ID.Weinberg 2

From: Keith B Miller (kbmill@ksu.edu)
Date: Wed Apr 04 2001 - 22:45:39 EDT

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    >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
    >tumors?
    >
    >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
    kbmill@ksu.edu
    http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~kbmill/



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