The Infinite Enigma
Infinity does not exist in a physical sense in our universe.
Since we exist, “I think therefore I am (Cogito, ergo sum)”, the concept of nothingness is a challenging contradiction. Similarly, the idea of a truly unbounded and infinite reality is also difficult to wrap our finite minds and our constrained experience around.
One path leads to the zero enigma, why do we exist? The other leads to the infinite enigma, why is our existence constrained?
Somewhat ironically if we see the universe as infinite, then we ask the question why is our experience finite? If we see the universe as finite, then we then ask the question what is beyond its finite constraints? The enigma is resolved if everything is finite and infinity doesn’t exist beyond its concept.
Yes, infinity exists in mathematics, it also exists as a philosophical idea, it may exist in a reality beyond our perception, and we may yet prove that infinity does exist in our universe, if we can prove that space time curvature leads to an unbounded universe. However, for now at least, in our known and understood universe, everything is finite.
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Most simply infinity is a state of being limitless, endless and as a result unbounded. From the perspective of physical infinity, this means something that exists in unbounded volume, quantity or amount. Mathematically it means a number that cannot be counted, no matter how much time (and computing power) is applied to the task, in other words a number that cannot be expressed as a discrete or at least meaningfully constrained value.
Infinity, as it is philosophically, popularly and ontologically accepted, is NOT:
- A substitute for a very large or un-calculable, but otherwise constrained number.
- The continuous division of a physical object below its fundamental elemental components.
For the sake of clarity with the propositions that follow, the definition of infinity being used here is “the state of having no end or limit” (Oxford Dictionary).
Finite Age of the Universe
Starting with time, an important part of the finite conceptualization of the Universe. We know, or at least for now our best understanding is, that the origin of the universe was 13.8 billion years ago at a single point of origin described as the ‘Big Bang’.
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made
a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded
as a bad move.” — Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001)
One way that the Universe, and the reality that we find ourselves in could be considered infinite, is if the Universe doesn’t end and continues to expand from the point of the Big Bang forward and without end. If the forward timeline for the Universe is unbounded – infinite.
Working against this model are endings for the Universe. A ‘Big Crunch’ if gravitational attraction eventually reverses the expansion and effectively ‘rewinds’ the big-bang. A ‘Big Freeze’ if the expansion slows and ultimately stops and the universe eventually cools and seizes-up, matter without energy. A ‘Big Rip’ if the expansion continues and the set volume of matter expands to the point of breaking atomic bonds and structures apart.
It would appear that space-time curvature suggests an open three-dimensional space. What in two-dimensions one could consider ‘flat’ – so maybe flat-earth theorists should shift to flat-universe theorists – I’m joking of course. However the expansion rate, and even whether this expansion is linear, is not known sufficiently to be able to predict with any certainty the ultimate outcome.
Regardless of the nature of the end, in some further 20-billion or more years from now, the Universe will come to one of its structural ends. Effectively ending the timeline as a ‘dead Universe’ of finite existence.
Finite Size of the Universe
Our observable Universe extends about 46 billion light-years in each direction in our three-dimensional perceivable universe. This includes approximately 176-billion (1.76 x 1011) galaxies and with around 90-percent of the Universe being beyond our ability to detect, due to the expansion of the Universe, the total number of galaxies is estimated at around 2-trillion (2 x 1012). With each Galaxy containing approximately 100-million stars (1 x 108), that makes for an enormous total of some 200-million-trillion (2×1020) stars in the Universe, or in numbers we rarely use 200 quintillion (1018) or 0.2 sextillion (1021) stars.
So although these numbers are unimaginably large, they are still finite.
Even if we then consider the number of atoms in the universe, assuming there are approximately 1-Octadecillion (1057) atoms per sun and solar system, making something approaching 1-Quinvigintillion (1078) atoms in the entire universe. These may seem like made-up numbers, completely meaningless as we go about our lives, but they still remain finite.
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” — Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018)
If we go even further still, and look at fundamental sub-atomic particles and constructions, assuming we go past the 12 fundamental particles and describe other forces, states and information, the number remains finite, just increasingly large. A result of the cap given by the finite number of galaxies and stars.
This means that the Universe has a finite, set, and unchangeable total amount of matter. String theory and other theories look at a total ‘central charge’ or ‘universal electric charge’ of the universe that is also finite, set and unchangeable. Although this number may be something in the order of 1-sexsexagintillion (10201), it is still finite, just insanely large. I think you get the point by now, and I just wanted to say ‘sex’ twice in one word – bucket list ticked.
So even if the Universe continues to expand, and to exist, for an infinite period of future time, under the ‘flat’ and ever expanding model, the total amount of energy and matter is not growing. Time could turn out to be infinite, but effectively space appears that it is not.
Infinity Does Not Exist
The contention is that infinity may not exist beyond our conceptualization within the actual physical reality of the Universe.
“I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity” — Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986)
Perhaps we can find it in the expansion plane of the Universe, or within its forward time horizon, or discover evidence within the cosmic background noise, dark energy or dark matter.
What may be more interesting though, is that if the Universe is finite, and quantum entanglement shows instantaneous faster-than-light communication between its particles. Is this the result of determinism (a fixed timeline and pre-determined progression of everything for the Universe) or communication and possibly what we might consider ‘computation’ existing outside of our known Universe?
This is the open-door for physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and dilettante’s alike. The infinite enigma creates a tension, a understanding vacuum that compels us to find an answer. Perhaps multi-verse theories, simulation theories, or a more contemporary re-imagining of spiritual and divine theories. Conceptions that explain the missing pieces, answer the linear flow of time, the finite nature of our perceived reality. Ideas and evidence that link our finite perceptual bubble to some infinite and unbounded greater understanding. The enigma also asks questions about why infinity keeps turning up in math, should it be an undefined result, or is it in fact a pathway to greater enlightenment.
Perhaps to be infinite is to be divine.
David Warwick – 4 May 2021 – email@example.com