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The Puzzle of a Life-Containing Universe

Thoughtfully, the psalmist asked:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honor.” 1

It’s a good question: What makes humans so important in the universe? Or does it only appear so to us humans? If the laws of nature were even slightly different, humans could not exist. Our universe permits life—even intelligent life. Why? That’s the puzzle. Is the universe specifically designed for life and for us humans? If the universe is designed for us, can we demonstrate it? Do the sweeping discoveries of physics, astronomy, and cosmology help answer the question? Can science ever provide a solution to the puzzle?

Although our universe obviously contains life, the natural laws and physical conditions that permit life are very restrictive. If the laws or constants of nature were even slightly different, no life could exist.2 So why does our universe have exactly these exact conditions?

Current cosmological discoveries have provoked a great deal of scholarly thinking about the remarkable fitness (the so-called “fine tuning”) of the universe for life. From the big bang, the universe has expanded to become big, old, dark, and cold—the precise conditions necessary for the formation of stars and galaxies, for the consequent production of the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium that are necessary for complex molecules, and finally for life itself.

Scholarly opinions cover a wide range, but current solutions to the puzzle of a universe with life fall into three groups: (1) The universe just happens to be that way; (2) God created the universe to support life; or (3) Out of a multitude of universes (a multiverse)3 at least a few will have the conditions that permit life, and our universe is just one of these. (The English physicist Paul Davies has considered this problem, and imagined and analyzed other “possible” universes, in a number of accessible books.)4 Perhaps there are other possibilities as well.

Each of these scenarios solves the puzzle for those who accept that solution. Nature solves the problem for those who accept as a brute fact that the universe “just happened.” God solves the puzzle for those who believe the universe was designed and created by God. The multiverse solves the puzzle for those who can imagine a multiverse.

Much as inquisitive humans might desire a decisive solution to the puzzle, science cannot now and likely cannot in the future provide evidence for an ineluctable choice. Perhaps we are asking too much. What then? Each person will choose what seems most reasonable or most likely to give meaning to life. One physicist and author writes of his belief in a way that resonates: “For me, the real meaning in life is that we can create our own meaning.”5 Latter-day Saints would probably add something like: “With the benefit of revelatory guidance.” The Saints have good reasons to be optimistic about the possibilities.

LDS scholars who follow the theistic cosmologists to a God who created the universe may be disappointed in the god they find there. It is very difficult to see how the attributes or characteristics of a postulated god that created the entire universe and therefore is somehow “antecedent to it” and “outside of it” can be known from explorations of nature alone. The god of the theistic cosmologists therefore remains an unknown god, and that brings precious little guidance or comfort.

More directly, Mormons (as LDS Christians are often called) understand that God, our Heavenly Father, is a God of revelation. The Prophet Joseph Smith stated: “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another.”6 Church leaders have spoken of the necessity and actuality of revelation in the affairs of the kingdom of God on earth, and the reception of revelation is explicitly extended to all servants of God through a modern revelation.7 In the authorized book, The Articles of Faith, James E. Talmage writes: “We have no record of a period of time during which an authorized minister of Christ has dwelt on earth, when the Lord did not make known to that servant the divine will concerning his ministry.”8

Arguably, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would not exist, and member readers would not be members of that church, except for their acceptance of the striking claim that the Church is built upon divine authority by direct revelation.9 That remarkable claim sets the LDS Church apart from other Christian churches and has earned the Church a good deal of opposition. But, in LDS theology, God is a personal Being—as revealed to his prophets and as described by Jesus Christ as “my Father,” “your Father,” and “our Father.” The God of revelation exercises watchful care over his creations and loving guidance over His children. God has clearly stated his goal: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”10

By no means do I suggest that divine revelation solves the puzzle of the origin of the bio-friendliness of our universe, but I do suggest that revelation provides a means of knowing about God and his relation to human beings that cannot be found from scientific discoveries. Mormonism is exciting to me for its acceptance of all truth, including ideas flowing both from modern revelation and science. The divine plan of salvation and happiness, remarkable in its power and scope, matches the grandeur of the universe.

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Notes:

1 Psalms 8:3-5
2 John D. Barrow, The Constants of Nature: The Numbers that Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe (New York: 2004, Vintage Books, 2004).
3 Fred Adams, Our Living Multiverse (Free Press, 2002).
4 Among these are God and the New Physics (1983), The Cosmic Blueprint (1987), The Mind of God (1992), The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life (1998), and The Goldilocks Enigma (2007).
5 Michio Kaku, Parallel Worlds (New York: Anchor, 2006), 358.
6 Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.347
7 Doctrine and Covenants 68:2-5
8 James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, p. 270
9 For example, Articles of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 9
10 Book of Moses 1:39

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Hollis R. Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at Indiana University, earned his Ph.D. in astrogeophysics from the University of Colorado in 1960, and taught at Indiana University from 1963-1994, chairing the Astronomy Department from 1978-1982 and, again, from 1990-1993. He served as the dissertation advisor for seventeen successful doctoral candidates, received numerous research grants (as principal investigator) from both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), authored more than ninety research articles in refereed journals, edited or co-edited three scientific books, and served as a member of the board of directors of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Professor Johnson presided over the Indianapolis Indiana Stake (1973-1979) and the Bloomington Indiana Stake (1979-1982), and served as a counselor in the presidency of the Louisville Kentucky Temple (2004-2007). He served a mission to Denmark as a young man, and then returned with his wife to serve there again (1995-1997). Subsequently, they also served missions in Accra, Ghana, from 1998-2000, and in Beijing, China, from 2002-2003.

He and his wife, the former Grete Margit Leed, from Horsens, Denmark, are the parents of three sons and three daughters, and they have twenty-four grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren.

Posted December 2009