Is the universe fine-tuned for life?
There was a young fellow from Trinity
Image: Brad Hines
Who took the square root of infinity.
But the number of digits
Gave him the fidgets;
He dropped Math and took up Divinity.
In the limerick above, physicist George Gamow dealt with the
paradox of a finite being contemplating infinity by passing the
buck to theologians.
In an attempt to prove that the universe was
intelligently designed, religion has lately been fidgeting with
the fine-tuning digits of the cosmos. The John Templeton
Foundation even grants cash prizes for such "progress in
religion." Last year mathematical physicist and Anglican
priest John C. Polkinghorne, recognized because he "has
invigorated the search for interface between science and
religion," was given $1 million for his "treatment of
theology as a natural science." In 2000 physicist Freeman
Dyson took home a $945,000 prize for such works as his 1979 book,
Disturbing the Universe, in which he writes: "As we look out
into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and
astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost
seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we
Mathematical physicist Paul Davies also won a Templeton prize.
In his 1999 book, The Fifth Miracle, he makes these observations
about the fine-tuned nature of the cosmos: "If life follows
from [primordial] soup with causal dependability, the laws of
nature encode a hidden subtext, a cosmic imperative, which tells
them: 'Make life!' And, through life, its by-products: mind,
knowledge, understanding. It means that the laws of the universe
have engineered their own comprehension. This is a breathtaking
vision of nature, magnificent and uplifting in its majestic sweep.
I hope it is correct. It would be wonderful if it were
Indeed, it would be wonderful. But not any more wonderful than
if it were not correct. Even atheist Stephen W. Hawking sounded
like a supporter of intelligent design when he wrote: "And
why is the universe so close to the dividing line between
collapsing again and expanding indefinitely?... If the rate of
expansion one second after the big bang had been less by one part
in 1010, the universe would have collapsed after a few million
years. If it had been greater by one part in 1010, the universe
would have been essentially empty after a few million years. In
neither case would it have lasted long enough for life to develop.
Thus one either has to appeal to the anthropic principle or find
some physical explanation of why the universe is the way it
We may live in a multiverse in which our universe is only
one of many universes.
In its current version, the anthropic principle posits that we
live in a multiverse in which our universe is only one of many
universes, all with different laws of nature. Those universes
whose parameters are most likely to give rise to life occasionally
generate complex life with brains big enough to achieve
consciousness and to conceive of such concepts as God and
cosmology and to ask such questions as Why? Another explanation
can be found in the properties of self-organization and emergence.
Water is an emergent property of a particular arrangement of
hydrogen and oxygen molecules, just as consciousness is a
self-organized emergent property of billions of neurons. The
evolution of complex life is an emergent property of simple life:
prokaryote cells self-organized into eukaryote cells, which
self-organized into multicellular organisms, which self-organized
into ... and here we are.
Self-organization and emergence arise out of complex adaptive
systems that grow and learn as they change. As a complex adaptive
system, the cosmos may be one giant autocatalytic (self-driving)
feedback loop that generates such emergent properties as life. We
can think of self-organization as an emergent property and
emergence as a form of self-organization. Complexity is so simple
it can be put on a bumper sticker: life happens
If life on earth is unique or at least exceptionally rare (and
in either case certainly not inevitable), how special is our
fleeting, mayfly-like existence? And how important it is that we
make the most of our lives and our loves; how critical it is that
we work to preserve not only our own species but all species and
the biosphere itself. Whether the universe is teeming with life or
we are alone, whether our existence is strongly necessitated by
the laws of nature or highly contingent and accidental, whether
there is more to come or this is all there is, we are faced with a
worldview that is breathtaking and majestic in its sweep across
time and space.
Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com) and the author of In Darwin's Shadow.