The Anthropic Principle

Since the dawn of human intelligence two things have evoked puzzlement and wonder: the physical universe and the inner testimony of will that connects existence with responsibility.[1]

Placing these apprehensions side by side, I cannot help repeating an age-old question: Is the physical world connected somehow with responsibility? Has the world been created? Has some kind of super-intelligence – God – brought all of this into being?

Is it possible to frame this question anew? Can we relate what we know today about the physical universe to responsibility and will? Let’s ask bluntly: Can math and science lead to belief in God?

A question like this looks ridiculous when top-tier scientists often describe themselves as agnostic or atheist and a small cadre vociferously defend science from any encroachment by religion. Those attitudes reflect modernity.

From ancient times until the 17th or 18th century, one can reasonably say that religion held the foremost place in intellectual life and that advances in religious thinking often led to progress in science. The Pythagoreans blended religion with geometry. Isaac Newton wrote treatises on religion as well as calculus and gravity. Exceptions to the rule occurred, for example, the reactions to Copernicus and Galileo, but these may been due more to flawed religion than to inherent antagonism between faith and theology.

From the Enlightenment into the modern era, science ascended to challenge, overtake, and supersede the dominance of religion in intellectual life. Darwin’s theory of evolution and the antipathy it generated among believers accelerated an already strong trend. A passionate and once compelling argument for God’s existence, the argument from design, came crashing down, as evidence for random mutation and natural selection mounted.

Religion rose from the mat at least twice in the first half of the 20th century, but not enough to stand boldly in the ring with ever-strengthening science. Kurt Gödel, who in personal life maintained theistic belief, demonstrated that mathematics could never provide a complete and consistent explanation even of itself, much less the world.

Fred Hoyle and other scientists provided compelling evidence that the universe had a beginning point in time. The theory of the Big Bang met resistance, then acceptance. I remember hearing as a child my father express reservation and surprise, as he described how the previously accepted scientific view of a steady, unchanging universe had been challenged and overturned.

Devout readers of Genesis cheered at first, but it turned out that scientific logic, applied to the Big Bang, never demanded acknowledgement of One who lit the fuse.

Now as the modern era is ending, scientists in the field of cosmology – a combination of mathematics, quantum and relativity physics, and astronomy – are grappling to explain a phenomenon called the anthropic principle. The questions they raise are not about biologic evolution, which is a settled issue, but rather about the apparent fine tuning of physical laws and constants that have allowed, or in some sense pre-ordained, the development of intelligent beings (ourselves) in a universe that began with none.

Brandon Carter, an Australia-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist, coined the term “anthropic principle” in 1973. He later regretted his choice of words, since “anthropic” derives from the Greek root for “man,” and any form of intelligent life other than human would suit the principle equally well. There is a weak form and a strong form of the anthropic principle. Roger Penrose explains the weak form succinctly as follows:

The argument can be used to explain why the conditions happen to be just right for the existence of (intelligent) life on the Earth at the present time. For if they were not just right, then we should not have found ourselves to be here now, but somewhere else, at some other appropriate time. This principle was used very effectively by Brandon Carter and Robert Dicke to resolve an issue that had puzzled physicists for a good many years. The issue concerned various striking numerical relations that are observed to hold between the physical constants (the gravitational constant, the mass of the proton, the age of the universe, etc.). A puzzling aspect of this was that some of the relations hold only at the present epoch in the Earth’s history, so we appear, coincidentally, to be living at a very special time (give or take a few million years!). This was later explained, by Carter and Dicke, by the fact that this epoch coincided with the lifetime of what are called main-sequence stars, such as the Sun. At any other epoch, so the argument ran, there would be no intelligent life around in order to measure the physical constants in question — so the coincidence had to hold, simply because there would be intelligent life around only at the particular time that the coincidence did hold![2]

The strong form of the anthropic principle does not limit consideration of intelligent life to “the Earth at the present time.” The strong anthropic principle examines the curious fact that a number of physical constants have to be almost exactly what they are, in order for carbon-based intelligent life to evolve in the universe at any time or place.

