Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Cosmic Landscape

This book by Leonard Susskind is a very well written and very honest account by an accomplished physicist. He subtitles it "string theory and the illusion of intelligent design", but in many ways it is a half-time speech to encourage the weakening physicists to not lose hope, and hold on to their faith that there is no intelligence behind the universe, no matter how grim it may look for the proponents of randomness.

You can tell that there is some bitter disappointment with a few developments of recent years. The worst is that "Einsteins blunder", the cosmological constant, which he added as a "fudge factor" to general relativity since he envisioned the universe as static. When Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding it was assumed that the constant was zero, and Einstein called giving it a value his "greatest mistake".  Unfortunately for the "random crowd", it turns out that it needs to have a value for us to exist, and that value has to be tuned to an accuracy of 10 to the -120. If you believe that would happen randomly, then you are either a regular player of the lottery or a nervous atheist physicist.

It isn't as if this is the only "Goldilocks feature" (not too this, not too that, but JUST right) of our universe. There is the Higgs field, the strong and weak force balances and a host of others. Prior to the late '90s most physicists felt that string theory was going to give them the "grand unified theory of everything" that would allow them to definitively declare that no "watchmaker was needed" (ie. No God or Intelligent Design), but the accuracy of 10 to the -120 was too much for many of them--they either refuse to accept the dead end of string theory as providing the kind of "lack of dependence on special conditions" that would indicate to them that "it just happened", or apparently quietly pray in their closets to prevent guys like Susskind, or worse yet, Dawkins from finding them out.

As Susskind points out on page 355, lest someone think that scientists are "open minded"; "Because as scientists we understand that there is a compelling human need to believe - the need to be comforted - that easily clouds peoples judgment. It is all too easy to fall into the seductive trap of a comforting fairy tale. So we resist, to the death, all explanations of the world based on anything but the Laws of Physics, mathematics, and probability."

Such is the stuff of faith, and indeed, that core decision as to the origin of the universe; intelligent, purposeful, and meaningful? Or random, purposeless and meaningless? is at the core of how humans relate to life, truth and each other. I would argue that a core feature of the human mind, the need for CLOSURE, which drives the need for FUNDAMENTALISM may even be a bigger factor than the random/intelligent divide, one which I intend to go into in the future as I begin to deal with "The God Delusion" by Dawkins.

Susskind's, Dawkins and all atheist positions are fundamentalist ... like the baptists I grew up with, or like the folks that flew into the twin towers. Christ brings freedom if you will have it -- he saves by Grace, allows (even demands!) loving your enemies, and beats up on the fundamentalists of the day -- the Scribes and Pharisees with joyous abandon. Fundamentalists are so fun to argue with since they are so rigid and prone to get unhinged when they find their views questioned in ways they have difficulty defending. Even the religious ones actually have no "higher power", because they fervently believe that "it is all obvious with a FEW easy to understand "facts"" ... just like the scientific or "liberal" fundamentalists. "A small matter of education" and you can be a fundamentalist too!

Susskind pumps up the weakened atheist position by an appeal to the messiness of string theory. He rises to the defense of randomness with the assertion that there are 10 to the 500 UNIVERSES in the "cosmic landscape", so it is really "easy" that we happen to be here. To "strengthen" his position, it looks like such a theory can never be tested, since our universe bubble is expanding near the speed of light, knowledge of the other universes is forever outside our "horizon". Susskind points out that his position is somehow superior to "the God hypothesis", even though apparently not testable, since as he states above, he is beyond that "human need to be comforted".

Apparently he finds the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient being, morally perfect, and beyond material understanding as somehow "comforting". I would imagine that his concept of God would not include the potential for such a thing as "judgment" or "sin", even though given the distance between ours and that of a being that may do fine tuning of the cosmological constant to 120 places of accuracy, it would seem that there would be a slight potential for "differences".

Susskind proudly proclaims with Laplace relative to the idea of God; "I have no need of this hypothesis". Much as he fails to explain why he finds himself beyond human need for "comfort", he fails to explain this leap. Apparently he hasn't figured out yet that he is mortal, and in that, Laplace and Einstein have clearly exceeded Lenny's understanding of their position in the universe. (they know the answer to God)

 He DID write an excellent book that I would highly recommend to anyone that seeks to understand physics. He clearly believes that he has produced a work that will be "no comfort to the intelligent design crowd". That may be true in the sense that most of that crowd share Susskind's fundamentalism (just a small "type difference"), which is actually the most comforting of human delusions ... because fundamentalists believe that they know.


  1. Anonymous12:08 PM

    When did "intelligent design" occur? Once? Many times? Still occurring?

  2. We mortals have a lot of trouble with the dimension of time. Even though Einstein's theories on time's relativity are pretty much proven, it is very hard for us to grasp the old "go out and travel near the speed of light for awhile and come back and visit your great grandkids grown up" scenario.

    Any being with the power to create a universe is almost certainly outside of time in the way that we think of it. So "the design" would be the closest to an "always" from our perspective. (eg. the universe maybe "runs on God")

    It is very human to decide to make the universe "bigger" (eg 10 to the 500 "megaverse") to increase the chance that it can happen "without God", while trying to make God smaller (eg.force him into our time box).

    Much of our thinking says more about our situation than about either God or the universe.