Posted Jan 12, 2008
Last Updated Apr 6, 2008

An exploration of the issues.  Beginning with:

My Definitions (emphasis on my)

Creationism—the attempt to explain the universe and its parts, including life forms, as "acts of God."  

God— the source of, and the actuality of, what we experience as the universe.  (My definition, remember.)  Thus God is more than "in all things"; it is all things.  (Huh?)  From this it follows that the field of chemistry can be thought of as the study of how one limited aspect of God operates.  And psychology is the limited, primitive, but valuable study of how one aspect of God operates as humans.  Anyway that's the way I'm looking at it here.
    The flip side of the God concept is God's personality.  Is there a god personality?  If so, does it resemble a man with a white beard, living in the sky?  A man prone to jealousy and rage?  Or is God love?  Or detached?  Or is it female?  

Create— to cause to exist.  Existence seems to presume a context to exist in.  If, from our point of view, that context is the universe (everything that exists) as a whole — as the functioning, ever-changing, interactive entirety of phenomena (hmm!), then we are an integral part of that universe, and an expression of God.  I've seen that implied somewhere in the Quran and in the Sikh Mul Mantra.  Or perhaps I only interpreted them that way.
    Assuming that God is all, the whole ball of wax, then as God changes, the universe changes.  And vice versa!  It's the same thing.  And clearly the universe does change, cyclically, linearly, probably helically, and who knows what all.  Things move through space and through time, the paths of those movements following intrinsic (and definitive) rules — some of which can be described by mathematical equations, simple or complex.  As for other rules, we ensouled primates — "primates" equals "apes," roughly speaking — we primates don't have a clue, yet, of what all those rules are.
    And how about rules too complex to describe mathematically?  Which seems very probably to be most of them.  I'll presume here that they too have a nuanced regularity, layers and layers of nuanced regularity, in fact.  A universe of interacting regularities that overall constitute what we think of as Reality.  
    So then... One might say that evolution is a change of state, over time, of some set of phenomena existing in time.  (With an intricate interrelations, "layers and layers" of  interrelations.)
    What does all that have to do with creating?  Creating  at the human level often begins with curiosity.  Including numerous individuals wondering how we got here, what we're doing here, and what, if anything, we're supposed to be doing here.  Over time we've made progress, of a sort, at understanding the universe.  Earlier in time we had much cruder (but at times beautifully poetic) understandings.  Over time we've refined (evolved!) those understandings step by step, through stages less and less crude.  (Recognizing that  mathematics can also be a form of poetry.)  
    Understandings that let us understand/do/make things inconceivable to humans a century ago.  Humans who, in their turn, could do things inconceivable to humans two centuries ago.  Etc.  An accelerating and broadening process of viewpoint change.  

    Rejecting that viewpoint  is very attractive to some people.  It allows them to live in the comfortable delusion of stability.  On the other hand, it also makes contrary evidence seem threatening.

    Meanwhile, human history is a case study in the evolution of understanding and its results.  
    A few years ago, in FOSFAX, a science fiction fan magazine, I read a letter commenting that in at least one early version of GENESIS, the Hebrew word translated into English as "created" was an  Old Hebrew verb for creating a pot.  And how were pots made?  They were formed step by continuous step, commonly turning them on a potter's wheel.  An excellent metaphor for evolution, you might say.  
    Could we "evolutionaries" actually have some common ground with creationists, or at least some modest (small? infinitesimal?) segment of creationists?  I really don't expect much agreement from them, but it's an interesting subject to explore.  The "anthropic principle," pitched by astronomer/cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle, might be a good place to start."  

Sir Fred Hoyle's "Anthropic Principle"

The anthropic principle came into the public eye following Hoyle's 1981 paper published in Engineering and Science.  I first heard of it in the early 1980s, I think it was, in an editorial essay by Stanley Schmidt in a science fiction magazine, Analog.  Schmidt's Ph.d. is in physics, whereas Hoyle's is in astronomy, but they overlap considerably.  A Ph.D. in astronomy requires a large understanding of physics and perhaps even more math.  
    Hoyle had a high profile even before earning the 1997 Crafoord Prize.  Like the Nobel Prizes, the Crafoord Prizes are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and were instituted in 1980 to recognize fields not adequately accounted for in the Nobel awards.  Hoyle's was not for the anthropic principle, but for the concept of nucleosynthesis in stars, which he described in 1946.  Work which, expanded, led to the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics, shared by Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and William Alfred Fowler, for discoveries in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe.  Many physicists were surprised that Hoyle was not included in that award.  
    Hoyle was something of a contrarian, and not exactly beloved by some of his peers in science.  Nonetheless, his Crafoord award is widely regarded as an act by the Academy to correct his omission from their earlier, Nobel award.

