Reality Conditions

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Book Review: Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot

It feels strange to be asked by his publishers to review a book by Paul Davies. Many years ago, it was partially the fascination provoked by his popularisation books (especially Superforce) which made me wish to study physics. It is somehow for me like coming back full cycle, if you understand what I mean.

The main theme in Cosmic Jackpot is, as the subtitle aptly puts it, “why our universe is just right for life”. In other words, it is about the apparent “fine tuning” in the basic constants of physics. For many numbers that play a basic role in the laws of Nature, such as the electron’s charge and the magnitude of the strong nuclear force, it happens that if those numbers had been just slightly different, life could not have developed in the universe. The most extreme example is the recently discovered dark energy; it is 120 orders of magnitude smaller than what would be its “natural” value, and if it was just one order of magnitude bigger the universe would have expanded too fast for stars which could support life to have time to form.

Is this just a brute fact of the universe, or something that cries out for an explanation? Davies thinks the latter, though without going through any formal argument to justify the very idea that an explanation is needed. (I’ll argue later that this is a big omission.) He considers several possible explanations, opting at the end for a rather idiosyncratic one, and with little by the way of argument to support it, in my opinion.

Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to an exposition for the layman of the fundamentals of particle physics and cosmology. Davies is well-habituated to this kind of popularisation, and delivers it with easeful clarity. The expanding universe, the Standard Model of particle physics, the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, and the basics of string theory are among the topics covered. For those fascinated by the String Wars™, I may mention that the latter exposition is neither hypeful nor negative, giving fair space to the theory’s archievents and to its open problems.

The second half of the book is dedicated to the fine-tuning for life of the constants of phsysics, and its possible explanations. Of course the “anthropic” explanation, and its concrete realization in the string-theoretical landscape and the eternal inflation framework, take a large part of the discussion. For those who have been asleep the past years, the anthropic principle is the speculative idea that if a large or infinite number of parallel universes with different basic constants or laws (a “multiverse”) exists, then the fine-tuning is not surprising, because we couldn’t find ourselves in any universe but in one of the few that support life. Davies is rather critical of the anthropic principle, although not for the reasons usually aduced against it. (Given the wildly speculative metaphysical explorations of the last chapters, it wouldn’t do for Davies to criticize the anthropic principle on non-falsifiability or other methodological grounds!) His main argument is that as universes can almost certainly be simulated computationally at a much “cheaper” cost than creating them in reality, an infinite multiverse will contain many more simulated universes (created by advanced civilizations for amusement, I gather) than real ones, so the anthropic reasoning would imply that we live in a simulated, Matrix-like universe, because that is the most likely situation to find ourselves. But then we have no reason to have a strong belief in the laws of physics that support the multiverse hypothesis in first place, so the whole anthropic argument collapses. I think this reasoning rests on assumptions shaky enough (is it really so easy to simulate an entire universe? do we really have reasons to believe that civilizations will have interest in perfoerming such simulations by large numbers? do we have any reason to suppose that the typical simulated universe will look like ours, any more than the typical real universe will? etc.) that few anthropicists will be troubled by it. (Those who find these whacky discussions fascinating must check Nick Bostrom’s webpage).

I suspect that Davies’ rejection of anthropic explanations does not arise really from the contrived simulation arguments, but from a deeper philosophical conviction: that the ultimate explanation for the universe and its characteristics must be meaningful in some sense. He is not just interested in the limited question “Why are the constants suitable for life?” but in the more ambituous one “What determines what exists and what does not exist?” The existence of a multiverse in eternal inflation described by string/M-theory seems too arbitrary for him to be a suitable final explanation, a good place to find “the turtle over which all others rest”. He also yearns, and says it so explicitly, for an ultimate explanation which involves life and consciousness in an active way, not in an essentially passive way as the anthropic arguments do.

