Summary-2: Anthropic Principles

Depending on your present worldview, you may argue the ‘weight of authoritypresented in this section is completely biased towards the idea of a scientific authority, which totally disregards any other form of intellectual authority. While this is a fair criticism, the stated purpose of this entire section, from the outset, was to present the scientific worldview as best as it is understood by somebody who makes no claim to be a scientist. Of course, by the same token, a professional scientist might equally argue that the clarity of science has been lost in the simplification and misunderstandings of a hobbyist, who has not fully understood the complexity of modern science. 

But who is really qualified to talk about the creation of the universe?


Within the scope of this summary, we shall again widen the perspective, a little, by considering some of the open issues that science has not, yet, been able to address with its mathematical models, let alone empirically verify. While, at this point, we might attempt to describe the ‘anthropic principle’ solely in terms of a scientific debate, this would be overtly one-dimensional, as the nature of the debate has to, at least, consider the philosophical and theological perspectives. Therefore, we need to begin by providing some background to the scope of the debate in general. Today, it seems foolish not to accept that there are still many unanswered questions about the universe, e.g.

Has the universe existed for eternity or was it subject to some act of creation?

Embedded in the question are two basic options. First, if we avoid the issue of creation by assuming the universe has always existed, we are forced to confront the problem of the infinity of time and space. On the other hand, if we consider the possibility of the universe only having a finite existence, we are forced to consider the act or process of creation, i.e. 

Who or what did the creating and if 'who'; then why?

It has been previously argued that human rationale operates on both an emotional and intellectual level. On one level, our rational consciousness may not be able to accept the universe just `popping` into existence; so questions about who or what did the creating will always be a natural point of debate, especially for theologians and philosophers. For the scientist, questions about creation may be translated into the context of the conservation of energy or the nature of entropy, while for the theologian it is more natural to look for the hand of God. If we accept that there is still a lack of undeniable evidence, then each approach may feel entitled to speculate, although by this argument, no approach can claim the full `weight of authority` such that it might appear dogmatic in trying to impose its view on others. Yet again, to quote Clifford’s central conclusion:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone,
to believe anything on insufficient evidence

As such, this axiom must equally apply to the scientific worldview as any other. However, if we try to take emotional beliefs out of the debate for one moment, it might be argued that science should be left to seek its truth through rational logic backed up by empirical evidence. On this basis, the standard models of science represent a consensus of what science believes to be its best interpretation to-date. However, it is probably fair to say that few scientists have ever accepted any of the cosmological models as anything more than interim; i.e. they represent a process of learning that is always subject to new discoveries. In this respect, history has also repeatedly shown us that as empirical evidence grew, older models eventually had to give way to new models.  If we consider the effects of the 2nd law of thermodynamics (or entropy) on the workings of the universe, there is the perception that the universe is moving towards thermal stagnation, i.e. increasing entropy. In contrast, the effect of gravity creates what might be described as an `anti-entropy` effect. Under the crushing force of gravity, fusion ignites the stars, which are the source of other `anti-entropy` processes that includes life itself. However, while fusion is the process by which some of the heavier elements are built, and on which life is also dependent, none of this could take place without the energy initially imparted by gravitational collapse. However, today, one of the biggest problems with the standard model is the apparent inability to completely resolve both general relativity and quantum theory into a single unified model of quantum gravity. As such, it appears that we still need two paradigms, one that explains the very large and another to explain the very small, which is particularly problematic in the field of cosmology, where these two paradigms appear to collide. The discussion of entropy and gravity can also lead into the general issue of structural organisation, i.e.

How did the structural complexity of the universe evolve?

Some forms of structural organisation may occur because it represents an entropy process, in the sense, that the new structure represents a lower energy configuration. For example, the chemical potential energy, which is bound up in most of the 20,000,000 known kinds of molecules is less than their component elements. However, higher structural organisation will typically require input energy. In an ecosystem, such as the Earth, all this energy is derived from gravity, in the sense that gravity drove the process of fusion within our Sun, and the Sun radiates the energy required by the Earth. An understanding of how and why structural organisation evolves is key, not only to the understanding of how fundamental particles combine, but to why galaxies form and ultimately to why life has evolved. Of course, in this context, we may question whether the approach of experimental particle physics, i.e. smashing things into ever-smaller particles, is ever going to provide any of the real answers for which we search. Even so, the particle model represents some of the deepest understanding of the workings of the universe, although it does not account for either dark matter or dark energy, i.e. 96% of the cosmological model. Equally, within the standard cosmological model, there are some 20 parameters that could be described as `magic numbers`. Even relatively minuscule changes in some of these magic numbers would result in a very different universe. While it is beyond the scope of this discussion to go into all the details, it may be useful to have some appreciation of the basic issues. The items listed below are only intended to be representative of the issues, which have led science into the debate known as the `Anthropic Principle`, which can also encompass the equally contentious debate between science and theology referred to as `Intelligent Design`:

  • The electromagnetic force is some 39 orders of magnitude stronger than the gravitational force, but even a small change, in this seeming impossibly large disparity, would cause the stars to collapse long before life had a chance to evolve.

