The Anthropic Principle

“…the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.”

Question from Alanis:

In Richard Dawkins’ widely acclaimed book “The God Delusion” he dedicates a few pages to the Anthropic Principle, emphasizing that it is an alternative to the argument for fine tuning/design, rather than a factor of it. Please elaborate on what Richard could possibly mean by that. From my (admittedly weak) understanding of the anthropic principle, all it states is that given the fact that we are here to observe it, it should not be surprising that life originated in the universe. I do not see how that debunks or supports intelligent design in any way.

Dawkins’ point relates to probability. The fine-tuning argument as it relates to Earth, for example, is that it’s so staggeringly unlikely that Earth would be just the right size, distance from the sun, elemental composition, etc. that it must have been created specifically so that life could exist here. The anthropic principle is that we would be considering the same thing from whichever planet we had emerged on.

The sheer number of planets in the universe (probably within one order of magnitude of the number of stars, about ten thousand billion billion) goes a long way towards balancing out the low probability that any given planet will produce life, giving the universe as a whole a more reasonable chance of naturally producing life somewhere. Even so, the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.

Of course there’s also the fine-tuning argument which relates to the whole universe, not just the planet. The anthropic principle applies in that case if you consider the possibility of a multiverse. That hasn’t been confirmed or debunked, but there are other replies to that sort of fine-tuning argument which don’t rely on the anthropic principle at all so it’s not a critical point.

Games of chance make a good analogy. 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.

– SmartLX

12 thoughts on “The Anthropic Principle”

  1. Both your and Dawkins cosmological assumptions are wrong.

    The anthropic principle is that we would be considering the same thing from whichever planet we had emerged on.

    Nope, the diametrically opposing balance points that make up the habitable zones of the observed universe define a very specific region and time that life can exist.

    This is the reason that we can’t and won’t find life on Venus or Mars, and it is also the reason that we will only find life within the Goldilocks zones of similarly evolved planets in similarly evolved galaxies that appeared at approximated the same time as Earth.

    Probabilities have absolutely nothing to do with it.

  2. We don’t know nearly enough about the origin of life to specify anything more than a hopelessly vague set of parameters within which life could probably arise, and that’s just the kinds of life we know about. Now-extinct forms of life haven’t been ruled out on Mars, since you mention it. 

    As for timing, since life has existed on Earth for 3.5 out of the last 13 billion years, and 3.5 out of the planet’s 4.5 billion year lifespan, that’s not a terribly specific range either. 

    Until abiogenesis is fully replicated, and probably afterwards, where else in the universe life can arise can only ever be a matter of estimated probabilities as far as we’re concerned.

    If that’s not what your set considers to be in the realm of the anthropic principle, fine, but that’s now become a broad term, through misuse or otherwise. Dawkins is ultimately responding to the argument that abiogenesis and life’s continued survival is so unlikely overall that it couldn’t even have happened here on Earth without divinely arranged circumstances, or that it can’t have happened at all and life must have been created directly and then protected. I think he responds to this successfully.

  3. Let me rephrase:

    The diametrically opposing balance points that make up the habitable zones of the observed universe make very specific and testable predictions about where life will and will not be found.

    And you can’t falsify this with… we don’t know enough…

    But you can falsify it by finding life outside the habitable zones that are defined by the Goldilocks Enigma.

    Until then… probabilities have absolutely nothing to do with it…

  4. Maybe this will help:

    Dawkins is trying to use the weak anthropic principle in conjunction with a “mediocre” a priori statistical distribution of values of observables, but this is not what is observed and is the reason for the anthropic physics that defines the “Goldilocks Enigma”, so the combined effect of the cosmological principle with the goldilocks constraint extends to the observed universe to produce a biocentric cosmological principle.

    This also addresses the alleged, Fermi “Paradox”, as well, since we should not *yet* expect to hear from similarly developed intelligent life, because their radio transmissions have not had time to reach us… *yet*… either.

    This paper by A. Feoli, and S. Rampone, further discusses this in context with similarly developed systems, but they fail to take the balance of extremes that defines the “Goldilocks Enigma” into account here, because they apply the mediocrity principle, instead, so their formula and anthropic statement are not quite accurately inserted into their large scale equation, as would be the case if they’d considered the entire set of anthropic balance points that evolve, so their solution and anthropic statement are generalized and overstated, rather than being specific and pointed toward a fine layer of similarly evolved galaxies, stars, and planets:

    “Is the Strong Anthropic Principle Too Weak?”

