Sunday, January 01, 2023

Looking at the Evolutionary History of the Cosmos Through the James Webb Space Telescope: What Will This Tell Us About the Meaning of Our History in the Cosmos?

The Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope into Space

First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope 

         At the Center of this Hourglass Structure, A Star Is Being Born in Nebula L1527

                                  A Three Quarter View of the James Webb Space Telescope

                           The Bottom of the Telescope, the Side Facing the Sun and the Earth

Ever since the emergence of human self-conscious awareness, human beings have wondered about how the world came to be, how humans came to be, and how the human place in the world illuminates the meaning of human life.  To answer their questions, human beings have told themselves myths about cosmic history, and generally these myths have appealed to religious beliefs about the powers of supernatural beings. 

Now, modern natural science is attempting to explain the evolutionary history of the cosmos from the Big Bang (about 13.8 billion years ago) to the present and into the future through natural laws that do not depend on supernatural beings.  We must wonder whether that can be done--whether this modern scientific story can fully explain cosmic history, and whether that story can replace those religious myths in a way that explains the meaning of human life.  Or must that scientific story always be limited by the unknown and unknowable depths of the cosmos?  And if so, will those limits to scientific knowledge show the need for religious myths (true myths?) to fully explain the cosmos and the meaning of human life within the cosmos?  Or is it reasonable to choose scientific reason over religious revelation even as we recognize the inevitable limits of natural reason in explaining everything?

The James Webb Space Telescope will help us to think about those questions. 


For thousands of years, in the Western World, astronomy was understood through a religious conception of the universe as a divinely created order that constituted a moral cosmology supporting a divine law to guide human life.  It was a geocentric cosmos.  The Earth was at the center.   Circling around the Earth were the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Beyond that were the fixed stars, and then finally the crystalline sphere of the Primum Mobile and the Paradise of Heaven.  Beneath the Earth were Purgatory and Hell.  

Even Plato and Aristotle endorsed pagan versions of this religious astronomy.  But Aristotle noted that this cosmic model was based mostly on traditional myths that could be known by faith or trust (pistis) but not by scientific study, because the planets and stars were so far away from the Earth that they could not be known very well by sense experience.  Aristotle thought that biology was a more empirically grounded science than astronomy because plants and animals could be directly observed by human beings.

This changed with the invention of the telescope in 1608.  The word telescope was coined from two Greek words for "far-seeing."  In 1609, Galileo built his own telescope and turned it toward the night sky.  He could see the mountains and craters of the Moon, the planets, and a ribbon of light stretched across the sky that would later be identified as the Milky Way galaxy.  He could also see that Copernicus was right about the heliocentric Solar system, with the Earth revolving around the Sun.  The telescope had extended the range and clarity of the human visual system deep into the night sky.

In 1633, the Catholic Inquisition condemned Galileo as a heretic for endorsing the Copernican heliocentric theory of the Earth as moving around the Sun, because this seemed to deny those Biblical passages that spoke of the fixity of the Earth. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest, and his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was put on the Church's Index of Prohibited Books.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Pope Pius XII praised Galileo as an intellectual hero and declared in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis that there was no necessary conflict between Biblical faith and the theory of evolution. Pope John Paul II apologized for the condemnation of Galileo, and in 1996 he declared that the Church did not oppose Darwin's theory. A few years ago, I wrote a short essay on John Paul's statement.

After Galileo first turned his telescope to the sky, for the next three and a half centuries, telescopes became larger and more complex in ways that improved the depth and accuracy of astronomical observations.  But all of these telescopes were limited by their location on the Earth because of the distorting effects of the Earth's atmosphere.  By the middle of the 20th century, astronomers began to think about the possibility of sending telescopes into space beyond the atmosphere of the Earth.  This dream was fulfilled in 1990 when five astronauts onboard the space shuttle Discovery released the Hubble Space Telescope into an orbit around the Earth about 340 miles above the surface.  

