I. The Term “Universe” – II. The Common Metaphysical Notion of Universe. – III. The Universe from the Scientific Perspective – IV. The Universe as a Philosophical Question. 1. A Manifold and Ordered Unity. 2. The Cosmos and the Transcendentals of Being. 3. Ontological Degrees. 4. The Place of Human Beings in the Universe. 5. The Primacy of Person. 6. Finality and Purpose in the Cosmos. 7. The Future of the Universe. – V. God and the Cosmos.
I. The Term “Universe”
The term “universe” is generally used for the physically ordered whole of all of nature’s material realities. The Latin etymology of the word alludes to the fact that the universe is constituted by many different things, that is, by an unum in diversis. This means that the universe is a collective entity or that which encompasses all existing material things in nature. This notion must not be confused with the logical-mathematical understanding of “the collection of all things,” which is obtained by the simple extension of the concept “thing” by means of the quantifying operator “all” (that is, everything). The concept of universe is not limited to set theory logic. Consequently, it does not submit to the well-known paradoxes of the idea of the set of all sets (which comprehends and does not comprehend itself). In other words, the universe is not simply “the whole,” but “the whole physically ordered,” such that the accent is placed particularly on the open physical order (not, then, a purely logical order) observed in nature (this concept will be more fully explained in section II).
The synonym “cosmos” alludes to such an order. Of Greek origin, the word cosmos contains a connotation of order, beauty, and harmony. The Latins translated the Greek kósmos with the world mundus, world, which suggests the idea of a reality that is ordered, right, and beautiful. While the concept “world” acquired a preferentially humanistic meaning (the world as a reality of social relationships in general or in particular, with which are associated terms such as “mundane” or “secular,” often tied to a moral or religious meaning), “cosmos” and “universe” in general retained a more naturalistic meaning. As the cosmos initiaaly presents itself in the starry sky, we are led to ignore the reality of earth or “our world”, and think that cosmos or universe primarily means the collection of celestial bodies which constitute the object of astronomy or, more amply, cosmology. The term macrocosm is adopted for the cosmos in terms of its widest dimensions, and microcosm for microphysical objects, that is, those objects which are not within reach of ordinary perception. The terms “nature” and “creation” may be considered similar in meaning to cosmos and universe. In the Bible, the universe is often referred to with the expression "the heavens and the earth."
II. The Common Metaphysical Notion of Universe
The notion of universe as the physically ordered totality of natural things corresponds to the common knowledge of all people, a sensible but also metaphysical knowledge of ontological import. Every other notion of the universe rests on this original basis. With our senses and intelligence we perceive the existence of natural things or entities, including ourselves. The rational perception of the existence of particular, ordered sets of things, such as a city, an island, or a forest, leads us little by little to the conclusion that everything in our experience participates in reciprocal relationships (spatial, temporal, and causal). Hence, in a very natural way, we arrive at the notion of universe as indicated above. In some sense, the universe “is visible” in as much as it manifests itself in the theater of terrestrial nature and in the observation of the astronomical heavens. Only the human being “comprehends” all that as a universe, that is, as a totality of entities in reciprocal relation. This concept, then, is tied to the first metaphysical notions of reality, such as being, order, relation, cause, space, and time, although different peoples added embellishments of a mythical, religious, scientific, or philosophical nature to the concept of universe, according to the different cultural nuances appropriate to each geographical area and historical epoch.
The idea of “universe” always remains “open.” We perceive only a part of the universe, that which is directly accessible to our experience, and may not presume to exhaust the direct or indirect observation of the cosmos, even at the scientific level. We cannot know with certainty how much of the universe remains unobserved. This fact, to be expected given the limitations of our observational capacity, does not diminish the validity of the notion under consideration. To understand what the universe is, to perceive that it exists, we do not need to know it in every detail. We need not know, for example, whether it is finite or infinite, or ascertain its precise structure. Common experience gives us a metaphysical idea of the universe, imperfect but sufficient, so that the cosmological propositions of philosophy and the sciences, as well as religion, are true and meaningful. Today, we are sure that the most sophisticated cosmological theories take nothing away from the open character of the cosmos known to us (“open” in the sense that we can always learn more about its aspects and parts). In this way, we can overcome the apparent paradox we encounter when we sometimes speak of “other universes” or “other worlds.” If they truly exist in relationship with “our world,” even in a minimal way, they constitute all together one true universe, of which what is most directly known is only a part. The existence of other universes completely disconnected from ours cannot be excluded but this hypothesis is completely irrelevant to a common philosophical definition of the universe as such.
At this point, we can more easily understand an often noted peculiarity concerning our notion of the cosmos, that is, that “we know only one case”. In other words, that “cosmos” is a universal notion with only one possible realization (for us). The order and structure of the universe could be different from what they are; no a priori motive allows us to conceive the known universe as exhausting every structural possibility or including every possible form of the natural order (an idea often called “principle of fullness”). Our knowledge of the universe is empirical and a posteriori. We can always think of other laws of the cosmos or of nature that are unknown to us at both the theoretical and observational levels. From the theological point of view, the idea that God, as almighty Creator, is able to create an infinite number of universes, completely different and separated from the one we know, serves to affirm the existence of an Omnipotence that does not exhaust itself in the creation of our world. This thesis is traditional in theology. The idea that God could create only our world is tied to a rationalistic view and undermines the freedom and transcendence of God.
