Why Cosmology Matters Beyond Science
by Dr. Ghada Chehade
In previous articles, I explored the current crisis in cosmology and what it means to have a revolutionary shift or change in cosmology. In today’s article, I step back and explore why cosmology matters in the first place. Why does cosmology matter beyond science and to non-scientists? And, how does cosmology impact everyday life?
We know that the study of the universe is important to science. But cosmology has impacts far beyond science and has a significant cultural component. What we believe about the cosmos impacts our worldview and eventually influences how we view and organize our cultural and social institutions, values, and norms.
It also greatly impacts how we view ourselves in the world.1 While we may not think of culture when we think of cosmology, cosmology has greatly impacted everything from anthropology and art to philosophy, morality, religion, and even politics.
Historically, changes in cosmology have precipitated tectonic cultural and ideological shifts that have shaped and defined the course of history. But the relationship between cosmology and culture is not unidirectional; it is far more nuanced than that. Cosmological shifts are also a product of their time, and often grow out of and/or reinforce philosophical and socio-political milieus that benefit from or exploit the ideas promoted or reflected in a new cosmology.
Let’s look at these points in greater detail.
I. Galileo and The Scientific Revolution
Changes in cosmology can have tectonic ripple effects that influence the course of history. A classic example is Galileo (and the Copernican revolution) and the shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric model of cosmology. This shift was so profound that it sparked the Scientific Revolution. But it also had profound consequences beyond science. As the Educational Director of the Italian Consulate (in the US) explains, “Galileo’s ideas not only sparked a scientific revolution, they initiated a large-scale revolution in human thinking. He changed the way we see the world and, more importantly, how we perceive ourselves within it.”2
The shift from an earth-centric to a sun-centric view of the cosmos created a historic opportunity to unseat the power of the Church, bringing us into the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. This eventually impacted how humans perceived themselves. In time, Galileo and the Scientific Revolution led to what has been described as “the most important idea in modern history.” The idea that “any person, regardless of his or her individual characteristic, can seek and find the truth.”3 This meant that the Church and clergy were no longer the sole investigators and arbiters of the truth.
The Importance of Individuals and the Human Mind
The Church had served as the official intermediary between man and the universe and man and knowledge for centuries. Putting knowledge within reach of the individual and human deduction was a revolution in human thinking; one that landed Galileo in deep trouble with the Church.
However, the human mind as important and worthy of contemplation is an idea that predates Galileo, going back to Greek philosophy. When Socrates spoke of the need to “know thyself” he “changed the focus of the contemporary philosophy from nature to humans.”4 Promoting this type of thinking eventually got him executed for atheism; thus Galileo fared better than his philosophical predecessors.
This may be due to the environment in which Galileo’s ideas emerged. Galileo’s discoveries were bolstered by, and reinforced, Renaissance humanism—a philosophy that prioritizes and glorifies the potential of the individual and the human mind (especially in the areas of creativity and the arts.) Power structures tend to prop up or reinforce the cosmological trends and tenants that serve larger, pre-existing notions and agendas. While Galileo was condemned by the Church, he was also backed by certain segments of the aristocracy. Specifically, he had the patronage of Guidobaldo del Monte, a nobleman, and author of several important works on mechanics.5
The Scientific Revolution helped bring the fruits of humanism into the realm of politics. It shifted ultimate political power from the Church to the monarchy, which was good news for monarchies as well as the nobility—that could now rule without the blessing or approval of the Church. But the monarchy’s supremacy was short-lived as notions of human importance and self-actualization led learned individuals to question the absolute dominance of monarchs and rise up throughout history—most notably during the Enlightenment6—in a manner that eventually gave rise to Republics, the nation-state, and modern-day concepts of democracy.7 Overall, Galileo’s ideas reinforced and furthered the tide of humanism and were beneficial to opponents of the absolute power of the church, and, later on, the absolute power of monarchs.
Beyond politics, the technological advancements of the Scientific Revolution also shaped economics and labor, moving the west from a feudal system to economies that are—or were—industrial and factory-based. It has been noted that: “The Scientific Revolution lit a path that—centuries later, with the help of a lot of steam and coal power, money, and labor—led to the Industrial Revolution.”8 This triggered the necessary socio-cultural shift from a predominantly rural population to an increasingly urbanized one.
