March 2, 2006

Our non-arbitrary universe

As scientists delve deeper and deeper into the unsolved mysteries of the universe, they are discovering that a number of cosmological parameters are excruciatingly specific. So specific, in fact, that any minor alteration to key parameters would throw the entire universe off kilter and result in a system completely unfriendly to life.

Consequently, some have considered this as evidence for a designer, giving rise to teleological arguments like intelligent design. Others claim that the universe is spontaneously finely tuned.*

There are several theories that try to explain why the universe is so finely tuned: 1) anthropic observation in consideration of an ensemble of universes [Carter, Leslie], 2) the "participatory anthropic principle" which implies that observers force the universe into existence [Wheeler], and 3) that natural selection has endowed the universe with its particular characteristics [Smolin, Smart].

On the last point, that of natural selection, the obvious question is, if the universe is a replicating entity, and if its attributes are the result of natural selection, why must the universe also be so biophilic? In other words, couldn't the physics of the universe develop such that it was merely a replicating entity that didn't necessarily have to support life?

One possible answer is that there are many types of spontaneously replicating universes, some of which support life, and some of which do not. If this is the case, we happen to observe one such universe that supports life, and our existence is irrelevant to our universe's life cycle.

However, if we find that the universe we live in is the only feasible type of universe possible, and that it is a replicative system prone to selectional processes, then we might have to conclude that intelligent life plays a crucial role in the universe's life cycle. In other words, advanced intelligences help the universe to replicate.

As Freeman Dyson once wrote, "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming. There are some striking examples in the laws of nuclear physics of numerical accidents that seem to conspire to make the universe habitable."

I first encountered this argument via John Smart's developmental singularity hypothesis, where he suggests that advanced intelligences may spawn new baby universes soon after the technological singularity event. More recently, I discovered an article on KurzweilAI by James N. Gardner in which he argues for the selfish biocosm hypothesis.

Gardner's argument is quite interesting. He writes that two recent discoveries have imparted a renewed sense of urgency to investigations of the anthropic qualities of our cosmos, specifically 1) the value of dark energy density is exceedingly small but not quite zero, and 2) the number of different solutions permitted by M-theory is astronomical -- measured not in millions or billions but in googles or googleplexes. Again, what he's suggesting is that the universe is finely tuned to the point of absurdity.

According to Gardner's theory, "the laws and constants of physics function as the cosmic equivalent of DNA, guiding a cosmologically extended evolutionary process and providing a blueprint for the replication of new life-friendly progeny universes."

As Gardner notes, theories of cosmological eschatology have previously been articulated by Kurzweil, Wheeler and Dyson, all of whom have essentially predicted that, in Gardner's words, "the ongoing process of biological and technological evolution is sufficiently robust and unbounded that, in the far distant future, a cosmologically extended biosphere could conceivably exert a global influence on the physical state of the cosmos." Some cosmologists, like Milan Cirkovic, have argued that the universe's life cycle should not be studied without referrence to the influence of intelligent life.

Specifically, it is thought that intelligences, in conjunction with advancing technologies, will act as "von Neumann controllers" within a cosmologically extended biosphere and function as a "von Neumann duplicator" in a hypothesized process of cosmological replication.

I find this topic to be exceptionally interesting, and I hope that more consideration is given to it in the coming years, particularly the issue of cosmological eschatology and the role that intelligences may have in the life cycle of the universe.

*Browsing through Wikipedia, I found some examples of 'fine tuning':

- The nuclear strong force holds together the particles in the nucleus of an atom. If the strong nuclear force were slightly weaker, by as little as 2%, multi-proton nuclei would not hold together and hydrogen would be the only element in the universe. If the strong force were slightly stronger, by as little as 1%, hydrogen would be rare in the universe and elements heavier than iron (elements resulting from fusion during the explosion of supernovae) would also be rare.

- The nuclear weak force affects the behavior of leptons (e.g. neutrinos, electrons, and muons) that do not participate in strong nuclear reactions. If the weak force were slightly larger, neutrons would decay more readily, and therefore would be less available, and little or no helium would be produced from the big bang. Without the necessary helium, heavy elements sufficient for the constructing of life as we know it would not be made by the nuclear furnaces inside stars. If the weak force were slightly smaller, the big bang would burn most or all of the hydrogen into helium, with a subsequent over-abundance of heavy elements made by stars, and life as we know it would not be possible.

- The electromagnetic coupling constant binds electrons to protons in atoms. The characteristics of the orbits of electrons about atoms determines to what degree atoms will bond together to form molecules. If the electromagnetic coupling constant were different atoms and molecules would be different; maybe not even exist.

- The ratio of electron to proton mass also determines the characteristics of the orbits of electrons about nuclei. A proton is 1836 times more massive than an electron. If the electron to proton mass ratio were different, atoms and molecules would be different — or maybe not even exist.

- The entropy level of the universe affects the condensation of massive systems. The universe contains about one billion photons for every baryon. This makes the universe extremely entropic, i.e. a very efficient radiator and a very poor engine. If the entropy level for the universe were slightly larger, no galactic systems would form (and therefore no stars). If the entropy level were slightly smaller, the galactic systems that formed would effectively trap radiation and prevent any fragmentation of the systems into stars. In either case, the universe would be devoid of stars and solar systems.

- The force of gravity affects the interaction of particles. In order for life as we know it to form, the force of gravity must be 1040 (10 to the 40th power) times weaker than the force of electromagnetism. The relationship of gravity to electromagnetism as it currently exists is this: The positively charged particles must equal in charge the numbers negatively charged particles or else electromagnetism will dominate gravity, and stars, galaxies and planets will not form. The numbers of electrons must equal the numbers of protons to better than one part of 1037 (10 to the 37th power).

