Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cosmic Teleology in Big History?

Here are two models of the universe.  The first is Dante's Christian model, which was generally accepted in Christendom until the 18th century.  Dante's model has the Earth at the center.  Circling around the Earth are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Beyond that are the fixed stars, and then finally the chrystalline sphere of the Primum Mobile and the Paradise of Heaven.  Beneath the Earth are Purgatory and Hell.

The second model is by Thomas Digges, originally published in 1576.  Digges was an English mathematician and astronomer, who was the first person to explain the Copernican heliocentric model in English, although he modified the Copernican model in two ways.  Like Copernicus, Digges has the Sun at the center.  Circling around the Sun are Mercury, Venus, and the Earth, with the Earth identified as "the great orb carrying the globe of mortality, his circular period determining our years." Beyond the Earth are the orbits of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Unlike Copernicus, Digges described the orbit of fixed stars beyond Saturn as including Heaven: "This orb of stars fixed infinitely up extends itself in altitude spherically, and therefore immovable the palace of felicity garnished with perpetual shining glorious lights innumerable, far excelling over the sun both in quantity and quality the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy, the habitacle for the elect."  He also departs from Copernicus in that beyond the fixed stars are stars scattered throughout endless space.  Remarkably, unlike the Christian model of Dante, Digges's model does not include a place for Hell.

Both of these models assume that the cosmos is the created and purposeful design of God, who cares for the destiny of human beings as intelligent beings created in God's image, who are mortal in their earthly life, but who will live eternally in the afterlife, either enjoying eternal bliss or suffering eternal punishment.  Both of these cosmic models show a cosmic teleology in that human beings find themselves in a universe purposefully created with them in mind, and in the light of which human life has some cosmic meaning.

Does modern scientific cosmology allow for such cosmic teleology?  And if it does not, does that mean that modern science cannot support any natural teleology that can give some meaning to human life?

Early modern scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were theists who thought the cosmic laws of nature studied by scientists were the laws of God, and thus the cosmic order manifested God's purposeful direction.

But today, many (perhaps most) natural scientists think that science must be atheistic, and so it cannot affirm the cosmic teleology of the divine creation stories.  In short, human beings can find no cosmic meaning for their lives, because the cosmos as understood by modern science is utterly pointless.

Recently, however, the proponents of Big History have argued that while the modern scientific account of human history within the history of the whole cosmos cannot support the cosmic origin stories of the Bible and other religious traditions, modern scientific cosmology can tell a scientific origin story that will allow human beings to understand the meaning of human life in the cosmos. 

In Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (2014), David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin argue that the scientific origin story of Big History can "give us a powerful sense of meaning" (2), and if this new origin story is taught to high school students around the world, this could provide us with a shared global understanding of our human place in the universe that could help us confront the greatest threats to human existence on earth today--such as nuclear war and global warming.  Bill Gates has supported their project for providing material for high school teachers to teach Big History.  So that, while previously children were taught the religious origin stories of their various societies, which explained the cosmic meaning of their lives within their social order, the new scientifically grounded Big History can teach children around the world an origin story that depends on scientific evidence rather than religious faith, and which can sustain a global ethics comprehensible to human beings in all societies, who otherwise disagree in their religious beliefs.

By contrast, some scientists today claim that science and religion are compatible, and that the modern scientific understanding of the cosmos, and of the human place within the cosmos, supports the cosmic teleology of the theistic origin stories.  For example, Owen Gingerich is Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and he argues that a scientific history of the cosmos shows evidence of divine purposefulness, because the physical and chemical constants of the universe seem to be fine-tuned for the emergence of a world hospitable to intelligent life.  Thus, science can sustain a cosmic teleology in which human life gains meaning as the fulfillment of God's purposes.  He has laid out his reasoning in two books--God's Universe (2006) and God's Planet (2014). 

Many other prominent scientists have made similar claims about how the fine-tuning of the universe supports a theistic view of human life as the fulfillment of divine purposefulness.  This is a new version of the old argument from design (first stated by Plato)--that if nature looks like it has been intelligently designed, then this must point to a divinely intelligent designer.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do not mention such scientific theism as an alternative to their position.  Although they do not explicitly say so, they imply that modern science must be atheistic.  They certainly make it clear that the Biblical origin story must be rejected as false (12-13, 57-58, 60, 64).

