Living with Uncertainty

Facing your fears, letting go, looking death in the eye — and the good life

Gerald Alper

(the excerpt to follow is an advance publication from a new book)

Night Thoughts of a Folk Cosmologist

Part One

In the sixties, I had turned away from academic philosophy. As I had turned away, or let slip through my fingers the full four year scholarship to NYU’s uptown engineering school. Instead, I would study the mind. I would find the Big Questions. If I were lucky, I would catch a glimpse of what today is called The Theory of Everything. Eminent teachers — Paul Edwards in analytic philosophy and William Barrett who introduced America to European existentialism — were on hand to guide me.

In hindsight, I would see this as the romanticisim of the amateur. I would learn painfully that wisdom, as William James famously noted, is not for the “tender-minded”. It meant taking the world, as it comes, on its own terms. Accepting that we are just one mind in a pluralism of conscious beings. Just one voice in a tower of Babel. “Just one,” again in James’ famous phrase, “among many.” That meant finding your own voice, your own purpose, your own vision, your own mind. And that, as anyone who tried it knows is superhumanly hard.

All this came back to me recently when I read Jim Holt’s marvelous new book: Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story? Holt, I could see, had lost none of his youthful passion for philosophy. Not only would he regularly review the latest trend in fundamental physics for the New Yorker — where I had been following his writing for years — but on occasion he would bring in metaphysics. Unlike speculative cosmologists, such as the great Sean Carroll of Cal Tech, who are wary of crossing over into the borderland of metaphysics, Holt seems unafraid. At times he even seems exhilarated by the novel vistas of thought opened up by the more free-ranging metaphysical point of view.

Thus, he is almost in awe, of Derek Parfit of the College of All Souls in Oxford. Parfit is famous for his ruminations on morality but he is more than willing to reflect on the creation of our universe. Was there anything before the Big Bang, was there even a “before”? Parfit suggests we first consider the possible antecedents of our universe. Well, there could be nothingness, absolute nothingness, no space, no time, no void, no energy, no gas, and no quantum fluctuations, no anything. He calls this, the simplest of all possibilities, the Null possibility. At the other end of the continuum it could be that every conceivable world exists. He calls this the All Worlds possibility. Somewhere in between is our world.

How, of all possible worlds, does our world get chosen? By a principle that Parfit clarifies which he calls “the Selector”. When Holt astutely enquires how the Selector comes to be, Parfit answers, “by a ‘Meta-Selector’, and so on. Until he comes to a final bedrock, a brute fact that has always been there, and therefore cannot be explained.

Not only does the author find this liberating, he is more than willing to join Parfit in the hunt for the right Selector. It is a metaphysical pursuit in which I cannot participate, I was reminded of Daniel Dennett’s metaphor of cranes and skyhooks. Cranes are useful machines that, by maximizing their leverage, can manage to lift enormous weights. Skyhooks are magical objects — that rest on nothing, that have no leverage, that descend from the sky — and miraculously lift whatever needs to be moved.

Metaphysical philosophers, such as Derek Parfit I had concluded, seem to be forsaking the real world. They stand on nothing. By turning away from the real world, which is the sole guarantor of our own beings, they enter a quasi-magical realm in search of a “skyhook” to bail them out. Jeremy Bernstein, the celebrated physicist turned author, who reviewed Holt’s book, made a telling point: noting (accurately) that Holt relies too heavily on symbolic logic to sort out problems that more properly belong to cosmology, he comments that “symbolic logic is essentially ‘contentless’”.

How, I wondered, does a metaphysical thinker manage — in the absence of any experience, anything you can know or imagine whatsoever — to think about nothing? How does he come to think of what he is doing as “useful” (as often happens)? Save for the genius of Ludwig Wittgenstein, I found such philosophers to be, essentially, high grade language-purifiers. There were no discoveries, revelations or surprises in metaphysics. The only surprises came from the novel thought experiments of philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, who are firmly rooted in this world.

