The Goldilocks Enigma

by Brian 7. November 2010 01:55

I recently finished a book by Paul Davies called The Cosmic Jackpot (Why our Universe is Just Right for Life). It is also published under the title: The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies is an internationally acclaimed physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist at Arizona State University and the winner of the 1995 Templeton Prize. Let me start by saying; I enjoyed the book despite some misgivings with the author’s conclusions and I liked Davies’ writing style. In this post I want to touch on what I thought were the significant takeaways.

The universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life. There are about twenty parameters in the Standard Model of physics and about another ten in astrophysics. The magnitude of many of these, and their relationships to one another, must be very precise in order for our bio-friendly universe to exist. The precision is so great; the chance-odds of variable (free) parameters coming together suitably for bio-friendliness is near zero. In fact, one particular parameter being just right by chance is less likely than winning an average state lottery – more than a dozen times in a row! I won’t go into the details here (you can read all about it in the book) but the bottom line is; most cosmologists, regardless of their worldview, recognize this as a highly confirmed observation of contemporary science. The challenge for those of a nontheistic persuasion is in how to shape their cosmology such that it resolves the enigma while leaving God out of the equation. To attempt this, cosmologists look to a handful of models according to Davies. These include:

·         The Absurd Universe – the universe is just a brute fact, so accept it. The infinitesimal probability of it being life-permitting is irrelevant as we wouldn’t be here to discuss it otherwise. This is also referred to as the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) and Davies says this may in fact be the majority view among scientists. But I would agree with Davies; this view is the easy way out “to the point of being a cop-out.” If the universe is absurd, cosmologists need not look any further for deeper meaning.  I also find WAP to be a disingenuous position. To illustrate using a popular analogy: Take a WAP proponent and put him up in front of a dozen expert sharpshooters. If after the rifles go off, and he finds himself still standing; which thoughts do you think will go through his mind? Will his thoughts favor chance: “Gee, even though it seems too unlikely to be true, the sharpshooters must have all missed, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to ponder my surprise“… or will his thoughts favor purpose: “This was planned; either to miss me intentionally or the weapons were all loaded with blanks.” Which seems more plausible? You be the judge.[i]


·         The Unique Universe – the universe has to be the way it is including its bio-friendliness. This is also called the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP). This view says all of the thirty some-odd parameters are tied to a unifying principle yet to be discovered. Proponents of this view are typically the ones looking for a theory-of-everything (TOE). They believe the TOE will by its very nature reveal why the parameters are configured as they are and why life is a necessary byproduct. The fact bio-friendliness is part of the universe’s landscape is just a mystery under this model. Despite having more backbone than WAP, this view has several obvious problems. First, to say we will discover a theory of everything where life is a necessary byproduct appears blatantly improvised to circumvent the fine-tuning problem. It is also an appeal to future scientific discovery. It’s not much better than saying scientists will eventually prove the moon is made of green cheese, therefore we should provisionally hold the moon is made of green cheese. Furthermore, if there is a TOE, where did it come from? It would have to be God’s creative starting point or a brute fact of reality. If the TOE is not telic, not part of God’s creative plan, then why should life necessarily obtain? Why not a maximally chaotic universe or endless tetrahedrons of stuff floating around, or a pure vacuum universe of space-time? There are a potential-infinite number of alternatives. But complex, diverse, conscious life? Can someone say “ad hoc?”


·         The Multiverse – our visible universe is just one of a very large (or infinite) ensemble of parallel or neighboring universes. If these sibling universes are all absolutely identical to ours, then the multiverse does nothing to solve the fine-tuning problem. So cosmologists prefer the idea of variability where the parameters of the sibling universes are freely and randomly distributed across a vast[ii] or infinite array. If the array is large enough and diverse, the multiverse turns WAP into SAP as there would have to be some configurations with conscious observers. Even though Davies finds the multiverse hypothesis dubious, he says it is a growing minority view among physicists.[iii] It also seems to be the most popular view in science fiction and in the media.

Sibling universes in the multiverse are beyond the horizon of our observable universe, and therefore beyond the range of direct observation. At first, the multiverse hypothesis seems to completely lack testability. Yet Davies describes an interesting approach to at least falsify the theory.[iv] It works like this: A bio-friendly universe does not require infinitely precise values but satisfactory values within a range for each parameter. Above or below each range you have a life prohibiting universe. Within each range there is an ideal value most suitable for life [v]. If our universe is truly one of many (or infinite) bio-friendly universes in a randomized ensemble, then one should expect the parameters in our universe to be randomly distributed in each range. Without any sort of telic dimension to the multiverse, it is unreasonable to assume the values would be anything but randomly distributed.

If however we observe in our universe some values are extremely close to ideal or many values are very close, then random distribution becomes less likely and the appearance of tampering emerges. Tampering in this case would falsify the multiverse hypothesis as an ecbatic process. More research is needed to determine the exact ranges and ideal values before a test like this will be convincing. Davies does point out the amount of dark matter in the universe is about ten times better for life than what is satisfactory and this seems to bother him a bit. But a provisional factor of ten hardly demands telos, so it will be interesting to see where this all leads. In my opinion, assuming ontic vagueness at the quantum level combined with chaotic amplification; God does not appear to create with (what we consider) perfect precision or sharpness. So an eventual find of random distribution would provide little explanation either way. However, a large enough set of very close ideal values should falsify the multiverse.

