Stephen Hawking famously ended his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time with the statement that, if and when physics finds its long-sought grand unified field theory “we would know the mind of God.”1 Although since then he has reportedly regretted the phrase, and famously announced in 2010 that “God did not create the universe,” his original statement was – knowingly or not – in fact simply a repetition of the underlying quest of the historical scientific revolution.
All its great pioneers, from Copernicus to Newton, were motivated by the passionate belief that by discovering the way the universe works they were not only uncovering God’s design, but also taking humankind closer to the divine. Science was for them primarily a spiritual quest. And, given the evidence, that’s precisely what it should be now.
Despite rather desperately cowering behind the wall of strident rationalism most of them are famous for, the startling truth is that cosmologists and quantum physicists themselves have revealed that the mind of God may be much nearer than we think. Science itself has effectively proven that ours is not a random universe. Science itself has demonstrated it was literally designed for life, which implies a designer… But as science itself – in general – is rather backward in coming forward about this, permit us to explain.
The sensational conclusion that the universe appears to be meant began to be formulated with the famous ‘anthropic principle’ brought to the attention of the scientific community at the end of the 1970s by the seminal Nature paper by British cosmologists Bernard Carr and Martin Rees. The latter, now Lord Rees – Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society until 2010 – recently attracted the disdain of many colleagues by accepting the annual million-pound Templeton Foundation prize awarded for an “outstanding contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Quite something for a mainstream scientist – and of course hugely controversial.
The Designer Universe
At its most basic, the anthropic principle states that all the cosmological data shows the laws of physics are, to an uncanny degree, exactly the ones needed for a bio-friendly universe. According to Paul Davies’ book The Goldilocks Enigma (2006) conditions are, like her porridge, “just right” for organic life. It needs precisely our kind of universe: relatively stable, with galaxies and stars – and this was by no means inevitable: if things were even slightly different matter could never have coalesced, or the universe would be riddled with black holes, preventing the formation of heavenly bodies. Life requires certain chemical elements, primarily carbon, which need stars to manufacture them and disperse them in their supernovae explosions. It also needs planets where the building blocks can be assembled for living beings to develop.
All this requires not only fundamental particles and energies to possess particular values, but the relationships between them must be very precise. Carr and Rees noted that for almost every variation of the physical laws, a bio-friendly universe would be impossible. Yet as Hawking writes, “a series of startling coincidences” make the laws of physics “a system that is extremely fine-tuned” to produce conditions propitious for life.2 Freeman Dyson, the British-born American physicist, writes that there are “numerical accidents that seem to conspire to make the universe habitable,”3 while Paul Davies notes the “ingenious and seemingly contrived ways”4 the laws of physics allow the creation and dispersal of the elements necessary for life – and that we appear to live in a “designer universe.”
More astoundingly, as all the values were ‘set’ by the big bang – if the conditions at the start of the universe had been say, bigger and bangier or smaller and less bangy (sorry for the technical terms), the physical laws would also be different – then life seems to have been an integral part of the design from the very beginning.
One of the first examples of the fine-tuning to be recognised, back in the 1950s, is the formation of carbon – quintessential to organic life – which like all except the simplest three elements is forged in the centre of stars. However, scientists had long realised that according to conventional wisdom, carbon shouldn’t exist at all (or if it did it should be extremely rare). Even the vast temperatures and pressure in stars shouldn’t produce enough energy for stable atoms to form. But we now know there is a lucky fluke – a quantum effect known as resonance – which produces a ‘spike’ that enormously amplifies the energy to exactly the right value. This only happens for carbon.
The scientist who worked out the process, the maverick British astronomer and mathematician Fred Hoyle, was so astonished by the coincidence that he famously described it as a “put-up job.” In a 1957 lecture he observed:
If this was a purely scientific problem and not one that touched on the religious problem, I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars. If this is so, then my apparently random quirks have become part of a deep-laid scheme. If not then we are back again at a monstrous sequence of accidents.5
The most recently-discovered example of fine tuning is perhaps the most compelling. This relates to ‘vacuum energy,’ a force arising from ‘virtual particles’ that fill even empty interstellar space, and which has a profound effect on the universe, since it determines its rate of expansion and this in turn determines how life-friendly it is. If the universe was expanding too quickly, then gravity would be unable to build galaxies, planets and stars; if too slowly, then all matter would be pulled back to the ‘big crunch’ before life had time to evolve. Obviously, our universe is expanding within that critically narrow range that allows it to be bio-friendly. But only recently has it been discovered how narrow – indeed, wafer-thin – that range is.
