Saturday, November 1, 2008

Why Are We Here (Cosmically, That Is)?

It is mysterious and wonderful to find that when one picks through the dust and shards of nuclear physics, one finds a series of curious coincidences--nigh-miraculous near misses, if you will. From the size and constancy of the incredibly tiny particles and forces that make up the Universe to discoveries about vast interstellar space, it seems terribly unlikely that there should be any such thing as life, and human beings, and the physics and art we have produced.

The easy answer to "Why?" is "That's just God's will." But there are good reasons that is not a very good answer. One is the "First Cause" dilemma: If it's all the way it is because God made it this way, where did God come from? Several years ago I wrote a little poem that goes, "Where is God tonight? If He is wise and holy--as I know He is--then He is in His heaven praying to His God." Attributing the miraculous unlikeliness of the Universe we find ourselves in to mysterious unknown forces and sources merely kicks the can down the road. If we postulate that those forces and sources are "unknowable," that is just kicking the can out of sight. It's not a very satisfying solution, and it's certainly not very scientific; the core of the scientific outlook--which has made such amazing discoveries and wrought such incredible changes in the world we live in--is to keep looking deeper and trying harder to explain things no matter how inaccessible any answers may seem.

Almost as easy (and almost as unscientific) is the Anthropic Principle. It says that if things weren't just right--just exactly the way they are--so that life and humans and scientists could exist, we wouldn't be here looking back and asking the question. The "strong" Anthropic Principle says, so that's WHY it was all designed this way--to produce us. The "weak" Anthropic Principle says, maybe it just happened to come out "right," but if it hadn't, we wouldn't be wondering about it.

Some cosmic theoreticians carry the Weak Anthropic Principle a step further. They say, maybe there are many, many universes with all sorts of different kinds of dust and shards (particles and forces) but this is the one that happened to have the right stuff to produce us, so this is the only one we know about.

Is that about as far as we can go for now? No, not quite. Because nuclear physics has also introduced a curious discovery into the equation. It seems that at the sub-atomic level, things are often not true until we observe them. Think about that. It is a momentous discovery. It is completely counter-intuitive, in other words, it's just not the way things "should" be. But after decades of head-scratching puzzlement and tight, reproducible experiments and observations, we simply know it is, in fact, the way things are. Some of the findings of quantum nuclear physics are devilishly strange, but they have been clearly demonstrated again and again. Two particles that are millions of miles apart can be so entangled that a change in one immediately dictates a change in the other--with no possible time for any signal to pass between them. But worse than that, a particle's characteristics do not become established until someone observes or measures them; but then the particle somehow looks backward in time and dictates that it always was the way it has now become. This seems crazy--this seems wrong--this seems absurd. But experiment after experiment establishes that it is so.

What is observation? What is consciousness? Why are we so special that when we let something into consciousness, it becomes real--it becomes so? This is not the way we thought the world works. It seems there may be an answer somewhere in there to the question, "Why are we here (cosmically, that is)?" but it is a very strange answer indeed.