Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Some months ago I reviewed Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. I suggested that Zizek’s political projections would have little chance of materializing because economic collapse precipitated by climate mitigation efforts in the rich world would overwhelm everything else in but a few short decades. Next I came across G. Gaul’s “Geography of Risk” which, though focusing on storms and sea-level effects on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, supported my prediction. Now this, “The Uninhabitable Earth” (review & link below), comes along amplifying everything in the Gaul book and laying down an even more frightening picture not only about where present trends are taking us, but the almost certain inevitability of vast tracts of the equatorial and presently-temperate Earth becoming uninhabitable by 2100.

Most of the cascades described by Wallace-Wells have already been triggered and will not stop (though they would slow a bit) even if we ceased all industry-related atmospheric carbon production tomorrow, something that is obviously not going to happen. Technology (as he points out) is not going to save us this time. We do know how to pull carbon out of the air yes, but as Wallace-Wells shows, we cannot afford to deploy enough of it fast enough to block a two to three degree (celsius) rise in average global temperatures over the next 75 years.

Wallace-Wells is (non-optimistically) hopeful that humanity will wake up in time to stop carbon output at least soon enough to halt future warming at three degrees. In fact I believe human industrial carbon output (most of it, globally) will cease in another ten or twenty years, roughly when we are close to two degrees of warming (as of 2018 we were at one degree and some change with atmospheric carbon rising faster now, year on year, than it has ever before). But it won’t stop because humans wake up and do something about the problem. It will stop because all of the economies of the world will have collapsed. Over a few decades, people will starve (or die from disease and war) in such vast numbers that few will be left to put any substantial carbon into the atmosphere more than the cooking fires that could be found dotting the Earth ten thousand years ago. The human population will be about where it was ten thousand years ago. That might be by 2100, likely sooner than that.

Still all of the cascades, devastating forest fires and melting permafrost will yet be releasing billions of tons of carbon even in the absence of human industry, and of course ocean levels will continue to rise utterly changing the geography of the world. By 2200 there will be very few places on Earth where food can be grown or hunted and the human race may be reduced to levels barely able to avoid extinction, if even that. If this isn’t frightening enough, the news gets worse from here. Even if the temperature rise tops out at three or four degrees, the planet will not again return to a cooler, human-comfortable climate regime, for thousands, possibly tens-of-thousands, of years!

Uninhabitable Earth  by David Wallace-Wells 2018

This book opens with what, for me, was a surprise. I know that carbon emissions have, world-wide, steadily increased even since the first international “climate mitigation agreements” of thirty years ago. What I did not know is that since 1990, the world, collectively, has pumped twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as it did in the thirty years from 1960 to 1990. There are other surprises: Bitcoin anyone? Sure there’s some electricity involved but how much could that be? It turns out to be about as much, per year, as one million international jet flights! Our own industrial activity is only a part (albeit still a large part) of the problem now. Other, cascading effects, are now adding their impact. Global wild-fires now consume, on average, ten times as much forest every year as they did thirty years ago. That’s a lot of extra carbon. Even worse, the world’s permafrost is beginning to melt releasing carbon in the form of methane which, depending on whether we are speaking of low or high altitude, has between four and eighty times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The title of the book is prescient. Think of the climatologically worst environments on the Earth today (having warmed a bit more than one degree Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1800. We are on track to hit two degrees by 2050 or so), perhaps the middle of the Sahara, or someplace where it never stops being hot and raining. These are today’s most inhospitable climate environments. By 2100, that sort of place will be among the best and most livable we have on Earth. Large parts of our world will be largely and literally uninhabitable, places where humans die because their bodies cannot cool themselves by sweating unless immersed in cool water, or because there is no water the glaciers being gone, and this at only three degrees of warming (2100).

The first third of the book is about various cascades, most already triggered, some on the verge. Effects of warming that add up both by directly making things worse, and by degrading the planet’s ability to absorb carbon and mitigate the other effects. Wallace’s picture here is very dire. In the rest of the book Wallace deals with the economic, political, social, and psychological future. Here I do not think he is dire enough. He speaks of refugees in the tens of millions (try hundreds), extremist movements on both the right and left, of wars, pandemics, crop failures, of collapsing economies unable to sustain the cost of climate mitigation, and that only the economies that can afford any mitigation to begin with. The rest will have since joined the refugees. Wallace touches on all of this, but I do not think he fully appreciates how quickly and thoroughly human beings can (and will) turn on one another long before this all becomes as bad as it’s going to get!

Technology will not save us. Wallace covers that too. We can desalinate water and even pull carbon out of the air. There will never be enough of either that the world can afford. Besides, both are energy intensive processes and even if powered with renewable energy, that is not easy to do as concerns the chain of activities that must be powered to build and maintain that technology. Rare-Earth mining is a very dirty business.

In the end, Wallace is hopeful, though not optimistic, that the global polity will wake up and de-carbonize the global economy, not in time to halt two to three degrees of warming, it is already too late for that, but in time to prevent it going to four degrees or more. I think he is over-optimistic here too. It is simply not possible, politically, and this for economic reasons, for soon-to-be nine-billion humans to de-carbonize as quickly as needed to hold the line at two to three degrees. What will force the race to de-carbonize will be economic collapse, leading to socio-political collapse, leading to mass death (over some decades) from starvation, disease, or war. I think Wallace sees this grim possibility. He hopes it isn’t inevitable.

This a good and timely book though I doubt it will have much effect on the carbon trajectory of our so-called civilization. It is good to see the ground covered as much as Wallace covers it. He does a good job of showing how the climatological and the political go together (alas perversely). I think he fails to draw some obvious conclusions from his own well-made points. Perhaps it’s for the better. He would be accused of doom saying. I am a doomsayer! Feel free to accuse me! Meanwhile, the book is frightening enough as it is!

Answering 5 Questions: the Relation Between Science and Religion

The work of another, even a work unread, can suggest new blog material. On Twitter, one philosopher I know called attention to another, Dr. Gregg Caruso, whose primary interest appears to be arguing against the reality of libertarian (or contra-causal) will.

I have not read Dr. Caruso’s books, but titles like: “Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will” (2012) or “Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility” (2015) imply a position contra-free will. I have written about what I take to be the self-defeating absurdity of the position in  essays on this blog and in my books (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”).

Dr. Caruso has also written “Science & Religion: 5 Questions” (2014) in which he asks questions of some 50 scientists and religionists. I have not read this book either, but its description on Amazon does list what I take to be the thrust of the questions, providing me with an opportunity to explain my own views on this subject.

1. “Are Science and Religion compatible for understanding cosmology, biology (including the origin of life), ethics, and mind (brains, souls, and free will)?” And “do Science and religion occupy non overlapping magisteria?” I lump these two together as they appear to be different approaches to the same question.

2. Is Intelligent Design a scientific theory?

3. How do various faiths view the relation between science and religion?

4. What are the limits of scientific explanation?

5. What are the most important open questions, problems, challenges, confronting the relation between science and religion?

The questions as phrased are over-broad. Look at question #1 which includes everything from cosmology to mind-entangled disciplines like ethics and references to souls. Questions like this seem set up to make one side or the other look foolish. The literature is rife with confusion on this subject (see “What is ‘The Soul'”). Nor do any of the questions hint at any distinction between religion as it pertains to the individual and religious institutions. The dictionary is not helpful here. In modern terms, an individual’s religion is nothing more than an institution into which they are born or join later in life. The word ‘faiths’ in question #3 seems clearly to mean institutions, but questions #1 and #5 are ambiguous on this distinction.

There is definition of religion going back to the Greeks. Your religion is your relationship to God however you conceive it. This definition implies a distinction between “religion as such” and “religious institutions” (if any) to which you happen to belong. If there happens to be a personal (Abrahamic style) God, then we, being persons, each have some individual relationship to him whether we recognize it or not. This relationship is personal and except for ethics (via morality) has little direct connection to any of Dr. Caruso’s questions. Of course an individual’s intellectual interpretation of that relationship (even that it doesn’t exist) is another matter.

By contrast, religious institutions are social (interpersonal) and physical things like banks, schools, and offices. They have documents, buildings (see Searle below and Maurizio Ferraris), leaders, and members (customers). Religious institutions differ from the others only in that they purport to be about God. (there are exceptions. Buddhism in its original form denies the reality of anything like a God with whom one can have a relationship and yet remains a “religious institution”).

