Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Anthropic Principle is like Rodney Dangerfield

But in truth, it deserves a little respect.

CUNY philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, of the blog Rationally Speaking doesn't know jack about the Anthropic Principle. In writing about Paul Davies, Pigliucci states:
And of course no fluffy discussion about the ultimate origins of the universe could possibly be complete without a mention of the anthropic principle. (Massimo Pigliucci)
He then quotes Davies:
For me the crucial thing is that the universe is not only beautiful and harmonious and ingeniously put together, it is also fit for life. (Paul Davies)
It is not completely clear that Davies is talking about the (weak) Anthropic Principle—maybe he is. But my bet is that he is talking about cosmological fine-tuning. The two are often confused but very different. (I plead guilty too—I confused the two in a mention in my own novel. At least I think I did. I can't remember many details about what's in that book.)

On a scale of 0-10, measuring significance of an idea to theism, cosmological fine-tuning (the idea that life is sensitive to the values of the physical constants) scores—somewhere. I would rate it fairly high—but it is sufficient for now to say that it would score something above zero.

The Anthropic Principle, by contrast, scores a dead zero. Zilch-point-oh.

If you dislike the Anthropic Principle because of religious connotations—then you do not understand the Anthropic Principle. Professor Pigliucci, it would appear, does not understand the Anthropic Principle.

In fact, there is no reason to dislike the (weak) Anthropic Principle—and Pigliucci's comment displays his ignorance. In its proper place the Anthropic Principle can be quite useful. But it must be remembered: it can be a guide—but it is never an explanation.

Using it as an explanation should be criticized. Using it as a guide—well it may not be satisfying in a purist sense—but there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Science is not above getting hints—and the Anthropic Principle can, at times, provide hints.

The (weak) Anthropic Principle merely states: science must be consistent with the fact that we carbon-based creatures are here.

It is more or less a tautology. But it has some scientific value.

There is no example better than the most famous—Hoyle's serendipitous 7.65 MeV carbon resonance. We are here, and we are made of carbon. The only place the carbon can be made is inside of stars. The nuclear chain of events, Hoyle realized, required an undiscovered carbon excited state around 7.6 MeV—otherwise we couldn't be here pondering how it is that we are here. It had to be there because we are here (the Anthropic Principle)—and sure enough it was.

Of course, the Anthropic Principle doesn't explain the resonance—it just gave a hint as to where to look. Nuclear models later explained the resonance.

To understand that the Anthropic Principle is not biased toward theism—imagine if Hoyle's use of it failed. Imagine if there was no carbon resonance at the required energy. We would then have no explanation for existence of heavy elements, required for any type of life, —other than "God Did It." The failure of the Anthropic Principle would have, at least in a political sense, been good for theism—that is at least in the twisted calculus whereby a phenomenon lacking a scientific explanation is considered a victory for theism.

Later in the same post, Pigliucci writes:
I find the anthropic principle not only philosophically untenable and scientifically silly, but an egregious example of the tendency of human beings to vastly overestimate their place in the cosmos.  (Massimo Pigliucci)
Like many others who don't know what they speak of, he is equating the Anthropic Principle with a sort of carbon chauvinism. Total nonsense.

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