Galileo’s impact also affected and reinforced trends in the arts. Even before Galileo, “The humanist artists of the Italian renaissance…had invented [geometric] mathematical perspective to make possible the accurate, realistic portrayal of physical space.”9 Galileo’s influence reaffirmed and expanded upon the work and focus of Renaissance artists of his time. Artists of Galileo’s day responded favorably and enthusiastically to the new discoveries that science was making. In the end, the Scientific Revolution furthered the Renaissance obsession with representing man and nature accurately and realistically.
Rational Thinking in a Rational World?
Despite the vast cultural and technological impacts, for many, the most profound impact of the Scientific Revolution was how it helped shape our understanding of what it means to be human. Legal strategist Johnathan Sallet has noted: “Implied in the Scientific Revolution is the recognition that individuals matter and can think for themselves.”10 This is arguably the underlying tenet of the Enlightenment/the Age of Reason: That mankind/humankind is a rational, thinking being, capable of arriving at Truth, and therefore, enlightenment. Central to Enlightenment thought “were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition.”11 Implied in this belief is a view of the universe as reasonable and understandable; for how could humans apply reason to understand a universe that is not reasonable and not comprehensible.
Enlightenment thinkers “questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change.”12 The Enlightenment’s important 17th-century precursors included key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution such as Galileo as well the English thinkers Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes and the French philosopher Rene Descartes. While there was no single, unified Enlightenment, Enlightenment thinkers in England, France, and throughout Europe shared “the common Enlightenment themes of rational questioning and belief in progress through dialogue.”13 One can understand how these notions would benefit, and be bolstered by, powerful or influential individuals that favored Republics and parliamentary forms of governance since these are characterized by dialogue and cooperation between and among “the people” and/or their representatives.14 Here again, ideas about the universe and humankind’s place in it (i.e., cosmology and worldview) would eventually impact notions of governance and power.
This is an example of the nuanced relationship between cosmology/science and culture. The relationship can arguably be described as a feedback loop. Socio-cultural powers tend to adopt and then support those parts of cosmology that can shape and influence present and/or future outcomes and behavior.
II. Relativity and Relativism
Relativism is another, modern-day, example. While much has been noted about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—which is widely considered the foundation of modern-day cosmology15—and its influence on relativism, relativism (as an idea) goes back to the ancient world. Though it did not gain favor in ancient times and was refuted by philosophers such as Plato, arguments for relativism have existed throughout history.16 Moreover, there is presently no philosophical consensus on what relativism means. Relativism as I use it in this article refers to the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality are not absolute, known respectively as cognitive/ epistemological relativism and moral relativism.
This doctrine is influenced in part by descriptive relativism, an empirical and methodological position adopted by social anthropologists that highlight the lack of universally agreed upon norms, values, practices, and worldviews.17 In other words, the observation that different cultures have different values, views, and practices. Descriptive relativism is often used as the starting point for philosophical debates on relativism in general. This debate is beyond the scope of this article/show. I add only that cultural differences refer to the man-made world and do not necessarily preclude the universality of natural or physical laws.
All of this is to say that relativism is an idea that pre-dates Einstein and the Theory of Relativity. I believe that it was not until contemporary powers and interests (in politics, academia, and/or economics) had a need for and could benefit from moral and cognitive/epistemological relativism, that relativism was fully promoted and normalized in the popular culture. Einstein and his Special Theory of Relativity provided a good opportunity and catalyst for this. Reinforced by the Theory of Relativity, relativism eventually impacted art, philosophy, and modern culture; influencing and/or engendering everything from abstract/cubist art to postmodern theory and identity politics.18
As noted in an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The popularity of the very idea of relativism in the 20th century owes something to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905) which was to be used both as a model and as well as a vindication for various relativistic claims.”19 The article points to Gilbert Harman as one of the contemporary philosophers to use Einsteinian relativity as a model for philosophical versions of relativism. The article quotes Harman (1996) as saying:
“According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity even an object’s mass is relative to a choice of spatio-temporal framework. An object can have one mass in relation to one such framework and a different mass in relation to another…I am going to argue for a similar claim about moral right and wrong…I am going to argue that moral right and wrong…are always relative to a choice of moral framework.” 20
It is interesting to note that Harman wrote this in 1996, which is several decades after Einstein, and curiously, only a few years before identity politics began to gain serious and ubiquitous momentum as well as the support/backing of the establishment in the west. I have written extensively about the rise of identity politics—which is grounded in postmodern notions of relativism—and the replacement of traditional forms of left-wing mobilization and opposition with identity-based movements.21 In this scenario, relativism is exploited to fragment, dilute, and/or diffuse political opposition and ultimately to serve power.