As is known, in his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant posed some objections to the “transcendental” idea of the cosmos, considering its scientific and philosophical use as problematic in a realistic sense. The idea of the cosmos lacks sensible intuition, which is an intuition confined only to the particular phenomena of nature. Taken in a realistic sense, the concept of universe produces, according to Kant, the cosmological antinomies, by which it is possible to prove, for example, that the universe is finite as well as infinite, both in time and in space (first antimony), or that it is composed of parts which are at once simple and infinitely divisible (second antinomy). In this way it is no longer possible to distinguish natural, cosmic processes, marked by determinism, from human freedom, and, above all, a cosmological argument to demonstrate the existence of God is no longer meaningful (conclusions deriving from the third and fourth Kantian antinomies). According to Kant, the idea of the cosmos would have to have a regulative and heuristic use in the natural sciences, and only a polemical-dialectical use in philosophy (today one would say a “weak” use, that is, characterized by a weak rationality) (cf. Sanguineti, Scienza aristotelica e scienza moderna, 1992, pp. 190-199).
Kant’s critique is based entirely on a rationalistic view of the cosmos, understood by him as a “closed totality” of things. In fact, the natural perception of the cosmos which I have described, being open, contains a metaphysical and realistic value. Kant, aware of the ad infinitum openness of our perception of the cosmos, does not see in it a realistic, epistemological value, thus reducing it to a purely phenomenological plain. Certainly, the common notion of the universe enjoys adequate empirical support, even while it is recognized that no intelligible aspect of sensible reality can be expressed by means of sensible perception alone. Consequently, it is not necessary to resolve the question of the finite or infinite character of time and space, much less arrive at a definitive solution on questions such as the existence of the ultimate constituents of matter or the ultimate laws of nature, in order for the idea of cosmos to have realistic, metaphysical import. The cosmos, understood as the open order of all that is known, is something that really exists. We have imperfect, though sufficient, information about it in order to ascertain its metaphysical characteristics, which are open, in turn, to philosophical arguments on the existence of God as its universal cause (cf. Sanguineti, 1986, pp. 178-181; Sanguineti, 1994, pp. 368-376).
III. The Universe from the Scientific Perspective
The scientific study of the cosmos as a universal system of bodies in interrelation, susceptible to physical-mathematical description, is the task of cosmology, a discipline strongly related to astrophysics and, more amply, to the other branches of physics. On the critical difficulties of thinking about the universe as a scientific object, see E. Agazzi (1991) The Universe as a Scientific and Philosophical Problem. From a philosophical perspective, we have resolved such difficulties in the sense explained in section II. Certainly, the scientific study of the cosmos is particularly connected to philosophy: "For that reason we must say that the very concept of the universe is a typical philosophical concept, and the fact that science has brought it under its scrutiny necessarily brings science to that interplay with philosophy, which it had known at the beginning, but which has been thought to have been dismissed in more recent times" (Agazzi, 1991, pp. 33-34).
Before the modern scientific revolution, the scientific study of the universe (here understanding “science” in a broad sense) belonged to astronomy. In particular, I refer to the Greek representation forged in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system, which imposed itself upon Hellenistic culture and was later transmitted to the medieval world. This view was finally overturned by the astronomy of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, and by the mechanics of Newton. The Greek-Medieval conceptualization of the cosmos focused on geocentrism and the great division between celestial and terrestrial worlds. The universe was conceived of as a series of rotating, superimposed spheres, to which the stars belonged, with the earth at the center. The celestial world was made of an ethereal matter thought to be indestructible, unchangeable, and subject to a local motion that described perfect circles at uniform velocity. The immobile earth, on the other hand, was the place of beings subject to generation and corruption, according to natural, perpetual cycles. In the Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic view, the cause of celestial motions was derived from the non-mechanical influence of an intellectual nature (celestial or spiritual intelligences, world soul), above which God was acting as First Cause. Because of the lack of a dynamics of the celestial bodies, the cinematic description of their motions in the Ptolemaic model partially accommodated the phenomena known at the time and, therefore, in spite of the arbitrariness of this explanation, was held to be scientific. Considered in its entirety, the ancient universe was conceived of as a great rotating finite sphere. Its center, the earth, was not the most important place since it was the home of beings subject to corruption and mortality. The Christian vision, however, along with the notion of creation, introduced the primacy of the human being, not only regarding dominion over the earth but also regarding the intellectual and spiritual superiority of the personal being, who is the image and likeness of God, over all irrational creatures.