Given these inclinations, some kind of cosmic Intelligent Design seems Davies’ natural resting place. But in fact he also feels uncomfortable with the notion of a God as ultimate explanation. Having the natural sensibilities of a scientist, not a theologian, he can make little sense of the idea of a “necessary being” that can perform the explanatory role of God, and tends to accept the famous Dawkinsian argument that a creative, personal God must be “complex” and stand in need of explanation instead of being a suitable resting point for explanations. (I share those intuitions as well, by the way, while understanding how some may not share them; it is a subject for yet another one of my “science vs. religion” posts.) He ends up saying that he finds a God and a multiverse about equally complex and unsatsifactory as Final Turtles. A unique self-consistent version of M-theory or other Theory of Everything which predicted the values of all constants of physics necessarily would be more simple and satisfactory than both, but he believes it unlikely that such a theory exists, and anyway one could still ask why the theory is realized in actuality. He also considers the view that everything logically possible exists, so there is no special problem in determining what will exist, and has a bit of fun playing with its implications before dismissing it. For philosophers, not the least sign of philosophical amateurness in Davies’ book will be that he attributes this theory to physicist Max Tegmark, with only one endnote mentioning philosopher David Lewis, who developed the idea earlier and more rigorously.

Chapter 10, in which Davies exposes his own views, is the less clear and most jumbled of the book. (As a rule, Davies is much better at explaining ideas of others clearly and critizicing and assessing them than at developing (philosophical) ideas of his own.) His preferred speculation is that life and consciousness might be a creative force in Nature, not by guise of a designing God but by an inmanent, teleological principle that makes their appeareance a necessary feature of the universe. In support of this view he enlists a couple of ideas that loyal readers of this blog will remember I discussed and criticized: Chalmers on the irreducibility of consciousness, and the “backwards causation” interpretation of quantum mechanics. But of course, even if these ideas were true they would fall very short of supporting Davies’ speculation. He also wanders off tangents borrowing from, among others: Deutsch on evolution and quantum information, Tipler on the universe evolving to a “supermind” as final state, Lloyd on the universe as a discrete computer, and Wheeler on self-explanatory causal loops. What I have, honestly, been unable to find in all this “idea-dropping” is any clear and concrete argument for the teleological speculations, which Davies is well aware are far from the mainstream views of scientists. For argument, Davies replaces rethoric; a rethoric that everywhere betrays his deep-seated conviction –and also desire, and even emotional need- that the universe be meaninglful, that it must include us, or generally life and consciousness, among its fundamental principles and not only as a casual and fortitious outcome as modern cosmology seems to imply. (He calls this mainstream view “The Absurd Universe”, and seems to believe it renders somehow the scientific enterprise unjustified and pointless.)

As readers must have gathered, I have little sympathy for Davies’ philosophical speculation. The “fine tuning for life” problem seems to me rather arbitrary: as Carl Sagan pointed out once, about the same constants and laws necessary for a universe containing observers are necessary for a universe containing rocks, so why not discuss the “fine tuning for rocks” problem? To frame the discussion the way it is done presupposes that life and consciousness are important or significative features –and despite all Davies’ posturing, we have really no reason to believe they are in an objective sense, apart from our obvious (self-) interest in them. Multiverse-anthropic arguments for adressing these questions have in my opinion a very slight, but not zero, chance of becoming some day testable and scientific; while Intelligent Design arguments have an effective chance of zero, and so do teleological or causal loop principles in absence of a much stronger motivation and articulation for them. So for the time being count me by default as a citizen of the Absurd Universe.

However, despite all this the book does provide a good and clear explanation of many basic areas of modern physics and cosmology, and provides also reasonably clear and fair discussions of the anthropic and the intelligent design controversies. It is only when Davies lets his own views take the forefront that I start to dislike it. Another virtue of the book is that, for all its philosophical amateurness (in fact, because of it) it can be a refreshing reminder of those “big problems” like why does something exist instead of nothing, that not only physicists but even also philosophers lose sometimes in the pressure of professional specialization. A breezy and engaging exploration of the mysteries of “life, the universe and everything”, no matter its flaws, can be welcome if only for that reason.

