How Rare and Beautiful It Is

One of the challenges of being a dad to a teenage daughter is learning to deal with the mood swings and emotional outbursts that seem to erupt on a daily basis. The other challenge is having to put up with her taste in music: she loves the stuff that most teens enjoy, which of course I dislike! However, one day, she shared a song with me that pulled me in immediately. I confess I listened to it several times a day for the first two weeks!

In my opinion, everything about the song is beautiful: the video, the lyrics, and the music. So far, I’ve just been content to enjoy the song without attempting to analyze it in any great depth. But these words from the song:

I’d give anything to hear
You say it one more time,
That the universe was made
Just to be seen by my eyes.

… came to mind this morning when I came across an article, “Anthropic arrogance” by David Barash.  As I began reading this article, I immediately recalled a conversation I had with a colleague at work who remarked how insignificant we are in the vastness of the cosmos.

The article questions the soundness of the ‘anthropic principle’, the idea that “the Universe is fine-tuned for human life.” The author notes that the phrase was coined by astrophysicist Brandon Carter in 1973, who argued that “our location in the Universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.” Even Hawking and Einstein seem to give a nod to this anthropic principle.

Over-simplifying, the weak [form of the anthropic] principle is teleological. It holds that, as Carter had pointed out, whatever conditions are observed in the Universe must allow the observer to exist. In short, if these constants weren’t as they are, we wouldn’t be around to worry about them. To this, Hawking added that even slight alterations in the life-enabling constants of fundamental physics in this hypothesised multiverse could ‘give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty’. The weak version of the anthropic principle thus poses a logical conundrum.

As the song goes:  the universe was made / Just to be seen by my eyes. Barash goes on to say that the strong version of the anthropic principle “is in essence a religious expression, maintaining that some divine being created the Universe for human life.” Einstein famously remarked, “What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” The author explains “that Einstein was asking if the deep laws of physics might have in fact fixed the various physical constants of the Universe as the only values that they could possibly have, given the nature of reality, rather than having been ordained for some ultimate end – notably, us.”

Barash argues that the “Universe is a big place and despite our understandable fascination with the anthropic principle, the stark truth is that nearly all of it is incompatible with life – at least our carbon-based, water-dependent version of it.”  So doesn’t this point to divine providence that Earth is just right for human life? Not so fast says our author (emphasis mine):

Given the abundance of other possible locations, if humans existed simply as a result of chance alone, we’d find ourselves (very briefly) somewhere in the very cold empty void of outer space, and would be dead almost instantly. Might this, in turn, contribute to the conclusion that our very existence is evidence of a beneficent designer? But we’re not the outcome of a strictly random process: we find ourselves occupying the third planet from the Sun, which has sufficient oxygen, liquid water, moderate temperatures, and so forth. It isn’t a coincidence that we occupy a planet that is suitable for life, if only because we couldn’t survive where it isn’t.

Philosopher Philip Goff acknowledges that our Universe seems to be fine-tuned for life as we know it:

Some take the fine-tuning to be simply a basic fact about our Universe: fortunate perhaps, but not something requiring explanation. But like many scientists and philosophers, I find this implausible.

In searching for a plausible explanation, Goff goes on to say:

In The Life of the Cosmos (1999), the physicist Lee Smolin has estimated that, taking into account all of the fine-tuning examples considered, the chance of life existing in the Universe is 1 in 10229, from which he concludes:

‘In my opinion, a probability this tiny is not something we can let go unexplained. Luck will certainly not do here; we need some rational explanation of how something this unlikely turned out to be the case.’

Barash presents other possible alternatives to the anthropic principle, such as the possibility of  ‘multiverses’, quantum mechanics and “the notion of ‘cosmological natural selection’”. Goff puts forward another explanation which he dubs ‘agentive cosmopsychism’, the idea that “the Universe is a conscious mind that responds to value.”  Wow. I am not sure how that is a better explanation than a personal and loving God.

The song I’m so hooked on begins thus:

You taught me the courage of stars before you left.
How light carries on endlessly, even after death.
With shortness of breath, you explained the infinite.
How rare and beautiful it is to even exist.

How would you explain the infinite? Given “how rare and beautiful it is to even exist”, Barash concludes his article with a moralistic plea, that “Regardless of how special we are (or aren’t), aren’t we well-advised to treat everyone – including the other life forms with which we share this planet – as the precious beings we like to imagine us all to be?”

In the end, Barash asserts that “the anthropic argument readily devolves – or dissolves – into speculative philosophy and even theology.” Perhaps. Personally, I don’t see the need to restrict what voices we listen to and learn from: science, philosophy, theology, the arts, etc.

The shepherd boy David who later became king, had this to say when he surveyed the majesty and beauty of the creation around him (Psalm 19:1,2; ESV):

The heavens declare the glory of God,
   and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
   and night to night reveals knowledge.

And in another of his songs (Psalm 8:3–6; NET), David marvels at his place in the cosmos, that God should pay any attention to him:

When I look up at the heavens, which your fingers made,
   and see the moon and the stars, which you set in place,
Of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them?
Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them,
   and make them a little less than the heavenly beings?
You grant mankind honor and majesty;
   you appoint them to rule over your creation;
   you have placed everything under their authority

So, to return to the comment my colleague made about our insignificance in this cold, impersonal universe, perhaps she might consider King David’s perspective, and ask why it is that God should see fit to “grant mankind honor and majesty”? If we can accept that a personal God created humanity in His image, then of course we are not insignificant; rather, the Universe was created so that we may discover Him in all its beauty, majesty and wonder:

I’d give anything to hear
You say it one more time,
That the universe was made
Just to be seen by my eyes.


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