The New York Times occasionally rises above its grave and methodical reporting of politics, world events, sports, and business affairs. It does so, certainly, in its extensive coverage of the arts, but also -- less frequently but at times more dramatically -- in its essays on science.
In today's issue, an essay entitled "Our Existentially Lucky Numbers" tackles the basic question: Why is there Anything?
The essay is too brief and superficial to really delve into the subject -- and who would read it if it delved more deeply? -- but it raises the issue for us to ponder. Everything about our Universe seems designed to permit the existence of Us. The Human Race. The writer speaks specifically about the value of "alpha," an electromagnetic constant whose value is given as 0.0072973525698. A number that sounds totally random, but one which, if it were even the slightest bit higher or lower, would have allowed no stars to have ever been formed. Or us to have lived to worry about it.
There are other such constants.
Most explanations -- aside from "that's just the way it is" -- are variations of an Anthropic Principle, a conclusion that our existence itself in some way explains the nature of the universe.
"Intelligent design" nowadays has a bad ring to it, as a counter-"theory" to that of evolution. But the Anthropic Principle, in many of its forms, suggests some form of "design" for the universe. Not a divine guidance of evolution, step by step, shaping life as we know it on Earth, but as a setting of the original parameters of the Universe at the time of the Big Bang. Because none of us -- and I include you and me -- can follow all the scientific nuances of the discussion, we are left free to pontificate on the meaning of it all in whatever ways might satisfy our own predispositions.
Wikipedia summarizes from a book by Paul Davies to present seven different responses to the question of "Why is there Anything," or, more specifically, why do the constants in our Universe happen to be those very specific and unique constants that make it possible for us to be here asking the question:
1. The absurd universe: Our universe just happens to be the way it is.
2. The unique universe: There is a deep underlying unity in physics which necessitates the Universe being the way it is. Some Theory of Everything will explain why the various features of the Universe must have exactly the values that we see.
3. The multiverse: Multiple universes exist, having all possible combinations of characteristics, and we inevitably find ourselves within a universe that allows us to exist.
4. Intelligent Design: A creator designed the Universe with the purpose of supporting complexity and the emergence of intelligence.
5. The life principle: There is an underlying principle that constrains the Universe to evolve towards life and mind.
6. The self-explaining universe: A closed explanatory or causal loop: "perhaps only universes with a capacity for consciousness can exist." This is Wheeler's Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP).
7. The fake universe: We live inside a virtual reality simulation.
No. 1 is the unimaginative answer, and that embraced joyfully by writer Doug Adams. No. 7 is a delightful answer that I have discussed in prior posts. The others seem to be to be various forms of "intelligent design," the "Designer" being a more or less conscious "person" depending on which choice one considers.
My problem with intelligent design, from a scientific viewpoint, has always involved scientific elegance. If the purpose of the Universe is to provide life to humans on Earth (or even to humans on Earth plus other beings on other worlds), the Universe as we know it seems to be overkill. It's as though I built a single-family house and had several square miles of building materials left over, sitting around useless. If our existence is the only reason for the Universe, a Ptolemaic universe with Earth at the center and a few crystalline spheres surrounding us would make more sense.
On the other hand, I realize, if I had the power to create Earth and all its accessories, presumably I could throw off a few billion galaxies while so doing, just to keep Earthlings puzzled and pre-occupied, with not much additional effort.
The nice thing about the issues raised by the Anthropic Principle is that we can speculate endlessly. I don't foresee any final conclusions being drawn in the next few centuries.