Mark Shea writes a great blog. However, I’m having difficulty linking to a specific post. Try this link and scroll down to the post that begins Dan Darling writes:. It’s well worth the read.
Mr. Shea starts to address the question of life in the universe, and it’s implications for Catholicism. I am not learned enough to speak authoritatively about the theology, but I can speak to the astronomy.
There’s been a running discussion (well, sometimes full fledged drag-’em-out fight, actually) for about 20 years about an idea that has become known as ‘The Anthropic Principle’. In short, the idea, as put forth by John Barrow and Frank Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986, Oxford University Press), is that:
1) The universe as we know it is defined by a surprisingly small number of fundamental constants, like the speed of light, and the ratio between the strengths of the nuclear and electro-magnetic forces.
2) Varying any of these few fundamental constants inevitably creates conditions in which our existence seems very, very improbable (or indeed, impossible). In fact, it is not much of a stretch to say that when any of these fundamental constants are hypothetically changed by very small amounts, the existence of anything that we might recognize as intelligent life becomes problematical. The conditions for intelligence, (like, the conditions that underlay the ability to transfer information from point a to point b) sometimes do not exist in such universes.
3) The first two observations put severe constraints on the details of the universe that we find ourselves in. We simply would not exists – could not exist – in universes that are much different that the one we have (for surprisingly small values of the word ‘much’!).
What does this say about the abundance of life in the universe? Well, not much by itself. But it does point out that the universe is exquisitely in tune with – well, us. Does this mean that the universe is not constructed to be so hospitable with other intelligent creatures? No, but taken to it’s logical conclusion, the Anthropic Principle does seem to bestow on the human animal some special status, not given to other creatures, should they ever be found.
And that, my friends, is anathema to many, I dare say most, scientists. This is because of their training and a 500 year long history of science that begins with the assumption that we are explicitly not in any special or privileged position in the universe (this is the Copernican assumption of mediocrity). It’s been a fruitful assumption, and this starting point has led to an understanding of many things. But it is, after all, an assumption that may or may not be necessary to the science. Likewise, it’s an assumption that may not be true at all. It hasn’t been demonstrated either way, yet.
But keep watching closely. The history of physics in the 20th century, starting with the Copenhagan (many worlds) interpretation of quantum physics, seems to lean towards the idea that we are indeed in an oddly privileged position, especially as observers (and even more especially as intelligent observers).
Now be aware. Many if not most scientists contend that anything like this Anthropic Principle is NOT SCIENCE. It’s a bit like paramecium in a pond looking around, saying that the pond is so in-tune with their existence that the whole universe must be just like that pond, and further, must have been created just for them.
Well, yes, but then where is this place beyond the pond that shows us the rest of the universe isn’t ‘our’ place? Is that a proper question to ask of astronomers? (A: You betcha).
And where, then are the other creatures? Are they so far away that we just haven’t heard them yet, despite SITI?
And by the way – just how large does the universe have to be to support just us? Are these proper questions?