Origins of the Universe
Today, the presiding theories for the origin of the universe are the varying religious ones and the Big Bang Theory. There are a few philosophical distinctions to be made among those who take a religious view of the creation of the universe. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that not all religious thinkers interpreted their sacred texts literally; for example, a Christian may be a creationist and believe the world was created in 6 days, or they may be a theistic evolutionist who takes the story as metaphor and reconciles scientific findings with their faith (e.g. evolution is true, but only because of God's intent). Secondly, in monotheistic religions, there are differences between the attitude that their god is constantly intervening to exert their will, and the deist idea that the creation was so perfect it needs no more tending. The latter looks to the analogy of a human watchmaker for philosophical backing, reasoning that a good watchmaker need not continue to go in and tinker with the watch once it is completed. However, the context of this analogy is the environment of Earth that allows a watch to run unattended so it is fallacious to drawn comparison between these conditions and the environment of the whole of cosmic existence1.
The Big Bang Theory, proposed by the Belgian priest and professor of physics Georges Lemaitre and widely attributed to Edwin Hubble, provoked much philosophical controversy at its genesis. Although Lemaitre's calculations are a correct use of Einstein's theory of relativity, not even Einstein himself wished to accept the idea of an expanding universe, and went so far as to construct the 'cosmological constant' which would prevent this (though he later called this weakness of scientific objectivity his 'greatest blunder'2). There were multiple religious objections concerning the proposed age of the universe and the creatorless nature of the theory, and also much philosophical interest in the implications of an expanding universe for the beginning and end of time. While other theories, such as the steady-state ones, do exist, the Big Bang has the most evidence and is therefore the current scientific explanation, regardless of philosophically-motivated objections.
Origins of Life
Cultures everywhere have looked to gods and religions when pondering the origins of life. It was not until the 6th century B.C. that Thales, a sage of early Greek society, attempted to disentangle theology and science3. He proposed that life originated from water, due to its abundance and the dependency on it shared by all living things. Later, his students' students and their contemporaries would argue that others of the four 'humours' - primarily air or fire - were responsible for giving life, but Thales' first student, Anaximander had a different idea. He considered the prolonged weakness of human young as compared to that of animals and rationalised that in order to survive, we must have once been hatched fully-formed and capable of defending ourselves, from much better-defended parents3. These thorny-shelled parents were hypothesised to have originated from wet slime and sun when acted upon by a mysterious force he named 'apherion' and while this does not reflect current scientific thinking, it does provide a first, tentative step toward a theory of evolution wherein species are not immutable.
From this idea, expanded upon by others after Anaximander, Aristotle put forth the notion of spontaneous generation. He reasoned that while some animals were born of reproduction as we understand it today, others, mostly insects, were able to come forth parentless from things like snow, putrefying meat and fire4. Considering how maggots appear to grow from nothing out of rotting meat, it is understandable that someone lacking our scientific knowledge and instruments would come to this conclusion, but it was not until the 16th century, with the emergence of microbiology pioneered by Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek, that the theory began to be discredited. However, the study of modern abiogenesis as an origin of early fundamental organisms, among other theories (such as an RNA world, deep sea cradles and even panspermia, continues.
Theory of Evolution
Origins aside, the main scientific theory of the progress of life has also drawn much philosophical interest. We have seen that Darwin was not the first to hypothesise species transformation, but he did so in a decidedly different way. It is true that even Aristotle's worldview of ancient times allowed for change in individuals, though it required the souls and general 'world order' of plants, animals and humans to endure eternally5, yet the scientific element was not there. Darwin mixed philosophical ideas with scientific observations to reach his world-changing conclusions. Although the theory of evolution is widely accepted by the scientific community in modern times, it is not problem-free. For example, there is debate over whether something unfalsifiable which makes no predictions can be called science at all, and drawing distinctions between species on their way through evolution can seem arbitrary. There are also a plethora of philosophical investigations ongoing into whether evolution then has a 'goal', what the lack of larger purpose means for an individual's sense of purpose, and whether humanity should take a moral stand against the 'survival of the fittest' mechanism that drives natural selection.
Darwin's first sketch of an evolutionary tree preceeded by the words "I think".
1. Jonathan Kvanvig (2008). Creation and Conservation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/creation-conservation/#SciTheCre. [Last Accessed 24/2/14].
2. Ethan (2013). “Einstein’s Greatest Blunder” was REALLY a blunder!. [ONLINE] Available at: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/05/17/einsteins-greatest-blunder-was-really-a-blunder/. [Last Accessed 24/2/14].
3. Joyce Puglia (2014). The Origin of Life:A History of Ancient Greek Theories. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1980/5/80.05.11.x.html. [Last Accessed 24/2/14].
4. Aristotle, (2005). 'Book V'. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (trans), The History of Animals. 2nd ed. Adelaide, Australia: eBooks@Adelaide. Available at: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/history/book5.html.
The painting under the Origins of the Universe heading is Europe a Prophecy by William Blake.© BrainMass Inc. brainmass.com February 19, 2020, 5:18 pm ad1c9bdddf