Cosmological knowledge based on Newtonian physics and the astronomy of the 17th - 19th centuries proposed a universe constituted by stars which were dispersed throughout an infinite space (cf. Koyré, 1957). Only the theory of general relativity allowed Einstein to propose, in 1917, the first model of the cosmos that could give a reason for the overall unity of the gravitational field, making it equivalent to the geometry of a curved space-time filled with matter and energy. Since then, many cosmological models based on Einstein’s theory of relativity have come along, having in common a rather rigorous method of taking the cosmos as an object of scientific description, computing properties such as its volume, curvature, and mass, through the mathematical solution of the gravitational field equations. The discovery of the recession velocities of galaxies, interpreted as an expansion of the universe, renders these cosmological models evolutionary in time. In this sense, one can say that today we have a rather precise, unitarian, scientific picture of the evolutionary structure of the cosmos, based on both observation and physical theory. Thermodynamic studies and the various discoveries concerning elementary particles (atomic nuclei and, later, the standard model of particles) are now consistent with the scientific description of the development of the cosmos, from the so-called Big Bang onward. We can describe the successive appearances of different kinds of particles, the separation of the four fundamental forces of nature (gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear forces), starting from a unique initial superforce, the formation of nuclei, atoms, the first atomic aggregations, and, later, the development of galactic and stellar structures. The discovery of “cosmic background radiation” (1965) permitted tracing the cosmic evolution of radiation after its separation from matter, which occurred around 300,000 years after the Big Bang (according to the usual estimate), usually called the “time of decoupling” of matter and energy.
The standard model of the Big Bang, developed in the 1970’s, furnished a rather coherent picture of both the fundamental structure of the cosmos, particles and radiation, and its evolution, especially in the first moments of its existence. Hence, the cosmos manifests itself as unitary, in principle as finite in matter and energy, originating in the distant past from a microscopic, high density structure, and evolving towards macroscopic situations, which, under certain conditions, allow the appearance of life, today known with certainty only to exist on our planet. From the point of view of gravitation, the cosmos manifests that it is expanding. It is debatable whether or not in the distant future the fate of the cosmos will be an indefinite expansion or a contraction with a consequent gravitational collapse (recent observations seem to indicate that its expansion is likely to continue forever). From the thermodynamic point of view, the future of the cosmos appears characterized by a progressive and irreversible increase of entropy that, in the distant future, would no longer allow the organization of matter as giving rise to stellar structures and living organisms.
Quantum-gravitational theory seeks to explain the Big Bang within the framework of a unification of gravitational force with the other three fundamental forces, seeking a correlative unification between the theory of relativity, suitable for gravitation, and quantum theories. Until now, theories of unification were successfully applied on the formal and mathematical level to nuclear strong, nuclear weak, and electromagnetic forces. From the experimental point of view, the unification of electro-weak force has been confirmed thanks to the discovery of the corresponding exchange particles, while the unification between the electro-weak and the strong nuclear interactions is still awaited (Grand Unification Theory, GUT). The problem of the unification of forces is a challenge for future theoretical physics and will have great consequences for our view of a cosmos in evolution (cf. Isham, 1993).
The picture of a cosmos that has been expanding since the Big Bang and manifesting little by little the capability of being progressively structured in a determined way is now a clear and linear framework. It is, however, subject to certain doubts and perplexities which are currently matter under discussion. We could mention, for example, how to determine in a more precise way the Hubble constant (Ho, rate of the expansion of the cosmos), a value linked to the measurement of cosmic super-distances and to the “age” of the universe, as well as the question of the precise ascertainment of average density of the universe. A contradiction between observed data and theoretical calculations relative to the cosmos in general, or a lack of coherence among some critical numerical parameters that operate in cosmological theories, would lead to a crisis for certain versions of the Big Bang. More problematic is the question of the “first moments” of cosmic expansion, when these are described in terms of “inflation models” and attempting a partial quantum-gravitational unification. For the most part, the thesis, until now highly speculative, of a universe originating in a quantum-gravitational event, often called in scientific circles “creation from nothing” or from the quantistic vacuum (see Creation), or other hypotheses that speak of a proliferation of universes, one of which being our own, are as yet without much scientific testing. Hence, it would not appear prudent to ask philosophers at this point to advance conclusions or speculations in their regard. The terrain at this level is still open to discussion and in the years ahead we can expect new discoveries that could upset cosmological research in an unforeseen way.
To sum up, from a modern scientific perspective, the cosmos can be defined as “the universal system of bodies in interrelation, submitted to identical scientific laws.” Up to a certain point, the framework of the structure and evolution of the cosmos is well known to us. However, questions concerning its ultimate origin, its ultimate destiny, and the ultimate laws that command its overall dynamics, remain unanswered. In other words, what we lack is precisely an “ultimate” scientific knowledge of the cosmos, which is precisely a deficiency that characterizes all scientific knowledge as such. Another way of expressing this concept is to affirm the radical incompleteness of scientific knowledge, a notion that stands poles apart from a rationalistic-reductionist conception of science.
