Science in Christian Perspective
W. JIM NEIDHARDT
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, New Jersey 07102
From: JASA 36 (December 1984): 201-207.
A short review is given of many cosmological data that have been labeled "anthropic", in that they can be interpreted as a consequence of human observers being indispensable parts of the macrophysical world. Two interpretations of anthropic data are discussed in detail: The standard one called The Anthropic Principle and an equivalent Biblical, theistic interpretation called The Theistic Principle (based on an evaluation of all human experience). The Theistic Principle provides a perspective on the rich complexity of Biblical and physical revelation and their interactions. This perspective reveals a comprehensive coherence; an internal consistency, i.e. inner simplicity; and a fruitfulness that can even lead to successful predictions. Both forms of revelation in our Universe, Biblical experience and natural experience, can illuminate each other by providing insights which lead to greater understanding. Together they point beyond themselves to the transcendent, Creator-Redeemer God who continually holds this Universe in being thereby making it a "fit habitat" for all human observers who uniquely are made in His image.
Ever since Nicolaus Copernicus began to circulate drafts of his theory of a heliocentric solar system in the early 1500's, modern science has been influenced partly by the Copernican conviction that the earth and its inhabitants are not singled out as special beings in the Universe. Copernicus had forcefully shown that the earth was a typical rather than a unique piece of the Universe and this Copernican Principle was found useful in guiding future astronomical explorations. But today in the words of Paul Davies "something strange, it seems, is happening to the Universe. In the words of British astronomer Fred Hoyle, it is as though somebody had been I monkeying around' with the laws of nature. And not only Hoyle but an increasing number of other scientists are baffled by a string of apparent 'accidents' and 'coincidences' so long that they cannot be dismissed."1 Indeed it has been discovered "that many of the familiar structures of the physical world-atoms, stars, galaxies, and life itself-are remarkably sensitive to the precise form in which the fundamental laws of physics manifest themselves. So sensitive are they that the slightest shift in nature's parameters would bring about a catastrophic change in the organization of the cosmos. It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature's numbers to make the Universe"2 uniquely suited as a habitat for intelligent human observers.
As a result of this growing body of evidence a number of
prominent astronomers, cosmologists, and physicists are challenging the Copernican perspective of the Universe. They
have reintroduced into cosmology an
that views certain features of the Universe, i.e. its size, as very
dependent upon the awareness of man. In other words the
fact that the real universe harbors intelligent observers places
constraints on the diversity of physical laws and parameters
that have governed the Universe's development. These scientists postulate a Copernican universe whose nature is constrained by observers. The conjecture that certain features
of the Universe are determined by the existence of observers
has become known as
"the Anthropic Principle".
Let us briefly examine some of the evidence for the many coincidences" that modern cosmological research has uncovered. A portion of this evidence is summarized nicely as follows in the fine review article of Henry T. Simmons:
1. The coupling strength of the gravitational force ... is so delicately poised that a slight change would alter radically the nature of the cosmos. To some scholars this shift would rule out the possibility of intelligent observers. If the gravitational force were slightly greater, all the stars would be blue giants. Such stars manufacture the elements heavier than iron essential to all life on earth and scatter them into supernova explosions. But the lifetime of blue giants is only a few tens of millions of years, probably too short for planetary life to evolve and far too short for the evolution of intelligent observers....
But if the gravitational force were slightly smaller, all stars would be hydrogen-burning dwarfs, like the sun. Their lifetime would be many tens of billions of years. This allows ample time for any evolution that might occur. But such a universe would be devoid of the essential-to-life elements heavier than iron.
Thus the value of the gravitational coupling seems precisely poised to permit the evolution of a particular universe. This universe must contain short-lived metal-scattering blue giant stars; long-lived, evenly burning, slowly turning stars such as the sun; and observers.
