The Anthropic Principle: Yet Another Version?

Issue Three of DIALOGOS (continued): Readers Comments and Responses

Most recent update 1/17/2000

Our first respondent is Patrick Stonehouse , a retired science teacher and amateur astronomer (and internationally recognized discoverer of "Comet Stonehouse" in April of 1998). Pat writes:

In regards to the Holistic Anthropic Principle I find it has no scientific foundations and like the other anthropic principles is either heavily speculative or offers nothing really new to the understanding of the development of the cosmos and its tiny bits of reflective consciousness.

I agree with Provenzano that the weak anthropic principle "offers no insight as to why the universe has... the properties or coincidences, such that we could evolve." I also agree that the participatory anthropic principle just does not agree with the facts, that the most of the universe whose light is just coming into our ken some millions or billions of years from its birth point, seems to have operated under the same physical laws which only a few humans have just begun to understand.

The strong anthropic principle is just as weak as the others as it has no means of disproving that are no other types of universes constructed with other properties. The final anthropic principle is just as weak with no conclusive evidence to support its fantastic claims that life must BE forever.

When Provenzano attempts to draw an analogy between the broken vase and the present universe he fails, as he has assumed the tacit premise that the broken glass was once fit together. In the case of the universe we don't have such tacit information and in many cases find that the pieces just do not fit together. Gamma ray bursters, quasars, grand unified theories and singularities inside of black holes are just a few pieces that don't fit. Closer to home we cannot fit our physics to the million degree temps of our sun's corona while its underlying surface is less than ten thousand degrees in temperature. Like the other anthropic principles it offers no hard evidence that the energy of the universe could have been completely in the form of consciousness in some earlier stage of development. While it is a pretty thought that should be submitted as a scripted plot for some future Star Trek movie I think most of the evidence,especially that gathered by COBE, leads us to a different picture of the birthing universe.

Further (editor's) Comments

At first glance, the two positions presented above (and also reflected in the other web-site references given below) seem to be poles apart. Yet I don't think the disagreement about the underlying facts or evidence is all inconclusive. Certainly, there may be, as Stonehouse points out, some bits of evidence that just don't seem to fit, but who would really believe these still to be explained curiosities upset the whole apple-cart? (As Stephen J.Gould has been quick to point out, there are still a lot of incongruities in the present evidence for evolution, but who would throw out the whole theory on that basis?) On the contrary, despite such oddities, the universe is full of what seem to be unexplainable "cosmic coincidences" which may well lead one to some questioning as to whether or not the appearance of life, especially intelligent life, was not the result of some sort of plan. Rather, it is the interpretation of all this evidence (not the facts themselves), and the consequent answer to the question it pos es, that are radically different. Why is this so?

I would suggest, to begin with, that the real question is not the validity of the evidence or even of the logic of the contrasting interpretations, but the presuppositions under which that evidence is evaluated.

Take the so-called "weak anthropic principle": almost everyone (including the commentators listed below) seems to agree that WAP, despite providing an incentive for compiling an impressive list of such "coincidences", appears to be only a kind of tautology of little philosophical value, or else which can be readily explained away by a recourse to "multiple universes". In effect, the WAP attempts to avoid the question "why" by multiplying the "whats". But even then, this evasion leads only to more questions that only begs the first question to begin with. To believe in multiple universes, one must resort to such improbabilities as "wormholes" in space or such hypotheses as the non-collapse of the quantum wave function as the only accep table interpretation of Quantum Mechanics -- this in the face of at least another dozen interpretations which seem equally as plausible or as implausible, as the case may be. For example, if one instead accepts the "Copenhegen" interpretation of the same phenonemon, one can just as easliy end up with the PAP (Participatory Anthropic Principle) but which in turn would also seem to demand belief in the reversibility of time!

No doubt, the SAP (Strong Anthropic Principle) can be rightly seen as just a kind of modern attempt to resurrect the well-worn (or as some would see it -- worn-out) tradition of "teleology" and the kind of discredited biological "vitalism" often associated with it. And even worse, at least to some people' minds, the SAP has become a rallying point for those who would use it as a new "proof" of the existence of a personal God, something that most professional theologians today would be a great more cautious about than the so-called (or even self-styled "true believers"). So again, why these diametrically different interpretations of reality? I would suggest that the reader go on to the websites listed below and judge for themselves. I would also suggest that they have a look at John Polkinghorne's review of two recent books (especially of Richard Swinburne's Is There a God? in the November 1996 Scientific American. Maybe too they should ponder the observation of G. K. Chesterton, the once popular English writer and satirist, who quipped something to the effect that the problem with those who lose their faith is not so much that they no longer believe, but rath er that they end up believing almost anything.

