Opinion: Where did the physical universe come from?


By Ozodi Thomas Osuji – Before I get to my subject, let me first briefly describe the march of Western science. The march of Western science from its roots in Greece to today is a fascinating story. We know that about twenty five hundred years ago something extraordinary happened in ancient Greece.  Men began using pure reason in their efforts to understand the world they lived in. Prior to that time, and as is still in many parts of the world today, human being felt the need to explain their world and circumstances through the auspices of the gods. They attributed the origin of the world to the gods, and explained what happened to them by projecting causation to the gods. Having posited the gods as responsible for everything they sought ways to appease those gods by praying to them, asking them to please do this or that for them in return for them, human beings worshipping them. The incredible aspect of it all is that none of them ever saw those gods that they were praying to thus leaving us no choice but to say that they were human inventions. Human beings, in effect, said something and then attributed their sayings to imaginary gods. The Greeks, on the other hand, decided to stop projecting their thoughts to imaginary gods and simply had thoughts about their world; thus, the beginning of secular philosophy. Initially, they approached their world from pure reasoning, what we now call philosophy but a few of them also approached it from the scientific perspective in the sense that they simply observed the way that the world worked and wrote about it without the need to apply how their reasons told them that it should work. Democritus even reached the conclusion that the world is composed of indivisible parts that he called atoms.

Greek philosophy, more or less, survived in the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire fell around 450 AD. Subsequent to the chaos and power vacuum that characterized the fall and decline of the Roman Empire the Catholic Church rose. The ascendant Catholic Church apparently returned the West to time tested ways of approaching phenomena: attributed causation of events to the gods, in this case to a Jewish man that was supposedly crucified on the cross, Jesus Christ. There is actually no evidence that such a man ever lived but that is no matter, what is salient is that the West returned to theological modes of explaining phenomena and thus entered the dark ages. The light that was Greece was put out and human beings returned to superstitious living.

The West was in this dark state until the Arab Muslims conquered southern Europe and brought the Greek learning that they had acquired in the various Mediterranean lands they had conquered back into Europe. Greek learning had survived in Alexandria, Egypt so when the Arabs conquered Egypt they had access to that learning and their scholars eventually brought it to Spain and to the other parts of Europe they conquered in the eight century.

Gradually, Greek learning returned to Europe. Initially such learning was in the nature of philosophy, that is, rationalistic approach to phenomena but not attempt to observe phenomena as it is.  The Catholic Church’s thinkers such as Ambrose, Athanasius, Saint Augustine, Erasmus, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas employed Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy to explain their teachings in a kind of philosophy called theology, a philosophy that apriori accepted the existence of god without proving his existence as true.  Thomism influenced Western theology. Eventually, though, some persons broke free from the Church and posited ideas about the workings of the world without the need to do so through the auspices of the gods.

In 1543 the Polish Monk, Nicolas Copernicus, wrote a book arguing that the earth is not the center of the universe. This challenged the Church’s teaching that the earth is the center of the universe, the idea that God created man and his world and placed them in the center of everything.  The Catholic Church taught that God created man special and placed him in a special planet but Copernicus and those after him tried to prove that there is nothing special about human beings and the world they lived at.

Copernicus’ writing was speculative and not proved with observations. In the 1600s Galileo provided observational evidence that the sun is the center of the local solar system we live in. He used telescopes to prove his findings. Galileo is generally considered the father of modern science in the sense that his conclusions were rooted in empirical observation and those that were not verified were discarded as mere interesting ideas but not scientific ideas.

To reinforce its theological view, the Church wanted to kill Galileo for challenging its earth centric view of the universe; he was forced to recant his views lest he is killed.  But the idea of science was sown. Thus soon folks began to use pure observation in trying to understand their world.  Kepler, Tyco Brahe and others posited observational finding about the workings of the stars. In 1688 Isaac Newton wrote his famous book positing the three laws of motion, and gravitation and in so doing began the physics of mechanics.  In other areas folks like Harvey dissected the human body to find out how it works and showed that blood circulated in certain ways in the body and the science of physiology and anatomy was born.

In 1803 Robert Dalton resurrected the Greek notion that things are constituted of parts that could not be divided beyond the atom. Later in the nineteenth century discoveries were made as to how atoms behaved, especially regarding gases (such as the finding of Robert Boyle). Michael Faraday discovered electricity. James Clark Maxwell eventually posited his famous equations that unified electricity and magnetism.

By the end of the nineteenth century physics was set on its scientific path and studied mechanics, heat, sound, electricity and light. Some believed that physics had discovered all the laws of nature that needed to be discovered and the rest is providing details to them. But were such folks ready to be surprised for in 1900 Max Planck shocked the world by showing that the laws of the big, (the macroscopic world) are different from the laws that governed the microscopic (particles) world. He inadvertently initiated quantum mechanics by discovering the quanta (particles of light). With Planck classical physics aka Newtonian physics was ended or added to by a new physics, aka quantum mechanics.