Anthropic-ism Revisited

Thirty years have now passed since the publication of an extraordinary book, by a respectable publisher (the Oxford University Press). This was, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, by the witty British astronomer, John Barrow, and the brilliant American mathematical physicist, Frank Tipler. It included a laudatory preface by John Wheeler, co-inventor or discoverer of “black holes.”

It was an attempt to overturn the Copernican Revolution: to put man back at the centre of a miraculously conceived universe, and make his fate the whole meaning of it. This universe, from its Alpha Point in what is popularly called the “Big Bang,” to an Omega Point that is darkly foreseeable, could be described in no sense of the word, “random.”

For the very existence of man depends upon a large, and constantly increasing number of demonstrably happy coincidences, in the “design” of the universe itself. The thing is incredibly fine-tuned, from what we can already calculate and measure, such that the slightest alteration in any of the physical laws, or the chemical properties, would not only eliminate us, but make it impossible that we had ever been.

One of the book’s values, as a kind of textbook or reference, was the listing and expounding of items along this incomparably long thread. The reader with some math, or even the reader without the math but with some attentive imagination, could, whether or not he embraced the hypothesis of Barrow and Tipler, marvel at the interrelations.

Along the way, he would also be given a conspectus of all previous cosmological thinking, with emphasis upon the moments when the “anthropic principle” had been glimpsed or approached. A bargain, surely, for forty-five 1986 dollars.

But this reader would not be allowed to ignore the gist of an argument that was on its face, barmy. It was “Teilhard de Chardin on acid.”

He was being told not only that the universe had “evolved,” thus far, to produce man, and no comparable example of consciously intelligent life; but that this evolution must continue in the advance of cybernetics, to an infinite threshold, in which man would master the whole universe and its contents, including all of its possible energy sources, and “resurrect” himself in a location ultimately beyond the arrow of time.

I’d have been happy to forego that part. It struck me as abstruse science fiction. In effect, I checked out with what the authors called the Weak Anthropic Principle (or WAP), and before the Strong one (or SAP) began defeating the principle of free will. I was willing to look into Wheeler’s participatory principle (or PAP), which proposed the more philosophical notion that a universe is a theatrical act, which cannot exist without generating an audience. But I had walked out of the theatre before the Final Anthropic Principle (or FAP) had put our future on the path of indestructible information processing.

1.4;0;Creation of Life
The Creation by Christopher Unterberger, c. 1780, after Raphael [Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia]

On the other hand, I resented the intervention of Scientific American’s ingenious then-resident puzzle-setter, Martin Gardner, who suggested the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (or CRAP).

He, and many other critics, found even the WAP to be, in its nature, tautological. Isn’t it amazing that only the survivors have survived evolution? – they would argue. Aren’t we gob smacked that a cat has two holes in its fur, just where its eyes are?

To a diehard Aristotelian (such as moi), this is a cute but adolescent response to the angel of teleology. Nevertheless, we must recognize that the whole trend of modern science, away from the idea that anything in our universe could have meaning – and especially not man – hangs upon this glib view of everything we discover.

Yet to be fair, at this distance of thirty years, it can be seen that Barrow and Tipler played into their hands. Tipler, who claims to be a Catholic (and has insisted on his orthodoxy at least to me, notwithstanding his shyness of joining the Church), went on to compose The Physics of Immortality (1994) and The Physics of Christianity (2007). He remains, to my knowledge, a full professor at Tulane University, mocked, but with a glass still sometimes raised to the sheer genius of his supposed impostures.

What opened as “a remarkable book and a masterly exposition of what seems bound to become one of the most important developments to have taken place in physical science” (I quote a contemporary review by William McCrea, the astronomer who discovered that the Sun is made mostly of hydrogen) – was not so much refuted as ignored.

This I found a pity. For it seemed to me, a generation ago, that an opportunity was being provided to the sciences, of no small significance. Had some effort been directed to refuting the conclusions, while acknowledging the anthropic premisses, the book might indeed have launched one of those “paradigm shifts” that Thomas Kuhn wrote so famously (and loosely) about.

Let us take, for our point of departure, the supposition that man, and man alone, is what makes the universe very interesting; that he remains, as it were, “the measure of all things” in the ancient sense. We may, if we try, dismiss this as a grand tautology, but it is falsifiable.

Until someone is able to demonstrate the existence of a comparable or superior biological life form, anywhere, the fact stands. It makes sense on the basis of all current knowledge; the contrary can only be supported on the basis of wild speculation, unmoored to demonstrable facts.

It is not merely that we “haven’t found anything yet.” The very possibility that we will find something can be shown inconsistent with the extraordinary precision of the laws and properties that were necessary to the creation of. . .us.

Science has advanced on the assumption that the universe will make sense. Why, in the face of evidence that it is making very good sense indeed, do we cling so desperately to the alternative that it is all blind chance?

How does dismal atheism survive?

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.