Out-of-tune reasoning: the anthropic fallacy

Jason Rosenhouse spent some time last week sitting in a Knoxville, Tenn. auditorium and listening to Intelligent Design creationists Lee Strobel (really more of a standard Biblical creationist), Jay Richards, and Stephen Meyer sling hokum and buncombe around.
Jason is detailing his madcap adventures in a series of posts, and apparently, the irrationally gleaming stars of the show were unusually focused on the “universe is too well suited for life to have been an accident” line of crap. I’ll spend some time explaining why this romantically alluring tactic is, in fact, crap — trivially inane, when you get right down to it.


What creationists claim is this: If certain physical constants such as the gravitational constant G, c (the speed of light) and others were even fractionally different, and that if certain astronomical parameters (e.g., the distance of the earth from the sun) were just slightly altered, life as we know it could never have arisen. Therefore, the God of the Bible must have created the universe.
Response 1: Without knowing anything else, it is obvious that the only life forms that exist are those suited for life in this universe, with all its constraints. Specifically, life on Earth must be suited for…conditions on Earth. Would we expect to see life that cannot survive here? Such forms have existed transiently on different portions of the globe and at different times, and they didn’t last because they were not suited for the environments in which they found themselves and were unable to adapt. Why is this supposed to be profound?
Response 2: When babbleyaps like Meyer and Strobel solemnly speak of how mathematically unlikely it is to have been “granted” a universe featuring the physical laws it does, they are appealing to the sense of wonder of people already slathered in gerin oil. In order for anyone to find it truly incredible that the universe — and specifically our earth — permits the flourishing of intelligent life, one would have to assume that humanity and all its biological needs and vicissitudes was conceptualized first and that the universe thenceforth unfolded magically around us in a way that allowed us to thrive and conquer. That would be incredible, akin to my clothes arranging themselves spatially in such a way that I happen to find myself within them, filling them perfectly (by my standards at least). But only the theistically minded explicitly or implicitly see this as the order of things.
Think of how unlikely it is that you’re reading this post, given the range of possible outcomes beginning even just one week ago, let alone decades or millions of years. Not only did I have to make a series of conscious and incidental choices in order to write it, but you had to click on this site at the proper time when you could have done any number of other things with your mouse, or gone to the store, or stood outside and yelled at passing cars, or whatever. The range of reasonable behaviors you might have indulged in starting one week ago that would have led you distinctly away from reading this post right now is nearly infinite. Yet here you are! Amazing. What are the odds? Incalculably great.
Now consider the difference between this retrospective “analysis” and someone predicting in advance that it would happen. Had someone slipped a folded piece of paper into your shirt pocket a week ago that said, “At x:xx on March YY, you will read the words bibble babble fiddle hoo ha on the Chimpanzee Refuge,” and you pulled that out and read it now, you would be floored. But regarding it all after all the hard odds work has already been done is not nearly so marvelous. To oversimplify: Something had to happen.
This is the anthropic principle (or fallacy, when it’s used to support creationist conclusions): We’re the ones who happen to already be here making observations about the universe, so for us to ooh and aah over the odds of being here thanks to whatever remarkable series of events allowed us to be here doesn’t contribute anything useful.
Of course, there’s the additional unjustified step taken by creationists — using God to fill perceived gaps, in this case the explanation of why our corner of the universe is so manifestly friendly toward carbon-based life forms. They operate on the patently irrational idea that if something is extremely unlikely, supernatural beings lie at the root of it. It is understandable why the theistically inclined would swallow this; the entire reason we created intelligent gods in the first place was to explain the seemingly inexplicable, and in more recent times we use them to rationalize the presence of anything that strikes us as extremely unlikely. Our minds seem much better equipped to put things into human or anthropic contexts than to confront numbers with scads of zeroes in them, which makes sense in light of what invariably has more immediate survival value or meshes with day-to-day experience as fairly advanced apes.
We don’t know a lot about the creation of the universe; there is no more reason to abandon the idea of material origins here than there is in less inscrutable realms, but creationists are ever fond of stubbornly trying to seat this or that god in the default artist’s chair. The universe, they say, had to have an intelligent designer. Yet ask them who designed the designer and they frankly behave as if you’ve asked a stupid question. By their own reason the designer had to have been designed, either by some entity which arose de novo or by some other intelligent entity. One can engage in an infinite regress here or, admitting that we know little, simply posit that because at some point something had to “just be,” simple parsimony suggests we assume material forces created the universe until evidence to the contrary is provided.
Beyond that, even if one assumes that the universe came into play via a conscious force of some sort, the leap from this hypothesis to the idea that the Christian or any other textual god was responsible is ludicrously large. Too many of the Bible’s claims about the physical world have proven wrong for it to be regarded as anything other than an interesting anthropological relic and popular piece of ancient literature, but the power that the high priests of yore fought so hard to secure and maintain continues to leave its mark thanks to the near-ingenious way in which religious memes are instilled in subsequent generations.
People like Lee Strobel and the members of the DI traveling circus are doing nothing more than fomenting mysticism in the presence of God-happy, scientifically illiterate or naive audiences, attaching sober-sounding but intrarectally contrived and meaningless probabilites to our world, and using this garbage in an attempt to protect age-old superstitious ideas whose collective number was up a long time ago. If humanity survives for a few hundred more years, such people will be no more capable of attracting a mainstream audience prepared to believe what they here than today’s bands of gypsy fortune-tellers or pockets of Holocaust deniers.

