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Beauty and the multiverse

In his recent article in Scientific American on the multiverse, cosmologist Max Tegmark appeared unfazed by the fact that “if you tweaked many of our constants of nature by just a tiny amount, life as we know it would be impossible,” arguing that “[i]f there’s a … multiverse where these ‘constants’ take all possible values, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves in one of the rare universes that are inhabitable, just like it’s not surprising that we find ourselves living on Earth rather than Mercury or Neptune.” However, Tegmark’s argument fails to account for another surprising feature of the laws of nature: their beauty.

Several years ago, Dr. Robin Collins put forward a lucid explanation of why the multiverse hypothesis is unable to account for the beauty of the laws of nature in section 6 of a lecture he gave at Stanford University entitled, Universe or Multiverse? A Theistic Perspective. Collins argued that neither the unrestricted multiverse hypothesized by Dr. Tegmark nor a more restricted multiverse which generates universes with different constants of nature is able to account for the beauty of the cosmos.

First of all, we need to define what we mean by “beauty” when talking about the laws of nature. Some people would regard beauty as a wholly subjective property. However, it turns out that beauty can be given a clear and non-arbitrary definition. In his argument, Collins uses the definition proposed by the 18th century English painter William Hogarth, pictured above:

[T]he idea that the laws of nature are beautiful and elegant is a commonplace in physics, with entire books devoted to the topic. Indeed, Steven Weinberg – who is no friend of theism – devotes an entire chapter of his book Dreams of a Final Theory to beauty as a guiding principle in physics. To develop our argument, however, we need first to address what is meant by beauty. As Weinberg notes, the sort of beauty exemplified by physics is that akin to classical Greek architecture. The highpoint of the definition of this classical conception of beauty could be thought of as that of William Hogarth in his 1753 classic The Analysis of Beauty. According to Hogarth, simplicity with variety is the defining feature of beauty or elegance, as illustrated by a line drawn around a cone. Hogarth claimed that simplicity apart from variety, as illustrated by a straight line, is boring, not elegant or beautiful….

The laws of nature seem to manifest just this sort of simplicity with variety: we inhabit a world that could be characterized as a world of fundamental simplicity that gives rise to the enormous complexity needed for intelligent life….

For example, although the observable phenomena have an incredible variety and much seeming chaos, they can be organized via a relatively few simple laws governing postulated unobservable processes and entities. What is more amazing, however, is that these simple laws can in turn be organized under a few higher-level principles … and form part of a simple and elegant mathematical framework…

The beauty of the cosmos suggests a fine-tuning argument. The key intuition here is that even if we put aside those possible universes that cannot support life and limit ourselves to those that can support life, the vast majority of these universes will have laws that are far less beautiful than our own.

One way of thinking about the way in which the laws fall under these higher-level principles is as a sort of fine-tuning. If one imagines a space of all possible laws,… the vast majority of variations of these laws end up causing a violation of one of these higher-level principles… Further, for those who are aware of the relevant physics, it is easy to see that in the vast majority of such cases, such variations do not result in new, equally simple higher-level principles being satisfied. It follows, therefore, that these variations almost universally lead to a less elegant and simple set of higher-level physical principles being met. Thus, in terms of the simplicity and elegance of the higher-level principles that are satisfied, the laws of nature we have appear to be a tiny island surrounded by a vast sea of possible law structures that would produce a far less elegant and simple physics…

Collins argues that only theism offers a ready explanation of the underlying beauty of the laws of nature. For atheism, this beauty is a surprising and wholly mysterious fact, and as Collins argues, no version of the multiverse is able to render this beauty unsurprising:

Further, this “fine-tuning” for simplicity and elegance cannot be explained either by the universe-generator multiverse hypothesis or the metaphysical multiverse hypothesis, since there is no reason to think that intelligent life could only arise in a universe with simple, elegant underlying physical principles. Certainly a somewhat orderly macroscopic world is necessary for intelligent life, but there is no reason to think this requires a simple and elegant underlying set of physical principles.

One way of putting the argument is in terms of the “surprise principle” we invoked in the argument for the fine-tuning of the constants of intelligent life. Specifically, as applied to this case, one could argue that the fact that the phenomena and laws of physics are fine-tuned for simplicity with variety is highly surprising under the non-design hypothesis, but not highly surprising under theism. Thus, the existence of such fine-tuned laws provides significant evidence for theism over the non-design hypothesis. Another way one could explicate this argument is as follows. Atheism seems to offer no explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the laws of nature for beauty and elegance (or simplicity with variety). Theism, on the other hand, seems to offer such a natural explanation: for example, given the classical theistic conception of God as the greatest possible being, and hence a being with a perfect aesthetic sensibility, it is not surprising that such a God would create a world of great subtlety and beauty at the fundamental level. Given the rule of inference that, everything else being equal, a natural non-ad hoc explanation of a phenomenon x is always better than no explanation at all, it follows that everything else being equal, we should prefer the theistic explanation to the claim that the elegance and beauty of the laws of nature is just a brute fact.

