Book "Review"

Cosmic Jackpot,

Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life

by Paul Davies (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

I listened to National Public Radio’s (NPR’s) Talk of the Nation/Science Friday on the 23d of November, 2007, and heard an interview with Paul Davies, talking about his book Cosmic Jackpot, Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life.  Paul Davies is the author of The Mind of God, a book about which I wrote a short impression not all that long ago, another reason why I sat up and took notice.  Davies is a physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist at Arizona State University.

In the NPR Science Friday interview I heard Davies say some things that really grabbed my attention. For example, I groaned internally when the host, Ira Flatow, led off with a question about backward causation, suggestion this was in his book, and mentally I wrote the book off.  But imagine my delight when he said it wasn’t quite like that, the future cannot change the past.  OK, I was hooked at that point and went right out and got the book.  Call me impulsive.

I was intrigued and delighted that the authors of one of my favorite books on reality, life and modern physics had written on the back cover that:

    “Is it luck, statistics, mystery, or God that makes our universe so perfect for life? Cosmic Jackpot brings the reader up to speed on cosmology.  Rigorously honest, effortlessly funny, and wryly skeptical, it’s a whirlwind tour through competing and often wild views of the ultimate nature of our universe and other possible universes.” Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, authors of The View from the Center of the Universe (click here to go to a review of that book on this site)

Davies seems to be skeptical about the things I am skeptical about, and suffers from the same character defect I do, he lets his ‘heart’ (I call it my intuitive side) inform his own beliefs (as does every other human being to some extent, regardless of denials).  I was pleased as punch, after listing the various explanations for the universe with their pros and cons, to see him admit that his personal choice is a hybrid of two of the theories he explains in his book and that this choice is not strictly intellectual (page 268):

    . . . I do believe that life and mind are etched deeply into the fabric of the cosmos, perhaps through a shadowy, half-glimpsed life principle, and if I am to be honest I have to concede that this starting point is something I feel more in my heart than in my head.  So maybe that is a religious conviction of some sort.

Why did I latch onto this statement at the very end of the book as strongly as I did? Because I have had to defend my being comfortable with my own internal division between what I intellectually know, stuff that rests on established fact, and my intuitive feelings about reality.  It seems to me a perfectly human way to be, but some have said it is a mental disease to be divided internally like this, that I should seek to make myself whole by reconciling the one view with the other and having a single view of reality within me.  I only agree with this in some very limited instance: when it comes to the weirdness of quantum physics we ought not rely on our earth-informed intuition.  Davies allows for quantum weirdness (see his pp. 63-64 for example) but formulates counter arguments to some of the interpretations ‘out there’ that are based on his own personal beliefs and feelings.  He actually warns of this being so on page 220, and from there to the end of the book it is self-evident that as the author comes to several tentative conclusions we are in the realm of highly informed, yet highly personal, opinion.  Perhaps Davies and I will be tossed into the same looney bin someday, undergoing mind-unification-therapy.  

Someone sent me my own words written some time ago and I was struck by how closely these words conform with Davies’ idea that the universe is “about something” (p. 268) that includes the coming forth of life and mind:

    The more attractive thought is that the Universe has a 'telos,' an inner, diffuse urge to become self-aware and reveal itself, its divine self according to some, through sentient beings that she has been raising up and growing within her, not unlike mushrooms on a forest floor.

Of course I have always been fascinated with the fact that mushroom spores are everywhere in a forest, but if conditions become right to support their locally multiplying, there soon appear these emergent fruiting bodies called mushrooms (or toadstools, be careful).  

And this then brings me to explore two items in Davies’ book: what does he think of  "telos” in the universe, and does he view consciousness as an emergent property?

Page 230 is where Davies directly mentions the machinations of the “mind”as “emergent properties of nature.”  Mind, consciousness and observers are discussed on page 231 as emerging when physical laws and conditions permit them to emerge.

