In 1704 Isaac Newton wrote:
"Is not the Heat of the warm Room convey'd through the Vacuum by the Vibrations of a much subtiler Medium than Air, which after the Air was drawn out remained in the Vacuum? And is not this Medium the same with that Medium by which Light is refracted and reflected, and by whose Vibrations Light communicates Heat to Bodies, and is put into Fits of easy Reflexion and easy Transmission?"
This medium came to be named aether. The aether theory was thereafter accepted by physicists for almost two centuries, even though many physicists conducted experiments which returned results inconsistent with the theory. That presented a problem, everyone knew that the aether existed, it was in every textbook, how else could electromagnetic waves propogate? The only problem was detecting its presence, and as long as our instruments failed to do this then there was simply something wrong with our instruments.
It wasn't until the famous Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 that physicists began to seriously look toward alternatives, which conspicuously lacked any need to postulate aether. However, it would still be another couple of decades until the aether would be consigned to the dustbins of scientific history, with others like Lamarckism and vitalism.
The important lesson to learn from this is that nobody ever solved the problem of aether; it would be more appropriate to say that the problem of aether was dissolved, it just disappeared. The problem turned out to be the implicit premise that the aether existed, which arose within the context of Newton's original theory. In the context of rival theories, the problem simply did not arise, and there was no problem to solve.
This example from the history of science is instructive, as it clearly demonstrates how we often become fixed on a problem where no solution is possible. In such a case, we need to analyse our implicit premises. The task is to scrutinise and criticise the context in which our problem arises, what we might call the problem-situation, to see whether or not a problem really exists.
There are a family of closely related cosmological problems I want to breifly consider, examples are:
What is the cause of the universe?
What is the meaning of the universe?
What is beyond the universe?
These problems can be dissolved much like the problem of aether, once it is recognised that the context in which they arise is flawed. The common error is the objectification of the universe, a premise implicit in the question, rendering each question insoluble.
The word universe comes from Latin, and means entire world, all together, turn to one, etc. The prefix uni- means one. However, the context, as presented in these questions is problematic, and to recognise why we'll consider some everyday examples, such as:
What is the cause of that chiming?
What is the meaning of that signpost?
What is beyond my bedroom door?
To the first question, we might answer that a bell is causing the chiming. Though in doing so we presuppose that bells can exist in relation to you, such as that they can cause a chiming sound for you to hear. In other words, we presuppose lawful conditions, in which it is possible for one thing, such as a bell, to have a relationship to you, such that it can cause an effect which you can hear.
To the second question, we might answer that the signpost means that a gas station is 5 miles away. However, in doing so we presuppose that there are particular lawful conditions in which we can stand in relation to the signpost, and using interprative procedures can discern a meaning from it. In fact, should we speak a different language where the same set of symbols on the signpost are interpreted by different rules, we may decide that the signpost means something entirely different.
To the last question, I might conjecture that there is a rodent of unusually large size just beyond my door. Though oncemore, in doing so I presuppose that different objects can exist, have different properties, and stand in relation to each other in a 3-dimensional space. In other words, I presuppose a particular set of lawful conditions in which that is possible.
All these relationships and patterns presuppose laws, the very notion of something having ameaning, a cause or a beyond makes no sense, except where we are talking about objects which obey such laws. In fact, the laws define what an object is, so objects can't exist without laws to define and govern them.
Now, if we consider the universe as an object, which can have a cause, an prior meaning or outside, then we have contradicted our definition of the universe. The universe is by definition everything, including all of the laws which govern it. The moment we begin to ask questions like the above, we implicitly objectify the universe, we treat it as an object which is in turn subject to laws, such as cause and effect or geometrical axioms.
In other words, we have implicitly postulated a metauniverse, which shouldn't exist. Indeed, the problem is unsoluble due to a flawed context, one that unavoidably gives rise to a contradiction. The whole set of problems is dissolved, you might say, by simply adopting a new context free of that contradiction.
Thank you for reading, but that is all... run along!