Anthropic Principle

The Anthropic Principle exists in over thirty different forms, and it’s an important concept for skeptics to deal with because it is used by both theists and atheists to support their differing cosmological claims. Shall we discuss its implications a little bit?

The term “Anthropic Principle” was originally coined by Brandon Carter in 1974 to help explain how scientists reason under observation selection effects. The heart of this principle is that the universe must have those properties that would allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history. (The different versions have different emphases–e.g., that intelligent life is a necessary development, an inevitable development, a likely development, or an immortal development–but I’ll let you read about those on Wikipedia.)

When viewed properly, as Dawkins points out, the Anthropic Principle is simply a recognition of reality: our planet must be the rare one that supports life, because here we are on it. Appeals to incredulity (“What are the chances?!”) fall short. Of course we’re here; even if the chances of life developing on a planet were one in a billion, it would still develop once every billion planets…and Earth is one of those. Why are we, in some sort of faux objectivism, so surprised that it was us? This is the kind of hubris-mixed-with-solipsism that leads people to use the Anthropic Principle as an argument for design. The odds are small, indeed, but we couldn’t be anywhere else but where we are to consider them.

Moreover, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds as ID proponents indicate. Leave aside for a moment cosmic collisions and asteroids that have certainly hit our planet in the past; Earth’s own biological system is built on death, decay, and survival at the expense of others. Far from being a curse of “the fall,” this system is fundamentally incompatible with any vestige of a “perfect,” prelapsarian world without “sin” or death, filled with grass-eating leopards and no presence of viral or parasitic life. To move from such a system to the one we have now, the world as we know it would case to exist and another would have to be substituted in its place. We don’t have corrupt perfection; we have something that, by theological standards of perfection, is built from the ground up on a necessarily imperfect framework. Without the “errors” of death and destruction at every level of existence, earth could not function. God would have to have, in essence, destroyed his original perfect world after the fall and created an entirely new one with errors like death for people to suffer in. Whoopee!

There is a distinction, of course, between the genuine flaws in our still-wonderful world and the ubiquitous imperfection that is demanded by religious views of death and sickness in the world (e.g., some other organism is almost always benefiting from the above “flaws”). It is ironic, therefore, that ID proponents are the ones who talk about what a perfect, flawless system we have, and that it must therefore point to a loving creator. Get it straight! Do we live in a system of perfect balance that couldn’t be accredited to anyone but God but that still isn’t perfect? Did he just rebuild a new earth based on death after the fall, but maintain what you call perfection in other cosmological areas (which isn’t perfection, by the way) just to astound us thousands of years later when we finally started to explore the universe and realized that he doesn’t exist anyway? Come on.

On an even more basic level, nobody who propounds the idea of omnipotent design should express any wonder whatsoever at the “delicate balance of the universe” or be in awe of how things turned out (which is basically the anthropic argument). The Atheist Experience blog makes a good point here:

Argue for an omnipotent God, and all this talk about the universe needing to obey specific laws, work in “harmony” like a “machine,” have only certain planetary conditions to harbor life, and all that, is so much superfluous noise. The Christian’s all-powerful creator God could, if he so wished (and, given this God’s obsession with being worshiped by as many sentient beings as possible, there’s no reason for him not to wish), have intelligent beings living on every planet in the solar system, on every airless asteroid, hell, even on the surface of the sun and floating in pure vacuum between the worlds. The great irony of apologists who employ such things as design and anthropic arguments is that they don’t realize they are using limits to prove the existence of their limitless God. The premise of their arguments contradicts the nature of the God they’re arguing for.

Let’s take this whole thing one step further: Christians apply anthropic arguments to more than just cosmology. They apply the core principle of their distorted appeal-to-incredulity version of the Anthropic Principle to prayer, disasters, and everyday events. When the natural occurs, the random good event among the bad ones becomes a miracle, regardless of the fact that all the bad ones still occurred, or the fact that it would have been even more improbable for a 100 percent negative outcome to occur without any survivors to bolster faith in God’s providence.