IV. The Universe as a Philosophical Question
The critical difficulties of the common metaphysical notion of the universe, considered in section II, are not an obstacle for the elaboration of a philosophical theory of the cosmos. This theoretical, metaphysical conception — or whatever one wants to call it — is ordinarily not lacking in many cultural approaches, at least at a certain speculative level. Scientific research, geographical or space exploration, predominant philosophical interpretations in the culture, as well as religious doctrines, contribute to the definition of a conception of the cosmos. Further, the cosmos projects itself onto nature as the background of the daily sphere in which our lives unfold. To ask ourselves what the cosmos is and what our role is within it (cf. Scheler, 1961) corresponds to the very heart of philosophy which, not without good reason, almost always begins as cosmology. These questions are essential to our dignity as human beings and distinguish us from the animals. From the beginnings of civilization, every human culture has adopted a cosmology and expressed it in art, religion, science, and philosophical speculation. The question of the universe is also part of human questioning about ourselves.
In this section, I will present some fundamental elements of the philosophy of the universe of a philosopher who is both classical and Christian, Thomas Aquinas. I offer these selected and simplified ideas not as an historical key, but to formulate the problem at a speculative level (cf. Sanguineti, 1986; Blanchette, 1992). The texts on which I will concentrate are in good measure common to the whole Christian philosophical tradition, though with different nuances (Dionysius the Areopagite, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Nicholas of Cusa). The vision of the cosmos found in the classics of non-Christian antiquity are, in general terms, “naturalistic” or, if you will, “cosmologistic”, in the sense that the human being was subordinate to nature. This vision was overturned by the metaphysics of Christianity, which conceived of nature as creation and was “personalist” in character (the primacy of the person in the cosmos and over the cosmos). The philosophical cosmology of modern philosophers obviously followed the directions appropriate to the different philosophical positions, idealism, rationalism, materialism, etc., but this cosmology is often marked by the dualism between “the self” and “the world” or by the abandonment of the metaphysical perspective. The cosmology of modern and contemporary philosophy had had to come to terms with the sciences, concretely with the physical-mathematical layout that emerged from the scientific revolution. Further, modern culture and techno-science stress the active, and not purely contemplative, role of human beings in the cosmos. In the face of these notions, the cosmological view of the Christian classics and, in particular, that of Aquinas, is characterized by a “relative cosmocentrism” (the human being is implied in the cosmos and nature is seen especially in terms of the cosmos), a “relative anthropomorphism” (man’s pre-eminent role in the universe) and a “radical and absolute theocentrism” (the sense of the universe, as contingent reality, is in God the Creator).
1. A Manifold and Ordered Unity. The first aspect of the metaphysical cosmological conception of Thomas Aquinas that I should mention is the sense of the cosmos as an ordered unity of complexity. Individual beings are not sufficient to themselves. Hence, it is are necessarily to put each in order in realation to the others. They communicate with each other through their qualities. In this way, various structures in the different spheres of nature arise naturally. There is order among individuals at the same ontological level, and order among heterogeneous groups (cf. Thomas Aquinas, In de Divinis Nominibus, lect. VII-IX). Such structures can be based on spatial dispositions, causal communications, and temporal succession. These three are linked and give place to the diachronic order (that is, developed in time) of the great collective systems. In a more universal sphere, such a system is the “universe,” that is, material reality in its universal disposition in time and space, taking into consideration all qualitative and ontological differences. According to Aquinas’ view, no entity is totally isolated in the cosmos. Each contains relationships, mediate or immediate, with all the others, constituting together a structured unity.
2. The Cosmos and the Transcendentals of Being. The universe can be considered in the light of the so-called “transcendentals of being,” concepts which express in various ways the perfections of being. In the preceding paragraphs, I have considered things from the perspective of unity. The universe is one, not in a banal, numerical sense, but in the sense that through order it integrates into a unified whole that which in itself would be disparate and isolated. However, there are many ways of being one, since the unity of an organism, a machine, or a collective entity is not identical. All the transcendentals, applied to the universe or to different entities that compose it, are realized “analogically” and not in an univocal manner (see Analogy). The unity of the manifold is distinguished in every case by an order and this order indicates a collection of “relationships.” Parts which are entirely unitary are joined to each other and the various connections are interwoven in such a way that each plays its own role. This order is not monotonous, but varied in its modality, since one thing relates to the others according to precise conditions (this relationship in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is called “proportion,” Lat. proportio).
Human intelligence grasps the relationships (and introduces new ones), so that the universe, as well as each reality endowed with order, also possesses the transcendental of intelligibility. The world’s comprehensibility constitutes the rational way which leads contemplation of the universe to a supreme and originating Intelligence. At the same time, the complex order of things manifests contingent traits and is measured out in every form of being. The lack of “due” order, that is, the privation and not the simple absence of order, produces “evil.” For example, physical evil in living beings is constituted by the privation of adequate relations among the constitutive elements of the organism. In other words, evil is born from the lack of a due proportion that indicates an ontological privation. Consequently, the universe is revealed as “good” (the transcendental of good). However, in the measure in which order is lacking in the world, the good will be lessened and will become evil if a contrary disorder is introduced into the nature of things. The good or the right, a proportionate concordance of things in the universe, is also called “harmony” (a term taken from music). The good, intelligibility and unity of the cosmos demonstrate its “beauty,” that is, the goodness and intelligibility of being as they are offered to contemplation (beauty is that which we are delighted to contemplate).
