Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Thursday, August 15, 2002

...that shape is my shade, there where I used to stand

Dr. Murtaugh gets into some pretty heavy thinking over at his sight, and, since I love the song he starts with, I needed an excuse to get in on the action. His article, to summarize, discusses some cosmological notions of the origins of the Universe, and the "unlikelihood" of Earth (and therefore, of us). These types of arguments always interest me, because people are forever trying to determine whether people are rare or common, in some sense. This is really a proxy for the quest for meaning; if human beings (or life, or Earth-like planets) are "rare", then there must be a meaning why, and maybe there is "proof" of God's existence in this. Before I get accused of "religion bashing", I should stress that I think this is perfectly normal, natural, and probably healthy behavior. Human beings are always searching for patterns, and we like to figure out why things happen, often to excess, in every instance. There is even some evidence from brain imaging studies that belief in God or some other deity-ish overseer of our lives is in some way "hard-wired". This was written up in Newsweek a few months back, but I haven't found a link for it. So, people who have disavowed an active, particapatory God in their lives often search for this sort of deeper meaning in more subtle ways, looking at the physical structure of the Universe, or the cell, or what have you, for evidence either of Intelligent Design, or Cosmic Order, or some such thing.

Some may have noted the "scare quotes" around "unlikelihood" in the preceding "paragraph". Well, I always find it a bit humorous how people with intense mathematical training can blithely state something like "the chance of human beings arising from Evolution are infinitesimal" or "the chance of all of these physical constants being just so, allowing for us to exist, is very small". Any time someone invokes an argument of this type, they are making a serious logical error. How many times have the physical constants of the universe been set? How many times has life on Earth evolved (ok, there can be some debate on this one, given the history of cosmic catastrophe on the earth's surface)? The answer, in both cases, is once. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you simply can't argue "What are the odds?" about something that has only, and can only, happen once! It is simply not a useful discussion.

Now, that said, it is lots of fun! It always strikes me as the sort of thing a bunch of drunk physics dorks would sit around discussing. Since I have some experience in that sort of environment, I guess that isn't surprising. My personal favorite is the Donut-Shaped Universe ala Homer Simpson. If you asked me what my personal opinion on the nature of the universe is, though, I would have to suggest the "oscillating universe" model, which is really a version of Stasis in which the Universe expands and contracts with a very, very long period. It appeals to me for no reason other than aesthetics, and I obviously have no evidence for it. So, in sum, while it is lots of fun to think about such things, it is somewhat meaningless (perfect blog fodder, in other words).

P.S. Go read Murtaugh's entry, and follow the links. It is really good stuff, although I think he takes it a bit more seriously than I do!