I thought about this for the first time about a year ago when I was cutting the grass outside my apartment. The lawn mower had gone over the entire yard and cut down every blade of grass–save one that stood up amongst the utter destruction on every side of it. How could this be? Well, the effing mower just missed a piece. Nothing’s unusual about that. But if that one blade of grass represented the sole survivor of a bloody battle, I’m sure he would, from his position (hence the Anthropic Principle), claim that it was a miracle. Look: it’s only a miracle if you can predict what will naturally be a random outcome and compensate for chance guesses.

Answers to prayer are equally affected by this myopia and willingness to chuck up all the positive elements of the status quo to divine intervention. Here, for example, is an account from evangelist Mary K. Baxter in her recent book, A Divine Revelation of Prayer, detailing what happened when their camper broke down on the highway:

We had no idea what was happening, but we quickly turned our attention to finding a place to pull everything over and assess the damage. Immediately I yelled, “Pray everybody, pray!” There seemed to be no place to pull this big rig over, when just around the bend we saw a clearing and an old service station. We began to clap our hands and yell, “Thank You, Jesus!”

Holy crap, what are the implications here? Assuming God didn’t just materialize the rest stop for them ex nihilo, we have to assume that the reason he’s to be praised is simply for staving off their breakdown until they were near a semi-convenient area. If he could do this, wouldn’t it have been ever better to prevent the breakdown from happening in the first place? And if he could have prevented it, chose not to, and still admits to dicking around in human affairs enough to be worthy of praise when something goes right, isn’t it kind of malicious to screw with the chain of events just enough to make them bearable without removing the problems altogether?

There are no good answers for these questions. If we admit that God affects human affairs in any way whatsoever, paradoxes of reality and events such as the one(s) discussed here simply cannot be explained. Things simply are the way they are; we live in the universe we do and on the planet we do; that’s why things have occurred the way they have. God isn’t adjusting reality for us, and he certainly didn’t create it in a fragile system that could only be explained by his nuanced benevolence.

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7 Responses to Anthropic Principle

  1. island says:

    Dawkins misapplied the AP, because the mediocrity that he projects isn’t what is observed, which is the reason that we have the anthropic cosmological issue.

    quote, “me”:
    The evolving physics that define the vast array of coincidetally balanced, “just-right” conditions that make up the Goldilocks Enigma, ranges dramatically in magnitude and time, from the near-“flat”, balanced structuring of the universe, itself, all the way down to our own local self-regulating ecobalance, whose chaotic cycles we directly contribute to enhance over time. These “ecospheres” began unfolding at the moment of the big bang, but it took most of 14 billion years to bring them all to “fruition”, so claims that this structure defining physics isn’t **necessarily** pointed directly at carbon based life, are, at least *apparently* absurd, and must be justified with something more than “somewhat” established cutting-edge physics speculations.

    The relevant anthropic physics isn’t strictly geocentric, however, because the same conditions also apply to other galaxy systems that are similarly evolved, time and location-wise, as ours is:

  2. mikhailovich says:


    You make a great case for Cater’s intent being misunderstood, and I’ve only read about him. Thanks for the clarification there.

    I was mainly using the Anthropic Principle in this article as Dawkins used it in The God Delusion; it exists currently in too many forms to try and pin down in a short essay…

  3. Eliza says:

    Timothy said:
    If God was merely a projection of our imagination, we wouldn’t have troubling books like Job in the Bible, or those searing times when prayer goes unanswered and there is nothing but silence. The persistance of faith in the midst of these realities is a wonderful testimony to God’s transcendent reality. God does not exist to serve our needs.

    Timothy, I’m not sure I understand what you are saying here. Unanswered prayers are proof of a god? That people believe in something irrational contrary to evidence and that makes it so?