It all hangs on the rate of expansion, determined by the balance between the negative and positive energy of the virtual particles. In the mid-1990s, based on new improved data from the Hubble Space Telescope and other sources, cosmologists were finally able to calculate the balance. It turns out that the negative energy cancels out all but an infinitesimal amount of the positive – all but 10120 (that’s 119 zeroes after the decimal point and before the 1).
But the scary thing is that if this number was just one decimal place shorter – 10119 – then the universe would be expanding too quickly: there would be no stars and no planets. That tiny decimal place is the difference between life and no-life. The leading American theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind wrote: “This seems like an absurd accident and we have no idea why it should happen. There is no fine-tuning quite like this in the rest of physics.”6 Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg commented in 1993 that if the extraordinary balancing act of the vacuum energy was confirmed then, “it will be reasonable to infer that our own existence plays an important part in explaining why the universe is the way it is,” but went on, “For what it is worth, I hope that this is not the case.”7 Unfortunately for Weinberg, it has since been confirmed. It is the case.
It’s rather like winning the lottery (we assume). If our numbers come up we might think we’re clever or destined to win but of course it would be just chance. Not so long ago astrophysicists assumed that’s how it was with life: the right conditions just happened by accident. But the anthropic principle has shown that the game appears to have been fixed – as if only our numbers went into the machine. We couldn’t lose. In fact, the ‘coincidences’ involved in the universal fine tuning are so vast it’s more like winning the lottery week after week for several years.
Of course this was unthinkable for most scientists – after all, design implies a designer – so they desperately searched for a get-out clause. Susskind duly came up with the now-ubiquitous multiverse as a way out of the anthropic conundrum: the theory that there are really billions – perhaps an infinity – of universes, each with its own physical laws (since conditions at the big bang were different for each one). The vast majority don’t possess life, but because we live in one of the few that does, we are mistakenly over-impressed by the coincidence that it is spot on for us.
The multiverse hypothesis turns the virtually improbable into the inevitable. This time it’s like entering our lottery numbers into several billion games simultaneously. We’re bound to scoop the jackpot at least once. The multiverse allowed scientists uncomfortable with the implications of the anthropic principle to breathe a sigh of relief.
There is, however, a major problem with the multiverse – and its exotic brother theories, string and M. There’s not a shred of evidence for any of it. Ironically it’s a fundamental aspect of the multiverse that there can never be any, since interaction between universes is by definition impossible. Which also conveniently makes the theory impossible to disprove. As Carr wrote in 2007, the multiverse “is highly speculative and… currently untestable. Indeed, it may always remain so…”8
It gets worse. Being untestable means it violates one of science’s cardinal rules – that any hypotheses should be capable of being tested by experiment or observation. At best the multiverse is an interesting speculation, a possible but unprovable answer to the conundrum of the anthropic principle. But the majority of physicists take it as the answer to their prayers. If indeed they ever admit to praying.
It’s easy to understand why. Hawking, for example, has acknowledged it’s a straight choice between intelligent design (begging the awkward question of the designer) and the multiverse.9 Naturally he champions the latter, as do most of his colleagues, keen to look cool and cutting-edge, and beguiled by the seduction of endless equations – even if by definition they can never lead anywhere or prove anything.
The Anti-Science of the Multiverse
One of the key principles of every other area of science is that it is contingent, the consensus at any time being based on the best data, but with the underlying acknowledgement that future discoveries may lead to major revisions. But here we have hard data pointing directly to a designer universe – and yet the overwhelming majority of scientists prefer to accept the entirely speculative and untestable multiverse, just because one day they might find a way of proving it. In other words, they accept it on faith, their belief in a non-designed universe blinding them to the overwhelming evidence for one that is obviously designed, and that science itself now points to.