    So much for Hoyle's bona fides.  Now, just what is this "anthropic principle?"
    My description is borrowed, with much clipping, from Wikipedia.  In the process I shortened it to the point that it no longer provides a solid review of the subject.  What it does provide is an easily read notion of the overall subject, its complexity, and its relation to my thought thread.  That abbreviated Wikipedia presentation is printed below in Verdana type:

    Actually, the phrase "anthropic principle" was coined not by Hoyle, but by theoretical astrophysicist Brandon Carter, in 1973.  (What Hoyle did was point up some of its significances.)  Carter defined two forms of the anthropic principle: a "weak" form, which referred only to anthropic selection of privileged space-time locations in the universe, and a more controversial "strong" form, which referred to the fundamental parameters of physics.

    One reason this is plausible is that there are plenty of other places and other times in which we can imagine finding ourselves. But when applying the strong principle, we only have one Universe, with one set of fundamental parameters, so what exactly is the point being made? Carter offers two possibilities: first, we can use our own existence to make "predictions" about the parameters. But second, "as a last resort", we can bypass that one-universe restriction, and convert these predictions into explanations by assuming a large or infinite collection of universes, now called a multiverse, in which the parameters (and perhaps the laws of physics) do vary from universe to universe. The strong principle then becomes an example of a "selection effect," exactly analogous to the weak principle. Elaborating:

   • Barrow and Tipler's Strong anthropic principle states: "The Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history."  [For after all, here we are.]
    • There exists one possible Universe 'designed' with the goal of generating and sustaining 'observers.' It implies that the purpose of the universe is to give rise to intelligent life, with the laws of nature, and their fundamental constants, set to ensure that life as we know it will emerge and evolve.
    • Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being. This can be inferred from quantum mechanics.
    • An ensemble of other different universes is necessary for the existence of our Universe [and accounts for it by selection]. The first of these has been welcomed by proponents of intelligent design.

    Collins & Hawking (1973) characterize Carter's then-unpublished big idea as the postulate that "there is not one universe but a whole infinite ensemble of universes with all possible initial conditions." If this is granted, the anthropic principle provides a plausible explanation for the fine tuning of our universe: it's not a matter of universes being fine-tuned, but that if there are enough universes, a small proportion will be capable of supporting intelligent life. One of which is ours, so what is perceived as fine tuning should be no cause for wonder.  [To my reading, the Wikipedia sentences here were a little ambiguous, perhaps because I was not adequately prepared for it.  So for better or for worse I've "clarified" it.]  In this sense, Carter's idea, per Collins & Hawking, is in direct opposition to design arguments.

    In the early 1970s, the only genuine physical theory giving a multiverse of sorts was the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This would allow variation in initial conditions, but not in truly fundamental constants. Since that time a number of mechanisms for producing a multiverse have been suggested.... At the beginning of the 21st century, the concept of the string landscape gave a mechanism for varying essentially all the constants, including the number of spatial dimensions.

[Stay with me.  This is all actually leading somewhere.]

    Opponents of intelligent design are not limited to hypothesizing the existence of alternate universes: they may argue anti-anthropically that the universe is less fine-tuned than often claimed, or that accepting fine tuning as a brute fact is less astonishing than the idea of an intelligent creator.
    Paul Davies has discussed fine-tuning at length, and in his book The Goldilocks Enigma (2006), summarises the current state of the debate in detail. He concludes by enumerating the alternative responses:
    • A — The absurd universe — It just happens to be that way.
    • B — The unique universe — There is a deep underlying unity in physics which necessitates the universe being this way. Some 'Theory of Everything' will explain why the various features of the Universe must have exactly the values that we see.
    C — The multiverse — Multiple Universes exist which have all possible combinations of characteristics, and we naturally find ourselves within the one that supports our existence.
    • D — Intelligent Design — An intelligent Creator designed the Universe specifically to support complexity and the emergence of Intelligence.
    • E — The life principle — There is an underlying principle that constrains the universe to evolve towards life and mind.
    • F — The self-explaining universe — A closed explanatory or causal loop: 'perhaps only universes with a capacity for consciousness can exist'. 
    G — The fake universe — We are living in a virtual reality simulation.

