Science and Marxism

Concepts of the universe – an historical survey

One of the major themes running throughout Reason in Revolt is the infinite. Woods repeats many times, claiming the support of dialectical materialism, that the universe is infinite in space and time: “Dialectical materialism conceives of the universe as infinite.” (p189)

One of the major themes running throughout Reason in Revolt is the infinite. Woods repeats many times, claiming the support of dialectical materialism, that the universe is infinite in space and time: “Dialectical materialism conceives of the universe as infinite.” (p189)

“From the standpoint of dialectical materialism,” Woods intones, it is “arrant nonsense” to talk about the beginning of time or the creation of matter:

Time, space and motion are the mode of existence of matter, which can neither be created nor destroyed. The universe has existed for all time (pp198-9)

Is it true that dialectical materialism conceives of the universe as infinite in time and space? Is it a materialist claim? Is it a dialectical claim?

The view that the universe is infinite in time and space may strike many people as a perfectly natural one. This concept has developed over the last five hundred years and should be understood in its historical development. It is a view that arises from definite historical and social conditions.

The Big Bang theory may well seem contrary to common sense to many readers. If we start from the very beginning – with the ancient Greek philosophers from whom so much has been learnt, even by modern scientists – we will find the answer to why science has taken this plunge into what appears on the surface to be an assertion that something can come out of ‘nothing’: that the universe – all its matter and energy, time and space – can emerge from the Big Bang. We will also discover the real material basis on which science establishes the origins of our universe, and the ancient dialectical concepts which proved so perceptive.

But first, a few remarks on what is meant by ‘universe’ and ‘infinity’.

One universe or many?

Firstly, what does Woods mean by the ‘universe’? When we say “the world” we may mean one of two things. We may mean the entire universe, or we may be referring to the earth. But what precisely do we mean by the ‘entire universe’?

No one imagined galaxies beyond our own, let alone universes, until a remarkable eighteenth century German philosopher suggested that there were other “island universes”.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), son of a German craftsman, introduced dialectics into modern philosophy

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), son of a German craftsman, introduced dialectics into modern philosophy

This philosopher was Immanuel Kant, who was later to reintroduce the ancient Greek concept of dialectics into modern philosophy. In the late nineteenth century Engels enthusiastically praised Kant’s foresight and, in time, island universes were discovered by powerful telescopes, and termed ‘galaxies’. By the 1920s, the very great distances of some of these galaxies from our own galaxy had been measured.

After Einstein overturned Newtonian physics, especially with the advent of the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, it became possible to conceive of universes outside of our own, leading to various concepts of a multiverse or meta-universe – a set of universes which are speculated to arise in various ways. So now, when we say ‘the universe’ we may not mean everything that exists, but only ‘our universe’ as opposed to possible other universes. To most physicists the term ‘the universe’ tends to refer to our universe, the universe we can observe. The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, who adopts the term “our universe” in this way, writes:

What’s conventionally called ‘the universe’ could be just one member of an ensemble. Countless others may exist in which the laws [of physics] are different…

This new concept is, potentially, as drastic an enlargement of our cosmic perspective as the shift from pre-Copernican ideas to the realisation that the Earth is orbiting a typical star on the edge of the Milky Way, itself just one galaxy among countless others…

The big bang that triggered our entire universe is, in this grander perspective, an infinitesimal part of an elaborate structure that extends far beyond the range of any telescope. (Rees, Before the Beginning, Our universe and others, p3-4)

Our universe appears to have had a hot, dense origin popularly known as the Big Bang. It does not exclude the possibility of other universes beyond our own. Scientists speculate about a substratum, as we term it here, from which universes might naturally arise. For instance, some envisage universes budding off from a quantum substratum like bubbles budding off from foam. But in modern science neither our universe, nor a multiverse consisting of many universes, is compatible with the old Newtonian universe defended by Woods.

For many scientists today, one significant element of our universe is the special physical attributes of atomic particles and forces of which it is comprised: “The entire physical world,” says Rees, referring to our universe, “is essentially determined by a few basic ‘constants’: the masses of some so-called elementary particles, the strength of the forces – electric, nuclear and gravitational – that bind them together and govern their motions.” (Rees, Before the Beginning, p236)

But if these forces were only marginally different the universe that we know would be a physical impossibility. Yet we do not know whether these forces are the only possible combination of constants – maybe there are many other possible variations, producing many other types of universe, beyond our own, which are hardly conceivable to us today.