Multiverse advocates have failed to address the beauty of the laws of nature. In the meantime, theists certainly have nothing to fear from any future scientific discovery showing that our cosmos may be embedded within some larger structure. The beauty of the laws of nature offers eloquent testimony to the existence of a Designer of nature.

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4 Responses to Beauty and the multiverse

  1. Beauty is in the simplicity of variety of the equation?

  2. Uh, not to seem unusually dense, but beauty itself must be accounted for and is the strongest argument against materialism after the complexity of life.

    The simple fact is that men cannot make anything as beautiful as that which already exists. Why is that? In art, for example, the best they can do is to imitate nature. Science has nothing to say about the beauty of nature or its origin—nothing. That’s why scientists shouldn’t pretend to be philosophers. Darwin’s attempt to account for the astonishing beauty of living things through sexual selection is idiocy or high comedy—take your pick.

    We know about the classical Greeks and their enthusiasm for beauty. We know that beauty was the ground of Plato’s argument for the existence of the good. Throughout history, until, oh, say 1850, this was a fact universally acknowledged, as Crazy Jane might say. Then clever men—the wise men of their age—decided they didn’t need God and negated him. “God is dead,” they cleverly said. The upshot? A 100 years of desolation and ugliness in the arts.

    Now it is true that the concepts of “the good” described by the philosophers were hopelessly divided between sense and intellect, or as we would say today, being and nothingness. The Nihilists were quite right to negate the god of Plato and Aristotle, which was intellect. Intellect is a dividing power and therefore cannot produce an undivided description of the good. Men cling to the idea that intellect is the good because they are in love with themselves and their own thinking.

    But the Nihilists threw the baby out with the bathwater. In their eagerness to kill God, they also killed beauty. It is impossible to account for the beauty of nature without God. If “God is dead,” then the beauty that exists either has to be the product of sex (Darwin), or is an illusion (Sartre, Nausea et al), or we just happen to be the lucky blokes who won the universe lottery and got the pretty one (multiverse).

    There are no living philosophers. Not one. No one currently pretending to the title will obtain the cachet of a Plato or Aristotle for the simple reason that philosophy is the pursuit of happiness. The beauty of nature makes us happy. If we acknowledge it and start asking the questions Plato asked about it, philosophy is possible. Otherwise all we have is navel-gazing.

  3. But wait, maybe we live in that rarest of universes that is not only fine-tuned for life, but is beautiful as well ;)

  4. Clash of the Titans

    Don’t look now, but beauty is big at the cinema. For a while it was out. The 1970’s in particular were a time for grit and “realism.”

    But gradually things began to change. Filmmakers rediscovered the great beauty of nature and began to make it a conscious element in their appeal to audiences. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was emblematic of the new approach. Soaring New Zealand imagery was used to add grace and sensuous appeal to the rather enervating narrative.

    Of course it’s all about money. Filmmakers use nature in the same way they use music. They know very well that even mediocre efforts can be enlivened and ennobled by a great score. And the great beauty of nature also ennobles their products and moves audiences in profound and strange ways.

    The change from the grit of the post-war filmmakers to the luscious landscapes of more modern productions is driven by popular sentiment. Current cinema revels in the beauty of nature because audiences love it and have a strong appetite for it. Audience sentiment has begun to clash with the aesthetics of Modernism and its cultural elite.

    There is no voice yet for whatever it is that will replace Modernism. In the public square, the dominant voice is still the one that came into being through Darwinism and Nihilism. “God is dead”; and if that is true, then beauty is also dead, since nature cannot be beautiful unless it is made by a sentient being.

    Nihilism refers to nothingness. The Nihilists claimed it was possible to obtain go beyond the dividedness of philosophy and its concepts of “the good” by negating God or Being and seeking happiness in the “will to power,” which was based on the notion of the survival of the fittest. And of course when being is negated, the result is nothingness.

    Modern aesthetics were dominated by nothingness. There was a concerted effort to annihilate beauty and revel in ugliness and its resistance to traditional aesthetics. The love of nature seen in the Romantics was out; grit was in. Vladimir and Estragon were clowns on a barren, dirty stage. “Modern” music was typically blaring and jarring. “Modern” art declared war on the antiquated tastes of the middle class—ie, you and me.

    It seems the lowly middle class is getting its revenge, however. Movie makers need the great unwashed herds in order to break even, and one of the main tricks for getting audiences into the theater and making them happy is to make good use of the beauty of nature. After all, natural beauty is gratis. You don’t have to make it; all you have to do is figure out the best way to get it in the frame.

    The silent clash of the titans is between Modernism and popular taste. You won’t see anything about it in the pages of the Times, where Modern/Postmodern aesthetics continue their totalitarian reign. If that’s your cultural barometer, then Annie Sprinkle is still the hottest thing in show biz. You won’t see it at Avery Fisher Hall, where they still won’t make room for contemporary composers who resort to such bourgeois measures as melody, harmony and rhythm.

    But you’ll see it at the cinema, where even mighty artistes must bow their heads to popular sentiment in order to survive. Modernism is dead. No one cares about Darwin or Nietzsche anymore beyond the cultural elites and the entrenched rear guard in academia. The narrative has lost its appeal and is about to be replaced by something else as beauty sneaks back upon the stage.

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