I don't mean here, as in why are you sitting there in your kitchen, munching a cold turkey and cranberry sandwich and wondering if you can save yourself from tryptophan poisoning by a well-timed call to Papa John's. I don't even mean why are you at your keyboard, when you still have visiting relatives you haven't seen since Uncle Bill's funeral. This is the big question, the ultimate existential question. The whole "does this well-nigh infinite universe have a purpose, and are we a part of that purpose" question.
A couple of decades ago, evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould put out the construct that science and religion were non-overlapping magisteria. That is, that some questions belonged to science, others to religion, and that the Venn diagram of the questions that could be addressed by either would show no area of overlap. That certainly seems to be true when it comes to religious folks seeking some kind of scientific validation for their beliefs. Not only has evolution wrung the Genesis out of human origins, cosmology has pressed the origin of everything back to to ridiculously small fractions of a second after the big bang. With the inherent messiness of quantum mechanics, the bulging "Standard model," and unanswered questions about the bulk of the material that makes up the universe, we haven't quite reached Mark Twain's deterministic pinball machine, but there seems little room for facts not resolvable within the magisteria of science.
Except... not all the answers about the universe, can be found in the universe. The concerns Paul Davies addresses in Cosmic Jackpot are not about the how of the universe, but the why. Specifically, why are the rules of the universe as they are. If the universe was a DVD, what Davies wants to know is: who wrote the specs for reading that DVD?
Why are so many of the constants and rules that define the universe so right, to allow matter to exist, to keep the stars burning over long periods, to permit life to exist, to allow us to exist. Anyone who has ever looked into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is bound to have run into the Drake Equation, a series of values that define the possibility of encountering another intelligent race. Depending on the values that are entered into the equation, other civilizations may be common, or vanishingly rare. Davies projects a much longer equation, one in which all the varied rules of physics conspire against life, and variation of almost any of these values limits the possible civilizations to a firm zero.
That brings him back to the question of "why?" Why are all the rules so perfect as to allow us to be here, pondering why the rules are all so perfect as to allow us to be here, pondering... <whack> Er, okay.
It's not exactly a new question. A lot of what Davies is pondering is the debate between the Weak and Strong versions of the Anthropic principle. The weak version says "the universe is friendly to intelligent life, because we're here to observe it." So does the strong one. The difference is all in what word gets stressed. Under the weak theory, the universe is coincidentally benevolent, and we wouldn't be here to wonder about it otherwise. Under the strong theory, we are the point of the universe. Were it not for us, there would be no one around to admire the universe, the rules, and Eva Green. Call it a High Universal Vanity Constant -- the universe just really, really, wants to be seen.
If it occurs to you that this is the cosmological equivalent of the old "if a tree falls in the forest" question, you are precisely right. If it occurs to you that cosmologists spend a lot of time considering ideas that others would confine to stand-up routines, you're right again.
So what does Davies bring to the table? Too a large extent, an approachable style that makes such a tangled question more open to a debate that doesn't include overuse of exponents and mu-something or others (though approachable is relative, so if you failed to make it to the back cover of A Brief History of Time, think twice about diving in here). Somewhat arbitrarily, Davies reduces the candidates for the "why you so nice to us, universe?" pageant down to three candidates.
The first answer is: luck. Everything could have gone wrong, but it didn't, and we're here, so sit back and marvel at the fact that a quarter was tossed a few billion times, and it came up heads every time. Barring any other evidence, this candidate looks like a winner to most scientists, especially since one aspect of current cosmological theory is the existence of multiple -- infinite, in fact -- side by side universes, of which we happen to live in the Garden Universe. There's this universe, an inifinite number of universes almost like this one, an infinite number of universes where things are wildly different, and an infinite number of universes without shrimp.
Most scientists at the weak end of the Athropic line have already awarded this contestant the crown. However, Davies doesn't find that candidate appealing, for a number of reasons. Neither does he like the idea that the rules of the universe were stamped in place by an external force -- a point where Gould's magisteria touch -- leaving us with an observable universe as the maker's mark of a benevolent creator.
One big point that he argues against each is that because each solution requires actions occurring outside our universe, they are also outside our ability to test or observe. That makes either solution an unprovable theory, and so bad science.
Instead, Davies goes for contestant number three, one that might be called the Sampson of Strong Anthropic theories. He thinks we're doing it. Just as the act of observation interferes with particles in quantum states, Davies posits that our observation shapes the universe, not just now, but from the very beginning. In the ultimate closed system, our thoughts -- in a way unspecified -- shape the universe into one that can be observed. Poof! We are all become that other aspect of Shiva, creator of worlds.
It's an interesting, involving, and sometimes infuriating read, as some of the failings Davies levels against his runner-up theories seem equally true of his chosen winner. In many ways, his search for a consciousness-based cosmology is reminiscent of string theory. Both are intellectually appealing in that they bring a sense of order to something that is otherwise woven out of chaos and chance. Parts of his discussion will no doubt resurface as a kind of Intelligent Design for physicists (again, not an altogether new idea as looking for the mathematical equivalent of Slartibartfast's signature has been around for a long time).
At the moment, I'm unconvinced. However, I think I'll go take a walk in the fall woods and look around. There are deer out there, wild turkeys, and still a few stubborn oak leaves clinging in the branches. I'd hate to think they all disappeared for lack of my observation.