Sure, you may just be looking at this column to pick up some sci fi reading tips for the coming week. I get that. But with this week's SEGO comes a little bonus: the origins of everything, the likelihood of there being a god, and the purpose behind human existence. Really. Just stick with me for a few paragraphs.
The universe is nicer than it should be
You are here, and that's a massively unlikely thing. For you to exist requires not just that your mom and dad got together on your birthday minus 280 days (más o menos), it requires a little infrastructure, such as a planet that's neither too cold nor too warm, a solar system that's anchored by a stable star, a neighborhood not too littered with planet-busting junk or sizzling with the radiation left over from a nearby supernova. On a larger scale it requires that the universe not be so heavy that it rapidly collapses into a massive black hole, or so young that stars have yet to form. On the finest scale, it requires that the force binding together particles not be too weak for atoms to form or so strong that everything smashes into neutron soup. And believe me, that's just scratching the surface.
Though astronomers often say that our star and its place in the universe are "unremarkable," we are -- in both the classical and technical senses of the word -- in a privileged position. We exist within in a place and with conditions that allow the development of intelligent observers, and the odds are that are really, really quite small. This observation is known as the , and there are several variations.
The weak anthropic principle says that we exist in a privileged position, because intelligent observers can only appear in such a position. Many people have taken a shot at trying to work through this idea (including Darwin's partner in natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace). However, it was theoretical physicist Brandon Carter, who named and defined this principle in 1973. Carter put the weak anthropic principle this way:
We must be prepared to take account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.
In other words, if things weren't just right, we wouldn't be here to see it, so of course they're just right. We're looking at the universe only because it is as it is.
Another take on our special spot is called the strong anthropic principle. In this view, we're not just standing in a nice section of the galactic park, but also sort of the point of that park. Carter talked about this idea in his original paper, but it was the book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barlow and Frank Tippler that really pressed the issue home. Barlow and Tippler listed many of the coincidences necessary for humanity to exist, and brought the possibilities down to this:
Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being
In other words, we're not here because of all those coincidental values, our privileged spot exists for the purpose of holding us. Some versions of this view go beyond this to the idea that, just as observation has an effect on events in the quantum world, the act of observation literally shapes events on all scales. The universe is as it is, because we're looking at it.
This web site isn't a universe all its own, it simply exists within a universe. The same thing can be said of online games, no matter how "3D" their structures may be. If you're playing World of Boredom in which you can walk the halls of a virtual office, log into a virtual browser, and spend your time sneaking peeks at Daily Kos when you're supposed to be working on that virtual quarterly report, it's still not a universe. However, what happens when your session in WOB is so realistic that you no longer realize that you're playing a game?
That idea has been kicking around for a long time in science fiction -- through the use of technology (and perhaps mind altering drugs), whole universes may exist that are in some sense synthetic. There's the virtual universe you can visit -- as in The Matrix -- or the virtual universe that's populated by it's own set of virtual beings. The less popular (but easily as intriguing) film from 1999, The Thirteenth Floor mixes both ideas and takes them to a logical conclusion. In that film, entrepreneurial scientists creating new realities for research and entertainment, find that their own reality is just a virtual creation of some "higher" reality.
If it is possible for virtual realities to be so realistic that they are indistinguishable from physical reality (whatever that means), and for beings to be created with their own intelligence within that virtual reality, then we quickly run into a fairly gulp-inducing conclusion. Since one physical universe could spawn any number of virtual universes, the odds are that any universe in which you find yourself is a virtual universe.
This idea, sometimes known as the simulation argument has been kicked around for some time by both information scientists and philosophers. Nick Bostrom, writing at Oxford University in 2002, brings it down to three possibilities:
(1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.
In other words, either no civilization survives long enough to reach the stage where it can create intelligent simulations, or we're living in a simulation.
Odds are that we're living in a simulation of the kind of primitive lives that were experienced by the ancestors of future super people. We are trapped in virtual Williamsburg, and there's no getting out.
The universe in my pocket
But suppose a virtual universe isn't possible. So you're not trapped forever going through the routines of your life for the amusement of future fourth-graders studying History of the Second Dark Age.
Does that mean you're safely living in the One True Universe? Not exactly. First off, pretty well every modern physics model includes the idea of multiple universes. So at best you're in one of many, many "real" universes -- though lucky you, this one is kind enough to support intelligent life (see weak anthropic principle). But there's another factor, one that may make this universe about as real as the whale environments at SeaWorld.
