Is God in the Details?

From cosmic coincidence to conservative cosmopolitics.

Victor J. Stenger ha href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0195126645/reasonmagazineA/">The Life of the Cosmos. In this theory, our universe emerged from a black hole in a previous universe; moreover, each black hole in our universe (and other universes) generates yet another universe. Universes that produce lots of black holes therefore have more "progeny" than universes that don't. The laws of physics are reshuffled slightly with each black hole, and increasingly the multiverse is dominated by universes whose laws are "fine-tuned" to produce black holes.

So what? Well, black holes are formed when massive stars collapse. Stars are massive if they contain heavy elements--elements such as carbon. The selection process thus gives rise to universes such as our own, where carbon and other heavy elements are available as the building material for life.

In God: The Evidence, Glynn dismisses all multiple-universe theories, including Smolin's. These, he argues, are contrivances produced by "secular-minded scientists" to explain away the evidence for design. Glynn writes that "some scientists have speculated that there may exist billions of `parallel' universes--which, mind you, we will never be able to detect --of which ours just happens to be one. If there were billions of invisible universes, then the series of miraculous coincidences that produced life in this one might not seem so unlikely." Such theories, according to Glynn, are "reminiscent of medieval theologians' speculations about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin."

But is the multiverse so far-fetched? The Big Bang seems to have occurred under conditions of extremely high density; similar conditions occur throughout our universe--in black holes. Similarly, Stanford cosmologist Andrei Linde argues that the fast inflation of the early cosmos--which requires merely a small region of curved space, or "false vacuum," to get started--implies a "self-reproducing" universe. The assumption that there are not multiple universes seems unwarranted by current evidence. Says Stenger: "There's no law of any kind that we know that says this could only have happened once. In fact, you'd have to invent a law of nature to explain why there was only one universe."

Moreover, while we may "never be able to detect" other universes, there are indirect ways to assess whether they exist. If Smolin's theory of cosmological natural selection is correct, then our universe should be "optimized" for black-hole production. This can be tested; for instance, a particle known as the kaon, which can be created in particle accelerators, should have a mass in the "correct" range to ensure that neutron stars eventually become black holes. So far, the theory has held up under such testing, but the evidence is inconclusive.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, Smolin is hoping that the theory as stated in his book is false. He's not particularly fond of its multiple universes. "I would be very, very happy if in the final picture we got rid of it," he says in an interview. "That it was just a kind of way station." A way station to what? To a similar theory in which the laws of physics undergo "natural selection" entirely within our universe. In such a theory, different regions of the early universe "compete for dominance," some expanding faster than others. That is what he is working on now, and he is trying to make it testable.

Politics By Design

Has physics found God? The evidence is, at best, highly ambiguous. Some of it points in an opposite direction--toward a universe that can appear marvelously fine-tuned even if there is no Fine Tuner. Certainly, not many physicists are prepared to announce that a cosmic plan has been unveiled. The few cosmologists who favor the "strong" anthropic principle usually defend it as plausible speculation, not established fact. (And even the "strong" principle has versions that seem unrelated to religion.)

How then did this arcane scientific discussion get converted into popular articles and books touting evidence of the divine? The answer no doubt lies partly in the exigencies of media sensationalism. Had Newsweek proclaimed on its cover "Science Still Not Sure About God," then newsstand sales would have slumped that week. Had The New Republic headlined its cover story "Science Sees a Blurry Picture That May Have Something to Do With God but Mainly Just Shows the Universe Is an Interesting Place," it would have lacked the pungency of "Science Sees the Light" (though it would have more accurately reflected Easterbrook's article).

But what about the conservatives who have embraced the "anthropic" design argument? They seem to have more serious priorities than merely titillating readers. Glynn points to "the mischievous consequences of atheistically inspired social policy and social experimentation." These consequences, in his telling, range from Soviet atrocities to America's sexual revolution, with its "explosion in teenage pregnancies" and "epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases." Now, however, "the anthropic principle" is replacing "the random universe," and the scientific basis for atheism is crumbling. Bork, for his part, welcomes evidence for design in nature because it lends support to religious belief, and "such belief is probably essential to a civilized future."

Clearly, these conservatives have found an interpretation of cosmology that is congruent with their political beliefs. Yet that doesn't mean the interpretation is presented insincerely. Ronald Bailey has speculated in REASON that conservative opponents of Darwinism might be following a tenet of philosopher Leo Strauss: that religious belief is unfounded but still required by society. (See "Origin of the Specious," July 1997.) But in God: The Evidence, Glynn denounces the Straussian position; moreover, he traces his own spiritual crisis and recovery of religious belief with considerable emotion. He clearly means what he says about both God and the anthropic principle.

Nor is there any reason to doubt the sincerity of Bork, Will, or other conservatives who have discovered evidence of design in the laws of physics. In many cases, however, there is plenty of reason to doubt their knowledge. Bork and Will make sweeping statements about the universe based on a cursory reading of popular accounts. The Wall Street Journal's and The Washington Times' reviewers of Glynn's book accept at face value his misleading definition of the anthropic principle. Glynn devotes four pages to a puerile analogy about monkeys with typewriters. (Yes, if the monkeys are assumed to be unchanging beings with limited capacities, they would never type Shakespeare. It does not follow that the universe is subject to similar constraints.)

It is hard to believe that the "anthropic" conservatives have contemplated the full implications of their position. There is, to begin with, a theological puzzle. Why would an omnipotent or highly powerful deity need to fine-tune physical laws? Such tinkering seems to set limits on what the Fine Tuner can do. Did this entity have no choice but to produce carbon-based life--or would other physical laws have generated other types of life? (If the latter, then the fine-tuning argument collapses.) If the laws of physics were not compatible with our type of life--and yet we were here--wouldn't that be evidence for God?

Moreover, if there is now evidence for God's existence, what happens if the evidence doesn't hold up under scrutiny? Religious faith need never be damaged by a scientific advance; one can always believe that a powerful deity intervenes in the universe while erasing all proof of such intervention. But evidence can be overturned or reinterpreted any time (as appears to have already happened with the "fine-tuning" of omega). Won't society be harmed if the strength of gravity or the mass of the proton turn out not to have the religious implications that conservatives have publicized?

Finally, what does the apparent fine-tuning in physics imply for biology? Glynn claims that the fossil record shows that "natural selection is not the magic bullet biologists once thought it was." Bork states that the complexity of organisms could not have evolved unaided. But if the cosmos is precisely fine-tuned for the development of life, then why is further tinkering required? The traditional argument for design is that nature is too inhospitable for life to have evolved. The "anthropic" design argument is that nature is eerily hospitable to life. If both are true, it's a strange universe indeed.

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  • Ken Silber||

    The opening paragraphs apparently disappeared into an alternative universe. Readers interested in the full article can find it at

    http://findarticles.com/p/arti....._55015494/

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