2. There is a similar delicate balance between the strong force that binds the nuclei of atoms together against the enormous repulsion of their like-charged protons. If the strong force were slightly weaker, multi-proton nuclei could not hold together and only hydrogen could exist in the Universe; if slightly stronger, nuclei of almost unlimited size might exist. Similar small changes in the value of the electromagnetic coupling constant or in the ratio of the mass of the electron to that of the proton would block any conceivable kind of chemistry.
The weak force also plays a critical role. "If the weakinteraction coupling constant were slightly smaller or larger ... helium production would be either 100 per cent or zero," observe Bernard Carr and Martin Rees of Cambridge University. In one case there would be no water, in the other an entirely variant stellar evolution.
3. Additionally, the expansion rate observed in the Universe today is very close to the critical value necessary to achieve an open, flat, or infinitely expanding universe.... Princeton physicist Robert Dicke notes that this flatness is crucial for its evolution. "If the rate of expansion in the early Universe were only one part in 10" smaller," he observes, "the Universe would have recollapsed before it would have formed stars and galaxies. And if this expansion rate were increased very slightly by only one part in 1014, the Universe would expand too rapidly to permit density fluctuations in the early Universe to condense into bound systems like galaxies. And "since it would seem that the existence of galaxies is a necessary condition for the development of intelligent life, the answer to the question 'Why is the Universe isotropic?' is 'because we are here."3
These "seeming coincidences" and others provide the chief evidence for what has become known as the Anthropic Principle, which states that the laws and parameters that describe the physical universe may be "explained" by the existence of intelligent observers in that universe. Note that the important point of the evidence is not that there are many coincidences but that all these "seeming coincidences" are just what is required for life, i.e. intelligent observers to exist. The present validity of the Anthropic Principle as an explanatory principle depends strongly on the number of striking
As a result of this growing body of evidence a number of prominent astronomers, cosmologists, and physicists are challenging the Copernican perspective of the Universe.
coincidences. Its future status is thereby tied to the "number of further antbropic relations which are discovered or, better still, predicted and then discovered." The scientists who object most strongly to using it as an explanatory principle of cosmology quite rightly point out that to date the anthropic approach is essentially retrodictive and post hoc. However it has made one striking prediction and this has given skeptics reason to reconsider their objection, for its existence meets one important test of a scientific theory, i.e. predictive power.It can be argued that the antbropic approach can be formulated in such a way as to favorably pass the other two criteria for judging the validity of any scientific theory, namely comprehensiveness and simplicity.4
The triumph occurred in the early 1950s, before scientists fully understood how the elements of the periodic table are manufactured by nucleosynthetic processes in stars. The original Big Bang theory, advanced by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in 1948, postulated that all the chemical elements were manufactured in the original fireball. But there was a major obstacle: There are no stable nuclei with atomic masses of five or eight; the ladder is missing rungs.
It was easy to see that protons-atomic mass: one could capture neutrons-also one-and form deuterons-atomic mass: two-and that collisions of deuterons would produce nuclei of atomic mass four, like those of helium. But the gaps at atomic masses five and eight would have prevented further buildup of elements in the fireball. For the buildup to occur, nuclei of those missing mass numbers had to have been produced, either by the addition of a single neutron to the helium nucleus to form lithium 5, or by the fusion of a pair of helium nuclei into beryllium-8.
It was British cosmologist Fred Hoyle who found a way around this roadblock in 1953. While lithium 5 and beryllium 8 are unstable, they can be produced as brief resonances. Although their lifetimes would be too short in the low-density fireball to enable them to fuse into larger, stable structures before they decay, the conditions obtaining in the dense cores of very hot, helium-rich stars are far different. In the case of the mass-8 barrier, Hoyle showed that collisions between helium nuclei are frequent, and the carbon 12 nucleus "wants" so desperately to come into being that a third helium nucleus has a good chance of fusing with beryllium 8 before the unstable beryllium can fracture into a pair of heliums. The result of that threefold union is a 12-baryon nucleus (12-atomic-mass nucleus, parenthesis mine) of carbon. And once carbon is formed, the process of helium fusion can go on to build elements all the way up to iron.