In our universe the known physical laws appear to apply universally, and the space, time, matter and energy of our universe are bound together. Scientists often use the term space-time, meaning, in a special sense, that time and space together can be treated as a single phenomenon. This discovery was based on Einstein’s theory of relatively, which also showed that mass and energy are linked. For instance, when an atomic bomb explodes a small amount of enriched uranium is converted into a massive amount of energy, a dreadful demonstration of the truth of Einstein’s theory.

In Newton’s universe, space and time have an absolute existence of their own, independent of each other and of matter. Einstein showed that if the mass of our universe exceeded a certain amount, the gravitational effect of all that mass would cause space-time to bend until the universe became ‘closed’ like a sphere (which has three dimensions), but in the four dimensions of space-time (which is not easily conceived by us). By closed, we roughly mean that anyone travelling in the universe in what appears to be a straight line could eventually find themselves back at their starting point, as if we were ants scurrying around the inside wall of a gigantic football.

Diagram: Space and time is bent around a massive object such as a star (shown by the dimple). To an observer from a distance, distances have been shortened, and time is also running a little slower.

Light (shown by the line) passing nearby is bent from the straight path indicated by the dashes.

We will discuss how Einstein revolutionised our concepts of time and space in the course of this survey. But to anticipate these arguments slightly, let us take a moment to consider what this remarkable concept means. A star, like our sun, bends space and time – something that has been routinely confirmed by observation since 1919.

Light travelling to earth from a star will be bent if it passes close to an intermediate star or galaxy. Space and time are bent by the great mass of this intermediate star or galaxy, and light passing through this bent space and time behaves just as if it was going though a gigantic lens. Today, this is routinely observed and quantified. It can give rise to gravitational lensing, an extremely useful tool in astronomy, in which a galaxy or other object in front of a distant object acts like a giant magnifying glass.

In the same way, the mass of all the stars in the universe collectively, together with other matter, have the effect of bending the space and time of the entire universe – and if there is enough mass, it could be bent right round back on itself in various ways. Current observations, however, suggest that there is not enough mass for this to happen.

We should point out that Woods calls this result of Einstein’s general theory of relativity a “regression to the mediaeval world outlook of a finite universe”, in a short passage particularly densely populated with false ideas. (pp382-3) But we should also point out that earlier in Reason in Revolt, Woods has already unintentionally endorsed the idea of space-time bending, not once but twice: “This was proved in 1919, when it was shown that light bends under the force of gravity.” (p106) Later, Woods presents both his viewpoints on the same page, first appearing to deny or at least denigrate Einstein’s theory and then going on to say that:

… [Einstein] predicted that a gravitational field would bend light rays… In 1919… Einstein’s brilliant theory was demonstrated in practice. (p154)

Woods seems to fail to grasp here that the 1919 experiment attempted to show that space – ‘empty space’ – is indeed distorted by the existence of a massive body and that the effect of gravity is a consequence of this distortion. Arthur Eddington’s famous 1919 observations, taken during an eclipse on the island of Principe off the West African coast, showed that light from a star that passed very close to the sun was indeed bent by the mass of the sun.

Eddington’s grand expedition was the first experimental test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. His measurements were soon improved upon, and much more accurate measurements have confirmed his result – the confirmation of Einstein’s prediction that space and time is warped. Newton’s theory of gravity can also be used to suggest that light bends by a certain amount. But Einstein’s theory predicts that the gravitational effect on light should cause it to bend by roughly twice as much as predicted by Newtonian science – and light does, indeed, bend by the amount predicted by the general theory of relativity as it follows the curvature of space-time.

When scientists today speculate about other ‘island universes’ they may envisage universes governed by different laws which lie beyond the space-time of our universe and which, therefore, could not be measured in distances and times from our universe. Such universes might not be gravitationally attracted to one another or to the matter in our universe and may have none of the basic ‘constants’ as Rees calls them, of our universe – or even, some suggest, the same space-time dimensions. Science stands on the very first stepping-stone of a path to the possible discovery of other universes, in the same way that Kant anticipated a vast enlargement of our horizons when he speculated about other ‘island universes’. So the term ‘the universe’ today can either refer specifically to our universe or, more broadly, to our universe and anything that may lie beyond it. But Woods is defending the old Newtonian notion of an essentially unchanging universe comprised of infinite time and space with “galaxies and more galaxies stretching out to infinity”.

Next: What is infinity?