Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Fatalism threatens science (updated 28 Jan 2014)

Image credit www.physics.sfsu.edu/
You may already be aware that modern cosmology has presented us with a strange conundrum, which is that the universe is precision engineered for life. This has only been known about for the last couple of decades  and is rarely talked about in the popular science  media. It has met with frightening indifference and fatuous explanations which seem to me anti-scientific and reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

Dozens of physical constants (e.g. the gravitational, cosmological, weak interaction, strong interaction and fine-structure constants) are finely tuned to an extraordinary degree, e.g. 120 decimal places in the case of the cosmological constant. 

 Fine tuned for what? For the emergence of life. Also, the Big Bang point source of the cosmos started off with just the right amount of entropy to allow life to develop. (Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a closed system.) There is no physical, testable explanation of how this just-right degree of disorder happened to be there. In fact not only life but advanced civilised life appears to be the purpose of the universe. The Milky Way Galaxy, the solar system and the unique physical conditions of our planet and its attendant moon as well as the right relative abundance of the 92 elements in the Periodic Table all conspire towards the emergence of advanced civilisation. There are volumes of evidence. The above are just sprinklings to give the flavour of the mystery.

What does this mean? These aspects of reality cry out for an explanation.

In an attempt to evade or avoid this question some have resorted to what is loosely known as the  Anthropic Principle which states that we can observe only those values of the fundamental constants and quantities that are compatible with our existence. The fact that we exist 'explains' (?!) why the science is such as it is. If it weren’t we would not be here to ask. This is a fatuous, fatalistic, curiosity-killing and non-scientific argument which I hope will be illustrated by the following imaginary dialog.

You have just been blindfolded and shot at point blank range by 100 people with live ammunition and AK 47s. Yet you're alive and unharmed. How could this have happened?

You don’t need to ask why. You are here to ask the question and that is all the explanation you need. The question of how improbable this is does not come into it. Curiosity killed at source.

You were floating in interplanetary space, untethered, with oxygen running out and death looming. Suddenly a great ET machine grabs you, takes you into its interior, revives you and takes you back to the spaceship from which you had broken loose and lets you go as soon as an amazed crew member open the hatch. You are saved. How could this have happened?

No questions needed. You are alive. Of course these things had to happen otherwise you would no longer exist. Again, curiosity killed at source.

The biosphere has, over billions of years, remained life friendly even as the sun's heat input to the planet has grown by 30%. Why?

Various proposals have been put forward but they imply purpose behind the natural world. This would be a heresy for the philosophical materialist. However, we can easily avoid awkward God-related questions about why this is possible by seeking no other answer than this: it had to happen this way, because if it didn't we would not be here. Curiosity killed at source.

Looking at the cosmos it appears to be organised in a very clever way, interconnected and finely engineered to mind boggling precision on an incomprehensible scale, engineered to allow life to emerge at only this place and time in a universe of this size and structure. How did this come about?

Why ask such awkward questions? If you had not been here it would not have happened. Chill out, man.

How can I chill out?

Just bury your head in the sand.

I exist. Why?

The fact that you exist is enough to explain why you exist. Stop asking awkward questions. Curiosity killed at source.


Many so-called scientists have either resorted to these 'explanations' or gone through the most painful  and paradoxical intellectual contortions, such as inventing imaginary universes beyond scientific proof,  to avoid the obvious conclusion that there is a Creator. 

 A good example of science being potentially held back by a stubbornly non-theist view of the universe is in elementary particle physics. For life to be possible there needs to be two kinds of quark (up and down) and two kinds of lepton (electron and electron neutrino).  What is not necessary for life - apparently - are 3  generations of these, making 12 in all. If one assumes these extra types of particle are surplus to requirements and just happen to be there in this particular universe by chance, there is no reason to look any further. They are just there. Curiosity killed.

Hopefully, scientists will look for a new theory in which these extra particles make sense and perhaps have an as yet hidden role in the functioning of life; but if the creeping intellectual paralysis took hold science would be on a downward track.

Biology is also in danger. It appears to be dominated by  an excessively reductionist neo-Darwinist mindset which puts too much emphasis on blind chance. Only a decade ago it was assumed that the 98% of the DNA genome which did not consist of  genes which encode proteins was junk, an accident of evolution by natural selection coupled with mutations. It now turns out that there is staggering functionality in this junk. Fortunately, the habit of looking for order is far from dead but if the habit faded the wrong attitude could be fatal for science.

Imagine where we would be now if Aristotle or Newton or Einstein had thought this fatalistic way. Why not admit there is a God and get on with the business of searching for explanations and theories on how it all fits together? 

That could be one reason we are here.

See also

Hold on to the truth

Why the future is unpredictable

Bridging gaps

The five-fold threat to science

The doctrine of chance

Our precious planet

Is there meaning behind random events?

Reweaving the rainbow

Fighting fatalism

Distorting reality

Jean Paul Sartre: not the way to Peace on Earth

What is truth?