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Chance Versus Inevitability in the Universe We Know


“We live forward,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but to understand we look back.”[1] I was reminded of Kierkegaard’s words when I reflected on a conversation I once had with Paul Freund, Harvard University’s expert on constitutional law. One of  my sons was contemplating law school, and I remarked to Freund that my son’s strength was in history, not in logic, which I felt must be essential for understanding the intricacies of legal reasoning. “On the contrary,” Freund replied. “Law is historical, not logical.”

Law is not governed by logical necessity, but by chance, or contingency. That is why case studies are so central to legal education. Looking backward is essential to understanding what we experience going forward.

But does this apply to the universe? Is the universe strictly logical, or did it unfold with an element of chance that we must look backward to discover? Einstein put it succinctly: “What I’m really interested in is whether God could have made the world in a different way... .”[2]

To those physicists seeking the “theory of everything,” discovering the logical framework that would explain it all remains the goal. Their mission is rooted in an ancient faith in the intelligibility of the universe—and the rationality of physicists.

Einstein’s thought, stated above, continues: “… that is, whether the necessity of logical simplicity leaves any freedom at all.” Let us for the moment consider that the cosmos has a logical simplicity that left God no choice, an idea that has long been branded as heretical by churchmen but appeals to physicists. There would be no contingency. The way our universe was made would be the only way to make a universe. We can examine this hypothesis in conjunction with two principles that achieved wide currency in the twentieth century: the Anthropic Principle and the Copernican principle.

Throughout the twentieth century, astute observers noticed that our universe has remarkable properties that are singularly congenial to the existence of intelligent, self-contemplative life. In 1913, Harvard professor L. J. Henderson published a book entitled The Fitness of the Environment,[3]  in which he noted that not only were organisms adapted to their habitats, but that the fundamental details of chemistry themselves  made  life  possible—peculiarities  of  hydrogen  and  carbon  and  the extraordinary physical nature of water. The march of science has made his thesis ever more cogent. And, if  the universe had to be this way, intelligent life was inevitable.

Later in the last century, as knowledge of astronomy increased, it became clear that other global cosmic properties, such as the precisely balanced rate of expansion of the universe, played a fundamental role in making possible suitable habitats for life. These insights led to framing the Anthropic Principle, the observed fact that the universe favored our existence. In the words of physicist Freeman Dyson, it is a universe that “knew we were coming.”[4] Said another way, our universe is a very special place with a built-in congeniality for intelligent, self-conscious life. The pointers all seem to say that there is purpose, direction, and intention in the universe.

But at the same time, another principle—the Copernican principle—became popular. This is the idea that, based on the insight of Copernicus, the earth is not the center of the universe, but that we are but an ordinary part of the universe, our home revolving about a mediocre star in the backwaters of our galaxy. Given the vastness of the universe, well understood only in the twentieth century, it seemed almost absurd to think that we could be centrally located, or even in any other way special. Yet the Copernican principle of mediocrity, which essentially denies that our universe is anything but ordinary, seems somehow to be at odds with the Anthropic Principle that we are indeed in a special universe.

One way to resolve the apparent conflict between these two principles would be to declare that all those congeniality pointers were mere accidents of a cosmic roulette: that there are many universes, and naturally we would find ourselves in the very one, which, like the little bear’s porridge, was just right. On the face of it, the multiverse proposal offers atheists an answer to why our universe seems specially designed.

But, if God had no choice (as I have briefly considered for purposes of argument), then all the multiple universes would necessarily have the same congeniality factors, and it would make no difference which universe we found ourselves in. What a staggering discovery that would be! Atheists could say that, if God had no choice, there would be no need for a Creator. Theists could still stand in awe of the fact that the one-and-only design paved the way for our existence. There is no doubt that such a design is awesome.

