The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Misanthropic Principle

The anthropic principle is an idea that initially dates to around 1973. The principle, as used by cosmologists and other scientists, states simply that we occupy a particular point in space and time from which we view the universe, due to the basic circumstances of where and when we can survive. Earlier in the universe's history, the ratios of basic elements were wrong for us to be able to exist, and later in the universe's life, they may again be wrong for our existence. Moreover, this planet happens to have the right conditions for us to have come into being, and if conditions had been different - a comet struck the planet at just the wrong time, the mix of oxygen was off, etc. etc., then we wouldn't exist.

Now, in one sense, this is really stating the obvious - "We're here to observe the universe because we happen to live in a universe where we are able to exist in this space and time." On the other hand, it points to something that we should always keep in mind - we are able to observe what we can of the universe because of our place in it, and that place is dictated by forces such as the creation of particular forms of matter, the effects of gravity on space dust, etc. etc. And our position in the universe may constrain what we can see.

So far, so good.

However, some folks have then gone on to claim that the fact that we can exist in the universe must mean that we were MEANT to exist in the universe, and that the fact that we do exist is proof of an intelligent "higher power" that brought us into existence for a purpose*. Now, on the one hand, I personally kind of like this idea. I do not believe in a higher power of any sort, but if you are going to, a belief system that both includes us as part of nature AND puts us in our place as a small part of the universe while still encouraging curiosity and exploration is, I think, a damn fine belief system. I have no problem with this, and as long as we are going to have religious systems (and I suspect that we, as a species, will always have some form of them), I would like to see such an attitude be part of these systems.

At the same time, I have seen this line of reasoning used frequently by people trying to convert me to their belief systems - "Well, the Anthropic Principle demands that there must be a higher power, so my beliefs must be right, and yours must be wrong!"

Uhh, no. the Anthropic Principle simply states that what we see in the universe is both aided and constrained by where and when we live, and that under different circumstances we wouldn't live at all. That's not to say that there would be no life, but that whatever life there would be under different circumstances would not be us. Nonetheless, the humbling implications of the Anthropic Principle - that we are what we are for reasons beyond our control and we should be grateful to get what we can - seem to all-to-easily be turned into an arrogant "we are here because we are destined to be here and the universe exists to bring us into being!"

In fact, fair consideration of the Anthropic Principle will make obvious that there are plenty of times and places where we can not survive. We are relegated to the Earth, and possibly nearby solar system due to the constraints against faster-than-light travel. We can only survive off of Earth with elaborate (and potentially prone to failure) equipment. Any of a number of cosmic accidents (asteroid impacts, comet impacts, astronomical activities that impact local gravity, etc. etc.) could wipe us out, possibly in some rather grizzly ways (I once heard an astronomer talk about a massive asteroid impact resulting int he heating of air to temperatures around that of a broiler, cooking most of the world's population alive). As the astrophysicist (and coolest scientist ever to have lived) Neil DeGrasse-Tyson puts it: "The Universe wants to kill you."

So, I propose a corollary to the Anthropic Principle, what I call the Misanthropic Principle: while it is true that we do have the amazing privilege of being able to view the universe around us coupled with the responsibility of being part of that universe, the same universe can be actively hostile to us. If the universe did have a consciousness, then the data available clearly indicates that it is ambivalent towards us at best, and possibly wants to do us in.

There you have it - the Misanthropic Principle: The universe either doesn't care, or is out to get you.

* This is sometimes called "The Strong Anthropic Principle", to
differentiate it from the accurate, if somewhat obvious, real
Anthropic Principle.


Kay said...

“The universe either doesn't care, or is out to get you.”

Replace the words “the universe” with other words for an equally true and fun statement. Examples:

“The guy in the car behind you about to rear end you either doesn't care, or is out to get you.”

“Your in-laws either don’t care, or are out to get you.”

“Your boss either doesn't care, or is out to get you.”

“Elmo either doesn't care, or is out to get you.”

Wait… does that mean Elmo is God???????

Dave Haaz-Baroque said...

"I do not believe in a higher power of any sort, but if you are going to, a belief system that both includes us as part of nature AND puts us in our place as a small part of the universe""

I always liked George Carlin's hypothesis - that we're here because the planet needs plastic. We were meant to evolve just so that we could become technically advanced enough to invent plastic and fill the planet with it, because Earth needs plastic for some reason beyond our understanding.

In all seriousness, though, it's not terribly surprising that we're here at all. The conditions for our survival are, true enough, a one in a billion chance - but there are approximately 70 sextillion stars in the universe. SEXTILLION! People had to make up new and ridiculous-sounding numbers just to count them all.

With odds like that, it would be a greater miracle if life didn't spring up somewhere.

Melissa said...

I wonder what kind of creatures we would have been if the Earth's conditions had been slightly different. That could be the start of a fun-filled evening conversation.
I still like the C.S. Lewis version of the universe that he created in his space trilogy. The creatures he invented were some of the most amazing I have read about.

Anthroslug said...

Dave - yeah, folks tend to forget the "Law of Large Numbers" when calculating things. For example, I was talking to a felow who survived a rather nasty car accident, and felt that this was proof of god. Of course, given the number of truly nasty car accidents a day, random chance alone dictates that sometimes a person will survive one - and he happened ot be that person. And when you start dealing with cosmically large numbers, well, you pretty much hit the nail ont he head there.

Melissa: That has always been part of the fun of science fiction for me as well. I recently read a book called "Boat of a Million Years" where the first half was good, and the second half was pretty lousy - but int he second half, the main characters encounter aliens, and the author made these things well and truly alien - to the point that they defied the plant/animal divide, and I thought that that was really cool.


Dave Haaz-Baroque said...

"I wonder what kind of creatures we would have been if the Earth's conditions had been slightly different."

I have a Discovery Channel documentary where biologists try and figure out what aliens might look / behave like based on different kinds of atmospheric conditions... most of them being giant, floaty jellyfish-mating-with-crustacean sorts of things... They also had a similar series called 'The Future is Wild' trying to anticipate what present animals might be like a million or so years from now, after our environment had changed.

Like lots of Discovery Channel documentaries, it's all unprovable speculation, and it's arguably stretching the definition of 'educational' (and I say that with all due affection, since I'm hopelessly addicted to Discovery Channel) but it is kind of entertaining, if nothing else.

Kay said...

Don't mock.

Elmo can kick your ass... and will talk dirty while he does it.