September 17, 2007

The Anthropic Principle

I'm cruising through The God Delusion and expect to finish it this week at which point I will present you with my final review. Right now, however, I wanted to discuss and item that Ergo mentioned some interest in: the anthropic principle.

I gotta say: I don't really understand this.

Dawkins stresses that the Anthropic Principle is an alternative explanation for things like the origin of life in contrast to theistic assertions that God did it. The exact definition of the principle escapes me, but Dawkins describes it in a planetary context this way:

Two main explanations have been offered for our planet's peculiar friendliness to life. The design theory says that God made the world, places in the Goldilocks zone, and deliberately set up all the details for our benefit. The Anthropic approach is very different, and it has a faintly Darwinian feel. The great majority of planets in the universe are not in the Goldilocks zones of their respective stars, and not suitable for life. None of that majority has life. However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it. (p 136)

This is confusing to me because it doesn't seem like the Anthropic Principle explains anything, really. Let me try to create an example.

Let's say I bought a lottery ticket and I won the lottery. I might ask myself, "Did anyone else win the lottery? It is extremely improbable that I would have won. How could I have won?"

If I understand the Anthropic Principle correctly, it simply states that even though it is improbable that I would win, I did in fact win, therefore whatever the mechanism for choosing numbers was (ping-pong balls in a mixer, randomly generated by a computer, a gang of monkeys flinging poo at a bingo card, whatever) it was of the sort that would generate numbers matching those on my lottery ticket.

This is not an explanation in any sense of the word that I understand.

Seeking greater clarity about the importance of this supposed principle, I went to my favorite source of completely and totally reliable sixth hand information on all subjects, Wikipedia.

Carter's Weak anthropic principle (WAP): "we must be prepared to take account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers." Note that for Carter, "location" is a space-time position.

Carter's Strong anthropic principle (SAP): "the Universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage. To paraphrase Descartes, 'cogito ergo mundus talis est'." The Latin tag ("I think, therefore the world is such [as it is]") makes it clear that "must" indicates a deduction from the fact of our existence; the statement is thus a truism.

One man's truism is another man's tautology, it would seem.

Apart from the fact that those using the Anthropic Principle seem to imply naturalistic causes, I can't see how this can be regarded as an alternative to creationistic causes. Might not a creationist say, "It is evident that God put us in the 'Goldilocks zone' and this is evident by the fact that we are in the Goldilocks zone?' "

I would welcome some clarification on this.

Meanwhile, the part that impresses me about the Anthropic Principle is that it echoes not so much Darwin, which is what Dawkins likes, but that it has faint echoes of Rand in the axiom of Consciousness.

A consciousness consists of the sum of those things of which one is conscious, which includes percepts, concepts, and abstractions as well as thoughts, fantasies, internal dialogue, etc. Contrary to what many mystics would have you believe, consciousness is a part of and derived from existence. The aspect of this that makes consciousness axiomatic is because in order to discuss anything at all, you must assume consciousness, just as you must assume consciousness and the non-contradictory identity of anything actually in existence.

Axiomatic concepts do have the appearance of tautologies, but they are actually critical premises that are inherent in all discussions (rational or not) and provide the essential foundation for those discussions. Perhaps the Anthropic Principle functions as a sort-of axiom for cosmological scientific theory.

Posted by Flibbertigibbet at September 17, 2007 10:53 AM | TrackBack

This is, basically, an admission by Dawkins that there is no theory. The Anthropic Principle is an admission that life on Earth is what some would call a "brute fact" - an 'it just is' statement.

Posted by: Deep Thought at September 17, 2007 11:41 AM

Here's a little advertised fact that might interest you:

Modern scientists don't consider the physics as it applies only to the observed universe, and that makes all the difference in the world, because there is no interpretational ambiguity. They don't like that either, and as far as they are concerned, the anthropic principle doesn't even exist if there is no multiverse to lose significance in.

Ideologically premotivated "Losers"... in other words.

