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The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? Paperback – April 29, 2008
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Professor of physics and prolific author of popular science books, Paul Davies, has aimed his acclaimed communication talents at the controversial question of why the universe is so “uncannily fit for life.” Davies’ bona fides and rare ability to take complicated scientific subjects and craft engaging narratives for the general public have resulted in a long list of top-selling works from some of the world’s most prestigious publishers. In "The Goldilocks Enigma," Davies takes readers on his journey of investigation into a cosmos he feels has been “etched deeply with life and mind,” and does so as someone convincingly independent of the scientific consensus and organized religion. To Davies, the universe is “about something;” it has a coherent scheme of things, and he isn’t afraid to ask the big "why" questions.
Goldilocks is structured in the classical education trivium sequence of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. After establishing the context of his investigations as a material universe that obeys underlying physical and mathematical laws, Davies spends three chapters going over the basics of Big Bang cosmology, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and particle physics. He then shifts from the grammar of cosmology to an exposition of the various theories that attempt make sense of the cosmos: unification, multiverse, design, and even self-creation theories. He moves finally to the rhetoric stage in an afterward titled, “Ultimate Explanations,” where concise summaries of the main positions examined in the book are given and his own preference is briefly mentioned. Interestingly, he closes the book with his assessment of how everyone else approaches the enigma of a universe fit for life and appears to conclude most scientists are either atheist pragmatists who don’t really ask the big questions or they are ideologues using science to advance an extra-scientific agenda.
Davies doesn’t make an extended case for his personal views, but expresses only a general inclination toward there being some sort of embedded “life-principle” or “self-creating” system to the universe. Readers familiar with the NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel will find in Davies a view similar to that in Nagel’s book "Mind and Cosmos" (e.g. the universe has a vital force, an inherent mind, and a built-in rationality that gives it a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life and consciousness.) To be fair, Davies doesn’t set himself up as some sort of superior, unbiased judge and he affirms that he, and every other scientist, “inevitably formulate opinions that draw on a more general worldview, incorporating personal, cultural, and even religious elements.”
The general public rarely gets more than scientific sound bites from major media outlets and even “science” networks, so a key strength of Goldilocks is in its excellent primer on Big Bang cosmology and accessible treatment of “weird” science like warped space, string theory, dark energy and cosmic inflation. Davies provides simple conceptual diagrams that accompany jargon-free explanations and routinely pulls non-essential (but interesting!) detailed explanations out of the flow and puts them in reference boxes. Most readers will also appreciate the frequent references and anecdotes of historical discoveries and particular scientists. There’s no better way to tell the story of general relativity theory than to envelope it as Davies does in Einstein’s self-deprecating account of his “greatest blunder.”
Similarly, Davies deserves credit for an extended review of the various aspects of the currently popular “multiverse” theories and calling to the readers’ attention those things which have support versus the parts that are pure speculation. In particular, he notes the lack of explanatory elegance in using an “overabundance of entities, most of which could never be observed, even in principle” and he reminds us that “a theory that can explain anything at all really explains nothing.”
When Davies moves from multiverse musing to his exposition on a “self-synthesizing” universe, the reader may note a tone of excitement and more space being devoted to a positive case for the theory. This is no doubt due to Davies own admitted inclination toward this sort of explanation, but it’s also certainly the result of Davies respect for physicist John Archibald Wheeler (to whom the book is dedicated). As a “master of the thought experiment,” Wheeler inspired the content of Davies “How Come Existence” chapter that nicely rounds-out the survey of views.
Admirable humility is demonstrated in Davies’ summary of all his offered answers to the question “how come existence?” He acknowledges that many will find all the approaches unsatisfactory and he questions whether we have reached an intellectual impasse. However, the multiple “self-_____” descriptions in the last chapter demand a specific philosophical criticism. Philosophers such as William Lane Craig and others have successfully argued that self-creation is logically incoherent and simply nonsense, so for Davies to allocate so much space to the “self-explaining universe” model and not even mention that philosophers see a fatal flaw in it counts against the book as being as thorough as the material deserves.
Finally, readers with a theistic, and especially Christian, worldview will likely find Goldilocks disappointing in its assessment of the explanatory options for “why the universe is just right for life.” Davies is thoroughly naturalistic in his worldview, and while he tosses Intelligent Design into the mix, he settles for strawman arguments and fails to interact with the claims of ID theory. He betrays his ignorance of the theory by incorrectly associating it with William Paley’s analogical approach, thinking it raises the impotent “who then made God?” conundrum, and even pulling the dreaded “god-of-the-gaps” card. (An honest study of works like "Signature In The Cell"> by Stephen Meyer would have supported a more informed discussion.) He also repeatedly uses theistic-friendly ideas (e.g. scheme of things, a script, universe looks designed), but belittles all creation accounts and names the bible specifically. This is truly unfortunate since there is at least one orthodox Christian creation model that not only accepts the actual experimental data Davies documents, but also constructively integrates the science with the creation account in the bible. Physicist Hugh Ross has written extensively on Big Bang cosmology, relativity theory, particle physics, and quantum mechanics and most particularly, the fine-tuning of the universe. But rather than dismiss the creation account in the bible philosophically, before the scientific evidence even has a chance to speak, Ross and his “Reasons to Believe” organization engage the science at the research level, evaluate its concordance with the text of the bible and invite professional criticism. Had Davies seriously investigated the work of scientists like Ross, he would have found a wealth of resources consistent with the physics he already accepts but actually engages theology in a meaningful way. This effort would have enhanced the book for readers of all worldviews.
Goldilocks is recommended to readers who are interested in more than a casual conversation about cosmology and the intersection of philosophy and science yet have no thirst for mathematical gymnastics or a refresher on Platonism. The absence of dogmatic assertions for particular views and Davies’ willingness to call out those who preach them makes the book a refreshing change for readers seeking a tenor distinct from that found in authors like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or even Stephen Hawking.
The thing I like about Paul Davies' writing, is that he is making some pretty insane claims, some statements about the nature of reality which some might find to be so bold and confident and "out there" as to be egotistically audacious, and yet he manages to lay out his language in such a way that you don't feel he is stepping beyond his bounds, he is merely making suggestions as to the philosophical implications which one could extrapolate from recent (and some not so recent) discoveries made in quantum physics and cosmology. He is basically toying with "thought experiments" and drawing premises to their natural conclusions. His philosophy is both bold and humble and his language is both succinct and poetic.
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“The Goldilocks Enigma” is a journey into the scientific mind.Read more