This, of course, begins to hint at telos, which Davies (p. 233) says simply means “end” or “outcome,” and implies “cause,” and brings the “dreaded t-word: teleology” into play. Davies then explains why teleology is dreaded by and dismissed from science and in doing so, on page 234, made me aware of something I should have been, but was not aware of.  In his example of a scientific process to which teleology is typically first attached, and then attacked, the theory of evolution by Darwin, Davies explains that teleology was purposely dismissed from the theory by  Darwin himself.  He said he was looking at a random process of mutations selected for in the here and now, with no forward purpose or plan, and that the theory could therefore only be applied to organisms that already exist.  Evolution says nothing about the coming forth of life, only about how it adapts and changes after it already exists.

Scientists, according to Davies (p. 234), reject the theological implications typically associated in our day with teleology, even though the originator of teleogy, Aristotle, professed a “theologically neutral” concept of “final causation.”   Davies, on page 235, suggests that:

        The strong anthropic principle and even de Duve’s at-first-sight innocuous “cosmic imperative” flirt with teleology.  They describe the facilitation of a particular end state of affairs – life, consciousness – via a long sequence of steps, a sequence that culminates billions of years after the laws of nature have been “laid down.”

Davies goes on to cite some of the objections to this idea from name brand scientists, and then at the bottom of the page and the next one suggests that perhaps “Abandoning Platonism Would Make Room for Teleology.”  The discussion then moves to the radical idea that the idealized universe and its idealized laws based on the Platonic model may be doing us a disservice, that in fact the laws of physics may not be as precise as we would like to think and could vary from place to place, just as they certainly were not the same as they are now during the first, hottest nanoseconds after the Big Bang.  This, according to Davies (p. 242), results in the possibility that

    . . . mathematics, physics, life, and mind would emerge from a self-consistent, common axiomatic scheme.

It in effect creates a loophole into which teleology may be inserted:

    . . . if the basic laws of physics are not in fact rigid in the Platonic sense, if there is a looseness or inherent limitation on the accuracy of those laws – especially in the first early moments of the universe, when its bio-friendly nature was being laid down – then a loophole exists for a lawlike trend toward life and mind to peacefully coexist alongside the traditional laws of physics.  There would no longer be any conflict.

But now even Davies gets spooky, saying that in this scheme of things there is backward influence after all!  Gasp!

    Teleology . . . lets future states influence the present.  How can that be?  How could the very early universe – the epoch when the laws of physics were still in the melting pot – possibly know about life and mind emerging billions of years later?

Pages 242-249 explain how, referring to the same experiments to whose backward-in-time information -ignaling interpretations I have before vehemently objected.  Davies, on page 247, reassures me he also objects to such interpretations of what he calls “delayed-choice experiments:”

        How should this experiment be interpreted?  What it does not do is establish the possibility of backward-in-time signaling as such: no actual information can be transmitted to the past using the delayed-choice experiment. {Many popular accounts give the incorrect opposite impression.}

We agree.  But what is the correct interpretation?  Davies causes me to roll my eyes on his page 248 when he suggests that the photons in these types of experiments are neither particles nor waves until observed, and that it is this observation that makes them become either a particle or a wave, which then has a backward influence.  

To me this is like seeing the history of this particle in time as a long pole, and twisting it at one end changes it all the way back to the beginning of the pole, its beginning.  That is not at all what Davies says, he is smarter than that, but frankly I see no reason why collapsing the photon into either a wave or a particle at some point in time when we observe it is necessarily causing something in the past.  Talk about ‘spooky action at a distance,’ this is spooky action in time.

By the way, I did not find this discussion in the book, but on the NPR Science Friday interview the interviewer asked about spooky action at a distance, and Davies said this was not really action at a distance but a remarkable symmetrical correlation between two particles that is maintained through all time and space.  But if we disturb and change one of the two particles, we are not changing the other, we are just breaking the correlation  or symmetry.  Right on, on that one, but this action- backward-in-time thing is equally spooky.  

But this is Davies’ book, so we must let him continue this thought because he likes it. The bottom line is in a quote from the pioneering theoretical physicist John Wheeler on page 250:

    “The coming explosion of life opens the door,” declared Wheeler, “to an all encompassing role for observer-participancy: to build, in time to come, no minor part of what we call its past – our past, present and future – but this whole vast world.”

