The Anthropic Principle

John MuenzbergJohn Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy

Critical thinking is a major goal of education.

In an article titled “What are the Odds?” Laura Miller contemplated the definition of critical thinking. As an English major, Miller considered critical thinking to consist of skepticism about words, and the “hidden and sometimes manipulative meanings in language.” Over time she noticed how many arguments rely on statistical data.

She credits several sources, but especially David J. Hand’s book “The Improbability Principle,” as helping her to understand why she found it so difficult to think critically about numbers.

Hand argues that people look for patterns, and assume causation of these patterns, when events are simply coincidences. In addition, immense numbers, or immense spans of time, make it difficult to compare probabilities correctly.

I was reminded of this article on Aug. 31 when I attended a lecture on Intelligent Design by two Murray State professors, Josh Ridley and L. Murphy Smith.

Intelligent Design is a form of creationism that argues for God’s agency within the scientific description of the origins of life, such as the Big Bang, the origin of our solar system and human evolution.

Ridley and Smith’s presentation focused how unlikely it was that this series of events resulted in intelligent human beings. They took this as evidence of planning by God.

Our existence is too unlikely to accept that it is the product of chance.

This argument assumes that life, and intelligence, is like us. This is a form of selection bias. How one collects information will affect the data, and therefore the results.

The data you collect to determine the average size of fish in a lake depends on how to measure the fish. If you use a net with large holes then you will not catch any small fish, and this will affect your conclusion.

If we use human beings as the standard of life it is easy to make the assumption that the universe was created for us.

We should accept that intelligent life might not conform to our physiology.

By assuming that life must be similar to us we find it improbable that the universe turned out just so. By assuming that life could be very different we increase the types of universes that could exist and bring about intelligence.

A related philosophical argument is called the Anthropic Principle. The “Weak” version of this argument proposes that questioning the design of the universe can only arise if life already exists. If there were no intelligent life, then nothing would exist to question their own existence, and nothing would think the universe was created for them.

In addition, we experience the universe in a way compatible with our existence.

Perhaps there are more dimensions to the universe than just space and time. Perhaps there are multiple universes. If we are unable to experience them that data is left out of our calculations. The universe appears to be created for us because we are limited by the universe that we can experience.

If the universe, through a physical process not guided by the hand of God, produces intelligent life, then that life will assume the universe was created for them. The chance of winning the lottery is the same for those that win and those that lose.

Critical thinking shows us that each outcome had the same probability, although that might not console the loser. It is the case of the universe, only the winners even exist to contemplate that.