Nowhere in Hoyle's paper did he ever conjure the anthropic condition. Nonetheless, his predictive insight is regarded as an anthropic keystone, the bridge to carbon that had to exist if Dicke's observer-physicists were to be.
"Beryllium 8 was the really big stumbling block," recalls Dicke. "You could visualize universes in which the barrier (was not) crossed, for example, by adjusting the values of the strong and electromagnetic coupling constants. From the anthropic point of view, you would still have a universe, but we would not be here. But since we are here, it was obvious that nature had to cross the barrier in some way."5
Interpretations of "Anthropic" Evidence
After this brief review of the evidence for the Anthropic Principle let us consider an argument of the noted astrophysicist, Edward R. Harrison, concerning the most common formulation of this principle and also an alternative but equally valid interpretation of this evidence. Harrison envisions that not just one but an ensemble of physical universes exist and that each is self-contained and unaffected by the rest (the ensemble of physical universes is a conceptual framework borrowed from the Wheeler-Everitt "manyworlds" interpretation of the quantum- mechanical formation which is one possible, but not necessarily superior formulation of quantum theory, as its critics have pointed out).' In this real ensemble of universes, only our Universe and perhaps others closely similar contain living creatures, i.e., intelligent observers. "Life exists in one universe at least-and we occupy that Universe. Our existence determines the design of our Universe. This is the Anthropic Principle that has been expressed in different ways by Robert Dicke, Brandon Carter and John Wheeler....
"The second interpretation is that a Creator has designed our finely tuned Universe specifically for the containment of life. This is the Theistic Principle as elaborated in mythology and theology. All other previously imagined universes may now be discarded. They serve merely as convenient fictions enabling us to realize that our Universe is finely tuned for habitation by life."7
Thus we have two contrasting perspectives on the Anthropic Principle's chief thrust that much scientific evidence indicates that the Universe that we live in is peculiarly suited to the production of life. The same scientific evidence indicates the probability of this Universe randomly organizing itself to produce life is nearly zero. As has been pointed out by John Leslie's if there exist many other, not yet detected lifeless universes, the existence of one life-producing Universe among the many lifeless members of the ensemble would not be so surprising.
On the other hand the other perspective, that there is a God who fashioned this Universe to uniquely fit intelligent observers, also has merit as a worthwhile explanation, particularly if it is considered in conjunction with the total religious experience of the Judeo-Christian tradition, (i.e. the many historical events of the Old and New Testaments which Biblical theology sees as evidence of a personal God acting in the concrete events of history to redeem a people meant to be "servants of peace to all the Nations"). In any event it is worth noting that Leslie argues that the God hypothesis as contrasted to the many-universes interpretation is superior on the grounds of explanatory simplicity. It should also be noted that Leslie's theistic interpretation of the Anthropic Principle in no way requires that God be personal in nature. Arguments for the existence of a personal-infinite God are properly framed only in the context of the totality of human experience; scientific and religious experiences being complementary components of that totality. Note that the possibility that a purposeful God may reveal Himself in concrete historical events and through inspired prophets (who interpret such events) should not be ruled out of consideration because of scientistic (or positivistic) biases.
W. Jim Neidhardt is Associate Professor of Physics at New Jersey Institute Of Technology. His professional interests are in quantum physics; systems theory; and the integration of scientific, philosophical, and religious perspectives, all being forms of personal knowledge as ably pointed out by the scientistphilosopher, Michael Polanyi. He is a member of the American Physical Society, American Association of Physics Teachers, Sigma Xi, and a Fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation, and has published twenty-six professional papers. He is also interested in the problems of educationally deprived collegebound students and has taught a college level integrated physics-calculus course for Newark high school seniors. Dr. and Mrs. Neidhardt and their family (all J's) reside in Randolph, N.J.
Figure 1. The Wheeler Interpretation of the Anthropic
Figures 1 and 2 are schematic representations of the two perspectives on possible "design" being present in physical reality, the standard Anthropic Principle (Wheeler's version) and a Biblical, Theistic Principle (as formulated herein by a representative of the evangelical, Judeo-Christian community).