As for a "Holistic Anthropic Principle" (HAP) as suggested by the Provenzanos: it is an intriguing thought -- much like the androgenous myth of human sexuality or the Platonic vision of reality where the "real" world is strictly immaterial. True, it resonates with many of the ancient creation myths, but what are contemporary people, immersed in a "materialistic" and evolutionary interpretation of creation, to make of it? And would it really solve such connundrums as the "problem of evil"? (We'll have an issue on that latter subject very soon.) No doubt the Provenzanos' interpretation of the AP would include a "Final Anthropic Principle" (FAP) but would the final result involve individual consciousness or simply a reversal of evolut ion to its initial state? (RWK)

Some new comments from Gregg Mulry

With the anthropic principle, things become pretty wild--the idea that the universe requires conscious observers in order to bring itself into being. However, we already know from quantum mechanics that an observer is necessary to turn quantum possibilities into actual observed reality. This is not conjecture. Experiments prove that outcome changes, once an observer is in place. There is therefore a sense that what the observer will do in the future defines what happens in the past. In fact, renowned types like Hawking and Tipler have written straightforwardly about how the future can control the past, even if it is mathematically impossible for us humans to travel back in time. Therefore, PAP and SAP should not be dismissed so easily. That the universe got along fine without us is no refutation if that period of "getting along fine" could have only happened to lead to intelligent life forms (which I readily admit may not be us!) Perhaps pacetime leaps forth from God's desire that it should exist. But this brings to mind the old rabbinical story of this interchange:
God: "Without me, you would not exist."
Abraham: "Without me, you would not be known."

Albert Einstein stated: "Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame." That is why this journal is so important. Religious people are frequently afraid that scientific analysis will demolish their faith. But we can never assume that the truth about God is concrete and unconditioned by history. God is not some sort of cosmic superhuman. The quintessence of God is a mystery and one risks trivializing God by overly specific definitions. But we have to try. Without science and observation, we simply fall into superstition. Gregg Mulry

A response from the Provenzanos (both of them!)

Gregg: As far as the Anthropic Principle (AP) goes, your statement that: "With the anthropic principle, things become pretty wild--the idea that the universe requires conscious observers in order to bring itself into being" is really a statement of the Strong AP which is very controversal. Furthermore, the statement that: "However, we already know from quantum mechanics that an observer is necessary to turn quantum possibilities into actual observed reality...This is not conjecture... Experiments prove that outcome changes, once an observer is in place" -- is not quite true. It is true that [a few] famous scientists say that, but the fact is that this statement is based on their interpretation of the results of quantum mechanics, not the experimental results or even the predictions of the theory of quantum mechanics itself. Hawking and Tipler are excellent physicists, but they often cross over into philosophy, without telling the reader or stating their philosophical assumptions. Notice how most of the physicists like this do dismiss the PAP and the SAP!

We agree with what you say about not worrying about science demolishing faith and that we must realize that God is not just a super person, but we have to try to describe Him as best as we can. However, jumping to SAP and the PAP just because quantum mechanics has produced weird results, is not the answer either. We think that the HAP (and what we said in that essay) is about as far as one can go toward to understanding the AP at this time.
Joe and Dan Provenzano

Gregg: Thanks for the input! And to Joe & Dan: Didn't expect tha double response: is this some kind of answer we can't refuse? And then there is the following observations from Daniel Freeman.

I find the [idea of the] Holistic AP intriguing, and I must admit that I need to dwell on it before I can really comment. Rather than discuss that, I would instead like to explain to you an original idea I have regarding the so-called Strong AP. My logic is rather mathematical in nature.

Given an SAP system where the Universe (the "multiverse") is a set of many (or infinitely many) universes, the SAP concludes that life would arise in some of them, and we are such an example. Much like an infinite number of monkeys banging on typewriters, one of them eventually produces Hamlet.

Now, in such a system the set of possible universes is either all-inclusive (every possible combination of laws and starting configurations) or it's a subset of the set of all possible universes.

If it's a subset, the question begs as to why some universes are in the set and others are excluded. One might as well appeal to a higher power, such as God, for selecting the set so carefully.

But if it's not a subset, and most SAP proponents say the set of universes is indeed the all-inclusive set, other problems arise. Specifically, there are an infinite number of universes with a finite number of physical laws. There are also an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of physical laws. There are so many more universes in the set with an infinite number of laws that we would expect that to be the case in our universe. It's a bit like a line (with an infinite number of points) running through a plane (with infinitely more points). If you threw a dart at the plane, the odds of hitting the line would be zero! Therefore, we should expect to find infinitely many laws of nature -- a very ugly proposition if you're a scientist! But moreover, this disagrees with theory, which suggests there are relatively few natural laws, only 4 forces, etc. Am I right? Is the SAP a bunch of hogwash?

Daniel Freeman

Seems to me that Freeman's insights (which I invite readers to respond to) further confirms the opinion that the multiple universe approach ends up explaining nothing -- or else stretches one's credulity far beyond what is normally required by most religious beliefs. However, as to whether or not it proves that the SAP is "hogwash", it all depends on what is really meant by the SAP. There seems to be nearly as many interpretations of it (and reactions to it) as there are commentators. (See more on this subject in DIALOGOS Issue #5). (Ed.)

