PITFALLS: Early attempts to explain the cosmos!

MONDAY, JULY 19, 2021

It may still be early: Explaining the cosmos has never been easy. Right at the start of his massive 1988 best-seller, A Brief History of Time, the late Stephen Hawking offered a whimsical alleged example—a whimsical alleged example from fairly modern times.

It's widely agreed that Hawking was one of our most brilliant physicists. He also had a flair for whimsy. In the very first paragraph of his book, he offered this example of an attempt to explain the world:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

That was Hawking's very first paragraph. To read the first half of his first chapter, you can just click here.

Hawking's anecdote involved some stereotypical types. For better or worse, it pitted the hopelessly daft "little old lady" against the supercilious high-end professor who thinks he knows it all.

If we regard this anecdote as anything other than whimsy,  an apparent disregard for actual fact is an additional part of the mix. Accepting this whimsical tale on its face, Hawking is willing to assert that a well-known scientist was confronted this way—but he isn't quite sure which one!

Presumably, this amusing anecdote is whimsy all the way down. But as he continues, Hawking makes an intriguing remark about our current state of certainty concerning the warp and woof of the world—of the universe or the cosmos:

Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better? What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end? Can we go back in time? Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions. Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun–or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises. Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.

"Only time (whatever that may be) will tell!" Given the title and subject matter of his book, Hawking was adding an additional measure of humor as his book's second paragraph ended. But as he did, he offered some observations which may resemble a warning:

Some of the things we believe today may turn out to be as ridiculous as that tortoise tower. Some of the things we believe today may turn out to be wrong!

Quite literally, that's what he said. It seems to us that that was a sensible warning. Indeed, it's quite conceivable that Hawking's wholly sensible warning isn't quite strong enough!

Within the western tradition, explaining the universe has always been hard.  In the beginning, it was hard, and it's still hard today. 

Our human reasoning capability has always been limited, flawed. Consider a portrait Hawking presents on the second page of his book, where he visits the man who, if only by inference, can be described as "the greatest logician until  Gödel came along."

Within the western tradition, Aristotle is widely and sensibly viewed as the first great logician. According to Hawking, he also reasoned in such ways as this:

Aristotle thought the earth was stationary and that the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars moved in circular orbits about the earth. He believed this because he felt, for mystical reasons, that the earth was the center of the universe, and that circular motion was the most perfect. This idea was elaborated by Ptolemy in the second century A.D. into a complete cosmological model...

The greatest logician formed this picture of the universe in accord with things he believed "for mystical reasons." A bit later in his opening chapter, Hawking visited Aristotle again:

According to a number of early cosmologies and the Jewish / Christian / Muslim tradition, the universe started at a finite, and not very distant, time in the past. One argument for such a beginning was the feeling that it was necessary to have “First Cause” to explain the existence of the universe...

Aristotle, and most of the other Greek philosophers, on the other hand, did not like the idea of a creation because it smacked too much of divine intervention. They believed, therefore, that the human race and the world around it had existed, and would exist, forever.

Aristotle didn't like the idea of a creation "because it smacked too much of divine intervention." 

Hawking doesn't say why Aristotle disliked that idea so much. But in some of these areas, Aristotle's approach is starting to sound like reliance on mystical beliefs a good part of the way down.

Nor did the types of reasoning we might regard as faulty come to a sudden end in the time of the ancients or by the shores of the Aegean.  In the second chapter of his book, Hawking notes that Isaac Newton—the greatest physicist prior to Einstein—was "very worried by" a certain idea about "absolute space" (whatever that may be) which emerged from Galileo. 

Newton was very worried by the idea that absolute space did not exist "because it did not accord with his idea of an absolute God." Without any question, Newtown was one of the history's greatest intellectual giants. But his reliance of that idea will likely sound like a type of faulty reasoning.

Meanwhile, Hawking warmed the cockles of our heart with another observation in his opening chapter. Was even Hawking allowed to say this? We're not sure, but on page 8, he did:

The question of whether the universe had a beginning in time and whether it is limited in space were later extensively examined by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in his monumental  (and very obscure) work Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781...

As Hawking continues, he describes Kant reasoning in ways which might seem faulty today. Just for today, ignore that!

