Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 2
This continues a new trend that I began here, where the concepts that support a religious (or at least, in this case, deistic) worldview receive critical examination. The topic of discussion this time around is the Anthropic Principle, or (sticking to the way it is normally wielded) “things are too perfectly suited to life for the universe to be random!”
First off, the fact that this has a scientific-sounding moniker is what causes some of the problems, but it isn’t exactly a scientific principle (at best, it is philosophical,) and in fact, there are several variations of it. It’s also rather contentious even among its supporters, so holding it up as evidence that science supports a divine creator shows a poor understanding of the overall issue, much less the various discussions of individual aspects.
The aspect that is sometimes referred to as the weak anthropic principle essentially states that what we see in the universe is what we can see; the parts that seem encouraging of life forming are what we notice simply because those conform to the senses that we developed. In other words, we’re aware of gravity because we need it, and the catalytic effects of liquid water and oxygen because life as we know it could not have formed where it doesn’t exist. This is, in effect, the opposite of how the anthropic principle is often used by religious apologists, because it makes it clear that the only things we’re likely to see is what favors us – a universe with the conditions for life is where we will reside and thrive, as opposed to someplace that was directly hostile. Kind of a “duh!” argument, and completely ignoring that our existence in a hostile environment would be far better evidence for divine intent.
Douglas Adams presented the idea of a (curiously self-aware) puddle of water looking at the basin it filled and thinking that the basin fit the shape of the puddle so well, it couldn’t have been an accident. This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in with invoking the anthropic principle, where vanity makes this very contemplation something that must revolve around us as a species rather than exactly what we should expect to find. Life will only exist where the conditions are right, just as fire will only exist where there is adequate fuel, oxygen, and a high enough temperature to start the process.
Life on this planet does indeed require a confluence of conditions, from a narrow range of temperatures to the ability for chemicals to catalyze and exchange energy, and several factors are key – remove any one, and no life can form. This seems, at first, to be very intriguing, but it requires careful examination as well. It is very hard to look even at the tiny fraction of the universe that makes up our solar system and think that we’re someplace special. Out of eight planets, 166 (known) moons, and countless asteroids and comets, we know of only one place where life has occurred – that’s not exactly encouraging for an “ideal” set of circumstances. Even on this planet alone, there is only a narrow shell just a few miles thick where life can be supported, from lower atmosphere to a fraction underground and under the surface of the sea, and the places where humans can survive are even fewer. We are, in essence, trapped within a tiny thin sphere, and venturing outside of it exposes us to conditions so hostile that we would die extremely quickly, due to everything from lack of air to large doses of unshielded radiation. Few people know that, had a solar flare occurred during any of the moonwalks, the astronauts would have died on the surface, none too pleasantly. We also can’t go very far underground, and that’s where most of the planet is. Earth is not exactly our home, just a attractor of the atmospheric shell on its surface.
So, if life in a tiny fraction of the known universe is evidence of conditions being “just right,” what if instead we saw life on nearly all planets and moons that we could observe? What if the conditions between planets did not suffer from inadequate pressure, or wasn’t bitterly cold and rife with stellar radiation? Is that less likely to be “ideal for life”? Funny, I’d consider that to be much better evidence for the argument, myself. This is one of the problems with such arguments – they rely solely on the bare fact that we exist, not that this seems rare, common, limited or abundant.
One can assign many different numbers to the conditions we have now, and make them appear to support whatever standpoint we like – this is actually a cheap debating ploy. How many forms of life are visible on this planet? It numbers in the hundreds-of-thousands to millions just for suspected species, in the trillions-of-trillions if you’re counting individual occurrences (like bacteria.) But what is the percentage of matter sustaining ‘life” in our known solar system? So tiny it can barely be expressed, and in fact, cannot even be observed from more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of our planet. What percentage of matter in the galaxy (not universe, mind you) is in conditions conducive to life? We have no freaking idea. So is this supportive of “ideal” or not? It’s easy to shift the influence of the argument simply by making leading statements, but this is only evidence of a lack of perspective.
There’s even more to the anthropic principle argument than this, however. Variations of the strong anthropic principle point out that the very nature of atomic physics, the four key forces that dictate how every last bit of matter forms, stays together, and behaves, are necessary for the universe as we know it to be here. Fractional changes of any one of these would mean that matter could not bind, gravity could not cause suns to coalesce, and planets would never form. Such things are just right to even make a universe as we know it – what are the chances? They must be so low as to be nonexistent.