In the 1980s, theoretical physicist Andrei Linde worked out an idea called "chaotic inflation" to explain some of the behavior of the early universe. In short, if the universe really did start from essentially a single point and bang into being, it doesn't look like it should. It's not the right size, not the right shape, not the right density. What we have is a bigger lumpier universe than plain old big bang theory would suggest. What chaotic inflation postulates (and believe it or not, this is the simplest way I can find to say it) is that our universe is only one of a near infinity kicked off from the decay of an old multiverse, and that the shape and size of our universe is driven in part by a "false vacuum" generated by dark matter that's constantly tugging the universe apart, and... uh, there's foam. And bubbles. And I don't pretend to understand more than a very little of what Dr. Linde is putting forward.
But I understand this much: chaotic inflation neatly solves several problems in more traditional cosmology, and if it's not right appears to be at least along the right track. Linde's predictions of how matter would be scattered around by chaotic inflation turned out to be dead on with data collected later by satellites. So, that's a big point in Linde's favor. If he's right, chaotic inflation also has a little side benefit. It suggests that creating new universes may be a lot easier than expected.
Sure, our universe looks large and complicated now, but you're seeing it at rather an advanced stage. Once upon a time, back when it was an ensey tensey little baby universe, it not only fit in a lot less space, but actually contained a lot less matter. You don't actually need to gather up galaxies worth of material and pack them into a point. What you need is a little smaller -- something less than the size of a single grain of salt.
Not only does the material needed to generate a universe turn out to be a lot less than expected, but the technology to do so is also not all that advanced. It may be possible, within a very few years, for a physicist working in a lab to take a very small amount of matter and stimulate the growth of a little "pocket" universe, which would then pinch off from our own and grow into its own full-sized universe, totally separate from this one.
And that brings us back to the same conclusion that we ran into up there in virtual reality. If a technological society advances not much further than we are now, it should be capable of building it's own universe. Actually, an infinity of universes.
On this basis, we can now answer most of the big questions:
Is this the "real" universe? That is, are we living in the original universe, the true universe, the Ur universe from which others might spring? The odds are fantastically against it. Whether it turns out that our universe is a simulated reality or a physical reality, odds are very, very high (astronomically high doesn't even really begin to cover it) that this is an artificial universe.
Is there a creator? Once we’ve established that this universe is most probably an artificial construct, it pretty well goes without saying that someone swung the cosmic hammer to build the place. God the computer programmer, or god the experimental physicist, you can take your pick. Personally, I’m going with god the 11-year-old girl who just got a “make your own universe” kit for her birthday.
What is the purpose of human existence? So, you’ve just discovered that you’re living inside an artificial construct put together by an unknown being. Welcome! You probably want to know what you’re doing here. Fortunately, there’s a pretty good answer for that one that’s implicit in the situation. Communication between universes is theoretically impossible (so once Katie dropped in that mote of dust and watched it pop out of existence, the rest of the experiment was likely quite boring). However, physicist Linde (and lots of earlier folks, including Carl Sagan) have suggested that there is a means of communication with the creator, even though she now lives in another universe from our own. It goes back to all those numbers we talked about in the anthropic principle discussion. All of those numbers, from gravitational constants to electron mass, seem to be more or less arbitrary. So maybe the creator has scribbled down some notes for us a trillion digits or so into pi. We may already have the complete crib notes of creation, if we only knew where to look and how to get started figuring it out.
But there’s an even bigger message written into the universe, one that doesn’t require a decoder ring. If this is an artificial universe, then the creator crafted it with some care so that we can exist. The coincidence of all those nice numbers very likely isn't a coincidence at all. This universe was knowingly and purposely built to produce intelligent life. Did the creator have the fine control to place Earth among the stars or design DNA? Unlikely (at least with what we know at the moment), but more than likely the value for many of those vital numbers was in her control. Likewise, we don’t know how closely we are modeled on that creator’s own existence. Still, if this is a constructed universe, then intelligent life was very likely the point of its construction. With that in mind, we can get a fairly good idea of what we do from here.
Make more universes.
As it turns out, intelligence is the seed from which universes reproduce. We have it in our capacity, if we don’t destroy ourselves in the near future or so fundamentally wreck this planet that advancement becomes impossible, to create our own new universes. We are the germ cells of infinity, created for the purpose of becoming creators.
