Ashland Gets a Reality Check

   By Ted Clay   

Victor Stenger came to Ashland on November 3. Stenger is a brash and burly physics professor from the University of Hawaii with a special interest in cosmology and quantum mechanics. He admits being somewhat out of shape, which is OK for an about-to-retire prof, but my image of Vic Stenger is co-mingled with a photo of him marching briskly across a bed of hot coals, barefoot, in shorts, and wearing a tee-shirt with the image of a clown-face set in a circle with a line across it-the caption reading "No Bozos."

In early November Stenger came to Ashland, co-sponsored by Oregonians for Rationality, to speak on a skeptical topic of his choice. He did this, generously asking only reimbursement for his direct expenses, for the higher purpose of promoting reason in this world. As he put it, "I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad, and I'm not trying to make people feel good. I'm just trying to communicate something about the way I've come to see the universe as it really is."

While in Ashland, Vic gave two lectures, two radio interviews, a presentation to a group of physics students at Southern Oregon University, and an impromptu discussion with a Cosmology Club. We basically ran him ragged, and he left here for the relief of a true day off in Portland before speaking at a conference there.

What's a skeptical physicist doing lecturing in Ashland? A little background is in order. I am proud to say that Ashland is home to a disproportionate number of highly creative and intelligent artists, writers, professors, inventors, nature-lovers, entrepreneurs, musicians and activist retirees-not too many couch potatoes. It also has more churches per capita than any place in Oregon and a large contingent of New Age spiritual seekers. (It was the local appearance of an article on crop circles that propelled me personally into being what I'd call an active skeptic.) In this milieu, about a year ago a new organization sprang up called "The Center for the Study of Science and Spirituality." It had the blessing of the President of the University, and immediately gathered great interest-not all of it positive. I was among many people with an interest in science who strongly suspected that real science would have no place in the agenda. All indications were that this was right. It was to be a place for speakers who "combined science and spirituality," a selection criterion which actually rules out much of real science and certainly the principle of skepticism at the core of science. This got a few people upset, resulting in a spate of letters-to-the-editor battles.

From the beginning there was pressure to include some skeptical voices. The Center survived, but changed its name to "The Horizon Institute for the Study of Scientific and Spiritual Perspectives," and changed its policies to include a broader range of opinion. Broad enough to include, with some prodding, a curmudgeon like Vic Stenger.

Stenger's professional accomplishments are extensive; his list of publications a mile long. He has been a collaborator in the Japanese project to measure the mass of the neutrino which, among other things, may tell us whether the universe will expand forever or collapse in on itself one day. The other hat he wears is that of a skeptical author and speaker. What would the author of Physics and Psychics: The Search for the World Beyond the Senses and The Unconscious Quantum, his latest book on the misunderstanding of quantum theory, talk about? He chose: "Was the universe designed with us in mind? A look at the anthropic coincidences." Below is a short synopsis of his talk.

The Anthropic Coincidences is the argument that physics gives us evidence the universe was designed by an intelligent creator (a.k.a. "God"). Modern physics uses several fundamental physical constants, such as the force of gravity, the charge of an electron, Planck's Constant, and quite a few others. These are numbers that cannot be derived based on theory, but can only be measured, albeit with greater and greater accuracy. From the perspective of our current-day physics, they are what they are, and that's all we can say about them.

Interestingly, if there were slight variations in the values of these constants the universe would be changed in radical ways, and life, both "as we know it" or otherwise, would be impossible. The implication is that a God-like designer deliberately fine-tuned these constants so that inevitably, after a few billion years, we would exist. I pictured God with his many hands on many dials, carefully tuning them to the proper channels to eventually create his worshippers.

Stenger's critique of this argument was mainly on two grounds. Let's call them the "defense" and the "expansion." The "defense" argument is to show that the existence of life is not so sensitive to the values of these constants after all. Stenger has put together a Java program on the Web called "Monkey God." He focused on one aspect of the universe that most people agree is very important to the existence of life-the expected life span of stars. If stars are too short-lived there is not enough time for complexity to evolve; if they are too long-lived the physics which promotes their long life tends to prevent supernovas, or exploding stars, which are the caldrons for the formation of heavy elements upon which life depends. In his "Monkey God" program, you the user (the monkey) get to pick arbitrary values for some fundamental physical constants. The program uses some standard calculations to come up with the lifetime of stars in the universe you created. The surprising result is that a wide variety of the constants you might pick will generate universes that have stellar lifetimes which are compatible with the formation of life. (For more information, see Stenger's Web page at www.phys.hawaii.edu/vjs/www/vjs.html.)

The "expansion" argument is quite interesting. It says this universe, vast as it is, may be one of an infinite number of universes, each with their own set of physical constants. We happen to be in one that has constants compatible with the formation of life, because how else could we be here. This may be the ultimate "observation bias." We would not be around to observe some other universe that is not compatible with our existence. Viewed within the context of a vastly expanded "multi-verse," the individuality of our own universe may be no more strange and coincidental than, say, our own unique fingerprints.

The idea of a multiverse is one that is implied by the currently favored model of the origin of our universe in the Big Bang. That model is known as the "Inflationary Big-Bang Model." In this model, the universe started out like a ball at the top of a huge mountain, in a depression known as a "true vacuum." By quantum tunneling, it tunneled through this depression into a valley of the false vacuum and descended rapidly into the valley of the Higgs fields or Higgs bozons (tended by them?). And where would these "true vacuums" be, you may ask? They may be quantum fluctuations all around us or they may be black holes; mini-black holes may be all around us, budding off new universes as we speak. At this point in Stenger's lecture, I'm feeling like a bozo at the feet of the oracle of Delphi.

In any event, the multiverse idea is not one created as an ad-hoc answer to the Anthropic Coincidences argument. It seems to be imbedded in our best attempts so far to understand reality. Imagine, if you can, that our universe is like an expanding bubble, and that it is connected to an infinite number of other bubbles in an endless branching chain of bubbles, more numerous than the grains of sand of the Sahara. (OK, reader, don't forget Tuesday is garbage day, and you're running low on milk.)

So where did this talk leave the audience in Ashland? Primarily, I would say that the level of interest in the physics Vic Stenger was presenting was quite high, and the questions reflected a genuine interest in grasping the vast realities he was pointing to. A few people were rubbed the wrong way by his talk; however, I think it was not a response to his ideas, but a reaction to his stated position as a "materialist." His basic position is that the ingredients of the universe are all physical, and that "spirit" does not have an existence apart from the physical world. This of course conflicts with ideas such as life-after-death and the neo-Platonic world view which gives consciousness primacy over the physical world.

Vic Stenger is soon moving to Boulder, Colorado, where he will be heading a local branch of the Center For Inquiry, associated with CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Surely we will be seeing and hearing more from him.

What is the long-term effect of his visit to Ashland? We shall see. The Horizon Institute now appears to have a policy of engaging at least some speakers with a skeptical scientific viewpoint. I personally believe the encounter between science and spirituality will only be productive if it is "real" - that is, if the science is not filtered to be a watered-down, compatible science that never confronts or calls into question people's cherished beliefs.

Thanks to Oregonians for Rationality for supporting this effort.

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