11 November 2008

The Big Picture

Computer simulation showing a view of the multiverse, in which each colored ray is another expanding cosmos

Anselm of Canterbury famously formulated the so-called (by Kant for one) ontological argument for the existence of god roughly as follows: god is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. God's reality is necessary and unconditional by virtue of the fact that we can conceive of it so highly and Platonically perfectly. In reality, the argument reveals less about the divine than it does about the human: as long as we keep conceiving greater and greater conceptions of god, god will keep stepping in to fill the bill. It acknowledges an essential sense of our nature as strivers. Idealists. Perfectionists.

This is consistent with my take on all so-called proofs of god's existence: they tell us more about ourselves than they do about god. As faithful readers of WoW know, I call myself an agnostic. I find both theism and atheism characterized essentially by faith—faith that god exists vs. faith that god doesn't. Fact is, we don't know and we can't prove god's existence. We can keep trying, improving our arguments and proofs, but any god worth its salt would and should keep eluding our best efforts.

An intriguing article in the latest Discover magazine provoked this theological turn: "Science's Alternative to an Intelligent Creator: the Multiverse Theory."

The whole intelligent design argument harks back to Medieval ignorance, and beliefs in magic, alchemy, and the miraculous: "The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." If I can't explain something by resort to scientific proof or direct observation, it must have been done by god. Complexity and functionality are proof of an intelligent design process; if there's an intelligent design to things, there must be an intelligent designer. QED.

Structurally the intelligent design argument has the same flaws as Anselm's: really it tells us more about ourselves than it does about god. We (humans) so desperately want to believe in something greater than ourselves that we keep coming up with more and more sophisticated arguments to justify that belief.  But these explanations are all grounded in our consciousness of ourselves as individual consciousnesses.  Any idea of salvation implies salvation of the individual, the continuity of the individual consciousness throughout eternity.  What rank hubris!

But why, then, do things make sense? Why are we able to understand the world? the universe? Why can we discern its laws and rules and principles? Why do they seem orderly and intelligently designed? These are the fundamental questions of theology, and, more to the point, of human existence. Religionists of all stripes attempt to reach beyond the observable features of the world for an explanation, but the fact is that we can make sense of this world precisely because we are part and parcel of it. Those laws, etc. govern our very being—body and mind. Consciousness is not something outside the world but a necessary feature of it.

Why then do we feel the need fashion a god as creator of the world, to explain the world by resort to something external to it? Why do we imagine a god outside of it? We do this because we view ourselves, more specifically our minds, as above creation. The Bible intuits this in its very first chapter:
¶ 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
From the beginning, we imagined our consciousness as not subject to universal laws and rules of nature; independent, non-determined, free will. Because we have self-consciousness, we are not of this world, we are superior to it. We have DOMINION.  In this the Bible gets its exactly backwards: we created god in our own image—albeit our best image, in fact 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'— as a way to conceptualize our sense of self-consciousness, to reify our dominance over the world (and others!)

Now wait a minute. What does this have to do with science and the Discovery article. Just this: the project of a complete science must include the concept of consciousness within its explanation of the physical world. Up until extremely recently, physics, chemistry, etc. have, in Husserl's terms, bracketed being and consciousness. Let's get the facts right first, then come back to those more troubling concepts. The 'Multiverse' article is provocative on this count. Here's some quotes:
“Throughout the history of science, the universe has always gotten bigger,” Carr says. “We’ve gone from geocentric to heliocentric to galactocentric. Then in the 1920s there was this huge shift when we realized that our galaxy wasn’t the universe. I just see this as one more step in the progression. Every time this expansion has occurred, the more conservative scientists have said, ‘This isn’t science.’ This is just the same process repeating itself.”

If the multiverse is the final stage of the Copernican revolution, with our universe but a speck in an infinite megacosmos, where does humanity fit in? If the life-friendly fine-tuning of our universe is just a chance occurrence, something that inevitably arises in an endless array of universes, is there any need for a fine-tuner—for a god?

“I don’t think that the multiverse idea destroys the possibility of an intelligent, benevolent creator,” Weinberg says. “What it does is remove one of the arguments for it, just as Darwin’s theory of evolution made it unnecessary to appeal to a benevolent designer to understand how life developed with such remarkable abilities to survive and breed.”

On the other hand, if there is no multiverse, where does that leave physicists? “If there is only one universe,” Carr says, “you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

As for Linde, he is especially interested in the mystery of consciousness and has speculated that consciousness may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time. He wonders whether the physical universe, its laws, and conscious observers might form an integrated whole. A complete description of reality, he says, could require all three of those components, which he posits emerged simultaneously. “Without someone observing the universe,” he says, “the universe is actually dead.”
To borrow a simile from 19th Century British philosopher Shadworth Hodgson, consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon, like the foam thrown up on the wave of the ocean of physical reality.
We raise the question, then, is the universe conscious? Is there some (epi-)phenomenon analogous to human consciousness thrown up by the energy of the physical universe? If so, is that god? Certainly that's something greater than which it would be hard to conceive (short, of course, of the phenomenon that threw up that multiverse). Yet, if it were true, how would we know? We can't. And that's the point.

From religion we learn that human beings are selfish, clannish, parochial, prejudicial, racialist, nationalist, sectarian.  They aspire, but are limited by their own natures.  The hubris of the anthropic principle impedes our ability to conceive of anything greater than our own self-consciousness (that than which nothing greater can be conceived).

We end with a cool, Zen-like quote from a speech by Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy touching on this theme:
"And it's rather like a puddle waking up one morning--I know they don't normally do this, but allow me, I'm a science fiction writer (laughter). A puddle wakes up one morning and thinks "Well, this is a very interesting world I find myself in. It fits me very neatly. In fact, it fits me so neatly, I mean, really precise, isn't it? (Laughter) It must have been made to have me in it!" And the sun rises, and he's continuing to narrate the story about this hole being made to have him in it. The sun rises, and gradually the puddle is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking, and by the time the puddle ceases to exist, it's still thinking, it's still trapped in this idea, that the hole was there for it. And if we think that the world is here for us, we will continue to destroy it in the way in which we have been destroying it, because we think we can do no harm."

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