Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Exist

Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Exist

Here is a cheeky little article by Dave Goldberg who is a physics professor at Drexel University and author, most recently, of The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality entitled “Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Exist

It’s a nice little reminder of the wonderment that is this universe and our existence in it.  His main point is that we are “impurities in an otherwise beautifully simple universe”.  Think of your lineage back even just 5 generations, and how improbable the pairings of great-ancestors had to be to produce the unique DNA profile that is you.  What were the chances of those meetings that resulted in the marriage-couplings that gave rise to you.  As Goldberg says, “It was improbable that your parents met each other and conceived you at just the right instant, and their parents and their parents and so on back to time immemorial. This is science’s way of reminding you to be grateful for what you have.”

Of course, it goes much beyond that.  We’ve talked many times here of the fine tuning of the physical constants of the universe.  Goldberg says:

Your existence wasn’t just predicated on amorousness and luck of your ancestors, but on an almost absurdly finely tuned universe. Had the universe opted to turn up the strength of the electromagnetic force by even a small factor, poof! Suddenly stars wouldn’t be able to produce any heavy elements, much less the giant wet rock we’re standing on. Worse, if the universe were only minutely denser than the one we inhabit, it would have collapsed before it began.

I know that doesn’t impress some people – but it should.  The change in the electromagnetic force would only have to be 1 part in 1040.  How small is that?

Then Goldberg points out how symmetrical the universe and the laws of physics are.  Which is (or should be) a problem for us.

“Which sounds innocuous enough until you realize that if the entire universe were made symmetric, then all of the good features (e.g., you) are decidedly asymmetric lumps that ruin the otherwise perfect beauty of the cosmos… Everything is kinda the same? Every Friday night is like every other one? Sounds almost comforting. But it would be a mistake to be comforted by the symmetries of the universe. In truth, they are your worst enemies. Everything we know about those rational, predictable arrangements dictates that you shouldn’t be here at all.”

He then brings up Olbers’ Paradox the paradox that in the night sky any line of sight from Earth must end at the (very bright) surface of a star and hence the night sky should be completely illuminated and very bright. This contradicts the observed darkness and non-uniformity of the night.  Goldberg explains:

If you suppose that astronomers are just playing math games, go to the middle of a forest. Nearby trees will look big. More distant trees will look small, but there are so many of them that if you’re far enough into the woods, you won’t be able to see out in any direction. Now suppose that those trees were on fire and were as bright as the sun. In Darkness at Night: A Riddle of the Universe, the cosmologist Edward Harrison puts it rather poetically:  “In this inferno of intense heat, the Earth’s atmosphere would vanish in minutes, its oceans boil away in hours, and the Earth itself evaporate in a few years. And yet, when we survey the heavens, we find the universe plunged in darkness.”

The symmetry of the universe would bake us in no time at all, but an asymmetry rescues us. Kepler recognized that for the sky to be dark at all, the universe must be “enclosed and circumscribed by a wall or a vault.”

That asymmetry is the arrow of time.  Time only moves in one direction.  Although the physics of very small particles and very small events seem to run the same in any direction; the physics of large scale events have, nevertheless acquired the unidirectional arrow we call time.  Goldberg says:

Without an arrow of time, life certainly couldn’t exist as we know it. The chief—really the only—distinction between time and space is that in space you can go forward and backward, but time is one-way. Without a definite arrow of time—a broken symmetry—there’d be no future or past, no scientific discovery, no anticipation, and no memory. Is that really living?

The worst impediment to our existence, he says, is that “In the simplest of all possible universes, all fundamental particles should be massless, and some are, like the photon.”  For 50 years, physicists have postulated that some kind of field would have to exist that gave rise to mass.  In 2012, in the Large Hadron Collider, the Higgs boson was discovered .

In atoms, electrons allow for a flow of electricity, and by sharing electrons between atoms, allow for bonding, for chemistry itself. Just as a spaceship will escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, a massless electron (which, by definition, will travel at the speed of light) will easily break its molecular bonds.  Without electrons binding to protons, there would be no chemistry, no molecules, and nothing more complicated than a cloud of charged gas.

But, improbable as it seems, there is.  And therefore, we are.  Now you don’t have to be a Christian, or even a theist, to appreciate this wonderment.  But our viewpoint as Christians gives meaning and purpose to this wonder.  Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” John 1:3, “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”  Colossians 1:16, “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.”

As improbable as it seems, we were created by him, and for him.  That is reason enough for us to exist.



38 thoughts on “Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Exist

  1. You must admit that field of genetics was not exactly in an advanced state at the time.


  2. Black is White, proof 1: Color is only seen in reflected light. In the dark, everything looks black. Don’t believe me? Take a piece of white paper that has black writing on it into a closet with you and close the door. Tell me if you see any white at all. So in a closet, white is black.