Some further thoughts from Dan Freeman:

Interestingly, I might have thought of a refutation to my own assertion: a good argument for SAP proponents to use to indicate that the "multiverse" is both all-encompassing and yet we have a finite number of laws in our universe. The argument would run as follows:

We are in a very rare universe, yes, because it contains life. Conceivably there could be a universe with many more physical laws than we have in this one, but such a universe might not be compatible with life. Too few laws of nature, and surely there is not much complexity to allow life. But too many laws, and the universe might become too chaotic for life to occur. There- fore, spoken like a true SAPer, "we should not be surprised to find a small number of physical laws, because if there were more we wouldn't be here to consider it."

While I take pride in crafting this counterpoint to my original assertion, I'm not sure it holds water. It's difficult to discuss any universe other than our own with much seriousness, and postulating what a universe with more or less laws would be like is almost futile. Also, laws could be fine-tuned to not interfere: to be so tiny in their effects as to not disturb the delicate balance of life.

Personally, I think that the universe is not a conglomeration of randomly decided laws, because we would have discovered by now something in the universe which is not *elegant*--that is, some aspect of physics which seems trivial in comparison to the whole. Even the tiny neutrino which passes through the earth without slowing down has an integral function in universal workings. Therefore I see the universe as a well thought out plan, with unbelievable complexity in its manifestation but with latent elegance in its underlying laws. Everything science has learned in the last thousand years has pointed in that direction, the direction of God.

And still another afterthought:

The AP and it's kissing cousins might be a useful mental device for the advance of science, in the same way the "no boundary proposal" could be useful. There is nothing that prohibits a scientist from making a proposal based on sheer aesthetic value alone, then using that proposal to focus his research. The trick is to make the correct proposal. Galileo made a very broad proposal along these lines, which generations of scientists, including Einstein, have endorsed: that God would not design the universe to be enigmatic to the mind of man, that the laws are learnable. An impassionate universe would not "care" if the life within it could learn or not learn it's secrets, but a God of love would have things different.

Daniel Freeman

Next some remarks from Harry Hickey:

Proponents of the Anthropic Principle (AP) generally start from some such foundation as "carbon is necessary to make physicists." That is, the universe had to be constructed on such a plan that carbon (and other elements) could be produced in sufficient abundance, and over a sufficiently long time period, that life, and eventually intelligent life, could evolve. Let us imagine a slightly different universe, in which carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, &c are present in abundance, but for some reason iron is present only in small quantity. In such a world, philosophers could be evolved, but physicists. To put it another way, our universe seems to be adapted not only to allow for the evolution of intelligent life, but also for the means by which intelligent life could learn something about physics -- imagine a world in which a simple electromagnet would be a rare and costly device. How far could physics progress in such a world? We know, of course, that iron is a very abundant element in the universe, and on our planet. A scientist of a century ago (Henry Howe, writing in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, article "Iron and Steel") remarked that the evolution of iron-needing man on an iron-cored planet strongly suggests Design. Perhaps AP researchers should look for other indications that the universe we live in is not only fine-tuned to make our existence possible, but additionally adjusted to enable us to find out the mysteries of the physical universe.    Harry Hickey

Recently a correspondent from the U.K. sent us a short essay on what he calls his "Meretricious Anthropic Principle".  Perhaps our readers might wish to add a few comments!

Another corespondent from the UK replies to Westran's Meretricious Anthropic Principle:

Paul Westran put forward his Meritricious Anthropic Principle as a follow on from the Participatory Anthropic Principle. At the end of his intuitive theory he states that a possible conclusion is that the universe came into being to dupe the internal observer. He drew this conclusion from his analogy that the universe is like a room that can only be measured from the inside. The implication being that the designer did not intend the room's purpose to be understood, otherwise he would have permitted an outside view.

Surely it is more likely that the designer intended that the internal observer could understand the room's purpose once he/she had found the key to the door to the room. The key being faith in the designer and his purpose, arising from free will and the door being death. The fact that the door permits an exit, but not re-entry (or possibly a re-entry, but with a loss of knowledge of the key) is fundamental to the developmental process resulting from finding the way out of the room. Why the internal observer needs to undergo this developmental process is possibly because its beneficial results are required for survival outside of the room.    Jim Crawford

To send your comments or contributions on this subject, contact DiaLogos

For other web-site opinions on the Anthropic Principle, ranging from the favorable to the highly skeptical, see:
"Design and the Anthropic Principle" by Hugh Ross;
"T he Anthropic Principle" by Philip Dorrell;
"Does the Anthropic Principle indicate that God exists?" by Krishna Kunchithapadam.

For an excellent critique of all these positions I would highly recommend the article "Beyond the Death of God" by Patrick Glynn published in the May 6, 1996 issue of the National Review. Unfortunately, this latter article is not yet available on the www. However, Dialogos consultant Tony Morse has given us a rather critical review of Glynn's most recent book.

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