The values of these physical constants do not derive from any kind of basic considerations, such as, for example, the fact that the number pi = 3.14159… can be derived from a polynomial expansion based on the relation between diameter and circumference of a circle. Instead the physical constants seem arbitrary, but if they were only slightly different, one of several catastrophes would occur –

  • the universe would collapse in a massive black hole
  • mass and energy generated in the Big Bang would fail to condense into stars
  • nuclear fusion would fail to occur, and hydrogen would be the only element
  • nuclear fusion in main-sequence stars would fail to produce carbon, and so on.

Martin Rees has written about 6 numbers that “underpin the fabric of our universe – not just atoms, but galaxies, stars, and people.”[3] One number is a ratio between the force of gravity and the electrical forces of attraction between charged particles. Another describes how the atomic nucleus holds together. There is a very large number describing the total mass in the universe, a rather small (but cumulatively large) cosmic antigravity force that controls the ongoing expansion of the universe, and a mass-energy ratio that governs the clustering of stars into galaxies. Finally he notes that the organization of space into 3 dimensions (rather than 4 or any other number) is by no means necessary mathematically, but is necessary for the universe to support life as we know it.

There may be more than 6 numbers. Others have cited 15. The next consideration is to try to calculate the odds that the universe, formed through random events, just happened to begin with the right numbers to generate intelligent life. Here is my quick guess at such an estimate –inverse-googol

The number 10 to the 100th power is called a googol. It is larger than the number of elementary particles in the universe. The fraction shown above means that the chance that intelligent life would come about by accident is one chance in 10100. I must admit that I have not researched the actual calculations at length. The point is simply that the enormous odds militate against random events leading to intelligent observation of those events. At first glance the task of explaining the strong anthropic principle through scientific investigation alone looks ridiculous. How can we accept a probability of a universe with practically infinitesimal odds?

Does science, by virtue of defining the remarkably fine-tuned physical constants that lead to the possibility, even the inevitability of human life, imply the existence of God who chose those constants at the moment of creation?

Yes, answer some theists. And it proves that the Bible is true.[4]

No, answer most cosmologists. Their scientific alternative to God is the multiverse. There is no reason to assume, they say, that ours is the only universe. In fact, some experimental results in quantum physics, examining events near the lower limits of space-time divisibility, appear to be best explained by a hypothesis of multiple universes. The number of existing universes could even be infinite, although we can only observe the one in which we find ourselves. The hypothesis of multiple universes has been named, simply, the multiverse.

Suppose the multiverse includes 10100 repetitions analogous to our universe, though unseen and impenetrable. The tiny fraction suggested by the strong anthropic principle must be multiplied by the number of opportunities provided. Hence the odds are –


If the probability is 1, then the emergence of conscious life clearly will happen. We are conscious, and thus it only appears to us that the physical constants have been chosen.

The concept of the multiverse is not the first example of citing big numbers at the boundaries of mathematics, science, and philosophy. In the middle of the 19th century, mathematicians embraced infinity, exploring its ramifications. Several thinkers linked the idea of infinite time with that of eternal recurrence. Because there are finite variations in how our lives proceed, they reasoned, in the course of infinite time exactly the same life (within whatever tiny degree of tolerance you want to specify) will recur an infinite number of times.

Eternal recurrence is a powerful theme, stirring the imagination of ancient as well as modern thinkers. The image of the ouroboros, a snake depicted in circular form devouring its own tail, appears in Egyptian, Indian, Greek, and Norse mythology. Friedrich Nietzsche more than anyone expounded the philosophical consequences of eternal recurrence, as in this passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“Behold, we know what you teach, that all things recur eternally, and we ourselves too; and that we have already existed an eternal number of times, and all things with us. You teach that there is a great year of becoming, a monster of a great year, which must, like an hourglass, turn over again and again so that it may run down and run out again; and all these years are alike in what is greatest as in what is smallest; and we ourselves are alike in every great year, in what is greatest as in what is smallest.

