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Dr Hugh Murdoch on The Goldilocks Enigma

Article: Theosophy-Science Group Newsletter, May 2007 p8

This is the title of the latest book by Paul Davies. The theme is the nature of the universe and its seemingly uncanny suitability for life. This has been a recurring theme, in one form or another, in a number of books (and articles) by Davies over the last 20 years or so, beginning with The Cosmic Blueprint in 1988. Perhaps the most significant of these was The Mind of God (1992) which was largely responsible for his Templeton Prize. There he came very close to concepts which ring a bell with Theosophists. He implied that, although he did not believe in a traditional creator God, he could embrace “an abstract principle or ground of being”. He even suggested that mysticism might be the only way to ultimate truth, and noted that a number of scientists (including Pauli and Schrödinger) were interested in it. He received a lot of (unjustified) flak for his outspoken views and he seems to have since tried to be rather cautious in expressing his views on such subjects.

In the Preface of the current book, Davies notes that early in his career, he came across a paper by Brandon Carter introducing the concept of the “Anthropic Principle” which was then not taken seriously by most physicists. However, with the advent among physicists of the concept of a multiverse with varying laws among the individual universes, it seemed much less surprising that one universe (ours) among the multitude might just happen to have appropriate laws allowing life to develop. “At this stage atheists began to take an interest”. In 2003, Davies co-chaired a workshop at Stanford University — “Universe or Multiverse”, funded by the Templeton Foundation. A further follow-up workshop was held at Stanford in 2005. The talks were published in a book edited by Bernard Carr with the above title. (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Davies does not mention in the current book his contributions to these conferences but see footnote 2 at the end of this item.

Davies says “in some ways, the [current] book is a sequel to The Mind of God but in spite of the emphasis on the deep and meaningful, I intend it also to serve as a straightforward introduction to modern cosmology and physics. … I have made no attempt to consider other modes of discovery, such as mysticism, spiritual enlightenment or revelation through religious experience”. I will try here to concentrate on those sections of the book that are most directly relevant to the question of life and mind in the universe, at the expense of more technical material. Even that limited objective is a huge task.

Chapter 1 is entitled “The Big Questions — Confronting the mysteries of existence”. It begins with the statement (much abbreviated): “For thousands of years, humans have sought answers to such questions as: Why are we here? How did the universe begin? How is the world put together? For all recorded human history, people have sought answers to such ‘ultimate questions’ in religion and philosophy. Today, however, many of these big questions are part of science. Arguably the most significant fact about the universe is that we are part of it.” Many scientists and philosophers fervently disagree but Davies says: “My position, however, is that I take life and mind (i.e. consciousness), seriously” [Emphasis mine].

There are several essential ingredients for life; certain elements including especially carbon and oxygen; liquid water; a stable environment (provided for us by the Sun) over a very long time as shown by modern cosmology. There are also certain stringent requirements in the laws and numerical constants of physics (as shown, for example, by Hoyle in relation to the synthesis of carbon and oxygen, and described by him as ‘a put-up job’). On the face of it, the universe does look as if it has been designed by an intelligent creator for sentient beings. Until recently this “Goldilocks factor” was almost completely ignored by scientists but science is at last coming to grips with the enigma of why the universe is so uncannily fit for life.

Throughout history prominent thinkers have sought a deeper hidden reality and consulted shamans, mystics and priests. The word ‘occult’ originally meant “knowledge of concealed truth” and seeking a gateway to the occult domain has been a preoccupation of all cultures from the dreaming of Aboriginal Australians to the myth of Adam and Eve. Plato compared the world of appearances to a shadow on the wall of a cave. About 350 years ago, Isaac Newton, mystic, theologian and alchemist, stumbled on the key to the universe — a cosmic code that would open the floodgates of knowledge. In spite of his mystical leanings, he did more than anyone to change the age of magic into the world of science. The ancients were right: beneath the surface complexity of nature lies a hidden subtext written in a subtle mathematical code. Modern scientists, while mostly not religious, accept that an intelligible script underlies the workings of nature. We human beings have been made privy to the deepest workings of nature. Mindless blundering atoms have conspired to make, not just life, not just mind, but Understanding. The evolving cosmos has spawned beings who are able, not merely to watch the show, but to unravel the plot.

The work of Galileo, Newton and their contemporaries did not take place in a cultural vacuum. They regarded the laws as thoughts in the mind of God and their elegant mathematical form as a manifestation of God’s plan for the Universe. Their work was the culmination of many ancient traditions, especially Greek philosophy which believed the world could be explained by logic, reasoning and mathematics. Davies says that the existence of laws of nature is the starting point for his book.

