Unlike the typical guitar for sale in a pawn shop, the universe is fine-tuned for us. At least that’s what modern cosmology seems to be telling us. Were gravity slightly more or less attractive, were the cosmological constant this rather than that, were the strong nuclear force a little stronger or the weak nuclear force a little weaker, and so on and so forth, the universe would play like a six-string guitar whose tuning keys had been wantonly torqued by six different monkeys and thrummed by a seventh. The result would be broken or slack strings, a bowed neck, and a discordant Sturm und Drang that left us longing for the ukulele. Not that we’d be around to hear any of it. Compared with that racket, we live in a Muzak universe, whatever we may think of it.
Used to centuries of dispiriting news from the frontlines of science, fine-tuning is just the sort of scientific discovery religionists can get behind. And they do, preaching to packed houses that if we like the music, the least we can do is remember to tip God.
In a candid interview, antitheist Christopher Hitchens singled out fine-tuning as the only argument about which an unbeliever really had to think. Details vary, but the reasoning he refers to runs somewhat as follows: There’s no way that, say, twenty-five knobs (the universe’s initial conditions), each of which could be set 999 different ways, just happened to be set in exactly the right way for the universe to produce the likes of William Shakespeare 13.72 billion years later. Picture a combination lock with numbers between one and 999 on its tumbler dial. To have unlocked the door allowing us humans to “strut and fret our hour upon the stage,” the combination had to fall on precisely the right number from one to 999, not just three or four times but twenty-five times in a row! To make matters even more interesting, Leonard Susskind, professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University, tells us to think of one of these knobs, the cosmological constant, as having trillions of potential settings, and only one correct setting, an interpretation he shares with many of his colleagues.
What’s to be made of all this seeming improbability? Does it really suggest a designer who twiddled the knobs just right? And does it mean that, in an ironic twist, science rather than religion may be the thing that delivers the coup de grâce to dispatch atheism?
How these questions are answered depends on science’s next move. Are scientists willing to think outside the box they’ve told us never to think outside of (read on and see what we mean by that)? And supposing they are, what do they have, if not God, that could possibly account for the pile-up of happy coincidences that kicked off our universe? For the most promising answer, we turn to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A cosmologist before his time, he may have held the key without even knowing it. “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hundreds of years later we’re starting to fathom that those “more things” might just be more universes. Try trillions, trillions of trillions, or, astoundingly, an infinite number of universes! (The Bard is thought to have invented over 1700 English words. The multiverse is one he missed. These trillions and more of universes are collectively known as the multiverse by most cosmologists.)
Our UNI-verse is a sample size of one. A trillion or more universes may exist outside ours in space-time, each with unique physical properties, the vast majority of them thought to be lifeless, planet-less, galaxy-less. We have no way of knowing and of adding their stories to the big story of the cosmos, the multiverse’s story. What we do know is that in the statistical language of hits and misses, our universe is a hit with regard to life. What are the chances that one out of one universe should at random have twenty-five settings dialed into precisely the right values to produce sentient life? Vanishingly small; nearly zero. And what are the chances that out of a trillion universes, one should exhibit, at random, precisely the right values for all twenty-five settings? A whole lot better. Now say the number of universes is infinite. The chances rise to 100%. Anything that can happen will happen given enough tries. We know that a life-yielding universe can happen because it has happened. The most important implication of the multiverse model is that, rather than our being privileged to exist by divine fiat (a faulty conclusion born of selection bias), our being here is a mere statistical necessity. Eventually, we had to happen, and we did. Maybe this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, but at least it’s a possible one.
But this multiverse stuff is all theory, right? Many cosmologists are as yet reluctant to dignify the idea with even that appellative, arguing that theories must be testable and that we can’t test what we aren’t able to observe. Still, if they think about it, the idea is in perfect keeping with a broad historical trend in Western thought. It represents the next logical step in our dethronement from the tiny universe at whose center we once stood, the special creation of a loving Creator. In astronomer and author Carl Sagan’s words, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” At different points in our history, we reckoned ourselves denizens of the only planet, only solar system, and only galaxy in the universe. Each of these conceits proved wrong on an enormous scale. It’s likely that even the multiverse model is wrong on a similar scale, and that there’s something far greater than it. Probably anything we come up with by way of cosmology is bound to be shortsighted, maybe an order of magnitude less shortsighted than the previous version but shortsighted nevertheless. Why? Although we can, with the help of instruments, now peer billions of light-years into the cosmos, the fact remains that our brains were evolved to orient themselves in the very center of spaces smaller than many modern geopolitical counties (roughly the range of unaided human eyesight in daylight conditions). Though we’ve widened our ambit considerably, we are slow to want to give up the atavistic comforts of centrality and boundedness; egocentric maps are an old habit that dies hard. While we’d like to think the fine-tuning argument represents the final refuge for such anthropocentric notions, the far safer bet would be to assume that the multiverse and any model that follows it won’t be completely free of them either.