By way of contrast, philosophers such as Derek Parfit are faced with the daunting task of working without any help from data, experimentation, and the results of critical predictions. Instead, they are to come up with compelling ideas about the possible connections or interface between the borders of our world and something ineffable (but unlike dark matter, which results in tangible, if astonishing effects). To me, this is analogous to trying to imagine, in detail, what the first five minutes in heaven might actually be like? (It is worth noting that so called near death experiences are invariably described in images culled from this world, images that would not be out of place on the face of a Hallmark card).

Holt closes out his tour of cutting edge cosmologists with a refreshing visit with a favorite writer, John Updike. The eminent author seems undaunted by metaphysical weightiness. He is happy to confess that he simply cannot “wrap his mind around” the fact that the world we know is supposed to have sprung from something smaller than a grape. He finds the biblical account of Genesis, and the claim that Jesus could raise people from the dead, less improbable than the standard model of the Big Bang. In a final piece of metaphysical irreverence, he notes that while he cannot imagine — that God in his infinitude could possibly take the world we live in seriously — he can conceive that He created it simply as a diverting “piece of light verse.”

Surprisingly, Holt feels “grounded” by Updike’s unflappable flippancy. Uncharacteristically he fails to note the elephant in the room: which is that Updike is presenting what philosophers call “the argument from incredulity” — what I cannot believe cannot be true. The world we know is replete with gruesome events — that before they occurred seemed unthinkable — yet did occur. To say that the world we know simply sprang from the command of Jehovah (or from the divine wish to personify a delightful piece of “light verse”) is far more improbable than the magnificently detailed (and repeatedly confirmed) account offered by the standard model of the Big Bang. Unwittingly, John Updike has fallen into the metaphysical trap so brilliantly elucidated by Richard Dawkins in his classic The Blind Watchmaker: i.e. the evolutionist who claims that human beings evolved from an original amoeba like state is not saying that such an admittedly remarkable outcome occurred in just a few giant steps — he is saying that over millions and millions of years and thousands and thousands of almost imperceptible incremental changes such an improbable change can and does occur. Analogously, the claim of the Big Bang model is not that the world we know sprang miraculously from an atom-sized point, but that over a span of 13.7 billion years — from an atom to a gas, to the first hydrogen molecule, the first gravitationally clumping together of disparate mass to the first incipient stars, planets meteorites and so on — we came to be. And from such a vast, cosmological perspective John Updike’s whimsical conceit of a God who writes light verse, cannot help, but seem a child- like denial of the world we live in.

So I was left with a dilemma. I had loved the unique blend of the cosmological with the metaphysical that was so scintillatingly on display in Why Does the World Exist? Holt was impressively learned, undaunted by the delicacies of logic, and refreshingly courtly (he would regularly interject before a long anticipated meeting with a famed thinker — “I revered him”.) But I could not fend off a nagging suspicion that Holt was also unduly deferential toward some of the most radical musings of the most radical metaphysicians.

Perhaps the prime example of this, was Holt’s selection of the Canadian speculative cosmologist, John Leslie, as the most compelling if far out, thinker of all. After a lifetime of cosmic musing Leslie has concluded that: the universe is essentially mental; that it is comprised of countless minds, all part of a totality that is an infinite mind; that the infinite mind is ethical; that ethics requires goodness; and that it is this principle of goodness, its need to be actualized, that ushers in the world as we come to know it.

At first puzzled and incredulous, Holt asks how is it possible that an abstraction, like the principle of goodness can call forth a world? “Because we are dealing with a time”, says Leslie, “when there is no matter, no forces, no physics”. Since there is only mind, there is no matter, no anything to oppose the principle of goodness from actualizing itself.

All of which, I will admit, makes no sense to me. You might as well say that just wishing for a star can create a universe out of nothingness because any hypothetical counterforce — in order to successfully oppose it — must first be real: i.e. exist. And nothing can exist in a state of nothingness except, of course, an infinite mind.