Hubble did indeed produce stunning images of the cosmos that allowed for the study of cosmic history over billions of years.  But in the 1990s scientists began to think about new space telescopes that could detect objects up to 100 times fainter than Hubble can, and objects much earlier in the history of the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope was designed to employ infrared astronomy to detect high-redshift objects that are very early in the history of the universe and very distant.  Infrared light also passes more easily through dust clouds than visible light.  As light travels through space, it is stretched by the expansion of the universe.  Consequently, many of the most distant objects shine in infrared light, which is longer in wavelength than visible light.  Unaided by optical instruments, the human visual system can see only a narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  The Hubble telescope captures a slightly broader portion of the spectrum, including the near ultraviolet and the near infrared.  The James Webb telescope captures a much broader spectrum, including the near and midinfrared spectrum.

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day one year ago.  It was placed in a halo orbit, circling around a point in space known as the Sun-Earth Lagrange point, approximately 930,000 miles beyond the Earth's orbit around the Sun.  The combined gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun allow the James Webb spacecraft to orbit the Sun in the same time that it takes the Earth.

James Webb has four key goals: to search for light from the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe after the Big Bang, to study galaxy formation and evolution, to study star formation and planet formation, and to study planetary systems and the origins of life.

One example of the stunning images produced by James Webb is the image of the star Earendel.

                                                           James Webb Views Earendel

Earendel is the most distant individual star ever seen.  It was first detected by the Hubble Telescope early in 2022, but then a better image of it was captured by the James Webb Telescope.  Its light took 12.9 billion years to reach the Earth.  This means that this is what this star looked like shortly after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, only 900 million years from the Big Bang.

The many ways in which the James Webb Telescope might contribute to our understanding of the cosmos is surveyed in a recent article in the New York Times and in a series of articles in the latest issue of Scientific American (December, 2022). The broadest coverage of the work with James Webb can be found at the NASA website.

This coverage of the James Webb research fails, however, to probe the deep philosophic and theological questions that should arise from this research--questions about the limits of natural scientific knowledge, the mystery of First Cause, the mystery of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, and the cosmic teleology of human purposefulness.


The fundamental assumption of modern natural science is that to understand nature we must engage in both thinking and looking.  In thinking about nature, we speculate about what nature might be like, and we formulate theories or hypotheses about the order of nature.  But thinking is not enough.  We must also look at nature:  we must engage in observations or experiments that will test our theories or hypotheses and either verify or falsify them.  Many scientists agree with Karl Popper that conjectures about nature that cannot be falsified by empirical observations or experiments do not count as scientific knowledge.

But as I have noted previously, some critics of this Popperian philosophy of science have argued that it ignores the fact that the human experience of the world cannot extend into the fundamental depths of nature, and therefore we can only speculate about that deepest reality of nature, without being able to empirically test our speculations.  The fundamental constituents of nature are either too small, too far away, or too far in the past to be observed directly by us or indirectly through our instruments, and thus nature's secrets are buried so deep or so far away that we have no way to test our theoretical speculations about them.

So, for example, while the James Webb Telescope can expand our vision ever deeper into the cosmos, there will always be a cosmic horizon beyond which we cannot look.  And although we might push that cosmic horizon ever closer to the Big Bang, we will never be able to look beyond the Big Bang to see what there was before the beginning of time.  Consequently, we might speculate that we are living in only one of many (infinite?) possible universes, but we can never test that multiverse speculation because we cannot in principle ever look beyond our universe.


The limits of natural science are manifested in those fundamental mysteries of nature that might never be resolved--such as the mystery of First Cause as conveyed by the question, Why is there something rather than nothing?  I have written about this previously.

I have written about the debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll over this question.  Craig presents a syllogism for the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God as supported by modern natural science.

1. If the universe began to exist, then there is a transcendent cause which brought the universe into existence.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, there is a transcendent cause which brought the universe into existence.

Craig claims that (1) is "obviously true," because no one believes that things just "pop into existence" without a cause, and if the whole universe came into existence at some point in time, the cause must have been transcendent--namely, a divine First Cause.