  3. Rick Ro will now proceed to prove that black is white, and subsequently get killed at the next zebra crossing.


  4. all the ‘fine tuning’ aside,
    the factor that comes into conflict with the unfolding of Creation seem to me to be the actions of men that have mis-used and abused the natural world to the point that the Earth suffers and its animals suffer so . . . .

    so maybe the kink in the beautiful system of the unfolding of Creation in the natural world was our failed stewardship in service to our sins of pride and greed and our failures to accept that there would be consequences for violating the planet we live on to the point where even the American ‘indians’ warned of coming disaster over a century ago:



  5. I think we’re agreeing, Dana. I believe that any created thing must be material, in one way or another, it must have extension in some kind of time/space. That includes angels. I agree with Blake and Hindu religious philosophy in this. To exist, a created thing must have space/time to exist in. An underlying assumption in this is that there are different kinds of space/time, though they are all connected with and overlapped by the dynamic and creative interrelationship of the Trinity. I would say that the ecstatic interrelationship of the Trinity is what produces time/space modalities for creatures to be created and exist in.


  6. I’m assuming having a physical effect means there’s a causal connection between the universes, which means they are part of a larger existent framework of connectivity. If they’re connected in a larger web of cause and effect, I don’t see how that would make anthropic characteristics less improbable, but more so. I’m not assuming that the anthropic principle proves anything, it may indeed be the result of randomness and itself an illusion; however improbable that may be– and not being a mathematician I have no idea how probable it is — it is still possible. But so-called multiverses with causal relationships to each other certainly wouldn’t make the existence of God less likely, or observable anthropic characteristic less improbable. I don’t see that the so-called anthropic principle proves anything like intelligent design in our universe; but I also don’t see that the multiverses hypothesis, even if it became a working theory, makes the presence of anthropic principle characteristics in our corner of reality any less improbable or in any way supports materialistic explanations for our universe or the whole array of universes (if they exist).


  7. If you begin with the assumption of a naturalistic universes then fine tuning and statistical improbability are the ceiling you bump your head on – so to speak. If you start with God creating the universe as your first assumption then statistical improbability is indeed meaningless. That’s how I see it, anyway.


  8. You seem to be assuming that having an effect implies the same physical properties in each, so we don’t have all those empty universes, much less that odd one with just cats. I am far beyond where I can even hand-wave in a convincing manner, but this does not strike me as obviously true.


  9. Robert,

    In the passage to which you refer, Paul contrasts “physical” and “spiritual” that most emphatically does not indicate a contrast between “material” and “non-material”. The material/non-material thing is about what we might call a difference in “outer appearance, which we might conclude if we don’t know Greek… However, N.T. Wright explains that the structure of the Greek indicates that Paul is talking about something “inner” – that which animates the body. The body we have now, what is sown (buried), is animated by the “soulishness” we have simply because we are alive as a Person; what is raised will be animated by the Spirit – by God directly, without negating anything about who we are as a Person. The whole point Paul is making in the passage is that in the Resurrection we will indeed have a material body.

    It seems to me that Paul’s understanding fits very well with the interwovenness. We won’t understand exactly what that will look like until we get there. It’s perplexing for us now, but it won’t be then.



  10. I love the way physics is so often bumping into theological concepts these days. Scientists (don’t tell them or the Christian fundamentalists or they will be angry with you) are the best spiritual teachers going these days. Some of the concepts that challenge our concept of time propel our thinking toward the difficult to fathom dimension in which scripture says we are seated. Those other places. Heavenly places. Talk about asymmetry from this limited perspective. The freedom to go in any and every direction simultaneously seems to be at work. Books full of rules fly out the window at the speed of light. They disappear into the void of absurdity. Still, we continue at the same moment in time and space and must obey their limits to protect the earthen vessel. C’est la vie!


  11. Admittedly, a slight leap in logic, but…

    You know, the standard “He knew us while we were still in our mother’s womb,” “He knows the numbers of hairs on our head,” etc etc.

    Psalm 119:73
    Psalm 139:13-18
    Romans 9:20b-21 (kinda sorta)
    Luke 12:7, Matthew 10:30
    Isaiah 64:8
    Jeremiah 1:4


  12. If other “universes” have an effect on this universe, then they are not really other universes, but different regions of a vastly larger single universe. In that case, the array of improbable characteristics of this universe that gave rise to the idea of the anthropic principle would not be explained by the existence of infinite multiverses of which we just happen to randomly be in one where the “right” conditions obtain, because there would still be only one universe. In fact, those anthropic principle conditions would be even more improbable in such an immense universe of universes. None of that would be proof for God, but it certainly would not make the existence of God any less likely.


  13. But they do serve a purpose if they help prevent the person who already believes, or who is on her way to belief for other reasons, from thinking that they’ve lost their marbles because they believe or are on their way to believing. It’s preaching to the choir, but the choir needs to hear a good sermon now and then.