It is characteristic of the most radical speculative cosmology that it is not afraid to think in the most absolute way about the most absolute nothingness. This, according to Daniel Dennett is “like playing tennis without a net.” Part of Jim Holt’s immerse charm, I now decided, is because he is equally adept at playing tennis with and without a net. Thus his ambivalence allows him to revere great thinkers like Roger Penrose (my favorite cosmologist) while dismissing his core ideas — his admitted Platonism regarding the objective existence of numbers — as not intuitively commonsensical. His split is reflected in his persona which comes across, alternatively, as philosophically elusive and yet dauntingly learned and possessed of an almost laser-like focus and clarity.

So, not surprisingly, I was delighted to learn that Jim Holt and Sean Carroll had arranged to have a filmed conversation in downtown Los Angeles (5/27/13), As readers of my last book (The Elephant in the Room) well know, among younger contemporary cosmologists, there is no one whom I hold in higher regard than Sean Carroll. His recent book From Eternity to Here had resonated with me on many levels as few other books have.

Jim Holt began, as he so often does, with a declaration of courtly reverence: “I’ve now read your book twice and I think it is a masterpiece”. Later on, this would be periodically leavened with his trademark self-deprecation: “Whom am I to talk, I’m just a journalist, you’re the physicist.” Not to be outclassed, Sean Carroll shot back, “You’re doing just fine, keep talking.” In between such peaks and valleys, the meat and potatoes of the conversation, and the real Jim Holt appeared. Immediately after proclaiming From Eternity to Here to be a flat out masterpiece, he noted in passing that “Sean Carroll likes to gas a lot.”

Then Holt sprang what he likes to call a “trap”:

“I’d like to begin,” he said softly, “by asking you to define… in just one sentence… your definition of what reality is”.

Reflecting for only a moment, Carroll answered:

“Reality is a quantum wave function… as it develops.”

Here is what happened next:

Holt (genuinely puzzled): “Then is reality, at bottom, a mathematical object? Or is the quantum wave function a mathematical description of an underlying reality? And if so, what is that underling reality?”

Carroll (perhaps realizing that he had on his hands, not just a journalist, but an independent-minded discussant):

“Look, I’m not saying that this is a complete answer. It’s a question of vocabulary. Science progresses by going from the most manifest, intuitive image of reality, our picture, to more and more abstract levels which are father and father away from our direct experience. I think it is the least surprising thing in the world that at the most fundamental level of reality, our description would necessarily be so abstract and mathematical that all but a handful of specialists would be able to decipher them.”

This opening volley of question and answer was a template of what was to come for the ensuring hour. Each would take the measure of the other, and proceed accordingly. Holt would realize that not only could Carroll present the most abstract ideas with amazing clarity but that he was exceedingly comfortable on the slippery shore of speculative exploration. While Carroll would appreciate that Holt, in addition to being a well-known, New York journalist, was a splendid essayist, an obviously serious, original thinker, and was someone who seemed unintimidated by the vicissitudes of contemporary speculative cosmology.

Although I had been diligently following Holt’s New Yorker coverage of the latest trends in theoretical physics, I was impressed how expert he was at finding the soft, fuzzy borderland between speculative cosmology and the beginnings of metaphysics proper. It was obvious that Holt was only interested in asking probing questions about which he had thought deeply.

Holt: “It seems that the only thing that isn’t up for grabs in cosmology these days is space time.”

Carroll: “You know the next thing to go? Space.”

Holt: “I thought space was here to stay”

Carroll: “Time is more fundamental”

Holt: “I think the most fundamental, the greatest question in all of philosophy is — Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Carroll: “Science doesn’t deal with why questions. It deals with how questions”

Holt: “But doesn’t the question beg to be answered?”

