Saturday, December 06, 2014

10 things you didn’t know about the Anthropic Principle

“The anthropic principle – the idea that our universe has the properties it does because we are here to say so and that if it were any different, we wouldn’t be around commenting on it – infuriates many physicists, including [Marc Davis from UC Berkeley]. It smacks of defeatism, as if we were acknowledging that we could not explain the universe from first principles. It also appears unscientific. For how do you verify the multiverse? Moreover, the anthropic principle is a tautology. “I think this explanation is ridiculous. Anthropic principle… bah,” said Davis. “I’m hoping they are wrong [about the multiverse] and that there is a better explanation.””
~Anil Ananthaswamy, in “The Edge of Physics”
Are we really so special?
Starting in the mid 70s, the anthropic principle has been employed in physics as an explanation for values of parameters in the theories, but in 2014 I still come across ill-informed statements like the one above in Anil Ananthaswamy’s (otherwise very recommendable) book “The Edge of Physics”. I’m no fan of the anthropic principle because I don’t think it will lead to big insights. But it’s neither useless nor a tautology nor does it acknowledge that the universe can’t be explained from first principles.

Below the most important facts about the anthropic principle, where I am referring to the definition from Ananthaswamy’s quote “Our universe has the properties it does because if it were any different we wouldn’t be here to comment on it.”
  1. The anthropic principle doesn’t necessarily have something to do with the multiverse.

    The anthropic principle is correct regardless of whether there is a multiverse or not and regardless of what is the underlying explanation for the values of parameters in our theories, if there is one. The reason it is often brought up by multiverse proponents is that they claim the anthropic principle is the only explanation, and there is no other selection principle for the parameters that we observe. One then needs to show though that the value of parameters we observe is indeed the only one (or at least a very probable one) if one requires that life is possible. This is however highly controversial, see 2.

  2. The anthropic principle cannot explain the values of all parameters in our theories.

    The typical claim that the anthropic principle explains the value of parameters in the multiverse goes like this: If parameter x was just a little larger or smaller we wouldn’t exist. The problem with this argument is that small variations in one out of two dozen parameters do not consider the bulk of possible combinations. You’d really have to consider independent modifications of all parameters to be able to conclude there is only one combination supportive of life. This however is not a presently feasible calculation.

    Though we cannot presently scan the whole parameter space to find out which combinations might be supportive for life, we can do a little better than one and try at least a few. This has been done and thus we know that the claim that there is really only one combination of parameters that will create a universe hospitable to life is on very shaky ground.

    In their 2006 paper “A Universe Without Weak Interactions”, published in PRD, Harnik, Kribs, and Perez paper put forward a universe that seems capable of creating life and yet is entirely different from our own [arXiv:hep-ph/0604027]. Don Page argues that the universe would be more hospitable for life if the cosmological constant was smaller than the observed value [arxiv:1101.2444], and recently it was claimed that life might have been possible already in the early universe [arxiv:1312.0613. All these arguments show that a chemistry complex enough to support life can arise under circumstances that, while still special, are not anything like the ones we experience today.

  3. Even so, the anthropic principle might still explain some parameters.

    The anthropic principle might however still work for some parameters if their effect is almost independent on what the other parameters do. That is, even if one cannot use the anthropic principle to explain all values of parameters because one knows there are other combinations allowing for the preconditions of life, some of these parameters might need to have the same value in all cases. The cosmological constant is often claimed to be of this type.

  4. The anthropic principle is trivial but that doesn’t mean it’s obvious.

    Mathematical theorems, lemmas, and corollaries are results of derivations following from assumptions and definitions. They essentially are the assumptions, just expressed differently. They are always true and sometimes trivial. But often, they are surprising and far from obvious, though that is inevitably a subjective statement. Complaining that something is trivial is like saying “It’s just sound waves” and referring to everything from engine noise to Mozart.

  5. The anthropic principle isn’t useless.

    While the anthropic principle might strike you as somewhat silly and trivially true, it can be useful for example to rule out values of certain parameters. The most prominent example is probably the cosmological constant which, if it was too large, wouldn’t allow the formation of structures large enough to support life. This is not an empty conclusion. It’s like when I see you drive to work by car every morning and conclude you must be old enough to have a driver’s license. (You might just be stubbornly disobeying laws, but the universe can’t do that.) The anthropic principle is in its core function a consistency constraint on the parameters in our theories. One could derive from it predictions on the possible combinations of parameters, but since we have already measured them these are now merely post-dictions.

    Fred Hoyle's prediction of properties of the carbon nucleus that make possible the synthesis of carbon in stellar interiors — properties that were later discovered as predicted — is often quoted as successful application of the anthropic principle because Hoyle is said to have exploited the fact that carbon is central to life on Earth. Some historians have questioned whether this was indeed Hoyle's reasoning, but the mere fact that it could have been shows that anthropic reasoning can be a useful extrapolation of observation - in this case the abundance of carbon on our planet.

