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Answers to students' FAQs

BIG HISTORY

Q: Is big history true?
A: The words ‘true’ and ‘truth’ in the sense of ‘unalterable views’ are not applicable to academic images of the world, of ourselves, and of our past. Our academic images are hopefully the best available reconstructions by humans using empirical observations (which are always made from a certain theoretical point of view) and further academic interpretations, expressed in language, numbers, sounds, and visual images, in fact, in any form of representation that hopefully conveys our best possible interpretation of the past. Because both our empirical observations and our academic interpretations evolve, our academic images of the world and its history will evolve as well.
   The best we can say about our academic interpretations of reality is that our images are correct, or not correct, in terms of being related to our most careful observations and academic interpretations. But there will always be room for discussion. In fact, the academic enterprise can be seen as an ever-continuing discussion about how to view the world and ourselves based on empirical evidence and academic interpretations.
 
Q: Are there different approaches to big history?
A: In some details, yes. But interestingly, most, if not all current big history approaches focus on the rise and demise of complexity during all of history as a result of energy flows through matter within certain favorable circumstances. There is currently general agreement on that most important aspect of structuring and understanding big history.
 
Q: How does big history relate to other histories?
A: Within academia, all academic histories, big and small, are respectable and can be seen as important, as long as they are based on empirical evidence and careful scholarly interpretations. In fact, all smaller histories should fit into big history, which is built upon them. Whether this works in practice constitutes a major test for both big history and all the other academic histories.
   In fact, all histories that people tell to each other are interesting from an academic point of view, simply because they form part of history. But these histories, big and small, should not necessarily be considered academic histories, unless they are based on empirical evidence and careful scholarly interpretations.
 
Q: Can we prove that something does not exist?
A: No, we cannot. There is always a possibility that evidence to the contrary will be found.
 
Q: Are religious views and big history incompatible?
A: Big history is based on empirical observations and academic interpretations. This does not allow for the influence of supernatural aspects as long as they cannot directly be observed, or are needed as theoretical interpretations because there are no other sufficiently satisfying academic interpretations available.
   When we don't know good answers yet, such as what caused the big bang, and the origin of life, the academic answer is simply: "We don't know yet."
   It is up to the person who holds religious views to decide how important the pursuit of science is deemed, including big history, as well as how, and to what extent, for that person big history and religious views can perhaps be reunited or not.
 
Q: Is there more to big history than matter, energy, complexity, and entropy?
A: For human beings, feelings, motivations, perceptions, meanings, beliefs, ideas and ideals, obviously all play a major role in their history. Seen from a big history point of view, human beings represent the greatest known complexity in the universe and, in consequence, require the greatest variety of ways to understand them. This fundamental insight, which is very familiar to scholars within the humanities and social sciences, applies just as well to big history.
   But, as the book hopefully makes clear, humans have always lived within the larger framework of matter, energy, complexity, and entropy. In fact, many, if not most of our daily activities can be understood as a ceaseless struggle against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which we lose when we pass away. As a result, all these human experiences should be understood accordingly as well.
 
Q: How does the theory of big history explained in the book relate to other academic theories?
A: All levels of complexity that have emergent properties require relatively autonomous theories to explain them. The general approach outlined in the book provides an underlying pattern for all of history, but it is not meant to replace academic theories that relate to specific levels of greater complexity.
   In fact, systematizing all current academic theories that pertain to specific levels of complexity within big history provides an exciting academic challenge, with the promise of potentially reuniting all academic knowledge. The exploration of this most important theme has hardly begun, which provides another reason of why we find ourselves currently only at the beginning of formulating good big history accounts.
 
Q: Does big history have a meaning?
A: Big history contains no other meanings than the meanings that people assign to it, or the meanings that people have experienced during their existence.
   For me, in addition to what is outlined on this page, the meaning of big history is as follows. I engaged in big history because I was –and still am– very concerned about our longer-term survival on this planet in reasonable well-being. That motivated me in the early 1970s CE to engage in the search for a greater understanding of how we humans got ourselves into this situation.
   At that time, I had no idea, or ambition, that I would ever reach the stage of proposing a theoretical model for big history to make it easy to understand. That ambition only emerged after having engaged in big history in the 1990s CE. And even at that time, achieving such a synthesis seemed almost like a mission impossible to me.
   During this entire period of intensive research I have made a great effort to refrain from imposing my own desires, ideals, and motivations onto big history. Instead I have sought to deal in the best possible ways with all the empirical evidence and scholarly interpretations that I have encountered, whether I liked them or not.
   While my cultural background and personal preferences may have colored my analysis to an extent unknown to me, my attempt has been to provide an outline of big history that is as impartial and as detached as possible from my personal ideals and value judgments.
   It is up to the readers to decide how well I have achieved this goal, as well as how my analysis could be improved. It is also up to the readers to decide which meanings they assign to big history, including my rendering of it.
   Because of the predicament humanity finds itself in, it seems to me that scholars ought to make a great effort to reach a better understanding of ourselves and our natural environment, including our common history –much like a new Apollo project, as NASA administrator James Fletcher argued in 1975 CE–, so that we can face the future equipped with the best possible knowledge.
 