[I might have added: H — More than one of the above.]

    The most thorough extant study of the anthropic principle is The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, by John D. Barrow, a cosmologist, and Frank J. Tipler, a mathematical physicist. This book contains an extensive review of the relevant history of ideas.

    Meanwhile I'll call this quickie review enough for my purposes; it gives a sense of the anthropic principle, even though understating the complexity of the thinking. The Wikipedia discussion is much more complete than this selectively condensed version, and provides a long list of publications you can explore if sufficiently interested.  I personally consider the research, and the general philosophical exploration, valuable, as a route (or maze) leading toward more fully understanding the cosmos.  And in turn, to harmonizing our understanding  and technological infrastructure with the universe as it actually is. Which might prove to be our ecological salvation.
    Meanwhile keep in mind that while this business of multiple universes is counter-intuitive, so was the idea of the world being round; of the stars being suns a lot farther away from us as than "our" sun; and the entire, very useful field of quantum physics.  And perhaps more compelling, that sickness, much of it, is caused by tiny critters too small to see.  (Now that's ridiculous!)


My take on all this is just that: my take.  It differs from other "intelligent creation" arguments in (1) being divorced from any Church; (2) not intended to convince anyone; and (3) being somewhat compatible with a modest range of theistic and atheistic beliefs.  Nor is it science — certainly not orthodox science; it doesn't prove anything, or present a means of testing anything.  It's just an old logger/coal heaver/timber cruiser exploring the issues, issues that reflect our present mix of ignorance and understanding.
    Huh!  And what is there about being an old logger/coal heaver/timber cruiser that qualifies me to sit in on this game?  Aren't the physicists/astronomers/ philosophers/mathematicians and Evangelical think-tank mavens already engaged in the topic?  Aren't they enough?  Could be.  But they're steering a bit wide of the point as I see it.  
    (Notice how I avoided the question.)
    Existing cosmologists tend to be scientists.  And science is not designed to investigate the spiritual aspects of the universe.  So I'm trying a different approach, one that recognizes the strong utility and value of the "scientific method" — and the possibility that reality may be greater and deeper than science recognizes and addresses.  In fact, science has been pushing that boundary mightily for more than a century.  And continues to.  And what I'm doing simply involves poking around in the border regions.  Exploring ideas in a (scientifically speaking) non-rigorous way.  From a different viewpoint.  

    The scientifically respectable cosmological approach seems to be, to start with existing theories and examine possible alternatives rooted in present cosmological uncertainties, perhaps creating thought experiments and testing them against respectable physical/cosmological/ mathematical paradigms.  This offers some prospect of at least a tentative model to winnow with others in developing a more advanced cosmological consensus.
    The evangelical approach is to search the trove of dissatisfactions with "scientific" explanations at serious odds with the Old Testament — for example the age of the universe.  Perhaps emboldened by well-confirmed findings like the dynamics of the Channeled Scablands of Washington's Columbia Plateau.  Findings which were scorned just a few decades ago, and whose confirmation required significant adjustments of the geological consensus regarding how fast geological change can happen.  Then create an imaginary experimental stage with anomalies, actual or imagined, selected to shift the cosmos, as perceived, toward agreement with Genesis.  Which requires fudge factors and highly unlikely-seeming coincidences.  All justified by the position, implied if not stated, that unlikely- seeming coincidences sometimes happen.  This is made awkward by the corollary: "...sometimes happen given enough time." 
    This is where "the hand of God" comes into the picture.  
    Except for the originating impulse — to move cosmology into accordance with Genesis — plus the need for "the hand of God" (to make it more reasonable!) — except for those, the process is not entirely unlike the cosmologists' approach.  It could conceivably even contribute to the cosmological dialog.  But I cannot imagine it substantially compressing the universal time-line, though it might compress segments of it.  (See my earlier blog, Evolution, 12/06/2007.)
    Now we arrive at my major point in all this.  Rooted in a viewpoint: that the cosmos itself is sentient, call it sapient, a cosmos with its own intrinsic, creative, internal consciousness.  (There is no external aspect.)  The creative consciousness that drives and defines/ directs/empowers the whole system which grows out of it.