Cognitive/epistemological relativism espouses the idea that “there is no absolute truth to be had,”22…since all truth is relative.23 Similarly, moral relativism holds that morality—i.e., right and wrong, good and bad—is relative and varies from person to person.24 Such notions fly in the face of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment eras’ emphasis on the ability of the rational individual to seek and find Truth (with a capital T). Prior to relativism, philosophers argued that there was an absolute truth and an absolute way of approaching various aspects of life, especially with respect to morality and moral obligations.25 To this day, the Law still relies on the founding premise that humans are capable of reason and do not necessarily operate within the confines of moral relativism.26
Law notwithstanding, postmodern philosophy—which emphasizes pluralism and relativism and rejects any certain belief and absolute value27—brought moral relativism into the socio-cultural milieu, creating a philosophical slippery slope that can arguably be exploited or abused, especially by those with power. As I note elsewhere:
“If there is no such thing as absolute right and wrong, then we are powerless to point out and confront the wrongs of those with power (be it political power, corporate power, etc.), since ‘everything is relative.’ In other words, arguing that there is no such thing as absolute right and wrong alleviates wrong doers—big or small—from responsibility and accountably for wrong-doing.” 28
Einstein was not a moral relativist and even recoiled at the misappropriation and misapplication of his theory in the non-sciences. As Einstein’s most prominent biographer, Walter Isaacson, explains:
“In both his science and his moral philosophy, Einstein was driven by a quest for certainty and deterministic laws. If his theory of relativity produced ripples that unsettled the realms of morality and culture, this was not caused by what Einstein believed but by how he was popularly interpreted.” 29
Similarly, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:
It is…worth noting that Einstein did not think that the Theory of Relativity supported relativism in ethics or epistemology because, although in his model simultaneity and sameness of place are relative to reference frames, the physical laws expressing such relativity are constant and universal and hence in no sense relative.30
It seems that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—and by extension contemporary cosmology—was misappropriated and misapplied in a manner that supports moral and cognitive relativism and the host of non-scientific or non-empirical interests they could potentially serve.
Paradox as the New Normal?
A common criticism against cognitive relativism is that it (semantically) contradicts or refutes itself. The statement “all is relative” holds itself to be absolute, therefore contradicting its original premise—that all is relative.31 Put another way, if the statement “all is relative” is an absolute, then this contradicts relativism. And, if the statement is relative, then it does not have to be—or cannot be—accepted as true. For this reason, many view relativism as a paradox.32
In western culture, paradox is increasingly presented as a good thing and is celebrated and promoted in all areas of life; using science and cosmology as a justification for such arguments. For instance, in a 2020 article entitled “Think Like Einstein: The Paradox Mindset,” the author notes that Einstein was used to conceiving and embracing opposite or contradictory ideas, and, that many Nobel Prize-winning scientists are known to actively conceive “multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously.” Describing this as a “paradox mindset,” the author encourages readers to do the same, arguing that: “Embracing contradictory ideas is one of the main assets for raising creativity” and “is a better way forward.” The author concludes that strangeness is a good thing, which is to be embraced in the workplace.33
Similarly, in a 2020 BBC article on work culture, the authors argue that “the paradox mindset” is the key to success in the workplace, stating that: “Although paradoxes often trip us up, embracing contradictory ideas may actually be the secret to creativity and leadership.”34 And in a talk at the 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) scholars argued that the key to promoting peacemaking and peaceful intervention overseas is paradoxical thinking, which they define as “information that is inconsistent with held beliefs”. . . and “raises the sense of absurdity.”35
It is strange, and perhaps disheartening, to see paradox promoted as a good thing in the world of politics and peacekeeping. It is also odd to see politics discussed at the National Academy of Science. This brings us back to earlier discussions about science and cosmology being used to justify larger and/or pre-existing interests and agendas. It also harkens back to what Thomas Kuhn implied about institutionalized science: that it is hegemonic and functions much like other institutions of power (such as religion or politics) and/or in the service of power. Promoting paradox and absurdity in politics and political intervention may be a way to disguise or preserve Empire and political hegemony, not least by framing inconsistency and absurdity as positive political strategies.