In that passage, Hawking voiced a rather puckish view about Kant's extremely famous book. He dared  to describe the famous book as being "very obscure!"

That warmed the cockles of our heart. Not to boast, but we formulated the very same view when we were still in college, in October of junior year!

Describing the cosmos has always been hard. Right from the start, our capacity for reason has always been limited. Often, it has been faulty. 

Presentations which seem like explanations may reach imperfect ends. Consider the basic stuff of the universe.

At the dawn of the west,  Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that all matter was composed of atoms. The leading authority on the topic goes into more detail:

In the 5th century BCE, Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms. Nothing whatsoever is known about Leucippus except that he was the teacher of Democritus...Democritus's argument for the existence of atoms hinged on the idea that it is impossible to keep dividing matter for infinity and that matter must therefore be made up of extremely tiny particles. 

"Democritus's argument for the existence of atoms hinged on the idea that it is impossible to keep dividing matter for infinity." This argument makes a type of sense as far as it goes, which may not be all that far and may not be all the way down.

Democritus' reasoning let him stop torturing himself with pictures of an infinite process of the division of matter. This may have let him sleep better at night, but it left us with a type of problem:

We were now asked to posit a type of entity no one had even experienced before—a type of entity which couldn't be divided further or reduced in size. 

One can always imagine or say that some such entity exists. But one is also forced to admit that he or she has never encountered any such entity, and he or she may soon be asked why the hypothesized type of entity can't be reduced in size.

We're thereby left with a new mystery—with a mystery to be solved later. In that sense, we haven't been taken all the way down.

In our view, a similar problem lurks today with our possibly somewhat vague understanding of history's most famous equation: E = mc2.

In essence, and colloquially, that famous equation tells us that matter can be converted into energy. A very large "mystery to be solved later" may be lurking in that formulation, but let's leave that one for later.

Hawking began his book with a portrait of the classic querulous lady offering a fairly ridiculous view of the cosmos. Very quickly, he warns us that our own more advanced current views may some day turn out to wrong—may even come to seem "as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises."

That strikes us as sage advice. It's also true that many of the ways in which modern physics is described may perhaps be a bit incoherent. Given the follies of human reason, these presentations may be less than coherent pretty much all the way down.

Has anyone ever been able to explain Einstein to the general reader? For the most part, we're going to say that the answer is no, but the story doesn't end there.

Even at the highest ends of journalism, academia and publishing, very few people have ever been willing or able to notice and acknowledge this fact. A serious cynic might see it this way:

They keep pretending to make Einstein easy and we keep pretending to get it.

Was Aristotle's reasoning sometimes flawed? No doubt, but so is our own. When human reason swings center stage, the pitfalls are everywhere.

Tomorrow: Brian Greene's extremely clear statements

The past is prologue: Last week, we started with Richard Cohen's "miracle column." In his column,  Cohen said he didn't understand Hawking's widely-praised, best-selling book. 

Five months later, Charles Krauthammer said the same thing. Our ruminations started here. They'll continue along this week.


  1. "it pitted the hopelessly daft "little old lady" against the supercilious high-end professor who thinks he knows it all."

    Just because a member of the audience made a ridiculous statement, doesn't mean they were "pitted" against each other. And it doesn't make the lecturer supercilious either. Nor does the statement about turtles do anything whatsoever to challenge the actual knowledge held by that professor.

    Somerby seems to love these stories, but it is certainly true that someone can challenge another's knowledge, but that doesn't make them right or that professor any less knowledgeable.

  2. TDH: Given the follies of human reason, these presentations may be less than coherent pretty much all the way down...
    Was Aristotle's reasoning sometimes flawed? No doubt, but so is our own. When human reason swings center stage, the pitfalls are everywhere."

    Yeah, so what? What else have we got besides reason? Do we wait for Trump's "spiritual adviser" Paula White to provide us the answers?


  3. "He believed this because he felt, for mystical reasons, that the earth was the center of the universe..."

    Hmm, "for mystical reasons", really? It seems to us that there's nothing inherently wrong with declaring any point in space 'the center of the universe', and the location of the observer (the geocentric system) is, in a sense, the most natural of all of them. It's just that choosing some other point (the heliocentric model) makes it easier to write formulas.

