Friday, January 20, 2006

NYT Review of The Cosmic Landscape

Corey S. Powell has reviewed Leonard Susskind’s book, ‘The Cosmic Landscape’, for the New York Times.

Some excerpts from the review:
What troubles Susskind is an intelligent design argument considerably more vexing than the anti-evolution grumblings recently on trial in Dover, Pa. Biologists can point to unambiguous evidence that evolution truly does happen and that it can account for many otherwise inexplicable aspects of how organisms function. For those who take a more cosmic perspective, however, the appearance of design is not so simply refuted. If gravity were slightly stronger than it is, for instance, stars would burn out quickly and collapse into black holes; if gravity were a touch weaker, stars would never have formed in the first place. The same holds true for pretty much every fundamental property of the forces and particles that make up the universe. Change any one of them and life would not be possible. To the creationist, this cosmic comity is evidence of the glory of God. To the scientist, it is an embarrassing reminder of our ignorance about the origin of physical law.
A fair assessment, but, like most, Powell misses the boat in an important way. As mentioned in the Derbyshire post below, ignorance has nothing to do with the ID claim. If we have a fundamental theory from which we can derive the constants we are still left with the puzzling fact that their derived values, just like their currently empirical values, are fine-tuned for producing a life supporting (and that means any kind of life) universe.
Susskind eagerly embraces the megaverse interpretation because it offers a way to blow right through the intelligent design challenge. If every type of universe exists, there is no need to invoke God (or an unknown master theory of physics) to explain why one of them ended up like ours. Furthermore, it is inevitable that we would find ourselves in a universe well suited to life, since life can arise only in those types of universes. This circular-sounding argument - that the universe we inhabit is fine-tuned for human biology because otherwise we would not be here to see it - is known as the Anthropic Principle and is reviled by many cosmologists as a piece of vacuous sophistry. But if ours is just one of a near-infinite variety of universes, the Anthropic Principle starts to sound more reasonable, akin to saying that we find ourselves on Earth rather than on Jupiter because Earth has the mild temperatures and liquid water needed for our kind of life.
This is an accurate assessment. And the analogy is valid: we live on Earth instead of Jupiter because Earth is habitable—likewise if there are 10500 types of universes we live in this one for the same simple reason. Ockham’s razor applied to 10500 universes picks the obvious winning explanation: the Anthropic Principle. But if our universe is the only universe, then Ockham tells us that ID is the preferred answer.

Susskind understands this. Most physicists, I think, understand this.

In biology the origins problem (abiogenesis) has the potential, in my non-expert opinion, to be just as vexing as the cosmic fine tuning problem—and consequently much more fertile ground for ID than the evolution question.

In a way, this is obvious, isn’t it? God’s modus operandi seems to be special creation—which then is governed under the administration of God-created physical laws, with divine intervention (after all, we’re not deists) when it pleases Him to intervene. That means the only point at which we can be certain we are studying a primary cause is at the point of creation—be it the creation of the universe or the creation of life. Subsequent to that, we can never be absolutely certain when we are studying a primary cause vs. a secondary cause—i.e., the natural expression of physical law.

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