Since bio-friendliness is so highly improbable, the vast majority of siblings in the multiverse ensemble would be life-prohibiting. But if there is an actual infinite set then anything goes. There would be an infinite number of identical universes with a guy just like me typing this exact sentence right at this moment[vi]. Actual-infinites are really problematic. Davies writes that instead there may be a very large finite set in the ensemble – roughly 1e500 siblings. Now I find this to be an ad hoc aspect of the hypothesis. An infinite set leads to absurdity and finite sets less than an extremely large number will not suffice to address the enigma. So proponents of this model come in with a convenient estimate of 1e500. Where is the principle of parsimony here? We know not to multiply entities beyond necessity, but apparently here 1e500 is okay because that is what’s necessary to make their theory work! But I’m not sure the count matters that much when anything more than one is prodigal. Why should we believe in the existence of any sibling universes beyond the horizon of our observable one? There are mathematical models for how they might be, but that’s a far cry from a physical interpretation or any kind of verification.

Probably the most humorous aspect of the multiverse theory, at least as Davies describes it, is the reality of fake universes. Some cosmologists believe that in a vast multiverse ensemble the odds are far greater that life would be simulated rather than real. In other words, it is far more economical to simulate a billion lives in a computer than to accommodate a billion real lives. In a randomly distributed set of universes, economics supposedly matters. Therefore, accordingly, our universe is far more likely to be a simulation than real! So you and I are probably living in something like the movie: The Matrix. I personally didn’t find this convincing at all and I only mention it here to show the great lengths some cosmologists will go. Most people would say the fake universe perspective takes more faith than theism.

·         The Life Principle (LP) – The universe necessarily produces life. This is similar to SAP in that a theory-of-everything (TOE) will describe how life is inevitable, but it differs in that there would be an underlying teleology or purpose. Conscious observers are not a coincidental byproduct in this model, but the intention, the end-product. According to Davies, this teleology is not theistic, but an alpha-principle, a brute fact starting point. Davies thinks the LP “builds purpose into the workings of the cosmos at a fundamental (rather than an incidental) level without positing a preexisting agent to inject purpose miraculously.” Really? I’m not sure how this is any better than the God-hypothesis from a scientific or theistic standpoint. The idea of an alpha-principle intending life seems less plausible than one where God intends life. Intention is more at home with mind than laws of physics. Davies also seems to misstep theologically. God did not have to inject purpose into the universe. The universe was created with purpose; at least according to Christian theology. In the end, how do we differentiate between the LP and God’s creative plan?


Davies goes on to conjoin the LP with the multiverse to suggest “only universes with a life principle get observed.” But I’m not sure why he even bothers to bring in the multiverse at this point. It adds no explanatory power at the cost of multiplying entities. In other words, the Life-Principle would not be the product of randomizing parameters. To be telic, it would have to be an antecedent principle in place at the point of inflation when the parameters are randomized. Otherwise the LP is nothing more than a category for bio-friendly siblings in the multiverse. After considering the Life Principle, I thought surely things cannot get more contrived. But I was mistaken.


·         The Self-explaining Universe – the universe explains itself as a causal loop. Davies describes a universe evolving towards maximal information density where at some point it reaches consciousness – sort of like Skynet becoming self-aware at 2:14 am Eastern Time on August 29th, 1997 in Terminator II. Then, using some kind of backwards-in-time causation, the universe loops back on itself so that it never has a starting point. The need for an explanation supposedly dissolves away into the cosmic loop. This is basically Barrow and Tippler’s Final Anthropic Principle (FAP) reheated. There’s just not much to say about this other than it seems desperate, bizarre and barely worthy for science fiction. An appeal to backwards-in-time causation is problematic, to say the least. Perhaps someday I will invent a time machine; write up the plans; build it; then go back in time and give myself the knowledge to build a time machine – creating the knowledge from nothing. Seriously though, how are we to distinguish between a self-created, self-explaining, necessary, cosmic mind and…God? In any event, I really don’t understand Davies’ affinity for this idea and his comment: “only self-consistent loops capable of understanding themselves can create themselves” makes no sense to me.


Today is a great day to be a Christian theist! The goldilocks enigma is a real problem for the nontheist and cosmologists like Davies, Hawking, and Penrose are all over the map in terms of how to deal with it. There remains little consensus after several decades of theorizing. Davies and others criticize the God-hypothesis and Intelligent Design by saying it is no better than WAP and stifles scientific enquiry. But that is simply not the case. Though absurdity does tend to remove the foundation for science, a rational and orderly God does not. Einstein said: The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. But to the theist, this is not a surprise at all. In conclusion, The Cosmic Jackpot was still a good book and I recommend it. But the problem of fine tuning is not just scientific, but philosophical. When Davies stuck to science, I found his writing informative and interesting. When he moved into areas outside his expertise, things took a turn for the worse. Einstein also rightly agreed: “the man of science is a poor philosopher.”  



[i] Keep in mind; a hypothetical set of twelve sharpshooters all missing by chance is dozens or perhaps hundreds of orders of magnitude more likely than the chance-odds of the Goldilocks enigma.

[ii] One estimate is 1e500 universes

[iii] The mathematical physicist Roger Penrose would concur with Davies the multiverse does not enjoy scientific confirmation and that it resides on the “border of science and metaphysics.”

[iv] It’s great when you come across a novel idea in a book that makes it worth reading. To me, this was such an idea.

[v] Some will argue “life” as used in this discussion is carbon-biased. But it’s important to remember many of the parameters are required to be fine-tuned for our universe to exist at all at this point with stars, galaxies, etc. You need stars and star-death for the bulk of the periodic table to exist.

[vi] In fact there would be an infinite number of universes with two me-clones sitting side by side typing; and three me-clones; and an infinite number of universes where each clone types alternate letters, etc. etc. the absurdness goes on and on ad infinitum




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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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