  6. The anthropic principle does not imply a causal relation.

    Though “because” suggests it, there is no causation in the anthropic principle. An everyday example for “because” not implying an actual cause: I know you’re sick because you’ve got a cough and a runny nose. This doesn’t mean the runny nose caused you to be sick. Instead, it was probably some virus. Alas, you can carry a virus without showing symptoms so it’s not like the virus is the actual “cause” of my knowing. Likewise, that there is somebody here to observe the universe did not cause a life-friendly universe into existence. (And the return, that a life-friendly universe caused our existence doesn’t work because it’s not like the life-friendly universe sat somewhere out there and then decided to come into existence to produce some humans.)

  7. The applications of the anthropic principle in physics have actually nothing to do with life.

    As Lee Smolin likes to point out, the mentioning of “life” in the anthropic principle is entirely superfluous verbal baggage (my words, not his). Physicists don’t usually have a lot of business with the science of self-aware conscious beings. They talk about formation of large scale structures or atoms that are preconditions for biochemistricy, but don’t even expect physicists to discuss large molecules. Talking about “life” is arguably catchier, but that’s really all there is to it.

  8. The anthropic principle is not a tautology in the rhetorical sense.

    It does not use different words to say the same thing: A universe might be hospitable to life and yet life might not feel like coming to the party, or none of that life might ever ask a why-question. In other words, getting the parameters right is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the evolution of intelligent life. The rhetorically tautological version would be “Since you are here asking why the universe is hospitable to life, life must have evolved in that universe that now asks why the universe is hospitable to life.” Which you can easily identify as rhetorical tautology because now it sounds entirely stupid.

  9. It’s not a new or unique application.

    Anthropic-type arguments, based on the observation that there exists somebody in this universe capable of making an observation, are not only used to explain free parameters in our theories. They sometimes appear as “physical” requirements. For example: we assume there are no negative energies because otherwise the vacuum would be unstable and we wouldn’t be here to worry about it. And requirements like locality, separation of scales, and well-defined initial value problems are essentially based on the observation that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do any science, if there was anybody to do anything at all. Logically, these requirements are the same as anthropic arguments, they just aren’t referred to it as such.

  10. Other variants of the anthropic principle have questionable scientific value

    The anthropic principle becomes speculative, for not to say unscientific, once you try to go beyond the definition that I referred to here. If one does not understand that a consistency constraint does not imply a causal relation then you come to the strange conclusion that humans caused the universe into existence. And if one does not accept that the anthropic principle is just a requirement that a viable theories has to fulfil, one is then stuck with the question why the parameter values are what they are. Here is where the multiverse comes back, for you can then argue that we are forced to believe in the “existence” of universes with all possible combinations. Or you can go off the deep end and argue that our universe was designed for the existence of life.

    Personally I feel the urge to wash my hands after having been in touch with these kinds of arguments. I prefer my principles trivially true.

This post previously appeared October 21st 2014 on Starts with a Bang.


Boris Borcic said...

Point 7 directly conflicts with an observation that I believe worth the while to make, that anthropic reasoning is close cousin to, and a sort of asymptotic limit of, natural history reasoning that infers an ecological niche from the observation of specimens of a species.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I found this to be a well considered and thought provoking post In the end however could we not simply say that any reality which doesn't have the potential to become self aware is a sterile one at best; that is even if it could be considered as real in any meaningful way at all. This is to frame the question as what has things to be real fundamentally?



Zephir said...

/* ..The anthropic principle does not imply a causal relation.... the applications of the anthropic principle in physics have actually nothing to do with life..*/

This is a lie (until you're a living creature using to reason something with it) and the anthropic principle is a logical fallacy, so that every defense of it will necessarily lead to lies soon or later.

Uncle Al said...

The Anthropic Principle implies a universe evolving sentient life to appreciate it is in some way privileged in its rules. A universe's contents in toto never make it beyond pond scum between the Big Bang and thermal death. Is it Anthropic?

A universe allows sentient life to form, then destroys it all as it naturally evolves in time. Is it Anthropic?

A universe otherwise identical to ours performs up to and including the Miller-Urey experiment, but life never assembles. Is it Anthropic? (God breathes life into clay but, being a theoretical chemist, silicon and aluminum thwart His empirical desires, etc.)

senanindya said...

In summary:
The anthropic principle can be used to impose constraints on values of the parameters of physics, but cant be used to explain those values unless you sneak in a multiverse through the back door.

Thank you ! Realizing this would end a lot of nonsense you read nowadays.

L. Edgar Otto said...

Does the quantum cat know a second death? Can it be born again?
In our brief breath that maps an interval and maps that to the infinite is sentience self aware whatever the self similarly of scales, whatever the deeper debates of renormalization.
In the much vaster emptiness keep in mind this weight hard to face as it stalks us just out of sight over our shoulders until out bubble of being stands as the lie and what we say does not matter save to the living that some of us may as well as never been.

