Review of Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life

As the subtitle indicates, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life (by Paul Davies, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2007, 315 pp.) is a treatise that supports the “intelligent design” assertion that the natural constants were designed by some kind of deity so that life would originate (if given proper ingredients in the primordial “soup,” reasonable temperature, pressure, source of energy, plenty of time, and so forth). But, I hasten to add, I am apparently putting words into Davies’s mouth because, on pp. 195-198, we have a section titled “Intelligent Design in Biology Is Magic, Not Science.” Davies, above all else, considers himself to be a scientist.

Let’s defer the question, of what Davies really believes in, to the end of the review. For now, what is the text like? What is in the book?

The first half of the book is an excellent review of cosmology. The chapter titles should give the reader a good idea of textual content: “The Big Questions; The Universe Explained; How the Universe Began; What the Universe Is Made of and How It All Holds Together; The Lure of Complete Unification; and Dark Forces of the Cosmos.” (pp. 1 to 128.)

There are no equations, and the book has good illustrations where needed. Each chapter ends with conclusions in the form of “Key Points.” There are voluminous “Boxes” and “Notes,” and a good index. The perspective is that of the establishment – the hot Big Bang somehow began with a singularity (a tiny dot), soon followed by Inflation.

Where I would write a paragraph, Davies writes 10 pages of elegant text. No stone is left unturned; that is, every cosmological proposal, no matter how nutty, is examined and explained.

But in the second half of the book, there are too many stones: I found the text to be repetitious, with boring thoroughness. Here are the chapter titles: “A Universe Fit for Life; Does a Multiverse Solve the Goldilocks Enigma?; Intelligent and Not-So-Intelligent Design; and How Come Existence?” (pp. 129 to 260.) (The “Goldilocks enigma” refers to the fitness of the Universe for life.)

In a book that features a great deal of philosophy of mind, I am surprised that there is not a word about the free-will illusion.

So in exactly what does Davies believe? Please try to form your own opinion based on this quote taken from pp. 267, 268:

“My own inclinations, it will be clear, lie in the directions of [The Life Principle and The Self-Explaining Universe], although there are many details to be worked out. I do take life, mind, and purpose seriously, and I concede that the universe at least appears to be designed with a high level of ingenuity. I cannot accept these features as a package of marvels that just happen to be, that exist reasonlessly. It seems to me that there is a genuine scheme of things – the universe is “about” something. But I am equally uneasy about dumping the whole set of problems in the lap of an arbitrary god or abandoning all further thought and declaring existence ultimately to be a mystery.

“It is often argued that science is, or should be, value-free. Certainly science, conducted properly, is the realm of human inquiry least tainted by preconceived prejudice and ideology. But scientists (me included) will inevitably formulate opinions that draw on a more general worldview, incorporating personal, cultural, and even religious elements. Many scientists will criticize my [The Life Principle/The Self-Explaining Universe] inclination as being crypto-religious. The fact that I take the human mind and our extraordinary ability to understand the world through science and mathematics as a fact of fundamental significance betrays, they will claim, a nostalgia for a theistic worldview in which humankind occupies a special place. And this even though I do not believe Homo sapiens to be more than an accidental by-product of haphazard natural processes. Yet I do believe that life and mind are etched deeply into the fabric of the cosmos, perhaps through a shadowy, half-glimpsed life principle, and if I am to be honest I have to concede that this starting point is something I feel more in my heart than in my head. So maybe that is a religious conviction of sorts.”

Yes, it is a religious conviction of sorts, and Davies is guilty of invoking “intelligent design in biology,” which is magic. Judge for yourself by reading this important contribution to the debate.

(A somewhat shorter version appears in Skeptic, vol. 14, no. 1, 2008, pp. 72, 73.)

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