Designer Universe


The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins, New York: W.W. Norton, 332 pages, $18.95

Order Out of Chaos, by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, New York: Bantam, 349 pages, $10.95 (paper)

Roger's Version, by John Updike, New York: Knopf, 329 pages, $17.95

Suppose you are walking through verdant woods and find a gold watch. Its intricate, bright works stand out in their sharp, mechanical order against the soft background of lush life. Who made this thing?

For some philosophers, the sheer wonder of biological complexity has seemed an argument for the prior intervention of God. How could the detailed, intertwined processes that rule nature's enormous engines be unplanned? The gold watch merely jolts us, on our walk; it is in fact less fabulous than the mysterious workings of the wood. Does nature's vast ticking require design?

Modern physics and biology converge to a single answer about the identity of the missing watchmaker: it was chance, all along, and blind chance at that. "The essence of life is statistical improbability on a colossal scale," as Richard Dawkins concludes in The Blind Watchmaker after 300 pages of detailed study of how enormous order can build up from microscopic randomness. "Cumulative selection, by slow and gradual degrees," made such wonders as the eye ("invented" independently several times) rather than a single, brilliant leap from blindness to razor-sharp resolution. Evolution made millions of tiny steps, each one conferring minute, added advantage to its bearer. Huge changes were enormously unlikely. "The same applies to the odds against the spontaneous existence of any fully fashioned, perfect and whole beings, including—I see no way of avoiding the conclusion—deities."

Arriving at a theory of processes unseen in a mere human lifetime demands careful study, as Dawkins shows in clear, no-nonsense exposition. The trouble is that our everyday notions of likeliness are wildly wrong. "Our well-tuned apparatus of scepticism and subjective probability-theory misfires by huge margins, because it is tuned—ironically, by evolution itself—to work within a lifetime of a few decades."

Can random processes truly fashion the order we see around us? Readers accustomed to seeing chance equated with the inevitable increase of entropy, the eventual heat death of the universe, and other pessimistic images will find Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers's Order Out of Chaos a startingly different vision.

That vision has emerged as modern physics has evolved. The 18th-century Newtonian universe of deterministic, objective data had no assigned arrow of time; its equations could just as easily run forward as in reverse. If you knew everything at one instant, you could predict all before and after; the present contained both future and past. Planets glided serenely forward to predictable positions, and just as certainly historians could find out when eclipses occurred in ancient Egypt. This God-like knowledge was a facet of certain kinds of differential equations, using information often not available in the real world.

But 19th-century physics introduced entropy and the certainty that orbits decay. Our present communications satellites experience a faint brush of upper atmosphere and inevitably turn into meteors.

Now, physics has begun to explore the dynamics of the true, turbulent world, which "appears as irregular or chaotic on the macroscopic scale" but is "highly organized on the microscopic scale. The multiple space and time scales involved in turbulence correspond to the coherent behavior of millions and millions of molecules."

Suppose, passing through the green wood, you spy the smooth surface of a slow stream. An obstruction will make small whorls peel away from its edges, as laminar flow turns to vortex motion. You see the small swirling depressions refract light, waltzing downstream to their own dynamic harmony. The uninteresting, steady stream now has deep, complex structures—order built up from the apparently bland flow.

A more striking example is the phenomenon called Benard instability, created by heating a beaker of viscous liquid from below. At low heat the liquid sits still. Keep turning the heat up and suddenly slow, churning currents move vertically, carrying heat faster. The entire vessel is now a concert of circulating structures. The onset point and size of the churning cells are quite predictable. Contrary to usual notions of entropy, the highly ordered state comes as entropy increases.

These are examples of self-organization in nature, processes beyond the crystalline static view of the Newtonian age. Cells are "dissipative structures" that support themselves by dissipating a smooth flow of available energy. They arise in conditions far from equilibrium, as microscopic fluctuations are amplified above many other "equally possible" paths.

That nature inherently prefers self-organization is a startling revelation to neo-Newtonians. As Prigogine and Stengers discuss in broad detail, the older view of stability, uniformity, and equilibrium, within closed systems and linear relationships, describes little of nature. The Prigoginian paradigm (which won its creator a Nobel Prize in physics) mirrors our century: disequilibrium, nonlinear relationships, small inputs triggering massive consequences. Market crashes, the abrupt transformations following new technology such as the microchip, the atom bomb, or the personal computer—we have gotten used to historical lurches.

The paradigm extends even to pulsars, where streams of electrons and their anti-particles, positrons, jet outward. Though they are at first smoothly distributed, Peter Goldreich of Caltech, and later myself, were able to show that subtle forces make the electrons seek each other, bunching. The positrons bunch up, too. This forces them to radiate electromagnetic waves many billions of times more powerfully than they ordinarily would, and this makes them visible to radio telescopes on Earth. These self-organized bunches dissipate their flowing energy more rapidly, but they inherently "prefer" matters that way.

