Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Goldilock Enigma

Targeted Review of The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? by Paul Davies

My original intention was to review this book as a comment appended to my earlier review of The God Delusion, where Professor Dawkins mentioned in passing that Professor Davies was a winner of the Templeton Prize. However, my intention for brevity got carried away, and the comment ran too long, resulting in this new post. (Comments are limited to 4,000-odd characters.)

In his book Professor Dawkins criticizes scientists who accept such prize money from the Templeton organization. He basically feels that such scientists are giving an aura of scientific credibility to religion, and that this is basically harmful. Based on this newer book I doubt that Professor Davies would receive the award at this late date, though they probably won't try to revoke it. He basically includes a fuzzy and weak god hypothesis as one of the possible 'ultimate explanations' for the universe, but merely as one of the options on a long list of possible ultimate explanations--and he explicitly states that he does not favor it.

However, my main reason for reacting to the book is that I feel I have to reject several points of the book rather strongly. Overall, the book is a good overview of modern astrophysics and the current theories of the early universe, but I think it mostly fails in its largest purposes for two major reasons.

The first reason is that there is some serious confusion about cause and effect. Or perhaps it should be dismissed as a form of circular reasoning? The central enigma of the book is that the universe is just right for life, and that seems amazing to Professor Davies. Actually, it works the other way around--life is adaptive and will attempt to adapt as well as possible to the universe as the universe is. He actually doesn't do a very good job of explaining all of the remarkable fits, but he does acknowledge the problem in a couple of places where he remembers to say "life as we know it" or something along those lines. That's exactly the point and the problem. If the universe were different, then life would also be different--but that life would still evolve to become extremely well adapted to that changed universe. It is not that the universe is trying to be perfect for life, but rather that evolutionary pressure drives life to be as perfect as possible for its environment in THIS universe.

The second major reason I think he fails in his search for the ultimate origins is even harder to describe succinctly... Should I call it projection? It is a fundamental human characteristic to seek explanations even where NO explanation exists, but he simply wants to assume that there is some deep explanation for the universe. Actually, the assumption of causation is just a useful heuristic that helps humans deal with the excessive complexity of the real world. We try to seek meanings in things because that helps us deal effectively with the world. This is a pragmatic justification, because much of the time the assumption of causation is useful. (In accord with the Dawkins book, it is precisely when such a search for causation fails that we wind up with such things as irrational and unprovable religious explanations.)

My constructed example begins with his own example of the birds. If we see a live bird fly by, we can reasonably assume that the bird is behaving in the way that birds do and for the reasons that the bird has. We might not fully understand the 'causation' of the bird's precise path, but we understand it well enough for our purposes, such as hunting the bird. However, when a dead bird 'flies' past us, we quickly realize there is something wrong, and there must be some other cause at work here. In the real world, the dead bird fails the test as the cause of its own flight, but we quickly understand we need to consider the situation more carefully. Much more important to our lives if, rather than a bird, the flying object is something dangerous like a stone. Did the stone fall off of a cliff? If so, we should move away from the cliff, because gravity might cause another stone to fall. Did the stone come from where another person is standing? Maybe the stone was actually thrown as an attack, and the real cause is that the thrower is planning to kill me and take over my cave and spouse? Though I deliberately picked a negative example, you can just as well argue that this is the ultimate source of Kant's Categorical Imperative and the deeper source of ethical behavior. It is actually quite reasonable to assume that other humans are similar to us and that they share our own motivations and will act in similar ways for similar reasons. However, though it makes sense to assume other humans might share our motives and that this causes them to behave in ways that we think we can explain, it is a very strong form of projection to assume that the universe as a whole has to have such a motivation.

Part of his attempt to justify his position on this issue involved observer effects, but this was one of the places where the book didn't do a very good job. In particular, his attempt to argue that the observer could force the photon to choose its displayed nature struck me as very unpersuasive. Perhaps my technical background is just too weak, but he didn't convince me that any choice was needed, and I'm still willing to believe that the photon can be both a particle and a wave at the same time.

Another area (but less important) where his presentation struck me as weak was his treatment of velocity in expanding space. I felt like he needed to at least acknowledge the effects of the expansion of space on the distance traveled... The space that the light wave passed through at some past time was much smaller, and that space has since expanded, but he seemed to be treating it as a linear constant relative to the present time.

However, as already noted, I felt the book was mostly a good overview of modern cosmological theories. It was mostly in the 'ultimate' speculations of the last few chapters that things seemed to break down for me.

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