Why This Universe? toward a Taxonomy of Possible Explanations

By Kuhn, Robert Lawrence | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Why This Universe? toward a Taxonomy of Possible Explanations


Kuhn, Robert Lawrence, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


WHEN I WAS 12, IN THE SUMMER BETWEEN seventh and eighth grades, a sudden realization struck such fright that I strove desperately to blot it out, to eradicate the disruptive idea as if it were a lethal mind virus. My body shuddered with dread; an abyss had yawned open. Five decades later I feel its frigid blast still.

Why not Nothing? (1) What if everything had always been Nothing? Not just emptiness, not just blankness, and not just emptiness and blankness forever, but not even the existence of emptiness, not even the meaning of blankness, and no forever Wouldn't it have been easier, simpler, more logical, to have Nothing rather than something? (2)

The question would become my life partner, and even as I learned the rich philosophical legacy of Nothing, (3) I do not pass a day without its disquieting presence. I am haunted. Here we are, human beings, conscious and abruptly self-aware, with lives fleetingly short, engulfed by a vast, seemingly oblivious cosmos of unimaginable enormity. (4) While "Why Not Nothing?" may seem impenetrable, "Why This Universe?", revivified by remarkable advances in cosmology, may be accessible. While they are not at all the same question, perhaps if we can begin to decipher the latter, we can begin to decrypt the former. "Why This Universe" assumes there is "Something" and seeks the root reason of why it works for us.

I am the creator and host of the PBS television series Closer To Truth, and for the past several years I have been bringing together scientists and scholars to examine the meaning and implications of state-of-the-art science. The next Closer To Truth series, now in production, focuses on cosmology and fundamental physics, philosophy of cosmology, philosophy of religion, and philosophical theology, and thus I have been interviewing cosmologists, physicists, philosophers, and theologians, asking them, among other questions, "Why This Universe?" From their many answers, and from my own night musings, I have constructed a taxonomy (5) that I present here as a heuristic to help get our minds around this ultimate and perennial question.

The Problem to be Solved

In recent years, the search for scientific explanations of reality has been energized by increasing recognition that the laws of physics and the constants that are embedded in these laws all seem exquisitely "fine tuned" to allow, or to enable, the existence of stars and planets and the emergence of life and mind. If the laws of physics had much differed, if the values of their constants had much changed, or if the initial conditions of the universe had much varied, what we know to exist would not exist since all things of size and substance would not have formed. Stephen Hawking presented the problem this way:

   Why is the universe so dose to the dividing line
   between collapsing again and expanding indefinitely?
   In order to be as dose as we are now, the rate of
   expansion early on had to be chosen fantastically
   accurately. If the rate of expansion one second after
   the big bang had been less by one part in [10.sup.10], the
   universe would have collapsed after a few million
   years. If it had been greater by one part in [10.sup.10], 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 is. (6)

To Roger Penrose, the "extraordinary degree of precision (or 'fine tuning') that seems to be required for the Big Bang of the nature that we appear to observe ... in phase-space-volume terms, is one part in [10.sup.10] (1 23) at least." Penrose sees "two possible routes to addressing this question ... We might take the position that the initial condition was an 'act of God.... or we might seek some scientific/mathematical theory.

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