You can also read Chad Orzel's review, which is a bit more dismissive of the whole subject-matter of the book than I am; although I certainly agree that this subject matter can only be clasified as "philosophy" and not as "science", if there is any kind of distinction between them. I will add links to other reviews as they appear.


  • Given these inclinations, some kind of cosmic Intelligent Design seems Davies’ natural resting place.

    Which is where Davies jumps on Wheelers bus as it goes causally backwards over a cliff, because Davies doesn't realize that...

    A true strong anthropic constraint on the forces of the universe will ***NECESSARILY*** include a reciprocal connection to the human evolutionary process, which indicates that physicists should look for a mechanism that enables the universe to "leap" to higher orders of the same basic structure.

    By Blogger island, at 6:25 PM, January 20, 2007  

  • How about this: Assume that a mathematical theory of everything can be found. Then this theory needs to be such that it allows configurations which have an internal structure representing the logical makeup and definition of the theory (preferably in an at least metastable way).

    I suspect that this condition is so weak as to rule out virtually nothing. Everything chaotic seems to create structures rich enough to make it plausible to represent the fundamental equations in the solutions.

    island: By the reductionist nature of fundamental physics the existing theories certainly satisfy that criterium. Furthermore emergence is in a pre newtonian state of scientific inquiry, andmight remain so for a long time.

    By Anonymous fh, at 10:00 PM, January 21, 2007  

  • fh: I agree, your condition seems rather weak. For example, Conway's Life Game can be used to support a universal Turing machine, on which the basic rules of the game can certainly be stored. I don't think much progress towards finding a physical theory of everything can be made following this kind of speculation...

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 10:37 PM, January 21, 2007  

  • Hi fh,

    I don't really understand what you mean by, "emergence", since the physics in the linked articles falls into the category of strictly deterministic and reductionist.

    There's also a valid theory of quantum gravity burried in there, as well, in case you didn't notice.

    By Blogger island, at 5:48 PM, January 22, 2007  

  • Progress toward a theory of everything will include the following:

    1) The asymmetry in the energy of the universe is *perpetually* inherent, becausee there was no absolute cosmic singularity, because we actully had a big bang at the point where we *conveniently* find "rethermalization".

    So none of the anthropic problems even become apparent when we project backwards to this point without *pre-assuming* that we have to find a way to account for discrepancies that only occur between the pre-assumed singularity and our actual observations.

    What a coincidence, we have no monopoles, nor do we have a flatness and horizon problem... etc... when a causally connected universe with certain volume has a big bang per the physics in the previously described articles.

    2) The referenced articles describes a thermodynamc function that uses "asymmetric transitions" to enable the second law of thermodynamics to drive the system to higher orders of the same basic structure by way of the spontaneous separation of negative and positive energies that occurs with the normal breakdown of matter in a *near*-flat expanding universe.

    These guys have the right basic idea:

    Illustrated, as it is observed to work elsewhere in nature:

    Progress toward a theory of everything will necessarily include a truly evolutionary universe that is "governed" by a strong anthropic thermodynamic constraint which enables the arrow of time to remain permanently fixed.

    By Blogger island, at 7:30 PM, January 22, 2007  

  • Thank you for the great story.

    Annuaire | Nettoyage | dardenac | Annuaire | Maternelle | Referencement | arianax | Deenox | Vin bergerac | Qrom | pagerank

    By Anonymous Raphaël CONFIANT, at 6:03 PM, April 07, 2010  

  • I've been follow Deenox for days.

    By Anonymous vizcaya wedding photography, at 10:16 PM, April 21, 2010  

  • Embarassingly obvious TOE, expanding the horizon beyond Darwin And Einstein. It is spacedistance, NOT spacetime, that does it:

    Theory Of Everything Without Strings Attached.
    Embarassingly Obvious And Simple.
    See the signature links.