    1. Be careful, Mao. If you keep writing comments like that, you'll lose your well-earned reputation for abject stupidity.

  4. We live in a country based not on reason but on the primitive might-makes-right thuggery of a kleptocratic corporate-based class that we foolishly allow to brutalize people and plunder the biosphere unhindered.

    1. glaucon - that's putting it kind of harshly. Are there any countries that don't do that?

  5. The world's greatest physics book says one kilogram is approximately twenty-five thousand gigawatt-hours.


    1. You wrote, "The world's greatest physics book says one kilogram is approximately twenty-five thousand gigawatt-hours."
      So what's your point? Do you support or reject that statement?

  6. For "mystical reasons"? Couldn't that be said about anyone's belief about anything? I'm not a big Aristotle fan, largely because his extant Greek is impenetrable (sadly, he was said to be a brilliant prose stylist in his public writings, but none of that survives), but he was super smart. Whenever I do understand him, usually after days of puzzlement, my reaction is always, "Oh, that's so brilliant."

  7. Oh, and I momentarily forgot about the slavery stuff Aristotle wrote. That was unfortunate and has brought a lot of real grief to the world.

    And he was the basis for Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most boring philosopher ever thrown up by the western tradition, though that's been a much contested accolade.

  8. The flat plate on a stack of turtles is the basis of the hilarious Disc World series of novels by the late Terry Pratchett

  9. "Within the western tradition, explaining the universe has always been hard. In the beginning, it was hard, and it's still hard today."

    Explaining the universe is less hard today than it was when Hawking wrote his book, and certainly less hard than "in the beginning" because we have better methods of observing and measuring the universe. The Hubble telescope, for example. Scientists are watching the birth and death of stars and black holes, identifying new forms of matter, and that is changing theories about the origins of the universe.

    Scientists are not wrong about the universe because of poor reasoning ability, as Somerby seems to suggest, but because of incomplete information. The more we observe, the better our theories become, the more solidly grounded they are in reality, and the less likely to be completely wrong. The corrections become more minute, the more we know from scientific research.

    It is frustrating when Somerby equates science with folk wisdom (turtles). There is no similarity between the two because science is derived from entirely different epistemological sources than religion or superstition or folk belief.

    Our ability to reason has nothing to do with any of this. Philosophers use reason to test their arguments. But philosophy is not an empirical field. Philosophy was great when all we had was daily life and deep thoughts to figure out the world. That changed with Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the emergence of scientific method -- a means of testing ideas using data instead of "logic" and reasoning. The rapid advances in our knowledge of our world and the universe have come about because of scientific method which enabled development of technology, which has in turn deepened our ability to observe and measure many things. And that has led to progress that is very different than in the preceding millenia.

    Somerby seems to be ignorant of the history of science, how science works, and why scientific findings are not as readily overturned as a pile of turtles. I am, of course, giving him the benefit of the doubt when I call him ignorant. He could be fully aware of his falsehoods here and attacking science in the name of conservative goals and Trump's triumphant return to office. Hard to know what is true about Somerby.

  10. "Very quickly, he warns us that our own more advanced current views may some day turn out to wrong—may even come to seem "as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises.""

    I doubt Hawking actually believes this. I think he may be hedging his bets against future discoveries, since he is writing a book that he hopes will have some staying power among readers. No one wants to look foolish in the eyes of posterity, so his simple hedge can protect him by showing some modest skepticism.

    Somerby never deals in probabilities or likelihoods. If Hawking were asked to attach some probability to current thinking being as ridiculous in the future as those turtles, I'll bet it would be very tiny, approaching zero. Somerby treats these very small probabilities as if they were certainties (p = 1).

    Does it really make sense to anyone here that Steven Hawking's life work should have as little truth value as a stack of turtles? It doesn't to me. If it did, it would amount to making shit up. That is what Somerby thinks experts do, but it isn't in fact a true evaluation of the value of their work.

    1. It was Hawking’s comparison. He contrasted what is known today with the turtles.

      Hawking could have contrasted what we know now with the erroneous, but not built upon turtles, Earth-centric solar system. Yet he didn’t.

