Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Cosmological Why

A few months ago I wrote a post on The Limits of Science which spawned a lively and vibrant discussion. One of the main points I raised in that post was the "fine-tuning" observation about our universe... the fact that our universe (as we currently understand it) is governed by a number of apparently-arbitrary constants, and if any of them were significantly different than they are, life would not be able to exist. I argued, in my post, that Intelligent Design was at least as good an explanation for that observation as any naturalistic explanation that had been proposed.

Today, I came across an article which tackles this very question, written by Robert Kuhn in the Skeptic magazine (a publication of the Skeptics Society), titled Why This Universe? It lays out the scientific dilemma in more detail than I had previously encountered it, then presents a wide variety of possible explanations. Kuhn groups the explanations into four broad categories:

* One Universe Models
Basically, these fall into "it just is the way it is" or "we'll understand it later" groups.

* Multiple Universe Models
We observe a universe compatible with life, of course, because a universe compatible with life is the only one we could exist in! All the other universes have existed or will exist, but we'll never know about them, because they won't be conducive to our existence.

* Nonphysical Causes
Religious explanations, for the most part.

* Illusions
Maybe The Matrix was more right than we thought!

Kuhn doesn't pick any favorites in this contest for explanation. He seems to suggest that these categories are in pretty much a dead heat given our current understanding of the universe. But, he is optimistic that clarification may yet come in the future as we learn more.

It's a very thought-provoking article, and a short, easy read. I recommend it.



Kevin said...

I guess it wasn't too long, excluding the footnotes, but I found it difficult to read. I am by nature a slow reader, nevertheless, my comprehension of this piece lies somewhere in Kuhn's abyss.

I think the footnotes are an indication of the depths beneath the surface of his words. Perhaps reading the references is necessary to understand them. Still, I cling to the hope that a firm understanding is actually somewhat contradictory to the field of metaphysics. :)

Throughout most explanations, and most directly from Kuhn's opening question of "Why Not Nothing?" at which he "shuddered with dread", I'm led to wonder, "Why do you ask?" and "Why this theory?".

Granted, that road might not lead to universal truth, but it would help me understand why each theory was proposed and perhaps even narrow the field to those possibilities which we would find most satisfying, or at least those which do not scare the bejesus out of Kuhn. :)

Is he frightened because he asks "why" in the sense of causality? Obviously, something exists, so "Nothing" is a flawed theory of our universe. Or does he ask "why" in the sense of intent or utility? i.e. What if there were no greater meaning to it all?

I'm also struck by the occassional precision and detail Kuhn presents, given the abstraction and guesswork which must be involved in crafting the explanations.


steviepinhead said...

Thanks, Mark and Kevin.

I won't extensively repeat our mantras from the earlier "Limits" discussion. There can hardly be a bigger question--a bigger unknown--than is opened up by this "Cosmological Why." In my (eensy teensy tiny) view, it is understandable that--in the face of this immense unknown and in the void of our present knowledge--there is a blurring of the boundaries between science, philosophy, and the supernatural.

I still would not place "supernatural" explanations on the same scientific footing as, well, scientific explanations which--even if they remain largely speculative at present--offer at least some prospect of testing, confirmation, and progress toward further knowledge.

But that of course merely defines the problem away, by trying to capture the flow of existence in the net of science.

Not every context--though I would argue that, ahem, science class is one that does--necessarily requires us to restrict ourselves to what is science. That the human mind and spirit may never be able to drill down to the very essence of existence certainly leaves comfortable elbow-room for philosophical and spiritual contemplation.

Whether explanations generated through such contemplation can ever be confirmed and relied on other than through faith is, of course, in my view where these differing kinds of explanations part company. And why they stand on different footings.

In the meanwhile, though, those darned scientists continue to lift the skirts and poke and pry away--as with this fellow, who (under a specific theoretical approach, quantum loop gravity) suggests that it may be possible to peer back "past" the Big Bang:

Quantum loop gravity is only one of several contending theories, awaiting the hoped-for delivery--from the far reaches of the cosmos, from upgrades to the US's largest accelerator (Fermilab), or from the pending completion/operation of the humongous new CERN facilities--of further observations upon which to grind.

In the meantime, I'm pleased to see that our mutual curiousity continues to be tickled by these overarching topics.