    We, as part of that universe, have some of that creativity as well.  (Some animistic cultures consider that mountains and rivers have a share of sentience and creativity, too.  If so it's on different wave lengths than ours.) 

    I have no idea how anyone would prove such a premise ("outlandish premise" if you prefer), but it might be "tested" by a series of "narrowing down" thought experiments, which might then be tested by physical/ astronomical/mathematical tests inspired by those thought experiments.  The sort of procedures by which theoretical physics advanced throughout the 20th century.  
    But as for "proving" a cosmological creative consciousness, or convincingly modeling its dynamics —  don't hold your breath.  I can't imagine so vastly intricate and subtle a system being modeled mathematically. 
    But I can imagine people undertaking it.  It might well be an interesting source of information, insights and inspiration, even if the resultant models weren't worth much for prediction.  
    Meanwhile perhaps some good folks will enjoy contemplating the concept.

David Palter

Apr 10, 2008

The suggestion that the entire cosmos may be alive or conscious in some manner reminds me of the Gaia Hypothesis advanced by the scientist James Lovelock, who suggested that the entire biosphere of the planet Earth functions as a single organism. Creatures such as human beings are in a sense like the cells of a multi-cellular organism; they form a part of the whole even though they may have no awareness of what their function actually is. The Gaia Hypothesis is attractive because of the way in which ecological systems are so remarkably self-correcting. The interactions between different species add up to a functional ecosystem, even though every species, as far as we can tell, evolved merely for its own benefit and survival. Yet, the survival of a given species does depend upon a functional ecosystem in which to live, much as the survival of a single cell in a multi-cellular organism depends upon the survival of the larger organism. Whether an ecology or even the sum total of all global ecologies can really be considered to be a single creature (named Gaia after the Greek Earth Goddess) is debatable, but there is at least a certain similarity.

Your own hypothesis of the conscious universe would not have as obvious a basis, but it would fit with the anthropic principle, as well as fitting with your own personal definition of God. Is it possible that the creator of the universe also IS the universe? Can something create itself? That would violate a scientific principle known as "causality" which states that all events have causes and the cause of an event always comes earlier in time than the event which it causes. This is an interesting principle in itself, one which we have never seen to be violated, but which, if you consider its full logical implications, creates a tremendous puzzle. If every event has an earlier cause, and each cause (which is also an event) necessarily has an earlier cause of its own, then the events which currently occur in our universe would seem to have resulted from an infinite series of earlier events. There can be no first event, because if there was, that first event would itself have no earlier cause, hence, it would violate the principle of causality.

Perhaps we might modify the principle of causality. Maybe every event has a cause, and every cause is earlier than the event which it caused, with one exception, that being the first event, which was not caused by an earlier event but which instead had no cause. How can an event happen without a cause? We don't know. But the idea doesn't seem any less believable than the idea of a series of events which extend infinitely far back in time, having no beginning. Either way, it's pretty weird. But then, reality is under no obligation to conform to human concepts of normality.

So, if the universe itself is conscious in some way, it might well prefer to nurture the existence of other, smaller intelligences within it, if only for amusement. I certainly do not buy the Judao/Christian/Islamic concept that God created human beings so that we could worship Him, or so that He would have an appreciative audience for His magnificent acts of creation; this implies that God is an egotistical creature who craves praise, and that is a very petty motive for such a (supposedly) great being. It would be much easier for me to believe that God (whoever or whatever God actually may be) created life or created the conditions under which life could evolve, for His own amusement, rather than so that He would be elaborately and continually praised. If God is indeed great, wonderful, terrific, powerful, wise, compassionate, creative, etc., He would be well aware of His own greatness and would have no need for us to constantly tell Him how great He is.

The whole argument of the Anthropic Principle is desgined to use scientific reasoning to arrive at religious conclusions, and I personally don't find it very persuasive, although I do not find it to be entirely ridiculous, either; I don't think that any human being really knows for certain how the universe came into being, or whether the universe was created deliberately or accidentally, and whether, if it was created deliberately, it was designed in such a way as to facilitate the emergence of intelligent creatures such as ourselves. My own hypothesis is that in some other universe, very different from ours yet strangely similar in some respcts, students in a high school science class were assigned the project of creating a universe, and they came up with ours. I would imagine that their teacher was pleased with their work.