The anthropic principle has been conceptually divided between the ‘weak’ version (the universe appears to be designed for intelligent life, but this is an illusion) and the ‘strong’ version (the universe appears to be designed for us because it is). Enter the American John Archibald Wheeler (1926-2008), one of the most eminent modern theoretical physicists, discoverer of black holes and originator of the concept of space-time wormholes, who came up with a new spin: the “participatory anthropic principle.”
Wheeler developed the concept as the logical extrapolation of another weird aspect of quantum physics, the implications of which few other physicists have dared explore. It is accepted that by observing events at the quantum level they will inevitably be changed by the act of observation. The outcome of a particular experiment often depends on how the experimenter chooses to make the observation – in effect they assign particular values to a subatomic particle.
This is seen most famously in the ‘double slit experiment’, where the experimenter can ‘choose’ whether a beam of light behaves as a particle or a wave even when only a single photon is involved. Bizarre though it might seem, a fundamental principle of quantum theory is that the photon does not take a single path, but takes every possible path simultaneously. They exist as a series of probabilities (‘wave functions’), and only when an observation is made does the wave function ‘collapse’ and the photon take a specific position. As Wheeler declared (his emphasis): “Each photon is governed by laws of probability and behaves like a cloud until it is detected… The act of measurement is the transforming act that collapses uncertainty into certainty.”10 On a much wider scale, every particle in the universe exists as a wave function, ‘waiting’ to be given specific values by being observed.
Wheeler showed that it wasn’t just a question of the experimenter determining through observation how a particle behaves now. In the double-slit experiment choosing how the photon is observed after it has passed through the slit produces the same effect. The observer effectively chooses how the particle behaved in the past – maybe only microseconds ago, but in the past nevertheless (‘backward causation’).
Initially Wheeler’s proposal could only be a thought experiment as the technology allowing a choice to be made in the infinitesimally small period while a photon is in ‘flight’ wasn’t available. But in 2006 a French team devised a method of experimenting for real. Wheeler was proved right.
He then realised the same effect could be obtained if light from a distant star was involved, but the observer on Earth would be ‘choosing’ how a photon behaved when it set out on its journey thousands, maybe millions, of light years ago. The observer effect must be truly cosmic in scale. He then developed the notion of the “participatory universe” – by observing the universe, we are actually creating it, not just now but in the past. In short, we are determining the initial conditions set by the big bang. Physicists aren’t discovering the laws of physics – they are creating them. As he noted: “The past history of the universe has no more validity then is assigned by the measurements we make – now!”11 And in a somewhat Star Trekky soundbite he declared: “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago.”12
In Wheeler’s vision, human consciousness (and that of any other sentient beings out there) is an integral part of cosmic evolution. The big bang creates the subatomic particles from which galaxies, stars and planets are built. Life forms on planets and evolves to produce intelligent, conscious beings, who through their active observation actually manifest the big bang itself, “the mechanism of genesis.”13 (Wheeler pointed out that this disposes of the multiverse: if consciousness is needed to make the universe, then only a universe such as ours, with its conscious living beings, can exist.)
In other words, there is a circular relationship between mind and the universe – human consciousness is in some way necessary for its completion: the universe is evolving from a starting point towards some end, and mind plays a key part in that process. As Bernard Carr commented: “Wheeler has suggested a more radical interpretation in which the universe does not even come into being in a well-defined way until an observer is produced who can perceive it. In this case, the very existence of the universe depends on life.”14
Although to the casual reader this might seem somewhat off the wall, Wheeler’s logic holds up – and, unlike the multiverse, its predictions have been tested experimentally – winning acceptance from other prominent physicists. Among them is Stephen Hawking, who writes in The Grand Design: “We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”15 If Wheeler is right, then we play a part in the grand design implied by the anthropic principle. And if for ‘designer’ we read ‘God’, then we are, at least in part, God, or have a share in God’s mind.
Back to the Future
Perhaps the oddest – and most satisfying – aspect of this is how Wheeler’s participatory universe dovetails with the beliefs of the ancients, as Austrian astrophysicist Erich Jantsch (1929-80) noted. Based on the mass of evidence for cosmic purpose, he developed the concept of the ‘self-organising universe’, very similar to Wheeler’s. To him, the universe, through its components – including conscious beings – determines its own evolution. He wrote, “God is not the creator, but the mind of the universe.”16 But although acknowledging that the self-organising universe was prefigured in many mystical religious systems, Jantsch singled out one in particular: “the oldest recorded world view, Hermetic philosophy.”17
Bingo! In fact we had pinpointed the very same tradition while researching our latest book, The Forbidden Universe, as the inspiration for all the great heroes of the scientific revolution: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, William Harvey, William Gilbert, Isaac Newton – even the allegedly arch-rationalist Francis Bacon.
