The Anthropic Principle: Yet Another Version?

Issue Three of DIALOGOS:
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Religion

First posted Oct 18, 1996: Most recent update 9/17/98

Editor's Remarks

One of the most controversial topics in the area to be covered by this journal is the so-called "Anthropic Principle" -- the idea that it is inevitable that intelligent life should occur in the universe, or indeed, that the universe has been somehow "designed" to produce creatures such as ourselves. Quite a number of variations of this speculation have been proposed in the last dozen years or so. The following essay proposes yet another one and is a recent reworking of an essay,"The Broken Vase" or "The Holistic Anthropic Principle" [Copyright 1996 Joseph P. and Dan R. Provenzano] which first appeared on the Provenzano & Sons website. Your comments or responses to this essay or the others recommended by this journal are welcome. RWK

The Holistic Anthropic Principle


One of the most startling developments to come from modern physics is that the universe, in some very fundamental way, seems to have been "designed" or "tuned" to produce life and consciousness. Actually, what physicists have discovered is that there are a large number of "coincidences" inherent in the fundamental laws and constants of nature. Every one of these coincidences or specific relationships between fundamental physical parameters is needed, or the evolution of life and consciousness as we know it could not have happened. The collection of these coincidences is an undisputed fact, and collectively, have come to be known as the "Anthropic Principle."

The Anthropic Principle (AP)

An excellent and complete analysis and of this principle, its historical background, the physical evidence for its acceptance, and resulting implications are provided in the The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler (Oxford University Press). In the introduction they state, "Most perturbations of the fundamental constants of Nature away from their actual numerical values lead to model worlds that are still-born, unable to generate observers and become cognizable. Usually, they allow neither nuclei, atoms nor stars to exist" (page 20). And from an earlier paragraph supporting the same point they cite P. Davies and M. Rees, "For example, if the relative strengths of the nuclear and electromagnetic forces were to be slightly different then carbon atoms could not exist in Nature (Davies) and human physicists would not have evolved. Likewise, many of the global properties of the Universe, for instance the ratio of the number of photons to protons (Rees), must be found to lie within a very narrow range if cosmic conditions are to allow carbon-based life to arise" (page 5). The book goes on to provide many detailed examples, discussions and implications of these "coincidences." Many other discussions on the specific instances of the Anthropic Principle can be found on the Internet and in the literature.


Current Variations

The barest statement of this fact is called the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), and essentially states that since we are here, the universe must have the properties, or coincidences, such that we could evolve. Although unquestioned and useful for making predictions about various aspects of the universe, the WAP offers no insight as to WHY the universe is this way. Some, based on their interpretation of quantum mechanics see a predominant role for the observer, and have gone so far as to suggest that observers are needed to bring the universe into existence. This version of the AP is called the Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP). There are obviously some issues here that would have to be explained because the universe got along just fine before we came to exist, and also does so in areas where we can't make any observations. Others, seeking a more substantial answer to why, have gone on to postulate the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP), which states that in order for the universe to exist at all, it is somehow necessary for it to have these special properties. In other words, the universe must have been "constructed" this way, and could not have come into existence any other way. The Final Anthropic Principle (FAP) goes a step beyond the SAP and says that not only MUST life come into existence, but once it does, it will last forever.

A Spectrum of Interpretations

Although essentially everyone who has studied the facts accepts at least the WAP, they interpret these facts in greatly differing ways. There is a spectrum of the interpretations is as follows:

(1) The AP has no real meaning or value (WAP only). This position comes in several variations. One claims that the AP is simply a tautology, and is, therefore, meaningless. We are here, so the universe must be such that we are here. A second comes from the "Many Worlds" school of thought. They believe that the best interpretation of quantum mechanics is that wave functions never collapse, and that there are infinitely "many worlds" that are inaccessible to us. New worlds are created with every particle interaction. With so many worlds (i.e., universes), it not unexpected that at least one would be ideally suited to life. We happen to live in the one that is, and have no access to the others. A third claims that physicists will someday derive enough information to explain WHY without having to resort to the WAP or any other explanation.