In short, the universe as “being,” the most important among the transcendentals, reveals its more profound characteristics in the sphere of existence, that is to say, what it is and what type of entity it is. In this sense, we can say that the universe is not a substance, an individual, an animated being, a person, a product of human thought, or God himself, etc. "This world is called one by the unity of order, whereby some things are ordered to others. […] the world is one because all things must be arranged in one order and to one end. Therefore, from the unity of order in things, Aristotle infers the unity of God governing all; and Plato, from the unity of exemplar, proves the unity of the world, as the things designed" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 47, a. 3). From a more rigorously metaphysical (and also theological) point of view, therefore, the universe can be seen as "the ordered whole of every creature." The unity of the universe proceeds from God (absolute and infinite Being) and from the fact that each (finite) entity participates in the being and received communication of being.
I have so far pointed out the manifestations of being in the cosmos: unity, intelligibility, goodness, and beauty, which are all aspects immanent to it, evident before whatever level of human contemplative regard, from the spectacle of the starry sky to the marvels of nature discovered in science. In some cases, the static order of the cosmos is more manifest, as happens in the observation of the starry sky. In other cases, it shows itself in the dynamic order of creation, as when we contemplate the disclosure of the forces of nature and the great transformations to which it is subject. A particular scientific development is not necessary in order to understand the ontological reality of the cosmos, since any level of consideration reveals it globally, though from a determined perspective. Scientific advances increase the material to which such contemplation returns, while philosophy augments the intensity of the reflection on that which is properly transcendental, precisely because philosophy (or metaphysics) studies everything from the point of view of being.
3. Ontological Degrees. In the conception of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, the internal order of the universe is constructed in a stratified way. Nature presents “layers” or “grades of perfection” that are progressively more complex. This is an obvious fact that has also been confirmed and extended by contemporary scientific knowledge. The highest grades are endowed with special qualities with respect to the simpler and more elementary grades (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, book II, c. 68 and book IV, c. 11). Inorganic elements are less organized than organic substances, and so one ascends to the kingdom of life, in which one passes from one-cell to multi-cell organisms, from vegetables to animals, up to superior animals and, finally, to human beings. Lower levels provide material support for those higher up. From the first levels come the material unity of the cosmos, made up of the same material organized in forms increasingly more complex. For this reason, we can speak of a “genetic” material unity of the cosmos (over which the human spirit represents a discontinuity), since the evolutionary line points to the progressive appearance of more organized structures departing from a potential, pre-existing material base. Higher levels of being add new perfections to the universe, in as much as each superior level (organisms, animal awareness, human self-awareness) contains ever greater unity, goodness, and operative capacity — in short, a greater ontological density. The highest levels incorporate properties of the lower levels, in regard both to individuals and collective entities (group, macro-group, animal population, human community).
For this reason, many classical authors view human beings as a “microcosm” (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 91, a. 1), in as much as physical elements of an inferior nature are concentrated in the human body in a particular harmony. Individuals of lower spheres (particles, atoms, etc.) are destined to constitute the great macroscopic compositions of the universe (planets, stars, galaxies). Living individuality, for its part, lays claim to its own values (greater autonomy in acting, a more definite finality), as is clear in the case of animals, but enormously more evident in human beings. The capacity for communication between individuals of the higher species finds its culmination in human beings who communicate with others, not only physically, but through knowledge and love. In other words, the perfection of the human being comprises a capacity to communicate which is profound and universal and, consequently, he and she arrives at a relationship with God through his or her own spiritual action.
As I pointed out earlier, in the great scenario of the universe the transcendental perfections — being, unity, goodness, intelligibility, beauty — are realized analogically in every single level of the scale of being. Each manifestation of being contains its own way of possessing unity, goodness, active and causal power, individual autonomy and immanence, openness to others or transcendence, and teleological dynamism. For example, living beings already manifest a more intrinsic finality, while the human being tends toward an end with knowledge and self-determination.
Cosmic order, then, does not lead us to think only of the distribution of bodies in celestial space. It is more important to think of the cosmic order in terms of ontological levels. Classical authors, before the birth of modern science, often thought of the astronomical universe in a mythological way, as if it were a world superior to the earth and possessing an almost organic nature. These thinkers were disoriented by the universe’s mathematical perfection, clearer in the heavens than in terrestrial phenomena. In reality, the stellar and extra-galactic universe, as a non-vital system composed of radiation, elementary particles, and chemical elements, possesses much less ontological content than we can observe on earth, the planet where human life is found. The energies of the universe and its extraordinary dimensions amaze many people, but all this greatness does not decrease, by any means, the ontological superiority of the earth, as the home of intelligent life, notwithstanding its insignificant dimensions and its very small, energetic conditions. Obviously, this fact would take a different perspective if life were discovered in other regions of space (see Extraterrestrial Life), though, in actuality, from a certain point of view, it would be more confirmed than denied, because of the greater “ontological density and order” of life as such. In fact, what counts is the superiority of life, rational life especially. Without doubt, such superiority is limited, since that which is higher in the physical cosmos depends materially on that which is lower, depending, as it does, on those lower elements necessary for the energy resources of the ecological sphere in which life can maintain its own existence. Despite their small physical size, the human beings are superior to the whole physical universe since human intelligence is able to reveal many secrets of the natural world. Material entities, such as an atom or a star, taken as objects of scientific study, are “subordinated” to us in as much as they are “naturally available” for whatever research is conducted by a rational and self-conscious being. However, what we could say next about the superiority of human beings in the universe should not lead to a naïve anthropocentrism since the same argument would be applicable to rational beings who might exist elsewhere in the cosmos.