Today the laws of physics occupy the central position in science; they have assumed an almost deistic status. Galileo said ‘the great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which they are written and this language is mathematics’. One of the deepest mysteries of science is: why is nature shadowed by a mathematical reality? Why does theoretical physics work? The laws of physics inhabit an abstract world and take on a life of their own. Many modern mathematicians are Platonists (at least at weekends). Theoretical physicists also find it natural to locate the laws of physics in a Platonic realm.

There is much that scientists don’t understand such as how life began and they are almost totally baffled by consciousness. [My emphasis] Many scientists struggling to construct a comprehensive view of the universe see God as a cosmic magician and want to get rid of God altogether. By contrast, the God of scholarly theology is cast in the role of a cosmic architect manifested through the rational order revealed by science. That kind of God is largely immune from scientific attack.

The next chapter explains what we know about the universe. The age of the universe is 13.7 billion years. The big bang was everywhere. Space is in the universe rather than the universe being in space. There is no centre of the universe. The big bang was everywhere. The oldest galaxies are seen as they were 12 billion years ago. The furthest back in time we can see is the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB) at age 380,000 years after the origin, before galaxies began to form. Much information is contained in the tiny systematic fluctuations in temperature of the CMB. These fluctuations are the origin of all structure in the universe including galaxies and stars, planets, and hence life. There is a distance horizon set by the speed of light beyond which we cannot see, currently at 46 billion light years as calculated by Davis and Lineweaver, not 13.7 billion light-years as often misstated even by professionals. (That figure ignores the fact that the universe has been expanding ever since the origin, wrongly assuming that special relativity applies). There are no doubt galaxies beyond our horizon which we cannot see. The laws of physics appear to hold as far back as we can see, otherwise “life could not emerge, still less evolve to the point of intelligence”.

The bulk of the book ranges widely over physics and cosmology with emphasis on factors relevant to the existence of life but I have room only for a few key points with emphasis on topics related to the question of life in the universe before passing to Davies’ summary of the various attitudes to the bio-friendliness of the universe, giving his own personal preferred belief. The universe is very smooth and uniform, apart from the tiny CMB fluctuations (themselves very important). It has also picked a happy compromise in expanding slowly enough for galaxies (and hence ultimately life) to form but not so slowly as to risk a rapid collapse before life could form. Furthermore the expansion rate had been decreasing long enough for life to form before relatively recently reaching what rather seems the natural state of increasing expansion rate. (John Barrow considers this a very important example of the ‘anthropic principle’ i.e. a feature conducive to the emergence of life).

Davies says: “There is one aspect that often gets left off the list of observed properties (of the universe) and that is that there are observers to observe them. The role of the observer in science is a peculiar one, and it makes scientists a little queasy”. (Note, for example, the special role given to observers in quantum mechanics). … “This rather trivial example is a pointer to a more weighty consideration. Observers — at least in our experience so far — are living organisms”.

There is a reasonable argument that if the universe is especially fit for life, it would be surprising if life occurred only once in the universe, if indeed the whole vast universe existed just to make life possible on one seemingly insignificant planet around a particular star and nowhere else. It is this thought, I believe, which drives Davies’ expectation of life existing elsewhere, a topic in which he seems to be becoming increasingly interested.

There is of course a chapter on a multiverse with each universe having its own separate set of laws as an explanation of the bio-friendliness of this universe. We just happen to hit the jackpot. It is a very extravagant way out of not admitting that life is special. This is a popular idea among many cosmologists, including Martin Rees. I suggest that Davies’ personal attitude to this is indicated in footnote 2 below. (Of course a multiverse with each universe having the same laws would not solve the Goldilocks Enigma).

In a chapter “How Come Existence: is life written into the laws of the universe?”, Davies cites views among scientists ranging from Stephen Hawking: “The human race is just a chemical scum in a moderate-sized planet” through palaeobiologist, Simon Conway Morris: “There is seeded into the initiation of the universe itself the inevitability of intelligence”, to Nobel prize winning biologist Christian de Duve “who describes the universe as ‘pregnant with life’ and calls life a cosmic imperative”; Davies also quotes biophysicist Stuart Kauffman as echoing Freeman Dyson: “We are at home in the universe”. He cites the tacit assumption of those involved in the SETI project that life is not just a freak phenomenon on Earth.

At the end of the book, Davies summarises the various attitudes held among scientists to the Goldilocks Enigma, listing 6 broad categories.