Figure 2. A Biblical, Theistic Interpretation of the Anthropic "Accidents" and "Coincidences."
One Universe exists continually held in being (a) by a transcendent, infinite
personal God who has revealed Himself to the intelligent inhabitants of that
Universe, i.e. observers, by two kinds of revelation:
Let me summarize this discussion of the Biblical, Theistic Principle by pointing out that its integration of Biblical Revelation and the revelation of physical reality can result in a better understanding of both aspects of the Universe. Indeed it provides a perspective from which we have discovered in the rich complexity of both forms of revelation and their interactions a comprehensive coherence; an internal consistency, i.e. inner simplicity; and a fruitfulness that can even lead to successful prediction." The recent history of cosmology provides a striking example of how this fruitfulness manifests itself. Biblical Revelation clearly states that the
...All this is again consistent with the recognition that, since the Word of God by whom all things were made and continue to be made became incarnate within the contingent, rational structures of space and time, within which theological science (I would prefer to say Biblical theology, parenthesis mine) and natural science alike pursue their inquiries, there must be a closer connection between the concepts employed by theological science and natural science than is often realized, even when we take into account the necessary change in meaning that theological concepts involve in accordance with the nature of their divine Object.9
Biblically the specific physico-chemical mechanisms of the
Universe's ultimate beginning are not "spelled-out" since the
primary purpose of the Revelation is theological; the
aspects of God's activity are stressed, not the How
aspects. Nevertheless such Biblical Revelation does illuminate
our search for a scientific understanding of origins
in that it makes certain types of scientific cosmologies highly
cosmologies. Indeed the weight of
recent astrophysical evidence is strongly against such cosmologies" with their lack of a definite beginning and inconsistency with well-established physical laws, i.e. conservation of
mass-energy. It is worth noting that only religious perspectives very foreign to Judeo-Christian Revelation can provide a
meta-scientific framework congenial to such cosmologies.12
In summary both Biblical Revelation and natural science perceive the Universe's origin to be a contingent, singular (unique) event very different from the universal, timeless and necessary "truths" speculated about in some modern (and ancient) formulations of cosmology. Both revelations beautifully reinforce the notion that any proper understanding of cosmology has to do with what Stanley L. Jaki and Thomas F. Torrance call "the coherent singularity of the Cosmos" (Stanley L. Jaki, Cosmos and Creator, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1980; Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981).
The integration of Biblical Revelation and the revelation of physical reality can result in a better understanding of both aspects of the Universe.
attributes. For all human physical attributes are dwarfed by the immensity and complexity of the physical cosmos; the uniqueness of humanity lies rather in our ability to be truly aware of the cosmos in which we are engulfed. We use our human rationality to explore the complexity and richness of the law-structures that indeed describe all the physical cosmos which, in turn, points beyond itself toward a transcendent order which Fleisenberg termed "the Central Order. -14 It is indeed interesting to note that both the major religions and modern science testify to the uniqueness of man (male and female) as a truly seif-aware creature who is capable of discovering "hidden" order embedded in all the physical universe in which he or she is immersed; therefore is it so surprising to discover evidence in the physical universe that indicates it is indeed "designed" as a fit habitat for intelligent observers? Perhaps the best overall evaluation of the Anthropic Principle at this time has been given by Simmons under the title of The Elevated Observer:
In their review in Nature of the coincidences supporting the anthropic principle, Carr and Rees marshalled an impressive array of coincidental relationships between the dimensionless numbers and the structure of the universe from the smallest to the largest scales. But sympathetic as they are to the anthropic explanation, they acknowledge its deficiencies: It is almost entirely post hoc; it is based on what many regard as an unduly anthropocentric concept of an observer, in that it demands elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, water, galaxies, and special types of stars and planets. 'It is conceivable that some form of intelligence could exist without all of these features-thermodynamic disequilibrium is perhaps the only prerequisite that we can demand with real conviction,' noted Carr and Rees. Further, the anthropic view does not explain the exact values of the various coupling constants and mass ratios, only their order of magnitudes.
