By E.F Nicholson
How maths and the cosmological constant point to our life being “meaningful” based on fact rather than faith.
In this article, we look at how the mathematical calculation of the “cosmological constant” appears to point to a universe that is too fine tuned to be considered random. That there may, in fact, be an intelligent designer that has nothing to do with the anthropomorphic god of the born again Christians. Although orthodox science refutes the implication, the article explores what a society would be like that didn’t and what it would mean to think the existence of meaning and purpose if it was based on science, rather than faith.
“Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore, equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.” Carl Jung
This has been going on for the last two hundred years plus, a debate about if there “was” or “was not” an intelligent designer behind the creation of the universe. On the pro divine influence camp of the debate, is the belief that some type of “Supreme Being” created all of what we now discover. They think at the beginning of time, this being, for what reason, maybe he was bored of playing cosmic Tetris and he/she/it somehow willed existence, into existence. Believing this to be true, meant that we humans are all part of some mysterious and cosmic plan. The belief of this is based on faith, rather than facts or undeniable proof, such as God’s fingerprints or muffin crumbs the divine deity left while creating all that is.
The other side of the debate are the scientists, who see our existence as a kind of cosmic fluke that happened just because a few random conditions came together in such a way that allowed us into existence. The scientists feel smugly confident that they have it right, as they have weird things like facts, evidence, data and testable experiments to show that their theory is solid. Because orthodox science is viewed as having facts on its side, it has also gained legitimacy of what we call today’s intellectual class. It is true, unless someone can come forward and prove otherwise, all the data, facts, studies, maths and testable understanding of things, point to a universe without meaning or purpose, essentially a random and unplanned universe. Modern science shows unequivocally our existence, not even just our existence but all life as we define it, and is due only to a thread of random and chance interaction. A belief in anything other than this is considered living in denial of the facts.
Life: Not likely but possible….
Over time of course, scientists being the inquisitive type, have wondered if we are all here due to fluke and randomness, what kind of probability was it? They wondered how likely it was that this big bang, a few billion years back, would eventually lead to life on earth? When they have studied the “kitchen of the universe” and looked at all the ingredients that would have been needed, from gravity, to what particles needed to exist, how they moved etc. that although “life” was not a probable outcome, it was still in the realms of possibility. In a random universe, there is no reason that 1 out of 100 chance shouldn’t happen and that 1 in 100 shouldn’t be our existence.
A bump in the randomness road…
Then they discovered something that I won’t try to explain but just point out the bare bones of what it meant. They discovered or formulated, not sure which, something they called the cosmological constant, let me hand over the mindboggling explanation to Philosopher Robert Collins.
“The most impressive case of fine-tuning for life is that of the cosmological constant. The cosmological constant is a term in Einstein’s equation of general relativity that, when positive, acts as a repulsive force, causing space to expand and, when negative, acts as an attractive force, causing space to contract. If it were too large, space would expand so rapidly that galaxies and stars could not form, and if too small, the universe would collapse before life could evolve. In today’s physics, it is taken to correspond to the energy density of empty space. The fine-tuning for life of the cosmological constant is estimated to be at least one part in 10^53, that is, one part in a one hundred million, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion. To get an idea of how precise this is, it would be like throwing a dart at the surface of the earth from outer space, and hitting a bull’s-eye one trillionth of a trillionth of an inch in diameter, less than the size of an atom!
This revelation, that the probability of life was just a random occurrence, seemed not only improbable but almost impossible without some type of fine tuning or intention behind its creation. So this type of preciseness, being so much like super-duper hard-core, it can get much more zeros, like mega-precise type, even for the “random camp” couldn’t be considered “by chance”.
Sigh of relief: The universe is still a pointless and futile place after all….
So for a short window of time, historically I don’t know, maybe 3 nanoseconds, in the scientific community there wasn’t a feasible explanation or at least a credible scientific explanation to explain how such exact and precise fine tuning could happen in a universe that is meant to be governed by nothing but randomness and chance. Of course this didn’t mean there was a fine tuner or God, rather they just hadn’t figured out a way to explain why this was the case. Whenever science hits an unknown phenomena, scientists complain the fine tuner camp, immediately jump in with the “God-Gap”, that is, to fill whatever gaps there are with questions science doesn’t have answers for with God, rather than just wait for some scientific explanation. Now, eventually they did serve up an explanation (sorry God-Gappers) which from my very basic knowledge of it was through the multi-universe theory. This theory sees if there are, in fact, trillions upon trillions of universes, then this improbable formula, needed to create life in our universe was not so improbable after all. Although this theory allows the random universe to remain random, it did bring about all sort’ of other weird and possible things that you may welcome to go blow your mind on sometime. Ideas like, our universe is just a computer generated simulation, set up by some advanced brain boffin super humans, who happened to be a few trillion years more evolved then us.
What if we just accepted it on face value?Of course, it goes without saying, I don’t really do either sides of the debate much justice in giving very basic and simplistic overview of something that is extremely detailed and complicated. To the annoyance of any hard-headed believers in a random materialistic universe, I just like to take the bits of this that I find relevant and use them to inform or shape whatever point I am trying to make. Although, I am not being all “science professor” about it, I don’t think I am insulting all science in asking or pondering on “what would it mean if there was no multi-universe and what was discovered really did prove the existence of some type of maker?” Keeping in mind as well, the multi-universe response is a theory, where the cosmological constant is a fact. As I think an interesting thought experiment to conduct, it would be to imagine a society and culture where the scientists didn’t dispute this or explain away the anomaly that still was in keeping with this random universe without meaning. That the whole scientific community put up their hands and said, until shown otherwise, we are going support the “intelligent designer” being the most probable explanation for why life exists. Hence, Richard Dawkins does hari-kari on YouTube.