These pictures come from a physics that resolutely refuses to consider isolated systems and faces the fact that nearly all of nature inevitably interlinks. This view can be visionary in its complexity; farewell to those who would make mere meteorology of sunsets and botany of blossoms.

Mechanistic, clockwork models alienated many in the 19th century. Mankind had to "choose between the reassuring but irrational temptation to seek in nature a guarantee of human values, or a sign pointing to a fundamental correlatedness, and fidelity to a rationality that isolates him in a silent world." Now, a more interactive physics can soften this classic dichotomy, though it has no room for a watchmaker.

Evolutionary physics also has a place for isolated systems that devolve, following the classic entropy increase. But the exciting truths come from a view of our present state as the outcome of self-organizing processes that began long ago and persist. Once the conditions of energy flow exist, life itself may be a rapid consequence; the first rock formations, reflecting a steady geological condition, appeared at about the same time as life, 3.8 billion years ago.

We personally sense irreversibility through our own blunt mortality. Why does God let His universe decay? The Newtonian universe of rigid, isolated systems alarmed many at an unconscious level, because its God was indeed a distant, unsensed presence. Did our personal decay mean anything against this tapestry of crystalline order? This led many to read deity into design, arguing since the time of Thomas Aquinas that the entire universe is essentially a found golden watch.

Modern physical theory is the backdrop in Roger's Version for many of John Updike's familiar themes. It traces the rummaging of Roger Lambert, a 53-year-old divinity professor, for a response to a Young Turk's empirical theology. His opponent, Dale Kohler, asserts that the extraordinary, fine-tuned details of nature are mute clues to a guiding hand.

Kohler's case rests on intriguing facts. Nuclear constants, if changed a mere percent, would make stars like our own only fleetingly stable. Tinkering even slightly with atomic ratios would sunder all complex molecules that could sustain life. We are surrounded by a delicately set frame of conditions, like an oil painting held by spider webs.

On the cosmological scale, there are puzzling numerical coincidences. The ratio of the electric and gravitational forces between the fundamental units of atomic matter, the electron and the proton, is about 1040. So is the ratio of the time light takes to cross the universe, to the time taken to cross an atom. The number of protons in the universe is just about the square of this number, 1080.

Physicists have fretted over such possibly meaningful coincidences for half a century. In Roger's Version Dale Kohler intends to prove that God has left His fingerprints on the universe, like a forgetful cosmic carpenter. Kohler argues that mathematics and computers can now model everything so well that God cannot remain hidden. "A tree, like a craggy mountain or a Gothic cathedral, exhibits the quality of 'scaling'—its parts tend to repeat in their various scales the same forms." He uses the latest complex computer codes to strip away reality and unmask God through circuitry, where "in the microscopic maze where a single fleck of fallen dust would block a passage like a boulder and the finest hair comes crashing down like a cathedral beam, he is drawing closer to the dragon, to the fire-breathing secret."

But Roger isn't having any of this. He clings to an impersonal God who maintains majestic tact and covers his tracks. Updike gives Roger gorgeous visions of adulterous liaisons between Dale and both Roger's wife and his niece, lush scenes that are consistent with the facts of the objective narrative but may be wholly imagined. In this way he parallels the entire problem with the argument from design that plagued even Aquinas—how do you know you're not just projecting your own desire for perceived meaning? How much numerical coincidence convinces? Later, the pregnant niece provides evidence of someone's passions. But the father could be Roger himself, snared in a devil-may-care moment.

In the end, Roger doesn't know with certainty that he is a cuckold. Neither does Dale know if God gives an occasional wink and nod. Parallel uncertainties stretch like deterministic railroad tracks into the infinite perspective, where they may only appear to meet.

Updike seems to offer a God who immerses us not in mute proofs but in the experience of participating in the universe's evolution. As usual, sex and mortality are flip sides of the same philosophical coin: "It's a grand surprise nature has cooked up for us, love with its accelerated pulse rate and its drastic overestimation of the love object, its rhythmic build-up and discharge; but then that's it, there isn't another such treat life can offer, unless you count contract bridge and death."

Updike's Barthian God is the great Other, finally unknowable except through His word; proofs and clues are irrelevant. This God is finally more musty metaphor than deity. He does not seem to participate in the universe, and so reminds physicists of a kind of Newtonian God, having deliberately removed Himself from our isolated and entropic-bound system. Or perhaps in the pervasive phenomenon of dissipating, self-organizing systems we see some deeper clue?

Gregory Benford is professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Timescape, among other novels.