Carroll: “Emotionally yes, but, intellectually I think it’s a pseudo question. Look, suppose you were to ask why is everybody gathered here tonight? Well, you might say because a lot of people are interested in these kinds of cosmological questions. Because some of them have seen or heard of me. Because they know about your book. But would you say that it’s because our ancestors managed to survive when the meteorite struck earth, and wiped out the dinosaurs? Because it’s true that if our mammalian ancestors hadn’t survived none of us would be here tonight. It’s also true that if the core of the earth hadn’t been formed four billion years ago — as the result of a random collision — we wouldn’t be here tonight. Yet nobody considers that a satisfying answer. Because why questions always depend on a local context.

“The problem with asking why this world and no other is that there is no context. You can’t step back or outside of this world. There are no Greek gods making different worlds and deciding which one to choose. There is only this world. At some point, you may not be able to ask why this world. You may just have to accept that this is the way it is. It’s a brute fact.”

It was here I think that I got in touch with my inner philosopher and I found myself boldly chiming in (in the privacy and safety of my mind). Why, I thought, isn’t the many worlds theory, which I knew Sean Carroll advocated, a violation of the principle of not stepping back from our world? Doesn’t it point to a world before the big bang, that is, to a world other then the only one we know? If many world theorists can posit that scenario as an explanation for why our world is so fine-tuned for life — why can’t we ask our question?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t criticize one theory for stepping back from the world while embracing another theory which does exactly the same thing — You can’t give a brilliant exposition, as Carroll does — of why causal explanations require antecedent claims of relevant local conditions- while simultaneously chastising theorists who do not accept that in certain instances all we can ever know are “brute facts”. What is an example of a “brute fact”? Time is an example. It may be, says Carroll, that there never was a beginning to time, that no matter how far you go back you will never arrive at a time when there was no time, and that that is because time is a “brute fact”.

Here I suggest that the universal question, Jim Holt’s question, the child’s question — why does the world exist? — has a point to it. To say that the world is the way it is — because it is a brute fact is no explanation at all. It may be true, but it explains nothing. To know that the world is the way it is because it is a brute fact is not to know anything you did not know before. It adds nothing to your knowledge. It sounds philosophical but offers no enlightenment. If anything, it undermines what you already know.

Here is another example of when cosmologists attempt to step outside of their space-time world with which we are most familiar. Sean Carroll cites Carl Sagan’s famous statement that –in order to make an apple — “you need first to make the startup conditions for life, you need an earth-like planet, you need a garden, trees, soil, in short you need a universe.” But this is flat out “wrong” says Carroll. Referring to Ludwig Boltzman, he notes that it is more probable that random fluctuations will come together and — just make a (single) apple pie — than to create the necessary start up conditions for an entire universe. In way of support Carroll points to the equally famous concept of “Boltzman brains”: isolated brains in vats floating in empty space that are actually thinking the thoughts that we imagine are real. As fantastic as this sounds, Carroll suggests that it may be more probable than the belief that random fluctuations somehow came together and actually created the startup conditions for an entire universe.

I could not help wondering if Sean Carroll really believes this. Didn’t Richard Feynman say — that if it were true that random fluctuations were the actual cause of low entropy in a particular patch of the universe (i.e. our planet) — then if you look far out into the universe you should not expect to see a similar pattern of low entropy anywhere else? Yet, that is exactly what you see. Which seems to disprove the hypothesis that any particular low entropy object — e.g. a piece of apple pie, a single brain — can be a completely isolated phenomenon (devoid of context).

Not only did that make sense to me, but I could not believe that even the great Boltzman could possibly know the probability for the occurrences of the Big Bang (which was established long after his death). How could he know that it is more probable that he would encounter a single apple pie floating in space? Or a single brain floating in space? Or any single object, say a simple bouncing ball bouncing in empty space? Does Boltzman believe that it is far more probable than a ball bouncing on the earth?

