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31 October 2009

DNA & cosmic fine-tuning: The universe as Plato's intelligible Living Creature

This is the nice allegory first used by the philosopher John Leslie to describe the situation that scientists have found in the universe after discovering that many features of our cosmos are astoundingly fine-tuned to our existence, or to the emergence and evolution of life, more generally.

Indeed, if the physical features that make up the universe had been drawn at random, the probability that they would have values allowing for life and intelligence to appear (at some point in time and space) would be ridiculously small, one in billions of billions of billions.

Many thinkers have recognised this discovery as an extremely important one, probably the most significant one at least since the discovery of the expansion of the universe.

And the evidence for such fine-tuning of the universe has been accumulating for more than a century now. But the anthropic principle (“anthropos meaning human in Greek), declaring the universe to be particularly fit for life and for humans has been around for some time.

Is this new or particularly important? Well, after the Copernican revolution, which removed Earth and humans from the central position in the universe, it came as a shock to the western elites to realise that the universe, instead of being completely oblivious to humans, was in fact particularly suited for life, consciousness, and intelligence.

Most importantly, it was no longer the old fitness argument, stating that the temperature, pressure, gravity and environment of the Earth was just right for our existence and activity; it was now a question of the very foundations of the universe, the parameters and physical laws upon which everything was built.

In short, if the characteristics of the physical universe (and by physical, one includes the chemical, the biological, the geological) had been just a little different from their actual values, not only would we not be here to wonder about them, in most cases the universe itself would not have developed its various forms, structures such as galaxies, stars and planets would not have formed, and objects and organisms would mostly not have come into existence.

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