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Dec 01 2008

How Perfect Is the Universe, Anyway?

Before I start: A quick apology for the unscheduled blog break over Thanksgiving. I kept thinking I’d have time to blog over the holiday, and it kept not happening. My bad.

Galaxies
So how perfect is the universe, anyway?

There’s an argument I’ve been seeing a lot lately in support of religious belief. It’s sort of a cosmic version of the argument from design (the idea that biological life is too complex and too perfectly balanced to have just come into being on its own). Now, when it comes to the development of biological life, anyone who understands the theory of evolution knows that the argument from design is a non-starter. But the cosmic version of it has been making the rounds, even among people who completely accept evolution… and it’s what I want to hammer at today.

Atom
The cosmic version goes like this: The universe itself — indeed, the basic laws and forces of physics — is all perfectly set up to allow life to come into being. Too perfectly. The force of gravity, the forces that hold atoms together, all that good stuff… if any of it had been even just a tiny bit different, the universe would look radically different, and would be completely inhospitable to any life, much less human life. It would have all flown to pieces in an instant, or collapsed back in on itself, or something. But the way it turned out was perfectly suited for life on Earth to come into being.

Therefore, the universe had to have been designed.

Dice
I’ve talked about this before. I’ve pointed out how human- centric this argument is; how it assumes that, because we are here, therefore we were required to be here. I’ve pointed out that the fact that you, personally, against astronomical odds, were born, doesn’t mean that you were required to be born, or that we need to come up with an entire philosphy or theology to explain your birth… and the same is true for our species. I’ve pointed out that if you roll ten dice and they come up 4636221434, that particular pattern is wildly improbable
 but the fact that it’s wildly improbable doesn’t mean it was designed to happen. If it hadn’t happened — your birth, the existence of life, the roll of 4636221434 on ten dice — then something else would have happened instead. Something equally improbable.

But today, I want to make a different point.

How perfect is the universe, really?

Big bang
Let’s take a quick look at the past. The post- Big- Bang universe is about 14 billion years old. The Earth has only been around for about 4.5 billion of those years. Life on Earth has only been around for about 3.7 billion of them. And human life has only been around for a ridiculously puny 200,000.

And now let’s take a quick look at the future. The surface temperature of our Sun is rising. In about one billion years, the surface of the Earth will be too hot for liquid water to exist, thus putting a big ol’ kibosh on this whole Life on Earth project. And if our current understanding of astronomy is correct, the universe itself is just going to keep expanding and expanding forever, until everything in it is dissipated into atoms drifting in space.

In other words:

The post- Big- Bang Universe is about 14 billion years old. The slice of that time that includes life is only 3.7 billion years — less than a third of its total existence. And the slice of that time that includes human life is only 200,000 years — one 7,000th of its total existence so far.

Sun_Red_Giant
And even if human beings defy all evolutionary odds and survive for the entire existence of life on Earth… well, life on Earth won’t be around past another billion years. And even if the insanely improbable happens, and humankind somehow figures out interstellar travel and planetary colonization and thus survives past the Sun’s big Red Giant kaflooey… well, planets themselves aren’t going to be around forever, what with the universe’s eternal expansion and all. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold, as the great W.C. Fields once said. If current astronomy is correct, the life-span of the universe is going to be far, far longer than the life-span of humanity.

How, exactly, is that perfect?

I don’t know about you, but I find this something of a buzz-kill. And it sure as heck doesn’t look like a universe perfectly designed to make human life possible. A nice, calm, steady-state universe, where everything just hangs around in more or less its current form forever, would have been a lot more human-friendly. It sure would have looked a lot more like a universe designed for life and humanity than this one does.

Puddle
The great Douglas Adams (of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame) made a point that’s very pertinent to this idea. In his posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt, he said, “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’”

He was talking about the evolution of life on Earth, and the hubris of assuming that, because we fit so neatly into our environment, therefore both we and our environment must have been specially designed. But his argument applies equally well to the cosmic version of the argument from design, every bit as much as the biological version.

Earth
The hole for the puddle of life on Earth has a maximum life span of about 5 billion years before it dries up. The hole for the puddle of human life on Earth has a maximum life span of about one billion years. In the life span of the universe so far, that’s pretty minor… and in the life span of the universe from here to eternity, it’s a tiny blip on the radar. It is the height of arrogant, human- centric hubris to assume that the entire vastness of the Universe — including planets and stars and galaxies that we can’t see and will probably never see — was deliberately designed by a loving creator so that the chemical process of life could, for a relatively brief span of time, come into being, and then flicker out again.