There is only an accidental relation between the teachings of the institution and the individual’s relationship to God. By-in-large, the individual accepts for her own belief system the teachings of the institution. Such intellectual acquiescence impacts the comprehension of the individual’s relationship to God, what they take to be their “personal religion”. But it does not actually alter the relationship as it is (or would be) from God’s viewpoint.

These two meanings (institution versus relationship) of ‘religion’ are literal. A further, metaphorical meaning, might or might not refer to God, but to whatever one takes to be a “founding world view”. This metaphor is captured in utterances like “science is my religion” meaning that science (what the individual takes it to be) is the foundation, the set of propositions on which every other belief (consistently or not) rests. There are many of these metaphorical religions. Almost anything over which human beings can obsess can become one. I will not be concerned with these metaphors here, but I note that if the individual’s intellectual foundation is a God-concept then the metaphor becomes a literal personal religion.

Besides being ambiguous about religion, question #1 is vague about science. Are we speaking of physics, chemistry, and biology, or psychology and “social science”? Are these all ‘sciences’ in the same sense of that term? I suspect not. In fact, what separates the hard from the soft sciences is the latter are in one manner or other entangled with the doings of minded beings while the former are not. The hard sciences are strictly about the material world and discoveries are (or would be) valid even should no minds exist in the universe. But if mind did not exist, there would be no psychology nor any other of the “social sciences”. It is this intrinsic mind-entanglement that makes them problematic, quasi-sciences.

If God is real, then the personal relationship is real even if one denies it. One can say “I have no father” suggesting various possible metaphorical meanings, but they remain only metaphors. If you are a living vertebrate, you must literally have a biological father. The failure to make this distinction between different meanings of ‘religion’ muddies questions 1 and 4 which are otherwise different ways of asking more or less the same question. I will keep this distinction in mind throughout the essay.

Question #1. To the first part, The short answer is NO, To the second, YES. Science (hard science) is about the material world. Religion is about the relation between human beings as subjective entities and God. Religion (personal or institutional) has no business saying anything about physical mechanisms other than that God is ultimately their source.

The greatest and most important insight of hard science is that physical mechanisms are free of teleological encumbrance; they are purposeless! This does not mean the existence of the physical as such is purposeless. God (if he exists) might have a purpose for a physical universe of purposeless mechanism (see “Why Free Will”). Religion has no business making pronouncements about any detail of physical mechanism, while science has no business declaring God’s non-existence based solely on its evaluation of physical mechanism whose [possible] overall purpose science is not qualified to evaluate.

Mind, whatever it is, complicates this picture because science is done in mind by minded entities. Clearly mind of the individual variety with which we are familiar is a part of the universe. There are minds in the physical universe. But whether mind itself is physical, or takes origin solely from the physical is problematic. The methods of science so well adapted to explicating purposeless mechanism are ill suited to evaluating purposeful mind. Purpose enters the universe through mind.

If God is real, then substance dualism is possible and not problematic except for the infamous “interaction problem” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”) which science is not qualified to resolve other than to say the interaction must take place in brains whose material mechanisms are within its scope. Nor is there any reason to believe that religion (or philosophy) is qualified to explicate the interaction. My relationship to God does not require that I understand how mind is evoked from (or evokes) events in my brain. There are several related interaction problems. I will not concerned myself with their details here (see essay linked just above).

The first question throws together so much it is impossible to answer it straightforwardly. For example libertarian free will (or the illusion of it) is something that only appears, like purpose, in association with minds. Science (meaning the “hard sciences”) by itself suggests that such a thing is impossible, but then again as John Searle says (“MIND” 2005, “Making the Social World” 2011, and “The Construction of Social Reality” 1997) nothing about human experience makes sense unless libertarian free will is genuine (Searle being an atheist admits that he cannot resolve this riddle). Indeed, accepting that a contra-causal (meaning that, as Sean Carroll puts it, “mind causes physics”, something Carroll denies — see  “The Big Picture” 2017) free will must be genuine is among the strong philosophical reasons to believe there must be [something like] God.

Ethics (also lumped into question #1) only makes sense in a free will context and resides in mind where decisions of moral import originate. Ethics is a social reflection of morality. It entangles the physical world only after some free willed choice made in mind. There is nothing for science to do here other than to illuminate the limits of what is possible given the bodies our minds control are physical. This includes, for example, the discovery that certain disease states of the brain might make ethical evaluation impossible by the consciousness evoked in such brains.

The contemporary notion that we can derive an ethics scientifically is ridiculous. Ethics, being about the interactions of the bodies of minded persons can be described by [soft] science and [soft] science can help to determine the reason-ability of various ethical ideas,  but ethics cannot be logically derived from science in any normative sense.

Question #2. Intelligent design is a hypothesis but not scientific because it implies purpose-directed (i.e. not purposeless) mechanism underlying certain observed physical phenomena. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to contribute to the debate. Intelligent Design is not Creationism!

Dr. Caruso’s book includes William Dembski (“No Free Lunch” 2001 and “The Design Inference” 2006) as a contributor. Dembski concedes his belief in an Abrahamic God, but his work does not commit him to this detail. Dembski’s point is that an accidental origin of life and its evolution (on Earth) to its present state is highly unlikely.  Dembski’s hypothesis is a statistical argument from empirical data — life’s extraordinary information content! It looks to Dembski like intelligence is involved in the process, but he is strictly committed only to the unlikeliness of its being an accident.

Dembski can easily get what he wants in a Darwinian context. His work only requires that not all genetic mutations are random! If I drop 1000 coins onto a floor and then deliberately flip 10 of them, will any statistician (looking only at the result) dare to say that the distribution of heads and tails is not random? If over 3 or 4 billion years 99% of mutations were random, but 1% were not, how would we from our present perspective ever tell the difference?

The origin of life (like the origin of the big bang and the value of the cosmological settings) is a special case. Physics entails that a contingent origin of life must be possible. Dembski concedes this. His claim is that such a beginning is unlikely and he makes a well argued case for that view. He does not insist that therefore an Abrahamic God must be responsible for it. Dembski exposes the unreasonableness of the near universal belief of science that life originated and evolved to its present state entirely by accident. That no one has come up with an alternative between accident and intelligent design is not really Dembski’s problem.

Question #3. The problem here (“faiths” referring to “religious institutions”) is that all the [major] faiths are based on “holy books”, the writings of their founders usually (but not always) taken to be divinely authored in some direct or indirect manner. The people (and leaders) of these faiths have, by in large, absorbed the idea that their textual sources are infallible. Not every religious institution on Earth believes this basic falsehood but to one extent or another, they hold the value of all parts of these texts to be roughly equal.

In these texts, statements consistent with a first principles theology (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”) are admixed with others that plainly contradict them. Moreover, these books (in particular the Bible) purport to tell not only the history of the faith, but of the world beginning with its origin and all of history between then and their writing. Some of this exposition concerns mechanisms of the physical world. They are all pre-scientific and should not today be taken seriously, other than as [possibly] great literature! I return to this in my answer to question #5.

Question #4. This question is implicitly answered above in my reply to question #1. To be brief, the scope of the sciences is the purposeless mechanism of subsystems of the physical world. Strictly speaking scientific method (methodological naturalism) cannot be applied (experimentally) to the universe as a whole. It cannot be applied, for example, to discover if the physical cosmos has a purpose in the mind of some god.

Because the mechanisms (events) of subsets of the physical are purposeless they behave always in the same way under the same relevant conditions. It is this consistency that enables mind (in which and by which the scientific method is deployed) to explicate the mechanisms themselves through observation and, where possible, experimental tuning of conditions. None of this has to do with the question of whether a god has brought all of this cosmos about or how that god might relate to minded observers arising within its physical context.

Once science turns its method on mind itself ambiguities necessarily appear. Mind isn’t [apparently] material for one, but it is unambiguously purposeful. There is nothing preventing a purposeful mind from starting different causal chains under identical material conditions. Science can address the material roots of mind, but applying itself to mind as such can never complete its explanations. This doesn’t mean it cannot help to narrow mysteries about the nature of mind’s relation to brains, but it cannot remove them as it can with regard to the behavior of the macroscopic physical world.

