Here are some famous lines from William Blake:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
It’s one thing to join William Blake in poetically seeing the world in a grain of sand. It’s another thing entirely to imagine that the whole universe as we know it quite literally hinges on one. It would be reasonable to think that anyone who seriously believes such a thing must be crazy.
But it appears to be true.
Here’s philosopher Vincent Torley writing at Uncommon Descent:
[Think about] the Planck time, when the universe was 10^-43 seconds old. If the density of matter at the Planck time had differed from the critical density by as little as one part in 10^60, the universe would have either exploded so rapidly that galaxies wouldn’t have formed, or collapsed so quickly that life would never have appeared. In practical terms: if our universe, which contains 10^80 protons and neutrons, had even one more grain of sand in it – or one grain less – we wouldn’t be here.
I know. Uncommon Descent is an ID website. But don’t shoot the messenger. Vincent Torley’s assertion of fact in this instance appears to be correct. You can verify it at this cosmology tutorial put up by UCLA professor Ned Wright here.
Of matter’s density, Wright writes the following:
Adding only 0.2 gm/cc to this 447 sextillion gm/cc causes the Big Crunch to be right now! Taking away 0.2 gm/cc gives a model with a matter density ΩM that is too low for our observations. Thus the density 1 ns after the Big Bang was set to an accuracy of better than 1 part in 2235 sextillion.
This is the butterfly effect with a vengeance.
A similarly improbable number adheres to gravity, most specifically to the cosmological constant. According to physicist Stephen Barr, the cosmological constant “tells how much gravitational pull is exerted by ‘empty space’” (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, University of Notre Dame Press 2003, pg. 129). That number is a decimal point accompanied by 120 zeros and a lonely little 1 at the end (10^-120).
That’s a dinky number. In relation to the matter in our universe, it’s not even a grain of sand. It’s half a grain of sand.
Here’s Stephen Barr again (129):
[W]hether the cosmological constant is exactly zero or just fantastically small, physicists are confronted by a very deep puzzle. In physics, if a number is either exactly zero or extremely small there is usually a physical reason for it. For example, the mass of the photon is believed to be exactly zero; that is understood to be the consequence of a fundamental symmetry of the laws of physics called ‘electromagnetic gauge invariance.’ So far, no one has been able to find the physical reason why the cosmological constant is small or zero. This failure is the so-called ‘cosmological constant problem,’ and is considered by many scientists to be the deepest unsolved problem of physics.
Barr notes that if the cosmological constant had been a positive number even just a little bit larger than what it is, our universe would have known a “ferocious eternal expansion”; if it was a measurable negative number, it would have known rapid expansion followed by rapid collapse. These are both bad conditions (obviously) for life (129-130):
It turns out to be a very fortunate thing for us that the cosmological constant is so small. If it were not, the universe would not have been able to have a nice steady existence for the billions of years required for life to evolve. . . .
In order for life to be possible, then, it appears that the cosmological constant, whether it is positive or negative, must be extremely close to zero—in fact, it must be zero to at least 120 decimal places. This is one of the most precise fine-tunings in all of physics.
So, is atheism done?
No. Atheists have their own grain-of-sand retort. Our big bang universe, they say, indeed hangs on a grain of sand analogy: our universe is akin to a grain of sand on a beach that contains a multitude of other grains of sand. Each grain of sand is a universe like our own in some ways, but unlike it in others. Each of these universes has its own uniquely set cosmological constants that give birth to baby universes through such things as black holes and eternal inflation. Those baby universes, in turn, vary from their parent universes.
This idea that universes are every bit as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach, and that they vary from one another, are what string theorists call the multiverse hypothesis. In the vast multiverse landscape, ours just happens to be one of those universes with cosmological constants perfectly suited to evolve life and minds. Time and chance happeneth to all. Ultimately, no logical arrangement of matter—including matter obeying cosmological constants conducive to the evolution of life and minds—goes unexplored by the multiverse. Sooner or later, the dice will roll to us, and they have. As aids to explanation, no non-material supernatural minds need apply.
But what if the multiverse hypothesis is wrong? Then atheism is in trouble. As the famous string theorist, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind, put it in an interview with Amanda Gefter in New Scientist, December 17, 2005:
If, for some unforeseen reason, the [multiverse] landscape turns out to be inconsistent—maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation . . . [then] as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID [Intelligent Design] critics.
The reason for this difficulty, of course, concerns entropy: rooms for habitation don’t arrange and maintain themselves. We all know that randomness and chaos tend to accompany matter in the absence of telos, law, mechanism, thought.
And we don’t live in a chaos, but a cosmos.
So, to account for our very low entropic (and, therefore, highly improbable) existence, we have two basic choices:
- believe that we live in a vast and vastly ancient multiverse trillions upon trillions of years old and containing trillions upon trillions of unseen but really existing universes; or
- believe that the buck stops earlier than this, with an intelligent Ground of Being, good ol’ Charlie God (or whatever you wish to call Him or Her).
In a way, the question is a figure-ground dilemma: when you go to the beach, should you see its grains of sand as a collective symbol of the multiverse’s power to eliminate God from the cosmic equation? Or is the beach a reminder of just how finely tuned God’s universe is—tuned for ultimately bearing the bittersweet fruits of life and minds?
Or should you just try to enjoy the beach and summer’s brief lease (Shakespeare), and not think too much?