A Critique of Shortsighted Anthropic Principles

Many people marvel that we live in a universe that seems to be precisely tailored to suit the development of intelligent life. The observation is the basis for some forms of "Anthropic Principles" that strive to explain why the laws of physics take the form we observe, given the nearly countless other possibilities permitted by schools of thought such as string theory.

But a new paper in Physical Review Letters from a group of physicists at Case Western Reserve University argues that any connection between the laws of physics and the existence of life is likely to be an illusion stemming from our shortsighted definition of intelligent life.

For the sake of their analysis, the authors define intelligent life as any organism capable of producing scientists who can observe the universe around them. They then consider three types of universes: those that don't lead to scientists, those that lead to scientists who are completely different from us, and those that lead to scientists who need the same physical laws to survive that we require.

According to the authors, the second type of universe - one populated by scientists entirely unlike us - is too often overlooked by those who turn to anthropic arguments. After all, for all we know life could be very common in many types of universes even if stars and the other familiar components of our universe don't exist.

At best, it seems that our existence may indicate that the laws of physics as we know them are in effect - leading to a sort of litmus test for our type of physics that goes "where scientists similar to us exist, the laws of physics must be like ours." On the other hand, it's possible that our existence proves nothing more than the fact that intelligent life and the physics in our universe are simply not mutually incompatible - a conclusion that the authors describe as "nice, but hardly surprising."

The paper implies that the anthropic claim that "we observe things the way they are because otherwise we wouldn't be here to see them" should take a back seat to the search for fundamental explanations for why our physical laws must be the ones we have.

Source: American Physical Society

Explore further

Researchers propose new holographic method to simulate black holes with tabletop experiment

Citation: A Critique of Shortsighted Anthropic Principles (2008, May 16) retrieved 16 September 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2008-05-shortsighted-anthropic-principles.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 16, 2008
Oh Please!

What would make these 'other' scientists fundamentally different to their approach than us?

May 16, 2008
Are you kidding? In a universe with different physical laws, information might be gathered without having to experiment, or without the need for technology. Thats just one way. Imagine a being that doesnt occupy physical dimentions as we know them, or a concious gas or plasma. dont you think it would take a different approach to science than us?

May 16, 2008
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

May 16, 2008
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

May 16, 2008
Anthropic reasoning is very, very tricky - you have to be sure that the 'principles' that you use in your reason don't actually negatively affect your reasoning. As they're used in the commonplace, anthropic principles really do you more harm than good in thinking these things through, leading you to incorrect conclusions or logical errors.

Take JerryPark up there - on the surface, he's taken a very rationalistic approach: "we haven't discovered any other intelligent life, so postulating about it doesn't do us any good." As it stands, this reasoning seems to be something akin to an "appeal to ignorance" fallacy. He suggests that if life doesn't use carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water, sunlight, and a comfortable temperature, it won't exist. Indeed, this is wrong - as my evidence, I cite extremophiles, bacteria who are able to survive extremely cold or hot temperatures bathed in acid, radioactivity, immense pressure, or even inside the rocks of Antarctic deserts. Furthermore, it's entirely possible that some form of life doesn't even use carbon as a basis - it's theorized that life could just as well exist using silicon instead of carbon.

The bottom line is that observational selection effect gets the better of us here. Just because we've never seen any life that goes outside our norm in no way discounts that life doesn't exist, nor does it somehow invalidate or "make pointless" theorizing about other forms of life. The universe is an exceptionally big place - don't let your shortsightedness get in the way of objective thinking.

May 17, 2008
Ragtime: IMO, the intelligence is a mix of the reactions which we cannot anticipate and the similarity to our own "reaction" scheme. In a case of the stars, their movement can be foretold and also they're behaviour is far more different then ours thus we don't see (generally) any opportunity for the intelligence there.

About the anthropic principle, it translates to me as a wishful thinking.

May 17, 2008
..intelligent life as any organism capable of producing scientists who can observe the universe around them..
... For example, even gravitating stars in dense cluster are knowing each other, therefore they're observing each other by some way. Such stars even exhibit some learning abilities, because they're optimizing their paths gradually during motion to achieve the gravitationally stable configuration.

How the correct definition of observation should sound, after then?
C'mon Ragtime, any schoolkid could tell you the accepted indicators of life (as we know it). Simply obeying Newton's/Einstein's laws is not sufficient. As far as we know, stars per se don't 'know' or 'observe' each other in any meaning of the words related to life. Intelligent life is another qualitative ballgame altogether, and science requires observation, hypothesis, prediction, test (experiment), and theory. It's a directed, purposeful activity.

May 17, 2008
About the anthropic principle, it translates to me as a wishful thinking.
The Weak Antropic Principle (WAP) being discussed in the article is just simple self-selection logic: if the universe were not capable of supporting our form life, we wouldn't be here to observe it, so that is why we see a universe that can support our form of life... it's stating the bleedin obvious. It's the Strong Anthropic Principle (and its variations) that is wishful thinking (or worse). This states that the/a universe must have properties that allow life to develop at some stage. This smacks of a Classical Design argument (e.g. the universe is designed to support observers).

May 17, 2008
DomainRider: Sure I meant SAP. As you said the fact that WAP is covered by a logic is bleedin' obvious. So I considered it unimportant to highlight the fact. :P

May 17, 2008
What about a universe ware scientists can dabble in philosophy and have it called science, oh wait...

