I recently summarized “The Logic and Beauty of Cosmological Natural Selection,” Lawrence Rifkin’s essay which appeared in the June 10, 2014 issue of Scientific American. What follows is a critique of its main ideas by the video game designer Chris Crawford and a response by Dr. Rifkin.
Cosmological Natural Selection: A Critique
by Chris Crawford
I had never heard of this hypothesis, so I spent some time thinking it over as I worked outside. Now, it is easily rejected on the grounds that it is not subject to empirical rejection. It is theoretically impossible to disprove it, which by common standards puts it beyond the ken of science. However, I also realized an even stronger basis for rejecting the hypothesis: it is meaningless. The newly-created universes cannot affect our own universe. Nothing that ever happens in those new universes can ever affect anything that happens in our universe. Therefore, these universes have zero significance to us. They mean nothing to us.
This seems such an obvious objection that I very much doubt that a physicist as smart as Mr. Smolin would have failed to address it.
But I have a further reservation about this hypothesis: it seems unnecessary to me. The fine-tuning problem has never bothered me. I could just as well inquire into the astoundingly complex series of events that ended up producing that Crown of Creation, Chris Crawford. Think about it: of all the billions and billions of possible human beings, how did the universe come to bestow Chris Crawford upon us? This is clearly a conundrum requiring recourse to either theism or some new theory applying black holes, quantum mechanics, and general relativity.
There’s even another argument arising from one of the most brilliant arguments I have ever experienced. This is Stuart Kaufmann’s explanation of how the immensely complex cycles of chemical reactions that drive life arose. Creationists argue that the probability of one of these cycles developing due to chance is infinitely tiny. Kaufmann’s response, brilliantly exposited in his book “At Home in the Universe”, is that, while the chances of that particular cycle arising randomly are one in zillions, there are zillions of different cycles that could produce life. Persons who did not endure the hell of Biochemistry 101 will have difficulty appreciating this truth. The chemical cycles that drive our biology are not perfect; they just happen to be the cycles life got started with. The same can be said of our universe. Yes, the physical constants that control our universe are astoundingly well-configured to produce life. But if they were different, you’d get a different universe. What’s so strange about that?
By the way, I will never forget the shock of realization that swept over me when I read Kaufmann’s argument. It was one of those rare moments in life when our minds encounter a totally new and unexpected idea, and idea that makes everything fit together neatly. I’ve had only a handful of such experiences, and I hold them in special reverence.
Reply by Lawrence Rifkin MD (author of the original post)
Cosmological natural selection (CNS) is not disprovable, in the same way, one cannot absolutely disprove the existence of God. But CNS is amenable to scientific evidence and support, as outlined by Smolin in his academic writings and at the end of his book on the subject. Lack of current strong evidence of all such theories is addressed in my article which makes the case for the compelling explanatory logic (and beauty) of the idea.
As for Mr. Crawford’s suggestion above that the idea of CNS is meaningless in the sense that other universes cannot affect our universe, well, in that sense the distant future of life on earth is also meaningless in that it cannot affect current life on Earth. To the extent that the distant future of life on Earth has meaning, the existence of life via “baby” universes after our current universe can no longer support life has even greater potential meaning.
As for the Kauffman explanation Mr. Crawford offers, that would be applicable to CNS if there were “zillions” of different configurations of the laws of nature that are conducive to complexity and the formation of life. That is not consistent with what current biology or physics now supports. That is why apparent fine-tuning needs explanation – it is one of the remaining areas that has not been substantially accounted for with a naturalistic explanation.