  14. What then of Paul’s “spiritual body”? I just don’t agree that anything created can be immaterial, when matter is understood to as an expression of energy, as I’ve said before, like the Hindu metaphysical concept of the “subtle body.”

    My understanding is that time, space, and matter — understood as a form of energy — are all inextricably interwoven, facets of a single diamond.


  15. –> “What am I missing?

    Not sure I can answer that, but for some reason your overall comment caused this idea to ricochet through my head:

    God: Oops. Did I just create a rock that I can’t lift?


  16. If God wanted to create you and me EXACTLY as we are today – which the Bible tells us is TRUE

    Just wondering where in scripture you get this from? Genuine question, not trying to be antagonistic.


  17. Sure. That’s why I used that word. But when the discussion turns, however indirectly and using hints, into a “proof” of God, then we really can’t leave this hanging out there. Otherwise, the eye rolls in response are perfectly justified.


  18. “Believe it or not there are hints of an answer. Basically it seems unlikely that other universes could exist without having an affect on each other. And yes it does make your head spin.”

    Being a lifelong D&D player, the concept of other planes of existence is not new to me. 😉 But the usage of that knowledge as a construct to argue for or against God’s existence is, as I stated below, just another way to frame the evidence in support of one’s prior convictions.


  19. Oh, I agree with you, but whatever material evidence can be adduced will never be conclusive, because there will always be reasonable accounts for it that contradict your — our — reasonable account.


  20. The multiverse is a hypothesis but the possibility does flow from the math just like the possibility of black holes and gravitational lenses flowed from Einstein’s math. Einstein’s math was verified by the fact that all the instruments used to do so existed in this universe. How do you verify the existence of another universe using instruments in this universe? Believe it or not there are hints of an answer. Basically it seems unlikely that other universes could exist without having an affect on each other. And yes it does make your head spin.


  21. I have come to appreciate that all of the classical and modern arguments for (and against) God’s existence are mostly for bolstering the faith of those already believers, and to give reassurance to those crossing the neutral zone that they are not abandoning their reason by doing so. People who are actually converted by such arguments are rarer than hen’s teeth.


  22. I’ve never been too keen on the traditional “arguments” for God’s existence anyway but the fine tuning argument has always seemed mysterious to me. Perhaps someone can help me understand.

    The concept of fine tuning is itself based on the concept of constraints. There are certain quantifiable ranges for physical processes outside of which certain of these processes become impossible. Leaving aside the problem of extrapolating from a single example (i.e., us) , it seems to me there is another problem.

    God is prior to all constraints in his creation because he is prior to his creation, right? And since he is prior to creation he is able to create in any fashion he wishes. So I would think if God desires something the chances of it happening are exactly 100%. And the chances of it happening the way he wants it to happen are also exactly 100%.

    It would follow under the fine tuning argument that God created the very constraints which supposedly restrict the possibility of him creating life as we know it. And by definition God can do anything. In such a universe statistical improbability becomes meaningless. Unless you think that God didn’t know what the outcome of his creation was going to be, and is that really consistent with what has been revealed of the divine will?

    To my mind fine tuning and statistical improbability are redolent of a naturalistic universe. The fine tuning argument simply undercuts itself.

    What am I missing?


  23. Mike the Geo, I love this article and the things you reference. I always enjoy images like “billions of piles of dimes covering North America and reaching to the moon, and only one is red.” Those kinds of analogies/images put everything in perspective.

    I’ve used the generational/lineage thing before in talking about how patient God is, especially in terms of His potential hand in evolutionary concepts. If God wanted to create you and me EXACTLY as we are today – which the Bible tells us is TRUE – then the EXACT pairings and TIMING of those pairings dating back to the BEGINNING OF TIME are just amazingly improbable, yet they occurred. Now… did God have a hand in those pairings, or did He just decide to let them play out, knowing what each pairing would create? Whatever the case, He has nothing but Time to work with…


  24. “It seems as though the inside is larger than the outside.”

    And all the assembled hordes of Ghengis Khan can’t get through the door (and believe me, they’ve tried).


  25. It seems to me that any discussion of this topic needs to at least nod towards the anthropic principle. This is especially true if we bring in a multiverse hypothesis. If our universe is but one of innumerable quantum bubbles in the multiverse, each with their own physical characteristics, then observing that the universe in which we exist has characteristics consistent with our existence is downright banal.


  26. So, time seems to be related to the very existence of matter. Have I read Dr. Goldberg correctly?

    If the Christian cosmos is the cosmos-as-it-is, there is an immaterial creation (‘the honorable bodiless powers of Heaven’) as well. Curioser and curioser. It seems as though the inside is larger than the outside.


  27. And he would be wrong 🙂 We exist in eternity with Christ. As Father Freeman said today, “We can say that the truth, which already exists in the age to come, draws everything towards itself.”


  28. I read this article online a few days ago. I suppose a materialist might title it, “Four Reasons You Didn’t Once Exist and Eventually Won’t Anymore.”


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