4. The Place of Human Beings in the Universe. According to Thomas Aquinas’ view of universal order, independent of astronomical geocentrism, the cosmos presents an “immanent” order comparable ultimately to a “transcendent” order. The immanent or internal order of the cosmos is constituted by the reciprocal relationship of all beings in the universe (cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, XII, 10, 1075a; Thomas Aquinas, In XII Metaph., lect. 12). These relationships delineate a “scale of being,” flexible but real, in the sense already explained, which is to say that simpler and more elementary things act as a material base for more complex and perfect realities. However, with regard to human beings, we encounter here an essential ontological leap. Human beings are not simply more organized and better endowed animals. With our intelligence and freedom, we enter direct relationships with the being of the entire world in as much as we can understand it speculatively and control it with technology, although within certain physical and moral limits. Moreover, human beings transcend the universe. We are able to turn our contemplative glance and our desire of love toward God, Creator of the universe. "The end of the human soul and its ultimate perfection is that, through knowledge and love, it transcends the whole order of creatures and reaches its first principle, which is God" (Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, book II, c. 87). The human soul, therefore, belongs intimately to the universe and at the same time transcends the whole of it. In Thomas’ view, and that of all Christian authors, the central aspect of the internal order of the universe is that its material dimension is ordered to intelligent creatures. It is precisely “through such order” that the material universe reaches its end, that is, its Creator. Hence, human beings are the “internal finality of the dynamism of the universe" (cf. ibidem, book III, c. 22).
5. The Primacy of Person. The last point to be discussed here refers to the personal nature of men and women. In keeping with what has been said earlier, human “individuality” acquires a different value from that appropriate to the irrational world. In the context of cosmic harmony each irrational being, although one in itself, is fundamentally subordinated to the utility of the species to which it belongs, as if it were a part of the latter. Inferior and less complex species too, even possessing their own proper value, are naturally subordinated to other species in the universe. This point can be linked to the phenomenon of evolution, since in this way the fact that a species can exist for a limited period of time to advantage of other beings, events or qualities later emerging in the development of nature, become more understandable. However, considering humans beings exclusively from this point of view, would mean subordinating them to nature. In the Christian view of the cosmos, a view that is also philosophical, human beings have a personal value for themselves and not only as part of a universal totality (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, book III, cc. 112-113; see also Gaudium et spes, n. 24). To have a relationship with others and with the world does not decrease the dignity of each person. Instead, it is precisely in these relationships that human beings are fully realized. We find in the physical world (which is inferior to us) a reality “to contemplate,” because of its immanent beauty, and “to use,” because of its non-rational character (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, book III, c. 78, on natural dominion of intelligent beings over other creatures). At the same time, we discover subjects for communicating and sharing life in other members of the human family, in the reciprocity of friendship, to reach together the finality proper to our human existence.
The primacy of person in the universe does not cancel the intrinsic value of nature or reduce it to a merely instrumental function, as is the case with technological ideologies (see Technology) which are justly criticized today by various philosophical, cultural, and ethical-political analyses, as well as by the perspective of Christian thought (cf. Centesimus annus, n. 38). Human beings are not the absolute masters of nature. Instead, we are administrators of creation. We must care for, and not destroy, natural reality in its harmony and integrity. Technical dominion over material things is expressed by human work, through which we develop the potentialities of nature to surpass, within the limits of the possible, physical evils and, hence, overcome the restrictions of material existence. Technology, however, does not exhaust human beings’ “lordship” over material creation. Such a lordship is also manifested by a sober use of material goods, not seeing them as absolute and unconditioned ends. In other words, before the universe, human beings exercise our contemplative, religious, moral, artistic, and technological capacity. The universe renders service to us — although without volition — by showing us its ontological perfection and potentialities, as well as its contingency and limitation. Basically, the relationship between human beings and the universe should be “wise,” having notable consequences also on the ethical plane. Human beings find in the universe a natural route towards God.
6. Finality and Purpose in the Cosmos. According to Aquinas, the immanent order of the universe manifests an internal finality in nature. This finality is conceived of in an analogical manner. The internal teleology of the non-living world stands in its marvelous and inexhaustible articulated organization and, further, in its capacity of serving to sustain life.This concerns structures that do not necessarily have a “determined” form and, hence, can arise even by chance, that is, events that are not foreseen by nature in a deterministic way, but might occur within certain margins of probability. The existence in the universe of phenomena that are only probable implies a teleology subject to “contingency,” that is, the possibility of defects or variations with respect to what is expected. In the inorganic world, variability and unpredictability are not an evil. Instead, they are considered conditions of potentiality that render the possibility of physical action richer and more flexible. In living beings, the possibility of disorder and deviation is understood and evaluated in light of the aim of life itself, which is always experienced as a value, whose affirmation (conservation, growth, propagation) is always a good, while its negation (sickness, death) is an evil. From the perspective of the levels of being, disorder or evil (corruption and death) is usually manifested as a decomposition of a superior order (predominance of chaos or of pure accidentality), up to a fall into an inferior order (where a minimum order, nevertheless, always exists).