My position falls somewhere in between Gingerich and the Big History folks.  I agree with Gingerich that modern science does not dictate atheism, because scientific answers to questions about how things work fall short of answering questions about why they work that way, which are the questions that open up the possibility of divine purposefulness.  Questions about first causes point to the problem of ultimate explanation--that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that cannot itself be explained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of nature as the final ground of explanation.  To the question of why nature exists, or why it has the order that it does, there are only two possible answers.  Either we say this is a brute fact of our experience: that's just the way it is! Or we move beyond nature to nature's God as the creator of nature, but then we cannot explain why God is the way He is.  In looking for an ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused nature or an uncaused or self-caused God.

Here, Gingerich says, we move from scientific physics to philosophical or theological metaphysics.  The practice of modern science, Gingerich observes, requires a methodological naturalism that looks for purely natural causes to explain everything, but it does not require a metaphysical naturalism that denies that there is any supernatural reality beyond nature.  And while the scientific account of the cosmos cannot prove the cosmic teleology of divine purposefulness, the scientific discovery that the cosmos is fine-tuned for the emergence of intelligent life makes it at least plausible to believe that this shows a divine purpose at work in the cosmos.

To reach this conclusion, however, Gingerich's view of cosmic history must stop at the present moment, with human intelligent life dominant over the Earth, and thus he refuses to reflect on the cosmic future and the likelihood that in the distant future all life will almost certainly be extinguished, because in that case we might as well conclude that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for eternal death.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do reflect on the likelihood that in the remote future the cosmos will be dead, and thus the emergence of life, including intelligent life, can be seen as only one short moment in the early history of the cosmos.  But they do not reflect on how this subverts their claim that Big History is the story of progress in increasing complexity that reaches its highest complexity in the intelligent life of human beings and human collective learning.

My argument is that rather than looking for some cosmic teleology of the universe, we should be satisfied if we can see the immanent teleology of living species, including the human species.  Cosmic teleology is the conception of all of nature as a whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or creator.  By contrast, immanent teleology is manifest in the internal purposiveness of organisms in their generation, their structure, and their activities.  Darwinian biology rejects any cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole would be seen as ordered to some end or purpose.  Evolution by variation and natural selection explains the purposiveness of species without reference to any forces guiding nature to secure some cosmic scale of perfection.  And yet, although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care of the young--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such processes unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in each species. 

Human beings show such immanent teleology in that the evolved human nature of Homo sapiens includes natural desires and inclinations that are directed to goals or ends, and we can judge the happiness of a human life by how well those goals or ends are satisfied.  I have argued that there are at least 20 natural human desires, and that we judge societies as better or worse depending on how well or how poorly those societies provide the conditions for the harmonious satisfaction of those desires.  This is not a cosmic standard of the good, because this standard of the good is relative to the human species.  Nor is this an eternal standard of the good, because the human good exists only as long as the human species exists.  And modern scientific cosmology teaches us that human beings will exist for only a brief moment in cosmic history.  But for as long as that human species exists, even if it seems fleeting in the huge expanse of cosmic history, the human good is a natural reality.

This is not enough for Gingerich.  He rejects the Biblical literalism of the scientific creationists who claim that science confirms the six-days-of-creation story in Genesis, because he doubts that this poetic story was meant to be a literal history of the origin of the cosmos, and because he doubts that any empirical science could confirm such a story.  He also rejects Intelligent Design Theory (like that promoted by the Discovery Institute), because he sees no scientific evidence that God had to intervene miraculously to create each form of life that could not have arisen by a natural evolutionary process,  And yet he is a theistic evolutionist, who believes that God did have to act as First Cause of the laws of nature: He knew how to make a universe that could make itself.  So he agrees with the Intelligent Design theorists that the evidence of design in nature points to divine final causes.  But he does not see that they have provided any mechanisms for the efficient causes necessary for any scientific explanation (God's Universe, 73).  I have made the same point against the Intelligent Design theorists: what they offer is not a scientific explanation unless they can explain exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer created all the irreducibly complex forms of life.