Is that anthrocentric, anthropic in principle?

Or anthology, a collection of flowers?

You see, with sufficient wisdom the transition awakening at the interface of our dreams is determined in the widest fluid symbols of superpositions - yet broken and indeterminate in the vertigo of our models and reason.

Let this be an eleventh thing to know in our observable multiverse as multiple sentient beings as we reach for the stars.

MarkusM said...

Hasn't its originator, Brandon Carter, clearly stated what he means by "Anthropic Principle" (AP)?

Weak AP: "What we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers".

Strong AP: "The universe necessarily has the properties requisite for the existence of life at some stage in its history".

JimV said...

I try not to say this about every post here, but sometimes I can't help myself: dang, that was good!

Don Foster said...

The label reads: non-GMO shea, paraben free, vegan, no animal testing, fragrance free, gluten free and no sodium lauryl sulfate. Given these constraints one can still produce a dispenser of foaming hand soap.

The fundamental dynamic from which life arises is deeply embedded, primordial and resilient. Given that dynamic, I believe life in some form is a near certainty. The occurrence of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez would have a much lower probability.

It would be interesting if the early universe were able calculate the computational complexity produced by the various parameters and favor those which yielded greater “hang time.” Or, rather than immutable, those parameters are subtly fine-tuned with time evolution.

qsa said...

The Anthropic principle was invented to cover up the failed theories that could not predict the fundamental constants. It gets worse, what is charge, mass...etc. today's physics description is not much better than Faraday's lines.

DocG said...

OK, first of all the Anthropic Principle could just as well be called the Ego principle because it can be restated more strongly as follows: "What I can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for my presence as observer". In other words, it leads to the age-old fallacy of solipsism. Which is, of course, nothing new -- or interesting. (Except for "me," natch.)

Also: it's not really a principle of physics as it could also be applied to evolution. In other words, "What I can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for my evolution as a life form. If evolution did not lead to my existence, then there could have been no evolution, as no one would be here to attest to its existence."

While technically there are no ways of refuting such arguments, they are clearly pointless.

L. Edgar Otto said...

Doc G,

Absurd maybe but not in itself pointless. Can we escape solicism? Some emphatically assert not.

Paradigm is an old word for pattern which can in simplicity seek a better method regardless of the mathematics or physics stood here a question of enigma to return awhile into philosophy.

What I (egoism or egotism a little less absurd if distinguished including that. of a God outside time yet sees any era yet absurd if each year the same in observable simplicity) depends on where I am in some reference frame. Or looking down as if depth the very small is changed by my observation.
So in the middle scale what I am or have become observes itself both ways, what an how I know and that knowing changes it in the knowing.

About a nanosecond, mouse size we imagine as the middle scale.

We can make simple patterns without elaborations or interpretations. For me the simplicity of algebra is far too complex and enigmas in the sense of mystery as riddles, far too simple.

Jay said...


One question/point against multiverse/AP that I never saw before (but would guess have already been discussed at lenght somewhere).

Suppose we'd live in a giant multiverse, then our observable universe would be typical of all regions in which we can live (aka anthropic principle). But entropy is so dominated by black holes that the total size of black holes we can see must be almost maximal. Which seems a stretch.

Have you seen this argument before? Do you think it's correct? What'd be your objection?

L. Edgar Otto said...

Scientific American has an article on two past times where "gravity "brings order as one future "arrow of time".
I think the current conundrum would be made clearer if on a more foundational level we distinghished or defined better what we mean by multiverse and parallel universes.
But your thoughts tho abstract are plausable needing a journey of fine tuning and new discovery like most the rest if us. If you choose this journey I am sure you have what it takes.

hush said...


You need evolution.
Something (anything) has to evolve*
*Hoyle's hunch you mentioned.

That is the requirement.

Kinematics, Dynamics ...add your energy and voilà:

Your mechanics are done.

Your bloggers are convince*
*That life surpasses evolution, mechanics, and principles.

Damn the torpedoes, full consistency constraints ahead.

I am your biggest fan*

*I believe your back reaction provides the insight you feel the anthropological principle will never provide.


Don Foster said...

“The fundamental dynamic from which life arises is deeply embedded, primordial and resilient.”

Here is some current news on the robust thermodynamic mechanism that is said to drive the origin of living systems:

zeGoggles zayDoNossing said...

Granted, anthropic arguments are indeed useful falsification mechanisms. But surely the same person who can find kind things to say about anthropics could find some room within the purview of physics for those who classify "the topology of solutions of some equation in an arbitrary number of dimensions". The periodic table of topological insulators and superconductors is a thing, after all.

Tienzen said...

Bee, your comments at ‘Not even Wrong (Peter Woit)’ leads me to here. I have bookmarked your blog.

“…but most of the time I think.”

Very interesting. Perhaps, you can think about this ( ) [Note: Coel is an Astrophysicist.]