Question #5. This question is the most equivocal between the two literal definitions of ‘religion’, personal versus institutional. Conflict between “the faiths” and science will not end until the institutions (and by extension their leaders and members) give up the false claim that their texts are the work of God (see “Misquoting Jesus” Bart Ehrman 2009). There is a ready substitute (at least philosophically) in a “first principles theology” (see Prolegomena linked above).

Once institutions identify in their texts that which is consistent with first principles (legitimately discovered by human beings; there are a few qualities we can infer about God) the rest is free to be interpreted as literature. Literature has value, culturally and otherwise, but as science, as a description of the mechanisms of the physical world, it is only speculative fiction. Indeed, and for the same reason, “the faiths” have as much conflict with one another as they do with science. Different holy books contradict one another as much as they contradict themselves. The real God, like the real physical universe, must be free of intrinsic contradictions!

Science has, in the end, the easier job here. It must merely give up the claim to any authority on the question of God’s reality leaving all the rest of science unchanged. Because they are automatic, the purposeless mechanisms of the physical world can be explicated without reference to God (see “The Blind Watchmaker” Richard Dawkins 2006). But this truth has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether the cosmos as a whole is the product of a design having a purpose for purposeless mechanism observable and manipulable by purposeful mind!

Mind itself, its subjective qualities, is the evidence, albeit not scientific evidence, there is something more to reality than science can legitimately address. Because this evidence, experience itself, is not scientific the individual scientist is free (though ironically we might ask how so?) to reject, intellectually, the conclusion that there must therefore be something more than physics. But such a rejection is philosophical and not scientific. Speaking as a scientist, one should stop asserting there is not or (in some claims) cannot be, anything more than physics.

There is no question #6 but one comes neatly to mind. “What, if anything, can religion say about the purposeless mechanisms of the physical universe”? In “The Goldilocks Enigma” (2008) Paul Davies, speaking of “fine-tuning” from the cosmological settings to the geophysical evolution of the Earth, notes that “if God is real, none of this would be surprising”. This is what religion in its institutional form can say about physical mechanisms. Their existence as such is not mysterious; there is an over-all purpose to their being just the way they are, a  purpose to physical purposelessness!

What purpose, or what range of purposes? Religion can address these questions (see “Why Free Will” linked above), but doing so takes us immediately away from physical mechanism into mind and mind’s sensitivity to values, our only (and strictly mental; subjective) contact with spirit; the character of God. It should not be surprising that we must account for purposeless mechanism, purposeful mind, and mind’s sensitivity to values, in any inference towards an answer to such questions.

Institutional religion however does disservice to its flock if it claims absolute authority to specify every detail of what it can reasonably infer of God’s purposes. This is the same disservice done by scientists who claim that science as such rejects God’s reality. Religion must face its own limitations. It is it not qualified to make pronouncements regarding physical mechanisms, and it can never declare its interpretations, inferences, and conclusions about the relation between persons and God final! Philosophically it faces the same insurmountable “interaction problem” as does physics, though unlike some physicists (see “The Beginning of Infinity” David Deutsch 2012), it does not assert that mind must in the end be able to resolve every such question.

I would like to add one note tying this subject to what I take to be Dr. Caruso’s view that contra-causal and libertarian (not the same concept but always found together) will is physically impossible. None of the answers given above make sense if a robust libertarian freedom, at least for human mind, is not presupposed. Yes philosophers have constructed a conundrum called “theological fatalism” in which libertarian freedom is rendered impossible by the very infinity (omniscience) of God claimed by religionists (see “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”). Here I note only that the matter is resolved by observing that human freedom is limited both as to conceiving and to acting in time while God’s foreknowledge is not. The outcome of this from our perspectival viewpoint is that God’s knowledge is not a cause of our choice. God’s knowledge also includes all possibilities from which our choice might be made. It is because we have real freedom from our perspective within mind that any choice, and in particular moral choice (the only domain in which our freedom is absolute) has any real meaning.

So following Searle, I have to say that nothing about the human experience, including all of its social history (including religion in both senses distinguished here), makes sense unless the robust reality of a libertarian free will is presupposed! I differ from Searle however. I do not automatically also suppose that this cannot be right because of the philosophical claim that this is impossible as no evidence of contra-causal cause has ever been found by physics.

It is my contention that the manifest freedom I exercise in dozens of choices made every day (most trivial, some of import) is that evidence! I concede that this is not scientific. This evidence, should it be evidence, exists in, and is only available to, subjective mind. Freedom is the quintessential manifestation of my agency, the central quality of my experience (noted ironically by Schopenhauer “The World as Will and Representation” 1844). There is in effect only one example of it in the universe, the connection between subjective consciousness and brains. But while brains can be studied by science, the experience they effect cannot except by report which is physical and can not evoke experience as such!

If then I take my experience of free will to be real then its [seeming] physical impossibility must mean that there is something else going on in the universe, something that must in some sense be independent of physics! If such considerations ultimately point to the conclusion that something like God must exist, then so be it. My aim is philosophical rigor based on experience, not rejection of possibility based on illegitimate philosophical induction on the part of physicists.

Why True Physical Theories are Beautiful

Picture of me blowing smoke

In 2018 Sabine Hossenfelder, physicist, published “Lost In Math”, a philosophical critique of certain present trends in the philosophy of science, physics and cosmology in particular. My review of her book is published HERE where there is also a link to the book on Amazon. Her exposition deserves a little more treatment that does not strictly belong in a book review, and in that connection I offer this commentary.

The dominant theme of the book is that physics and cosmology have largely transitioned from a regime where empirical data drives theory development to one in which the consistency of a theory’s mathematics, an idea called “naturalness”, and less quantifiable notions of elegance, balance, and symmetry, are arbiters of the theory’s likely truth. Dr. Hossenfelder repeatedly asks why physicists think this should be so? She asks this of them literally, and the answer is there is only the one universe [that we know of], and one big bang. If there is more than one “fundamental principle” necessary to make the universe cohere one needs to explain how it is they are so perfectly coordinated. If everything there is began with a singular event, there should be a singular explanation. “One principle” is self-coordinating; simpler.

Let’s grant that this is a reasonable hypothesis. Everyone knows we do not yet have this single unifying principle. So while this conviction gives us a reason to keep looking, it says nothing about the truthfulness of intermediate theories nor, by itself, does it guarantee the truth of a given unifying theory. Traditionally, given a certain body of positive data (not a null result which at best tells us where not to look) the better theory is the one that explains more of that data without having to add fudges (arbitrary features) to fold disparate data into the explanation. This is the “naturalness problem”, and between it and beauty it is the more important claim because it is at least partially quantifiable.

Naturalness comes in two flavors. A theory is “more natural” if it has fewer arbitrary numbers, but also if such arbitrary numbers as it has are closer to 1. Why 1? Because if all the arbitrary values one needs are equal to 1 then they all cancel by multiplication or division and you end with no arbitrary parameters! Sometimes we set values to 1 (we often treat the speed of light way) to simplify solutions to equations. But we are not speaking here of solving equations, but of finding them. We find the parameters by measurement and we have measured many of them. From the viewpoint of theoretical physicists those measurements, when far from 1 are the data that most need explaining.

Take for example one of the simplest of these, the proton/electron mass ratio which happens to be 1836.152… (the … meaning there are more decimals here). First notice that this is a unitless number. Numbers with units are not at issue. If we measure the mass of an electron in grams we will obviously get a number different from that same measurement in ounces. No one worries about such differences. But if one divides the mass of a proton (in grams) by the mass of the electron (in grams) we get that 1836 number and that same number comes out no matter what unit we use. Physicists think that this number cries out for an explanation. Why? After all, the ratio between the mass of the sun and the mass of the Earth is (roughly) 3.3 x 10^5, hardly near to 1. Why doesn’t that ratio cry out for an explanation?

The answer here is that we know of many planets surrounding many suns (and long before we found these we knew the mass of the 8 planets of our own solar system) and their ratios vary greatly. Because we know of so many examples, we understand that these values just come out as they do depending on specific circumstances having to do with forming solar systems. The Sun/Earth ratio just happens to be what it is, there is nothing particularly mysterious about it.

