Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, November 19, 2007

On the shore of an anthropic sea.

In the world of science fiction there exists the theme of the hell world. This is a planet whose physical or biological (or both) environment is so difficult and challenging to survive in that the species that evolve there are orders of magnitude more capable than species that evolve on other worlds. Obviously, were these hell species to encounter life from other, less unpleasant, planets the results would be spectacular. Indeed, the non-hell life would find itself out-competed at virtually every turn and, thus, this theme lends itself well to horror stories. A particularly popular version of this idea is the xenomorph from the "Alien" film series, but there are others.

In an interesting take on the hell world idea, Alan Dean Foster wrote a trilogy known as The Damned, in which Earth is the hell world and humans are the universe's ultimate killers. In the context of the story most sentient species come from worlds with less of an axial tilt, only a single continent, few if any hurricanes or tornadoes and less active geology. As humans come from a world with much more extreme versions of these features we have evolved under much more challenging circumstances. As a consequence we have been formed into a species that is willing and able to kill if provoked- and sometimes even when not provoked. Seem unlikely to you? Well, in a way, that's the point. The thing is, if Earth is the hell world and we are the ruthless and deadly predator that it has produced, how would we ever know? We have no other habitable planets for comparison, no other sentient species have dropped by for dinner,* we have only our observations of our own world. And, given that we evolved here over millions of years, we ought to be pretty well-suited to it. When you evolve in hell, hell probably doesn't seem quite so hot or uncomfortable. And, ironically enough, even if we do live on the hell world, we would probably remain amazed at how pleasant a place our world is because it is, after all, a very nice place for us.

I bring all this up because I think it bears on the issue of fine tuning in the universe. For those who are unfamiliar, it is the idea that the nature of the universe is just perfectly such that life like ourselves can exist. The argument is made in such books as The Privileged Planet, to the effect that the fact that the universe, and our world, are so well-suited to us means that they cannot have occurred by chance. In other words: god has essentially manufactured a universe perfectly structured for us. To this idea I just have to say: bullshit.

The problem is that, yes, the universe's physical laws do permit our existence, but they are a long way from producing a truly idyllic environment. Ignoring for a moment the ways in which our own world is dangerous (e.g. viral and bacterial evolution, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, environmental shifts, ice ages) and all the ways that our solar system is dangerous (e.g. stellar evolution, super-flares, asteroid and cometary impacts) the universe itself is rich with natural events that could not only kill humanity but obliterate all life on Earth. Things like gamma ray bursts, active galaxies, supernovas, hypernovas, wandering black holes or other massive objects, and so on. The universe is, in short, awash with unimaginably energetic events that are capable of scowering all life from entire regions of galaxies- or entire galaxies themselves. Life is, in a sense, clinging tenaciously to a tiny crevice in the vast structure of the universe- a place where it has found a measure of safety and protection. We live in a universe characterized by roiling, churning, energies of a scale so vast that a tiny fraction of their might could snuff us out in an instant. And strangely enough, even if a vast wavefront of gamma radiation is on its way, those same laws of physics mean that we have no way of detecting it before it arrives. But, all the same, it is our universe. It is the universe into which we have emerged, within which we have lived, and at which we stare with wonder.

And if we look at it and wonder how it is that it is so perfectly suited for our existence... well... we can perhaps be forgiven for a bit of wishful thinking.

* Though within the context of our thought-experiment, that might be because they fear that we would have them for dinner... if you get what I'm saying.

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Blogger Mister Troll said...

Dear Drek,

That's an interesting argument against drawing any theological conclusions from the anthropic principle - not one that I have before.

But I think there's a *little* more to the anthropic principle than just, the universal conditions permit us to exist. The issue is that fundamental constants of physical laws are such that very (apparently) minor changes would result in drastic changes to the universe: shutting down nuclear reactions or inflating the universe so quickly stars would never have formed. The point is not just that we can *exist*, but that life in *any* form we can currently envision can exist.

Since no one understands the origin of the fundamental laws of the universe, I don't see why it should support the idea that the universe was designed, but I can see why others would find it attractive.

I'm going to have to check out "A Call to Arms" - it sounds interesting!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 7:39:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Right you are, Mister Troll. I was simplifying a great deal in order to make a particular point. There's a world of difference between "conditions that allow life as we know it to exist" and "awesome conditions for life." Often when the fine tuning argument is invoked, it implies the latter rather than the former.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 10:46:00 AM  

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