Monday, June 29, 2015

God: He Who Must Not Be Named

A central theme of JK Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the Ministry of Magic's unshakable desire to categorically ignore the return of the dark lord of Hogwarts - the evil Voldemort.  Poor Harry's pleadings and warnings fall only on (fear-induced) deaf ears of those who would prefer a blissful non-reality over a challenging and scary actuality. Eventually, like in the Munich Agreement or the Greek monetary system, the actual rises up and obliterates the merely hoped for.

This attitude leaped to mind when I read "Humankind's Existentially Lucky Numbers" in last week's NYT's. The writer, George Johnson, gives a good overview of the "Fine Tuning" argument of physics which essentially attempts to understand why it is that the values of each of the "cosmological constants" such as gravitation, electro-magnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces are so precise as to allow the development of life - an exceedingly unlikely proposition which some scientists have estimated has a 1:10^120 chance of occurring.  (That's a 1 followed by 120 zeros - a number vastly larger than the number of all of the particles in the universe).

Given those odds, it's not hard to understand that scientists are not so willing to just chalk it up to blind luck as Johnson says:

Rejecting the possibility that this was nothing more than a lucky accident, physicists have been looking for some underlying principle — a compelling explanation for why everything could only have unfolded in this particular way.

So we see from this that a) physicists do not have a "compelling explanation" for it, b) it was not due to chance and c) it all had to unfold exactly as it did.

As an example of this conundrum Johnson cites the value of "Alpha:"

If a number called alpha, which governs the strength of electromagnetism, were infinitesimally larger or smaller, stars could not have formed, leaving a lifeless void.  Alpha’s value seems no more predictable than digits randomly spit out by a lottery machine: 0.0072973525698. One of the greatest mysteries of physics, the physicist Richard Feynman called it, “a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man.”

By man yes, but...

Just what could account for it?  Johnson offers three possibilities:

There are several ways to react to this existential dilemma. We can take a cue from the author Douglas Adams and relish the idea that life, the universe and everything are a grand cosmic fluke. If the universal settings were slightly different, we wouldn’t be here considering the mystery. This is a version of what has come to be called the “weak anthropic principle.”

Taking a more mystical turn are adepts of another doctrine: the strong anthropic principle. Drawing on a controversial interpretation of quantum theory, they propose an Escher-like symbiosis. The universe gives rise to conscious observers, who in turn conjure the universe into existence by the dint of their constant gaze.

Finally there are followers of a middle path, who seek to prove that the universe is not accidental but inevitable, with its set of defining numbers as constrained and mutually consistent as the solution to a Sudoku puzzle.

Really?  That's it?  I sort of appreciate the fact that he's willing to give a nod to the "mystical" which in this case seems only to be a quantum theory retread.  But the elephant in the room would seem to be "He who must not be named."  Is it not at least a logical possibility that a conscious designer set these constants in such a fashion as to enable life to develop?  If it's highly unlikely that it's the result of chance and there are (currently) no other viable ways to explain it then why not (at least) suggest it?

I think the answer is found in one of my favorite scientific quotes:

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding the real struggle between Science and the Supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism ... for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door." (Richard Lewontin, Geneticist)

1 comment:

  1. I briefly discuss and reject the fine tuning argument here