The Hermetic system is a metaphysical and magical philosophy and cosmology contained in a collection of texts known as the Hermetica, ascribed to a legendary Egyptian teacher, Hermes Trismegistus (‘Thrice-Great Hermes’). These writings, of which around twenty survive out of a much larger body, were set down in Egypt during the period of Greek domination, some time after the third century BCE.
They were largely lost to Europe after the crackdown on pagan scholarship when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE. But they survived in the Middle East (where they actually laid the foundations of medieval Arab science), and were rediscovered by Europe in the mid-fifteenth century by an agent working for the great patron of learning, Cosimo de’ Medici – the event that actually triggered the Renaissance.
As we show in The Forbidden Universe, not only did the Hermetica go on to be the driving force behind the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it also – somewhat spookily – outlines a cosmology that fits very neatly with Wheeler’s and Jantsch’s. (This may not be entirely coincidental, as Wheeler’s great philosophical hero was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz , the extraordinary intellect and contemporary of Newton, who, like him, was steeped in the Hermetic tradition – although it was expedient to downplay his interest in matters esoteric.)
The Hermetica, too, celebrated the universe as an emanation of the mind of God, declaring: “… you must think of god in this way, as having everything – the cosmos, himself, the universe – like thoughts within himself.”18 American historian of science Ernest Lee Tuveson sums up the fundamental Hermetic principle: “the world emanates from the divine intelligence, and, as a whole in which each part is an essential component member, expresses the great Mind.”19 And modern Hermetic specialist, American philosopher Glenn Alexander Magee, writes: “Hermeticists not only hold that God requires creation, they make a specific creature, man, play a crucial role in God’s self-actualisation. Hermeticism holds that man can know God, and that man’s knowledge of God is necessary for God’s own completion.”20 Back to Wheeler’s participatory universe…
In the Hermetic cosmology, the universe is God, everything in it is an emanation of God’s mind, and human beings play a necessary part in God’s self-actualisation. In Wheeler’s, consciousness plays a fundamental role in actualising the universe.
But where did the writers of the Hermetic treatises get their ideas? Renaissance devotees of their philosophy believed it encapsulated the highest wisdom of the ancient Egyptian civilisation, that of the pyramid builders themselves. In later centuries there was a more critical view: the texts might have been written in Egypt, but owed more to Greek ideas. However, recent research shows that – while written for a Greek audience – the Hermetic books do indeed contain traditional Egyptian religious and cosmological ideas. In fact, there a compelling case that they came from the most ancient known Egyptian cult: the religion of Heliopolis, as set out in the Pyramid Texts, the oldest magical writings in the world. And as it was indeed the religion of the builders of the great pyramids of Giza, this would vindicate the beliefs of the Renaissance Hermeticists.
In their complex and highly symbolic system, the Pyramid Texts too reveal many parallels with Wheeler’s participatory universe. According to the Heliopolitan theology the cosmos is an emanation flowing out from the creator-god, Atum, expanding from a single point of origin outward to the material world. But it, too, involves a flow from ourselves back to the moment of creation. As specialist in the Heliopolitan religion, American anthropologist Karl Luckert puts it, the universe not only “exhales” from Atum but “inhales.” We might need Atum/God, but he needs us.
So perhaps instead of tying themselves in the knots of string theory and abandoning themselves to the siren seduction of the non-existent multiverse, scientists would be better advised to read the Hermetica. After all, they would only be following in the footsteps of intellectual giants. But they should be warned: there is a creative consciousness involved, as science itself shows. It is a fact: face it. But we must stress that while this ‘god’ bears no resemblance whatsoever to the petty tyrant of the Old Testament, he/she/it is not too hard to find. Simply start the quest with a mirror.
by LYNN PICKNETT & CLIVE PRINCE For New Dawn Magazine