Although Gingerich does not believe that science can prove the existence of God as First Cause, he does believe that there is evidence of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle that becomes comprehensible only if one believes that this fine-tuning is the purposeful work of a Creator.  There are many parameters of physics and cosmology that are set at precise values, such that if there were even a slight deviation from these values, the universe would not be hospitable to any form of life or to intelligent life.  There can be as many as 34 of these finely tuned parameters.  For example, if the expansion rate of the universe had been slightly larger, no stars and planets could have formed; and if it had been slightly smaller, the universe would have collapsed before any stars and planets could have been formed.  The nuclear energy level ratio of carbon to oxygen is set precisely, so that if it had been larger, the universe would contain insufficient oxygen for life, and if it had been smaller, the universe would contain insufficient carbon for life.  If the earth were closer to the Sun, it would be too hot to sustain life.  If it were farther away from the Sun, it would be too cold to sustain life.  Just as Goldilocks found the bowl of porridge that was neither too hot or too cold but just right, it seems that the universe is just right for the emergence of intelligent life. 

Gingerich sees only two possible ways to explain why the universe is so precisely fine-tuned for the evolution of intelligent life on Earth.  We either say that this all happened through an astonishing sequence of accidents.  Or we say that it was intentionally planned by the Creator.  Gingerich thinks the latter is much more plausible, because it is easier to believe that the Creator intentionally set the finely-tuned parameters of the universe to make it inevitable that not just life, but intelligent human life would emerge on a planet just like the Earth.  He endorses the statement of Paul Davies "that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity, or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind.  To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way" (God's Universe, 38).  It's as though nature has been designed so as to be hospitable to minds that can contemplate nature.

It is easier to believe that the universe's being finely tuned for intelligent life is purely accidental if one believes in the multiverse theory accepted by some scientists today.  If our universe is only one of many universes, and if each of those universes has a different set of natural laws and natural physical and cosmological parameters, then we might imagine that through a random evolution of universes, at least one universe could have arisen like ours hospitable to intelligent life.  The problem with this, however, as Gingerich and other scientists have observed, is that this is a purely imaginary conception, for which we have no observational evidence, because we have no way of stepping outside our own universe.  For this reason, many scientists think the theory of multiverse is not a scientific theory at all, because it is not empirically testable.

Even if from the standpoint of the present moment, we as intelligent beings can look back on 13.8 billion years of cosmic history and see ourselves as the purposeful peak of that fine-tuned evolutionary history, which is what Gingerich does, we might wonder about the remote future of the cosmos.  Is the cosmos so fine-tuned for life and intelligent life that such life will continue forever?  Gingerich never asks that question or considers what scientific cosmology would suggest about the distant future of the cosmos.

Although Gingerich quotes from Paul Davies as saying that the universe seems rigged to favor the emergence of not just life but intelligent life, he does not quote Davies' remarks about what the universe will look like in the very remote future.  He imagines "an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart.  As far as we know, no further basic physical processes would ever happen.  No significant event would occur to interrupt the bleak sterility of a universe that has run its course yet still faces eternal life--perhaps eternal death would be a better description."

So if we look at the entire history of the cosmos, we see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life; and then after a few billion years of life, the universe became eternally dead again.  So now life, including intelligent life, seems to be only a momentary event in cosmic history.  Now, it seems that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death.

Or would Gingerich dispute this scenario of the universe as eternally expanding into an utterly dead universe?  Would he defend what John Barrow and Frank Tipler, in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), call "The Final Anthropic Principle (FAP): Intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out."  Or would Gingerich agree with Martin Gardner's flippant remark that this should be called the "Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (CRAP)"?

Of course, one way to preserve human intelligent life forever would be for human beings at death to pass into an afterlife, going either to Heaven or Hell.  Gingerich recognizes that Heaven is included in Digges's Copernican model of the universe, but Gingerich does not say whether this could be compatible with modern scientific cosmology.  He does suggest, however, in one of his articles, that if one accepts the multiverse theory, then one might imagine that Heaven could be located in one of those alternative universes. Dinesh D'Souza, in Life After Death: The Evidence (2009), has elaborated this idea.  But as I have argued in some other posts, it is hard to imagine how any of the traditional conceptions of human immortality--such as the mind living separated from the body or the resurrection of the body to eternal life--make any sense.