Rhetoric about the benefits of paradox in politics and the workplace is somewhat evocative of that found in media articles on contemporary cosmology, which embrace and celebrate cosmological “weirdness” and paradox, rather than problematizing it. As I note in my Thunderbolts video essay, Cosmology Crisis 2021, the increasing focus in mainstream media on the “strange and wacky” universe presents cosmic weirdness and contradiction as something that is matter of fact and non-problematic.36 Basically: the universe is a weird and unknowable place, and that’s Okay because the universe does not have to make sense.
If that’s the case, then contemporary cosmology has failed us, for what good are science and rational observation and analysis (which were hallmarks of the Enlightenment) if they cannot give us answers. Rather than admit the failure/inability of contemporary cosmology to provide answers or explanations, mainstream science, and mainstream media increasingly blame the failure on, and/or hide the failure behind, the strangeness of the universe. This suggests that mainstream cosmology is not actually interested in giving us answers. It also confirms what Thomas Kuhn infers about dominant or normal science: that it is hegemonic, dogmatic, and unyielding to falsification and change.
At the socio-cultural level, the promotion of a “paradox mindset” could be interpreted as giving people permission to act inconsistently, unpredictably, contradictory, and/or without integrity. Rather than admit that systems or policies (or scientific models) may be failing or contradictory, failure and contradiction can simply be repackaged as normal and acceptable. This signals to the public that traditional virtues and norms such as logic, predictability, consistency, accountability, and clarity are not to be expected from institutions, leaders, or centers of power. In terms of dominant discourse, this potentially opens the door to and/or justifies inconsistent, contradictory, and deceptive discourse and narratives.
As an aside, it is important to note that the paradox rationale is a tool that can only fully be exploited by those in a position of power. For if the average person on the street tried to argue in court that the Law is relative or could be interpreted in a contradictory manner, it probably would not go very well for them!
Everything we discussed drives home just how influential cosmology is beyond the sciences, and how much it shapes and impacts the broader culture and human thinking.
Cosmology, and changes in cosmology, have shaped and/or fostered everything from the Scientific Revolution to present-day forms of governance, industry, philosophy, and morality.
This process is not unidirectional; it happens through a nuanced and reciprocal relationship between socio-cultural power (or emerging power interests) and cosmology—with power adopting, appropriating, and/or advancing aspects of cosmology that can serve its interests.
With respect to the most recent sea change in cosmology—that of relativity and the big bang—theories and innovations in cosmology were misappropriated and misapplied by thinkers in the non-sciences in a manner that gave rise to various notions of relativism (cognitive, moral, cultural, etc.) and eventually fostered a culture and worldview that embraces, celebrates and/or promotes paradox, contradiction, and absurdity.
As noted in previous works37, the existing cosmology is presently in crisis and inevitably heading towards a revolution. Given everything we discussed today, what might a future cosmology look like, and, how will it impact the broader culture and human thinking?
These questions will be explored in future articles.
18 I discuss each of these in greater detail in a previous article. To view that discussion visit https://www.thunderbolts.info/wp/2021/03/20/the-long-farewell-to-the-big-bang-model-of-cosmology-2/
20 Harman, G., and J.J. Thomson, 1996, Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity, Oxford: Blackwell.
23 For more on the meaning of cognitive relativism see https://iep.utm.edu/cog-rel/
26 See Ibid.
32 See “On the Paradox of Cognitive Relativism” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9973.1980.tb00100.x
Copyright © 2021 Ghada Chehade. All content in this article is the sole property of the author and can only be reproduced with the expressed permission of the author, Ghada Chehade.
Dr. Ghada Chehade is an award-winning writer, social critic and performance poet. She spent over a decade as a political analyst, specializing in geopolitics and the study of socio-political change. Her articles and essays have been published in international publications such as Asia Times, The Political Anthropologist, and The Global Analyst. She recently broadened her focus to include an analysis of how changes in science and cosmology impact the larger culture. Dr. Chehade holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, an MA in Communication Studies and a PhD in Discourse Analysis, from McGill University. Her doctoral research won the award for Best Dissertation from the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing and was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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