Davies next suggests this is an alternative explanation for the biofriendliness of the universe but asks whether or not this explanation can explain why the universe exists at all.  On his page 251 he gives an idea of what may be involved in this universe having “engineered its own self-awareness through quantum backward causation or some other physical mechanism yet to be discovered.” (P. 250)  

The idea involves “Loops in Time” with the universe expanding in time an then collapsing on itself with a time-reversal that brings it back to its own starting point both physically and in time.  Davies published the theoretical description of such a phenomenon in 1972, including the reversal of entropy and time (apparently his unique contribution).  He cites (on his page 252) similar ideas by other theoretical physicists, two of whom collaborated on a paper entitled “Can the Universe Create Itself?” which involved a baby universe growing up and looping back to become the mother universe.  


In fairness to Davies, he does acknowledge (p. 258) that the looping idea requires some change, over time, in the way the universe is expanding.  Most believe it will die a cold death some trillions of years in the future.  Perhaps a change in the nature of dark energy will be in the universe’s future, changing its fate.  Davies also acknowledges other shortcomings in this theory, and observes that (p. 259):  

    Perhaps we have reached a fundamental impasse dictated by the limitations of the human intellect.

But, that could also change in the future, Davies suggests.

So, when it comes to there being a fundamental bias toward life in the universe (allowing it to emerge when conditions are right), and that bias being a teleogical phenomenon, Davies and I agree (which satisfies me, I don’t think it matters to Davies).

But other than those two observations, there is much to delight the mind in the book I have skipped over.

Here are some of the things that I found of interest, in addition to the two themes of emergence and telos that I began with.  I list these points of interest in backward order so as to be able to better resist the temptation to make a narrative out of them that recapitulates the book.

1.          Page 259 suggests we are “free of Darwinian evolution and able to create our own real and virtual worlds,” . . .  By create he means modify, of course, but I find this a delightful thought in and of itself.  I have thought for many years that one of the reasons for the emergence of consciousness is to allow ourselves to benefit from a more enlightened approach to the continuation of our species.  This means controlling the rate at which we reproduce and stopping the destruction of the world to support more and more of us, the biological imperative needs to be modified to allow us to live sustainably with our co-creatures on this planet.  

2.          Davies on page 257 suggests that the original, or Copenhagen, interpretation of quantum physics entails a strong anthropic principle: “only a universe containing observer-participants could exist” . . . .  He says that “Most cosmologists, however, reject the Copenhagen interpretation in favor of the quantum universe, which describes an infinite number of really existing parallel universes.”  Only some of these many universes would contain life, the others play a role in supporting the multiverse, they are not useless.  I did not like the strong anthropic principle or the strange suggestions made in the name of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, but I also don’t like the unconstrained multiverse idea.  I do like the idea of the continuous creation of universes, however, by the “eternal inflation” process described on pages 79-83 (see note 13 below).

3.          The “final anthropic principle” description on page 250 brought a big grin to my face: it is a speculation that suggests that life and mind will spread into the cosmos and become a “distributed superintelligence” that “will become more and more godlike.”  In the end this “supermind” will become one with the universe.  I love this because after all of the protestations to the contrary, when you couple this idea with the loop in time idea, it means there is an instrinsic power in the universe, a god or even God, since in the last loop it has fully developed, and it is imaginable that by distributing itself into all matter it survived the “bounce” (rather than the original “bang”).   So since this world and its universe may be the result of a bounce rather than a bang, maybe there is a god that is an embedded property of all matter and likely is also distributed throughout all space since space is the reservoir of potential virtual matter!  An omnipresent, distributed god, as it were!

No wonder there are religious websites that recommend this book to their believers!

[This reminds me very much of something fascinating in my former belief system that I really like(d).  Brigham Young, second prophet of Mormonism, taught that “the glory of God is intelligence” and that intelligence was a property distributed throughout all space and all matter and concentrated in living beings. It was most concentrated in humans, and as we progress in the hereafter more and more intelligence would flow into us so that, over very long times,  presumably we could have intelligence like God has and become as God is.  Never thought of Brigham as a theoretical physicist, but there you have it.