Organic life in the cosmos has its purpose in itself, but in a framework of contingency, as it remains limited in time and is conditioned by environmental circumstances. In its totality, the universe of life is harmonious, but carries with it the necessity of struggling against obstacles and finding indispensable resources for survival. According to the Christian view, the natural finality of human beings finds obstacles in voluntary or moral disorder (sin), which causes damage to created harmony and brings about the loss of friendship with God. Not infrequentely, injustice and moral evil have destructive consequences even in the physical domain. Sin implies a mistaken and anti-natural relationship of people with created reality from which is born a situation of disorder and even violence.
Looking at the contemporary understanding of the universe and life, it could be said that the phenomenon of evolution, as we know it today, renders natural finality more transparent in its temporal development. The existence of such finality has been recently invoked by certain philosophical interpretations of the so-called Anthropic Principle: the universe, from its first moments, appears endowed with certain initial conditions (a kind of very narrow “mathematical window”), the only conditions capable of allowing the appearance of the chemical base necessary to life. In reality, life itself, even in its simplest forms, requires highly improbable internal and external conditions: the Anthropic Principle, in fact, extends the indication of such improbability to the realm of the cosmos as a whole. The action of self-selective mechanisms and a kind of “creativity” intrinsic in nature (self-organization), still in need of scientific study, are at the disposal of a cosmic development that tends to the progressive affirmation of ever more complex and perfect vital structures, at least in a place like the earth, notwithstanding the radical contingency of these processes (always subject, for example, to the risk of large-scale catastrophic events). This chain of ever more perfect ontological forms would indicate the existence of a natural finality, which appears de facto oriented to the appearance of human beings.
What for authors such as Thomas Aquinas is affirmed in a fixed framework and for others, such as Augustine, is seen in terms of a temporal development, that is, the teleological orientation of the universe towards man, is equally applicable to a philosophic interpretation of the evolutionary development of life in the current scientific perspective. The points emphasized here receive a superior light from Christian theology. The biblical Revelation shows a direct divine intention to create our first parents after the creation of the material universe, almost as its crowning achievement.
7. The Future of the Universe. The temporal development of the universe inevitably leads us to ponder the future of the cosmos. Today, the thesis of an eternal cyclical recurrence of the cosmos is practically excluded. A more sustainable thesis is the notion of an evolving universe that would finish in a state of final thermodynamical degradation, the so-called “thermal death” (because of the global increase of entropy in the cosmos). The thesis according to which the universe can continue to manifest an unimaginable creativity and emergence, resulting also from the contribution of new forms of life, should not to be rejected a priori, even though for the moment it is without clear scientific support. In reality, neither science nor philosophy can resolve, with incontrovertible certitude, the problem of the “ultimate” destiny of the cosmos: science because of its already noted “problems of incompleteness” and philosophy because of its gnoseological and speculative limits. A complete and definitive destruction of the order of the cosmos, that is, its decline toward a state that is increasingly more simple and elementary, seems a sort of philosophical absurdity that contradicts the observed teleology which pervades the cosmos and is recognized by scientists and philosophers (see Finalism). Moreover, taking into account the dignity of human beings and the value of the person, a total annihilation of the human species, in the framework of a cosmic death proposed as the last word, would appear to be something anti-natural on the very anthropological level, apart from any further meta-physical or meta-temporal reflections. However, philosophy cannot say what will happen to humankind in the future of the cosmos.
V. God and the Cosmos
Traditionally, philosophy has seen, in the marvelous order and contingent totality of the universe, the manifestation of a transcendent cause called “God.” The traditional “proofs” of the existence of God are for the most part cosmological. Just as human reason deduces, through immediate sensible phenomena the existence of causes which are true and operating, though hidden to ordinary vision, it seems logical to wonder about the Cause of the universe, its unity, intelligibility and goodness, and the cause of the graduated and evolutionary perfection in being we see in the cosmos.
Science presupposes the existence of the universe. It limits itself to ascertaining or hypothesizing cosmic elements or conditions that may explain its actual state and it discovers cosmic laws that regulate the course of the fundamental phenomena of material reality (gravitational laws, electromagnetism, etc.). The enquiry about God does not refer to the singular processes of the cosmos, or to the concrete problems for which physical science cannot as yet furnish a reply. The philosophical or metaphysical question of the Cause of the universe is arrived at from another perspective independent of the state of science in any determined epoch. Given the radical contingency of the universe (that is, its existence is not absolutely necessary), science will never be able to achieve a final explanation of physical laws, because there is always the possibility that it would exclude something more general and comprehensive which would later reveal the limited and particular nature of those laws considered as “final” in a certain period of the history of science.
