The following article is part of a six-part series, comprising a single, previously unpublished paper delivered at the 2010 Humanity+ UK conference in London. The presentation was originally titled “Shock Level Five: Augmented Perception, Perceptuo-Centrism, and Reality”.

The anthropic principle (Carter, 1973) is based upon the observation that conditions in the universe as we observe it are exactly what they need to be in order for us to exist. That is to say, there are a number of ways in which the universe might be described or measured, and in every case where such a measurement would need to fall within extremely narrow parameters in order for human beings to exist, it does. Let us momentarily leave aside objections to this kind of reasoning or consideration of its value, and take a brief look at a few illustrative observations.

Dicke (1961) noted that if the universe were one order of magnitude (i.e. ten times) younger or older than it is understood to be, then human life could not exist. One order of magnitude younger, and there would not have been sufficient time to build up requisite levels of vital elements (such as carbon) by nucleosynthesis, meaning that small rocky planets like Earth would not exist. One order of magnitude older, and most stars (other than the dimmest red dwarfs) would have turned into white dwarfs, and stable planetary systems would have ceased to exist.

Dicke also argued that the density of matter in the universe is observed as having almost exactly the critical value required to prevent a Big Crunch (i.e. a future return to Big Bang conditions). Weinberg (1987) has additionally noted that if the cosmological constant (which appears to be the primary contributor to the critical density of matter in the universe) were one order of magnitude larger, then the universe would suffer catastrophic inflation (precluding the formation of stars).

Similarly, the dimensionless physical constants (also known as fundamental physical constants), such as the “fine-structure constant” which describes the strength of electromagnetic interactions, are observed as having exactly the values required to balance the four fundamental interactions (electromagnetism, strong interaction, weak interaction, and gravitation), thus permitting the formation of the commonly-observed matter from which life has emerged. Small changes in the relative strengths of the four fundamental interactions would also have implications for our understanding of the universe’s age and structure, in turn making it all the more remarkable that their observed values fall within the narrow range compatible with human existence.

A “weak” form of the anthropic principle asserts that our location in the spacetime continuum is in some way privileged, in that it can support our kind of life. Whereas the weak form allows for the possibility that the universe may have spacetime regions inhospitable to human life (such as periods in the very early or late life of the universe), the “strong” form asserts that the fundamental physical parameters of the entire universe must be such as to allow for the existence of observers at some point during its existence. Alternative interpretations of the principle have been proposed, including the possibility of multiple universes, only some of which are capable of supporting observers (Stenger, 2000).

Perhaps the most common objection to the anthropic principle (in either form) is that it is merely a tautology. In other words, one might object that it is unsurprising that the universe should have exactly the characteristics required to support human existence, since if it were otherwise then we would not be here to observe it. It may be the case that the anthropic principle is indeed merely a tautology, requiring no special explanation of the observed state of affairs (such as the existence of alternative universes, or that we live in a simulation of some kind), but if that is so then we must accept one of three corollaries.

The first corollary is that sentient observers could (and would) exist in a universe radically different to our own, in which there may be little matter recognizable to us, and therefore no small rocky planets or stable star systems. Second corollary: That the presence of sentient observers is in no way a special or “privileged” situation, and our universe has no greater intrinsic value than one in which no life can exist. Third corollary: That life is in some way valuable and requires recognizable conditions to exist, and therefore the very existence of our observed universe represents an extraordinary statistical unlikelihood.

Nick Bostrom (2002) has noted an alternative to such possibilities; that a selection effect or “anthropic bias” appears to be behind the anthropic principle. It may be the case that a statistically remarkable “just right” universe (as ours appears to be), or any of the other explanations mentioned above, are not required to explain our observations. It could be the case that our universe simultaneously manifests all possible values for every potentially observable parameter (only some of which we are capable of perceiving or even existing within, by virtue of our physical structure), or at least that it manifests a wider range of values than the very small set we are capable of observing or existing within.



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