Meaning without faith…….
This would mean for the first time, faith wasn’t required to consider that all of our existence is here as part of some bigger picture, rather all that was required is trust in the integrity of scientific process. For some, an admission such as this would mean nothing either way but for others it would be a very confronting and perplexing place to be. As the belief up until now, in an intelligent designer, is considered as viable as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus within the circles of those who adamantly believe in a random universe. Also what has happened is that fundamentalist Christians have kind of hijacked the term “intelligent design” as their code for the monotheist, hierarchical, paternal God in the sky. Yet if we put the literal interpretation of the bible aside and just consider that this “designer” is nothing like God in the way we have come to know God, rather as something far more unfathomable, mysterious and maybe even unknowable, then maybe letting in the idea of an intelligent designer is less intellectually abhorrent.
The maths of meaning
Yet for me, what this would offer is the feeling that meaningfulness and purpose aren’t just internal manufactured rationalisation which we earthlings construct to make our time here feel more important than it really is. Rather the feeling of meaningfulness is a recognition of the fundamental fabric or current that runs through all life. Meaning, shown by maths of all places, is not abstract hope but concrete reality. That meaning instead of being just one of the billions of random computation a brain-generated consciousness could produce, becomes instead, the primary driver behind or within that much said consciousness.
If a star was born for a purpose, then so are we….
Although on the surface of it, a universe born from meaning, could seem abstract, it’s anything but abstract. As the universe isn’t some separate thing “out there” that I came into existence and arrived within it, like a plane touching down on a runway, even though our language deceptively tells us that this is the case. Our language tells us “I live on earth, which resides in this galaxy, in this universe”. This way of thinking tells me that I am an inhabitant of this place, yet the reality is I wasn’t born “into” this world, rather I was born “out of” this world. I live in this world, in a separate sense, as much as apple lives on the tree. The apple is the tree, the tree is the apple. Contained in one apple are the seeds and other material needed for hundreds of apple trees. So to me, my fluid atomic structure is the universe, like Neil deGrasse Tyson eloquently tells us.
“When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, ’cause they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”
The “What if” of meaning.
Even though it is just hypothetical, it’s not totally crazy. It’s possible that the explanation that saved us from accepting a universe of meaning was, in fact, incorrect. Maybe what it appeared to be on first glance, was the actual truth. Maybe this tiniest of decimal points shows that something did choose us, that our lives emerge from a meaningful and deliberate force. We are not accidents or flukes, we are not insignificant and meaningless blips, appearing and disappearing without consequence or purpose within a vast, impersonal and pointless space. Thinking otherwise doesn’t anoint us as Gods, it doesn’t take away my monthly mortgage payments but for me, at least, it puts some of the craziness and absurdity that we are engulfed by into some context. I personally find it comforting that behind all of the weirdness, wonder, madness and uncertainty that anything buried deep within ebb and flow of our existence is “meaningful”. It’s also a revelation that what I find “comforting” for many would be seen as evidence that it’s imaginary. As if there is no possibility we exist in a universe where truth could feel peaceful, maternal and nurturing. As right now, for truth to be seen as “credible”, it has to be harsh, cold, hard and blunt.
Knowing it’s there doesn’t mean I have to know why…
As saying there is meaning within life, does not mean we have to know what it is. What it is I have no idea but for now it’s enough to know it’s there, that it’s something I can deepen my understanding of, it’s something I can expand my awareness towards and I think most critically, it’s something I can contribute to. Life’s meaning, my children’s meaning, our societies’ meaning, are all living things I can add to and enhance, that the love I feel, the kindness I share, is all furthering and strengthening a greater whole.
The beauty of untidy truth…
I have an atheist sister-in-law and mother-in-law who seem to be honestly at peace with seeing the universe and life without meaning in a divine, pre-created sense. They see the meaning they create, the love they give is enough, there doesn’t need to be some big, grand mysterious force that made it all happen. I tip my hat to them, but for me it’s not enough. For me, mathematical formulas with all these zeros and my own intuitive feelings and experiences, all speak to something more. That more is mysterious, like a star filled sky, it is something to be in awe of. It’s not neat and tidy, it’s not complete and it’s a universe with far more questions than answers. Which is why, to some extent, I diverge from the model of the universe that is random. In this random universe the big questions, for humans at least, have already been answered. Of course, why black holes do what they do and other mind boggling stuff still remains unknown but the question “why those black hole are there in the first place”, has been decided, that whatever it is, it has nothing to do with meaning and purpose, nothing magical and mysterious, just stuff or non-stuff , doing what stuff or non-stuff does. Concluding it so, it’s hard not to see that as incredibly arrogant and in vain. To look out at billions of stars and galaxies and to think somehow, we have most of it worked out, fuck me, most people barely have themselves worked out, let alone the true nature of super nova 4 billion light years away.
Worst case scenario: Choosing the best delusion
So, for now, I will have to remain by myself in the hypothetical universe where meaning has become a scientific fact, like gravity, in its unchallenged and unquestioned truthfulness. Until then I am happy enough for my understanding of meaning to work and to bring better things from me rather than worse. And, if it is a big fat delusion and it’s not a bad delusion to choose from.