Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman (Book Review #54 of 2015)

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
I have read several of Brian Greene's and Stephen Hawking's books detailing the history of modern physics, string theory in its various iterations, and the theoretical possibilities of a multiverse. Lightman does a much better job summing up the philosophical implications of theoretical physics in very stark form. He is also much more transparent about the fact that there are Nobel prize-winning physicists who don't buy the multiverse theory and believe in a Creator and an intelligence behind the design of our universe rather than a theoretically infinite number of universes created by no intelligence. Lightman admits the "fine-tuning" of the cosmological constants necessary for our universe to be the way it is are astronomically improbable. While charitable to his colleagues who believe in a higher power, Lightman disagrees with them. In Lightman's view, we are simply a random collection of molecules put together by chance. "We are an accident," he states, a mathematical improbability in our own universe -- "one millionth of one billionth of a percent in our universe is life" -- but when the denominator is infinity (the infinite multiverse) improbable is relative. "Science can never know how universe was created," yet he's certain how it was not created.

He details early in the book what this means for humans. He loves his daughter, feels attached to her, cares for her. But then he remembers that she's just a random collection of atoms and, like his own atoms, will one day be nothing more than scattered into the universe. He admits this is hard to wrap his mind around, his mind longs for eternity and he is "self-delusional" in his longing for immortality. But since everything in the universe decays or dies and the law of entropy says that everything moves from order to disorder there can be nothing more than this. Life is therefore meaningless, absurd. Not since Hawking wrote in Black Holes and Baby Universes that we have two options: God, or  grand unifying theory that explains everything from the Big Bang to why I ate a salad for lunch. Hawking rejected the former and later recanted on the GUT (which was supposed to bridge quantum mechanics with the standard model), basically the multiverse via string theory has replaced his GUT. Meaning, again, that both the big bang and my salad were random and need no explanation.

It's odd that Lightman even uses the word "life" in the book since how do you define a random collection of atoms whose extinguishing means nothing as "life"? What is consciousness? If I were to kill his daughter, why would that be wrong, I'm just scattering her atoms about the universe? The fact that his brain has evolved to find that idea repulsive is his own problem. Atoms have no ethics and it's silly to call things that are random "evil." For an MIT professor who also teaches philosophy he surprisingly doesn't raise the question. Odder still is that he later heralds natural selection and the ability of millions of cells to transmit information when reproducing without noting that some atheist biologists have concluded that this is impossible without some sort of guided process. How did the basic building blocks of life know that they needed to survive? These biologists have followed Lightman's logic to its conclusion, apparently unknown to Lightman himself, that we are the result of a completely random process.

I have also read physicist Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics, critiquing string theory and modern physics in general. I highly recommend that book to anyone who thinks string theory is all that there is. There are alternative, testable theories out there. Which is another irony because Lightman writes that science "must be verified and tested" but doesn't apply this to either string theory or the multiverse. Stephen Hawking wrote in The Universe in a Nutshell that you would need a particle collider larger than the size of the universe to test some aspects of string theory. Yet Lightman hails theoretical physics as "the purest form of science."

Cosmologist George Ellis was quoted recently in Scientific American criticizing physicists like Lightman and Lawrence Krauss who have moved away from physics and science to pure metaphysical hypotheses which are not testable.
"Krauss does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t."

Lightman's essays contradict themselves in this regard: he praises scientific measurement and cheering on the work of phsyics toward a complete set of the fundamental laws of our universe while earlier saying that if the multiverse is true them most of physics is "useless" as there is "no point" in explaining why things in our universe are the way they are-- it was just random. Other universes are flat, some are round, some are finite, some are infinite, some contain the null set, and in some universes every law that holds in ours doesn't hold, and vice-versa.

Lightman contends that a God "consistent with science" can only exist outside the universe, never intervening in its immutable, unchangeable laws. This rules out anything miraculous, whether there is evidence or not to the contrary-- and he examines no evidence or testimony of the physically unexplainable. (I read Eric Metaxas' Miracles just prior to this book, the first bit of which argues philosophically against Lightman's conclusions.) God is the watchmaker who let the universe wind up, go and never intervenes, somehow can't intervene without the entire universe falling apart according to Lightman. Lightman rejects the "immanentism" of Spinoza and Einstein.

The essays also contain brief explanations of the importance of symmetry and discovery of the Higgs-Boson. There is also some overview of philosophical history but nothing in-depth. As I wrote above, he ignores his own theory's implications for ethics and the problem of evil. He writes of how he had somehow a sort of mental connection with a bird once, yet seemingly forgets that this, like his daugher, was purely random and meaningless. He cites plenty of deist scientists along the way, and criticizes Lawrence Krauss for being critical of faith. He considers faith to be rational, and rightly notes many scientific, economic, and political achievements that have come forth from theists who felt their exploration of science was a way to understand better how God created things, wrong-headed though they were. But this again ignores the fact that it's hard to define what is "ethical" or an "advancement" when we're purely random and there are no consequences, ultimately, for our actions.

He concludes the book with some futurist silliness that reminded me of Lightman's fellow multiverse proponent Brian Greene in The Hidden Reality where Greene writes that another plausible alternative to the multiverse is that nothing in our world is actually real, we could all be living in a simulated multiverse. A "software glitch" explains why we can't reconcile quantum mechanics and the standard model or discover all of the fundamental laws. We are just Sims in someone's video game, and those playing us are also likely Sims, who are being played by Sims and so on. Physics has truly set philosophy back millenia.

As I wrote above, Lightman's work does a great job showing the logical conclusion of the multiverse in a succinct fashion. I recommend reading it for yourself, but only 3.5 stars because as another sympathetic reviewer writing for the left-leaning magazine Salon pointed out: "Perhaps Lightman contradicts himself."

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