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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Goldilocks Enigma

Why is the Universe "just right" for life?
If in 2007 you ever read an accessible page-turning account of what we know about the universe from cosmology and particle physics, read this book before any other. (If you are reading this Dr. Davies, I want some commission please!) The ability of this scientist to write lucidly for a popular audience is well known. He hasn't disappointed here. The book deals with the apparent suitability of the Cosmos for life and mind, its fine tuning for observers such as you and I, (sometimes called the anthropic principle). It looks at all the options fairly; that is, sympathetically and critically in the light of the evidence and the rigour of the arguments maintained for each. Not until the last chapter does he declare his own hand. It is with this last summary chapter that I now wish to deal.

Dr. Davies classifies those who ask the "Big Questions" about the "Universe, Life and Everything" into eight categories, (nine if you allow for the subdivision of the second into two variants). I can only summarise the summary here in my own words which, although inadequate, can at least get us all thinking.

Option "A" - The Absurd Universe
The Universe is a fluke. It just is as it is. It came to be by chance and now all we can do is look for laws that will help us, albeit in a very limited way, to make some sort of sense of it all. There is no God / gods, no purpose, no significance in existence or life. Dependable truth is truth tested by the scientific method. All talk about origins and meanings is merely conjecture unrooted in anything verifiable (or falsifiable) and, therefore, of little or no worth.

Option "B" - The Unique Universe
(1) Stronger Version
- The Universe exists necessarily as both single and unique. It is governed at a deep and, as yet, unattained level by a single "Theory of Everything" which, when cracked, will leave any hypothetical God with nothing to do ... except perhaps to "breathe fire into the equations." When this "Theory of Everything" is attained there will only be the fine details to be worked out.
(2) Weaker Version - This Universe could have been otherwise, yet it isn't since, simply, it is the only one that both works and sustains observers. Why this is so is either a mystery or an absurdity.

Option "C" - The Multiverse
This is but one of a finite or infinite set of universes in which a finite or infinite set of realities necessarily exist, (there is a scientific basis for such suppositions - it isn't simply a "refuge for atheists" who resist the alleged special character of this one!) This shifts the Big Questions up a level and remains controversial until such time as it can be tested as the new "Big Idea." The anthropic principle is very weak here since this Universe is but one viable universe in a set of sterile ones; no surprise then that we are here to observe it.

Option "D" - Intelligent Design
The fine tuning of the Cosmos for life, the evidences of "design for life" is neither a fluke nor happy accident in an infinite set of "failed universes." It is what it suggests - a design crying out for a Designer. However, for the agnostic or atheist this alone cannot substantiate the existence of God since it stops the argument at God ... or any other Designer of Choice, a Committee of gods or a simulation of an advanced Meta-Civilisation for example. This fails to satisfy the non-theistic rationalist who needs a self sufficient cause for the Cosmos. Neither ideology nor faith can be banished to the sidelines, respectively, for both atheist and theist alike. Each has a starting point even though reasons are adduced for the persuasiveness of both.

Option "E" - The Life Principle
This is not the usual teleology that we associate with the Creator (design for a final outworked purpose) but rather of the immanent sort that takes the emergence of life as evidence that the Universe has created life to make itself self aware en route to the final merging of Cosmos and Mind in the far future.

Option "F" - The Self Explaining Universe
Without divine causation from nothing the Universe must make itself in a closed causal loop. This universe would be (and is) a reality that depends on participating observers, life. "F" is therefore an extension of "E" dealing with origins and the emergent properties of the Cosmos.

Option "G" - The Fake Universe
This is the "D" variant presupposing experienced reality as a simulation and, statistically speaking, overwhelmingly likely to be a faked reality in the Multiverse option.

Option "H" - An Altar to an Unknown Theory!

What do I think?

It seems to me that what divides these theories between theist and atheist / agnostic is the ideological or faith presupposition that lies behind each account. Dr. Davies is honest and recognises this himself. Rarely does a scientist of the atheist sort simply deal with the evidence. Rarely does a theologian simply accept naked faith. Perhaps there is hope in engaging both schools in a dialogue by encouraging that transparent honesty that Dr. Davies shows in his wonderful book. Get it from Amazon.


island said...

Hi, I'm a big fan of Paul Davies and I have done much research into this particular facet of science.

I recommend that you look at the latest post in my blog for clarification between Options; "B", (1) and C, which are all related to the normally *expected* structure of the universe, vs, what we actually endend up with.

I refer to "extremist" creationists in a similar context as a theologian who projects "naked (unfounded) faith" into the interpretation of evidence without hard justification for doing so.

My own interpretation of the anthropic physics is very similar to Davies, and there is much to be said to science from the "Goldilocks Enigma" based soley on the average of the extreme opposing runaway conditions that are inherent to the anthropic coincidences.

P.S. I totally agree with your assessment of the way that people on either side deal pre-prejudicially with this evidence, and I have made many examples of this on my blog.

Father Gregory said...

Thank you Island ... I will look at your sites soon and, hopefully, contribute. Thank you for your comment.

David Darling said...

Wonderful review, Father Gregory, of, I've no doubt, another great book by Paul Davies.

His title and subtitle, however, do rather beg the question. Is the universe, in fact, just right for life?

It seems to me that the universe is, to a very close approximation extremely hostile to life! The near-vacuum of space, stars, and probably most planetary and sub-planetary objects are not at all suitable to life as we know it. We can get the impression that the universe has somehow been building up to life, or greater and greater complexity. But in a universe so old and big, one could also argue that something like life is bound to come along sooner or later.

A universe "just right" for life would be more like the mediaeval cosmos with the Earth and humankind at the center and a rather compact everything else circling around it.

Just a thought!

Father Gregory said...

Dear David

The universe is truly hostile to our form of life in 99.99% of its locations .... but maybe in habitat terms we are only 0.01% of the life forms around - whilst in places more accommodating to the needs of other "creatures" (but not ours) life also flourishes.

Perhaps we are like those extremophile bugs hanging around the smokers who (if they had the awareness) might conclude that life on this planet was exceedingly rare (if they could travel!)

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