ID.Weinberg 2

From: Keith B Miller (
Date: Wed Apr 04 2001 - 22:45:39 EDT

  • Next message: Bill Payne: "Re: Engaging the power of Internet links"

    >It is still too early to tell whether there is some fundamental principle
    >that can explain why the cosmological constant must be this small. But even
    >if there is no such principle, recent developments in cosmology offer the
    >possibility of an explanation of why the measured values of the
    >cosmological constant and other physical constants are favorable for the
    >appearance of intelligent life. According to the "chaotic inflation"
    >theories of Andr╚ Linde and others, the expanding cloud of billions of
    >galaxies that we call the big bang may be just one fragment of a much
    >larger universe in which big bangs go off all the time, each one with
    >different values for the fundamental constants.
    >In any such picture, in which the universe contains many parts with
    >different values for what we call the constants of nature, there would be
    >no difficulty in understanding why these constants take values favorable to
    >intelligent life. There would be a vast number of big bangs in which the
    >constants of nature take values unfavorable for life, and many fewer where
    >life is possible. You don't have to invoke a benevolent designer to explain
    >why we are in one of the parts of the universe where life is possible: in
    >all the other parts of the universe there is no one to raise the question.
    >[3] If any theory of this general type turns out to be correct, then to
    >conclude that the constants of nature have been fine-tuned by a benevolent
    >designer would be like saying, "Isn't it wonderful that God put us here on
    >earth, where there's water and air and the surface gravity and temperature
    >are so comfortable, rather than some horrid place, like Mercury or Pluto?"
    >Where else in the solar system other than on earth could we have evolved?
    >[3] The same conclusion may be reached in a more subtle way when quantum
    >mechanics is applied to the whole universe. Through a reinterpretation of
    >earlier work by Stephen Hawking, Sidney Coleman has shown how quantum
    >mechanical effects can lead to a split of the history of the universe (more
    >precisely, in what is called the wave function of the universe) into a huge
    >number of separate possibilities, each one corresponding to a different set
    >of fundamental constants. See Sidney Coleman, "Black Holes as Red Herrings:
    >Topological fluctuations and the loss of quantum coherence," Nuclear
    >Physics, Vol. B307 (1988), p. 867. (back)
    >Reasoning like this is called "anthropic." Sometimes it just amounts to an
    >assertion that the laws of nature are what they are so that we can exist,
    >without further explanation. This seems to me to be little more than
    >mystical mumbo jumbo. On the other hand, if there really is a large number
    >of worlds in which some constants take different values, then the anthropic
    >explanation of why in our world they take values favorable for life is just
    >common sense, like explaining why we live on the earth rather than Mercury
    >or Pluto. The actual value of the cosmological constant, recently measured
    >by observations of the motion of distant supernovas, is about what you
    >would expect from this sort of argument: it is just about small enough so
    >that it does not interfere much with the formation of galaxies. But we
    >don't yet know enough about physics to tell whether there are different
    >parts of the universe in which what are usually called the constants of
    >physics really do take different values. This is not a hopeless question;
    >we will be able to answer it when we know more about the quantum theory of
    >gravitation than we do now.
    >It would be evidence for a benevolent designer if life were better than
    >could be expected on other grounds. To judge this, we should keep in mind
    >that a certain capacity for pleasure would readily have evolved through
    >natural selection, as an incentive to animals who need to eat and breed in
    >order to pass on their genes. It may not be likely that natural selection
    >on any one planet would produce animals who are fortunate enough to have
    >the leisure and the ability to do science and think abstractly, but our
    >sample of what is produced by evolution is very biased, by the fact that it
    >is only in these fortunate cases that there is anyone thinking about cosmic
    >design. Astronomers call this a selection effect.
    >The universe is very large, and perhaps infinite, so it should be no
    >surprise that, among the enormous number of planets that may support only
    >unintelligent life and the still vaster number that cannot support life at
    >all, there is some tiny fraction on which there are living beings who are
    >capable of thinking about the universe, as we are doing here. A journalist
    >who has been assigned to interview lottery winners may come to feel that
    >some special providence has been at work on their behalf, but he should
    >keep in mind the much larger number of lottery players whom he is not
    >interviewing because they haven't won anything. Thus, to judge whether our
    >lives show evidence for a benevolent designer, we have not only to ask
    >whether life is better than would be expected in any case from what we know
    >about natural selection, but we need also to take into account the bias
    >introduced by the fact that it is we who are thinking about the problem.
    >This is a question that you all will have to answer for yourselves. Being a
    >physicist is no help with questions like this, so I have to speak from my
    >own experience. My life has been remarkably happy, perhaps in the upper
    >99.99 percentile of human happiness, but even so, I have seen a mother die
    >painfully of cancer, a father's personality destroyed by Alzheimer's
    >disease, and scores of second and third cousins murdered in the Holocaust.
    >Signs of a benevolent designer are pretty well hidden.
    >The prevalence of evil and misery has always bothered those who believe in
    >a benevolent and omnipotent God. Sometimes God is excused by pointing to