Moreover, the two scientists acknowledged that it may someday be possible to explain, with some as yet unformulated super-symmetry theory that includes gravity, all the things that still appear mysterious and coincidental in relation to their necessity for human existence. 'However,' they declared, 'even if all apparently anthropic coincidences could be explained this way, it would still be remarkable that the relationships dictated by physical theory happened also to be those propitious for fife.'
And there is another thing. Even if all the coincidences are finally snuffed out by some supergrand unification, what effect if any will the anthropic conjecture have on human perception of human relationships to the universe? Cosmologists John D. Barrow and Joseph Silk offer this thought: "Whatever the scientific status of the anthropic cosmological principle may be, its impact on the history of ideas may be significant. The principle overcomes the barrier between the observer and the observed. It makes the observer an indispensable part of the macro-physical world."15
If the "observer" is indeed "an indispensable part of the macrophysical world" and Biblical Revelation is also a valid part of that world, I would argue that the Extended Theistic Principle presented in this paper represents a comprehensive integration of the "anthropic evidence" and Biblical Revelation. But this latter principle will only be accepted as knowledge in communities that acknowledge the validity of all experience, including religious experience, and that, furthermore, perceive all reality to be open-ended in structure always pointing beyond to a transcendent order that provides its meaning. Stich is the very nature of all knowledge, which as Michael Polanyi has ably shown is inescapably personal in character; knowledge cannot exist independent of communities of knowers.16
The author wishes to thank Enrico Cantore, Stanley L. Jaki, Thomas F. Torrance, Boris Kuharetz, and Robert L. Herrmann for a number of stimulating discussions on the topics of this paper. Any misunderstandings in this essay are, of course, my sole responsibility and not theirs.
Annotated Selected Bibliography on
the Anthropic Principle
A British Astrophysicist who was one of the first to recognize that much physical evidence linking the large and small scale structures of the universe could be related to the existence of intelligent observers. This article is a detailed overview of the "anthropic evidence" and possible interpretations. Accessible to the general reader.
Davies, Paul, "The Anthropic Principle," Science Digest, Vol. 91, #10, Oct., 1983, p. 27.
This article is a short, popular and very readable introduction to the Anthropie Principle by a well known British astrophysicist who has written many popularized accounts of modern physics (relativity, quantum theory and cosmology). He is not sympathetic to the Judeo-Christian concept of a personal-infinite God whose creative activity holds the Universe continually in being.
Gale, George, "The Anthropic Principle," Scientific American, Vol. 245, #6, Dec., 1981, pp. 154-171.
This article is a good popular introduction to the "anthropic evidence" and anthropic interpretation stressing possible philosophical implications in the context the current understanding of the nature of science. The author is an American philosopher of science.
Harrison, Edward R., Cosmology-The Science of the Universe, Cambridge Univ. Press, N.Y,, 1981, pp. 111-113 ("Anthropic & Theistic Principles").
The author, an American astrophysicist, has written this excellent textbook in cosmology that emphasizes understanding of physical concepts, mathematical analysis being kept to a minimum. It has a good, short discussion of the "anthropic evidence" and anthropic and theistic interpretations. This book is highly recommended. It is used at many good liberal arts colleges for science courses required by non-science majors.
Jaki, Stanley L., "From Scientific Cosmology to a Created Universe," The Irish Astronomical journal, Vol. 15, #3, March, 1982, pp. 253-262.
The author, a distinguished Hungarian-born historian of science, provides an excellent, historical overview of science's evolving attempts to understand the universe as a whole, i.e., to formulate a truly scientific cosmology. He beautifully relates the development of such scientific understanding to former and present cultural and philosophical presuppositions. He strongly suggests that a good scientific cosmology will provide limited, never completely exhaustive explanations and will be in resonance with the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation. The article stresses that good science and good theology are not by themselves mysterious but always point beyond themselves to the creator God, "the mysterious origin of all."