The controversial premise, he says, is (2).  Previously, traditional proponents of the Cosmological Argument have made logical arguments for why the universe could not be eternal and so must have an absolute beginning in time.  But now, beginning in the 20th century, we have scientific empirical evidence from astrophysical cosmology supporting the theory of the Big Bang--most importantly, evidence for the expansion of the universe and evidence from the second law of thermodynamics that the universe has moved from an original state of low entropy to high entropy.

Craig says that the scientific support for premise (2) coming from Big Bang cosmology is "religiously neutral," but when the empirical truth of premise (2) is combined with the metaphysical truth of premise (1), the logical conclusion supports the existence of a transcendent cause of the universe that must be God.

There are, however, good reasons to doubt those two premises as scientific statements rather than affirmations of religious faith.

Premise (1) is not "obviously true," because while we all have experience of how natural causes work within the universe to bring things into existence, we do not have experience with how transcendent causes work outside the universe to bring the universe itself into existence. 

Carroll makes this argument, and Craig refuses to answer it.  Craig just repeats how silly it sounds to say that things "just pop into existence" without a cause.  But as Carroll observes, the language of "popping" implies a context within which cause and effect relationships make sense.  So we can sensibly ask why the chicken crossed the road, because we have a contextual understanding of what roads are, what might be on the other side of a road, what might motivate chickens to cross a road, etc.  We have a context here of things interacting within a universe governed by natural laws.

But if we try to ask why the universe exists, we have no context outside the universe that would make it possible for us to seek a causal explanation.  Indeed, to even talk about transcendent causes implies that our natural experience of causality inside the universe has no application here.  Thus, Craig is employing the sophistical technique of equivocation: if it's silly within our natural experience of the universe to say that things can just "pop into existence," then it is also silly standing outside our natural universe to say that our universe could have come into existence without a cause.  This is a fallacious inference, because our ordinary experience of causality within the context of the universe does not necessarily apply outside that context.


Part of the mission of the James Webb Space Telescope is to locate and study the exoplanets (the planets beyond the Solar System) that have the conditions favorable to life, or even to intelligent life.  Although intelligent life might be rare in the universe, and although it might even turn out to be uniquely found only on the Earth, it is remarkable that some of the physical and chemical constants of the universe appear to be finely tuned for the emergence of life and intelligent life.

Some astrophysicists, such as Owen Gingerich, believe that this evidence of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle becomes comprehensible only if one believes that this fine-tuning is the purposeful work of a Creator.  There are many parameters of physics and cosmology that are set at precise values, such that if there were even a slight deviation from these values, the universe would not be hospitable to any form of life or to intelligent life.  There can be as many as 34 of these finely tuned parameters.  For example, if the expansion rate of the universe had been slightly larger, no stars and planets could have formed; and if it had been slightly smaller, the universe would have collapsed before any stars and planets could have been formed.  The nuclear energy level ratio of carbon to oxygen is set precisely, so that if it had been larger, the universe would contain insufficient oxygen for life, and if it had been smaller, the universe would contain insufficient carbon for life.  If the earth were closer to the Sun, it would be too hot to sustain life.  If it were farther away from the Sun, it would be too cold to sustain life.  Just as Goldilocks found the bowl of porridge that was neither too hot or too cold but just right, it seems that the universe is just right for the emergence of intelligent life. 

Gingerich sees only two possible ways to explain why the universe is so precisely fine-tuned for the evolution of intelligent life on Earth.  We either say that this all happened through an astonishing sequence of accidents.  Or we say that it was intentionally planned by the Creator.  Gingerich thinks the latter is much more plausible, because it is easier to believe that the Creator intentionally set the finely-tuned parameters of the universe to make it inevitable that not just life, but intelligent human life would emerge on a planet just like the Earth.  He endorses the statement of Paul Davies "that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity, or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind.  To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way" (God's Universe, 38).  It's as though nature has been designed so as to be hospitable to minds that can contemplate nature.

It is easier to believe that the universe's being finely tuned for intelligent life is purely accidental if one believes in the multiverse theory accepted by some scientists today.  If our universe is only one of many universes, and if each of those universes has a different set of natural laws and natural physical and cosmological parameters, then we might imagine that through a random evolution of universes, at least one universe could have arisen like ours hospitable to intelligent life.  The problem with this, however, as Gingerich and other scientists have observed, is that this is a purely imaginary conception, for which we have no observational evidence, because we have no way of stepping outside our own universe.  For this reason, many scientists think the theory of multiverse is not a scientific theory at all, because it is not empirically testable.