So why not say the same about the proton/electron mass ratio? It just is what it is? Well, that might be the case, and this is partly Dr. Hossenfelder’s point but the problem is there are many solar/planetary mass ratios but only one proton/electron mass ratio. Every proton in the universe is 1836.152… times heavier than every electron! It is the universality of the ratio that makes it mysterious. Why should the ratio be this number and no other anywhere in the universe? Taking a cue from the variety of solar/planet mass ratios it is this mystery, that leads (and it is only one such possibility as Dr. Hossenfelder deftly shows) one to postulate a multiverse. Perhaps, like solar/planetary masses there are many proton/electron mass ratios. Those that are other than 1836.152… belong to other universes!

But a multiverse is not entirely satisfying. After all, we can still ask how it is that we are the lucky lottery winners? Only our ratio (or something close to it) results in stable elements from which we might eventually spring? There is no answering that question unless there is a reason to believe that 1836.152 is more likely than other possible values as for example 7 is the most likely number to appear in the possible sums of numbers on two 6-sided die. But assessing such a likelihood depends on our having other examples, other actual proton/electron mass ratios from those other universes. Without such a probability distribution, the multiverse hypothesis simply pushes the question out from “why this number” to “why this universe”. In the end it is the same question.

In her book, Dr. Hossenfelder takes aim at simplifying assumptions, like naturalism. She doesn’t say they are wrong. She says that there is nothing inherent in the structure of the material world that necessitates their truth. Yes, there is support in human psychology, that we notice the unusual (she gives an example of an image of Jesus appearing on a piece of toast), but this does not mean that what we notice really is unusual (crying out for explanation) in the physical foundations of the world.

The doctor is right. It is one thing for physicists to try on such hypotheses even without new data. Perhaps they will stumble on a simple theory that does “explain it all” without needing arbitrary numbers, or at least without many arbitrary numbers. Even then we have no empirical ground to assert that “the theory” is found unless it makes some new testable predictions we can afford to test! It is also possible physicists are right about there being a single solution, though it might lay beyond the ability of human mind to discern.

Remember our conviction that such a solution exists comes from our observation that the whole universe goes together. Quantum mechanics and gravity work seamlessly in the universe. Can we not take for granted there is a description of the universe that explains their connection and at the same time is testable even if we cannot afford the experiments?

Dr. Hossenfelder is not saying no. She is not denying there is such a theory and she is not claiming that human mind is incapable of discerning it. She is saying first that no one knows if this is the case, and second, mathematical consistency, balance, symmetry, simplicity, elegance, and even naturalness, without empirical evidence, cannot tell us that we have in fact found that theory! These are Hossenfelder’s points and she is correct about them. Nevertheless, because gravity and quantum mechanics do inter-operate, it seems rational to insist that a universal theory exists.

Is there another alternative that removes the mystery from the numbers? In her book, Dr. Hossenfelder addresses various subdisciplines of physics separately. She is sensitive to the nuances of each subfield and her point is that they have a common problem. I do not have the space in this essay to address each of these areas separately so I choose one for illustration.

All the subdisciplines of physics addressed by Dr. Hossenfelder converge in cosmology, in particular the big bang. The [presumptive] story, as I understand it, is that in the first Planck times (5.39 x 10^-44 seconds) of the big bang (with or without inflation) there were no separate forces, no ratios between the various numbers, nothing but undifferentiated hot radiation. As this all began to cool (and we are still talking less than a second here), the forces split apart, first gravity, then the strong force, and then electromagnetism and the weak force the two splitting up shortly following.

The mystery is why the unified forces separated at exactly the temperature and pressure they did to reach their present values? This is not to say the force relations were the same then as they are now (see Unger & Smolin “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” [2015]). It is possible they evolved into their present values over time. The first atoms (ions) formed (nucleosynthesis) a few seconds after the big bang. By this point, the strong force at least had to have its present value or something close to it. The electromagnetic force and the weak force must also have been close to their present values shortly thereafter while gravity may also have reached its present relation with the rest of the forces over some interval.

Physics has taken three philosophical positions on the big question.

1. The relations are brute. They might have come out otherwise. There is no explanation to find, we just got lucky.
2. There is a multiverse and a broad range of numbers are manifest in other universes. Again, with or without a probability distribution, we got lucky.
3. The forces had to come out the way they did. There is a discoverable, lawful, purely physical reason that necessarily determined the force relations.

Is there another alternative? Yes, a traditional one.

4. The force relations are designed! Call this the “God Hypothesis” (GH).

The beauty of GH does not settle its truth any more than the alternatives put forward by physics. Its possibility is suggested by the mystery physics has set out to solve; why are the force relations what they are? Their tuning appears intelligently configured. That doesn’t mean it is, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t! GH meets every desideratum of the physical theories except mathematical consistency, for which it substitutes logical consistency. Nothing could be more natural than “God is one”.

Physics and cosmology have well explained the present macrostructures of the physical universe from galaxies, to stars, and planets. All of this the outcome of early conditions and the force relations. No design is necessary to shape the present cosmological outcome given those conditions and forces. But it does not follow from these explanations that the effect of the whole, the present universe, wasn’t intended by some intelligence capable of producing it. Physics does not know by what means initial conditions came to be as they were. To suggest that “God did it” is dismissed as a “God of the gaps” argument, but this ignores the philosophical issue. The nature of early conditions can be probed only so far. There must inevitably come a first physical expression. Even this discovery, would not settle any of the positions enunciated by physics as concerns a first physical event of our universe.

Even if physics could settle empirically what exactly that first physical event was (likely not possible given the limitations of macrophysical instrumentation), there would remain the mystery of the event itself. Unger contends that physics, and time, are prior to our universe, but in the earliest times of our universe, there may not be regularities, laws, to be probed. Smolin thinks some of the regularities are inherited from a parent universe. The Cosmic Microwave Background might present evidence for this. But the properties of the CMB make it impossible to distinguish such evidence from the outcome of lawless randomness. Other physicists assert the origin of our physics is concurrently the origin of time, and to speak of a “prior to” that event is meaningless.

Whichever view one takes, no empirically accessible explanation can in principle exist. Only the explanation that there is no explanation, that the properties of the first physical event were brute (or effectively so), that we are lucky, remains open to any legitimate science.

A sensible GH entails purpose on the part of the [purported] intelligence. Such purpose must be diachronic, across all-time, and that means evolving observers such as ourselves (and possibly many more on other worlds) are some part of the intended outcome. Thus a sensible GH takes mystery out of all of human experience as concerns the nature of our universe from the big bang’s conditions to the nature of human consciousness and what it experiences.

GH does not explain the details of how it is the universe got from the big bang to here. That is the point and role of science, and GH in no way opposes science’s empirical discoveries, nor explanations (theories) grounded in empiricism. GH opposes only the unwarranted claims, by science, that the universe as a whole is purposeless, and that empirical discovery precludes the existence of a designer!

“Prolegomena to a Future Theology” sketches a first principles GH. It is logically consistent and abjures historical authority or the opinions of theologians whose ideas rest on such authority. Logical consistency plays the same role as mathematical consistency in physical theory. It does not prove the truth of the theory but it is a necessary condition of it. It is with this idea that I close these comments by returning to Sabine Hossenfelder’s book.

The present thought in physics and cosmology, that there is one theory that covers all phenomena, that such a theory will be natural and relatively simple, and that it will turn out to be beautiful is strongly supported by the GH. Beauty is a slippery idea. The term has no well-defined characteristics necessary or sufficient to determine it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is, though, a notion of beauty connected to the GH. It supposes that beauty, with truth and goodness are qualities of God’s character.

Beauty, in particular, is that quality expressed through material reality. What is beautiful might largely be a matter of taste. But most of us agree that a sunset is beautiful as is the night sky filled with stars, or for that matter the bright blue of a cloudless day. What God does always has beauty, and this includes not only the end (the night sky) but the means, first physics.

GH does not guarantee we can find a first physics, but it does guarantee that should it be discovered we will find it beautiful. Naturalness is another matter. It must turn out the magic numbers in physics, if they do not disappear altogether, must arrive at some minimum number. If it happens that God set the force ratios deliberately to achieve the present (and still-to-come future) universe it might still be true that those numbers “had to turn out” as they did based on prior conditions. GH does not preclude a physical, law-governed explanation for the settings. A GH does not, and should not, prescribe mechanisms.

