The Anthropic Principle

by Patrick Marsolek (3/2016)

Humans have a desire to know the nature of our reality. For millennia, indigenous cultures have created myths to explain the universe and our place in it. For the last several hundred years, the nature of this great story has shifted. Mainstream materialistic science, which carries a belief of the primacy of matter and the lack of meaning, has taken the place of older meaning-centered stories where humans have a purposeful place. So we find ourselves with great understanding of our physical universe with less meaning and purpose in our lives. Yet, the cutting edges of science are approaching territories where meaning may again play a more important role. The anthropic principle has been proposed to explain how precariously, and beautifully, we are poised in this physical universe as human beings, able to perceive this world that we live in. It seems that we live in an ideal environment, almost as if it’s designed for our conscious experience of the universe. From the smallest sub-molecular structures to the grandest interstellar phenomena, our powers of observation reveal in more and more detail the story of how our universe is constructed and what our place is in it. The beauty, the wonder and the improbability of the universe that we live in is inspiring scientists to reconsider meaningfulness.

For example, if the energy released in the big bang, the formative event in our universe, differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1060. The universe would have either collapsed back in on itself or expanded too quickly for stars to form. This improbable 1060 could be compared to firing a gun and hitting a one-inch target across the twenty billion light years of the observable universe. Similarly, the formation of heavier elements in our universe very sensitively depended on the balance of the so-called strong and weak forces. If the strong force were slightly weaker or stronger by as little as 1% there would be no carbon or heavier elements in the universe. These elements are essential for carbon-based life forms like us. Also, consider the ratio of masses for protons and electrons. The mass of a proton is roughly 1836.1526 times the mass of an electron. Were this ratio changed by any significant degree, many essential compounds for life such as DNA would not exist. If any of these variables were changed, we wouldn’t have life as we know it.

The concept of a universe fine-tuned for life is nothing new. In 1913, Lawrence Joseph Henderson discussed in The Fitness of the Environment the importance of water in our natural environment with respect to life. Water has unique properties that are essential in the functioning of our minds and bodies. This water pervades the surface our planet in the narrow range where it is a liquid. Later in the 1960’s, the physicist Robert Dicke recognized that certain forces like gravity and electromagnetism must be perfectly fine-tuned for life to exist anywhere in the universe. In 1984, Fred Hoyle argued that the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by a chance combination of amino acids could be compared to a star system full of blind men solving Rubik’s cube simultaneously.

Today we see a whole range of phenomena that are supportive to us being here. As it turns out we’re in a fairly stable place in the milky way galaxy. If we were in a too dense spiral arm of the galaxy or in the center, we would have too much radiation and disruption from supernovae to have evolved. We orbit around the right kind of star which provides the right kind of light and radiation to sustain us. We are in the right safe zone in relation to our sun, where it’s not too hot or too cold, and we have enough atmosphere to filter out most of the dangerous radiation coming from the sun. Earth is in a solar system with large planets that shield our planet from too many comet impacts. All of this is well known as the Goldilocks zone, that sweet spot where the conditions are just right for human life to evolve. Earth also has a moon which stabilizes the tilt of it’s axis. It is a planet with a balance of water and land mass and has plate tectonic activity. Earth is also warm enough to circulate it’s iron core and generate a magnetic field.

All of these factors are essential to life as we know it. To put into perspective just how remote a possibility it would be for the Universe to be the way it is, cosmologists have number-crunched many of these variables and concluded there is 1 in 1023 chance of it being an accident. Some cosmologists have concluded that with such a slim probability of our universe occurring as it is, it is impossible to see it as a chance event. Chance or not, take a moment and acknowledge the wonder of this fine-tuning. Our existence is part of and a gift of this massive interconnection of forces, energies and synchronicities. Recognizing this interconnection has driven our myths for millennia. In the past most cultures recognized this connection in the bounty of food and resources, and the felt sense of meaningful interconnection with the abundant life around us.

Today, though we’re entrenched in a materialistic mindset, we’ve come full circle to recognize these amazing interstellar and sub-molecular improbabilities and we feel a need for meaning. Some cosmologists believe that the fine-tuning of the Universe is designed for conscious life. This Anthropic Principle was first articulated by the theoretical astrophysicist Brandon Carter in reaction to the Copernican Principle which stated that humans do not occupy a privileged position in the Universe. Carter recognized that it does appear we are privileged to some extent. Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards have taken this one step further in their book and movie The Privileged Planet as evidence for intelligent design, which states that the universe can be be explained as being created by an intelligence. Gonzalez and Richards state that not only are we in the optimal place for life, but that the universe is designed to be observed by humans and for us to have understanding of this great mystery. They note how our place in the spiral arm of the milky way, the transparency of our atmosphere and the relationship of our moon to the sun which create the phenomena of total eclipses, all put us in a privileged position us to perceive and understand this great mystery.

Taking this one step further, Dr. Robert Lanza, proponent of biocentrism, suggests that the fine-tuning of the universe for life implies that some form of proto-consciousness is a fundamental quality that existed before the universe was formed. He also claims that space and time are not objects or things, but rather aspects of our biology. He suggests that the old physics needs to be replaced with a new biology and that brains are just receivers and amplifiers for the consciousness that is intrinsic to the fabric of space-time.

The brain as receiver isn’t a new idea and has been proposed in the thinking of monistic idealism, the philosophic view that states mind or consciousness is primary to matter. Differing from intelligent design or creationism though this view doesn’t state that there would be any form of personal god or mind, rather that mind with sentience is all that is. Humans feel a connection to the universe because we are also sentient mind. Bernardo Kastrup argues monistic idealism is a more parsimonious explanation than the materialistic view. He also theorized that when brain functioning is inhibited during near-death experience, injury or altered states, then a person would experience that larger mind more directly. New research from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago entitled “Neural Correlates of mystical experience” seems to confirm this idea. In this study researchers confirmed in a study with Vietnam Vets with brain injury that when the frontal lobes’ inhibitory functions are suppressed, individuals did have more mystical experiences.