Simmons, Henry T., "Redefining the cosmos," Mosaic, Vol. 13, #2, March/ April, 1982, pp. 16-22.
Simmons, a former science writer for Newsweek, has written a very
complete and scientifically reliable overview of the entire topic including a
discussion of its modern historical development and possible philosophical implications. The article is detailed and exhaustive in
Wheeler, John Archibald, "Bohr, Einstein, and the Strange Lesson of the Quantum," Mind in Nature, Edited by Rich Q. Elvee, Harper & Row, N.Y.; 1981; pp. 1-30.
The author is a distinguished American physicist who has made significant contributions to physics in many areas including relativity theory, quantum theory, nuclear theory, and astrophysics. This article and the next are nontechnical introductions to his own striking, controversial formulation of the Anthropic Principle which emphasizes the role of the observer as an active participator in all observations of the Universe. This latter insight comes from his interpretation of current quantum theory which is not without its scientific and philosophical critics.
Wheeler, John Archibald, "Beyond the Black Hole,"
Some Strangeness in the
Proportion: A Centennial Symposium to Celebrate the Achievements of
Ed. by Harry Woolf; Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., Inc., 1980, pp. 341-375.
This material is intended for the reader who has some professional competency in physics and philosophy. The material may be broken into three categories:
I. The articles by Carr, Carter, Dicke, Dicke, Patton, Rees, and Wheeler are written by prominent astrophysicists who are originators of the Anthropic Principle. They are key articles in which the principle was first formulated, and in which detailed documentation of its validity is provided. They are written for the professional physicist.
Il. John Leslie, a Canadian philosopher of science, has provided in the three articles listed a detailed philosophical interpretation and criticism of the anthropic interpretations and a possible theistic interpretation. They are written for professional philosophers and provide the most significant philosophical critique of this concept to-date.
111. Paul Davies' book, The Accidental Universe, provides a good technical overview of the physics required to understand the Anthropic Principle. It is written at a level suitable for undergraduate physics majors, The title reveals Davies' philosophical bias.
Carter, Brandon, "Large Number Coincidences and The Anthropic Principle in Cosmology," Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data, Ed. by M.S. Longair, D. Reidal Pub. Co., Boston, 1974, pp. 291-298.
Carr, B.J. & M.J. Rees, "The Anthropic Principle and the Structure of the Physical World," Nature, Vol . 278, April 12, 1979, pp. 605-612.
Davies, Paul, The Accidental Universe, Cambridge Univ. Press, N.Y., 1982.
Dicke, B.H., "Dirac's Cosmology and Mach's Principle," Nature, Vol. 192, Nov. 4,1961, pp. 440-441.
Leslie, John, "Cosmology & The Creation of Life," Preprint of Lecture, Conference on Evolution and Creation, Univ. of N. Dame, March, 1983 (Book to be published soon, Ed. by E. McMullin).
Leslie, John, "Cosmology, Probability, and the Need to Explain Life," Preprint of Lecture for Philosophy of Science. Univ. of Pittsburgh, Oct. 1983.
Leslie, John, "Observership in Cosmology: The Anthropic Principle," Preprint written for Mind, Oct. 1983 (tentative).
Leslie, John, III. Anthropic Principle, World Ensemble, Design," American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 19, #2, April 1982, pp. 141-151.
Patton, C.M. and Wheeler, J.A., "Is Physics Legislated by Cosmogony?"; Quantum Gravity-An Oxford Symposium; edited by Isham, C.J., Penrose, R., and Sciama, D.W.; Clarendon; Oxford; 1975; pp. 538605.
Wheeler, John Archibald, "Genesis and Observership" ; Foundational Problems in the Special Sciences; Vol. 10; edited by Butts, R.E. and Hintikka, J.; D. Reidal Publishing Co.; Boston; 1977; pp. 3-33.