“And if you wanted to die now, O Zarathustra, behold, we also know how you would then speak to yourself….

“‘Now I die and vanish,’ you would say, ‘and all at once I am nothing. The soul is as mortal as the body. But the knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs and will create me again. I myself belong to the causes of the eternal recurrence. I come again, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent – not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I come back eternally to this same, selfsame life, in what is greatest as in what is smallest, to teach again the eternal recurrence of all things, to speak again the word of the great noon of earth and man….’ ”[5]

anthropic-nietzsche1875-a-3Nietzsche used the theme of eternal recurrence to demand that his readers make the most of life here and now, because it will happen “over again and again” in exactly the same manner.

Did you catch his reference to human will – “I myself belong to the causes of the eternal recurrence”? It’s an extraordinarily powerful rhetorical twist, emphasizing the immediate and the crisis of decision by making it eternal.

Logically and mathematically, the eternal recurrence makes no sense at all. Infinity includes not merely the same life recurring an infinite number of times, but every possible variation on that life also emerging and repeating an infinite number of times. Nietzsche knew this, and yet he used the rhetoric to stir the existential soul.

Let’s return to the multiverse. What does the multiverse require to make sense logically and mathematically? It requires an overarching viewpoint of googolian proportion. Well, so what? Gödel did something similar in his famous proof. For that matter, Newton and Leibniz built infinity into their formulations of calculus, an enormously useful tool in everyday engineering.

Let’s be clear. The multiverse might work as a scientific concept. It might, most likely through the tiny realms of quantum mechanics rather than the vastness of the cosmos, provide some practically useful tools.

But the problem with using the multiverse as an explanation for human consciousness is that we have moved beyond the boundary of math and science and into philosophy. The principle of dasein raises its hand.[6] The question of dasein is always, “How does it happen that I am here?” How does one propose “to be there” in 10100 iterations of the universe? If in reality (that is, in true philosophical terms) “every sentence is first-person,” what possible conceptualization of some group of us can base our questions about the origin of consciousness and human meaning and destiny on the multiverse? The hubris of any philosophical conclusion based on the multiverse sucks our breath away.

Philosophically the multiplier “10100” is an incomplete representation; it really means “10100 which we oversee.” But we cannot oversee 10100 universes. The honest calculation of the odds, recognizing dasein, must follow this form:


Nietzsche thought about infinity. He turned it around to make individual human life loom large. Today the keepers of the multiverse think about infinity, concluding that human life is infinitesimally small. Both viewpoints need a simple correction provided by dasein.

The concept of the multiverse does not get us to GSOT, the grand scheme of things. Perhaps it outlines a scheme of things, but it does not get us there and it is not even grand, because grand is a human judgment.

The multiverse fails philosophically. Are we left, then, with overwhelming evidence for the work of God in designing this universe, which against almost incalculable odds makes human consciousness possible?

I don’t think so. If the multiverse is rejected philosophically because we cannot oversee the concept, then how could we possibly presume to oversee the concept of God?

I shall not buy the idea that a person can move scientifically to belief in God. Pursuit of the anthropic principle so far has led me to reject any philosophic answer, yea or nay, couched in the terms of the multiverse. Yet I do not presume to be able to oversee and categorize all the possible answers, so that God’s existence is demonstrated when every other answer I can think of has been eliminated.

The scientific question of multiple universes extends outward into space, but also inward to the tiniest quantum relations of space, energy, and time. Likewise, philosophic consideration of the anthropic principle should turn inward as well as outward.

Cosmology and quantum physics are filled with descriptions of thought experiments. Let’s do something similar with the philosophic question posed here.

We can ask if it’s possible to plan a rendezvous with the universe. Immediately the answer comes, “Okay, give it a try.”