Boltzman is overlooking that no one has ever seen a bouncing ball, a brain in a jar, or an apple pie floating in empty space. He might point to the fact that the earth has already been created. He might think that his toy statistical model of molecules of gas moving in a container is sufficient to determine the odds for the startup conditions of the world, but how can he be sure? How can he be sure that the probability of encountering a ball bouncing in space is higher than the odds of encountering a planet like earth where balls bounce as determined by gravity? To know that he would need to be god-like — to be able to step outside of the system of the world — which is impossible. It may be that there is a better chance of finding a second earth then finding an apple pie floating in space. That is what Carl Sagan believed (which, for what it is worth, is what I believe).

Sean Carroll believes otherwise. Boltzman is necessary, he thinks, to explain the arrow of time. To answer the question why we can remember the past but not the future, why we can influence the future but not the past. Especially in light of the fact that the fundamental equations of physics (the equations of Einstein and of quantum mechanics) do not differentiate between the past and the future. Boltzman’s answer, according to Carroll, is simply probability. The reason entropy (disorder) always increases is that there are far more ways, it is far more probable say — for the molecules in a volume of gas — to be in any of a staggeringly large number of random arrangements than it is to be in a more ordered state.

Thus, says Carrol, it is likely — if you do not make your bed in the morning and time goes by — you will find it automatically gets more and more messy. There is no intrinsic law that this should happen, there is only Boltzmanian probability. It is probability that is the sole reason that we never see a broken egg reforming itself; the molecules of an opened perfume bottle reassembling themselves back into the bottle, or a piece of melting ice slowly beginning to unmelt. It is only because it is so astronomically improbable that it never happens. But give it enough time, give it, if necessary an eternity of time and it will happen.

Sean Carroll thinks that Boltzman is the key to answering the questions — why is there an arrow of time? Why were the initial startup conditions at the moment of the big bang in such a state of low entropy? But this seems to me to be Sean Carrolls’ question; not Boltzman’s. Boltzman had everything he needed to figure out how and why entropy increases: i.e. because the number of ways that the parts of a system (e.g. air molecules) can be rearranged without anyone noticing are so unimaginably vast. And if entropy always increases it means — from the standpoint of time — that tomorrow always has more entropy than today. That if you start counting backwards — 13.7 billion years until you reach the Big Bang and even before — then every yesterday must decrease in entropy (otherwise, if we change direction and now move forward, each new day would show a decrease in entropy — thus violating the second law of thermodynamics).

Boltzman, better than anyone else, knows this, so maybe he just wanted to know the startup conditions of the second law of thermodynamics — but not of the universe — maybe, since he was more interested in probability than strict determination. Boltzman didn’t care that much about whether the second law of thermodynamics was never — not once in eternity — to be violated. Maybe if the scrambled egg never unscrambled itself, if the piece of melted ice never unmelted — if there was something else besides probability involved in the second law of thermodynamics — Boltzman was not that concerned. He may have realized that there is little discernable difference between an event that is merely astronomically improbable but not impossible and an event that violates the known laws of physics. He may have realized that ultimately it is a metaphysical not a scientific question. He may have intuited that there is no way that such a hypothesis (of astronomical improbability) could ever be scientifically falsified.

The dilemma is not new. It is at least as old as the thousand-year old theological debate over the existence of free will. It reappears today in the researches of the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet: experimental proof that the brain ‘knows’ (that is, begins to prepare for action) — milliseconds before the conscious person becomes aware — of an intention to act. There is an ongoing controversy as to whether this proves anything at all, let alone the existence of free will. The prominent philosopher of science, John Searle, thinks the question is important enough to warrant an entire book devoted to it. The philosopher — king of cognitive science, Daniel Dennett, has not only written his own book on the subject, but he has nominated his position to be that of a compatibilist. What is a compatibilist? He or she, like Dennett, is a devout determinist, but sees no contradiction in accepting, even supporting, the “illusion of free will.” Why? Because without it, the moral fiber of our society — the absolute necessity that people be held accountable for the consequences of their actions — would be imperiled. Without it, we would be prey to the Orwellian fear that at bottom we are puppets dancing to the strings of nameless cosmic forces. Without it, the core of our being- our need to be seen as autonomous agents, as unmoved movers, as captains of our soul — is eroded.

