Cosmological Natural Selection: Crawford’s Critique and Rifkin’s Rejoinder

Lee Smolin: Cosmological Natural Selection - Cosmological Natural Selection Smolin's hypothesis of cosmological natural selection, also called the fecund universes theory, suggests that a process analogous to biological natural selection applies at

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.

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2 thoughts on “Cosmological Natural Selection: Crawford’s Critique and Rifkin’s Rejoinder

  1. Dr. John you mentioned or referenced, in a previous discussion, the concept of ‘Natural Philosophy’ as described by Jacques Monod, this subject is central to to-days discussion, a discussion which might have, in simpler times been described as, Where did we come from, how long will we live, and what is the purpose of life?

    Understanding Natural Philosophy is the core to understanding of our place on Earth and our role here, with or without this understanding, all human endeavors must eventually fail, with some understanding Life could be pleasant and carry on until it could continue no more, without it life will be “Hell on Earth” a scenario humanity is no stranger to.

    “When the first cell appeared in the Earth’s Primal Sea instinct was manifest within it, everything alive is guided by instinct, all life is ‘unconsciously’ guided and urged to ‘Be Fruitful and multiply’, that is why the Earth is covered with life, instinct guides every thing alive, surely this includes humans, The sperm swims to the Egg, upon birth the baby reaches for it’s mother’s breast all commanded by instinct, it was happening before we could talk!”

    “but the fundamental point — that living systems are merely the expression of high quantities of negentropy — is clear.
    There is a great deal of modern material explaining how self-organizing systems arise in environments loaded with lots of negentropy. It has always bothered me that this clear and simple explanation of how life arose just doesn’t seem to have penetrated the consciousness of our civilization. Indeed, when you grasp the implications of negentropy, it becomes obvious that the huge quantities of negentropy that the sun pours all over the earth made the development of life all but inevitable.” Chris Crawford’s comments on Schroedinger’s 1943 Dublin Lectures entitled, What is life?”

    We are commenting on Theories and other speculations, that allows us a bit of space for our own speculations, what is a speculative Physicist doing when they speculate? Are they conveying Facts? Or what they think could be facts?

    I speculate that the life force permeates the universe, what is it exactly I of course don’t know, I speculate that it has no mass or form and only becomes alive when it meets an opportunity to be alive and that life, like the life that flourishes here on Earth is opportunistic and flourishes wherever it can in whatever form it can! Would life be the same everywhere? Probably not but, who really knows?

    I like the idea of negenthropy powering the world and creating evermore complex systems, systems that eventually give way to chaos and crumble, this does seem to explain our past triumphs and failures, as I mentioned above, all human endeavors eventually fail, why does that happen?

    There is a propensity to madness in humans, most people are so inconsequential that their behavior has little effect beyond those they are in intimate contact with, however when Leaders of powerful blocks become deluded and want to shape the world in the image they desire, mass insanity can ensue, mass insanity is cyclical, I don’t think it can be charted and predicted like recurring physical events, perhaps mental stress is an underlying cause, in any case it always means trouble for the world.

    The fact that we cannot imagine the nature of life in other circumstances does not imply that such life cannot exist.

    “There is no life on Mars. Lots of negentropy there.
    I don’t argue that life arose and evolved due to energy (negentropy) provided by the sun. But based on the lack of any completely different basics of life models on earth, and the lack of any evidence of life in our solar system, makes me suspect that the circumstances leading to the arising of life, let alone developing complexity, are stunningly rare.” Lyle T

    There is no life on Mars because the conditions on Mars can’t support it, life needs energy plus the conditions to support it!

    Crawford – “The flow of negentropy from the sun is entirely adequate to explain everything about the development of life on Earth.”
    Because ‘metaphorically’ the Earth is the Egg and the Sun is the Sperm!

    There is a Star named Earendal located some 28 billion light years from Earth, (The Hubble telescope found it), 28 billion years ago it sent the light we have in recent times seen and recorded. Think of a circle or perhaps a sphere with a radius of 28 billion light years, how much area would that cover, of course we can’t say for certain but it seems probable their are other planets with life on them, would you want to go there? Would you want them to come here?

    Many people express negative attitudes towards Religion, I also believe there is not and old Man with a beard controlling everything, but please remember in the beginning when they were looking for answers to the questions we ask today they had no physics, they had their strong man Leader and that became the model for what controlled men’s fate. The explanations as to where the World came from were satisfactory to the people of that time!

    “we need to augment human moral and intellectual capacities if we are to create a better world.”
    John Messerly

    Yes we do Dr. John, we are living in a time when moral and intellectual capacities are under attack, yet you know instinctively, that mankind cannot survive without morals!

    Clive Lewis in his lecture titled “The Abolition of Man” 1943, posed the question “How old is Mankind”? Meaning how old is our species, how close are we to our collective demise?

    He also predicted our world of today.

    “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”. C Lewis

    This was a great discussion I learned a lot and I enjoyed it immensely, thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights!

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