here for less than a blink of the cosmic eye

March 14, 2011

How many of you heard the platitude that the universe is fine-tuned for humans as evidenced by us existing in the first place, and that everything we see on a regular basis like the rising and setting of the sun or a passing of the seasons is a sign of order, order that couldn’t come out of chaos by the basics of thermodynamics, and an order that must signify some sort of stage manager for the universe? Probably pretty much everybody who ever had an existential conversation. But the funny fact is that not only is this train of logic is wrong, but it’s very much backwards. Using physics to establish that order can’t come from chaos means accepting the scientific definition of order as far as physicists are concerned, and if you do that, you’ll find that without entropy, there’s no such thing as humans. Or animals. Or planets. Or stars. Or galaxies, black holes, dark matter, or anything at all for that matter. An ordered universe would be the most boring, homogenous, simple thing possible, just a cloud of hydrogen or another simple element floating in the cosmic darkness. It would be cold, still and very much impossible to inhabit. Yet, we’re here and so in an entire, dynamic, violent, chaotic universe. But how?

As much as we’d like to think that people today are aware that our ideas of order are simply rationalizations of a temporary little blip on cosmological time scales, we still have infamous moments on TV in featuring some random blowhard demanding that we explain why tides are more or less steady, and I’ve had to put up with a fair share of readers demanding that I explain why the universe is so "ordered and stable" while rejecting any evidence that it actually isn’t. Pretty much every example of a so-called ordered universe is an example of the kind of process happening right now or in a particular epoch. The sun will no longer rise after 10 billion years and those precious tides that come in and out without a miscommunication will also one day cease. And this is not to mention that those tides will change over millions of years or that they were radically different eons in the past, when the Moon was just born. Back in those days, every tide was like a tsunami because the Moon’s position was far too close to our planet for the kind of gentle ebbs and flows we experience today. Our climate is also subject to change and the seasons themselves have fluctuated on a scale of tens of millions of years. Those predictable summers, winters, springs, and autumns will vanish in about 100 million years, when the continents will shift far enough and Earth becomes a steamy, swampy world. Even in the 10 to 12 million years that what we could call hominids have been around, the climate changed three times.

When we take this supposed order of the universe even farther, we’ll find that we live in the afterglow of a very entropic event and that our entire warm, visible universe, is going to last approximately 10 × 10^14 years from the first moment of the Big Bang, and when all the stars are reduced to glowing embers and the extant matter would be locked inside giant black holes for the next 10 × 10^105 years or so. And after all that, the universe is supposed to enter a more or less steady state of nothingness for about 10 × 10^10^200 years. If you’re not yet in a numeric daze, you’re probably getting the hint that conditions that allow for the universe as we understand it to exist are an infinitesimal blip in the grand scheme of things, like the lifetime of one subatomic particle in a supercollider compared to the lifetime of our Sun from birth to its eventual transition from a white dwarf into an immense chunk of dense carbon. Now think about that. If the universe were really made for us, why would we be able to live only for the first cosmic nanoseconds of it? And tangentially, why would any deity who is said to have made humans for some grand design of his create a universe in which humans would exist for a teeny, tiny fraction of an infinitesimal blink of an eye? What kind of a design is a few moments of life and activity to be followed by a near infinity of nothingness? Though if we lived in a chaotic and unguided universe, this may be a result we could consider somewhat likely, especially because life requires so many things to exist.

Now, with the true believers, the reaction is to discard all the observational evidence we have for our model of the universe and chalk it all up to human mistakes. Obviously, they’ll say, we have it all wrong, from the CMBR map to measuring the movements of the universe, and this is all just a test to challenge their faith. And this is to be expected since after all, many faiths teach that obstinacy in light of facts is the only acceptable response and that it’s brave to pretend that one is a mollycoddled creation of a fatherly deity while others face a universe that really won’t care about them, and to which they’re just a tiny spark that will be put out almost right away. It’s hardly bravery or humility to expect the creator of the universe to ride to your rescue, however, and the facts of the matter still stand no matter how much wishful thinking you summon against them. Protest and believe all you want but in the end it won’t matter. What does matter is that for one very brief instant we’re alive and we’re here on a tiny oblate spheroid drifting in space. We’ll only have another brief moment to step outside of it and explore just a little of the universe before it’s lights out nearly forever. And while we waste our lives on worrying about what we’re going to do after we’re dead or bickering about whose invisible man can beat up any others’ invisible man, we’re missing the real value of our brief existence and what we could do with it.

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  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    And while we waste our lives on worrying about what we’re going to do after we’re dead or bickering about whose invisible man can beat up any others’ invisible man, we’re missing the real value of our brief existence and what we could do with it.

    This is one of the very subtle yet damaging aspects of religion. Doing something useful with your life really doesn’t require religion, or the lack thereof – it’s possible to improve yourself and/or others regardless of belief systems, ideologies, whatever. Many of the world’s religions specifically call for this, and when you ask most religious folk, this is what they’re doing.

    Only, they’re not. They use scripture and faith only as a way to reinforce their behavior, not to guide it. Thus the obsessive bigotry that arises from religious folk. And they gauge “good” not by what is best for others around them, but by what they imagine their Magic Sky Pony wants. Instead of focusing on what’s most effective for the corporation, they become lickspittles to the CEO, fawning in the hopes that it will result in a raise come evaluation time. Though both the employee manual and common business sense dictates that keeping the company running smoothly is the key goal, the religious think that all they really need to do is wear the corporate colors. Okay, I’ll stop beating that analogy to death…

  • http://projects.electrictoast.net Andrew

    “And tangentially, why would any deity who is said to have made humans for some grand design of his create a universe in which humans would exist for a teeny, tiny fraction of an infinitesimal blink of an eye? What kind of a design is a few moments of life and activity to be followed by a near infinity of nothingness?”

    I think that making this judgment on whether our current situation of existence is a ‘good’ design or not, and claiming it is proof of no god, is equivalent to asking why the tides come on a regular schedule, or other such questions and using them as an argument for a god. We can’t really know either way. I agree with what you are saying, but I think that claiming with confidence that there is no god or making any claim about what lies beyond our limited sphere of knowledge of the universe and beyond is shortsighted, we simply do not know.

  • Greg Fish

    “making this judgment on whether our current situation of existence is a ‘good’ design or not, and claiming it is proof of no god…”

    … is not the train of thought being perused here. The argument was very specific and it dealt with the typical fundamentalist idea of a deity, one that made them and looks over them on a daily basis because human have a very special role in the deity’s plans. The question is why this supposedly special role has to be played on a single planet and in just one brief instant during which the universe would support life as we know it.

  • Paul

    I had a chuckle at the reminder of the tides reference.

    “Tide goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication.”

    Except tomorrow. Tomorrow is a dodge tide.