Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pseudo-Review: Physical Cosmology And Philosophy

The first place I ever read about Physical Cosmology was Jim Peebles's Principals of Physical Cosmology, a good case study in the genre "textbook". If I were to publish any real philosophy of science, I would certainly place the chapter gently, but firmly explaining what is wrong with fractal cosmology ideas high on the list of things to analyze.

Imagine my surprise when a philosophy section in a local used book store, a section usually barren of anything interesting, contained a collection essays Physical Cosmology and Philosophy. I haven't read every essay yet, so this is a tentative pseudo-review. Most of the writers are pursuing their own hobby horses, and the editor can't be accused of homogenizing them. I don't know how he made decisions with respect to ordering. Many writers talk about deep issues such as the interpretation of quantum mechanics and singularities in general relativity, but there's no essay introducing those concepts for non-experts.

G Gamow

I skipped the first essay, so that the book starts for me on page 51, with the second essay - Modern Cosmology, written by George Gamow. Gamow is a very good writer, and the essay is sufficiently hedged and popular that it hasn't aged terribly bad. Good enough for philosophers, but Cosmology today is a very lively and data-driven field, so it might not be best for people who want hard equations. This is continued by an essay by W B Bonner on the cosmological principle. Big Crunch and steady state theories were once popular, and one shows up in this and several other essays. These are no longer of great interest, and won't be without a significant theoretical and empirical revolution.


There was one essay that annoyed me. Richard Swinburne makes an extremely crude argument from design for the existence of God, quite inferior to what I expect are his abilities. I think he is out of his element. His argument is, of course, subject to all the objections of Hume and his successors. He certainly fails to give any reason to suspect that The Ancient of Days rather than Trurl is behind things.

There are many essays by people with non-standard views on cosmology, frequently airing their methodological views on why the evidence isn't as strongly pro-standard view as it might seem. This is to be expected, but I think that the standard view could be expounded and defended. As it is, nobody is given the chance to answer these arguments.

In summary, this is a highly variable book that shouldn't be read by those who are looking for a quick introduction to a field and it's possible philosophical implications, but to those who are learned enough not to fall for everything they read and willing to put up with some old fashioned views and ... well, I guess that's not too many people anyway.


  1. Swineburne is absurdly brilliant, but I've always been a bigger fan of his interpretation of theology and his theory of epistemic justification. Hume's critiques of the arguments for God do end up applying to Swineburne, but what is interesting is that they don't end up, if you reject Hume's theory of causality, apply to Aquinas' arguments. This is namely because in the course of explaining Aristotelian metaphysics Aquinas shows that the prime cause would necessarily have certain qualities. Hume seems only to have read Aquinas' Summa Theologica's introduction to the arguments though, not his several hundred pages of detailed effort at fleshing them out elsewhere.

    I think the problem with design arguments as such is that they may, if they turn out to be true, get to a mega human or a space man, but not a first cause. They are seen as arguments for God's existence, but they are more like arguments for a super creature.

  2. Sorry, I didn't interact with the rest of the post, but I literally was reading Swinburne yesterday morning before work.