Of course he was a religious leader, so the way he couched it in religious terms was to suggest that the "righteous" --which meant those ever striving to be obedient to the dictates of God-- would have the promise of this fate of ever greater inteligence, but those who were lukewarm would stay pretty much at the level they were at and become a servile class forever, and those who were truly evil to their core would actually have their intelligence taken away and returned to the 'pool' of unembodied intelligence in the universe, a true second death so to speak, having their beings completely dismantled and recycled both physically and spiritually!  Quite an interesting and even humane concept since it does not involve a God presiding (with some plausible deniability because of this miscreant called Satan as resident manager and torturer) over a hell of eternal and exquisite and truly imaginative tortures as punishments.  Sorry Dante, your vison of the Inferno was entertaining, but you were seriously misled!]

4.          Pages 224-225 describe a thought I have never experienced before, that DNA and genes are programs, like computer programs, that impose a virtual reality on what we observe and help us (and other life forms) to function in the world as our genes interpret it.  Our genome, Davies suggests David Deutch has said, is an "internal representation of the world – a type of virtual reality – " . . . that allows us to interpret and thus function in our environment.  The discussion continues for quite a while, with another reference to emergence of properties in the universe over time, including mind.

5.          Pages 191-221 cover the topic “Intelligent and Not-So-Intelligent Design.”  I liked a lot of what I read in this chapter’s beginning, and lost a bit of interest toward the end, but Davies does a very nice job debunking the Intelligent Design idea, but look at note 3, above, and see that there may be a loophole in the works: there may be distributed intelligence in everything that makes up the cosmos and it may be driving the coming forth of life and consciousness.  But where I learned something new (as already mentioned above actually) is on page 197 where Davies says that the accusation that evolution can’t explain the origins of life are correct, Darwin explicitly stated this to be the case.  Evolution is the organizing principle for existing organisms only.  Davies says: “It has to be admitted that the origin of life remains a deep mystery.”

6.          Pages 179- 190 discuss the science-fiction idea that this universe is a fake created by a superior computer.  We, and our gods, are thus fake.  I know we all feel that way at times but I really don’t buy any of it as viable or worth further thought. Although, if you make another movie about it I will watch it and be suitably entertained.

7.          Pages 177-178 discuss the implausibility of ever running into a “doppelganger” (not a word used by Davies, but meaning a carbon copy of yourself) in the multiverse. Good to have that settled as very unlikely, although the next time a movie is made using this as a plot-basis, I’ll watch it.

8.          On pages 170-171 Davies suggests that many scientists hate the multiverse idea and believe there is but one universe.  Good.  On pages 172-177 he goes on to explain that it may be that some consequences of the multiverse idea may be testable, making it an idea rooted in legitimate science (p. 176, because variations in physical constants may be observable) even though it “hovers on the borderline between science and fantasy.” (P. 173)

9.          Page 165 caught my eye because it explains that different physical properties for elementary particles could result from a different Higgs mechanism being operative. Elementary particles receive their mass in direct consequence of the strength of their interaction with the Higgs field (as explained on pages 155-157).  So if in some other universe there is even a slightly different Higgs field, the elementary particles may have different masses and matter may never have come forth the way we know it!  An interesting thought developed further in the next few pages suggests our physical laws may just be local by-laws rather than universal truths, allowing for other universes with different properties than ours.

10.         As a chemist I was very interested in “The Origin of the Chemical Elements” discussion starting on page133.  What was of particular interest was the discussion of how carbon was made in stars.  Quite the story (told on pages 135-139)!  Apparently, if it were not for resonance, induced by heat and motion inside the star, making an unstable form of beryllium just a tiny bit more long-lived, there would be no helium collisions resulting in carbon.  Fred Hoyle is credited with figuring this out in 1951.

11.         Page 127 suggests that the life of our universe is finite and, although life may be able to move from dying start systems to viable ones for a very long time, eventually life will be gone, unless . . . (and note # 3 above gives an idea of one ‘unless’).  That discussion on page 127 forms the end of a chapter on dark matter and the various models for the ultimate fate of the universe (pp. 116-128).