      What ARE all the things we don’t know..that Hawking was suggesting we DON’T know?

      And wasn’t that great unknown Hawking’s precise point?

    2. It was Hawking's comparison which Somerby CHOSE to excerpt, thus giving it emphasis and approval.

      Note that the Earth-centric solar system was contradicted by observated data (collected by Tycho Brahe). And no, the great unknown was NOT Hawking's precise point. The rest of his book is about what we DO know.

      Somerby has a habit of calling someone a good decent person before trashing them. That disclaimer is not the substance of his essay, the trashing is. In this way, focusing on Hawking's disclaimer, the "I could be wrong but..." instead of what comes after the word "but," is a distortion of his meaning. This was a book about what Hawking thinks we know, not what we don't know -- that is Somerby's fiction.

    3. It’s a book about what Hawking say that we THINK that we know. There may be discoveries that add to what we think we know about universe or refute or reinterpret some concept that we consider to be fact.

      That is Hawking’s point, to which Somerby says “Boy howdy”.

      That’s not trashing Hawking and it’s not counter to the thrust of his book. This particular post isn’t a book review, bro, it’s a post about Bob’s thoughts on these matters. You may disagree with those thoughts, but they’re not pernicious.

  11. Somerby should not have ever been allowed anywhere near impressionable children.

  12. Thank you for posting such a great information ……. Ross Return Policy

  13. Mr Somerby, I would like to try and pave the way for you into Einstein's theory of gravitation. The following explanation, as far as it goes, has seemed to be clarifying for some listeners.

    But before I do, some thoughts on Aristotle.

    During a lockdown I read through my father's copy of R.J.Collingwood's Metaphysics (1929). Collingwood wrote it because he believed that the Logical Positivist school were missing out on a foundational part of thinking, that is, our implicit (and maybe unconscious) preconceptions -- about the real world, and thinking, and the thinker, and so on. The stuff we take for granted, but without which we could scarcely think effectively at all.

    Including “God”, as Aristotle made use of the concept.

    In brief, you have to think that the universe makes sense. Otherwise, why bother? And you have to think that, at bottom, it makes sense in just one way. No ambiguity, no contradictions -- at least from the (omniscient) point of view of an Original Being, so to speak. Aristotle, as best I understand it, used the word “logos” to mean just The Way It All Makes Sense. And he used the word “telos” to mean The Point of It All -- the reason for the cosmos, its end purpose. One can wonder if there is an objective telos, but it's a bit bold to argue with conviction that there is no point to existence at all. (Wittgenstein, maybe?)

    So “God” is whatever understands the logos, and the telos has be be in accord with it. And without those, many have argued, you might as well give up.

    Collingwood argues that we would never have gotten started with science unless we assumed that the universe, or nature, has a single basis which if we got it right would be rational. As opposed to, say, an animist picture of things, with many natural non-human beings, each with its own will and its own domain.

    Now for years and years, whenever Dad would argue that founding scientists like Newton and Boyle had to be serious about their theism, I was skeptical. It was all observation and reason, I said. But on reading Collingwood, I get it. It makes sense.

    And that seems to be the extent of Aristotle's “mysticism”. He was really very austere. Everything he wrote was subject to rational discussion. There was nothing you had to take on faith, there were no mystery ceremonies you had to attend. The rational philosopher's bedrock and eternal patron, is Aristotle.

    I had just this caveat: if for the word “God” you substitute the word “mathematics” then it almost all still works. No matter what we think, mathematics may be The Way It All Makes Sense. So we have a logos. Whatever exists, it must be in accordance with mathematical consistency. It's just that we don't have a telos: there's no ultimate principle that makes physical existence necessary. Mathematical consistency gets on fine without us. An infinite number of undiscovered theorems are getting on fine without us. Do we need a telos? Opinions differ.

    Okay, I've said too much. What I finally want to say is that good authors are prone to overstate and oversimplify things in their popular introductions. We shouldn't get too cross with Hawking if he gives us a straw man or two instead of a strict reading of Aristotle.

  14. “Okay, I've said too much”

    Not at all. Interesting post!

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