Reflections in Cosmology 9: On Cosmic Fine-Tuning, Anthropic Principles and Multiverses

Scientific cosmology is slowly revealing a universe that is incredibly fine-tuned. We are beginning to realize that fundamental constants in our universe – the unexplained numbers that seem to occur in nature for no particular reason e.g. the speed of light, the charge of the electron and the gravitational constant – are all ideal for the development of life (as defined by our limited human experience on Earth) in the universe. Any slight tweaking of any of these numbers produces a universe that would be totally devoid of life. These observations are summed up in the weak and strong anthropic principles.

Why is our universe so favourable for the development of life?

Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP): What we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers.

Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP): The universe necessarily has the properties requisite for life, life that exists at some time in its history

The WAP is non-controversial, and all it does is state the obvious. The SAP however, demands an explanation, as it opens up a whole pandora’s box of philosophical and metaphysical questions. Was our universe designed to be this way by a Supreme Being (the theistic principle)? Or was the universe brought into existence by the presence of observers? Are there an infinite number of universes, most of them barren, of which we happen to live in one that had the conditions suitable for life?

There are many ideas floating around about how there can be multiple universes and multiverses, many being spawned from some of the peculiarities of quantum mechanics, taking into account also the special role of the observer e.g. the cat being both dead and alive in Schrodinger’s thought experiment, with the universe splitting into two universes once the box is opened and the probability waves collapse, one in which the cat is alive, the other in which the cat is dead.

Consider an ensemble of self-contained universes covering all possible values of the fundamental constants of physics. Suppose that all these universes are ‘virtual’. That is, they all exist in potential form, and each only becomes ‘real’ by observation by conscious life. because each is self-contained, the only possible observations are by internal forms of life. Thus only those universes are real in which the fundamental constants are compatible with the existence of life. What happens in a universe such as our own that passes through an early lifeless age? In the early stage there exists no conscious life to observe it; does it exist? Presumably, it evolves in a virtual state and becomes real by observation when conscious life comes into existence. This seemingly weird picture of virtual (potential) versus real (actual) is common in the theory of quantum mechanics. A wavefunction consists of many evolving, parallel, virtual states, all of which are potential candidates for a final observed state in the real world. ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe

But are concepts regarding other universes and multiverses still scientific? Are these hypotheses falsifiable? Or have they crossed into the realm of metaphysics?

This is not a very good illustration of self-contained multiple universes. It just looked aesthetically appealing to me...

Cosmology is a workshop in which experimental universe are invented and investigated as potential representations of the Universe. In this sense cosmology is a science. But when cosmology invents a plurality of physical universes, and claims that each is self-contained and real in its own right, it ceases to be a science. Cosmology takes on metaphysical aspects and the notion of containment becomes vague. Once again cosmology is at the mercy of metaphysics, as in earlier ages. ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe

Why is the universe the way it is? Because we exist. But why do we exist? Because the universe is the way it is. The circularity of the argument is broken in the theistic principle at the cost of introducing a supreme being, and in the anthropic principle at the cost of introducing an ensemble of universes. ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe

I am also personally a bit wary about using the fine-tuning of the universe as pointing to a Cosmic Designer, as many Christian scientists such as Owen Gingerich and even John Polkinghorne have done. I am concerned that this may turn out to be another God-of-the-Gaps argument. The fact that we do not understand how these fundamental constants appear to be so fine-tuned does not mean we will not find out in the future. As cosmologists and particle physicists continue to search for a grand unified theory, it may turn out that these constants may not be free parameters but are instead embedded into the laws of the universe. The anthropic and theistic principles may serve merely as makeshift principles while we await for a more complete theory of the universe. String theory anyone?

The fundamental constants have values that are either intentional (theistic principle) or fortuitious (anthropic principle), and otherwise are inexplicable. But science forever advances by explaining what previously was thought to be inexplicable. Perhaps in the future the constants of nature will have rationally explained values that are neither intentional nor fortuitious. ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe


2 thoughts on “Reflections in Cosmology 9: On Cosmic Fine-Tuning, Anthropic Principles and Multiverses

  1. There’s a scenario that suggests the universe is incredibly fine-tuned because it is comprehensible. If this is true, then the universe has comprehensibility built into it from the very beginning. In other words, it may turn out, as you suggest, that these constants may not be free parameters but are instead embedded into the laws of the universe, the same laws that are structured via comprehensibility. I have read Harrison’s Masks of the Universe and there is a very interesting section in that book which suggests what is needed to make the case for a universe with built in comprehensibility. In my blog entitled, The Embedded Logic Of Reciprocal Movement’s Synchronic Axis, I suggest a primitive logical structure that satisfies the call for a different kind of time, Harrison’s “time of becoming.” I call it time of mind. The following is a cut and paste from that blog; thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    [As we attend to psychological “mind stuff” time speeds up. Nature’s meaningful and cyclic events can be measured, time as change is, typically, how we think of time, but that kind of time is not the time encountered in inquires concerning the meaning and significance of embodied physical events. If we are ever going to appropriately respond to the big questions, “time of mind” must be included, in one form or another, in the response. The physicist Edward Harrison, in his discussion of Relativity, tells us that this second nature of time (he calls it the time of becoming) is precisely what is needed if we are to put a “human face” on science. He says:

    “In one sense we are aware of time as a state of being throughout which things are diversified. From this point of view the now embraces all time—the past, present, and future—in a state of being. This is the aspect of time that has been spatialized and woven into the fabric of space-time. But in another sense we are also aware of time as an act of becoming, of one state of being flowing and wheeling into another state of being…The now of today with its past, present, and future is different from the now of yesterday with its past, present, and future. The tapestry of being in each act of becoming is rewoven. This aspect of time defies spatial representation. It has been omitted from the physical universe because we have so far not learned how to express it either linguistically or mathematically. To condemn the act of becoming as an illusion oversimplifies the world in which we live….If we cannot put the now with its act of becoming into the physical universe, then it seems safe to say that we cannot put consciousness and its awareness of free will into it either. We have failed to represent in the physical universe even the rudest aspects of ourselves as experiencing individuals. Possibly the next major step in the design of universe will be the discovery of a more sophisticated way of representing time.” (Masks Of The Universe, 1985, p. 155-56)

    In the time of becoming, civilizations are born, endure, and are sometimes destroyed. Anthropologically speaking, at the time when animals refused to passively accept their environment and instead worked to actively transform that environment, that was also the time when animals acquired the rudimentary beginnings of time of mind (the implicative-affirmative’s symbol-generating capacity)—the birthright of inquiry, analysis, conscience and imagination. So, we might ask, is it possible to reconcile this new concept of “time” with the time-concepts of science? Or, put it another way, maybe this new concept of time can help us to better understand why relativity theory and quantum mechanics are irreconcilable scientific theories.]

  2. Hi bwinwnbwi,

    thanks for the comment and the excerpt from your blog. Where is it by the way, as I couldn’t find a link to it? I’m interested to have a look at it. 🙂 Anyway, apologies for taking such a long time to reply. My latest post explains my 2 month silence!

    Anyway, Edward Harrison is a great thinker and writer, I hope to get to read Masks of the Universe one day. And yes, he does make the same point about time in his book ‘Cosmology’ – about how our experience of time differs from the concept of time as understood by physicists. I’ve written about it here as well:

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