Infinity: The Scientific Way of Saying that We Don’t Have a Clue

Physicists claim that the universe is (increasingly) expanding. But, if you take a closer look at it, you come to see that this isn’t exactly true, don’t you? Since – to make things clear – it appears that the universe isn’t expanding in the sense of something becoming larger; no, it is expanding in the sense that the space between “the things” (galaxies, in this case) is getting wider. It can be compared to a piece of dough scattered with raisins and put in an oven. You will see that, when the dough starts rising, it is not the space within the oven (“the universe”) that is getting larger; no, it is the space between the raisins (“the galaxies”) that is expanding. Okay, okay…but why would this observation be of any importance?

Science is commonly conceived of as being the furthest the human species has come in its quest for finding “the truth”. Science is the realm of human thought that has been endowed with the authority to officially distinguish what is true from what is nonsense. And the scientific journey has proofed to be very valuable to us. It has provided us with prosperity; loads of it. The discovery/invention of electricity and other sources of power are marvelous achievements that – for the biggest part – can be attributed to the scientific enterprise and its longing for knowledge.

In spite of all these accomplishments, we have to stay/become realistic. We have to realize that science is not going to solve our everlasting longing for “the truest of truths”; that science is not going to provide us with final answers to any of the existential questions around. Questions like, “Why are we here?”, “What is right and wrong?”, and, “What are we?”. These are questions so fundamental that they cannot be (satisfactorily) explained upon by science, or by any system of thought for that matter.

And therefore I was glad to read a physicist admitting that we do in fact not know what, if anything, lies outside of the (observable part of) the universe. Our universe might, as he mentioned, go on for infinity or it might – in some inconceivable manner – “be wrapped around itself”. Although I very much appreciate the humbleness of the physicist in admitting that our knowledge is indeed limited, I want to take a look at the two options he put forth for how our universe might be (un)limited.

The first option concerns the notion of infinity. Let’s ask ourselves: what actually is infinity? To me infinity seems to be a concept that is truly unimaginable for us human beings. And although we can try to come to grips with it by translating the concept into mathematical terms, this quest will always result in awkward and unintuitive conclusions. And it is this observation that made me wonder: isn’t infinity just a “quasi-rational” and allegedly scientific response to what is in fact an inexplicable question about the universe? Isn’t talking in terms of “infinitely big” or “infinitely small” just as much a sign of our ignorance as are explanations pointing towards a God-like creature? Even though the former is considered to be a “rational” explanation while the latter is considered to be nothing more than a relic from the “superstitious” past?

And what about the other explanation; the idea that the universe is somehow wrapped around itself, or that our universe is part of a multiverse? These explanations are just as inconceivable as the concept of infinity is. After all, if there would exist a multiverse, where would this multiverse have come from? Another multiverse? But where would that multiverse have come from…? Isn’t this just a slightly more “rational” infinite regress to get lost in?

Thus, although it might sound “rational” or “scientific” to be talking about infinity as being a genuine explanation for the size of our universe, it does not bring us any closer to having any knowledge about the way the world works. Since, in order to get closer, we have to know how far along the way we are. And how can we know how far we are if we are dealing with infinity? That is, how can we point to something being an explanation, if this explanation itself is incomprehensible?

I don’t know. Therefore I ask you: what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

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