Because an exhaustive explanation of the creation of the universe is not of a physical nature, the natural sciences are not competent to pose such a question. If such an explanation were possible, the objection “then, what who created God?,” usually advanced by some proponents of materialism against the affirmation of God as Creator of the cosmos, would then have a foundation. Such a questioning maintains its proper validity precisely in the physical terrain, since each physical cause (a physical entity or a scientific law) is always subject to the question “why?” regarding more profound levels of reality.
There are two possible philosophical responses to the radical questioning about God: either the material universe is uncaused or it is caused by a non-material but intellectual principle. The first response looks irrational. In fact, the universe, with all its harmony and laws, is not a necessary reality; it is a contingent reality. Hence, taken as a whole, it cannot give a reason for itself. Its contingency is evident if we consider that it undergoes destruction (disorganization) or the fact that its specific laws could be otherwise. In fact, the universe itself could be different from what it is: we might even think “better” (for example without the perishableness inherent in the global growth of entropy). The eventual discovery of new “material causes” for the genesis of the cosmos would add nothing to thi. For example, if it were discovered that the Big Bang is only a particular case of a more general law that involves many other universes or Big Bangs or that it arose from physical conditions different from those known today, the question would nonetheless always remain on the physical level. On this level, the physical universe as a whole would continue to manifest itself as a realtiy that does not have in itself the ultimate reason for its own existence.
Another argument which claims the existence of a transcendental cause of the universe is based on the observation of human intelligence. The human mind manifests itself as superior to all material structures in that it is capable of thinking of the whole order of the cosmos, of discovering its laws, and even of speculating on the existence of infinite possible universes. Rooted in the cosmos, because it substantially depends in its operations on the human body, the mind transcends the cosmos in as much as it is found to be above every material reality (see Mind-Body Relationship). The technical dominion of human beings over nature, even though limited, also demonstrates the superiority of intelligence over physical reality. Consequently, it would be inconsistent to think that the physical universe, which is non-intelligent, has been by alone the cause of the appearance of intelligence.
For this reason, on the philosophical level, Intelligence has traditionally been seen as the cause of the universe. On this point, ancient and modern authors have postulated the existence of an immanent, cosmic intelligence, or a sort of universal intelligent soul, in such a way as to make this intelligence responsible for cosmic evolution and the appearance of man. This solution is usually called pantheism. But an intelligence meant as “the form of the cosmos” would be, in reality, part of the cosmos and, thus, subject to the cosmic evolution, its contingency and limitations. Consequently, it would not be a true explanation of the whole universe. The cosmos itself, informed by such an intelligence, would be a god, although imperfect, perhaps even a god in evolution that would acquire his full self-awareness through the flourishing of human life. This way of thinking is not far from mythology. In fact, in many ancient civilizations, religious and philosophical thought made nature divine and saw the manifestation of psychic occult powers in material forces.
The response to the philosophical question of the “cause of the universe” is the existence of an Intelligence transcending the cosmos (God). This is not the place to develop in detail this central point of philosophy. It is enough to remember that the intelligibility, unity, simplicity and consistency of the universe finds a response in light of God the Creator, transcendent but also present intimately in the world in every moment of its temporal development (cf. Tanzella-Nitti, 1992, pp. 48-51). The universe proceeds, thus, from the highest Being, who is spiritual and personal, and fullness of being, intelligence and love, and not from an abstract law or an impersonal principle. In Thomas Aquinas’ view, God freely gives existence to the world and communicates to it those perfections of which He is the absolute and radical source, participating them at some level. The Creator gives a particular meaning to the universe by placing the created person at its center. The physical universe is given to human beings so that we may “return” to God by contemplating His presence in creation and completing the labor of creation through work, culture, the arts and, above all, through our own moral perfection.
Christian theology adds very precise aspects to the God-world relationship and throws light on the mystery of evil introduced into the world by sin and cured by the Redemptive work of Christ (cf. Maldamé, 1995). Thanks to Christian Revelation, we can better understand the plan of God as Creator of the universe and the role that He has entrusted to human beings. In the light of Christian faith, the universe is known above all as “what is created,” that which proceeds from divine love as a reflection of the perfections of the Trinity. Without being conditioned by the world, God creates, with complete freedom and wisdom, a consistent universe, endowed with secondary causes capable of developing the potentialities which complete divine creative work. The Word of God, in assuming human nature, places Him at the summit of the universe: "All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Col 1:16). God’s plan can be even better understood on the horizon of a created world destined (and not simply juxtaposed) to the Redemption of Christ. "Creation is the foundation of all God’s saving plans, the beginning of the history of salvation that culminates in Christ. Conversely, the mystery of Christ casts conclusive light on the mystery of creation and reveals the end for which 'in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth': from the beginning God envisaged the glory of the new creation in Christ" (CCC 280). In this sense, the development of the universe is not yet finished, even if its fulfillment is already begun in Christ risen and glorified. The universe will acquire its final state only at the end of time, when it will receive in glory its definitive fulfillment, not foreseeable by human understanding, but object of Christian hope. The universe renewed will then be "the new heavens and the new earth" (cf. Is 65:17; 2Pt 3:13; Rv 21:1).
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