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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Is The Universe Merely A Statistical Accident?

From Dr. Larry Dossey, author of "The Power of Premonitions" at the Huffington Post

Where scientists such as Weinberg, Monod and Dennett see pointlessness and despair in science, as we have seen, other scientists see pattern, direction and meaning. For example, the eminent physicist John Archibald Wheeler said:

"Science ... at first sight seems to have no special platform for man, mind or meaning. Man? Pure biochemistry! Mind? Memory modelable by electronic circuitry! Meaning? Why ask after that puzzling and intangible commodity? What is man that the universe should be mindful of him? ... [I]s not man an unimportant bit of dust on an unimportant planet in an unimportant galaxy in an unimportant region somewhere in the vastness of space? No! The philosopher of old was right! Meaning is important, even central." (1)

The British physicist Paul Davies is also astounded by the sheer unlikelihood of human life, and he suggests that something else might have been going on to tip things in our favor:

"The origin of life on Earth ... could well have been the result of a stupendous chemical fluke. [However,] ... computing the raw odds quickly shows that even the simplest known cell is so unlikely to form by accident it wouldn't happen twice in the entire observable universe. Or in a trillion similar universes ... Perhaps life's origin wasn't a freak event after all, but the automatic outcome of inherently bio-friendly laws of nature." (2)

In his book The Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life, (3) Davies finds in the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears a potent metaphor for expressing the weird fit between the universe and life. The Three Bears story first appeared when the English poet Robert Southey composed it for his 1837 book The Doctor. (4) In the story, a family of three bears -- mother, father, baby -- live in a house in the forest. One day, having cooked porridge and waiting for it to cool, they go for a stroll in the woods. Goldilocks finds the house, enters, and meddles with things -- chairs, beds, and porridge. She finds the adult bears' beds and chairs "too hard" or "too soft," their porridge "too hot" or "too cold." But the baby bear's bed, chair and porridge are "just right." The bears return and discover that Goldilocks is asleep in the baby bear's bed, after having eaten all the baby's porridge.

The parallels are telling, says Davies. The conditions that life encountered in the universe proved "just right." If the known natural laws had been a greater or lesser value than what they are, the universe, like the porridge, would literally be either too hot or too cold to accommodate life as we know it. The stars would burn too brightly or not at all; or they would have collapsed rather than exploded, thus failing to scatter the chemical detritus across the universe that ultimately supported life. If the difference in mass between a proton and neutron were not exactly what it is, life-sustaining chemistry would not have been possible. If all these just-right characteristics were not present on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, we would not be here to reflect on them. (5)

The distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson suggests that life is so improbable, and the physical characteristics of the universe are so finely tuned to accommodate it, that in some sense the universe "knew we were coming." (6) As a consequence of this cosmic foreknowledge, by the time life arose, conditions in the cosmos were ready for it. The table was set -- all life had to do was show up.

Sir Fred Hoyle, one of the twentieth century's most respected cosmologists, seems to agree with the idea that the universe knew life was on its way. Reflecting on the fine-tuning of the conditions necessary for the universe to bring forth life, he suggested that the universe looks like a "put-up job," as if someone had been "monkeying" with the laws of physics, getting ready in advance for the appearance of life. (7,8)

But this is a minority view within cosmology and science in general. Most scientists believe there is no mystery that needs explaining. Life, mind and consciousness are a big fat statistical accident. Given infinite time, the improbable is bound to occur. We're here because of pure, dumb luck. There are no patterns or meaning behind the scenes. This dour position reminds me of the puckish comment of Gertrude Stein: "There ain't no answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer." (9)

Forfeiting Consciousness

There's an even drearier little secret that veteran scientists never let kids in on -- that if they enter science, they have to check their minds at the door. The reason is that mind, as most people think about it, does not exist in conventional science, because the expressions of consciousness, such as choice, will, emotions, and even logic are said to be brain in disguise. As astronomer Carl Sagan put it, "[The brain's] workings -- what we sometimes call mind -- are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology, and nothing more." (10) Nobelist Francis Crick in his 1995 book The Astonishing Hypothesis was equally explicit, saying, "'You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: 'You're nothing but a pack of neurons.'" (11) Or, as Marvin Minsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cognitive scientist and artificial intelligence expert, put it more crudely, "The brain is just a computer made of meat." (12) Crick went further. In his subsequent book Of Molecules and Men, he wrote, "The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry" (13) -- to analyze, in other words, the meat. And lest there be no doubt about where he stands, philosopher Dennett says, "We're all zombies. Nobody is conscious." (14)

Try selling that to a teenager contemplating a career in science and see what happens.
Novelist Arthur Koestler poked fun at these positions by taking aim at Rene Descartes, the seventeenth-century philosopher who was extraordinarily influential in establishing the notion of a mindless body. "If ... Descartes ... had kept a poodle, the history of philosophy would have been different," Koestler wrote. "The poodle would have taught Descartes that contrary to his doctrine, animals are not machines, and hence the human body is not a machine, forever separated from the mind ... " (15)

This morose, meaningless side of science is never openly presented to young students contemplating a lifetime in science. They usually sniff it out later on, after a career choice has been made. I know of no studies that assess the impact of these dark views on young scientists when they encounter them. Are they negatively affected? Do they adopt a chin-up attitude and soldier on, having traveled too far on the science path to turn around? Or -- most commonly, I believe -- do they schizophrenically partition their psychological, spiritual and scientific lives into separate domains in a desperate attempt to find balance, silently suffering the jagged contradictions the rest of their life?

Purists insist that science is neutral on matters of meaning; the world is what it is. Whatever meaning we find in the world comes from us, not the world itself. We read meaning into the world, not from it. This sword cuts two ways; if meaning should not be imputed to the universe, neither should meaninglessness. It is a plain fact that scientists in general, peering into the same universe and aware of the same set of facts, see meaning in different ways, ways that are not part of science itself. No scientist has ever possessed a meaning meter. Therefore the proper approach, it would seem, would be to declare questions of meaning beyond the purview of science, and to cease imposing one's personal view as the official way the universe should be interpreted. This would give students and young scientists a fighting chance to find their own path where meaning and purpose are concerned, and not be bullied by senior scientists who ought to know better.

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