The image reveals a small region inside the massive globular clu
                                            A small region within the massive Omega Centauri                                          star cluster, which contains nearly 10 million stars.

Tomorrow we plan to go and meet the universe. But what kind of preparation should we make? What clothes should I lay out? What sort of questions do we want to rehearse? What should I study beforehand to make the most of the meeting?

I go to meet the universe. Let me take to that meeting the best of who I am and what I represent. If you will go with me, let’s figure out what it is in our lives that we want most to present in that meeting.

What is it in our lives that means the most to us? We should be cognizant of our own answer to this question when we go to meet the universe. The universe will not necessarily respond in kind, but it may help to know what we are looking for.

Some people will genuinely answer that science means the most to them. Only that which is publicly and reproducibly testable has meaning, whether in the night sky, in the culture dish, or in daily human interaction.

On the other hand, others will answer that soft and mushy things like courage, kindness, forgiveness, excitement, sorrow, encouragement, redemption – all those things that go into the making of a good story – mean the most. They mean more than numbers, measurement, and accuracy. They mean more than the kind of knowledge that compels agreement.

When science confronts the universe, it gets a scientific response. When the Great Council of those who agree to agree take the measure of stars and galaxies, only that which is measurable in numbers will compel agreement, and the answer to them is a bounty of numbers. That’s all right. When they look at themselves, they likewise see only numbers within.[7] Therefore, science is their honest way of saying thou to the universe.

When the rest of humankind, who find meaning in their lives apart from numbers, go to meet the universe, how might the universe respond? Let them not presume to tell us how the universe responds. They can report only what they see and hear. They might report seeing the face of God in the starry sky and hearing, whether audibly or merely within, the voice of God.

Yet others, who find meaning in their lives beyond numbers, will nevertheless see only stars and galaxies and hear only silence. In the lostness of that moment, let them be stirred by a discovery within, by the meaning divined in their own lives during the preparation. Let them be struck with fear and wonder, asking if the whole universe labored to give birth to such a moment.


Next post:  Rediscovering Character

Previous post – Does Free Will Exist? Summary Q & A

Outline of Searching for GSOT – Home

Featured image:  Earth and moon, by NASA ESA ( Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Friedrich Nietzsche, by Photography by F. Hartmann in Basel – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Omega Centauri star cluster, by NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] One can make a strong case that prehistoric humans likely experienced such a dual wonder in their own terms. From the written record, a quick example is Immanuel Kant’s famous statement: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

[2] Penrose, R. The Emperor’s New Mind. Penguin, New York, 1989, pp.433-434.

[3] Rees, M. Just Six Numbers. Basic Books, New York, 1999, chapter 1.

[4] A glib, sarcastic statement, for which I apologize. John Polkinghorne has given this measured response: “The theist can believe that there is only one universe, whose anthropic character simply reflects the endowment of potentiality given it by its Creator in order that it should have a fruitful history. This too is a metaphysical guess but, in contrast to the multiverse, it is one that does a number of other explanatory pieces of work in addition to addressing anthropic issues. For example, the intelligible and wonderful order of the world, so striking to the scientist, can be understood as being a reflection of the mind of its Creator. Widespread human testimony to experience of encounter with the reality of the sacred, can be understood as arising from actual perception of the veiled presence of God. Understood in this way, the anthropic specificity of our world is not claimed to provide a logically coercive argument for belief in God that no one but a fool could deny, but it makes an insightful contribution to a cumulative case for theism, regarded as the best explanation of the nature of the world that we inhabit.” See Polkinghorne J. The Anthropic Principle and the Science and Religion Debate. Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, 2007.… 20Polkinghorne_EN.pdf, accessed 12/23/2015

[5] Nietzsche, F. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and transl. Kaufman, W. Viking Penguin, New York, 1954, reprinted 1976, pp. 332-333.

[6] Dasein is a German word coined by Martin Heidegger. It translates roughly as “to be there.”

[7] Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star-stuff.” See previous blog: Saying Thou to the Universe.


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