Friday, February 8, 2008

The WHO Outside the Universe

To my mind, there must be at the bottom of it all, not an utterly simple equation, but an utterly simple idea. And to me that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, and so inevitable, so beautiful, we will all say to each other, "How could it have ever been otherwise?" (Physicist John Archibald Wheeler)

Philosopher John Leslie approaches the puzzle of our just-right universe with a parable. A firing squad of 50 aims at one condemned man. The commander yells "Fire!" and everyone shoots. They all miss! The condemned man walks away.

What are the odds of that? No different, we are told, than the odds behind a universe that produces its own observer, as ours produced us. How do you explain either? Accident, colossal randomness? Or did agents act on purpose, with intelligent missing on the one hand, intelligent design on the other?

In The Language of God geneticist Francis Collins says it was no accident. If you conclude the soldiers missed on purpose, you have to conclude a designer designed on purpose. Collins rejects the Intelligent Design movement and its God-of-the-gaps, but he accepts the basic design argument that goes back to Aquinas and Aristotle and squares with Genesis 1. This argument leads to a Who "outside of space and time." It leads to God.

In God's Universe, astronomer Owen Gingerich travels much the same road, seeing the hand of intelligent design (but again, not Intelligent Design) in the cosmos. Both "efficient" and "final" causes are at work, he says. Why does water boil in a kettle? Is it (A) because heat causes water molecules to move around faster and then escape as gas? Or is it (B) because somebody wants some tea? Both, says Gingerich, after John Polkinghorne. (A) is the efficient cause, which science can probe. (B) is the final cause, which science cannot. When it comes to the universe, both point to a Who outside.

Where does this Who fall on the map of the Goldilocks story, the one for whom the puzzle of incredible odds is named?

Let's start with "causes." When Goldilocks discovers the just-right porridge, she doesn't ask, "How did it get here?" The question of efficient cause never crosses her mind. She is, you should excuse the expression, naively teleological. She goes right to final cause. What is the porridge for? Her actions reveal her answer.

It's the story itself that addresses efficient cause. The porridge was cooked (and the chairs and the beds made) by two adult bears. The house was their idea. They designed it. They built it from scratch. They furnished it. They created Baby Bear.

Baby Bear represents biological complexity, the kind that's most compelling to design adherents. Gingerich points out that the human brain is the most complex object in the cosmos, with far more connections than stars in the Milky Way. To Collins, the DNA that built that brain is "the language by which God spoke life into being."

All this is compatible with the tale of Goldilocks, but she's got something that we do not. She's been outside her just-right house. We have not. We can't get to the edge of the universe any more than we can get to its center. There isn't a wall to poke our heads through. But in the argument from design, and in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is indeed an edge. There is an outside.

How can we know it? Take a leap of faith, say Collins and Gingerich. Make it reasonable, but take it. Both men are Christians.

Keep their answer in mind when you read next week's solution to the Goldilocks enigma. It doesn't involve a Who but a what--many whats, in fact. They're not deities but still they're out there. The same question will loom: How can we know the outside?

P.S. Another scientist who gives the answer Who to the Goldilocks enigma is Gerald Schroeder. You can learn about his work, and the opening quote from John Archibald Wheeler, here.

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Anonymous said...

I have no certain belief such a WHO is, does, outside the universe to rest any uncertain hopes upon. Lately I wonder whether what we are doing to the globe we find ourselves grounded upon will mean anything to the universe we may well prove to have engineered our utter departure from.

Anonymous said...

Even though infinity awes and draws me, I think I mostly park it along with spirituality out beyond the quasars and the coffin, out beyond the big bang and the big god. I juggle more answerable empiricism, more tangible truth, and softer human truth--which maybe is the same.

Mark A. Thomas said...

In the initial conditions near time 0 in what is called the pre- Big Bang scenario it is believed that all 3 elementary forces of nature are unified with gravity. This is a quantum gravity era in what is called the Planck epoch. Strangely the language of quantum gravity is couched in the natural language of Planck units at this really early time. Planck units are beautifully simple but they take some getting used to. The Planck units are dimensionless quantities and describe the extreme Planck values in terms of the Planckian parameters h = 1 c = 1 and G = 1. Thus one Planck density = 1, Planck length = 1 and so on. For some reason in the quantum gravity regime the Planckian units go really expo-exponentialy large or small. It turns out to be a language that is hovering about near the origin. The ridiculously large densities, the very small but positive cosmological constant and the exponentially large landscape of possible vacuum values for universes are generated here. The mixture of probabilites is mind boggling from near zilch to astronomically large. When one works with (in calculation) the Planck units emitted at this near 0 time then one begins to understand why Planck units have been referred to as God's units.

Anonymous said...

Life might be easier if we imagine God as far nearer than beyond the infinitely distant edge of the universe.

Mark A. Thomas said...

In a strange way one could use the concept of cosmological inflation and say that in a very very highly improbablistic way every point in space is close to a billionth of a second from the moment of birth of our universe. That miniscule increment of time is what it took to finish the physics of the Standard Model upon which the greater World we live in is based on. So if we ignore the 13.7 billion years of cooling down as just drama the important thing to recognize is that the potentially sacred is nearer than we think or maybe even believe.

John Kotre said...

It's been interesting for me to see how the "near" and the "far" of the "potentially sacred" has run through these comments. We seem to want the sacred far away and worthy of awe but also near and intimate.

Anonymous said...

I have Gingerich’s “God’s Universe”, and lovin’ it. Sure wish I had gotten to hear him when he was in town last year. When I read him and Paul Davies I come to realize how these guys have been talking and thinking about for years the stuff I’m just coming aware of. WOW!