Posted by: island at September 17, 2007 12:45 PM

Dawkins presents the Anthropic Principle in a planetary as well as cosmological context. While the statement of principle the way I've seen it described does seem empty, I just wanted to point out that at least one person seems to be using it in a context that is more narrow than the multiverse.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 17, 2007 01:04 PM

Not really, but he doesn't apply the physics correctly, or the same trick won't work. It's the same application, because he attempts to lose anthropic significance in an uncountable number of planets, but the goldilocks enigma is *extremely* specific about the region of the observed universe where life will be found, so he's not he's just exposing his ideological predispositioning, not his ability to do honest science.

Posted by: island at September 17, 2007 01:35 PM

Maybe you could fisk that section of his book. I'd link to you if you could. It starts around page 134, I think.

I say this because I am not informed enough to really counter his arguments as you seem to be and I find his discussion of the Anthropic Principle to be really, really vague. I'd like to see how someone would address them.

Also, what does that do to his overall argument in the book?

Posted by: Flibbert at September 17, 2007 01:57 PM

Hold up a second. You're not a creationist/IDer are you?

Posted by: Flibbert at September 17, 2007 02:03 PM

Nope, I'm an atheist, but that doesn't matter, since I'm only giving facts. The fact that it does matter is the whole reason that Brandon Carter formalized the AP in the first place, but even he does not recognize the implication of the physics in the observed universe. Be very carful that you don't let a stupid culture war get in the way of an honest scientific thought process, or you're done before you even get started... I can guarantee that.

The anthropic principle is a "Line of [cosmological] reasoning" that was put forth by Brandon Carter as, "a reaction against conscious and subconscious - anticentrist dogma", that he called, "exagerated subserviance to the Copernican Principle", which leads to absurdities by ideologically predispositioned scientists.

He was talking about counter-reactionism among scientists against old historical beliefs about geocentrism that causes them to automatically dismiss any relevance to features of the universe that also permit our existence, and this leads to equally absurd Copernican-(like) cosmological extensions, which do not agree with observation.

Carter's example was as follows:

Unfortunately, there has been a strong and not always subconscious tendency to extend this to a most questionable dogma to the effect that our situation cannot be privileged in any sense. This dogma (which in its most extreme form led to the "perfect cosmological principle" on which the steady state theory was based) is clearly untenable, as was pointed out by Dicke (Nature 192, 440, 1961).
-Brandon Carter

How Carter's point applies, including the strength of the statement, depends on the cosmological model that is being assumed, so Brandon Carter's own multiverse interpretation differs from what is actually observed, because the closest actual natural approximation to what is actually observed to be in effect is a biocentric structure principle, which produces a goldilocks enigma of commonly balanced habitable zones that appear over very specifically defined region of the observed universe.

It would appear that "being priveledged in some sense " means that we are only as priveledged as the next galaxy over within the intergalactic habitable zone of the observed universe, so there is no established reason to claim that the principle is strictly anthropic.

If anything, Carter's point is even more true and applicable today, than it was then, except that the AP is now the target of the very politicians of science who are interested only in abusing the physics to their own selfish end, and regardless of the lack of integrity that this generates.

Those are facts.

Posted by: island at September 17, 2007 02:23 PM

"i" said:
He was talking about counter-reactionism among scientists against old historical beliefs about geocentrism that causes them to automatically dismiss any relevance to features of the universe that also permit our existence, and this leads to equally absurd Copernican-(like) cosmological extensions, which do not agree with observation.

What a coincidence, that's what Richard Dawkins did in his lame planetary application.

Posted by: island at September 17, 2007 02:28 PM

Given that the discussion is treading very close to the edge of the depth of my knowledge on the matter, consulting with reliable sources is of importance to me since I presently lack the knowledge to judge the statements those sources are making for myself.

If you were a creationist, I would dismiss your remarks out of hand because I don't have time to sort through the muck that can be stirred up by faulty premises in such an esoteric topic. At least by knowing that you're an atheist, you don't have that one obvious possible motivation for misleading me.

I do like your insistence on the inclusion of observed phenomenon in the discussion. Although not educated on the matter, I've never understood the need to posit the existence of a multiverse.

I think Dawkins strained for the Anthophic Principle because he felt a need to address the improbability of the advent of life given his concession that the existence of God is merely improbable. He wanted to make it seem like his explanation is more probable that that of the mystics.

If he hadn't left the door open for them to remain on the playing field with other rational thinkers, he could have simply said, "We don't know why life suddenly arose on Earth, but we are assured that the mechanisms are entirely contained within the forces of nature without resorting to magic."

