Re: Cosmic Jackpot

A good book you might wish you had read before tackling “The House Beyond Your Sky,” is Cosmic Jackpot. In clear, entertaining arguments, Paul Davies works his way through the various flavors of theories attempting to explain the “Goldilocks” problem. That is, there are a small set of critical constants that have to be within extremely narrow ranges to make life in this universe possible, and since there is life in this universe, all those constants are just right. And nobody has a good explanation for this tautology.

The book examines weak and strong anthropic principles, multiverses, simulated universes, string theory, even a Creator. The common flaw in all of these is that they end up appealing to some factor outside this universe to explain why it is the way it is. Davies is trying to find a way for the universe to explain itself. In this interview, he cuts to the chase and argues that spooky action at a distance works through time–the past is uncertain. This is pretty mind-bending, but I think what he is saying is that the presence of mind observing the universe collapses the wave function of the past into the one that allows life and mind to exist. He acknowledges that while all the theories sound crazy, this is the one that sounds the least crazy to him.

Toward the end when he discusses the relationship of life and mind with other fundamental aspects of the universe, it gets less convincing. It would be cool if life and mind really did spread over billions of years to fill the universe, but it seems largely a matter of faith. Could it be that the Buddhists are right about consciousness being the foundation of existence? That would bring us full circle back to The Universe in a Single Atom.

Highly recommended.

Next week: Don’t everyone speak up at once.

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2 responses to “Re: Cosmic Jackpot

  1. I’ve reached a point in my life where the simple answer to this question is “because.”

    So…in order for our universe to exist as it is, conditions had to be just so. How miraculous that they are indeed just so!

    Really?

    No. I see two simple explanations, either of which I am willing to accept. And neither of which relies on any sort of miraculous intervention.

    Option 1: “It just worked out that way.” The universe evolved in such a way because that series of events is how things had to happen. Each event caused each subsequent event. There’s no will or intention involved, just simple physical necessity and, to some greater or lesser extent, chance. The universe we have is, in fact, the only universe that, because of these physical properties and chance developments, could exist. (And even if, due to chance events, our universe has a small probability of coming to be it is, in fact, here. So the argument that our chance of being here is small is not particularly meaningful to me.)

    Option 2: The Multiverse Theory. Well, okay, so maybe those “critical constants” can have all sorts of values. Then thanks to the quantum nature of reality, there are an infinite number of universes in which those values are expressed in an infinite number of combinations. In that case, I should count myself lucky to exist, since in an infinite number of other universes, due to the different nature of their critical constants, I don’t. (Follow-on philosophical question: since this scenario would clearly involve an infinite number of universes, then no matter how small the probability that I exist at all, I must also exist in an infinite number of other universes…must’n’t I?)

    I don’t know Davies’ work in particular, and it might be a hell of a lot more detailed than the way I’m approaching it here, but I am not much impressed by this particular line of reasoning (which I’ve heard before). To me, it seems like a way of slipping either: (a) the anthropic principle, or (b) god; into a situation where neither is necessary.

  2. Re: Option 1: The difficulty lies in explaining “simple physical necessity.” Most physical constants can be related to each other through the various fundamental equations, but there is an irreducible set that are like mathematical axioms, unprovable and unexplainable. It makes physicists really uncomfortable that, for instance, if gravity were just a little weaker or stronger, stars wouldn’t form. Or if the weak force were just a bit different, stars wouldn’t become novae and release the carbon formed in the nuclear forges. Near as we can tell, those values were set in the moment of infinite possibilities when time began, and we don’t know why.

    Re: Option 2: Multiverses have a certain appeal, especially to SF writers. Davies is in the camp that thinks they’re too damn messy, though he explains it a lot better than I can. Similarly, he very thoroughly dismisses all variants of the anthropic principle and god.

    I know you don’t read a lot of cosmology books, but this one is fairly short, clear, and mind-bending.