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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


Surfing The Matrix

An Incidental Cosmos
and the Fanning Hypothesis

David Lane

"Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we see the universe as having been designed just for us?”
--Michael Shermer

Is the universe we find ourselves a product of intentional design? Are the laws of physics ultimately a complex recipe for life? Or, is the cosmos an incidental contingency? Are we the end product of blind and unconscious processes played out over time in a geometric wonderland of space and time?

Strangely, these questions bombarded my mind anew when I was watching a recent surf contest held in Oahu, Hawaii at the notoriously dangerous reef called “Pipeline.”

It was the last and most important event in the ASP World Championship Tour that was going to determine the winner of the 2013 world surfing title. Mick Fanning was the favorite going in but in order to succeed he had to reach the semi-finals, since if he didn't Kelly Slater, unquestionably the greatest competitive surfer in history, would garner his 12th world championship if he won the event.

On the last day of competition, Mick Fanning had to first win his 5th round heat and it was an absolute nail biter as he was losing badly to C. J. Hobgood who seemed destined to block Fanning from advancing. But with less than 90 seconds remaining in the 35-minute heat, a flawless left-hander emerged and Fanning rode it to victory, securing a 9.50 (out of a possible ten points). While his family and friends went wild on the beach, Fanning knew that the World title was not secure unless he won his next quarterfinal heat against his Australian cohort, Yadin Nicol. Again, it looked like it was not Mick Fanning's day as Nicol had dominated the heat for nearly 33 minutes forcing Fanning into a desperate position needing a 9.57 to win his third world title. Watching the live webcast I (and probably most of the surfing world) thought Fanning's remarkable run was over. However, with less than two minutes left in the heat, a flawless wave showed up and Fanning rode it to perfection receiving a 9.70 score.

The unlikely coincidence of Fanning getting the right wave in the last two minutes in back to back heats was quite a remarkable feat. So remarkable, in fact, that Fanning later was quoted as saying,

''They [the waves] were pretty much exactly the same time at the end of each heat, so I don't know, whoever sent them, [but] thank you.'' 

When I heard Fanning speak those words, “whoever sent them” they got me to reflect about how often we as humans think that certain events are “meant to be” or are part of a providential plan.

Given that Kelly Slater actually won the Pipeline Masters contest, it seemed to add more mystery to Fanning's two magical waves since if they didn't appear as they did the world title would have changed hands and Slater, not Fanning, would be celebrating his unprecedented victory.

Although a surf contest and its outcome may not seem to be instructive touchstones on the age-old philosophical and religious questions of whether the universe has a purpose or an intention I think a closer inspection will reveal that they are.

The strong anthropic principle argues that the universe is designed in such a way so as to bring forth intelligent life. It is as if the cosmos was expecting our arrival, since if any elemental particle was slightly different (hydrogen with an extra two protons and electrons, say) organic life as we presently know it couldn't exist. Fred Hoyle, the noted astronomer, claims “If one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure or order must be the outcome of intelligent design. No other possibility I have been able to think of..."

“The fundamental claim of intelligent design is straightforward and easily intelligible: namely, there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence.”
¯William A. Dembski

Other cosmologists, taking cues from Darwinian evolution, quantum mechanics, and probability theory, suggest that this universe is one of an inestimable number and thus we are here not by some overarching guiding intelligence but by chance. Alan Lightman captures this sentiment with the pithy title of his recent book, The Accidental Universe. As Laura Miller from explains,

“The multiverse also offers a refutation of the concept of Intelligent Design. Like Intelligent Design, the multiverse is an idea that accounts for the fact that the universe we inhabit is finely tuned in various ways that permit the existence of life. If certain factors (such as the amount of dark energy in the universe) were a little bit greater or lesser — poof! But if there are an infinite, or nearly infinite, number of universes, some of which are nothing but a cold fog of evenly dispersed particles and others a single, tiny, infinitely dense point, then ours is merely one of a few universes configured so as to allow life. There's nothing particularly remarkable about our existence in it, because if it were otherwise, we wouldn't be around to remark on it. Thus, ours is an accidental universe, rather than the inexorable and inevitable result of set laws that can be discovered and understood by humanity.”