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Anonymous said...

I find this topic to be exceptionally interesting, and I hope that more consideration is given to it in the coming years, particularly the issue of cosmological eschatology and the role that intelligences may have in the life cycle of the universe.

My understanding from the physics is that the anthropic principle is "entropic" in nature. That is to say that we are here because intelligent life is physically necessary to the thermodynamic process... to help the universe evolve by way of particle pair creation, since this directly affects the symmetry of the universe... e.g. "anthropic-flatness".

The defined physical need necessarily makes the anthropic principle a "biocentric" principle, life will be every bit as common in our universe as the need for it demands.

We may actually be the mechanism for a big bang, depending upon which cosmological model is actually in effect.

George said...

What I'd really like to see in particular is more work done to explain how the universe is conducive for the existence of consciousness, and what relation, if any, this has on the quantum realm.

In my mind, the universe is friendly to 3 distinct things that are inter-related: it's biophilic (friendly to life), infophilic (friendly to information storage and proliferation), and cognophilic (friendly to consciousness).

Anonymous said...

I think that information storage is necessary to efficient information processing, which is the effect that you get from a *near*-flat yet expanding universe, as opposed to a wide-open expanding universe.

As a biocentric principle, the AP extends to a specific "layer" of galaxies that exist on the same evolutionary "plane" as we do. This is per the requirement that we occupy a special place and time in the history of our universe, we are actually far from alone on that "nitch".

Commonality and continuity in the evolution of the same basic raw materials indicates that sentient life in our universe will be on about the same level of technological development as us, as well.

So the prediction is that "ET's" radio signals haven't been enroute any longer than ours have, and when they all do finally hit home... "contact" is going to be one hell of a lot bigger than Jodi Foster ever dreamed about.

Nobody will be in contact with everybody at once, but everybody will come into contact with somebody at about the same time, and the universe will become "self-aware"... of itself when this happens... so to speak.

There's an interesting comparison to be made between the large scale structuring of our universe and neurons in a human brain, although that may simply be an artifact of commonly linked phyisics.

If the anthropic principle is true for a good physical reason, then it is highly-probable that human evolutionary theory is linked to the evolutionary process of the universe.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to elaborate on the following and hopefully spur a little more conversation:

If the anthropic principle is true for a good physical reason, then it is highly-probable that human evolutionary theory is linked to the evolutionary process of the universe.

The trick is to find the mechanism that enables both, and that's what my previously linked stuff was about:

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that "god" doesn't throw dice

This effect of particle creation on the gravity of the universe describes a mechanism for evolution that humans contribute to by way of what is known as, "asymmetric transitions"... which is the same mechanism that enables a human evolutionary leap in self-orgainization theories that depend on far-from-equilibrium dissipative structures, like humans, and black holes.

George said...

What you're describing is a gross violation of the Copernican principle (ie that we're living at a special time in the development of the universe). Adding to this problem is the fact that the conditions for the existence of life in the universe have been set for quite some time now, and the median age of planets in the universe are somewhere in the 6.4 +/- 0.7 Gyr range [Ward, Brownlee].

That being said, the idea that we live in a special time is referred to as the phase-transition model of the universe, and by consequence, a phase transition in the development of complex life and intelligence.

I recommend this:
On the importance of SETI for transhumanism:

Anonymous said...

What you're describing is a gross violation of the Copernican principle (ie that we're living at a special time in the development of the universe).

Actually, the observed universe is a gross violation of the copernican principle, as it is a fact that we have no stability mechanism that explains the flatness of our universe which is what the anthropic principle is all about and it is also the reason why string theorists are now leaning toward using it to choose the correct vacuum state from the "landscape". The Copernican Cosmological Principle does not account for the large scale structuing of our universe, whereas, an Anthropic Cosmological Principle does, regardless of the fact that science has essentially given up on a stability mechanism that explains it... e.g., there is no practical model for turbulence generated structuring from the expansion process. The anthropic principle is the only explaination, but it's special significance gets lost in an infinite sea of possibilities in string theory. This is not the case if there is only one finite universe... the implications of "specialness" are magnified to the Nth^.

I'd recommend this:


And these ice-breakers:

A Phase Transition sounds about right, as long as it works via the natural conversion of negative energy in order to reverse the normally destructive consequences of the second law of thermodynamics.

Thanks for the link...

Anonymous said...

Another interesting aspect of the fine-tuning hypothesis is that it implies all universes which are ancestors of our own were able (if past tense is appropriate) to successfully reproduce, even under presumed conditions of substantially different cosmological constants. This implies that either: (a) universes which don't seem capable of supporting life as we know it are still able to utilise some sort of fall-back mechanism, with which they manage to reproduce without the assistance of intelligence, or else (b) Even universes which are vastly different from our own manage to somehow evolve intelligences, presumably instantiated by means vastly different from our own biosphere. I'm imagining sentient patterns of vibration within a cosmic ocean of sub-atomic particles, or other such unimaginable sort of far-out stuff.

Anonymous said...

This anthropomorphic and wish-fulfilment argument conveniently ignores the fact that the universe is overwhelmingly, in fact astronomically, geared towards against the development or maintenance of life. The universe is not teeming with life, but teeming with events non-conducive to life. It would be much more logical to argue that earth life has evolved in spite of incredible odds against it and is doomed to extinction anyway.

Tom Rathborne said...

I like to summarize this as "evolution began at the big bang".