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Baron Münchhausen and the Self-Creating Universe

Poor Baron Münchhausen, drowning in a swamp without hope of rescue, had no choice but to lift himself from the predicament by a concentrated pulling on his own hair. The prolific theoretical physicist Paul Davies has recently attempted a similar solution in respect of cosmological fine-tuning, but alas, mostly to depilatory effect. It's a safe bet that the emperor has no hair!

In an op-ed published in The Guardian on Tuesday, Paul Davies eschewed both intelligent design and the meta-laws of the multiverse as explanations of the exquisite fine-tuning of the physical laws and constants of our universe, claiming that both are explanatorily vacuous (see here). We can in good conscience proclaim him half right in this judgment, which places him well ahead of a good many cosmologists. But then what solution does he suggest?

...I propose instead that the laws are more like computer soft-ware: programs being run on the great cosmic computer. They emerge with the universe at the big bang and are inherent in it, not stamped on it from without like a maker's mark.... Seth Lloyd, an engineer at MIT, has calculated how many bits of information the universe has processed since the big bang. The answer is one followed by 122 zeros. Crucially, however, the limit was smaller in the past because the universe was younger. Just after the big bang, when the basic properties of the universe were being forged, its information capacity was so restricted that the consequences would have been profound.

Here's why. If a law is a truly exact mathematical relationship, it requires infinite information to specify it. In my opinion, however, no law can apply to a level of precision finer than all the information in the universe can express. Infinitely precise laws are an extreme idealisation with no shred of real world justification. In the first split second of cosmic existence, the laws therefore must have been seriously fuzzy. Then, as the information content of the universe climbed, the laws focused and homed in on the life-encouraging form we observe today. But the flaws in the laws left enough wiggle room for the universe to engineer its own bio-friendliness... the laws explain the universe even as the universe explains the laws. If there is an ultimate meaning to existence, as I believe is the case, the answer is to be found within nature, not beyond it. The universe might indeed be a fix, but if so, it has fixed itself.


One is inclined to remark that the initial cosmic laws are not the only thing that is seriously fuzzy: whence the great cosmic computer and its incipient software, ever so flexible? Its origin begs explanation and bespeaks intelligence. Whence the homing signal providing teleological focus to life-encouraging laws and constants? The universe "engineers its own biofriendliness"? So the universe itself has a pre-specified goal that it engineers and hence exhibits one of the key features of intelligence? To escape a transcendent intelligence, it appears that Davies has personified the universe and attributed intelligent agency to matter, energy and space-time. This would conventionally be regarded as a form of pantheism/nature mysticism rather than a scientific conjecture, and it is afflicted with the pantheistic malaise: it leaves the whole apotheosized universe hanging in mid-air, so to speak.

Let me explain. In virtue of animating nature by attributing intrinsic intelligence, purpose and meaning to it, Davies has declared himself in possession of resources adequate to the task of fine-tuning the laws and constants of the universe and generating the information requisite to life's origin and development. However, he has no explanation for the intelligence and purpose he postulates to be incipient in primal matter, energy and spacetime, nor has he offered an account of its essential character -- and the question of universal origins is still untouched. That the universe did not always exist is certain, even when multiverse scenarios are considered, since the mechanism of "eternal inflation" postulated to give rise to the multiverse is not eternal into the past (Borde, Guth & Vilenkin: arXiv:gr-qc/0110012 v2 14 Jan 2003).

But is Davies still entitled to a tu quoque with respect to ID? He seems to think so. He opines that "[d]umping the problem in the lap of a pre-existing designer is no explanation at all, as it merely begs the question of who designed the designer." Let's handle this matter expeditiously. First, design inferences are epistemically warranted when specified information of a certain complexity (high improbability) is observed, quite independent of whether we have an explanation for the intelligence behind the design. Here's a particularly telling example: Roger Penrose has calculated that the entropy of the big bang itself, in order to give rise to the life-permitting universe we observe, must be fine-tuned to one part in e10exp(123)≈1010exp(123). Such complex specified conditions do not arise by chance, even in a string-theoretic multiverse with 10500 different configurations of laws and constants, so an intelligent cause may be inferred. What is more, since it is the big bang itself that is fine-tuned to this degree, the intelligence that explains it as an effect must be logically prior to it and independent of it -- in short, an immaterial intelligence that transcends matter, energy and space-time. So much, then, for a personified universe engineering its own bio-friendliness: the universe is not a free lunch and the intelligence of which it gives evidence is not incipient within it.

Second, we must confront the implicit suggestion that articulating intelligent design as an explanation constitutes an appeal to ignorance. It does not. Science seeks to understand the past on the basis of presently operative causes sufficient to the explanation of what is observed. There is only one presently active cause known to be sufficient to the task of producing complex specified information: intelligence. When intelligence is put forward as the proper explanation of the extreme precision of life-friendly cosmological fine-tuning, we are therefore offering an explanation on the basis of what we know. It is an appeal to knowledge, not to ignorance.

Finally, there is the perennial taunt "So who designed the designer?" This is a philosophical and theological question, not a scientific one, so it does not constitute a scientific objection to intelligent design. Even so, the astute philosopher or theologian will recognize that the objection rests on a category mistake. Only contingent beings require an explanation for their existence, necessary beings do not. The question is, of course, whether there are any necessary beings other than inert abstract objects like mathematical entities. If we avail ourselves of the apparatus of possible world semantics, as philosophers are wont to do, a brief argument to the affirmative can be offered: the necessary existence of a transcendent personal being of consummate greatness (God) is possibly exemplified, i.e., the concept is logically coherent and therefore exemplified in some possible world. But a being that exists necessarily must exist in every possible world, and since the actual world is a fortiori possible, we may conclude, without qualification, that God exists. Where all of this leads, of course, is to the realization that the universe is indeed a fix, and that God did indeed fix it -- it did not "fix itself."