This is where the psychodynamic perspective, which tries to view the various levels of the mind in their proper contexts, can help us. Dennett is looking primarily at one level of the mind. He is concentrating on the need for personal and social moral accountability (here it is worth noting that Dennett has been an upstanding member of ACLU). Because he dismisses the findings of introspective psychology, the psychodynamic perspective, and just about anything that bears the trace of psychoanalytic thinking, — he makes some glaring omissions.

Over thirty years of immersing myself in the conscious and unconscious lives of thousands of patients, has shed surprising light on the ancient debate over the existence of free will: Patients never come into therapy because they are tormented over the metaphysical question of whether their lives are ruled by free will or determinism.

Free will, for patients, means freedom from. Freedom from what? Freedom from coercion of every kind. Freedom from the daily prison of a job which they detest. Freedom from the unwavering scrutiny of a boss whom they do not respect. Freedom from the nagging complaints of an unhappy partner whom they no longer want to be with. No patient chooses to be afflicted with: depression; schizophrenia, flights of manic ideation; hallucinations; obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); panic attacks; the need for anger management; or any other diagnostic category that appears in the new and approved DSM V. Yet no patient can choose not to suffer from any of these disorders.

Intuitively patients understand, better than philosophers, that free will is about control, not metaphysics. They understand that choices are always constrained. They do not care if they are constrained by their brain, by their neurotransmitters; by their dynamic unconscious; by their D.N.A. They care if they are constrained by forces — whether external or internal — which they find oppressive. In this sense, what free will comes down to — for patients and people everywhere — is an abiding, deep-seated resolution: you are not going to tell me what to do. It is no more than the adult version of the little child’s nascent protest: you are not the boss of me! Far from metaphysical freedom, it is freedom from. Which is why patients — upon learning that some of their deepest motivation is fueled by a characterological trait (e.g. a fighting spirit) which they happen to like — will often proclaim (like Lady Gaga), “I was born that way!”… Or “It’s in my D.N.A.”!

From that perspective, the introduction of the term free will in the metaphysical sense, far from posing a deep philosophical conundrum, for the ages, clarifies absolutely nothing. Patients want the freedom to choose. When the chips are on the table, and their future is at stake, they want the last say. Who doesn’t? They want to brook no interference, to feel no pressure (externally or internally). We immediately see, they are talking about, not metaphysical freedom, but control issues. They do not care about their psychohistory, their brain-synapses, their D.N.A., their molecules. They care about the sense, or illusion, of being in charge of their destiny. If they are satisfied with their choices — and, unfortunately they often are not — they do not care if it is determinism that secretly (at the ultimate quantum mechanical level) is shaping their choices.

Listening to the narrated life stories of countless patients, you will rarely hear the word ‘freedom’. You will rarely hear chronicles of celebratory self-actualization — you will hear instead the weary voices of battered psyches that have taken one blow too many. More than depression, this is also the sober recognition of the never-ending constraints imposed on a lived life. They know too well the times they have felt trapped in relationships they could not stand but felt powerless to change. They know the times their friends betrayed them, the times they betrayed their friends, the times they betrayed themselves. They know the infinity of times they failed even to express themselves, let alone stand up for themselves.

So what do patients want? They want peace of mind. They want freedom from control. They want the incessant pressure of living to subside — to find a tiny space in the universe, where they can enjoy the illusion (they know on some level it is an illusion) that they are the captain of their soul.

And here is where religion, with its consolations, its promise of an afterlife, and above all, its unshakable certainties, enters the picture. (Sidney Carton, in Dickens’ immortal Tale of Two Cities, said it is as well as anyone: “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever gone”).

