(2011) Victor J. Stenger, Prometheus, £35 / US$28, hrdbk, 345pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14443-2
I have a number of questions regarding life, the Universe and everything. Over the years I have been lucky enough that my life's trajectory has enabled me to answer many of these. (For example, for the past few years I have been working in part on biosphere evolution and our species interaction with it.) I would not go quite so far as to say I have a formal list of questions but I do certainly have an informal, loose list and among these are a cadre of queries as to life in the context of the Universe*. Though these days I am more focussed on answering the question of the ease (or difficulty) of evolving photosynthesis (not as difficult as two-way intercellular signalling is best I can give you at the moment), the question of whether the Universe is tuned for life has crossed my mind: I probably first gave it more than cursory consideration over a quarter of a century ago when reading Barrow and Tippler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) which I reviewed in our first print edition of Concatenation.
There is an argument often (but not always) used by those who seek empirical proof that there is a God who created the Universe so as to allow H. sapiens to flourish, and that is that the Universe was specifically 'designed' by the said 'God' with physical parameters that allow us to exist. Furthermore, that other theoretical universes that do not have these fine-tuned parameters would not allow intelligent life to evolve. (Assuming with this latter extension that the person understands and accepts evolution in the first place: even though some do not, a good number of religious** scientists do.) As its title says, Victor Stenger's book presents the case that the Universe (our Universe as opposed to any old universe in the metaverse***) is not specifically finely-tuned for life.
Victor Stenger does a commendable job of presenting a series of arguments (not just one) to demonstrate that our universe's set of parameters do not need to be exactly the same, or in some cases do not need to be precisely set by an external agent, as their setting arises out of well-understood physics. Also some of the physical constants fine-tuners cite are actually set by other constants and so do not need fine-tuning, hence the fine-tuners' argument is not as robust as it may initially seem. Altogether a such a formidable case is presented against fine-tuning that I would quite like to see an intellectual counter to this book if only because Stenger seems to have delivered such a knock-out blow and it is important to test science hypothesise.
Though this book is primarily targeted for those engaged in the religious-philosophical debate as to whether or not there is some higher agent that consciously 'designed' the Universe for us – hence is concerned for our well-being – it also is of relevance to those more generally concerned with metaphysical questions regarding life, the Universe and everything for whom a two-digit answer (42****) doesn't quite assuage the spot. And of course any non-religious scientists whose atheism is challenged and who seek to equip themselves with an evidence-based defence.
Essentially the book does what it says on the tin and in a commendable way. Commendable because it presents its arguments on two levels of comprehension. The first is for scientists, or the reasonably scientifically literate, who are not physicists; whom I suspect will likely form the majority of this book's readers. For them the arguments are explained in words that any first-year science undergraduate will ('should' given standards these days) comprehend. I would guess that on average such individuals (non-physicists like me) can digest about two-thirds of any chapter. And then there is a final easy-to-read summary chapter.
Second, for those for whom things like Schrodinger's non-relativistic, time-dependent equation for a particle of mass is equal to half the Planck mass and energy is zero (a special case of the Wheeler-Dewitt equation) is not a stretch too far – I suspect mainly physicists and mathematicians – then this heavyweight ammunition is also provided.
Now, I have to say that as a life scientist who is not a physicist (I stopped with physics A-level (at school 18 years old)) that there was a dimension to this book beyond my training/abilities did not worry me. Science has no regard whatsoever to political correctness: it is not democratic and there is no God-given or other reason why everyone can, or should, be capable of expertise in all disciplines. You have at some stage to trust experts in fields other than your own especially if they present, and you can follow, their reasoning up to the limit of your abilities. This is why most people who are wary of their clinician's diagnosis go to another clinician for a second opinion as opposed to seeing a non-medical expert such as a carpenter. So I do not always regard a book that has incomprehensible elements as a weakness providing the majority of it is interesting and useful which Victor Stenger's analysis for me certainly was. (Besides which, should I want, I could always go to a physicist assistance.) Indeed, in cases such as this in which I am presented with more ammunition than I could possibly use, a book with depths beyond those I can penetrate is a positive strength: I can access this domain through others but I know that the resource is there even if I cannot utilise by myself immediately.
Now, nobody (at least at the moment) can disprove that there is a God who personally designed the Universe for H. sapiens, but what Victor Stenger has done is to show that you cannot prove that the Universe is finely-tuned (hence by implication point to it having a designer). This is not a trivial metaphysical (if not theological) question, and I for one am pleased that I can tick that one off my list.
Hopefully Prometheus will release a cheaper paperback this year as this one really does deserve a wider readership than the hardback market.
* The 'Universe' (capital 'U') is a proper noun meaning our specific universe of a number of possible theoretical 'universes' (common noun meaning any space-time continuum bubble separate from our own). Stenger himself does not make this distinction so simplifying things for the reader.
** By 'religious' I refer here to those who believe in a personal God who created the Universe and is concerned with the lives of individual humans. (Of course there are those who are religious for whom their belief is more a moral framework with no specific strictures (if any) as to the nature of some theoretical supreme being.)
*** I use the term 'metaverse' to signal that there could be other universes with different parameters as opposed to Hugh Everett III's (1957) 'multiverse' which is essentially 'copies' of our universe with the same physical constant parameters in which there are different parallel timelines. Though Stenger himself uses 'multiverse' simplifying things for the reader.
**** Douglas Adams Hitch-hikers' Guide to the Galaxy (1978) reference should any non-SF scientists stumble upon this review.
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