Posted by: Flibbert at September 17, 2007 02:43 PM

What you said to me translates to, "Dawkins acted irrationally to support his belief that he is otherwise acting rationally.

I'll buy that, but it's all symptomatic of a much deeper disease that plauges scientists, especially neodarwinian evolutionary biologists and physicists, who automatically go into denial mode when they are confronted with a problem that appears to indicate that there is higher structuring in nature, which takes the game out of the hands of "uncaused causation".

Lynn Margulis, one of their own most respected biologists calls them, "neodarwinian bullies" for exactly this reason.

This is a very good, and related example:

"Evolution of life on earth was governed, primarily, by natural selection, with major contribution of other evolutionary processes, such as neutral variation, exaptation, and gene duplication. However, for biological evolution to take off, a certain minimal degree of complexity is required such that a replicating genome encodes means for its own replication with sufficient rate and fidelity. In all existing life forms, this is achieved by dedicated proteins, polymerases (replicases), that are produced by the elaborate translation system. However, evolution of the coupled system of replication and translation does not appear possible without pre-existing efficient replication; hence a chicken-egg type paradox.

Now for the "kicker":

I argue that the many-worlds-in-one version of the cosmological model of eternal inflation implies that emergence of replication and
translation, as well as the major protein folds, by chance alone, as opposed to biological evolution, is a realistic possibility and could provide for the onset of biological evolution."

Anything and everything to avoid the fact that creationists have a point, regardless of how they misinterpret it... ain't science.

Posted by: island at September 17, 2007 03:26 PM

Correct. I'm saying that I think Dawkins was motivated to provide the Anthropic Principle example (however right or wrong he may have done so) by his own bad premises in dealing with the "god" question. If he presented it falsely/incorrectly, then he's even worse off for it.

Check out my other posts on Dawkins to see what I mean about his bad premises.

Your references to a "higher structuring in nature" is what led me to ask if you were a creationist or an IDer. I really don't know what "higher structuring" there may be.

Dawkins remarks regarding the advent of RNA/DNA for heredity -- the bare minimum level of complexity cited in the quotations you provide -- is an extremely, extremely improbable event. And that's where he leaps to the Anthropic Principle which seems to mean to him, "It doesn't matter how improbable it is, because here we are." And as I mention in my post, this is not sufficient for any sort of explanation -- if that's what he means.

The only valid point that the creationists may have is that the advent of life if left to chance is extremely improbable. That in itself is not a problem (and it's certainly not an excuse to insert a supernatural explanation for things) because sometimes very improbable things do happen. Like most people, events of very low probability do lead me to try to discover mechanisms (like agents of design, higher levels of structure, multiverses) that will increase the probability of the seemingly improbable event, but I am not made so uncomfortable by it to think that improbability in itself is support for any sort of "design." The use of that word alone in the cosmological context should scare scientists, I think.

If this "cosmological model of eternal inflation" (whatever THAT means) is an arbitrary hypothesis without any evidence for support, I would certainly discourage rational people from relying on it to explain that which is presently not understood, but I would encourage brainstorming testable ideas that may explain the phenomenon in question..

Posted by: Flibbert at September 17, 2007 05:31 PM

Re: "Higher Structuring"

These are facts:

A cosmological principle is a dynamical structure principle that attempts to define the structuring of the universe from first principles.

An anthropic cosmological principle is a dynamical structure principle that defines the structure of the universe via first principles that include carbon based life into the path of least action in some specially relevant manner.

An anthropic cosmological principle *necessarily* includes a reciprocal connection to the human evolutionary process, which means that physicists should be looking for a mechanism that enable the universe to "evolve" to a higher ordering of the same basic configuration. Like apes to man, this preserves the arrow of time and the second law of thermodynamics... indefinitely... ... ...

Now, if you can understand the physics, I can qualify that with a valid theory, and that is how you get a futilely impossible "final cause", (absolute symmetry), without a first cause, in a perpertually "Darwinian" universe.

Purpose in nature... as defined by science.

It the reality of the middle-ground that nobody on either side of any side will ever willingly acknowledge.

Posted by: island at September 17, 2007 06:36 PM
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