Friday, March 7, 2008


I'm not a know-it-all, the Story realized that night on the cliff. I'm just a Story of Everything. (The Story of Everything, Chap. 21)

It's been fun guessing, but now it's time to nail the story down. We have here a universe that produced its own observer. It produced its own speaker, of that we can be sure, and it did so using hydrogen and a few other elements. Strange to our ear--why would hydrogen lead to a story?--but that's what happened.

The anthropic principle in cosmology, a.k.a. the Goldilocks enigma, gets you thinking about all that could or would have been. If X had been a little slower or Y a little stronger or just one number different, the universe would have ____ (FILL IN THE BLANK) ____. It reminds me of the years I spent listening to people tell the story of their lives. They would finish those "ifs" with everything from "I could have been a millionaire today" to "I wouldn't be talking to you today."

Coulda. Woulda. We're all Monday morning quarterbacks, but let's face it: we've got the life we've got and we've got the universe we've got--the one with the observer. That universe arose from what cosmologists call a singularity. N=1. There is no evidence for any other universes and it is proving impossible to test for their existence. There are regions in our own that we will never know about. They're retreating from us with ever increasing speed.1 So whether you talk about "other universes" or "unobservable regions" in our own, you're saying the same thing. You're saying "beyond our knowledge." N=1.

A life needs limits, and so does a story, and so, I suspect, does a cosmological theory. If N=infinity, there are no limits, no constraints. In a life, that means dissipation, and I think it does in a story as well. If everything is possible, then nothing is possible. Science has always felt constrained by evidence. Let's wait for the evidence to tell us that N=2 or 3 or more.

If we accept that N=1, certain things follow. There is no point in talking about "observer selection" effects in universes. There is nothing to select from. There is no point in calculating the odds behind our unlikely emergence. As the philosopher C. S. Peirce stated, "in reference to a single case considered in itself, probability can have no meaning." Indeed, if N=1, the anthropic principle (and the Goldilocks enigma) may have to be shown the door. They may be saying nothing more than, "If the universe were different, it would be different."

What becomes of God if N=1? What becomes of the one who presumably "designed" or "tuned" this cosmos? If you read the fine print in the fine-tuning argument, you'll discover a few key words. The values of the physical constants that shape our universe are arbitrary. They were free to be set. Someone had to dial up a number--to choose 186,282.397 for the speed of light, for example. There's also an assumption that the values are independent of each other, so that setting one doesn't automatically set the others.

But, according to cosmologist Paul Davies, a deeper understanding of the laws of the cosmos may show that these values aren't arbitrary at all. They may not be free and independent. In that case, the God who assigned the numbers will turn out to be, not a God-of-the-gaps, but a God-of-just-one-gap, the very first. He will be a symbol of our ignorance, and we will wonder, with Einstein, if an actual God had any choice when he created this universe. Another limit to our knowing.

Limits give a story a border of darkness, a blessed constraint without which we could not speak. Let's embrace that border. The other guys in the other universes can spin their own tales. Let's stick to the one we've got. N=1.

1. See "The End of Cosmology?" in the current issue of Scientific American for a discussion of the impact of an accelerating expansion on our ability to know the universe.

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1 comment:

Mark A. Thomas said...

N = 1 is a fine start for a Cosmology. What moved? What fluctuated? It did not start with the many. Cosmological theory approaches something like this at time = 0. How does N = 1 become the many? The Planck time, the Planck energy density and values h, c and G of Planck combinations become the famous Planck units N = 1 hovering around the origin of spacetime creation because this language is very easy. Creation can move from t = 0 to the Planck time t = 1 in the Planck epoch. We can talk about a lot of N = 1's. God's units they have been referred to as.

Chuang Tse, Chapter from the Sage King:
The ruler of the South Sea was called Light; the ruler of the North Sea , Darkness; and the ruler of the Middle Kingdom, Primal Chaos. From time to time, Light and Darkness met one another in the kingdom of Primal Chaos, who made them welcome. Light and Darkness wanted to repay his kindness and said, "All men have seven openings with which they see, hear, eat, and breathe, but Primal Chaos has none. Let us try to give him some."So every day they bored one hole, and on the seventh day, Primal Chaos died.

"In the mysterious way the scales of the hidden monster flash iridescently from near impenetrable darkness."

mark a. thomas