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  1. #1 by Dave Munger on March 29, 2007 - 8:40 am

    “Babbleyap”? Is that a technical term?

  2. #2 by J-Dog on March 29, 2007 - 9:12 am

    Excellent fisking, and I think I will co-opt your term “theistically inclined” to replace my usual “religious” or “god-fearing moron” as being a little more politically correct.

  3. #3 by island on March 29, 2007 - 10:31 am

    What creationists claim is this: If certain physical constants such as the gravitational constant G, c (the speed of light) and others were even fractionally different, and that if certain astronomical parameters (e.g., the distance of the earth from the sun) were just slightly altered, life as we know it could never have arisen.
    No, actually it was a number of very reputable physicists who originally noted this, (and still do), and your ignorance of the facts is extremely obvious in the rest of your post.
    Why is this supposed to be profound?
    You don’t know?… yet you write about the anthropic principle anyway?
    No, see, you’re actually supposed to study a subject for a while before you unleash your “babbleyap” on it, and yeah, I’m an atheist.

  4. #4 by Kevin Beck on March 29, 2007 - 11:04 am

    “No, actually it was a number of very reputable physicists who originally noted this, (and still do)…”
    Sorry for not completing the thought. Obviously the observation itself is correct and my post failed to convey this. What creationists do, of course, is couple this observation to the idea that because of the infinitesimally odds of the universe being endowed with the parameters it has, it must have been created by (the Christian) God.
    I’ve added the sentence “Therefore, the God of the Bible must have created the universe.” If anyone is reading this for the first time, “island” made a very good point, but hopefully I’ve covered my shambling tracks.

  5. #5 by Mark on March 29, 2007 - 11:33 am

    Regardless of who made the point originally about physical constants, pointing it out is still just another way of saying that life that depends on the existing conditions could not exist if the existing conditions did not exist. So what? That’s just a traffic circle with no exit, and certainly no exit that leads to “God did it.”

  6. #6 by Kevin Beck on March 29, 2007 - 11:41 am

    That’s what I meant by my rhetorical question “This is supposed to be profound?” Regardless of the elegance and profundities of the physics involved, the logic is trivial.

  7. #7 by island on March 29, 2007 - 11:43 am

    Okay and I’m sorry for “jumping the gun, if I really did, but…
    I agree that there is no exit that says that god did anything, but the *most apparent*, (as Dawkins puts it), indication of the anthropic coincidences is that we are necessary and specially relevant to the structure mechansim that constrains the forces in a manner that runs contrary to the normally expected copernican extension.

