Nov 20, 2013 | By

Insights into Infinity – Is the World Finite?

Recently I happened across two very different pieces about infinity.  The first was a blog post by Mario Livio, and the second a short video by Curtis Childs on Infinity.  In his post, Livio poses the question as to whether there are any infinities in nature or whether they are just mathematical concepts.  He points out that while the universe is very large it seems to be finite.  However, some theories about the universe seem to entail “singularities” – these are the places in mathematical calculations when certain quantities appear to become infinite.  For example, if we go backwards in time toward the beginning of the Big Bang, volume approaches zero and density of mass approaches infinity!  He speculates, however, that these singularities may just be due to inadequacies in the theory that will eventually be smoothed out as our understanding advances.

Interestingly, the problem with infinities he is referring to applies to the structure of space and time as well.  We think of space and time as continuous and infinitely divisible (that is what makes calculus work!).  But quantum indeterminacy tells us that there can be no information about properties of space smaller than the planck length (1.616252×10−35 m), and no information about properties of time smaller than planck time (5.39121 × 10−44 sec).  So what we can truly know about the physical universe and its constituent physical pieces of space and time – what we can describe and measure – is finite.

Curtis Childs’ video on Infinity retells a spiritual experience by Emmanuel Swedenborg in which he explains how a beetle can be divided into parts, and the parts divided into subparts, and so on down to increasing levels of detail.  Yet all of this detail is still a unified beetle. In the spiritual sense, the same thing applies to our conscious thoughts.  These are also comprised of part and subparts and so on down to increasingly complex detail.  According to Swedenborg, this process continues to Infinity, at which point we become unified with the One of creation.

I tend to agree with Livio in believing that the physical world is truly finite in all ways (except perhaps for the future, which of course will never arrive).  As to the spiritual world and the thoughts, intentions and loves that are its substance – our experience of these will always be finite, but there is some evidence that the source of that experience is not.  This evidence is largely drawn from personal, subjective experiences, testimony from those claiming transcendent spiritual experience or revelation and scripture, and, therefore, may not be convincing for everyone.  Yet for many the evidence of an infinite God is compelling.

For some insights about the process by which an infinite God might establish and separate from a finite creation, Swedenborg wrote a remarkable little book on this subject in 1734 – Outlines of a Philosophical Argument on the Infinite and the Final Cause of Creation and on the Intercourse Between the Soul and the Body.

One Response to “Insights into Infinity – Is the World Finite?”

  1. Stephen H. Smith, M.D. says:

    George, what a thought provoking article. It stimulated me to query several ministers on the problem of universal versus specific correspondences. If the natural world is as it were a container for the spiritual, as recipients of influx, then perhaps the “indefinite” nature of the spiritual world might derive from the myriad natural objects and the still more myriad states of finite objects in the natural world. Opinions vary it seems as to whether individual objects themselves have a correspondence but it would seem to me that each beautiful snowflake might have a spiritual twin! I wonder if a natural object observed and reflected upon by a human mind might not have a more powerful spiritual analog? The infinite seems to have two aspects; the unfathomably large (or small) in terms of extension, eternal in terms of time, or simply “non finite” as in a realm totally beyond our comprehension. It’s little wonder that the Pythagoreans were in awe of irrational numbers!

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