(2) Observers are needed to create the universe (PAP). Another interpretation of quantum mechanics put a premium on observers as part of the universe. This leads some to state that somehow, observers are involved in the very makeup of the universe and their existence (even when in the future) is necessary to bring the universe into existence.

(3) There must be some (as yet undiscovered) purpose to the universe (SAP). This position is supported by those who do not accept any variation of the first position or the second position. They argue that the tautology argument simply begs the question of WHY, that the Many Worlds argument is a nonsense solution dreamed up by physicists who refuse to admit that they don't understand the physics of wavefunction collapse, that any solution derived by physics will not explain why it had to be this way, and that our future existence in one part of one galaxy can not be the ultimate cause of the universe being the way it is. (They often add that it would make more sense to simply postulate a pre-existing God that we can't observe as to postulate, for example, infinitely many worlds that we can't observe.) In summary, those favoring this position argue that we really only have this universe to consider, and the only honest thing to do is to admit that it seems to be somehow "tuned" to allow life and consciousness to appear.

(4) There is a designer-God. (SAP/FAP). This position is supported by those who extend the third position to what they feel is its logical conclusion. This type of argument for the existence of God has been around for centuries, and the discovery of the AP has given rise to it in this latest form.

Notice that although these four positions disagree on how they answer the why question, they are really part of a spectrum of positions that all share the common view that the universe came into being with the capability and tendency to evolve life, conscious and even self-conscious creatures. None of these positions say or suggest anything about the possibility that the energy of our universe could have been in some preexistent state before the Big Bang (or however our universe began), and that this could somehow shed light on the question of why. Rather than argue for or against any of these positions, we will introduce another possibility, a possibility that does not lie somewhere on this spectrum of positions, but instead, offers a completely new way to interpret the AP.

(5) Holistic Anthropic Principle (HAP)

Consider the following analogy: Suppose that we found several pieces of glass scattered on the floor. Upon examination, we found that many these pieces fit together to form a closed, smooth, curved surface. Without considering how they could have existed in some preexistence, we could use the four approaches listed above. First: (we could say that) the fact that they fit together is simply due to several coincidences (WAP). Second: there is something about the way that we observe the pieces that causes them to fit together (PAP). Third: there is something fundamental about the glass fragments which requires that they must have properties which allow them to fit together (SAP). Fourth: somebody must have designed each piece separately so that they would fit together. If we want to get out of this spectrum of solutions, we could speculate on how they could have preexisted, and simply say: the pieces of glass are fragments of something that was already "together" or holistic in some sense. Perhaps somebody dropped a vase and it shattered!

Using the notion that energy can transform between radiation and matter, we can consider that consciousness may itself be another form of energy that has emerged through evolution. Conversely, the energy of the universe could have been completely in the form of consciousness priori to transforming into radiation and matter in the early universe. We call this idea the "Holistic Anthropic Principle" (HAP).

Of course, the broken vase is only an analogy and proves nothing about the universe in general. However, it is a thought worth pursing. Perhaps consciousness is another "higher," more ordered form or state of energy, and suppose that the Big Bang was a "shattering" or "fragmenting" of energy in this higher state. Then the inherent properties of matter and energy which allow life and consciousness to appear are fundamental as remnants of a previous existence in an earlier state. Viewed in this light, we get a completely new insight into the why question by explaining how the universe could have come into being with the tendency to produce life and consciousness. Furthermore, when you consider that, in general, it is very difficult to recover much of an original completeness or beauty when something shatters, the HAP even sheds some light on why we would expect consciousness to be so rare, vulnerable and subject to so many problems (or evils). None of the other versions of the AP sheds light on all of these aspects.

Incidentally, the idea that we are somehow the result of a "playfulness," an "experiment," or even a "fall" from God and/or the spiritual world, and that we are groping to find our way back is an ancient and common idea to both Eastern and Western religions. (As submitted by Joe and Dan Provenzano and posted in DIALOGOS, 10/18/96)

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