  8. #8 by Warren on March 29, 2007 - 11:56 am

    …stood outside and yelled at passing cars…

    You knockin’ my hobbies?
    I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that humans indulging in marvel at the anthropic principle are a little like the water in a puddle marveling at how well it fits the declivity which contains it, determining therefore that the depression in the ground must have been made, specifically, for it (the water).
    BTW, thanks for the “buncombe” reference. I love oblique etymology.

  9. #9 by island on March 29, 2007 - 11:59 am

    Adams’ puddle example doesn’t meet the criterion for the AP, so it’s just reactionary antifanaticism… aka, more anticentrist dogmma.

  10. #10 by Warren on March 29, 2007 - 12:13 pm

    You know, island, brief forays into polysyllabic phraseology sans supporting argument don’t do much to establish your points.
    Between your odd references to a Copernican model (which is irrelevant to the existence of life) and your claim that an Adams analogy is “anticentrist” (whatever that’s supposed to signify) you’ve managed not to make any cogent claims that I can see.

  11. #11 by island on March 29, 2007 - 12:17 pm

    Warren:
    That’s because these are commonly known facts if you look without preconceived prejudice.
    I’m not here to teach you, but I’m happy to counter-react to group-think.
    I don’t care what you think.

  12. #12 by Kevin Beck on March 29, 2007 - 12:24 pm

    island —
    You were right to point out the shakiness of my original post, where I made it look rather like creationists had conceived the AP.
    I also realize that the physics are a little more nuanced than “The weak and strong nuclear forces and the speed of light could have been anything and life would have just been different,” and that there are more constraints on the problem than perhaps meets the eye. My only concern lies with how creationists abuse the principle by appealing to mammoth and often ad hoc probabilities.

  13. #14 by Warren on March 29, 2007 - 12:26 pm

    That’s because these are commonly known facts if you look without preconceived prejudice.

    A standard (and partially redundant) response from someone incapable of articulating his points to a sensible degree. “I won’t explain it because it’s common sense!” — to be read as: “I can’t explain it, but I’m sure it’s true, so believe it!”
    The problem is not one of teaching; the problem is that you’re not here to discuss anything, because it seems fairly clear already that whatever it is you hold to be true, you have trouble defending it.
    Put another way, while you’re happy to suggest others are engaging in knee-jerk reactions or prejudices, it seems abundantly clear that you suffer the most from ironclad preconceptions, since nothing you’ve offered so far constitutes argument so much as unilateral declamation.

  14. #15 by island on March 29, 2007 - 12:33 pm

    Kevin, I agree. If you blew up the universe a million times, with the same force and the same pre-existing conditions, then you’d get the same universe every time… per the least action principle.
    Unfortunately, the most natural extension isn’t what is observed, ergo the anthropic principle. Even Dawkins admits that they are forces are “deployed in a very special way”.

  15. #16 by Mark on March 29, 2007 - 2:01 pm

    I don’t know what Dawkins admits or doesn’t admit, but it is simply absurd to argue that the physical constants are “deployed in a very special way.” They are what they are, and the fact that we can speak of a possibility that they could be different has nothing to do with whether they could be different. There is languge to describe many things that cannot exist (you know, like immoveable object and irresistable force). That fact says nothing about anything except language itself. As far as I know there is no evidence that any physical constant could have any value other than the one it does. Arguing that these constants are specially designed for life is essentially the same as any other “intelligent design” argument.

