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the anthropic principle lives on and on

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The anthropic principle, the idea that the universe – and let’s not muddle up our heads with multiverses – appears to be tweaked just right, in a variety of ways, for the existence and flourishing of humans, has long been popular with the religious, those invested in the idea of human specialness, a specialness which evokes guided evolution, both in the biological and the cosmological sense. And, of course, God is our guide.

Wikipedia, God bless it, does an excellent job with the principle, introducing it straight off as the obvious fact that anyone able to ascertain the various parameters of the universe must necessarily be living in a universe, or a particular part of it, that enables her to do the ascertaining. In other words the human specialness mob have it arse backwards.

So I’ll happily refer all those questing to understand the anthropic principle, in strong and weak forms, it proponents and critics, etc, to Wikipedia. I’ve been brought to reflect on it again by my reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, ‘mind and supermind’, in his 1985 collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. 

Yes, the anthropic principle, which many tend to think is a clever new tool for deists, invented by the very materialists who dismiss the idea of supernatural agency as unscientific, is an old idea – much more than 30 years old, because Gould was critiquing not only Freeman Dyson’s reflections on it in the eighties, but those of Alfred Russel Wallace more than a century ago, in his 1903 book Man’s Place in the Universe. Gould had good reason for comparing Dyson and Wallace; their speculations, almost a century apart, were based on vastly different understandings of the universe. It reminds us that our understanding of the universe, or that of the best cosmologists, continues to develop, and, I strongly suspect, will never be settled.

Theories and debates about our universe, or multiverse, its shape and properties, are more common, and fascinating, than ever, and accompanied by enough mathematics to make my brain bleed. The other day one of my regular emails from Huff Po science declared that maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning after all. This apparently from some scientists trying to grab attention in a pretty noisy field. I’ve only scanned the piece, which I would hardly be qualified to pass judgment on. But not long ago I read The Unknown Universe, a collection of essays from New Scientist magazine, dedicated to all ideas cosmological. I didn’t understand all of it of course, but genuine questions were raised about whether the universe is finite or infinite, about whether we really understand the time dimension, about how the laws that govern the universe came into being, and many other fundamental concepts. It’s interesting then to look back to more than a century ago, before Einstein, quantum mechanics, and space probes, and to reflect on the scientific understanding of the universe at that time.

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin's calculations, used by Wallace

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin’s calculations, used by Wallace

In Wallace’s time (a rather vague term because the great scientist’s life spanned 90 years, which saw substantial developments in astronomy) the universe, though considered almost unimaginably massive, was calculated to be much smaller than today’s reckoning. According to a diagram in Man’s Place in the Universe, it ended a little outside the Milky Way galaxy, because we had no tools at the time to measure any further, though Lord Kelvin, the dominant figure in physics and astronomy in the late 19th century, made a number of dodgy calculations that were taken seriously at the time. In fact, Kelvin’s figures for the size of the universe, and for the age of the earth, though too small by orders of magnitude, were considered outrageously huge by most of his contemporaries; but they at least began to accustom the educated public to the idea of ginormity in space and time.

But size wasn’t of course the only thing that made the universe of that time so different from our own conceptions. The universe of Wallace’s imagination was stable, timeless, and, to Wallace’s mind, lifeless, apart of course from our planet. However, he doesn’t appear to have any good argument for this, only improbability. And an odd kind of hope, that we are unique. This hope is revealed in a passage of his book where he goes off the scientific rails just a bit, in a paean to our gloriously unique humanity. A plurality of intelligent life-forms in the universe

… would imply that to produce the living soul in the marvellous and glorious body of man – man with his faculties, his aspirations, his powers for good and evil – that this was an easy matter which could be brought about anywhere, in any world. It would imply man is an animal and nothing more, is of no importance in the universe, needed no great preparations for his advent, only, perhaps, a second-rate demon, and a third or fourth-rate earth.

Wallace, though by no means Christian, was given to ‘spiritualism’, souls and the supernatural, all in relation to humans exclusively. That’s to say, he was wedded to ‘human specialness’, somewhat surprisingly for his theory of evolution by wholly natural selection from random variation. This is the chain, it seems, that links him to modern clingers-to the anthropic principle, such as William Lane Craig and his epigones, who must needs believe in a value-laden universe, with their god as the source of value, and we humans, platonically created as the feeble facsimiles of the godhead, struggling to achieve enlightenment in the form of closeness to the Creator, with its appropriate heavenly rewards. And so we have such typical WL Craigisms as ‘God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths’, ‘God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings’ and ‘God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe [by humans of course]’. These best explanation ‘arguments’ can be added to ad nauseum, of course, for they’re all of a part, and all connected to the Wallace quote above. We’re special, we must be special, we must be central to the creator’s plan, and our amazingness, our so-much-more-than-animalness, in spite of our many flaws, suggests a truly amazing creator, who made all this just for us.

That’s the hope, captured well by the great French biologist Jaques Monod when he wrote

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

I think modern philosophy has largely moved on from desperate denialism, but Monod’s remarks certainly hold true for religions, past present and future. Basically, the denial of our contingency is the central business of religion. It’s hardly surprising then that the relationship between religion and science is uneasy at best, and antagonistic at its heart. The multiverse could surely be described as religion’s worst nightmare. But that’s another story.

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