The Anthropic Principle

This continues my series on atheist Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion. For background, see Dawkins and My (Not Quite So) Open Mind.

The anthropic principle states that physical conditions are “just right” for human life to exist on earth. If certain constants of physics varied by only a little bit, no human life would exist on this planet. And there are many such constants. Astronomer Hugh Ross lists some in Design and the Anthropic Principle, and he states in Anthropic Principle: A Precise Plan for Humanity that “By the end of 2001, astronomers had identified more than 150 finely-tuned characteristics.”

Creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design argue that the anthropic principle is evidence for a creator. Dawkins, however, views the anthropic principle as an alternative to Intelligent Design, not as something that supports it. Dawkins‘ argument is similar to something that Russell Miller said on Felix’s blog, in response to Byker Bob (see Another festival of John Ankerberg youtube clips: Life After Death):

Oh, come on. The “fine tuning” you speak of is not an issue, because the universe is so freaking big that the probability of such conditions happening at at least one place are much higher than they might be in a smaller universe. We played the odds, and we won, at least until we wreck everything…I like to use the example of thunderstorms. Thunderstorms seem like this incredible thing that could only come about with the right conditions, and that the conditions are so hard to accomplish that it must be something that God creates, right? Wrong. A thunderstorm is a feedback loop that is basically the atmosphere trying to stabilize itself. Warm air rides under cold air, pushes itself up through the cold air because it has a lot of convective energy, and eventually (under the right conditions) establishes itself as a heat pump. The conditions go away, the storms go away.

I don’t totally understand Russell’s argument about thunderstorms, but what he may be saying is this: thunderstorms require the “right conditions” to exist, but they’re not the result of design. Rather, they result from the “atmosphere trying to stabilize itself.” So why should we assume that our galaxy having the “right conditions” for life is from the hand of God? It can have a natural cause, just like thunderstorms. And, because the universe is so big, it’s not that extraordinary that there’s at least one planet in it that supports life. In the same way that thunderstorms appear every once in a while under certain conditions, so there emerged at least one planet with the right conditions for life in a predominantly lifeless universe.

That argument makes more sense to me now that I’ve typed it out, assuming I defined it correctly in the first place! Personally, Intelligent Design still appears valid to me, especially when I consider how close we came to not existing. So many constants had to be just right for life to exist, that I wonder if we are really that lucky.

Moreover, the big bang had to occur as it did for life to exist. According to a summary of God’s Universe by Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, “If the Big Bang had banged only slightly more vigorously, matter would have been blown apart too fast for stars and planets to be formed” (see here). Russell and Dawkins tend to look at one planet in a vast universe, but the very universe itself had to begin in a certain way for earth to have life. The anthropic principle goes back way before the origin of earth!

That’s how I’d respond to another argument against Intelligent Design: that there are multiple parallel universes, and ours is one of the few that has life. Do all of these universes have stars and planets? If so, then the big bang had to occur in a certain way for them to exist. What are the chances of that?

There are other arguments against Intelligent Design. Dawkins states that the anthropic principle tends to look at the constants individually: if this constant is off by only a little bit, then there would be no life. But, according to Dawkins, maybe ours is not the only combination that can sustain life. Perhaps the constants can have different values and sustain life at the same time, if they are combined differently with the other constants. Similarly, others argue that the anthropic principle focuses too much on carbon-based life, when there may be life forms that don’t rely on carbon for their existence. I’m not sure how to respond to these arguments. Can life exist without stars, within another combination? I don’t know.

I’ll leave here and perhaps continue the discussion in a future post. Stay tuned!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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8 Responses to The Anthropic Principle

  1. morsec0de says:

    “If certain constants of physics varied by only a little bit, no human life would exist on this planet.”

    The problem with that statement is that the phrase “only a little bit” needs to be taken in context. If things varied only a little bit, ON THE SCALE OF THE UNIVERSE, no human life would exist on the planet.

    It’s like when geologists say “in the blink of an eye, geologically” they’re speaking of thousands if not millions of years.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Hi Morsecode.

    I think I’m seeing your point: that size is relative. But there are numbers physicists attach to these constants–if they vary by such-and-such a number to such-and-such a power, then life would not exist. I may be misunderstanding your point, though.

    BTW, feel free to address my questions on natural selection. There’s a lot I have to learn about evolution, and perhaps you (and others) can help me out.


  3. morsec0de says:

    “But there are numbers physicists attach to these constants–if they vary by such-and-such a number to such-and-such a power, then life would not exist.”

    Life as we know it, any way. Author Douglas Adams has a great metaphor, about a puddle in a hole. The puddle thinks that the hole was made perfectly for it, as the puddle made of water matches the contours of the hole exactly. But in reality, the hole existed first, and the puddle conformed to the hole. Life in our universe, I think, is not terribly different.

    You have to look at it the other way too. If a designer made us, why were we put on the proverbial knife’s edge? Why do we live on a planet that is 70% water, which we can’t live in? Why is most of the land on our planet either too hot or too cold for humans to comfortably live?

    Perhaps a deity made the planet for the krill, as they live in the oceans and outnumber us greatly. 😉


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Yeah, there are a lot of examples like that. Why do we have an appendix? I was reading a critique of Ben Stein’s protein claim, and it said our cells don’t function as efficiently as they could with other equipment. Creationists claim to offer explanations for these bizarre features, but I haven’t looked into them yet.


  5. morsec0de says:

    No idea what Ben Stein’s claim was, sorry. I watched about 5 minutes of his film and had to turn it off and vomit.

    Not a rational response, I know. But an honest one.


  6. Hamsterbaffle says:

    These sorts of questions may be unanswerable. Goldfish stuck inside the bowl, and all.

    There’s the possibility that the universal constants (charge of the electron, g, pi, etc) have the qualities they do because they could not do otherwise. Everything else may be impossible. What the anthropic principle tells us is that we know intelligent life is possible in this universe because here we are. And, I think, therefore there we should expect other intelligent life forms somewhere, somewhen out there.

    Every time I hear educated physicists conjecturing about a multiplicity of universes and their various sets of natural laws, I roll my eyes. Nothing but hot gas out of thin air.


  7. the word of me says:

    The earth was here for over 4 billion years before we came along, adapted perfectly to what was already here


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