    Many children believe in Santa despite other children pointing out all of the evidence against such a notion — but that does not mean that there truly is a jolly fat man delivering toys annually to good girls and boys across the globe in one night.

    Faith doesn’t provide evidence for or against any position and I’m not sure it is a testament to anything other than there being a large number of people who won’t question religious authority, and have been given a word for it that makes it sound virtuous.

  4. island says:

    mikhailovich wrote:
    “The term “Anthropic Principle” was originally coined by Brandon Carter in 1974 to help explain how scientists reason under observation selection effects.”

    No the anthropic principle was an ideological statement about unscientifically pre-disposed scientists:

  5. mikhailovich says:

    Thanks for the comment. I think what you’re getting at (though correct me if I’m wrong) is that the universe is too improbable to not have a god. This is the argument from incredulity. You can’t think of how the universe got here, so you chalk it up to God. I could talk about evolution and other evidence-based discussions about the origin of both biological life and the cosmos itself, but this is actually beside the point. Not knowing the answer to a question (e.g., how the world got here) does not imply that a random non-answer (like “God did it,” “Brahma divided his body into the world,” or “magic”) with no explanatory power is automatically correct. How would you even start to know which one to choose, since there is no evidence for any of them besides the fact that the world exists? In fact, the generic “God” answer poses as many problems as it answers. If you don’t understand how complex, intelligent life exists without a creator, how on earth does it help to posit more intelligent life (God) as an explanation? You’ve just taken one step back and said that there is another entity whose origin you can’t explain.

    Science is comfortable with saying “we don’t know.” Sometimes that’s the only honest answer, but it’s clear from history that scientists have come to an increasingly greater understanding about the reality of the world over time–usually in the face of lethal opposition from the church. This has been the case from the church’s suppression of Galileo to the present legal battle waged all over America by Christians who want religion (creationism) taught in science classrooms by a constitutionally neutral government. The point is that religion provides absolute answers that can’t be questioned, and therefore feels threatened when its explanations are proved wrong. Science, in contrast, is an open-ended process where theories are constantly revised as new evidence emerges and people are free to admit that they don’t currently have all the answers about life or how the world came to be. And that’s okay.

    Since I’ve gotten into it, I might as well go ahead and say a few brief words about evolution. Evolution (“change over time”) is a fact; natural selection is the theory of why it happens. If you’re interested in modern-day examples of evolution in action as species change over time, start at this web site. However, natural selection is not, as you seem to imply, a theory of improbable “chance.” Because only beneficial changes and mutations are passed on to future generations, it’s based on what is working, not on a slew of random options that may or may not work. You’ve probably heard the famous (and fallacious) example before of evolution being like monkeys randomly typing up the complete works of Shakespeare. No. It’s more like monkeys hitting keys and the typewriters only accepting the correct letters that are hit. It’s going to take awhile, but eventually, letter by letter, the works of Shakespeare will emerge.

  6. Timothy Tennent says:

    The probability of a single event in the universe, such as the emergence of a single cell is considerably different from the probability of every single event in the universe which must come together to produce an inhabitable world. The threshold of probability is exponentially way beyond the normal level of what is considered “impossible.” Your “one in a billion” citation is… well, ridiculous.
    Furthermore, the fact that God doesn’t meet with our expectations on what a “more perfect” world might be, or a “more perfect” scenario in terms of an answer to prayer, also demonstrates that God is, therefore, not merely a projection of our personal, or collective imaginations. If God was merely a projection of our imagination, we wouldn’t have troubling books like Job in the Bible, or those searing times when prayer goes unanswered and there is nothing but silence. The persistance of faith in the midst of these realities is a wonderful testimony to God’s transcendent reality. God does not exist to serve our needs.

  7. Brandon says:

    Great post Mik.

    I’ve always thought of this argument in these terms:

    “Shit happens. So, why are you surprised you stepped in shit?”

    It’s good to know that it actually has a fancy academic name.

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