Still, the multiverse is a step forward. Or is it a step backward? Eugene M. Burke, professor of Asian studies at U.C. Berkeley, reminds us that ancient Buddhists were not only comfortable with the multiverse idea but, more importantly, with an infinite cosmos, one without a first cause. While acknowledging the boundlessness of reality, they built intellectual boxes in which they placed the data necessary for solving problems of a more local variety, for the time, setting aside everything outside them. We do a similar thing with plays, ignoring for three (or however many) acts the reality beyond the box set, focusing only on the events taking place within. If all the world’s a stage, then the backstage just got a whole lot more expansive with the addition of the multiverse. In Shakespeare’s day, the term world couldn’t have meant anything more than what met the eye: planets and visible stars. Today we wouldn’t be wrong to think of the universe as our world. But the multiverse is a bridge too far. Nature herself has drawn a box for us at the horizon line of a universe over whose edge we, with our most penetrating instruments, can never hope to peer.
Ajahn Brahm, a Theravada Buddhist monk who had previously studied theoretical physics at Cambridge, doesn’t agree. He suggests that for the mind to be able to grasp the multiverse and even infinity, it must be greater than either. Yet the average Westerner who tries to apprehend, say, expansiveness without end, pits his mind and infinity against one another in the attempt to “get his brain around” a cosmos that is literally around his brain. The result is reminiscent of the Iliad’s account of Odysseus and Ajax wrestling, an exhausting bout that Achilles finally calls off as much for the sake of the evenly matched combatants as for the patience of the spectators. Sensing that questions of infinite regress (e.g., who or what created the Creator? What is beyond the universe’s edge?) are too loaded for our brains to bear, we’ve installed notions like the Judeo-Christian God and the knowable uni-verse to act like circuit breakers, ending in “bedrock” propositions that suffice to pacify the less contemplative (or perhaps busier) among us. Many of us will recollect ruminating on these questions as children, and putting them away, as with all childish things, upon reaching the age of reason.
But this still doesn’t get us to how we fine-tuned the universe. Of necessity, any universe giving rise to the question of its own tuning is a universe fine-tuned for the kind of life asking the question. In other words, our universe’s tuning couldn’t have been other than it is. Who says? Our presence does; we retrodicted the universe’s tuning. Shocking would be the discovery that our universe wasn’t finely tuned for us (which could only mean our science was faulty since we’re obviously here). This is what is known as the weak anthropic principle (the strong version viewing fine-tuning as truly significant rather than the mere product of survivor bias). Furthermore, what is often overlooked in our ponderings is the fact that we humans are part of the universe, not a foreign tenant of it; by definition, the universe is not just the box, but the box and everything inside it. Saying the universe is finely tuned for us is tantamount to saying the universe is finely tuned for the universe, or that we are finely tuned for us. It’s a circular statement and doesn’t reveal much, rather like declaring that standard guitar tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E) is fine-tuned for the low E string. The low E string is part of standard tuning in the same way we are part of the universe. Ironically, not God, but we, fine-tuned the universe (and all we had to do was be here). This statement, provocative as it sounds, in no way suggests that we are gods. Nor does it suggest that we are the focus or raison d’ être of the universe. And it certainly doesn’t require a science fiction plot wherein we develop a time travel technology allowing us to meddle in the formation of the universe and fiddle the tuning knobs in favor of our own future development. Speaking of this sort of thing, could there be any better deus ex machina than God: a superhuman time traveler we place at the beginning of the universe to ensure our future existence?
A Creator who is said to have created himself (the God of the Old Testament) is a very old box. The Big Bang universe (a big something that is said to have come from nothing) is a newer box. Whereas the ancient Buddhists drew boxes with dashed lines through whose interstices they could intuit and contemplate the multiverse and infinity, we Westerners draw ours with hard, solid lines off which our “metaphysical” questions are meant to ricochet. Paleontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould once referred to science and religion as, “rocks of ages.” In the Judeo-Christian religion, God is Alpha and Omega. In Western science, the Big Bang and the Big Crunch have played similar be-all and end-all roles. Religion assures that its tenets are revered as holy writ by declaring them, in no uncertain terms, sacred. Western science is no less unyielding, operating by way of a method (in which testability is everything) that is entirely unnegotiable.
