A recent article in Discover Magazine was titled “A Universe Built For Us.”  The premise of the article is that the laws of the universe are exquisitely tuned for life - any small variations from the way things are, and life would not have been able to arise “Short of invoking a benevolent creator....”.  The article went on to explain that we live in a universe that seems apparently built for the creation and sustainment of life. 

This meme is not exclusive to Discover magazine - there is a fundamental problem in physics with the creation of life.  This is not the typical evolution-versus-creationism argument about the primordial soup and whether or not it was amenable to self-replicating molecules.  It is more fundamental - it is an argument about whether things like water or planets should even come to exist in a stable form.  The laws of the universe appear exquisitely tuned to provide the pre-conditions for the existence of a primordial soup in the first place.  Small variations of forces like gravity would lead to an entirely different universe - one unlikely to have developed life.

The creation of physical laws

The most widely-held physical theories about the creation of the universe posit that the basic physical laws we know came into existence in its first moments.  The view is that the universe started as a super-heated, dense blob, that cooled and expanded, and developed imperfections and asymmetries.  Those imperfections were “frozen” into the fledgling universe, resulting in physical laws like gravity, the speed of light, etc.

It is self evident that these imperfections laws led to life, since we exist.  If things were just slightly different, planets with water would never have formed, and, water itself would not have formed. Life as we know it would not exist.  This gives some pause because of the following logical problem: how is it that these laws happened to be amenable to the creation of life in our little corner of the Universe?  

The philosophy of positivism

Positivism is a widespread foundation for much of modern scientific belief.  The philosophy grounds itself in facts and observables, with Darwin’s Evolution being a notable derivation of this viewpoint.  Positivists don’t like mystical explanations for how the universe works, preferring instead to ground belief in testable experiment.

The positivist point of view has led to stunning progress in many material aspects of civilization, spanning biology, technology, and physics.  In the past two centuries, civilization has used this philosophy to progress from a mostly agrarian and superstitious lot, to a point at which tools like the internet exist. I am an adherent of positivism in my everyday scientific work.  Science cannot be done any other way - it is not a mystical process, it is a process that, at its core, must be grounded in some kind of testable theories or hypotheses.

But questions such as those raised by the Discover article - and by the more general debate over evolution versus creationism - are not so easily addressed by positivism.  There is a simple reason: time.  The great progress resultant from the scientific revolution has occurred mostly in sectors where we can directly test theories within some fraction of a human lifetime.  But, the longer the time span over which a process occurs, the harder it is to examine by this approach.  We are unable to falsifiably test theories of, for example, the evolution of an eyeball.  That is a process that might span many millions of years.  And, it is even harder to concretely test theories that span the creation of the Universe.  

It is not that positivism cannot yield any insights to these things, but insight that it does produce consists mostly of subtle clues, rather than in-your-face, indisputable facts.  A theory that “the earth is round” is very easy to test: one gets in an airplane and flies around until coming to the same spot one started.  But the creation of the Universe?  The evolution of humans?  Not so in-your-face, and definitely not so easy to test.

Perhaps that is why a quick internet search yields various creationist and “Intelligent Design” web sites that cite the Discover article.  They too noted the strange inconsistency between the positivist “anti-creator” point of view and the highly speculative, presently untestable multiverse theories presented.  If one is to step back in an attempt to be impartial, neither side has true high ground in that particular debate – excepting that the creationist side brings a lot more historical (and untestable) baggage with it.  But, the physics side carries baggage too - lots of it.  Maybe it is time to throw that baggage out the window and start afresh.

Positivism and the creation of the Universe

The Discover article represents positivism extended to the creation of the universe.  As such, it cannot help itself in being speculative, because there are few actual testable facts about what happened before (or what will happen after). The article discussed one particular theory, that in fact the universe is but one of a multiverse of 10500 different “trials.”  We happen to exist in one of the lucky few that was just right for life.  This is of course pure speculation - nobody can presently test whether 10500 other universes (or some fraction thereof) have existed.  But it is necessary to make such a wild hypothesis to avoid any mention of a “creator”.  Of course, even this doesn’t ultimately avoid a question of creation - since one can recursively regress into a question of what created the whole dice-rolling universe-creating process in the first place. 

Positivism doesn’t provide any more testable theories about the creation of the universe than does the “intelligent-design” rubric - at least in the near term.  One can make a nice computer simulation of a “multiverse” - but one could also make a nice computer simulation of an “intelligent-designer” (in fact, there are online games that do the latter).  Neither would prove anything, except that the respective theory is “possible”.  Unfortunately, I think people are so stuck in the religion-versus-science binary opposites mindset, that most consider it must be one or the other.  This is a stuck and dysfunctional paradigm, because it considers none of the space in-between.

Since there is no readily available way to test any speculative theory about universe creation, we have to fall back on philosophy.  A guiding principle that works in many situations is Occam’s razor.  

The edge of Occam’s Razor

Occam’s razor, according to Wikipedia, states “The explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory.”  It is a powerful principle that has guided the work of many successful scientists.  But when it is brought to bear on the subject of creation of the universe (and life), many scientists appear to ignore the principle.  They come up with elaborate schemes that rely on complex scenarios, which are equally devoid of “proof” to the idea that there could be “a creator”.