  • The electron mass is less than the difference in the masses of the neutron and proton. This fact allows a free neutron to decay into a proton, electron, and anti-neutrino. Of course, if a neutron is not really a fundamental particle, but rather an energy configuration, which includes the proton and electron, then this is not so surprising. However, if this were not the case, the neutron would be stable and most of the protons and electrons in the early universe would have combined to form neutrons, leaving little hydrogen to fuel the stars.

  • The neutron is heavier than the proton, but by only a small amount that does not prevent the neutrons being bound in nuclei, where the conservation of energy prevents the neutrons from decaying. Without neutrons we would not have the heavier elements needed for building complex systems such as life.

To illustrate the size of the gravity force, without worrying about the units, the force of gravity can be compared in the 4 examples:

Electron orbiting a proton ~10-47
Two 1kg masses, 1 metre apart ~10-10
A 1kg mass on Earth surface ~101
Between the Earth and Sun ~10+22

In the first case, we get some appreciation of the minuscule force of gravity at the nuclear level. The second case also illustrates that the force of gravity is still very small between two everyday masses on Earth. However, in third case, gravity starts to become a dominant force, once the mass of an object becomes as large as the Earth. In the last case, gravity is now operating on masses on a cosmological scale, i.e. the Earth and Sun. While the effect of gravity at the atomic level may appear so small as to be irrelevant, this not the case, as it still has a major effect when atomic effects are scaled to the size of nuclear fusion in stars. If we were to change the strength of the gravitation force from 10-47 to 10-46, i.e. by a factor of 10, the lifetime of the star would change by a factor of 1000. This would reduce the lifetime of a typical star from 10 billion years to 10 million years, which would not allow sufficient time for life, as we know it, to evolve. In 1973, astronomer Brandon Carter injected the notion of the anthropic principle into the cosmological debate, by hypothesized that the anthropic coincidences are not the result of chance, but somehow built into the structure of the universe. However, there are several variant forms of anthropic principles, e.g.

  • Weak anthropic principle (WAP):
    The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable, but take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.

  • Strong anthropic principle (SAP):
    The Universe must have those properties, which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history.

  • Final anthropic principle (FAP):
    Intelligent information processing must come into evidence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out.

These anthropic principles are driven by coincidences that strike most people as puzzling and naturally they begin to wonder as to what it might imply about the nature and structure of the universe. Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of suggestions and which, if any, of these options is the most attractive to you will depend on your current worldview.  

  • The universe was designed to sustain observers.
    People often interpret this position as evidence for a creator, or to be more specific, the God they happen to believe in. They point to the unique set of physical constants, which appear so exquisitely fine-tuned for life and conclude that there has to be purposeful design behind the universe. However, nothing in any previous discussions requires that this God has to be one of any particular faith. Indeed, `design` might simply infer a purely natural process, e.g. the design inherent in Darwinian natural selection or just some structure built into the universe that science has not yet explained.

  • Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.
    This idea arises from an interpretation of quantum theory, i.e. the collapse of the quantum wave function due to the observer. Though it has formed the basis of a large volume of popular literature, few physicists now take it very seriously.

  • Our Universe is but one of an infinite number of universes .
    Presents the notion that multiple universes exist and so we just happen to live in a universe, which is suitable for the evolution of our kind of life, i.e. given an infinite number of universes, the probability of almost anything eventually becomes a certainty.

  • The anthropic principle is wrong
    There is nothing magical about the 20 parameters other than our lack of understanding of the process of how they come to be.

To be honest, at this point, the conclusion is that the ‘weight of authority’ appears insufficient to assume that there is the necessary understanding of all the detailed workings of the universe to say with any confidence that the Big Bang model will be around in its current form for even the next 10 years, let alone the next 100 years. For this reason, the next section will reflect further on whether this model may have already exceeded the ‘limits of inference’ .

Philosophical Footnote:

It is realised that many people prefer not to overload a scientific discussion with philosophical speculation, but to some extent it is in the nature of cosmology that it overlaps into both philosophical and theological debate, as in the case of the anthropic principle. In this context, questions can be raised that not only touch on the purpose of the universe, but the purpose of any life within it. While there appears to be no immediate resolution to this debate, other than the preference of your own worldview, we might rephrase the question about 'purpose' in another way, by asking whether there is any purpose of existence after death? As an anthropomorphic analogy, the universe is predicted to finally succumb to 'heat death' after a 'lifetime' of 10100 years, after which nothing else can happen. If so, we might question the purpose of any continued existence of empty spacetime, in which nothing happens, for the rest of eternity? Alternatively, we might consider the possibility within the inflation model that all the energy of this universe might eventually returned to a 'quantum universe' such that it may then continuously spawn other 'bubble universes' in an endless cycle of creation. However, in this context, the physics of inflation would  suggest that nothing of the original universe would survive this process. So the corollary to this analogy, in terms of humanity, is whether there would be any purpose, let alone rationale, to life after our own death, especially as our sentient intelligence appears to be predicated on the physical existence of our brains, while our emotional intelligence seems to require physical embodiment?