  16. #17 by island on March 29, 2007 - 3:34 pm

    As far as I know there is no evidence that any physical constant could have any value other than the one it does. Arguing that these constants are specially designed for life is essentially the same as any other “intelligent design” argument.
    I agree that the physical constants shouldn’t be expected to be any different, (unless you *believe-in* unobserved multiverses, like Richad Dawkins and Leonard Susskind do), but what is arguable is that we are woven into the least action of the evolution of the universe in a specially relevant way.
    That’s where John Wheeler got his strong intepretation from, he used observer dependent quantum mechanics, which is a valid, falsifiable, “ID” theory, if you MUST, but Wheeler’s idea dodges causality and first principle in the same “vein” as a copernican extension, like a multiverse does.
    It is true that observation is most apparently tied to the anthropic coincidences, but a more practical application would say that we’re here to work, not watch:
    For example, as a an energy conservation law that constrains the entropy of the observed univese to occur in the unexpectedly low manner that we observe in order to maximize work. If the universe were a just a teeny little more open than it is, then an unbelievably greater amount of energy would go inert before it had any chance to do any work, and that configuration doesn’t conserve energy, it wastes it.
    These are the kinds of stability mechanisms that physicists who haven’t thrown-up their hands to the problem, look for.
    Paul Davies is one atheist physicist who does just this, although I am disappointed to say that he also follows John Wheeler very closely when it comes to causality.
    Other atheist scientists who aren’t physicists have found a piece of the puzzle, namely, James Kay, then Eric Schneider, Dorion Sagan, (yes, that’s Carl’s kid), and Scott Sampson seem to think that we’re here to disseminate *difficult to crack* energy gradients, so we make jackhammers, bombs ane every other technology that evolves from us to assist in this process… per the second law of thermodynamics.
    Dorion’s mom, Lynn Margulis, (honored guest speaker at the 2006 evolution conference), would tell you that a true Darwinist does not deny practical environmental enablement, which, FYI, falls under the “sites conducive to life” aspect of the anthropic principle.
    She says that only a “neodarwinian bully” would say something that ignorant… to mostly paraphrase.
    It was a shot at the obvious problem that arises from the reactionary response to the incessant pressure from radical creationists that they unfairly have to constantly “beat-off”, which, obviously has an adverse effect on science.
    A true strong cosmological anthropic constraint on the forces of the universe will **necessarily** entail a reciprocal connection between the evolution of the universe and the human evolutionary process, meaning that physicists should look for a mechanism that enables a universe with pre-existing volume to “leap”.
    Think about it, the anthropic principle just means that the universe is Darwinian, duh.
    It shouldn’t be unexpected to find scientists looking for evidence for this self-evident prediction, or at the very least… don’t sit in willfully ingorant denial of the obvious potential of most apparent implication of the evidence.
    http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/2006/11/very-strong-anthropic-principle.html

  17. #18 by island on March 29, 2007 - 3:34 pm

    As far as I know there is no evidence that any physical constant could have any value other than the one it does. Arguing that these constants are specially designed for life is essentially the same as any other “intelligent design” argument.
    I agree that the physical constants shouldn’t be expected to be any different, (unless you *believe-in* unobserved multiverses, like Richad Dawkins and Leonard Susskind do), but what is arguable is that we are woven into the least action of the evolution of the universe in a specially relevant way.
    That’s where John Wheeler got his strong intepretation from, he used observer dependent quantum mechanics, which is a valid, falsifiable, “ID” theory, if you MUST, but Wheeler’s idea dodges causality and first principle in the same “vein” as a copernican extension, like a multiverse does.
    It is true that observation is most apparently tied to the anthropic coincidences, but a more practical application would say that we’re here to work, not watch:
    For example, as a an energy conservation law that constrains the entropy of the observed univese to occur in the unexpectedly low manner that we observe in order to maximize work. If the universe were a just a teeny little more open than it is, then an unbelievably greater amount of energy would go inert before it had any chance to do any work, and that configuration doesn’t conserve energy, it wastes it.
    These are the kinds of stability mechanisms that physicists who haven’t thrown-up their hands to the problem, look for.
    Paul Davies is one atheist physicist who does just this, although I am disappointed to say that he also follows John Wheeler very closely when it comes to causality.
    Other atheist scientists who aren’t physicists have found a piece of the puzzle, namely, James Kay, then Eric Schneider, Dorion Sagan, (yes, that’s Carl’s kid), and Scott Sampson seem to think that we’re here to disseminate *difficult to crack* energy gradients, so we make jackhammers, bombs ane every other technology that evolves from us to assist in this process… per the second law of thermodynamics.
    Dorion’s mom, Lynn Margulis, (honored guest speaker at the 2006 evolution conference), would tell you that a true Darwinist does not deny practical environmental enablement, which, FYI, falls under the “sites conducive to life” aspect of the anthropic principle.
    She says that only a “neodarwinian bully” would say something that ignorant… to mostly paraphrase.
    It was a shot at the obvious problem that arises from the reactionary response to the incessant pressure from radical creationists that they unfairly have to constantly “beat-off”, which, obviously has an adverse effect on science.
    A true strong cosmological anthropic constraint on the forces of the universe will **necessarily** entail a reciprocal connection between the evolution of the universe and the human evolutionary process, meaning that physicists should look for a mechanism that enables a universe with pre-existing volume to “leap”.
    Think about it, the anthropic principle just means that the universe is Darwinian, duh.
    It shouldn’t be unexpected to find scientists looking for evidence for this self-evident prediction, or at the very least… don’t sit in willfully ingorant denial of the obvious potential of most apparent implication of the evidence.
    http://evolutionarydesign.blogspot.com/2006/11/very-strong-anthropic-principle.html