First off, this is exactly the same as the weak anthropic principle – if such adverse conditions exist, or had they ever, there’s no way we would ever know about it, since we require those four known forces to be present before we can exist or function. We could make the same argument for light itself: without it, we wouldn’t be able to see anything! But plenty of species get by just fine without vision, and we evolved vision because that form of energy we call “visible light” is abundant. To say that it is “necessary” is arguing backwards – in areas where visible light is scarce, species have evolved other means of detecting their environment. And again, the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that we call visible light form a very narrow band of the spectrum of electromagnetism, of which we can detect virtually none on our own. Visible light just happens to be the most abundant to penetrate the atmosphere, so the easiest for most life forms here to take advantage of. We mostly ignore the other aspects because we don’t use them, but to then consider them insignificant in our calculations of “just right” is being incredibly self-centered.
Then there’s the “fractional differences” part of the argument: if gravity, or the strong atomic force et al, were just a teensy bit different, the universe wouldn’t be here. But we have no idea what kind of variation could occur, if any at all. We assign numbers to these forces, and can change the numbers, but this doesn’t mean the forces are changeable, nor does it mean such changes are either drastic or infinitesimal. We have never observed these being any different at all, nor even know where they came from. This doesn’t make them arbitrary. It’s kind of a nonsense argument, like supposing that unicorns exist and then breathlessly asking, “What are the chances?” Well, zero, to be honest.
No, that can’t be right, can it? But yes, it can, and this is where people constantly miss the boat. Orders of probability can only be calculated from things with known variables. You may have a one-in-six-million chance of winning the lottery, because that is the number of combinations possible from the little ping pong balls in the machine. However, if we have never observed any variations in something, there is only one order of probability able to be calculated, and that’s one-in-one, otherwise known as “guaranteed.” While this does not rule out something else actually being possible, it also doesn’t make it possible, and no order of probability can be assigned in the slightest. All we can do is speculate, and this relies solely on imagination, not on anything resembling science or mathematics in any way.
To then take such imaginative speculation and assign it a very low order of probability, and therefore claim that this is evidence of some higher being, is what we call sophistry at best – I myself call it utter bullshit. It’s not an argument, it’s a method of trying to justify a preconceived notion in an exceptionally pathetic way. We have never witnessed any variation in gravitational force based on mass either, which is good, because we use it for everything from weighing bananas to calculating successful orbits of planets and moons in our solar system (let me take this opportunity to give a shout out to Cassini.) Imagine if someone claimed that gravity could change any second, and we’d fly off into space, therefore we should all anchor ourselves firmly to the ground. We’d consider him an utter loon, wouldn’t we? But arguments such as, “if the universe was different, we wouldn’t be here, therefore god,” are just as fatuous. Pay attention, because this is one of the biggest failings of philosophy as I see it: the word “if” is not magical, and does not grant the possibility of existence. It is merely a factor in argument, pure imagination when you get right down to it. We only start talking about having real value when “if” becomes “when.”
There’s even another aspect that people continually misunderstand. Very low orders of probability, even if we have an accurate and useful way of calculating such, do not cross the line into “impossible” or into making a supernatural explanation even slightly more likely. If the chance of conditions being right for life were/are one-in-five-hundred-trillion, this doesn’t prevent it from having happened, and the weak anthropic principle argues that these are the only conditions we’d see if it did (again, “duh!”).
While we’re on the subject of abusing statistics and probabilities, there’s one aspect you’ll never see addressed: the probability of a supernatural, causative, and hyper/omnipotent being. If the chance of four forces being right for life is so low, how much lower is the chance for an extra-dimensional being with such inordinate powers? But this argument never rears its ugly head, for it is assumed that if an order of probability for random life is low enough, then a supernatural being becomes the default explanation. There is nothing that supports such an idea, however; no way that one can posit a “default” option. Even more interesting, if one allows for special conditions that give a supernatural being expansive powers and abilities, ones that we cannot witness or comprehend, such an argument can be applied to simple physical rules that shape the universe’s forces as well. This makes far more sense than a super potent being that nevertheless has thought processes so similar to our own.
It’s absolutely true that science does not have all the answers, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it never will. The mistake that is made constantly is believing that “we don’t know” is an opening for some other explanation such as “goddidit.” In fact, religious apologists (and countless vapor-brained new age nitwits) constantly remind us all to be humble and not assume that science can explain everything, never tumbling to the fact that they then attempt to explain things without even a vestige of evidence or reasoning – and worse, that these explanations all somehow put human beings in the bin of something special, rather than just another species on the planet. “We don’t know” doesn’t mean, “but we’re allowed to guess and consider it valid,” it means we don’t know. As we’ve demonstrated millions of times throughout history, the only way we find out is through careful examination, not wild-assed guesses based on emotional desires. Lightning is not from Zeus, Fulgora, or Tlaloc, and the claims in ages past that if we couldn’t explain it, then it must be one of those gods, certainly didn’t hold true. If we want answers, then we should seek them, not accept something because it’s convenient or self-validating. Life may or may not be exceptionally rare; the conditions that caused the creation of matter in the universe may or may not be highly unlikely. We cannot assign such properties without actually seeing some variation of them in the first place.