12.         Davies’ discussion of the ultimate unification theories included symmetry, supersymmetry, string theory and M (brane) theory with ten dimensions (pp. 103-115).  Having read about these topics before, however, I found the most intriguing part of this chapter to be its conclusion which said in effect that while string and other theorists have been happily calculating what they hope to be the ultimate explanation of the universe, the observations and discoveries of astronomers have “exploded like a grenade in the entire theoretical physics paradigm, throwing string theory as well as cosmology into turmoil.”  That turmoil is explained in the succeeding chapters and informs this book, of course.  On page 114 Davies quotes Michio Kaku (whom I also review on this site) fervently hoping that all his and his colleagues’ work on string theory hasn’t all been in vain.  String theory is a very neat idea that very small particles vibrating in different modes are what constitute the ultimate particles making up matter, making up the subatomic particles of the Standard Model discussed in Davies’ previous chapter (Chapter 4).

13.         As I mentioned under note 2, above, I like the "Eternal Inflation” idea discussed on pages 79-81 and used to explain “The Multiverse” on pages 81-83.  Why?  Because it makes the uniqueness of this universe and its Big Bang go away as an issue and suggests there are “big bangs” occurring again and again through space and time.  This does suggest many universes, which I don’t like intuitively because it takes away from the idea that a universe encompasses all there is.  But I do like it, intuitively [even my intuitive side has divisions at odds with each other!], because it makes the question of what there was before the “Big Bang” (=no time and no-thing, see the book’s Chapter 3) go away.  Actually it just moves it into another realm, the realm of the first bang, and gee, let’s give that one to theology to worry over since it is not observable or testable and hence not an idea that fits in the domain of science, even though it may be real.  Maybe.

14.         Inside Chapter 3, I was pleased to see a discussion of the energy of space, stylized de Sitter space to be exact on pages 64-65.  Davies and a student were apparently pioneers on quantum effects, density fluctuations due to virtual particles appearing and disappearing in the vacuum.  Quantum effects involving virtual particles are further discussed on page 96.  Why did this please me?  Because in other books, popular ones not written by an expert like this one was, I have seen the same phenomenon described without the use of the word “virtual,” as if space was continually spawning matter as we know it.

15.         This is a real nit, but Davies suggests there is no center and no edge to the universe on page 24.   At the start of this review I quoted from an endorsement by Primack and Abrams.  Their book title is The View from the Center of the Universe!  How is this possible?  Did they not know there is no center?  They do, and they selected the title to be an enigma.  Like Davies, Primack and Abrams apparently believe that our consciousness is the center of the universe.  Clever.  On his page 5 Davies uses language that also reflects this idea that somehow our minds are central to the universe when he says:

        Somehow the universe has engineered, not just its own awareness, but also its own comprehension.  Mindless, blundering atoms have conspired to make not just life, not just mind, but understanding.  The evolving universe has spawned beings who are able not to merely watch the show, but to unravel the plot.

Davies continues by suggesting that if this humanity that is searching out the plot is the only life in the universe capable of doing so, and it is snuffed out, then the universe will spend trillions of years dying without anyone being aware of it, no one will be there to appreciate the mystery.  Unless. . . . .  And the “unless” is why the book was written, to give some hints as to what this unless may be all about.  

Now I have come full circle and am done with this review for my own purposes.  

All my reviews are written to serve my own purposes.  Did I like the book?  Definitely.  

Did I agree with everything in it?  Hey, weren’t you paying attention?  

No, I found some of it incredible and not convincing, but so did Davies!  But that goes for every book I have ever read and every person I have ever met.  Yet I still buy and read books and make and keep friends.  If there is no difference between my thoughts and the thoughts of an author as expressed in a book, especially a book of this nature, then I have wasted my time and energy reading it.  (As a corollary, if a friend and I believe exactly the same things for the same reasons, we will never learn anything from each other.)  

I enjoyed reading this book, and enjoyed taking a few notes along the way which I fleshed out for sharing on this page.

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