  18. #19 by Bill from Dover on March 29, 2007 - 8:40 pm

    Gee. We can start all over again if/when they find some sort of life in the under-ice slush or volcanic debris on Io… just have to use different parameters.

  19. #20 by Saint Gasoline on March 30, 2007 - 12:23 am

    Great post, Kevin. I’ve always found it amusing that using an argument that runs along similar lines as the Anthropic argument can also justify the existence of the stork. The probability of you being born is highly unlikely, therefore the obvious solution is not that you are a product of seemingly random physical laws, like having a single sperm get lucky in the race–instead it must be that you were made by a metaphysical stork.

  20. #21 by Jim on March 30, 2007 - 9:06 am

    After-the-fact probabilities are a crock. I drive a golf ball down the fairway. There must be millions upon millions of blades of grass on that fairway. The ball lands on a particular blade. The odds of the ball landing on that particular blade are millions upon millions to one. Does that mean that I must be some sort of omnipotent golfer to do that? Certainly not (and you’d know that I’m not if you ever saw me on the fairway).

  21. #22 by hopper3011 on March 30, 2007 - 2:02 pm

    That’s where John Wheeler got his strong intepretation from, he used observer dependent quantum mechanics, which is a valid, falsifiable, “ID” theory, if you MUST, but Wheeler’s idea dodges causality and first principle in the same “vein” as a copernican extension, like a multiverse does.
    How would you falsify that theory?

  22. #23 by Mustafa Mond, FCD on March 31, 2007 - 9:36 am

    Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists
    by Sean Carroll, then of the University of Chicago, now of CalTech.

    That’s because these are commonly known facts if you look without preconceived prejudice.

    “It’s a preconception by mediocre minds that squids can only live in water.”

  23. #24 by Mustafa Mond, FCD on March 31, 2007 - 9:55 am

    Paul Davies is one atheist physicist who does just this…

    Here’s “atheist physicist” Paul Davies’ acceptance speech for the Templeton prize:

    If there is a meaning or purpose to existence, as I believe there is, we are wrong to dwell too much on the originating event.

    Now some of my colleagues embrace the same scientific facts as I, but deny any deeper significance. They shrug aside the breathtaking ingenuity of the laws of physics, the extraordinary felicity of nature, and the surprising intelligibility of the physical world, accepting these things as a package of marvels that just happens to be. But I cannot do this. To me, the contrived nature of physical existence is just too fantastic for me to take on board as simply “given”. It points forcefully to a deeper underlying meaning to existence. Some call it purpose, some design. These loaded words, which derive from human categories, capture only imperfectly what it is that the universe is about . But, that it is about something, I have absolutely no doubt.

    The origin of life and consciousness were not interventionist miracles, but nor were they stupendously improbable accidents. They were, I believe, part of the natural outworking of the laws of nature, and as such our existence as conscious enquiring beings springs ultimately from the bedrock of physical existence – those ingenious, felicitous laws. That is the sense in which I have written in my book The Mind of God : “We are truly meant to be here”.

    Hmmm, doesn’t sound so much like an atheist to me. More like a pantheist or a mystic.

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