Monday, October 20, 2008

The heavens declare

One of the defining characteristics of our species is that we are all doomed to be philosophers with varying degrees of incompetence. Over the course of our lives each of us develops a fixed set of beliefs which define our worldview and each of us are guilty of viewing the world through this rigid perspective. Nietzsche summaries this tendency best in his critique of the Stoics:

‘You strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose your morality, your ideal on nature -- even on nature -- and incorporate them in her; you demand that she should be nature "according to the Stoa". But this is an ancient, eternal story….as soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise’

The current back and forth between science and religion mainly involves the competing and conflicting claims of Metaphysical Naturalism and Christian Theism. In ‘River out of Eden’ Richard Dawkins makes the following conclusion:

‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’

By way of reply, the quote Kevin Miller uses in this presentation is:

‘The [Darwinian] universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect is there is, at bottom, the design of a provident and purposeful God intent upon a fruitful and dynamic world and committed to a promise of freedom that makes genuine love possible.’

Certainly both perspectives cannot be true, but which one is guilty of making an unwarranted metaphysical projection onto the natural facts?. Speaking as objectively as I can, which isn’t much admittedly, the most important fact about the cosmos is its lack of indifference to life. If it did exhibit the necessary requirements for ‘blind pitiless indifference’ we would not be here; instead it is almost embarrassingly bio-phillic. As John Barrow, Martin Rees, Steven Weinberg and others have argued, only a very small region of the physical parameter space allows life to exist, and yet here we are in a universe with exactly those fortunate properties. To say that this is a brute fact requiring no explanation seems to be a gross abjuration of human intelligence. ‘We're here because we're here because we're here’ as that old song from WWI goes. Nor as Paul Davies remarks in the Goldilocks Enigma, can we truly make sense of the Cosmos if we regard it as without ultimate meaning:

‘Doing Science means figuring out what is going on in the world – what the world is up to, what it is about. If it isn’t about anything there would be no reason to embark on the scientific quest in the first place because we would have no rational basis for believing we could thereby uncover additional coherent and meaningful facts about the world…Ultimately there may be no reason at all for why things are the way they are. But that would make the universe a fiendishly clever piece of trickery. Can a truly absurd universe so convincingly mimic a meaningful one?’

Of note is the so called argument from bad design as applied to the Cosmos, which is expressed in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Metaphysical naturalism’ as follows:

‘The universe is almost entirely lethal to life. By far most of what exists is a deadly radiation-filled vacuum, and by far most matter in the cosmos composes lethal environments like stars and black holes. What we observe to be the case is less probable given supernaturalism than given naturalism, and therefore metaphysical naturalism is more probably true.’

Thus do ‘the Heavens proclaim the incompetence of God; the skies proclaim the dithering of his hands’. This seems to be a curious mixture of bargain-basement philosophy and squalid metaphysical reasoning. It is not evident that naturalism enjoys any advantage given the evidence for the astonishingly narrow fine tuning of the physical constants. Black holes we are beginning to understand are the sculptors of the universe and massive black holes are central players in the story of how entire galaxies assemble. Stars may be lethal to life under the wrong conditions but others like ours are the sustainers of life for a planet at exactly the right distance. Stars are also responsible for the generation of the elements through nucleosythesis and several generations of them are needed to be able to make the full set available in our universe. The vast amount of material in the universe leads some to see us as insignificant, but according to Martin Rees ‘Just Six Numbers’, the universe cosmos is so vast because of ‘N’, the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. If it had a few less zeros, only a short-lived and miniature universe could exist. No creatures would be larger than insects, and there would be no time for evolution to lead to intelligent life. As Roger Penrose has noted, you don’t need that much order to produce life. Conceivably the most common type of life producing universe which could emerge given an unlimited possibility space is one in which chaos is predominant and in which life would flukely emerge in a ordered corner. We don’t see that, instead we see order as far as our eyes can see. That this whole setup has developed is vastly improbable given metaphysical naturalism.

In order to account for the universe we see, Carl Sagan’s dictum ‘The Cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be’ needs to become ‘The Cosmos is all there is, expect for that infinite multiverse over there with the highly convenient universe generating mechanism, with varying physical constants and meta laws guiding its functioning, within a highly restricted mathematical subset’, a vindication of Hindu cosmology if ever there was one.

Another naturalist approach is to say ‘good but not great fine tuning’, which forms the ‘some design!’ troupe of Christopher Hitchens. The two points he always brings up is the so called big rip - not set to happen for at least 50 billion years, if at all - and the fact the Andromeda Galaxy is set to collide with us, which won't happen for 2 billion years and is unlikely to have any adverse effect on us anyway because galaxies are so diffuse. Presumably an even more bio friendly cosmos could have been constructed but it is unclear why this is a good thing given the tendency of intelligent life to be continually on the brink of destroying itself. The diffuse scattering predicted by pessimistic versions of the Drake equation is probably the most preferable outcome, but even the presence of no alien civilisations is not necessarily something to be lamented. As Sir Martin Rees has written in the Times:

'It would, in some ways, be disappointing if searches for alien intelligence were doomed to fail. On the other hand, it would boost our cosmic self-esteem: if our tiny Earth were a unique abode of intelligence, humanity would have greater cosmic significance than it would merit if the galaxy teemed with complex life..... There is abundant time for posthuman intelligence (organic or silicon-based) to spread through the entire galaxy. Even if life were now unique to Earth, we should not conclude that it was a trivial “afterthought” in the Universe. The cosmos is still nearer its beginning than its end. '

Nor should the barren nature of much of our galaxy make us despondent. A planet such as Mars represents a blank canvas for humanity to mould and develop. Rare earth hypothesis predicts that the emergence of life is precluded in most planetary systems but the sentient life which has developed on this planet should be able to overcome such local difficulties if our previous record of success is anything to go by.

Some raise the point that our sun is set to become a red giant and that this will likely result in the extinction of the species. If like me, you were brought up on comic strips from the 1950s like Dan Dare pilot of the future, where men in spaceships with improbably geometric chins did battle with the Mekon of Mekonta and travelled to faraway galaxies in search of adventure, you will feel more than a little peeved at the idea humanity is going to sit around on the earth for the next 2 billion years awaiting its fate. Clearly this is another case of projection. The human beings in the bleak fantasies of the metaphysical naturalists merely sit there in a sort of heroic despair as their star erupts in a red giant and dies around them. In the fullness of time their universe rips itself to shreds and deservedly destroys what is left of their remains. It would be hard to think of a more dismal view of the human condition. Not so much 'Dan Dare Pilot of the Future' as 'Dan Despair the Epicurean wastrel'.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

No comments: