Is the Universe Linear or Cyclic?

By Robert Bernstein   |   March 7, 2023

“There is nothing new under the sun” comes from Ecclesiastes 1. It is a warning that all worldly efforts are futile. That all seeming progress is erased in history.

For most of human history, progress really was not a visible thing. People used the same stone tools for thousands of years. Life was a subsistence existence with little legacy to show for it. Each generation started anew. It was for good reason that most religious mythology saw the universe as endless cycles. Life, death, and rebirth. Repeat.

My father was a research biologist, but he was also an excellent student of history. He worked tirelessly for progress in science and in social justice. But he often relapsed to a view that people just keep repeating the same behaviors, and so there is no real progress.

As a teen, I was teaching myself electronics and I showed him the transistor data books from about 1960 and 1970. The first was a thin pamphlet, the second a thick book. “That is progress!” I exclaimed. I offered a compromise: Progress occurs in epicycles – cycles that move forward.

It is indeed disheartening when we see a superpower like the U.S. invade Iraq or Putin lay waste to Ukraine. We keep thinking such barbaric militarism is a thing of the past. Then it happens again.

But some researchers like Steven Pinker claim that in the big arc of history, there has been progress. Violence is on the decline overall. Invasions happen, but the world largely condemns them.

Over two years ago, I claimed that “The Opposite of Progress is Fashion.” Noting that fashion does not “improve” or “progress” in the way that we hope – that science and social justice progresses. Often, the ugliest fashions of the past come back and fashion history repeats itself.

But, what about the entire universe? The Bible imagines a sky god who creates the universe over the course of six days. Modern science found this silly, and most cosmologists were determined to construct a theory of a steady-state universe with no beginning. This worked well until evidence grew that there was indeed a beginning to our universe. These ideas were derisively called “Big Bang” theories, until that term was embraced as real science.

In Annie Hall, young Alvy Singer refuses to do his homework because the universe is expanding. “What’s the point?” he asked. He is told that this is billions of years in the future, and we should enjoy and make the best of the time we have.

Some Big Bang theories are also cyclic. The universe expands until it falls back into a Big Crunch. Then starts over. Some physicists find this objectionable on the basis of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Entropy is always increasing. Meaning at the Big Crunch, the universe is in a higher entropy state than at the Big Bang. Meaning it is in no position to start over.

Capitalist economics is based on constant growth. American economist Kenneth Boulding famously quipped, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” But some versions of economics are also cyclic. When growth gets out of hand, a crash wipes it all out and we start over. For the past couple of hundred years, this was largely true. It remains to be seen if this can change going forward.

For most living things, progress mostly happens only through evolution over long time scales. But humans have the ability to learn and to pass along knowledge from one generation to another. This should allow accumulated progress.

But German philosopher Georg Hegel said, “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

For most of human history, wise elders were revered. It is only in recent generations that youth is revered for its innovation and fresh perspective. But people can be so focused on the latest “shiny new thing” that they forget to ask wise elders if they have seen similar cases in the past that did not end well.

As I indicated in my “Utopia” article, I do believe we can make progress toward a more perfect world for everyone. Belief that progress is possible is key to making it so. But we should also learn from wise elders and history, so that we don’t repeat past mistakes. That would be the greatest progress of all.


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