Inventing the Universe

Plato's Timaeus, the Big Bang, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge

By Luc Brisson & F. Walter Meyerstein

Subjects: Philosophy Of Science
Series: SUNY series in Ancient Greek Philosophy
Paperback : 9780791426920, 193 pages, July 1995
Hardcover : 9780791426913, 193 pages, July 1995

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Table of contents


Introduction: The Problem of Scientific Knowledge

Situating the problem: our essential presuppositions

The procedure followed in this analysis


The Model of the Universe in Plato's Timaeus
The Big Bang Model of Cosmology
Algorithmic Information Theory



Part I: The Model of the Universe in the Timaeus

The date of the composition of the Timaeus
The first twelve axioms of the cosmological model advanced in the Timaeus
Plato's theory of matter and the cosmological axioms
Plato's explanation of the complexity of sensible things


Experimental verification in Plato's time
Standards and instruments of measure in Plato's time
The numbering system in Plato's time


Experimentation in the Timaeus

Part II: Contemporary Big Bang Cosmology

A. The standard Big Bang model: short description

The "philosophical" presuppositions
The geometric axioms
Einstein's gravitation


Einstein's dynamic axioms: matter and energy in the universe
time and causality in the universe


Solving Einstein's field equations

Isotropy and homogeneity of the energy/matter content of the universe: the standard Friendmann-Robertson-Walker model

B. The relation between the model and observation

The Hubble law
Cosmic microwave background radiation
The relative abundance of light elements

Observational limits in cosmology
Problems affecting the FRW model: observations requiring additional axioms
The inflationary scenario

C. Modern theory of matter

The central role of the concept of symmetry


Part III: What Knowledge is Conveyed by Science?

The symbolic description of reality
Algorithmic Information Theory: some relevant aspects


The Turing machine
A definition of science


The science of the axioms in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics
Final conclusions



A parallel investigation of both Plato's Timaeusand the contemporary standard Big Bang model of the universe shows that any possible scientific knowledge of the universe is ultimately grounded in irreducible and undemonstrable propositions. These are inventions of the human mind. The scientific knowledge of the universe is entirely composed in a series of axioms and rules of inference underlying a formalized system. There is no logical relationship between the sensible perception of a world of becoming and the formalized system of axioms known as a "scientific explanation."

The "irrational gap" between perception and explanation can be appraised historically and identified in three stages: Plato's Timaeus furnishes the first example of a scientific theory dealing with a realm of ideality that cannot be derived from immediate sensible perception; the Big Bang model is constituted on the basis of the purely geometrical notion of symmetry; and in the more recent Algorithmic Theory of Information, the analysis of the purely symbolic language expressing physical reality reveals the level of complexity of any given theory formulated in this language. The result is that the probability of the universe actually conforming with simple mathematics is zero.

In a formal system, a theorem contains more information than can be found in the set of axioms of this system, and it remains undecidable. In Aristotle' s language, the theorems that can be proved within a theoretical model are already potentially contained in the system of axioms underlying these theorems.

Luc Brisson is Director of Research at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. He has published several books and articles. F. Walter Meyerstein is in the Philosophy Department at the Universitate Autonoma de Barcelona, and is studying the philosophical implications of modern science.