Q.E.D. Put a nice bow on it. God + meaning of life: check. This doesn't make the kind of "intelligent design" put forward as an alternative to evolution one whit less idiotic, nor does it change one thing about all the science you know. It only makes it cooler. Now, let’s all read some good books and see if we can nurture this civilization past puberty, OK? Katie would want it that way.
Contact by Carl Sagan
As long as we're talking big, big concepts and we've already mention St. Carl, we might as well start here. Contact is (no surprise, considering the title) a novel about first contact between human beings and alien intelligence, but the questions it raises go considerably beyond just seeing if the creatures next door have two eyes or three. First contact is initiated when astrophysicist Ellie Arroway picks up one of our own broadcasts being bounced back to us from a point several light decades away. The discovery of other intelligent life among the stars is enough to send society reeling, but a closer look at the incoming message reveals something else hidden in the fine detail -- the plans for a fantastic machine. Sagan had a singular genius for not just understanding extremely complex concepts, but relaying them to folks without his innate grasp of the implications. That skill is obvious in recordings of his television show Cosmos and in his fine nonfiction work, but it was never more clear than in this novel. Sagan delivers a book that is realistic, hard-nosed, and still as uplifting and fundamentally optimistic as the man was himself. If you made it this far in this week's essay, and you haven't read this book, don't proceed before getting a copy.
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
When building the list for each week's SEGO, I try to make a habit of avoiding those works that have topped the "100 best works of science fiction" lists for decades. There are a lot of books that are worthy of a lot more attention than they've received, a lot of works to be discovered, and a lot of writers who could really use that $0.13 in royalties. But now and then, I can't avoid going back to the big list, and this is one of those times. Arthur C. Clarke holds a firm spot in the pantheon of science fiction. For general audiences, he's probably best known as the guy who penned the book behind 2001: A Space Odyssey. For engineers he's the guy who worked out the math that keeps DirecTV satellites (and thousands of others) perched above above the same spot on Earth. But if you're interested in the Big Questions, then he's the guy who wrote Childhood's End. A big fleet of alien space ships descends unexpectedly and park their frightening and mysterious bulk over our cities. Sound familiar? Yeah, that's because everyone stole from Clarke. However, the rest of the story isn't as simple as whether the aliens come to help, to conquer, or Serve Man (on toast points). Instead, the aliens are here to nurture humanity toward a goal that is at once awesome and frightening. Too often Clarke's novels were victims to his own knowledge of physics and hardware, which he felt compelled to explain. This novel shows off Clarke's imagination, which has rarely been matched.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Phillip K. Dick
All right, I suppose it's officially classics night at SEGO. But once I was thinking about artificial realities, I couldn't kick that bastard Palmer Eldritch out of my head. For my money, you can keep the sheep, stick that man back in his high castle, and store your scanner in the closet -- this is the ultimate Dick novel: creepy, ironic, and mind-bendingly . Like so much of PKD's work, the questions here are ones of where reality stops and construct begins. The agency of trans-universe travel in this novel isn't a computer link or a starship, but a pill. Digging among the strangeness, you might draw some parallels between Perky Pat fetish dolls and the avatars of modern video games, or find hints of cyberspace novels to come in the pathetic attempts of authorities to restrain the reality-twisting drug "Can-D." Any attempt to summarize the plot (or hell, to discover the plot) is bound to end badly, but if you take this trip, you'll find the answer to one question: once you've gone down the rabbit hole, can you ever be sure that you've found your way out?
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
What makes a god? If it's abilities beyond those of "normal" human, or extremely long lives, or power to control the course of societies and civilizations, then the gods of this novel quality. Only as the story unfolds -- running back to front then back again -- it becomes clear that what separates these gods from the people around them is mostly the application of exclusive technology and the experience delivered by centuries of existence. The style and timeline changes can make this book difficult to follow early on (which is purely intentional) but stick with it as the narrative slowly picks up steam and transitions from disconnected stories into a single thread and you'll be rewarded. Even as the "gods" are cut down to size and the not particularly Hindu backstory of their Hindu-esque society is revealed, the main question fueling the war in heaven becomes a bit less black and white than it first seems. Along the way you'll see Zelazny masterfully weave together all the pieces of a complex narrative and demonstrate a love for his characters and craft that shines through. Here's one creator whose intentions are never in doubt.