The fine-tuned universe -- part one

Science, once seen as the enemy of spirituality, is now making common cause with it in one area, in a search for meaning and purpose.

It seems absurd to think of humans influencing distant stars, but science tells us now that the simple fact of our existence does turn out to have profound implications for the ultimate questions. According to a growing number of hard-nosed physicists, the laws of nature are so finely tuned, and so many “coincidences” have occurred to allow for the possibility of life, the universe must have come into existence through intentional planning and intelligence. Many others are not so sure.

Twenty or 30 years ago, science had closed the door on spiritual speculation. The divine was seen as wishful projection, existence as only an interaction between chance and necessity, and human behavior as inexorably determined by fixed variables. That has all changed in recent years. Charles Townes, the Nobel-winning co-inventor of the laser, said two years ago that the discoveries of physics “seem to reflect intelligence at work in natural law.” And Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Research Institute, declared: “A lot of scientists really don’t know what they are missing by not exploring their spiritual feelings.”

This sea change results from a number of factors, including breathtaking discoveries in quantum physics, psychology and biology. A major influence has been scientific speculation about what is called the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, a summary of observations from the ongoing effort to solve the puzzles of the universe.

The cosmic fine-tuning described by the Anthropic Principle works something like this:

Mornings we all get out of bed, and it’s a matter of putting your feet on the floor then standing up. Yet the prerequisites for this act are complex, including parents and a line of ancestors stretching back. An ultimate condition is the existence of sentient life in the universe.

We know of at least one instance -- us. We also know, thanks to 20th-century scientific discoveries, that the development of sentient life depends on a complex sequence of events. Stars and then planets must have formed, then those first generation stars made of simple elements like hydrogen and helium must have forged in their fiery furnaces more complex elements like carbon, zinc and iron. Then those stars needed to age and explode, thereby releasing those complex elements to be folded into the mix that formed second- and third-generation stars like our sun. Planets heavy in those elements must have also developed, where biological evolution can take place.

This is our story: We are literally made of fossilized stars.
We used to think that we humans were at the center of the universe. The light-giving sun and stars circled around us -- or so it seemed -- so obviously we were important, living at the center of things. Copernicus’ discovery in the 16th century that, counter to appearances, the earth rotated while circling the sun began a revolution that gradually but inexorably dethroned humanity as the center of the universe. The idea we were specially created yielded to evolution’s explanation.

It sank in gradually, with one new scientific discovery after another, that we’re not privileged characters, just inhabitants of a garden-variety planet circling a run-of-the-mill sun in our galaxy’s backwater, sentient and aware but certainly not at the center of things.

Surprisingly, this view has yielded in turn recently.

In delicate balance

Many scientists suggest now that all the basic characteristics of the observable universe -- the strength of its main forces like gravity, the masses of its particles, the rest mass of its electrons -- are in a delicate balance that has allowed for the development and evolution over time of life, folks like us, who get out of bed mornings, think and contemplate the world around us.

For example, the value of the gravitational “constant” tells us the strength of gravity, the force that keeps us from floating off into the sky. This is an actual observed mathematical quality of gravity, similar to pi as a measure of the circumference of a circle. It’s hard-core science fact, as reliable as the chemical formula for producing glue or plastics.

If the gravitational constant were infinitesimally different one way or the other, the force of gravity would be much lesser or much greater, with bad consequences for the evolution of stars and planets. Greater gravity would have prevented cosmic expansion and the formation of stars, putting a halt to life’s evolution. A lesser force would have dissipated the energy from the initial formation of the universe. Planets and stars could not have developed.
If gravity were slightly different, we simply would not be here asking questions about it or trying to overcome that gravity every time we take off in a plane. Instead, it happens that the force of gravity is just right.

Physics shows that all the basic phenomena of nature and the laws that govern them have particular constants or ratios associated with them -- the gravitational constant, the electric charge, the mass of the electron, Planck’s constant from quantum mechanics, and others.

The actual mathematical values of these constants and ratios are arbitrary. The laws would still operate if the constants and ratios had other numbers, yet the resulting interactions between them would be radically different, and the final outcome would be a different universe, probably minus its sentient life.

The evolution of life, in other words, is extremely sensitive to the values of physical constants and ratios. Varying the values by small degrees would have prevented life. The fact that the universe emerged in the Big Bang some 15 billion years ago with just the right values for these constants to enable life formation seems remarkably like fine-tuning for a purpose, in order that life could evolve.

There are a large number of “coincidences” inherent in the fundamental laws of nature. Every one of these coincidences or specific relationships between fundamental physical parameters is needed, or the evolution of life and consciousness as we know it could not have happened. The collection of these coincidences is an undisputed fact, and collectively they have come to be known as the Anthropic Principle.

“The sudden appearance of the correct biocentric parameters ‘out of nothing’ is essentially tantamount to a miracle,” writes Michael Corey, author of The God Hypothesis: Discovering Design in Our “Just Right” Goldilocks Universe, “because there is evidently no other way to account for this perfect life-giving format by random processes alone.”

Michael Turner, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago Fermi Lab, puts it another way: “The precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bull’s-eye one millimeter in diameter on the other side.”