Search This Blog

Monday, April 11, 2011

Universe a closed or open system?

In Carl Sagan's now classic book (and later turned TV series) titled Cosmos he opens with the following lines, 
"The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." -Carl Sagan
 Sagan later states his intention in this documentary.
"We wish to pursue truth no matter where it leads, but to find the truth we need imagination and skeptism both. We will not be afraid to speculate but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact ..."
Unfortunately, Sagan was never true to his word as he never distinguished his opening statement as speculation as opposed to fact. The statement that 'The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be' is "speculation". Where are the facts to support this idea?

Francis A. Schaeffer in his book He is There and He is not Silent, points out this common unquestioned presupposition held by many. 
"This brings us to a very basic question. Is the biblical position intellectually possible? Is it possible to have intellectual integrity while holding to the position of verbalized, propositional revelation? I would answer this: It is not possible if you hold the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. "
A closed system encapsulates Sagan's statement because he is assuming that there is nothing outside of the cosmos and all that has effect on the cosmos is contained within the cosmos. The best definition of a closed system (as I understand it anyways) is: A physical system on which no outside influences act; closed so that nothing gets in or out of the system and nothing from the outside of the system can influence the system's observable behavior or properties. The only difference between Sagan's beliefs and a closed cosmos is that a closed cosmos does not exclude the existence of things existing outside of the cosmos, but only that those things don't have any effect on the cosmos. For our purposes the two concepts have the same observable result of us. 

Schaeffer goes on to say, 
"If you do, any idea of revelation becomes nonsense. It is not only that there are problems, in such a case, but that it becomes absolute nonsense if you really believe in the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system, namely, that everything is a machine. ... If I am completely committed, without question, to the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system, then whether I express myself in philosophical or religious terms, propositional, verbalized revelation - knowledge that man has from God - is a totally unthinkable concept. This is because by definition everything is a machine, so naturally there is no knowledge from the outside - from God."
This is a simple point, if you believe that the universe is a closed system then there is no logical place for the existence of the supernatural (supernatural: something that exists outside of the system and influences the system). Again, this is because one has defined the universe in such a way that it is an impossibility to have anything outside of it. Is this a fair assumption?  Is the universe really a closed system?

But then how do we go about answering this question?

Schaeffer seems to think that there is evidence to support the universe being an "limited" (open) system. 
"...if you are going to hold to the uniformity of natural causes in the closed system, against all the evidence (and I do insist it is against the evidence), then you will never, never be able to consider the other presupposition which began modern science in the first place: the uniformity of natural causes in a limited system, open to the reordering by God and by man."
In an earlier part of the book Schaeffer explains this claim about the presupposition which began modern science. [This is not necessarily the "evidence" that Schaeffer is referring to. I would be interested to hear anyone's thoughts on what this evidence it that Schaeffer is referring to - please comment on this post]. Schaeffer revisits this point again a few paragraphs after the above quotation in the following, 
"From the Christian viewpoint, we must come back and grasp really deeply what Oppenheimer and Whitehead have said about the birth of modern science. May I remind you of a point I made in an earlier chapter. Whitehead and Oppenheimer said modern science could not have been born except in the milieu of Christianity. Why? In the area of biblical Chrisitianity, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Francis Bacon - all these men, up to Newton and Faraday - understood that there was a universe there because God made it. And they believed, as Whitehead has so beautifully said, that because God was a reasonable God one could discover the truth of the universe by reason. So modern science was born. The Greeks had almost all the facts that the early scientists had, but it never turned into a science like modern science. This came, as Whitehead said, out of the fact that these men really were sure that the truth of the universe could be pursued in reason because it had been made by a reasonable God."
 "It was because the infinite-personal God who exists - not just an abstraction - made things together, that the early scientists had courage to expect to find out the explanation of the universe. The God who is there made the universe, with things together, in relationships. Indeed, the whole area of science turns upon the fact that he has made a world in which things are made to stand together, that there are relationships between things."
Schaeffer points out earlier in the book that J. Robert Oppenheimer and Alfred North Whitehead are both scientists but neither of them are Christians themselves. 

I have often wondered about how it is that the laws governing the universe are simple enough for us to understand. Why aren't they more complicated? Most people don't think math and science are simple, but the fact that we understand many of the rules and are able to apply them universally tell us that they are simple enough in comparison. (What if Newtonian physics were as complicated as Quantum physics, would anyone have been able intellectually wrestle their way to understanding in one lifetime?)

Back to the main question I was trying to ask: Is the universe a closed or open system? And what is the evidence for either way?

1 comment:

  1. See a later post this for one example I found of evidence of the universe as an open system.