Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Anthropic principle

The anthropic principle in its most basic form states a truism: that any valid theory of the universe must be consistent with our existence as carbon-based human beings at this particular time and place in the universe. Attempts to apply this principle to develop scientific explanations in cosmology have led to some confusion and much controversy.

The term "anthropic principle" was first proposed in 1973 by Brandon Carter during the celebration of Copernicus 500th birthday, as if to proclaim that humanity does hold a special place in the universe after all.1

Proponents of the anthropic principle suggest that the universe appears to be "fine-tuned" to allow the existence of life as we know it, and that if any of the basic physical constants were different, then life as we know it would not be possible. Papers have been written arguing that the anthropic principle would explain the physical constants such as the fine structure constant, the number of dimensions in the universe, and the cosmological constant. Proponents also point out that these constants do not have "obvious" values. The universe we observe must be suitable for the development of intelligent life, for otherwise we could not be here to observe it.

The two primary versions of the principle, as stated by Barrow and Tipler (1986), are:

The weak version has been criticized as an argument by lack of imagination for assuming no other forms of life are possible. Furthermore, the range of constants allowing evolution of carbon-based life may be much less restricted than proposed (Stenger, "Timeless Reality"). The strong version is also criticized as being neither testable nor falsifiable, and unnecessary.

Proponents of the Intelligent design conjecture assert support from the anthropic principle. On the other hand, the existence of alternate universes is suggested for other reasons and the anthropic principle provides additional support for their existence. Assuming some possible universe would be capable of supporting intellegent life, some actual universes must do so, and ours clearly is one of those.

Table of contents
1 The Anthropic Cosmological Principle
2 Anthropic bias and anthropic reasoning
3 See also
4 Footnote

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle

In 1986, the controversial book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler (Oxford University Press) was published. In this book Barrow, a cosmological scientist, pioneered what he called the anthropic principle in order to deal with the seemingly incredible coincidences that allow for our presence in a universe that appears to be perfectly set up for our existence. Everything from the particular energy state of the electron to the exact level of the weak nuclear force seems to be tailored for us to exist. We appear to live in a universe dependent on several independent variables where only a slight change would render it inhospitable for any form of life. And yet, here we are. The anthropic principle states that the reason we are here to ponder this question at all, is due to the fact that all the correct variables are in place.

Brandon Carter presented his ideas about the anthropic principle in a 1974 publication of the International Astronomical Union. Later, in 1983, he claimed that, in its original form, the principle was meant only to caution astrophysicists and cosmologists of possible errors in the interpretation of astronomical and cosmological data unless the biological constraints of the observer were taken into account. In 1983 he also included the warning that the inverse was true for evolutionary biologists; Carter claimed that in interpreting the evolutionary record, one must take into account the astrophysical restraints of the process. Working with this in mind, Carter concluded that the evolutionary chain probably could include only one or two highly improbable links given the available time interval. A. Feoli and S. Rampone ("Is the Strong Anthropic Principle Too Weak", 1999) argued that the estimated size of our universe and number of planets allows a higher bound, indicating no evidence for intelligent design in evolution.

Anthropic bias and anthropic reasoning

In 2002, Nick Bostrom asked "Is it possible to sum up the essence of observation selection effects in a simple statement?" He concluded that it might be, but that "Many 'anthropic principles' are simply confused. Some, especially those drawing inspiration from Brandon Carter's seminal papers, are sound, but... they are too weak to do any real scientific work. In particular, I argue that existing methodology does not permit any observational consequences to be derived from contemporary cosmological theories, in spite of the fact that these theories quite plainly can be and are being tested empirically by astronomers. What is needed to bridge this methodological gap is a more adequate formulation of how observation selection effects are to be taken into account." His Self-Sampling Assumption is "that you should think of yourself as if you were a random observer from a suitable reference class." This he expands into a model of anthropic bias and anthropic reasoning under the uncertainty introduced by not knowing your place in our universe - or even who "we" are. This may also be a way to overcome various cognitive bias limits inherent in the humans doing the observation and sharing models of our universe using mathematics, as suggested in the cognitive science of mathematics.

See also

Footnote

¹ The principle had, however, been invoked before then, e.g. in 1957, R.H. Dicke wrote: 'The age of the Universe "now" is not random but conditioned by biological factors ... [changes in the values of the fundamental constants of physics] would preclude the existence of man to consider the problem.' (R.H. Dicke, Principle of Equivalence and Weak Interactions, Rev.Mod.Phys. 29, 355 (1957).) Even earlier statements of the principle may be found in
Alfred Russel Wallace's book Man's Place in the Universe, which was first published in 1903. For example: "such a vast and complex universe as that which we know exists around us, may have been absolutely required ... in order to produce a world that should be precisely adapted in every detail for the orderly development of life culminating in man." (pp. 256-7 in the 1912 edition).\n