A. The Absurd Universe

(His term) which he believes is held by most scientists. The universe is as it is mysteriously. There is no God, no designer, no teleological principle. Life has emerged from cosmos and mind from life purely by accident, seemingly against the odds. The fact that some minds are capable of understanding the universe is dismissed as a fluke.

B. The Unique Universe

There exists a deep underlying unity in physics (a ‘theory of everything’) which is sought after but not yet achieved. The bio-friendliness of the universe is shrugged off as an insignificant coincidence. It is unexpected good fortune that this fix is consistent with life and mind.

C. The Multiverse

Davies has given a lot of attention to this theory. He says a growing number of scientists now support some version of a multiverse, either arising from separate big bang origins or in so-called ‘pocket universes’; i.e. different regions of the universe, (presumably well beyond our observability horizon). Life only arises in those universes in which the laws happen to be just right for life, neatly explaining the Goldilocks Enigma. As living beings we can only find ourselves in such a universe. Davies, who has given a lot of attention to this theory, notes that many, like him, see this as a very extravagant way to explain bio-friendliness.

D. Intelligent Design

The traditional monotheistic religious view is that the universe is designed and created by God to be suitable for life with sentient beings as part of God’s design. This, says Davies, explains nothing unless one can explain how God did it. It also runs into the problem of God’s origin. Presumably, bearing in mind the recent claims of ‘intelligent design’, Davies says the designer need bear no relation to the traditional God of monotheism.

E. The Life Principle

This replaces a traditional God with a more subtle purpose-like life principle. In short, it builds purpose into the workings of the cosmos at a fundamental level without an unexplained pre-existing agent to inject purpose miraculously. The disadvantage is that teleology represents a decisive break with scientific tradition in which anything goal-oriented is seen as anti-scientific. Critics ask how the universe knows about life in order to contrive its eventual emergence. A life principle must be accepted as a brute fact along with the laws of physics.

F. The Self-Explaining Universe

Davies notes that there are models involving causal loops or backwards-in-time causation, where the universe creates itself. Asking “why this particular self-explaining, self-creating system?” he answers: “I have suggested that only self-consistent loops capable of understanding themselves can create themselves, so that only universes with at least the potential for life and mind really exist”. What a contorted long way round (reminiscent of angels-on-the-head-of-a pin type arguments) to justify his obvious inner convictions!

Final Thoughts

Davies notes that his own inclinations clearly lie with E and F, saying: “I do take life, mind and purpose seriously; I concede that the universe at least appears to be designed with a high level of ingenuity … Many scientists will criticize my E/F inclination as being crypto-religious, betraying a nostalgia for a theistic worldview with a special place for mankind”. He attempts to save face by saying it does not have to be precisely Homo sapiens. He then makes the following rather important statement: “I do believe that life and mind are etched deeply into the fabric of the cosmos, perhaps through a shadowy, half-glimpsed life principle, and if I am honest I have to concede that this is something I feel more in my heart than in my head. So maybe that is a religious conviction of sorts”.

He acknowledges that for most scientists, any suggestion of a teleological trend or progressive evolution towards consciousness is anathema. … “most scientists stick with something like position A and get on with their work, leaving the big questions to philosophers and priests.”

Footnote 1. In a contribution to a book on panentheism, Davies wrote an article called “Teleology without Teleology” in which he said that he could envisage a creator who designed flexible laws which ensure the eventual development of life through the operation of complexity without the need for specific interference along the way.

Footnote 2. Davies’ contribution to the 2003 Conference: “Universe or Multiverse” was entitled: “Multiverse or Design? Reflections on a ‘Third Way’”. He said: “In this essay, I shall argue that both the Cosmic Designer and multiverse explanations suffer from serious shortcomings. I shall then sketch some ideas that have been germinating in my mind for some time of a ‘Third Way’ to explain the bio-friendliness of the universe”.

The corresponding presentation to the 2005 conference was entitled “Universes Galore: Where will it end”? Under the sub-heading “The Third Way,” he says: “Considerations of anthropic fine-tuning seek to explain the appearance of an otherwise puzzling link between the universe on one hand and life on the other. Why should there be a connection? What does the universe know about life? What do the laws of physics know about consciousness? The most obvious way to establish a link between life and cosmos is to postulate a ‘life principle’ (or, extending this to encompass observers, a ‘mind principle’). Indeed, many scientists have suggested just such a thing. It is often claimed by astrobiologists that life is written into the laws of physics or built into the nature of the universe.”

Comments by Dr Hugh Murdoch on the book by Paul Davies
[Allen Lane (Penguin), London, 2006]


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