The observer effect in quantum physics also seems to confirm the anthropic principle demonstrating how consciousness is somehow mysteriously connected to matter. Fritjof Capra was one of the first physicists to correlate quantum physics with various forms of eastern mysticism, even claiming that every subatomic particle is performing an energy dance between creation and destruction which the same as Shiva’s dance in Hindu mythology. Many eastern traditions speak of a cosmic mind of which we are all a part. These eastern mystics arrived at the same perception as modern physicists through personal inquiry and mystical experience. Moreover, it is suggested that the non-locality of quantum physics implies that our minds are all tuned in holistically to the mind of the universe, with each individual forming part of the cosmic mind of God, which again is the basic precept of idealism.

Clearly this whole stream of thinking is at odds with the materialistic scientific view that life and consciousness occurred by chance out of a meaningless existence. Skeptics of the anthropic principle claim that it’s proponents have a simple "carbocentrism" that results from the fact that you and I are structured on carbon. They suggest that it’s equally likely to have a silicon based life form in the right conditions. Sufficient complexity and the longevity of the universe may be the only ingredients needed to have some form of life. Skeptics argue that life might be likely with many different configurations of laws and constants of physics. Furthermore, this position suggests the fine-tuning of the universe doesn’t indicate any special preference for human life, or indeed intelligent or sentient life of any sort.

To explain how we are in the perfect spot to sustain our lives, physicists have come up with String Theory which proposes that we live in a multiverse with millions of other possible universes. These theoretical universes can’t be perceived by us, but are theorized to exist just as ours does. Some have proposed an enormous ensemble of possible universal systems, numbering more than 10500. This stupendous number is, for instance, incomparably larger that the total number of atoms in the universe, which is a paltry 1080. And by these odds, clearly there will be universes with life as our has and we just happen to live in one of them.

In recent years, researchers working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN did find evidence of the Higgs Boson, which lends credence to the Higgs field and to string theory. Although even at this cutting edge of physics the same precarious fine-tuning is in evidence. "In reality, the Higgs field is just slightly on," says the particle physicist harry Cliff. "It's not zero, but it's ten-thousand-trillion times weaker than it's fully on value — a bit like a light switch that got stuck just before the 'off' position. And this value is crucial. If it were a tiny bit different, then there would be no physical structure in the universe."

Similarly, there’s the problem of dark energy, whose name indicates it’s mysterious nature even to physicists. Dark energy is the repulsive force responsible for the expansion of the universe and it should be 10120 times more powerful than is actually observed from astronomy. Cliff notes that if it were as strong as expected we would have no universe at all and life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Researchers hope to run even more powerful experiments to reveal new particles that will explain why the Higgs field and dark matter are the way they are. Yet Cliff is skeptical that these mysteries will be solved any time soon. He said, "We may be entering a new era in physics. An era where there are weird features in the universe that we cannot explain. An era where we have hints that we live in a multiverse that lies frustratingly beyond our reach. An era where we will never be able to answer the question why is there something rather than nothing."

There have always been areas that physics can’t explain. The so-called “hard problem of consciousness” continues to be a problem. Another is the generation of life itself. It’s assumed in materialistic science that life just happened through a chance coincidence of the right elemental proteins coming together. Similarly, it’s assumed that consciousness spontaneously evolved out of complex organisms, yet there is nothing in physics or biology that can explain how a group of molecules can generate life or consciousness. It is likely true that many other forms of non-carbon based life are probably in other galaxies, yet the problem of consciousness still can’t be explained. The neuroscientist Christof Koch reminds us that such fundamental concepts as reality, space, time and causality, which are at the core of science, all rely on metaphysical assumptions of the world. This philosophical stance is an embarrassment to many scientists and not acknowledged. There’s even the assumption we objectively can perceive material reality without influencing it. Experiments in quantum physics demonstrate otherwise. There has been a bias of belief in science that consciousness is not important and that meaningless matter reigns supreme.

Yet currently, stimulated by the problem of the anthropic principle, a growing number of scientists are calling for head-to-head interactions with philosophers. The problems facing physics and cosmology are closely akin to those that have been debated by philosophers through the ages. Dialogue between science and philosophy could bring some badly needed insights into physics and cosmology as well as a more theoretical grounding to the philosophical and theistic positions. Both science and philosophy are reaching outside of what can be observed with the senses to explain and understand our reality. The philosopher Richard Jones said, “Just as the source of three-dimensional space may be spaceless and the source of time timeless, so too the source of life and consciousness in this world may not be living or conscious.”

The physicist Amit Goswami has proposed that the new science could acknowledge upward causation as well as downward causation, the view that mind or consciousness my be influencing the universe from the outside as well as the fundamental energies within matter from the ground up. I suggest these two poles may also actually be the same source; dark matter and the Higgs field may be what mind looks like from the outside, in the same way that the neurological firings of the brain are what an experiencing mind looks like from the outside. This new science can be a rediscovering of the myth where each individual sentient being, as well as all the physical matter, are a meaningful part of the great picture. The understanding that we are a meaningful part of the universe can humble us and invoke a sense of mystery, and at the same time we feel a sense of inclusion, a sense of power that we can influence the world in a positive way. A science of interconnection, belonging and purpose could take us a long way towards finding a way to live in this world without destroying it. The experience of meaning may be connected to the generative power in the universe, that resides in the dark vacuum of space and in our own minds.