I found these two polar positions (teleology and contingency) highlighted when I watched Fanning's two waves and the surfing world's reaction to them. On one hand, there are many who saw a certain precocity to what transpired in those last dying minutes, whereas as others saw just dumb luck. However, a deeper analysis reveals that Fanning's achievement was combinatorial.

First, the two waves that Fanning won with were not the product of some misunderstood mysterious process or divine miracles created from Neptune on a whim, but rather generated from a powerful pacific storm that whipped up 40 to 70 miles winds some two thousand miles away and set a well defined fetch to the north and west shores of the Hawaiian islands. Since such waves come in defined intervals, their appearance isn't at all surprising. Indeed, the very reason they held the contest on that day (given that they had an extended waiting period) was due to's very accurate forecasting which called for the swell to peak when it did. What was surprising was that Fanning hadn't caught a high scoring wave until the last two minutes. In other words, it was the drama of the event that gave the appearance of something magical, since there were excellent waves coming through the whole day.

It was Fanning's impeccable timing and skill that took advantage of the opportunity when it manifested itself. Nobody “sent” waves to him in some ontological sense (as if the ocean automatically adjusted itself to his karmic background). While it is certainly true that Fanning was in the right place at the right time (if he were five yards inside the peak or five yards down the beach, for instance, he would have been skunked), a probability matrix, and not divine intervention, better explains what transpired. More precisely, what at first glance appears to be a highly unusual and unexpected result turns out to be neither.

What is needed, of course, to properly understand apparent anomalous occurrences is a larger context and much more, not less, information. Analogously speaking, can this simpler explanation of the Fanning hypothesis also be applicable to our own seeming improbability, given that the odds against us being alive and reading right now appear to be astronomical?

Yes, if we accept contextual contingency (whether biological in a Darwinian sense or quantum-mechanical in a Hugh Everett many worlds sense), since the odds governing our eventual arrival on terra firma are not fundamentally different than the odds of two perfect waves arriving at just the right time for Mick Fanning to win the 2013 ASP world surfing championship. Odds are odds whether we are talking about the complexity of a rock, a cell, or a human being. The debate in this parameter, therefore, isn't over numbers as such but over how wide a field such statistics apply. In a mathematical cosmos chance, like gravity, appears to be universal in its import. On the other hand, given our naturally selected predisposition to find patterns and order in a highly entropic environment, it is to our advantage to impute meaning and purpose if they give us advantages in navigating and surviving this carnivorous and often unpredictable landscape. We are, in sum, combinatorial creatures who have learned to accept (no doubt at a searing price) our confused ancestry where our neurological toolkit seeks a greater meaning and purpose even as it too often realizes that whenever we look deep enough such meaning and purpose are our own projections and may have nothing whatsoever to do with how and why the universe operates as it does.

“Whoever wins the lottery feels special, or even blessed, but they forget that millions of people have also played and the chances that someone won't win the jackpot decrease rapidly as successive weeks are considered. The chances for an individual are millions to one, but someone's going to get rich eventually.”

Seen in this light, perhaps we should echo Fanning's own agnostic revelations about the intricate mechanics of oceanography and say to the universe at large, “I don't know whoever or whatever sent me here but thanks!”

Why? Because the odds against Fanning catching those two wondrous waves at Pipeline are almost nothing compared to the odds against us being alive and having the remarkable ability to reflect upon our own causation.

We may find it soothing and reassuring to imagine that a Divine Being consciously orchestrated our emergence but such emotions don't by themselves prove that such is the case. Given the limits of our cranial capacities, we are unknowing creatures who far too often confuse the currency of our mental maps with transcendental ultimacies. While it is true that science has dramatically widened our vistas of how we understand the creation and its operating system, it would be the height of folly and hubris to imagine that our present-day cartography is the territory itself.

There is a coherent plan in the universe, though I don't know what it's a plan for.
—Fred Hoyle

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