“Why?” is the wrong Goldilocks question

“This porridge is too hot,” Goldilocks exclaimed.
So she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. “This porridge is too cold.”

So she tasted the last bowl of porridge. “Ahhh, this porridge is just right!”
she said happily.
 And she ate it all up.

Every so often, I go off my expository rocker and indulge in a brief bout of freestyle raving. This is one of those times.

Some bad questions just keep coming back, even when we should know better. The latest example is the headline of the article “Why is the universe just right for us?” in New Scientist’s special feature on “Existence” in the July 29th issue.

“Why?” is the wrong question, of course. “How?” isn’t bad, despite our limited understanding of the universe. But “Why?” suffers fatally from its core teleological assumption, not to mention from its misguided insistence on our being at all significant in the universal scheme of things.

It’s not really the article’s fault — it raises and quickly discards the “God did it” answer (it’s an answer to an unaskable question), then deals rather straightforwardly with the scientific consideration of constants and fundamental forces. But the headline writer couldn’t resist the usual anthropocentric spin, putting “us” at the centre of “Why?”

At issue is the well-known “Goldilocks Effect.” If the weak nuclear force were just a bit weaker; if the strong nuclear force were just a bit stronger; if the Earth were just a bit closer, or just a bit farther, from the Sun; if gravity were just a bit stronger, or just a bit weaker — then we wouldn’t be here.

Therefore, we are the reason the universe is what it is? Therefore, we are the purpose of creation itself? Nonsense.

If there were no sailing ships, we never would have “discovered” coconuts. Without coconuts, we never would have had coconut cream pie. Therefore, the purpose of sailing ships is to satisfy our desire for coconut cream pie. Get the logic? No, I don’t, either.

How about this, instead. And it doesn’t take string theory or “many worlds” to make sense. We have coconut cream pie because we have coconuts. We have coconuts because we had sailing ships.

That’s the correct causal direction. Without sailing ships, no coconut cream pie. Without a weak nuclear force that allows the creation of heavy elements, without a magnetic field to shield our planet from deadly solar radiation, without seasons to keep our water liquid — the list can go on and on — no us.

So, “why” is the universe “just right” for us? Because without just these conditions, we wouldn’t be here. The universe isn’t perfect for us. We are perfect for it. In other words, we exist in the universe because the physics and chemistry of the universe are capable of producing us. Take away any necessary condition, and we go “pop” into the land of Never Were.

Is that disturbing? Does it wound your ego? It certainly wounds mine, but then, the universe is perfectly indifferent to my feelings. After all, I’m not central to it, or to its processes. I’d like to be. I wish there were the slightest shred of evidence that I am. But there isn’t, and I’m not.

Like the theists, I could project my wishes into the ether, follow the light of my egocentric Bat Signal into the sky and say, “Hark! Thar He Blows!” That would make me feel better in one way, I guess, but it would mean spending way too much energy combating the realities of the empirical world and bolstering my illusions. It would be like a Bible literalist deciding to become a Biology major at a public university. Who has that much time to beat on, futilely, against the currents of the real?

I told you that this would be a disorganized rant. Time for a little more calm exposition.

The New Scientist article spends some time on the notion that there’s no fine-tuning involved in the fundamental forces of the universe, that our existence is not nearly as “miraculous” — as lucky — as it seems to be.

Recent research supports the idea that processes like the “triple-alpha” process in which three helium atoms fuse to become one carbon atom can occur under a much wider range of conditions than was previously thought.

As well, the article points out the methodological problem that most “Goldilocks” models vary one parameter, while keeping everything else constant. This assumes, probably wrongly, that there is a simple, ultra-reductionist relationship among fundamental forces and entities. Much more likely is that their relationships are complex and dynamic, so that a single variation that would kill us off could be compensated for by an unconsidered, co-ordinate variation in another parameter.

And none of this deals with the possibility that the kind of life we experience is not the only kind of life. Forget parallel universes with different physical laws. It’s entirely possible that different kinds of life could exist by “exploiting” different parts of the physical equation of our own, single universe. Extremophile organisms on Earth point in that direction already, before we’ve even left the planet, much less the solar system, or the galaxy.

According to Nobel Prize physicist Steven Weinberg, the only fundamental parameter that seems still to require some “outside” explanation — multiple universes is his choice — is the “dark energy” problem. Were the unseen energy in the universe much different than it is, there would be no stars and galaxies, much less no us.

Why is “dark energy” at just the right level for the creation of the present universe? If Weinberg doesn’t know, I certainly don’t. But I’m pretty confident that if the answer is ever available, it won’t reveal itself in an archaic language from Earth’s Middle East.

Next time, in this short and informal series on the “cosmic question,” the reality that even if we’re not the only intelligent life in the universe, we might as well be. After that, some more “universal” things that bother people, in a posting about some of the things we don’t know, probably can’t know, and shouldn’t care that we’ll never know.