May 17, 2008
What pervades all arguments about the anthropic principle is the concept of "order". Surely we all agree there must be "order"/"complexity" in a being before we can rightly say that being is "advanced" or "scientific" or "sentient" or "smart enough to ask where he came from". The point about the stars "knowing" each other is well taken and alludes to the fact that stars do not have the complexity necessary to ask that question. And that is as far as we can go, as scientists, in arguments about the anthropic principle, because we've no idea what other forms "order" can take.

Thus the anthropic principle is really this: "why is there order?". And from that we can also ask, "Is there infinite order?".

May 17, 2008
hush1: "There's no such thing as non applicable mathematics"

Finally somebody else sees the light! TY TY!

Every process that occurs in our minds obeys the rules of this universe and is, therefore, a part of the universe. For example, this universe allows false statements to be made.

And on a related note, Godel used the rules of this universe to make his proof that its rules might not be consistent. Therefore Godel's "proof" (along with all other proofs) are technically not proofs. (Although we might as well go along with them until something better comes along).

May 17, 2008
@flem Please don't drag Gödel into your sea of nonsense. There is a difference between understanding logic and thinking you do.

May 19, 2008
Anthropic Vanity Of Some CWRU Physicists


A. Anthropic principle and gibberish verbiage


Anthropic principle: either of two principles in cosmology (a) conditions that are observed in the universe must allow the observer to exist ("weak anthropic principle"), (b) the universe must have properties that make inevitable the existence of intelligent life ("strong anthropic principle").

Gibberish: unintelligible or meaningless language; technical or esoteric language; pretentious or needlessly obscure language.

Verbiage: a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content; manner of expressing oneself in words; diction.

Gibberish verbiage: unintelligible meaningless pretentious obscure profusion of words of little or obscure content.

B. Intelligence of some CWRU physicists

"For the sake of their analysis, the authors define intelligent life as any organism capable of producing scientists who can observe the universe around them".

Contrast this their definition of intelligent (life) with the wordnet-princeton's definition: (life) that has the ability to comprehend, to understand and profit from experience.

It appears that some CWRU physicists "can observe the universe around them" but do not "have the ability to comprehend, to understand" their place and function in it...

C. Anthropology is an aspect of biology


"Comprehension of evolutionary biology is an essential pre-requisite to the study of cultural anthropology.

- Culture is a basic biological entity. It is a ubiquitous elaboration/extension of genome's activity beyond its outermost cell membrane and of multicelled organisms' behaviour. It has been selected for survival of the genome as means of extending its exploitation capabilities of the out-of-cell circumstances, consequent to the earlier evolution and selection of the genome's organ, its outermost cell membrane, for controlling the inside-of-cell genes'-commune environmental circumstances.

- Every cultural element is an artifact which involves biological intra-/inter-cell expression and/or process; biological and cultural domains are not ontologically distinct, but instead culture inheres in biology.

- In the case of human cultures, ethnocentrisms are phenotypic cases of anthropocentrism; biologically both are normal Darwinian biological survival phenomena. Thus ethnocultures are human phenotypic survival tools."

To the above we may now add that some cosmo-physicists display strange anthropocentrism highly loaded with anthropic vanity.

Dov Henis

May 19, 2008
...science requires observation, hypothesis, prediction, test (experiment), and theory.

Only science as we know it. You have left out science "... entirely unlike ..." we know it. Your definition of science comes from Francis Bacon. Science was not like it before him and I would not expect it to continue to be like it is now until the end of humankind.

May 19, 2008
"should take a back seat to the search for fundamental explanations for why our physical laws must be the ones we have."

Science as I know it does not address the question "Why?".

May 19, 2008
It seems that both anthropic principles contain dead ended, self- intersecting logic, but are extremely importaint on a whole to our ways of thought. We dont argue over it for no reason, and Im sure that the notion of the obvious universe wont be leaving us so soon.

May 20, 2008
This is like arguing, "which came first, the chicken or egg". I don't see the difference between a "weak anthropic principle" and a "stronge anthropic principle".

No argument prevents me from having an imagination. In my imagination there may be areas, bubbles, other universes, with or without life, to observe or not to observe itself. We may exist in a kind of area all by ourselves within this universe. We still have not discovered solid evidence for intelligence life, or radio waves from elsewhere. (Maybe we are the first intelligent life in our area). All of the possibilities from string theory still exist in my mind.

To me the anthropic principle still works just fine until someone comes up with something better. The principle doesn't prevent me from imagining anything, even if it just ant so.

Im still trying to figure out, why the chicken crossed the road, and if a tree falls in the forest, and no one's there to heard it, does it make a sound.

Besides, if as Ray Kurzweil and I believe, that the evolution of intelligence life is exponential, then it may not be long before it doesn't make any difference. We may end up existing in a virtual world and have no desire or need to go where no man has gone before. We could go anywhere without risk and without ever leaving our home solar system. Maybe something along this line of thinking is WHY we'll never fine life elsewhere!

Pick your arguement. But I'm not restricted by any ones arguement.

Truck driver's Web Site "drwarpenstein.com, or GOOGLE Keyword "Dr. Warpenstein".

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more