A GH rules out the notion the numbers really are brute, there is literally “no reason for them”, though as noted there might be no discoverable physical reason for them. A GH supports the conviction there “must be a reason” though not necessarily a physical one. Lastly, a GH does not rule out a multiverse but it does make it redundant. If God can “pick out” the numbers, he can do it once and has no need of a landscape. Nor would this mean God did not utilize a landscape, but if a landscape was necessary, such a creator would not be the God of a consistent GH.

We can derive all of this from a first-principles GH. What it means is that Dr. Hossenfelder is correct in that beauty, naturalness, and mathematical consistency, even taken together, are not enough to establish the truth of a physical theory. But she is wrong, if GH is true, to assert that the true physical theory might turn out ugly. If GH is true, there must in fact be a unifying theory because the whole universe does, obviously work together, and since God did it, the true theory must come out beautiful. The irony here for physicists is that their belief that “the true theory will be beautiful” is evidence for the GH!

Review: After Finitude

My intuition tells me this will be an important book in the development of my own philosophical thought. It will prove important to my philosophy and theology although like all materialists, Meillassoux rejects theology as nothing more than “speculative metaphysics”. Yet he is brave enough to call what he writes here “speculative realism”, and it is speculative because his starting point is very much antirealist in orientation. Fundamentally an antirealist (he might disagree with me), he cannot know that he is correct. Like my theology (I cannot know that God exists), the evidence that Meillassoux is correct, is the result; his grounding of the insight that scientific discovery is about the world.

In my essay “Realism and Antirealism” here on the blog I note that “…one of the possibilities for explanations of experience in antirealism is realism.” This comment, made in a marginal note to Zizek’s “Less than Nothing” was made in the context of Zizek’s discussion of Meillassoux, and Meillassoux himself does not disappoint. The point of this little book is to recover realism, that is the genuineness of scientific insight into the nature of a world independent of experience, that there is a world independent of experience and that we can reliably have knowledge of it. Meillassoux achieves this with a very clever argument concerning the relation between necessity (there isn’t any except…), contingency (the only necessary thing about the world is that everything is contingent), and consistency — the reliability of the world’s regularities present to experience really is in the world itself and not merely in the “categories of our experience” a la Kant.

Meillassoux here is after nothing less than establishing a warrant for “scientific realism” on an antirealist foundation. As I note in my review below he doesn’t quite finish the job. He does manage to lay out all the elements of the argument and provide reasons for the validity of the assumption that science discovers truth about the world “as it is” in the absence of our experience of it even as he denies the validity of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a principle “scientific realism” implicitly embraces. This is a singular achievement on his part. I’m glad I decided to read him.

Besides Meillassoux, there are two other philosophers who comprise the “New Realist” school Maurizio Ferraris and Graham Harman. I have reviews of both of them now with commentary comparing the three.

Quentin Meillassoux, “After Finitude” (Kindle edition 2013) Reviewed for Amazon

Meillassoux’s writing reminds me much of other top tier philosophers of the present day like E. J. Lowe (recently passed away), David Chalmers and a few others. Not in what he says of course his starting points and subject are different, but stylistically, carefully crafting his arguments and at each point stopping to describe and evaluate alternatives advanced by his contemporaries and historical predecessors. In “After Finitude” he begins, conceptually, with Hume and Kant, accepting with the latter that the proper starting point for philosophy is the world experienced by humans; what can be thought, but rejecting in both the idea that we cannot come to “know”, in the sense of rely-on experience, to deliver genuine insight into the world in itself.

Meillassoux rejects speculative metaphysics (mostly coming down these days to religion) and accepts the generally anti-realist notion that the Principle of Sufficient Reason, need not apply to the world apart from human experience of it, but holds that the principle of non-contradiction should not be abandoned. Even if we cannot conceptually embrace infinite possibility (totalize the world), it cannot be that the world contradicts itself. All of this comes down to there being no absolutes, no “necessary being” and no “thinkable totality of all possibility” except for the fact of contingency. The only absolute for Meillossoux is that everything is contingent and might have been other than it is.

But all of this leaves historical and present day (postmodern) anti-realists in the position of claiming that we cannot know anything beyond our experience at all, and it is this mistake that he aims to rectify. Despite his general acceptance of the Kantian starting point, he insists that the achievements of science over the last two centuries well demonstrate that we can discover (through an objectivity emerging from shared experience, the results of repeated observations and experiments) much that is true about the world of the past and the present even if such truth lacks the a priori assurance of mathematics.

That problem comes down to why, if it is correct to reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason for the world apart from human experience, the world, that is the laws of physics, seem to be so stable? If the history of the universe comes out to its not-necessary “facticity”, that it is the way it is merely by chance, why aren’t the laws and regularities constantly changing rendering our ability to comprehend anything, even to be conscious at all, impossible? Kant’s answer to Hume was that the stability is only the effect of the categories of our consciousness, and if the in-itself (Kant’s noumenon) were not stable there couldn’t be any consciousness in the first place. But Kant accepted the Principle of Sufficient Reason which Meillassoux rejects. Instead he points out than an unstable in-itself might appear stable for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument). Instability need not mean moment-by-moment instability.

Meillassoux argument rests itself on our ability to “mathematize” our shared experience. That we can describe phenomena in-the-world in mathematical terms and discover not only that 2+2=4 (a priori) but also that E=mc^2 (a posteriori) speaks to us of the world’s stability. But he never quite gets around to telling us how mathematics grounds the stability. Indeed I do not see how it can because if it did, that would render the world necessary.

But there is a further problem here. If instability were really a quality of the in-itself and the universe was infinitely (or trillions of years) old, a few tens of billions of years of stability would not be problematic. But if he is right about the meaningfulness of scientific discoveries, then the universe is only 13.8 billion years old and yet the laws have been stable at least since the moment of nucleosynthisis a second or so after the big bang. That means the laws have been the same for 13.8 billion years minus 1 second! Extraordinary stability indeed!

To sum up, a beautifully written book, well argued, a delight to read, with many insights into the relation between human experience (the for-us) and the antecedent (the for-itself) world. But it doesn’t quite finish the job, something Meillassoux says he must let go of (for now I presume) at the end of the book. A fantastic example of how good philosophy is done even if, in my humble opinion of course, he begins from the wrong starting point and never quite finishes.

Information, Life, and the Big Bang


In 2014 William Dembski published “Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information” what he calls (in the introduction) a capstone on a trilogy that began with “The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities” (1998) and continued with “No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence” (2001). In the first two books Dembski spends his time building an argument about the unlikelihood of even simple life’s “information content” assembling itself accidentally on the Earth of some 3 to 4 billion years past.

Considering the Earth could only have supported any conceivable life as recently as 4 billion years ago, life appeared rather soon after supportive conditions developed. Dembski concludes (and you can read the books to follow the math) the probability of that much information assembling itself in that little time is about 1 x 10^-150. The same basic principles hold true for life’s evolution to its present forms adding an extraordinary amount of extra information along the way. Dembski understands Darwinian mechanisms. He carefully evaluates their capacity to assemble such an information pyramid by accident given the possible range of chemical interactions that occur among all the molecules of the nascent biological Earth on up to the present day. He shows again that it is incredibly unlikely for evolution to have been nothing but an accidental combination of mutation and selection.

In his third book Dembski goes on the offensive and focuses not on the unlikelihood of accidental life and evolution to present forms, but its impossibility. He does this by adding to his previous analysis a principle understood and accepted by today’s physics community; “Conservation of Information”. The concept is simple enough. A given system of mass-energy with boundary conditions (including energy flow) cannot express more information than was put into it somewhere.

To see how this all plays out over the history of the universe is the purpose of this essay. Dembski misses something important by leaving open when exactly the information needed to specify life (and next evolution) is added. Dembski happens to believe in a Christian God so he has no problem with the idea of information added to the world at life’s origin. But he leaves open the possibility the information comes not from God, but perhaps aliens. Also open is the notion the necessary information was there at the beginning, at the big bang, leading to a panpsychism, or for that matter that we are living in a computer simulation (another version of aliens) adding information as the code grinds on.

What Dembski misses (or fails to appreciate properly) is that the fundamental discoveries of physics point to a late introduction of the information needed to assemble genuine life. It is my aim here to fill in that gap. Beyond this, Dembski goes on to note that our only experience of information-creation or addition to the world is our own intelligent designs. If information is conserved, and its only source is intelligence, the universe’s initial information must come from some intelligence somewhere. Again this leaves open the possibility of super-aliens, computer simulation, or God. If Dembski is right that information is conserved, then either the universe’s information originates in some intelligence or it was all there from its beginning. If it was there from the beginning, if it was a part of the physical universe at the big bang, where in physics is it found? Does what physics finds at the beginning provide for everything from stars to conscious observers?