    We discuss the Carter’s formula about the mankind evolution probability following the derivation proposed by Barrow and Tipler. We stress the relation between the existence of billions of galaxies and the evolution of at least one intelligent life, whose living time is not trivial, all over the Universe. We show that the existence probability and the lifetime of a civilization depend not only on the evolutionary critical steps, but also on the number of places where the life can arise. In the light of these results, we propose a stronger version of Anthropic Principle.

    When you apply the Goldilocks Enigma, rather than the mediocrity principle, then a much more accurate and testable formula falls-out along with a more accurate statement about a strong biocentric principle, so this “coincidental” Enigma extends to include every similarly evolved galaxy that exists in the same common “layer” of galaxies as we do. The average of extreme opposing runaway tendencies that are common to the anthropic coincidences make many testable predictions about the observed universe.

    I hope that helps.

  5.  We may be arguing unnecessarily, and I’m in danger of going way off topic when responding to that much material, so I want to ask you something first.

    Dawkins’ argument and that to which he’s responding both relate to probability even if the true anthropic principle doesn’t. He’s saying that the emergence of life is not vanishingly improbable in the absence of divine help or preparation, in response to implications that it is impossibly unlikely or outright impossible.

    Now then, do you oppose Dawkins’ position on this, for example because you think the universe or parts of it are “biocentric” by design?

    Or do you simply object to Dawkins mangling the anthropic principle to make his point? If so, I’m happy to accept that he’s not applying the principle as intended, and would please philosophers more if he stopped using the name. I don’t think that makes his point wrong.

  6. Hi, sorry about the delay.

    The problem that I have with Dawkins argument is that it doesn’t recognize evidence that life is not only probable, but appears to be inevitable, given the cosmological principle that the “appearance of design” most apparently presents us with.

    What is the third choice besides design and chance? Notice that it isn’t even considered… “necessity”. Don’t assume that there isn’t some good physical reason for life to appear in a region of the universe in order to satisfy a thermodynamic function, for example only:

    I do think that it makes Dawkins wrong because he must willfully ignore the evidenced scientific plausibility that we are not here by accident, because he is playing a political game of denial with creationists. Rather than to look for scientific answers, he wants to “explain away” the “appearance of design” that even Dawkins admits is apparent… with probabilities.

    That’s not science, it’s pure unadulterated left wing politics.

    Physicists aren’t any better and their tendency to willfully ignore evidence for anthropic privilege is the reason why Brandon Carter formalized the principle in the first place.

    The non-evidenced religion of scientists is begrudgingly known to physicists as, “Copernicanism”.

  7. Okay, there are at least two distinct arguments in there.

    You’re not the first one to capitalise on Dawkins’ description of the “appearance of design” in living things. That’s what he was referring to, not the universe. As he explains at length in The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, it’s primarily an outward appearance anyway. Just below the surface in many creatures is evidence of either shoddy design or more likely complete lack of design, and in either case terribly inefficient and impractical re-fits. One good example is the out-of-order digestive system of the rabbit, which forces it to excrete and re-eat half-digested food in order to finish the job. Another is an artery that travels up and down the neck of the giraffe to get between two locations in its chest.

    Looking at the universe, meanwhile, even if it’s designed for life it’s not designed to be friendly to it. The parameters within which life can form according to the Knol essay encompass a fraction of the surface areas of a tiny fraction of the planets in the universe, and it looks even smaller when you use a linear scale instead of the diagram’s logarithmic scale.

    On another note, a great many arguments in favour of a god are essentially ways to “explain away” the apparent absence of one, for example the many different solutions to the Problem of Evil. Whichever side is right, it is certainly the case that certain things in this world give appearances that the truth is false and really ought to be “explained away”.

    Dawkins does in fact consider necessity in The God Delusion with regards to the fine-tuning argument; he suggests that rather than all the universe’s constants being like knobs twiddled to the perfect settings, there may be “no knobs to twiddle” and no other possible way for a universe to be.