UPDATE: I realized after I posted this piece that I ended it on kind of a downer note. I have therefore written a follow-up, Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen, that explores some possible ways to find positive meaning and value and importance in this particular world view.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Rob J

    The argument that the earth (and universe) was designed perfectly for human life is ridiculous. Obviously the opposite is true, human life evolved on this planet in this universe and is therefore adapted to it. Life was “designed” for this world, not vice-versa.

  2. 2
    Eric

    Considering the vast majority of the universe is ~3 K I wouldn’t say it’s perfectly designed for us. It’s almost as if we are well suited for one very small rock in an insignificant corner of a generic galaxy.
    I really think that the people who say this forget about the incredible vastness of space and only focus on the infinitesimally small space of the Earth s/he inhabits.

  3. 3
    John B Hodges

    In Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin has a theory that the whole Universe and the history of life on Earth was destined to lead up to his parents, whose sole purpose in existing was to produce HIM (Calvin). He didn’t argue from probabilities, but certainly he could have, that his own birth was staggeringly unlikely, and therefore must have been arranged deliberately. He knew therefore that he was a boy of Destiny. Hobbes asked, “So, now that you’re here, what are you going to do?” They both then go home to watch cartoons.

  4. 4
    Patrick

    It seems to me you had another post about the misunderstanding of coincidence (I’m thinking it was the one concerning the bridge collapse in Minnesota). Things fall from the sky all the time, and it only stands to reason that once in a while, one of them will narrowly miss a human being – but it’s difficult for us not to infer some special meaning to the event.
    Contemplating the fate of the universe post-humanity is a bracing, though perhaps unavoidably depressing, activity. Things will continue to “happen” in the universe after we’re gone, and they will take impossibly long periods of time to do so. Stars will go dim, but hang around for while; galaxies will spread too far apart for any of them to be visible to any other; black holes will dominate for eons and eons, but eventually dissipate (or explode). Etcetera.
    One can see how the idea of a god intervening in all that, stopping this absurdity, so we all exist in heaven or whatever, would be comforting, and much more appealing, except – what “happens” in heaven? Eternal worship (or eternal orgasm, as Mark Twain surmised)? Would any kind of eternal consciousness be bearable at all?
    As with the question about how the universe came to be, “god” is a tempting solution for many, but it has no real answer for the beginning, or the end.

  5. 5
    Ebonmuse

    One thing I always ask when I face this argument is this: Let’s say for the sake of argument that the physical parameters of this universe are finely tuned to produce human life. How many possible sets of physical parameters would have produced some intelligent life?
    It’s an unanswerable question, and one that points up one of the most critical fallacies in this argument. We certainly couldn’t have predicted that this universe would have given rise to intelligent life if we only knew the mathematical expressions of its physical laws. We have no way of knowing how many other possible universes contain sentient beings.

  6. 6
    Benjamin

    “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” is a line from Yeats, not WC Fields.

  7. 7
    Marley Fitz

    A good read first thing in the morning. Gets my brain goin.
    You use the “roll the dice” idea, I use the “spin the wheel” version when talking to my children (ages 23,21 and 18). “Spin the wheel and you’re in the wonderful country, this amazing city, this questionable restaurant having lunch. Spin the wheel and you’re a woman in Iran, wondering what she ever did to her “god” that would warrant her having to put on her burqa then navigate her way through a environment filled w/ so much misery.”
    (Of course, my kids roll their eyes and hope I will shut-up long enough to let them speak. But, they get the point.)

  8. 8
    Jason Failes

    Besides life being rare in the cosmos,
    these are exactly the measures we would expect from a naturalistic cosmos that we inhabit.
    A thought experiment: If one of these values were far from predicted and we were miraculously living in a universe where radiation levels should be too high/atoms shouldn’t form/proteins would break up instantly, Creationists/IDists would shouting at the top of their lungs that this proves the existence of God (their favorite God, of course).
    However, because we have found the exact opposite, that the aforementioned values are what we would expect from a universe that contains us, Creationists/IDists are shouting at the top of their lungs that this proves the existence of God (their favorite God, of course).
    Falsifiability: They’re doing it wrong, as usual.

  9. 9
    King Aardvark

    The really amazing thing is that, once they have made this argument, many Christians will then turn around and say that they are creationists, thus rendering the whole thing moot.

  10. 10
    Anshu

    Jesus loves you!

  11. 11
    jussi

    To answer the question posed in the title of the blog entry: Absolutely! Yes, my friend, the Universe is absolutely perfect.

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