What we Westerners really seem to like are boxes with mirrored walls. Our gazing into the cosmos is the very picture of Narcissus enamored with his own reflection. Historically, when we weren’t spotting ourselves in heroic attitudes in random groupings of stars (an example of the phenomenon known as pareidolia), we were postulating man-shaped gods lording over the heavens. Today, when we picture extraterrestrials, they look and act mostly like us. We’ve even managed to make the values of the cosmic forces all about us, though they’re almost certainly just as naturally random as the distribution of visible stars.
Whether or not fine-tuning represents anything more than the egocentric product of our pattern (significance)-seeking brains, it seems to be nudging cosmology toward softening its hard-line (or scratching away some of the mirror’s silver backing), at least with regard to this game-changing cosmological question. In having rendered so sweeping a picture of the known universe, often describing its history to within a picosecond after the Big Bang singularity, cosmology has painted itself into a corner. It finds itself in uncomfortable straits. It can stay there like little Jack Horner and concede that the discovery of fine-tuning leads at least to the God of the Deists (the Enlightenment’s machinist-like Creator who set the clockworks in motion, but who in turn leaves one to ponder who or what is, to borrow the poet Alexander Pope’s words, “the God of God?”) or it can back out through a hidden door and into the untestable multiverse. A return to Deism would mean not only extending an olive branch to the religious but also reenlisting an old, familiar, anthropomorphic go-to whose comforts (and difficulties) it outgrew ages ago. (Of course, cosmology can always stall while it draws the finishing touches of its work on our universe out into an enterprise resembling the labors of Hercules, not that the questions won’t pile up meanwhile.)
Although many in cosmology’s ranks still find the untestable multiverse unpalatable, many are ready to accept, some more grudgingly than others, that the only way out is through, even if that acceptance draws the ire, which it undoubtedly will, of some religious thinkers who’ll call foul to cosmology’s allowing for one untestable hypothesis (the multiverse) while dismissing another (God). But, as we’ve hopefully learned, these hypotheses are not equivalent. While both are metaphysical in the sense of being untestable, the multiverse is assumed to be naturalistic, which is really the whole point of entertaining it in conjunction with science-based cosmology. Some theologians will respond by attempting to refit God, who is already said to be everywhere and nowhere, to the scale of the multiverse. As if the God of the Bible didn’t already appear ill at ease and stretched thin in the cosmos of the past hundred or more years, one in which astronomers have supposed there may be a hundred billion galaxies, each supporting a hundred billion or more worlds, where God’s human-shaped redemptive gospel, could it ever reach them, would be bound to fall on deaf ears, or whatever the intelligent aliens of, say, the Andromeda Galaxy have for ears.
Carl Sagan once characterized the Judeo-Christian God’s followers as being content with keeping their idol comfortingly provincial: “My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” Might not the same be said of cosmologists: that until now they have preferred, and might still prefer, to keep our cosmos small? What advantage might there be in keeping our concepts of God and the cosmos on the diminutive side? To our collective unconscious, the move may be palliative. A relatively close-fitting God and cosmos might serve, either in tandem or taken separately, as a kind of psychotherapeutic hug box (if we may press professor of animal science, Temple Grandin’s psychopharmacological invention into the service of our analogy), quieting the paroxysms of brains running up against the insoluble and metabolically taxing problem of infinite regress. As useful as it once was to her overcoming symptoms of acute anxiety, even professor Grandin has, she tells us, allowed her own hug box to fall into disrepair and disuse. Just as no crate ever held Harry Houdini for long, man too is freeing himself from boxes of his own devising. “My brain is the key that sets me free,” the famous escape artist used to boast.
We conclude with reference to a famous box, the Globe Theater, where Shakespeare debuted most of his plays. Did its end foreshadow a paradigm-shifting event in cosmology’s near future: the collapse of the universe as the cosmos’ be-all and end-all framework? In 1613, the London edifice burned to the ground, set ablaze by its own pyrotechnics. Not that the box proved very important. As Shakespeare’s enduring fame reminds us, “The play is the thing.” If ever a sentiment resonated with the Buddhists, it is that one. “We’ve lived for over two thousand years,” Professor Burke tells us, “without any idea of a first cause, and we’ve had ethics, we’ve had morals, we’ve lived a good life.” Sounds like music to our ears.
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