Christian theologians have long insisted that God’s creative powers included choices in the way the universe is made. This concept played a significant role historically in the so-called Galileo affair. Although Galileo was a pioneering experimentalist, he also held to the ancient belief, developed by the Greek philosophers, in the rationality of the cosmos, from which he hoped to develop a demonstrative proof of the Copernican system. He believed that the tides were the consequence of the earth’s motion, and he proposed to entitle his cosmological book “On the Flux and Reflux of the Sea.” Pope Urban VIII objected to the title because it gave too much emphasis to what Galileo believed was a proof of the Copernican system. Urban reminded Galileo that “God, by his infinite wisdom and power, could have created the tides in many other ways, including some beyond the reach of human intellect.”[5]

Ultimately, Galileo realized, perhaps with some disappointment, that he could not produce a deductive proof of the Earth’s motion. But in reality, he won the debate with Urban concerning the Earth’s motion by changing the rules of science. I have called Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems the “book that won the war.” Unlike Copernicus’s Revolutions or Newton’s Principia, it did not contain new, heavy-duty science. It contained no proofs for the earth’s mobility. Instead, it marshaled a long series of convincing coherencies. Although it lacked “proofs positive,” his persuasive book made the seemingly ridiculous idea of the Earth’s motion intellectually respectable. In consequence, science today proceeds not by looking for proofs, but by building a highly probable structure, coherent and persuasive.

Yet Urban could well have been right in his theological declaration that God could have created the world in many other ways. Convincing as a “theory of everything” might be, it is hard to imagine how a scientist could ever prove that it was the only explanation and that God had no choice. The “theory of everything” would have to link together all of the seemingly unrelated constants of nature. But could it ever show that the linkage system was unique and thus that our universe was inevitable?

And even if the universe were a logical necessity, contingency would nevertheless play a role. Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid struck the Earth in what is now the present-day village of Chicxulub on the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact left a crater wider than one could see across, and the ocean pouring into that red-hot hole created a cataclysmic explosion. In its aftermath, the dinosaurs, whose family had ruled the earth for 200 million years, perished. Out of this turmoil, tiny mammals emerged, gradually evolving into the world’s dominant family, including you and me. It is difficult to imagine that the trajectory of the Chicxulub asteroid was foreordained in the Big Bang.

I have met hard-core physicists who deny that biology is, or ever will be, a science. They demand a demonstrative, mathematical structure, if not tight logical necessity. Contingency is not for them. Stephen J. Gould’s argument, so ably articulated in his Wonderful Life, that if we replayed the tape of life again the outcome would be far different, was anathema to them. The notion that bad luck (contingency), rather than bad genes (a demonstrative structure), could shape life on Earth was, in their book, enough to prevent palaeontologists from entering the science club.

On the other hand, I know of historians who have argued that the whole concept of contingency, in a Judeo-Christian context, drove the birth of modern science. In 1951, in a philosophical discourse to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor John Baillie declared, “It is to the clear recognition of this element of contingency in nature that science owes its very being.” Because God could create the universe in any number of ways, only appeal to observation and experiment could decide which of the alternate schemes might be true. “The reason why ancient science was so little observational and hardly at all experimental was that in holding so fast to the intelligibility of the world it failed to do justice to its contingency.” It has long been a challenging puzzle to understand why modern science arose in the Latin West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and not in China or the Islamic world. It is unlikely that any one concept can explain the tangled complex of ideas and forces that shaped the European scientific renaissance. Contingency undoubtedly played an important role, even in a proposal as cerebral as the heliocentric system. Copernicus’s idea was a “theory pleasing to the mind,” proposed with no observational verification of the Earth’s motion. Yet the whole notion of alternatives, that God could have created the universe in more than one way, drove astronomers to seek new evidence to distinguish the possibilities.

Looking backward is clearly essential to understanding the particulars of the biological world in which we live. History matters! It also illumines the very process by which we have come to understand the world about us. And, ultimately, it may help us to better understand God.


[1] Paraphrased from Peter P. Rohde, ed., The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (London: Peter Owen, 1960), pt. 5, sct. 4, no. 136.

[2] Carl Seelig, ed., Helle Zeit - dunkle Zeit: in memoriam Albert Einstein (Braunschweig: F. Vieweg, 1986), 72; translated by Ewald Osers in Albrecht Fölsing, Albert Einstein, A Biog- raphy (New York: Viking, 1997), 736.

[3] Lawrence J. Henderson, The Fitness of the Environment: An Inquiry into the Biological Significance of the Properties of Matter (New York: Macmillan, 1913).

[4] Freeman J. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 250.

[5] Cited by Galileo Galilei in his Dialogo and paraphrased from the Thomas Salusbury translation on 1661; see Giorgio de Santillana, trans., Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 471.

in Spiritual Information. 100 Perspectives on Science and Religion, edited by Charles L. Harper Jr. (Philadelphia – London: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), pp. 59-62.