Q: Does free will exist in big history?
A: No one is completely free to do what she or he likes, or express one’s ideas and wishes, unless these ideas and wishes sufficiently conform to what others want, or unless if one is willing to risk one’s own existence. But even supposedly free will is always bound to the limits of language and other cultural expressions, which change over time.
 
Q: Does big history have a goal, or a direction?
A: Big history does not have any detectable goal, but its overall long-term direction is towards greater overall chaos (entropy). Yet in the meantime, in pockets greater complexity can emerge, as long as the total entropy increases.
 

UNIVERSE
 
Q: What happened before the big bang?
A: We do not know. We do not have any empirical evidence related to what may have happened before the big bang.
 
Q: Do we know what caused the big bang and the expansion of the universe?
A: No, this is still unknown.
 
Q: How is it possible that at the beginning of the universe entropy was maximized, while later it was not? Isn't that breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the total chaos, or entropy, must always increase?
A: The Second Law was formulated for a closed and stable system. The universe, however, is expanding as a result of an unknown force. As a result, more room for entropy has been opening up, which allows the total entropy per volume to go down, simply because it contains less matter and energy. This allowed gravity to kick in and shape stars, galaxies, and later planets and smaller bodies. Matter first started joining under the influence of the electromagnetic force, but gravity causes these things to become really big.
   The, at first sight bewildering, simultaneous increase and decrease of entropy during the history of the universe can be compared with the dissolution of a sugar cube in a water container at room temperature and pressure. Over time, more sugar will dissolve, because the sugar concentration in water is not bound to a maximum. Yet if at the same time water is added at such a rate that the sugar concentration actually decreases, there will be less dissolved sugar per volume, even though the total amount of dissolved sugar is increasing.
   This analogy hopefully explains how, in an expanding universe, entropy can simultaneously both increase and decrease. It all depends on what exactly is being measured and analyzed.
 
Q: Does the universe has a center?
A: Not that we know according to our current insights. All galaxies are moving away from each other without a clear detectable center.
 
Q: How can that be the case when everything is supposed to have started in one place?
A: The problem is that our concepts of time and place are not applicable to the moment of the big bang. According to big bang cosmology, time and space came into being at that very moment. This is very hard, if not impossible, to imagine.
   Underlying this problem is the fact that we observe radiation on our planet  coming toward us from all directions. In other words, we can only observe the universe from within. Our models and popular depictions, however, pretend that we can look at the history of the universe from outside, which is impossible in practice. However, this situation may point to theoretical issues that may, over time, lead to new insights about the origin and development of the universe.
 
Q: When scholars say that the universe is expanding, what does that mean?
A: According to the theory of relativity, it is the fabric of time and space (whatever that is) that is expanding. However, we measure the expansion with the aid of the red shifts of light that was (supposedly) emitted by distant objects, most notably galaxies and quasars. The ‘fabric of time and space’ is, in fact, a theoretical concept that cannot be measured directly.
 
Q: How do we know how old the universe is?
A: We can measure the red shifts and brightness of objects. Assuming the speed of light to be constant and known, this helps us to determine the ages of those objects when they emitted the light that we capture.
   Because the more distant objects appear to be moving away from us quicker, this also provides a measure for the velocity of the expansion of the universe (the ‘Hubble constant’) and, as a result, of its age. The cosmic background radiation provides another piece of evidence, because it supposedly originated when the universe had cooled down to about 3000 K. Combined with the Hubble constant and known physics this yields the current age of 13.8 billion years.
   In practice, all these measurements and calculations are more complicated, among other things because we need to take into account effects such as dust partially extinguishing light on its way to us and the supposed accelerating expansion of the universe, which is not yet understood theoretically. One would expect the universe to slow down because gravity would pull the galaxies toward each other. That slowing-down effect also needs to be taken into account.
 
Q: Can we see the entire universe?
A: We can only see the electromagnetic radiation that has  reached us. The universe may well be much larger than what we can observe.
 
Q: Can the red shift of galaxies, or the cosmic background radiation, be explained in other scientific ways?
A: Not as far as we know. As a result, these measurements provide strong evidence for the big bang scenario, however unlikely that may seem to be.
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International Big History Association
Un. of Amsterdam big history
Cosmic Evolution
Big History Project
Chronozoom
Book: Teaching Big History
Bill Bryson: Short History of Nearly Everything
Other useful stuff on the web
Other big history
resources
Feedback
How to use the book
Course models
Learning goals and objectives
Teaching tools
Assignments (little big histories)
Answers to FAQs by students
Questions by students and teachers that go beyond the book
Examination models
Teaching big history