Why is it that many scientists believe that the idea of a “creator” is incompatible with the science of the universe?  I was formerly in that camp, so I can speak to my own reasons.  Whenever the idea of “a creator” is raised, I picture what has been taught as part of most orthodox western religions: a guy with a beard wielding virtually unlimited power over time and space.  From a positivist perspective, this scenario is pretty hard to substantiate.  In other words, it is relatively falsifiable.  It is very hard to figure out how and why such a guy in a beard might come to exist, and why such a guy might wield such omnipotent power, and why such a person with such power would create such an imperfect universe.  And more importantly, it is hard to figure out why such a guy would allow so much suffering and atrocity in the world.  But more to the falsifiable part, there is little evidence of someone “intelligent” meddling in human affairs. As such, there are many flaws with the bearded guy scenario.  

So, because that scenario is so implausible, most scientific positivists just discount the whole “creator” idea.  I did for many years.  But that leaves one grasping, as Discover has done in this article, for alternative and equally difficult to comprehend scenarios.  Maybe we are throwing out the baby with the bath water in the desire to maintain the religion-versus-science division.  But again, there’s Occam’s razor, tickling at us, reminding us that we haven’t found a simple, explanatory (and perhaps testable) theory-of-everything.

The creative principle

What if we ignore the artificial binary of religion-v-science, and look at it a different way: not that there is a “creator,” but rather, a “creative force” or “creative principle?”  That rephrasing fits a positivist philosophy much more suitably.  We are far from understanding how the universe works, especially at vast time scales and distances.  Is it not possible that there is a creative force at work in the universe?  And that this “force” works very slowly, over time scales that are almost incomprehensible from a human point of view?  What if this force, or principle, was able to guide the initial formation of our universe to benefit life, and subsequently to cause life to form here (and if so, likely elsewhere)?  Is it so far-fetched that such a force could even be “intelligent” by some definitions?  It’s not like anyone can actually define intelligence, least of all the many brilliant minds who have been working on the artificial kind (AI) ever since computers were invented (and are not much further along in the quest than 30 years ago).  Whether the indefinable “intelligence” plays a role or not, clearly a lot of complexity has been “created” out of some pretty basic stuff.  Does pure randomness as an explanation really fit Occam’s razor, when it leads to conclusions like those in the Discover article? 

Nobody knows what happened before the Big Bang.  But one thing is certain: time as we know it did not exist.  I’ll explore time more in another post, but briefly, what we call “time” is derived from the process of decision making at the quantum level, that causes physical processes we experience to progress.  In a primordial universe, this kind of decision making was certainly not happening in the same way it does now.  In fact, it is clear that whatever came before was not bound by the same rules and principles that we hold near and dear. 

Since physics postulates that the laws we explore as scientists were formed as part of the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang, is it implausible to postulate that the process had a bias towards creating laws that might benefit the creative process we call life?  This would seemingly meet Occam’s razor better than multiverse theories or other scenarios that involve an endless random search.  The reason it better meets the Occam’s razor is because it makes no presumptions about complex processes that happened “before” - instead, it just posits a simple force or principle, which is perhaps testable given suitable tools.

Despite the tremendous advances of the past 200 years, there is a great deal we do not yet understand, about many things.  These are not just trivial things, but big things, like: why do we exist, how was the universe created, and what is consciousness.  Science proceeds on its way, generally avoiding those really deep questions because they do not readily submit to a reductionist or positivist approach - the primary approaches that combine to form modern science.  And they may not ever yield to an approach that extends from what we happen to observe in our little slice of the universe, since things may be quite different elsewhere or elsewhen.  We may not truly be able to figure these things out until/if/when we visit other parts of space and time. 

In the meantime, when speculating, we quickly run into bizarre conclusions of the current incarnation of positivism. Conclusions like the existence of 10500 universes. One of which just happened to produce chemicals.  And those happened to combine in the right ways to form RNA.  And then those happened to guide the formation of proteins.  Which then happened to lead to DNA synthesis.  And all of that which happened to synthesize nascent cell membranes, and etc... all the way to consciousness and human civilization.  It is not that positivism cannot explain these things - it may, given the right hypotheses and testing tools.  But many of its proponents seem so bent on avoiding a “creator” (acting at short-term time scales) that they don’t seem to consider the perhaps more compatible idea of “creative force” (acting at very long time scales). 

How would such a “force” act?  I will address that in more detail another time.  But suffice it to say, one of the great debates in physics has been, and still is, about “randomness.”  Randomness ultimately emanates from the quantum world - that decision making process about where and when a “particle” will interact with other “particles” (in quotes because all things are both particles and waves).  Nobody understands it.  It is the thing that led Einstein to posit “God does not play dice with the Universe.”  It is my own theory that if we get to the heart of this “randomness,” we may actually find something deeper than just simple dice-flipping - especially when looked at over very long time periods for a great many trials.

Finally, let me be clear: I am not advocating turning back science to simply accept a guy in sky scenario.  Instead, I am proposing that we, as scientists, should step back, and ask ourselves whether something fundamental is missing from our theories -  a principle, or a law, that, however subtle, has had significant ramifications on the formation of the Universe as we know it, and more specifically, life as we know it.  If the principle works slowly, over vast time scales, it would be hard for us to observe and test in the way that we do principles like gravity (to be explored in another post), which are immediately observable and testable.  But, just because something is difficult to observe and test, does not mean it should be ignored.

Addendum: In posting this article at ScientificBlogging, I was required to choose a topical Field to post it under.  I could find no suitable topic, and so ended with Physics (a choice, like any, likely to draw some flak).  To me, this strikes at the heart of the problem I explore above.  We have become very reductionist as modern scientists, so that most of us stick to our own narrow fields of interest, letting "experts" in other fields do all the thinking on their side of the fence.  However, solving problems like the creation of the Universe and life (or for that matter, understanding Systems Biology) may not admit to arbitrary, hemmed-in and fire-walled areas of expertise.