    It’s certainly possible that life serves some prescribed purpose related to complexity and entropy, but there’s no evidence of that. It may simply be having the effect it has because it exists, not because someone meant it to happen. It’s certainly not necessary for any such purpose; entropy would increase perfectly well without any life in the universe at all (it does now in places where there is no life) and it literally has all the time in the world. Your Taipei Times article makes no suggestion whatsoever that life has a given meaning or purpose, merely that it does something which is relevant to the rest of the universe.

    Coming back to the Knol essay, the crux of the matter is what the “evidence for anthropic privilege” actually is, and I’m sorry to say I can’t decipher it from the essay.

    – There is that thin band of circumstances within which known forms of life can supposedly emerge. Re-applying Dawkins’ argument without bothering to call it the anthropic principle, it’s irrelevant where that band is; if life is possible on any kind of planet at all, there’ll be a band somewhere. This says more about the limitations of life than the accommodations of the universe.
    – I’m not surprised that ‘anthropic physics is directly observed to be uniquely related to the structuring of the universe…” because life has to have emerged in a way which is allowed by the structure of the universe or it wouldn’t exist. A puddle takes the shape of the hole it’s in.
    – Unstable equilibria are discussed, but there’s no support for the idea that the physical constants of the universe constitute such an equilibrium. They may just as well be at a stable equilibrium.

    Could you help me out, and possibly elaborate on the “diametrically opposing balance points” you’ve mentioned twice and I can’t seem to track down? What are they, and in what sense are they diametrically opposed?

    What, finally, is the evidence of anthropic privilege?

  8. Look, I’m busy writing a paper about this that you can look for on the arxiv archives if I don’t get back here again, but in the mean time think about this:

    A) I never said that the universe is designed.

    B) Find out what it is about the universe that makes Leonard Susskind say that “we will be hardpressed to answer the IDists if the landscape fails” and you MIGHT even begin to get a little clue why Douglass Adams puddle analogy is nothing more an ignorant rant.

    It’s certainly possible that life serves some prescribed purpose related to complexity and entropy, but there’s no evidence of that. It may simply be having the effect it has because it exists, not because someone meant it to happen.

    LOL!!! I cannot even believe that you read god into anything that I said, but somehow… by some amazing feat of twisted logic… you did.

  9. Here’s how I read God into what you said, Rick. I asked you whether you opposed Dawkins’ position that the emergence of life is impossibly unlikely without divine help, and you said you think he’s wrong. What apparently threw me is that that’s not quite what you think he’s wrong about.

    It turns out, in the end, that we are arguing unnecessarily. If life is either necessary to the universe in a practical way or in fact natural function of it, that’s fascinating and it’s also not a problem for atheists who aren’t “Copernican”. In fact, if such a thing were established and accepted it would be of great help to atheism as a whole; a large part of religion’s emotional pull is the privileged position it gives to the human race, and atheism can’t really compete in that area right now.

    I will look into Susskind. Thanks very much for everything.

  10. If Dawkins understands the Anthropic Principle, he does not display that understanding in his discussion of the topic. He confuses the _observation_ that factors must have been just right for us to arise with the _reasoning_ that the Anthropic Principle is a cause or an explanation for us arising the way we have. His arguments are very clear on other topics, but I think he has misused the term “Anthropic Principle” in this regard. By stating it the way he does, he begs the question in his formulation: Things must have been a certain way, because here we are; therefore, things resulted in us, because we are here. It is a tautology, NOT a scientific reason to explain the emergence of life on Earth.
    Again, I appreciate his work, but I think he misunderstands this issue.

  11. Correct me by quoting the man if you like, but I honestly think you misunderstand Dawkins’ understanding. He doesn’t think the Anthropic Principle leads to much at all in the end; it’s not in itself the reason we’re here any more than a god is.

    Though it may not be the end of the matter, we’re able to be here because the conditions of the universe support life. This is not in dispute. We know the conditions of the universe support life because we’re here. This is not in dispute either. The distinction between the fact and the knowledge of a life-friendly universe is what keeps the reasoning from being circular. We started from the self-evident fact that we’re here, drew the obvious conclusion that the universe we’re in supports life, and reasoned that we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. That’s it.

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