Even if from the standpoint of the present moment, we as intelligent beings can look back on 13.8 billion years of cosmic history and see ourselves as the purposeful peak of that fine-tuned evolutionary history, which is what Gingerich does, we might wonder about the remote future of the cosmos.  Is the cosmos so fine-tuned for life and intelligent life that such life will continue forever?  Gingerich never asks that question or considers what scientific cosmology would suggest about the distant future of the cosmos.

Although Gingerich quotes from Paul Davies as saying that the universe seems rigged to favor the emergence of not just life but intelligent life, he does not quote Davies' remarks about what the universe will look like in the very remote future.  He imagines "an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart.  As far as we know, no further basic physical processes would ever happen.  No significant event would occur to interrupt the bleak sterility of a universe that has run its course yet still faces eternal life--perhaps eternal death would be a better description."

If we look at the entire history of the cosmos, we see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life; and then after a few billion years of life, the universe became eternally dead again.  So now life, including intelligent life, seems to be only a momentary event in cosmic history.  Now, it seems that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death.


Gingerich looks to the fine-tuning of the universe as evidence for a cosmic teleology--for a cosmos that has been created purposefully to bring about the emergence of human beings, which thus gives cosmic meaning to the place of human beings in the universe.

But rather than looking for some cosmic teleology of the universe, we should be satisfied if we can see the immanent teleology of living species, including the human species.  Cosmic teleology is the conception of all of nature as a whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or creator.  By contrast, immanent teleology is manifest in the internal purposiveness of organisms in their generation, their structure, and their activities.  Darwinian biology rejects any cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole would be seen as ordered to some end or purpose.  Evolution by variation and natural selection explains the purposiveness of species without reference to any forces guiding nature to secure some cosmic scale of perfection.  And yet, although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care of the young--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such processes unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in each species. 

Human beings show such immanent teleology in that the evolved human nature of Homo sapiens includes natural desires and inclinations that are directed to goals or ends, and we can judge the happiness of a human life by how well those goals or ends are satisfied.  I have argued that there are at least 20 natural human desires, and that we judge societies as better or worse depending on how well or how poorly those societies provide the conditions for the harmonious satisfaction of those desires.  This is not a cosmic standard of the good, because this standard of the good is relative to the human species.  Nor is this an eternal standard of the good, because the human good exists only as long as the human species exists.  And modern scientific cosmology teaches us that human beings will exist for only a brief moment in cosmic history.  But for as long as that human species exists, even if it seems fleeting in the huge expanse of cosmic history, the human good is a natural reality.

The evidence of cosmological fine-tuning does not clearly show a fine-tuning for human life.  If we look at the entire history of the cosmos, we see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life, during the first 13 billion years, there was no human-like intelligent life, and in the remote future, as the Sun and the other stars burn out, the universe will become dark, cold, and dead.  We could conclude that the universe has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death, and so from the point of view of the universe, we are utterly insignificant.

But it does not follow from this, however, that if the universe does not care about or for us, our lives have no meaning.  Even if our lives have no cosmic meaning, they still have human meaning for us.  The universe doesn't care.  But we care about ourselves and others.

And even if the universe does not care about or for us, we still want to probe as far as we can into the awesome depths of that universe, and the James Webb Space Telescope will help us to do that.

1 comment:

Rationalist said...

Though we have no cosmic meaning I am proud of the fact that for certain period of cosmic history, Homo Sapiens existed and understood the Cosmos as only a sentient being can. Cosmos itself without sentient being may as well not exist if no conscious being gives it the meaning by naming it as Cosmos. As well as giving meaning to his life, man gives meaning to Cosmos by existing and understanding Cosmos.So I submit humbly that in Science lies ultimate meaning of Cosmos.
James Webb Space Telescope is that sort of scientific achievement worthy of Cosmic worship .