Information as understood by physics is of three types, Shannon information, Kolmogorov information, and semantic information. I review these more extensively in my books. A brief summary will do here. Information in all these forms is exclusionary. A hypothetically information-less collection of matter energy, displaying no behavioral regularities, contains within itself a well-nigh infinite potential of future possible states. But there is no such collection because the nature  of matter-energy and the regularities we observe depend on information. Information, beginning with its first expression in “natural law”, restricts present potentials and future possibilities. Our universe, its fundamental material regularities, allows everything from black holes to consciousness, but the possible future states of a present state anywhere in the universe, or for the whole universe, are not infinite.

On a cosmic scale, the specific history of our universe cannot have been much different than it was given its initial information. A stable universe of undifferentiated energy, mint-jelly, or Boltzman brains is ruled out of genuinely possible histories. Information configures matter-energy in some way. This is an important characteristic or property of information, more particularly its causal effect on matter-energy, and is understood and accepted by modern physics.

Claude Shannon developed formula for computing the quantity of information that could be unambiguously (clearly received) over a communication channel having a certain bit rate (number of detectable state changes per second) and some amount of noise. No information channel is noise free in the real world thanks to the second law of thermodynamics. Shannon information isn’t about any particular message, but about how much message a channel can carry. Capacity might be measured over time as it is in digital communications and radios, or in some other measure, for example the length of a DNA segment or a chromosome. The exclusion principle comes in trivially here. A particular message on a channel excludes other messages on that same channel at the same time or in the same place.

Kolmogorov information is about the complexity of a message. The message BBBBBBB is less complex than the message BCADFGE. We can re-write the first as 7B while the second requires all 7 characters in the correct order. Notice that the message FGCBAED is a different message but has exactly the same complexity as BCADFGE. Something like CCCABBF is intermediate in complexity because 3CA2BF requires only 6 characters to specify a 7 character message. Again we note the exclusivity property. Any one message of any complexity excludes all others.

Semantic information concerns what a message (information) means. Normally associated with human mind semantic information is plausibly characteristic of consciousness in general. Life, even without consciousness, displays metaphorical meaning. This meaning is metaphorical because life doesn’t apprehend it. Rather meaning is imputed to life by consciousness, and seemingly always by human consciousness. Importantly to physics, there is no semantic meaning, metaphorical or otherwise, in nonliving, material process. The purposelessness of material mechanism reflects its lack of semantic meaning. “Purposeless mechanism” and “absence of semantic meaning” are two sides of the same coin.

Information expresses itself, one way or another by configuring matter-energy whether the flow of electrons on a wire, persisting patterns, or a recognition of significance (meaning) of a configuration to consciousness. We are now in a position to understand the connection between information, life, and the big bang.

Information, the potential-reducing patterning of some chunk of matter-energy, expresses itself differently depending on boundary conditions, and energy flows. Boundary conditions reflect information in the wider chunk of matter-energy that has causal input on expression in the bounded chunk. Theoretically that would be everything in the past light cone of the inner most bounded chunk, but this is often so vast a space and time that we ignore most of it. The word ‘chunk’ here refers to the matter-energy of some particular region of space and through some bounded time. Every expansion of view to wider and wider spacetime chunks encompasses more matter-energy configured by information whose expression is in turn influenced by even wider chunks. ‘Causal effect’ is a function of forces, fields, with which matter-energy both brings about and with which it interacts. For my purposes, it matters not whether we view matter-energy as the product of fields (as in quantum field theory) or fields as a product of more fundamental matter (charged particles). Both views rest on the same fundamental information.

The first boundary conditions of our universe are the particular qualities of the forces describable in information theoretic terms. These forces restrict what can happen at any given “next instant”. When we gaze into the heavens what we see, the stars, galaxies, clusters, clusters of clusters, interlocking streams of clusters going on as far as our telescopes can peer. At the largest scales, distribution of these substructures appears random, but just inside the largest scale, there is clearly an expressed arrangement. The matter-energy of the universe is not distributed randomly at all scales. Our particular arrangement, can be described as a measure of complexity; Kolmogorov information. That state, any given “state of the universe”, changes into new states. The entire universe has a capacity, a limit, at which the evolving information expression advances. There is a limit to the rate at which change in the universe takes place. The universe has a Shannon information limit.

Cosmologists and physicists have long recognized the structures of the universe are, over-all, a natural outworking of a tension between positive energy expressed as temperature and pressure and negative energy known by its more common name, gravity. A cold cloud of hydrogen gas and dust floating around in space has more entropy than the star which eventually forms from it. It is gravity (negative energy) that reduces entropy in the gas cloud by consolidating it, restricting the freedom of its individual atoms to be anywhere in the much larger region of space that was the cold cloud. At cosmic scales, gravity is the great reducer of entropy. It does this by folding space around mass. Mass migrates inward (falls) toward the center of the folding which happens to be always what we call the “center of gravity”.

Taking entropy out of a system like this makes it more difficult for photons to escape it. Folding space compresses electromagnetic forces (constraining photons) heating the contracting gas producing more rapid particle motion, raising temperature, and increasing pressure. Eventually the gas heats up enough that fusion occurs and the resulting release of positive energy balances ever-present negative gravitational energy. But why does the balancing out occur here at this point? Why isn’t gravity strong enough to overcome fusion and keep folding space until a black hole forms more or less immediately?

The balance occurs at fusion, and gravity and pressure combine to make all the structures of the physical universe, thanks to the cosmological settings. The causal regularities we call “natural law” rest on the settings. The settings (there are some 20 of these seemingly arbitrary values among them the “cosmological constant”, the value of the “Higgs field”, the “fine structure constant”, and the “proton-electron mass ratio”) limit the ways in which matter-energy can interact. The particular interactions that occur are a reflection of the settings under boundary conditions holding at any given place and time. The settings are the minimal information present at or shortly after the big bang.

The star balanced at fusion expresses the same information as the cold gas cloud from which it formed. Both are deterministic expressions, patterning in behavior, of the same settings. At the opposite end of the size scale from stars, at the building blocks of matter (the fundamental particles of the present Standard Model) to molecules the same settings restrict behavior. At the small scales the important forces are the electromagnetic (molecular scale), and the strong/weak forces (nuclear scale). The same settings pattern matter on a different scale from the cosmological under differently relevant, microscopic, boundary conditions.

When mass-energy at a macroscopic scale is somewhere in thermodynamic equilibrium its state expresses the information present in the settings under that equilibrium. For the expression to change, to evolve, boundary conditions must change. That change rests causally on the flow of energy through the system. Change is also inextricably bound up with time. The seemingly simple notion of time is anything but simple. Is time something fundamental, perhaps even more fundamental than space (Unger/Smolin “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” 2014), or does it emerge from (and amount to) an averaging (as temperature is an averaging of molecular velocity) of the change in the quanta of space (Carlo Rovelli “Things Are Not as they Seem” 2016)? Does time exist at all, perhaps being nothing more than a meaning (semantic information) consciousness associates with measuring the rate of change (Julian Barbour “The End of Time” 1999). For purposes of this essay, nothing depends on this controversy. Time, one way or another, is an ingredient of every boundary condition and energy flow throughout the universe at all scales.

Significantly, when change occurs ordered patterns emerge. A star is ordered in this way compared with a gas cloud We note the same phenomena in columns of bubbles rising in the simmering water in a pot. The ordering in all of these cases is the result of a coupling between the settings, the boundary conditions, and energy flow. For my purposes below, I lump energy flow into the boundary conditions but the reader should always be aware that if changes in information expression are occurring, energy is somewhere flowing through the system. There are a few scientists who claim this emergence of order is enough to explain the eventual appearance of life, but this cannot be true. As I discuss below, life exhibits a new kind of ordering that never appears in non-living phenomena; and ordering requiring information not present in the settings directly though of course it remains consistent with them.