Gingerich writes: "I accept as a final cause that the physical constants have been fine-tuned to make intelligent life in the universe possible and that this is evidence for the planning and intentions of a Creator God" (God's Planet, 152).  The planning and intentions of the Biblical God include not just making intelligent life in the universe possible, but divine judgment of human intelligent life in the afterlife so that the saved are eternally rewarded in Heaven and the damned are eternally punished in Hell.  This is conveyed in Dante's cosmic model.  It is only partly conveyed in Digges's cosmic model, which has a place for Heaven, but not for Hell, which shows the modern decline in the belief in Hell.  Does Gingerich's modern cosmic model have places for both Heaven and Hell in the afterlife, and if so, can this be compatible with the modern scientific conception of the cosmos?

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin offer no prospects for eternal life in the afterlife, and they actually see the remote future of the universe as eternal death.  Relying on the work of Nikos Prantzos, in Our Cosmic Future: Humanity's Fate in the Universe (2000),  they paint a bleak picture:
"In the very remote future, countless billions of billions of billions of years from now, the universe will start getting more and more boring.  The gaps between galaxies will increase so that observers will see fewer objects in the skies until eventually each galaxy will seem to be a self-contained universe of its own.  Star formation will cease, and the number of stars will start diminishing until finally there will no longer be any stars at all.  And no stars will surely mean no planets, no biospheres, and no living organisms.  The universe will be dead again, and any complex structures will be slowly broken down, beginning with living organisms, progressing to planets, and eventually to stars.  The Goldilocks conditions that made it possible to create planets and life will no longer exist.  The universe will become a place inhabited by clouds of chemicals, including, perhaps, great lumps of iron.  Where there are clumps of matter, they will either form black holes or eventually get gobbled up by black holes, which will graze on the slim pickings left in an increasingly empty universe.  Eventually, gazillions of gazillions of years from now (gazillions is not a technical term, by the way, but we hope you know what we mean), even the black holes will leak energy and begin to evaporate.  The universe will get simpler and simper and bigger and bigger forever and ever and ever and . . ." (304)
They say that this "bleak picture" should actually be "quite satisfying" to us if we see that what this means is that "we have the good fortune to live in the springtime of the universe," before it collapses into perpetual disorder without complexity or life.

What they call the "Goldilocks conditions" seem to correspond to what Gingerich and others call "fine tuning."  But here the finely tuned conditions for the emergence of ever greater complexity in cosmic history, culminating in the complexity of intelligent life, disappear in the remote future.  This seems odd, because after Christian, Brown, and Benjamin have organized all of their Big History of the universe around the theme of increasing complexity leading to intelligent human life, they point in the last three pages of their book to an endless future history with no complexity or life. 

In David Christian's TED lecture, he concludes his "big history of everything in 18 minutes" with the "near future" (the next 100 years), and he is silent about the "remote future" (the death of the universe many billions of years in the future).  Does this show that the proponents of Big History would rather ignore the remote future of the universe, because that contradicts their story of progress towards complexity and intelligent life?  Is this myth rather than science?

Now it seems that there is no cosmic teleology of progress, because it all ends in perpetual dead disorder.  If this Big History gives us any "powerful sense of meaning," it must be not a cosmic meaning but the immanent meaning inherent in the striving of living beings including ourselves.

Bertrand Russell expressed this thought well:
"That all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction . . . and the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand"
"I am told that that sort of view is depressing and that if people believed it, they would not be able to go on living. . . . But nobody really worries about what is going to happen millions of years hence.  Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out . . ., it is not such as to render life miserable.  It merely makes you turn your attention to other things."
So how do we explain the powerful but illusory appeal of the cosmic teleology of fine tuning the universe for intelligent life?  Perhaps the best way of explaining this comes from Douglas Adams's account of "puddle theory":
"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'  This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."
And, indeed, Christian, Brown, and Benjamin argue that Big History should teach us about the fragile vulnerability of human life in its dependence on life-sustaining ecological conditions, and thus we need to be on the watch out for threats like global warming.  But they also suggest that no matter what we do, we might survive for a few more centuries, or even thousands of years, if we're lucky, but as billions of years pass, the Sun will begin to expand, and the Earth will be too hot for any kind of life.

But if we could imagine ourselves somehow being there to observe the end of all life and the approaching darkness of cosmic death, we could say: Well, it was good while it lasted.

Some of my other posts on Big History can be found here, here, here, here, here., and here.

Some posts on teleology can be found here, here, and here.

Some posts on immortality can be found here, here, here., here, here, and here.

Some posts on Intelligent Design Theory can be found here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter if the universe dies in the distant future if we've all long since escaped to heaven (or hell).