Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fighting fatalism: the anthropic principle

You may already be aware that modern cosmology has presented us with a strange conundrum, which is that the universe is precision engineered for life. This has only been known about for the last couple of decades yet is rarely talked about in the popular science sector of the media. It has been met with frightening indifference and fatuous explanations which seem to me anti-scientific and reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

A range of physical constants (e.g. the gravitational, cosmological, weak interaction, strong interaction and fine-structure constants) are finely tuned to an extraordinary degree, e.g. 120 decimal places in the case of the cosmological constant. 

 Fine tuned for what? For the emergence of life. Also, the Big Bang point source of the cosmos started off with just the right amount of entropy to allow life to develop. (Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a closed system.) There is no physical, testable explanation of how this degree of disorder happened to be there.

In an attempt to evade or avoid answering this question some have resorted to what is loosely known as the  Anthropic Principle which states that we can observe only those values of the fundamental constants and quantities that are compatible with our existence. The fact that we exist 'explains' (?!) why the science is such as it is. If it weren’t we would not be here to ask. This is a fatuous, fatalistic and anti-scientific argument which I hope will be illustrated by the following imaginary dialog.

I have just been blindfolded and shot at point blank range by 50 people with live ammunition and AK 47s. Yet I’m alive and unharmed. How could this have happened?

You don’t need to ask why. You are here to ask the question and that is all the explanation you need. The question of how improbable this is does not come into it.

I have no money and cannot walk and live alone, yet I get enough food, water and air to survive. How do you think this happens?

Why ask? You are getting enough life support because you are here to ask the question.

My body comprises a trillion cells plus many more times that number of bacteria and viruses, all hierarchically organised and orchestrated with extraordinary complexity and precision to produce or be associated with a conscious, creative being. How could such an improbable state of affairs ever have come about?

No problem. It just happens, otherwise you would not be here to ask the question.

Most of the universe and the processes of life are a total mystery. How can we go about investigating this?

No need. The fact that we are here explains it all. End of story.

Looking at the universe it appears to be organised in a very clever way, interconnected and finely engineered to mind boggling precision on an incomprehensible scale. How did this come about?

Why ask such awkward questions? If you had not been here it would not have happened. Chill out, man.

How can I chill out?

Just bury your head in the sand.

I exist. Why?

The fact that you exist is enough to explain why you exist.


Imagine where we would be now if Aristotle or Newton or Einstein had thought this way.

See also

Why the future is unpredictable

Bridging gaps

The five-fold threat to science

The doctrine of chance

Our precious planet

Is there meaning behind random events?

Reweaving the rainbow

Fighting fatalism

Distorting reality

Jean Paul Sartre: not the way to Peace on Earth

What is truth?