All the phenomena of the universe from the layout of the galaxies and down to the behavior of atoms in crystals and amino acids directly express cosmological settings under different boundary conditions, and these in turn also rest on the settings. The settings are the information present at (or within a second) of the big bang. They are information because they do what information does, they restrict or exclude possibilities by constraining what they pattern. The behavior of quarks, protons, neutrons, electrons, or the effect of gravity, isn’t random. The settings restrict the values of the forces and those constrain the behavior of everything else from quarks to superclusters.

The limits, patterns of behavior, vary as conditions change, the changes themselves “caused” (some would prefer “unfold into”) by those same regularities. Two seconds after the big bang all the settings were already in place. The strong, weak, and electrostatic forces had to exist as they now do for there to come into existence protons, neutrons, electrons, and a few nuclei of helium and lithium. Given the enormous pressures and tempretures of the environment (boundary) of the big bang in its first seconds, the building block particles where the expression of the settings. Given 14 billion years of evolution, we have the universe of today, an expression of the same settings. Up to a point.

If the Conservation of Information theorem is correct the information respresented by cosmological structure or molecules had to be put into the universe as it has evolved over time, or it had to be there at its beginning. Cosmologists today mostly believe that this information was in fact all present from the beginning, or at least within a few microseconds of the big bang. Physics and cosmology has convincingly shown the settings plus gravity explain the present structure of the cooled down universe. Granting that all of this information was present at or near the beginning from where did it come?

At first cosmologists thought perhaps the values had to be what they now are; not arbitrary but rather forced out of the boundary condition of the big bang. But a hundred years of theoretical effort to derive them has failed to prove the necessity of these particular values. The now fashionable answer is the values sprang (quickly evolved) into their values purely by accident, by sheer coincidence. Recognizing the improbability of this, cosmology and physics have spawned many theories of multiuniverses (Max Tegmark “Our Mathematical Universe” 2014) in which the settings take on all manner of random values. The idea is that given billions of such universes, it is not inconceivable that one would occur in which the settings took the values we observe. That they did so here makes the eventual appearance of observers possible and it should not be surprising that observers find themselves existing in such an unlikely universe. This idea, called the “Anthropic Principle” (Brandon Carter Krakow symposium 1973, Barrow and Tipler “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle” 1987), must be at least trivially true. Since we exist, it must be possible for us to exist within the constraints (remember information restricts possibilities) of the cosmological settings.

Of course there are plausible “intelligent alternatives”. God might have constrained the settings to obtain the physical universe we occupy, a physical universe supporting eventual life and consciousness. A few honest physicists have noted the unlikeliness of the settings would not be surprising if there is a God. Besides God, the intelligent alternatives coming from science have tended to pure science fiction speculation of super-aliens (effectively demigods) or perhaps computer simulations (also implying super-aliens). Such speculative alternatives all involve beings like ourselves only having far advanced cognitive abilities and technology. Such beings either live with us in our universe or inhabit their own universe outside our own. Either way, all the cosmological origin questions remain. But multiuniverse theories require only more physics; perhaps other physical universes of some sort. This is why the science community prefers such otherwise unverifiable speculations. But they are not better explanations. They do not, for example, extend to consciousness very well.

There is something more to notice about information re-expression based solely on the settings and evolving boundary conditions. All of these expressions, that is everything governed primarily by gravity as the source of negative energy, electromagnetism, or nuclear forces are repeating structures. Every proton is identical to every other proton, and all the galaxies, while differing widely in specific shape and size are gravitationally bound rotating collections of stars very often influenced by a large central black hole (dark matter is a part of the boundary conditions forming and maintaining these structures). If you consider any given cubic meter of a star’s interior at some distance between its center and periphery, it is much like any other cubic meter of that same star at the same distance from the center.

At almost the opposite end of universal size scales, the most informationally complex structures are homogeneous crystals and relatively simple organic molecules like amino acids which themselvs will form crystal structures under the right boundary conditions. There is a large negative entropy difference between a freely floating gas of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, and an amino-acid composed of those same elements. But that reduction, purchased in the molecular case with the energy of electrostatic bonds, is nothing more than a structure that arises automatically thanks to the settings under particular boundary conditions. From the crystallization of water (ice) to the formation of amino-acids, as with gravity, entropy reduction is associated only with the production of regular repeating structures whose variation depends solely on the nature of the settings and boundary conditions which are themselves the result of the setting and their own larger-scale boundary conditions.

This situation changes dramatically when we look at life. Galaxy formation, stars, and amino acids are an immediate response to entropy reduction caused directly by gravity or electrostatic forces under specific conditions. Once any of these arise they become stable. Only changing boundary conditions alter their stable states. Even dynamic but presently stable stars are in a stable equilibrium condition with pressure balancing gravity.

But living systems differ from any nonliving information expressions in several ways. Their stability is never merely a simple equilibrium, but rather the product of many interactions dynamically reducing entropy in the living organism over all. Of course living processes cause entropy increase in the environment, the boundary within which life operates, and there are living processes that spend heat in support of neg-entropic mechanism. Life exhibits a persistent battle against entropy and is never in internal equilibrium. If a living organism comes to complete equilibrium, or its entropic activity dominates, the organism dies. More importantly, life’s neg-entropy mechanisms achieve their effect not by the simple surrender to the consequences of the settings but rather to active mechanisms that map or translate information from one form into another. Living systems are filled with little engines that map information from one form into another reducing entropy in the system over all as a by-product. No comparable mechanisms exist in the nonliving cosmos.

The most familiar of these living mechanisms is the multistep interaction chain, associated with many intermediate structures themselves built up out of the same process, of mapping information in DNA to proteins. Obedient to the Conservation of Information theorem, this creates no new information. Rather, information is mapped from one expression to another. But the mechanism itself, a mapping engine, is new. None of this works apart from the limits imposed by the settings. But unlike stars, life’s entropy reduction is not a direct outcome of the settings, but of an entropy reducing transfer of information from one form to another.

The complexity of life frames a further limit on the space of possibility within the restriction imposed by the settings. It amounts to new information besides the settings alone. A protein’s biological functionality is not merely the result of its electostatic forces, but also its physical shape. True, the shape is the result of electrostatic forces, but an identically force-balanced molecule of a different shape will not work. Many differently shaped molecules might have identical force balances. The biological activity of a particular shape is a restriction not found in the settings alone. Life’s information is a restriction on top of a restriction and that demands more information. Where did this more come from?

Once again science, this time biology down through chemistry to physics, declares that it was all, like the settings, a lucky accident. Yes, they admit, unlikely, but not impossible and if it hadn’t happend on Earth, we would not be around to comment on it. In his first two books, Dembski explains just how unlikely such an accidental assembly is; thousands of different translations, hundreds of thousands of molecular arrangements, functioning as an integrated system, a living organism. In his third book Dembski argues that the information difference between nonliving processes and the simplest conceivable life (simpler than anything we find on Earth today) could not possibly come to exist accidentally. If life’s arrangement cannot be a direct product of the settings alone (the only information present in the big bang and throughout the evolution of the nonliving cosmos) its accidental appearance would be a violation of the Conservation of Information principle. What Dembski misses (at least I do not remember him mentioning it) is that life’s entropy reduction mechanism, complexity translation, is nowhere else exhibited in the interactions of the nonliving cosmos. From intergalactic clusters to amino acids none of the accumulated information is carried through translation mechanisms. It is all the immediate expressions of the settings under specific conditions.

For science to declare the one “life origin” event we know of is an accidental product of the settings plus boundary conditions directly is question begging and most scientists know this. “Accidental” is not a valid generalization from a single observation. Even if life on Earth originated on Mars (some cosmologists do assert this is a possibility), the question of how Mars’ life began still stands. Plausibly however, life-harboring planets around other stars are effectively isolated from one another. Life on such worlds originates and evolves independently.

What a discovery of genuine life on the planets of other stars would mean depends on what we find. Finding something indisputably alive but much simpler than the simplest life on Earth, would lend credence to the view that initial assembly might be accidental. Perhaps some life is so simple (something true also of long vanished early life on Earth) that it is not so unlikely after all. But if what we find on one or even dozens of other worlds is that all life is complex, different perhaps but on the same order of complexity as the simplest life on Earth, the hypothesis of “accidental appearance” gets all the more problematic. If, as Dembski claims, the chance of life springing into being accidentally on Earth is 1 x 10^-150, it is half as likely to have happened twice, let alone multiple times.

