Doing porridge in the Goldilocks Universe

Douglas Adams kindly presented us with the ‘puddle parable’ before he left, in which a pool of rainwater is so impressed by the way the pothole he lies in exactly fits his shape, that he believes himself destined for greatness … right until the sun dries him up. This spoof on anthropocentric thinking, intelligent design, old earth creationism etc., while amusing, fails to quite hit the button: it says that life adjusts to any universe, or any biotope, so that we should not be surprised at our existence. However it fails to provide any answers as to why this particular life form “mensch” finds itself so all alone in the midst of a vast and apparently hostile universe, apparently the only creature for a V – E – R – Y long way around that is able to question its own origins.

To some scientists and particularly cosmologists, the very fact of being able to ponder this mystery puts us at the heart of what Paul Davies calls the Goldilocks Enigma. If the porridge here is so eminently just right, does that mean that the diverse physical parameters upon which we depend and the cosmological constants that govern them have been “fine tuned to favour the emergence of life”? In this last sentence, even though I wrote most of it myself, I have trouble with almost every word. Let’s take it step by step:

ONE – is the porridge here “just right”, or have we merely adapted to second-rate porridge and, by so doing, developed more through the hardship of doing porridge under primitive conditions than we might have developed as idle lotus eaters in a truly “ideal” Eden? We cannot know, so argument from default becomes futile;

TWO – “diverse physical parameters” are exactly that, diverse. And in this diversity and even divergence may lie the reasons for our apparent success. We might otherwise have been forty-foot tall photophobic pachyderms, eaten up the entire vegetation of our low gravity planet in two shakes of a lambs tail and died of hunger sometime back in the early Neolithic;

THREE – “upon which we depend” … but surely, if they were not dependable, we should not depend on them but would necessarily depend on others. Take oxygen, for example: it’s tricky enough stuff, highly volatile, caustic and inimical to many of our basic minerals. Yet we depend on it. If that were not so, we might now be highly philosophically developed but anaerobic, single-celled flagella with an über-dimensional intelligence embracing the entire galaxy, or then again, we might not;

FOUR – as for “the constants that govern them”, since the tiniest change to any one of these would make all life as we know it, indeed the entire history of the universe from its very first picoseconds frankly impossible, Jim, we are faced with the choice either of speculating from our position of ordered uniqueness about a state of absolute and entirely unpredictable chaotic desolation or having to assume that another kind of universe would have eventually emerged a pico or two later. This universe (which may exist anyway, parallel to ours), would permit other kinds of life so far outside our carbon chauvinist model as to be literally unimaginable since the concepts governing them can only be expressed in seven dimensional transparent toroids that resonate to an omni-present sub-bass frequency transmitting from some indefinable source so loudly as to liquefy all solid matter and make any kind of cogitation impossible;

FIVE – “have been” … ouch, dodgy territory. Use of verbs suggests volition. Volition suggests intelligence, which in turn suggests the very thing we are trying so hard to avoid: the Elephant in the Room (Just sit still, children and it’ll get bored and wander off. No, Kevin, it doesn’t like popcorn!)

SIX – “fine tuned to favour the emergence of life”, this of course exposes the entire unstable paradox: either we reason from what we know and predict that which we do not know, then test our prediction by opening it up to rebuff (the scientific method), or we jump from the chicken to the donkey (as the French say) and reason that because we already know a thing, we were perhaps destined to know it, insofar as the conditions for attaining such knowledge were invested in the very origins of the thing we know, which just happens to be our own existence, which in its turn happens to be the actual agency and vector of our supposedly a priori knowledge. Yes, I just bit my own tail and nobody heard me scream.

When dealing with cosmic bears and their cosmic porridge it does well to remind ourselves that while the devil will probably be in the details as usual, we should not react by trying to shove God into any gaps that occur in our own plausibility. Proof of an active creator, if there is ever to be such proof, must emerge from a coherent and fully validated method, not be determined by default due to our inability to imagine things other than the way they are. Yes, the laws of physics and the mathematical constants of cosmology do seem to have resulted, at least in one spectacularly unimportant corner of our little suburban galaxy, in the formation of a narrow bio-sphere within which fat brown cockroaches may go forth and multiply most vigorously, but that doesn’t give them the right to start talking of manifest destiny.

We seem to live in a universe in which bears will serve themselves porridge and then walk out the door to go hunting while it cools off at vastly uneven speeds, quite heedless of the laws of thermodynamics. Yet fortunately, alongside such curious proofs of serendipity, this Goldilocks Universe has also conspired to make the 2012 London Olympics fall within the Charles Dickens Bicentennial Year, which shall doubtless give me something even more meaningful to write about anon. By the way, my money’s on the Artful Dodger for the 200 metre hurdles.

Edwin Drood

PS: For an interesting excursion into the theory of Copernican Mediocrity and the probable prevalence of life in our galaxy, please read “Where is everybody?” one of my postings from June 2010 in which I discussed, among other things, the evaluation principles of “Six and the S.E.T.I.”

PPS: the expression “Doing Porridge” is jail-speak for incarceration at her majesty’s pleasure.

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