attention in this collection but merits more - and that is question of the adequacy of our concepts. McMullin raises it in connexion with philosophy`s inability to provide regulative principles for scientific investigation. Speaking of Kantian a priori principles, he comments "It was not as clear in (Kant`s) day as it is in ours that the content of such terms (as "time", "matter", "cause") can be altered by the progress of science and that this alteration is itself a complex affair, depending a posteriori upon the success of the explanatory theories in which these terms occur." 51. This is a sobering observation, and one we might recall when considering whether the conceptual confusions with which scientists are charged really are such. For instance, when Leslie engages with Grunbaum over the notion of `naturalness`, with important consequences for the question of whether there is a residual matter to be explained after scientific explanation has reached its limit, surely a further question is whether the concept of `natural` has reached ITS limit? Again, when Craig criticises Hawking for naivete about time, as when he concludes "Any attempt to interpret the temporal dimension as a tenselessly existing spatial dimension betrays the true nature of time" there is too little modesty about philosophy`s capacity to settle issues by appealing to the logic of our concepts. Apart from the scientific challenge that Craig brings to Hawking`s position, his insistence that Hawking is fundamentally confused in identifying real time with space (in embracing the B-theory) and hence abandoning òur experience of temporal becoming as objective` suggests a confidence in the stability of our objective concept of time that may be questionable. According to Craig, the distinction between empirical time (which is implicated in Special Relativity and quantum theory) and objective or ontological time is crucial to evaluating First Cause arguments, for by folding time and space into the singularity of quantum physics, one has arguably not thereby dismissed the question `what happened (in real time) before the Big Bang`.

But why is Craig so confident that the assimilation of objective time into imaginary time is philosophically confused? Because, as he says quoting D.H. Mellor, "Tense is so striking an aspect of reality that only the most compelling argument justifies denying it: namely, that the tensed view of time is self-contradictory and so cannot be true." Surely this is too strong! The fundamental modification of our experiential concepts is not without precedent. To claim that matter/energy and space/time convertibility - are conceptual violations we have come to live with would perhaps be question-begging in this context. But consider a different case - the case of the reduction of concepts such as intentionality in the framework of the mind/brain identity theory. While one might initially resist, on logical grounds, the possibility of such a reduction of subjectivity, the increasing plausibility of the identity theory, along with some compelling analogies, might gradually reduce the logical strangeness of the claim and in time undercut the philosophical objection to such a reduction. While I am not qualified to say whether the quantum account of time would be a good candidate for such a conceptual modification, a bit more modesty regarding our ordinary concepts seems to me appropriate for philosophers in this debate. Of course, it is quite possible that the strain on our ordinary concepts in the debate over time is a strain on MY concepts only, and that these things are crystal clear to others!

2) What is the significance of human conscious subjectivity?

Human conscious activity plays an important role in the essays of McMullin and Swinburne in providing the rationale for Divine creation. Those who (unlike Grunbaum) remain unsatisfied even when in possession of the quantum singularity, may seek a broader application of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Although Swinburne and McMullin disagree about the relevance of the anthropic principle, both contrive to provide a theological explanation for the universe based on the value to God of conscious life. Thus says McMullin "...Reasons could be given in the traditional Judaeo-Christian perspective, why God Would want man in the world." (49) Swinburne goes further and offers these reasons. God values intelligent life because it is mental life (161); mental life generates beliefs, which may amount to knowledge, which is itself a supreme good. Mental life also generates purpose, which issues in increasingly effective agency and hence power to change our environment and ourselves (and, Swinburne rather surprisingly adds, to reproduce). One good of creation, then, is the production of beings with rational agency. Another good is the beauty of order, which happens also to be necessary for the development of agency. Thus the sort of world we find ourselves in is suggestive of a Divine creator in at least two ways.

Swinburne sees his theological anthropology, when combined with his critique of multiple worlds theory, as providing `significant confirming value for the hypothesis that there is a God`(170). But there are at least two problems with this view: the privileging of the mental (the consciousness of man!) and the neglect of the problem of evil as a component of our background knowledge. First: why should God value intelligent life because it is mental life? Such a presumption relegates embodiment, sociality (and indeed intimate relationships) to instrumental status, being vehicles for the exercise of rationality and individual personal growth. Why shouldn`t the beauty and diversity of Creation, including the diversity of modes of sentience and adaptive intelligence, be the highest value instead? Such an analysis would be more in tune with current evolutionary science and theologies (such as Peacocke`s and Polkinghorne`s) which attempt to reduce the implicit dualism which privileges human consciousness, and instead situate human life in a biological continuum. The evolutionary approach allows God a more inclusive ethic and aesthetic, which is surely theologically preferable.

Swinburne`s second `sign`of God`s hand, the fact of orderliness, is problematic also. For why should the orderliness of Creation be contrasted with chaos? Surely this is special pleading. Orderliness might instead be seen as dull and contrasted with spontaneity and innovation, in which case the `further`evidence of God`s involvement would simply collapse into the argument from the value of human agency.

Finally, there is a colossal dissonance between the lived reality of many human beings and the world of Swinburne`s God in which we have `the power to choose what sort of beings to be; to grow or to neglect to grow` (163) Evil structures, acts and natural events preclude this possibility for many people. Some of us enjoy the conditions necessary for agency and growth. Many do not. Without a plausible story about them, that is, without a credible theodicy, the evidential power of the orderly and (sometimes) human-friendly universe is seriously diminished.

3) where are the women in these debates?

My final comments arise from my feminist habit of situating intellectual debates in relation to the liberatory aspirations and contributions of women. A cursory glance over the bibliography suggests that (unless they are numbered with the italicised-only minority) women have nothing to contribute to these discussions. I think this oversight is a loss for three reasons.

First: as a number of the contributors remark, scientific claims have a history, and are partial. John Leslie approves of Narlikar for recognising that `the elegant consistency of the standardly accepted results might be in part due to our accepting as àctually observed`only what squares with current dogmas`(11). G.F.R.Ellis recommends an attitude of professional modesty since `...the models and theories on which we base our understandings are partial representations of reality, not to be confused with reality itself.`(286). Feminist epistemologists (such as Lorraine Code and Sandra Harding) have devoted much attention to the problems of partiality and bias in science and to the prospects of attaining objectivity in spite of them. This literature could be usefully incorporated into the present discussions.

Second: some of the more interesting debates between cosmology and philosophy assume a common understanding of rationality. Thus, the Principle of Sufficient Reason, used in this volume to suggest that explanation does not end with a physical account, even of a beginning, presupposes that common criteria exist for a successful explanation. But is the notion of a sufficient reason so uniform? Doesn`t it matter to whom the account is given? Again, feminist philosophers have exposed systematic biases in the construction of the notion of rationality which might skew arguments such as Swinburne`s (who, after all, are these privileged beings for whom the development of agency and personal choice constitute the highest created good?). A feminist perspetive would, at the least, broaden the ethical debate.

Third: insofar as cosmology still relies heavily on creative imagination, and expresses itself in models and metaphors, a broader constituency might contribute to the advance of this science. Metaphors, after all, have one foot in the world of lived experience, and it can be argued that lived experience divides along gender (and other) lines. Consider the enormously fruitful (and beautiful) panentheistic metaphor of God`s relation to the world as the pregnant woman`s relation to her fetus - as a relation of intimacy, asymmetry, and mutuality. With the greater involvement of women, similar gynocentric metaphors could be made available for cosmology.