The rest of Dembski’s argument is straightforward. Human beings, observers in the universe, know of (that is experience and observe) only one source of new information in the universe; intelligent agency. For materialists to claim that this too, that is what we experience subjectively as intelligent agency, is nothing more than an outcome of the settings and boundary conditions, begs the same question as regards life. The “only example one has” of anything cannot be the ground of a valid inductive generalization. If the only life we ever find is complex enough to be highly unlikely there are only three possibilities. The absurdly unlikely happened, there is something fundamental that we are missing in physics, or life’s information came from the outside, from intelligent agency. In all my writing including this essay I have taken for granted there is not something fundamental missing in physics.

Physics may not be finished thanks to the problem of unifying gravity and quantum mechanics, but it has nailed a few fundamentals. It has adequately dispensed with the idea there is an “invisible force” that pushes physical regularity toward the assembly of living information. We find nothing of this in classical physics or quantum mechanics. If physics is correct as concerns its own causal closure, then life’s information had to be added at a place and time when boundary conditions were supportive. If some intelligent agency acted at life’s origin (perhaps on many worlds) then the same agency’s action, to fix the settings, at the big bang would not be at all surprising. The settings are fixed as they are in support of [eventual] developing boundary conditions conducive to life’s origination.

This notion must also apply to life’s evolution on Earth to the point of emerging consciousness, and in particular a personal consciousness (discussed at length in other essays on the blog). Over a mere 3 billion years an amazing quantity of new information (Kolmogorov complexity) assembles from primitive cells to organisms having subjective experience. Subjectivity at least begins with the higher animals, but it makes the transition into “observer status” only in human beings. Animals observe their environment in the sense of integrating sensory experience in a subjective gestalt. But being an OBSERVER implies more than mere observation, it implies recognition of meaning implicit in observation but not of the observation as such. This brings me to final consideration of semantic information.

Semantic information, taken most broadly, is prelinguistic, but not preconscious. A lion easily distinguishes between a zebra and the tree next to it. It grasps the zebra is potential food and the tree is not. The discrimination between zebra and tree has meaning to lion consciousness. Given memory and subjective experience an association links ‘zebra’ to the relief of hunger. Semantic information is transferred not by translation from one physical carrier to another, but from some such physical state to a subject. Meaning is meaning to a subject. Compared to biological information, semantic information is one step further removed from the settings. Many discrete sets of biophysical states ground a particular persisting consciousness, while different conscious experiences follow from similar biophysical states. Semantic information is largely independent of the physics underlying it and exists only to consciousness.

The uncoupling of semantic information from physical information continues in human consciousness. A zebra means [potential] food to a lion whether it is hungry at the moment or not. Both lions and humans apprehend meanings in this way, we are after all animals. But human beings not only apprehend meanings, they also abstract and evaluate them. Abstraction and evaluation combine to suggest meanings not immediately apprehended. This (and our volitional power to control our bodies) underlies our capacity to put new information into the world, literally to pattern matter-energy restricting its future potentials. Humans alone are capable of adding information, arising in subjective abstractions, to the world. Lions are not. We create art, and airplanes. Flying airplanes are like biological activity in the outcomes of information mapping engines. A successful mapping creates not only a biologically active molecule, but one that functions in a role specified by biological demands. A flying airplane signals a successful combination of semantic information and physics (purposeless mechanisms resting on the settings) whose proper role is specified by subjective intent to build a flying machine.

In a living cell there is nothing in the chain of events from DNA to a shaped protein that relies on anything other than the basic forces whose fundamental information, present at the big bang, is the settings. In this case, the electrostatic forces are dominant, but everything has its effect on the outcome. There does not appear to be anything in life that originates outside the physical world. As with the settings, once information is put in somewhere, life’s day-to-day operation exhibits nothing but outcomes explained by the forces (settings), and boundaries now including life, that cell, itself. But life’s delicately balanced self-maintenance does not address the issue of how its information originates. If the Conservation of Information theorem is true, then not only was its accidental assembly unlikely, it is impossible.

Individuals are free, of course, to believe life’s origin and evolution was accidental. But the argument that they were nothing of the kind is clearly plausible, even reasonable compared with much speculation from materialists. When we arrive at human beings, a new power springs from life through consciousness. Not only is there a mapping from some physical “state of affairs” to a meaning apprehended in consciousness, but uniquely, humans can map abstract meanings from consciousness to the world. Abstraction capable language marks the final separation between information and the settings.

The word ‘palo’ in Spanish means ‘tree’ in English. Either might refer to some particular tree or to the class or kind ‘tree’, and both are equally compatible with the settings and boundary conditions up through all of biology. All human languages are of course compatible with human biology everywhere on Earth. Expressing a single abstract meaning in different languages demonstrates the complete decoupling of semantic meaning from the settings. Completing the decoupling begun with life and continued in animal consciousness grounds both human free will and our power to create information.

This capacity, the free-willed intelligent creation (by arrangement of matter-energy) of new information, demands new information. If everything that happens in the universe expresses information, such novel power rests on information not previously present; information added not to matter-energy directly, but to consciousness. I go into what this implies in more detail in my books and the blog essay “Why Personality?”

All the information from the settings to life, supposing they come from outside physics, might conceivably (however implausibly) be the work of aliens, or perhaps we live in a computer simulation. Consciousness poses a special problem because unlike the universe and life, it is plausibly both real and nonmaterial. A corollary of life’s physical nature is that living process isn’t intrinsically conscious. Nothing about biology, however complex, suggests an emergence of subjective experience. It isn’t clear that any subjectivity can emerge from a causally closed physics; not even accidentally given infinite time! Human consciousness poses an additional problem. Even the highest animal consciousness does not display an ability to configure the world in novel ways based on new meanings conceived first (and not merely apprehended) in consciousness!

Human beings can shape the world based on thoughts whose origin has little direct connection to immediate sensory experience or memory. Of course our creative thinking includes apprehended meaning. But human creativity goes beyond experience to first postulate new, associative meanings, and then test their validity (truth content) by configuring physical subsystems that function (like shaped proteins) in their intended roles. Art, philosophy, and technology are all predicated on the validity of meanings originating in consciousness.

If aliens did this, from life (at least) to subjectivity capable of original creation, directly or in a computer simulation, they would stand in relation to us much as religion’s claims for God. Not entirely, for it is not an entailment of the alien hypothesis that aliens be for example omnipotent. If however we live in the matrix, a computer simulation, then omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence within the context of the program are reasonable inferences.

If the aliens are a product of this universe, the matter of the settings, and how the alien life started and evolved, appears. The alien hypothesis settles no philosophical issues. If aliens created the universe itself, and it is not a simulation then their universe must be something outside, apart from the physical as we see it from inside our universe. Even if one insists this outside is physical it cannot be “our physical”. There must, in this view, still be something outside our universe. But none of this matters because if any of these speculations are even remotely true, then something or someone added information, at least beginning with life if not the big bang, to the universe, our universe! It doesn’t matter if the agency is divine or not or if the information came from aliens inside or outside the universe. It isn’t necessary to assume that this agency must be purposefully intelligent. But evidence at least suggests that it exhibits all the characteristics of purposeful intelligence as we observers experience it.

If any of this speculation is true, physics must still give up the idea that “no such information came from anywhere”. There is some irony here. The speculation taken most seriously by the materialist community is that all we know as our world was genuinely an accident; precisely the “no information from anywhere” hypothesis. The irony is that this hypothesis is the one least supported by all the evidence, even the purely material evidence of life. Life is the first, partial decoupling from the settings. That decoupling depends on information not present in the settings. If the Conservation of Information theorem is true, life’s information had to come from somewhere other than physics.

There is nothing in physics, nothing in the strict causal closure of the physical that is incompatible with information coming in from the outside. Purposeless mechanism (a valid insight of physics) and purposeful information added by an intelligent, at least intelligent seeming, source are not incompatible. This is almost a trivial truth as concerns human experience. We configure purposeless mechanism (mechanism of the physical world) with our own purposes all the time. Our entire technological history not to mention art, science, and philosophy begin with that ability. If physics and intelligent agency get along as we experience them, and if our universe is everywhere basically the same, there is no reason to insist that agency characteristic of intelligence did not add information to the universe possibly starting with the big bang. Only an agency outside the universe explains everything, where all the information came from, including the universe, the settings. Physics cannot address itself to the nature of that agency because whether it is physical or not, it is not a part of our universe.