    Life's Genesis Was Not Cells But First Gene's Self Reproduction.
    Life Is Just Another Mass Format.

    Since July 5 1997 I have developed and been proposing the following scenario of life's genesis:

    * Life's genesis was not cell(s), but the self reproduction of yet uncelled ungenomed gene(s).

    * There was NOT any "Pre-History Of Life" evolving in an archaic pre-modern life cell.

    * Cells were definitely NOT life's genesis. Cells were products of evolution of Earth's primal organisms, of Earth's first stratum organisms, the RNA genes that have always been and still are running the show of life, the energy-storing biosphere survival, since Earth life's day one.

    * A gene's self reproduction was distinctly an evolutionary, enhanced energy constraint event, above the earlier, random, radiated-energy-induced genes formations.

    * Every evolutionary step is inherently an event of an enhanced energy constraint.

    * Genomes, RNA and DNA, are functional organs evolved by the primary RNA genes. Cell membranes are also functional organs evolved by the primary RNA gene.

    * Life is but one of the many many mass formats in the universe, and its evolution is driven as the evolution of all cosmic mass formats, to gain temporary enhanced energy constraint, i.e. to survive as long as possible.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    03.2010 Updated Life Manifest
    Cosmic Evolution Simplified
    Gravity Is The Monotheism Of The Cosmos

    This Theory Of Everything, with definition of evolution, covers also ALL aspects of anthropology. DH

    TOE: Religion Or Science?

    (Fwd from


    [quote=BobTS1162939] This is the Theory Of Everything In A Nutshell (TOEIANS):

    Basic construction of the universe: 1. Particles 2. Strings 3. Frames.

    Each particle has string. They combine with each other into quantum and physical objects.

    Particles' travel along their strings appear to us as: 1. Gravity. 2. Properties. 3. Forces.

    String-particle travels/lives within a frame seen as: 1. Waves. 2. Feelings 3. Influence.

    Time is a one dimensional string whose constant value is 9. The universe is constructed on the number 3. Time moves outward dragging space with it. This outward expansion causes space which is a string to distort / stretch which we see as repairs / deterioration / aging / etc.. If the strings were decreasing we would see the reverse. Things would essentially become younger until they simply disappeared as opposing to dying / being not repairable as we see / experience now. The development of language and the effort to define things means particles / strings / frames have different names depending on the discipline.[/quote]

    II. My comment

    A) Since Life is, by our sensory conception, a virtual reality affair, religion is a legitimate virtual reality tool for going through life. But I am not religious. My senses do not become affected by the above TOEIANS. I embarassingly admit that hard as I try I am unable to comprehend the above TOEIANS.

    B) My own conception of TOE is scientific, not religious, based strictly on data recorded and observed, of ubiquitous cosmic phenomena. And in presenting my TOE conception I do not deal with mechanisms but with the base processes.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:19 PM, April 26, 2010  

  • 2010 Update Concept Of Life Evolution

    On Life's Twist

    Di Mauro's RNA formation concept is great. But, a step further, how had the RNA become alive, i.e. how did it (1) uptake the sun's radiation and how did it (2) catalytically use it to perform work, to keep augmenting its constrained energy by keeping augmenting its self-propagation, which is the essence of Life ?


    Or, is the mechanism of this twist known now?
    It is now known how the RNAs, Earth's primal organisms, adopt an enhanced energy event's DNA conformation. But what is the mechanism of its recognizing the enhanced energy event? Does it derive from augmented RNA propagation and alternative splicing feedback loop, or is the augmented propagation a result of an energetic feature recognized by the RNA?

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)

    Seed of Human-Chimp Genomes Diversity
    03.2010 Updated Life Manifest
    Evolution, Natural Selection, Derive From Cosmic Expansion

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:11 AM, September 20, 2010  

  • I don't really understand what you mean by, "emergence", since the physics in the linked articles falls into the category of strictly deterministic and reductionist.


    By Blogger infoactu, at 6:35 PM, May 13, 2011  

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