I was reminded of this when I recently came across a YouTube debate (2012) between Richard Dawkins, the world’s most public atheist and Cardinal Pell, the top catholic cleric in Australia. While I know Dawkins well (having read many of his books), I had never heard of Cardinal Pell. As always, I was most interested in the problem of theodicy, — why is there evil in the world? And as always, there was the classic rebuttal: God does not bring evil into the world, sinners do. The existence of evil is due to an abuse of the gift of free will. God wanted his children to have a say in their own destiny. He wanted to teach them responsibility. To learn to live with the consequences of bad choices, poor decisions, to have the power to do either good or evil, and to prepare oneself for the day of reckoning that is to come.

There is, of course, a fatal flaw in such reasoning. Having free will when it comes to choice does not mean having the power to invent or create evil. Only God can create (ex nihilo) something from nothing. But if God did create evil, for whatever purpose, who or what brought it into the world? A traditional theological rejoinder has been — the devil. If so, who created the being who became the devil? Who introduced us to the presence of evil? Who or what made it so tempting to those who embrace it? Who taught us what constitutes evil?

It is inconceivable that God does not possess free will. And God, we know, is good. It is possible, therefore, to be good and have free will. So why can’t God, if He chooses, create people who also are only good but who are also endowed with free will? Why is it necessary to create some people who are good and some people who are evil? Why was it necessary to create the devil? If God brought good into the world, who brought in pain and disease?

Of course there are theological rejoinders to such questions — and it is characteristic of them that they are far from satisfactory. How can it be said that the world we live in and see around us, is the best world He could possibly have created? The more one explores such matters, the more puzzling they become. For example, when Jesus was first born, did he know he had divine intelligence? At what age did He believe he was the son of man?

When did he acquire the ability to perform miracles? Could he really predict the future? Could he see in his mind’s eye the exquisite construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)?

In the debate, Cardinal Pell, deflected all such embarrassing objections by pointing to the richly metaphorical style of the bible. We are not, for example, to take the Old Testament literally, certainly not the account of creation given in Genesis. There, what was called a day could actually be a thousand years. Besides, the Old Testament is to be seen as merely a preparation for what was truly important — the coming of Christ.

Which prompts me to ask — is it possible then The Ten Commandments was only a metaphor? Were there in reality perhaps ten thousand commandments? And are there any metaphors in the New Testament? Could, for example, Jesus’ divinity be a metaphor? Jehovah and Jesus, after all, are not remotely similar gods. Could the so called miracle be only a metaphor? Did Jesus in his incarnation as a man feel sexual attraction? What are the criteria, by which theologians differentiate between what is metaphorical and what is real?

There is no one answer to such speculative, sweeping questions. There is no one point of view. Even in precision cosmology — the most comprehensively scientific, mathematically exact cataloguing of the evolution of the universe ever attempted — there are factions. There is a divide between physicists and philosophers. A divide between philosophers and laymen. A divide between scientists and theologians. A divide between the researcher and the popularizers. Between the professor and their post does. There may be no greater divide between those who devote much of their lives to precision cosmology (“there are only a small number of us” — Sean Carroll) and the rest of the world.

In his wonderful blog, Preposterous Universe, which I follow assiduously, Sean Carroll sums up the dilemma with trademark lucidity: “Anyone can ask the big questions”, He then contrasts this with the mind-boggling mathematical and physical exactitude demanded from a supposedly original research paper that can range anywhere from five pages to over a hundred. In short there could be no more of an astonishing contrast between the cosmology of the theologian and the cosmology of the dedicated professional scientist.

It is epitomized by the radical split — between science and the humanities — that results in what C.P.S. now once famously described as the “two cultures.” In terms of cosmology it is characterized by what might be termed “the two worlds of cosmology” (of course there are many more than just two). There is the lofty view of Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg and Sean Carroll, who cannot help but see the anthropomorphic universe, favored by the non-professional — as ridiculous. And to the rest of the world nothing could be more irrelevant, more chilling than the picture of — an almost infinitely extended universe, that is essentially barren (except for our tiny patch) a universe devoid of purpose and love — as painted by the scientist.