    >the need for free will. Milton gives God this argument in Paradise Lost:
    >I formed them free, and free they must remain
    >Till they enthral themselves: I else must change
    >Their nature, and revoke the high decree
    >Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained
    >Their freedom; they themselves ordained their fall.
    >It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an
    >opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how
    >does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for
    >I don't need to argue here that the evil in the world proves that the
    >universe is not designed, but only that there are no signs of benevolence
    >that might have shown the hand of a designer. But in fact the perception
    >that God cannot be benevolent is very old. Plays by Aeschylus and Euripides
    >make a quite explicit statement that the gods are selfish and cruel, though
    >they expect better behavior from humans. God in the Old Testament tells us
    >to bash the heads of infidels and demands of us that we be willing to
    >sacrifice our children's lives at His orders, and the God of traditional
    >Christianity and Islam damns us for eternity if we do not worship him in
    >the right manner. Is this a nice way to behave? I know, I know, we are not
    >supposed to judge God according to human standards, but you see the problem
    >here: If we are not yet convinced of His existence, and are looking for
    >signs of His benevolence, then what other standards can we use?
    >The issues that I have been asked to address here will seem to many to be
    >terribly old-fashioned. The "argument from design" made by the English
    >theologian William Paley is not on most peoples' minds these days. The
    >prestige of religion seems today to derive from what people take to be its
    >moral influence, rather than from what they may think has been its success
    >in accounting for what we see in nature. Conversely, I have to admit that,
    >although I really don't believe in a cosmic designer, the reason that I am
    >taking the trouble to argue about it is that I think that on balance the
    >moral influence of religion has been awful.
    >This is much too big a question to be settled here. On one side, I could
    >point out endless examples of the harm done by religious enthusiasm,
    >through a long history of pogroms, crusades, and jihads. In our own century
    >it was a Muslim zealot who killed Sadat, a Jewish zealot who killed Rabin,
    >and a Hindu zealot who killed Gandhi. No one would say that Hitler was a
    >Christian zealot, but it is hard to imagine Nazism taking the form it did
    >without the foundation provided by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. On
    >the other side, many admirers of religion would set countless examples of
    >the good done by religion. For instance, in his recent book Imagined
    >Worlds, the distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson has emphasized the role
    >of religious belief in the suppression of slavery. I'd like to comment
    >briefly on this point, not to try to prove anything with one example but
    >just to illustrate what I think about the moral influence of religion.
    >It is certainly true that the campaign against slavery and the slave trade
    >was greatly strengthened by devout Christians, including the Evangelical
    >layman William Wilberforce in England and the Unitarian minister William
    >Ellery Channing in America. But Christianity, like other great world
    >religions, lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries, and slavery
    >was endorsed in the New Testament. So what was different for anti-slavery
    >Christians like Wilberforce and Channing? There had been no discovery of
    >new sacred scriptures, and neither Wilberforce nor Channing claimed to have
    >received any supernatural revelations. Rather, the eighteenth century had
    >seen a widespread increase in rationality and humanitarianism that led
    >othersˇfor instance, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Richard
    >Brinsley Sheridanˇalso to oppose slavery, on grounds having nothing to do
    >with religion. Lord Mansfield, the author of the decision in Somersett's
    >Case, which ended slavery in England (though not its colonies), was no more
    >than conventionally religious, and his decision did not men-tion religious
    >arguments. Although Wilberforce was the instigator of the campaign against
    >the slave trade in the 1790s, this movement had essential support from many
    >in Parliament like Fox and Pitt, who were not known for their piety. As far
    >as I can tell, the moral tone of religion benefited more from the spirit of
    >the times than the spirit of the times benefited from religion.
    >Where religion did make a difference, it was more in support of slavery
    >than in opposition to it. Arguments from scripture were used in Parliament
    >to defend the slave trade. Frederick Douglass told in his Narrative how his
    >condition as a slave became worse when his master underwent a religious
    >conversion that allowed him to justify slavery as the punishment of the
    >children of Ham. Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good
    >person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the
    >legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri
    >she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons
    >preaching that slavery was God's will. With or without religion, good
    >people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to
    >do evilˇthat takes religion.
    >In an e-mail message from the American Association for the Advancement of
    >Science I learned that the aim of this conference is to have a constructive
    >dialogue between science and religion. I am all in favor of a dialogue
    >between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the
    >great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for
    >intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for
    >them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.

    Keith B. Miller
    Department of Geology
    Kansas State University
    Manhattan, KS 66506

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Apr 04 2001 - 22:45:21 EDT