Cosmic Inevitability

by Kieran Healy on August 20, 2003

Just read “E.T. and God,” an article by Paul Davies in the current Atlantic Monthly about what would happen to religion if extraterrestrial life of any sort were discovered. The author tends to slide about between that question and the narrower issue of what would happen to the theologies of the major world religions, especially Christianity. As Davies himself notes, the discovery of E.T. would do all kinds of things for groups like the Raelians. (Funny how their clone story dropped off the map, by the way. Whatever happened to the allegedy respectable science journalist who was going to verify their claims, I wonder?)

Davies shows a marked weakness for the argument from design, and in particular its “anthropic principle” subgenus:

bq. If life is found to be widespread in the universe, the new argument goes, then it must emerge rather easily from nonliving chemical mixtures, and thus the laws of nature must be cunningly contrived to unleash this remarkable and very special state of matter, which in turn is a conduit to an even more remarkable and special state: mind.

He also paraphrases a biologist:

bq. Simon Conway Morris, of Cambridge University, makes his own case for a “ladder of progress,” invoking the phenomenon of convergent evolution — the tendency of similar-looking [sic] organisms to evolve independently in similar ecological niches … Conway Morris maintains that the “humanlike niche” is likely to be filled on other planets that have advanced life. He even goes so far as to argue that extraterrestrials would have a humanoid form. It is not a great leap from this conclusion to the belief that extraterrestrials would sin, have consciences, struggle with ethical questions, and fear death.

Hey, why stop there? I bet they also have homologues to non-fat vanilla lattes, frat parties and New Labour. I remember seeing a standup comic do a routine where he said he was an alien from a distant galaxy, where life was wholly different from Earth. “We have no concept of love, and no death,” he said, “and a different-shaped gearstick on the Honda Civic.”

As for the anthropic principle — the idea that the fundamental physical constants of the universe are so tightly calibrated that life could not have happened if any of them were a tiny bit different, and hence that the Universe was waiting for, e.g., Orange County to emerge — well, it’s always seemed like a lot of badly-reasoned old cobblers to me. It’s a bit like wondering how eggs know what shape eggcups are, or feeling pleased that God has organized things in such a way that the sun rises in the morning, just when people are ready to go to work.



JLowe 08.21.03 at 2:13 am

Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately.

Cruising through that site, I found myself facing a science (of sorts) that could make inferences without any data. Where do I sign up? Collecting data is such a grubby business and working with conceptual models that are bounded by data is so oppressive to the intellect.


mitch 08.21.03 at 7:40 am

“I bet they also have homologues to non-fat vanilla lattes, frat parties and New Labour.”

A stimulant modified for reasons of health… a social gathering of a biologically distinct student subcaste… and a political association with a changing ideology.


Jacob T. Levy 08.21.03 at 10:07 am

That allegedly respectable journalist got tired of of the Raelians telling him every day, “We’ll get you that evidence real soon now. Tomorrow. Next week, at the latest.” After a couple of weeks he announced that the whole thing was almost certainly a hoax, to widespread derision from those who hadn’t ever thought otherwise.


Nabakov 08.21.03 at 3:25 pm

The whole debate sounds so carbon-centric.

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between ‘Childhood’s End’ and “Human beings are just transport systems for fluids”.

Or as Clifford Simak pointed out, there is a distinct lifecycle from paperclips to wire coathangers to bicycles. You ever seen all three at once in the same room?


Thomas Dent 08.21.03 at 3:27 pm

It seems you don’t understand the Anthropic Principle.
However, rather few of the people who write about it do

It’s certainly _not_ a version of the argument from design,
in fact it’s a debunking of it.

We start from the observation that if some constants were
very slightly different then carbon would not have formed,
and thus complex so-called organic chemicals could not form,
thus (which is the slightly weak point) no life. (There are
other apparent coincidences as well, not just carbon.) The
naive conclusion is that there must be an intelligent
designer to set the constants just right, since the chances
against are overwhelming.

The core of the anthropic argument is to notice that there is
a massive selection bias in the question “What is the chance
of obtaining values of constants in this tiny range which can
give rise to intelligent life?”. To correct for the bias, the
condition that such a question can be asked at all should be
applied as a prior.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the constants lie in a very
narrow range given that any value outside that range fails to
lead to intelligent life capable of asking such a question.
Hence, the argument from design is debunked.

Exactly the same principle can be used to explain the very
puzzling answer to this question: “What is the chance that
you and I are both English-speaking, university-educated
computer users”? This is of course a very small probability
when taken over the whole population of the world. But apply
the prior that we are both reading the question on a computer
screen in the middle of an intellectual debate and the
probability becomes rather high – and there is no coincidence
at all.

This is the “weak anthropic principle”. People have also made
other inferences which get other names, but I don’t understand
them and they seem to tend towards mysticism.

The weak point of the weak principle is that we don’t really
know whether there are other forms of life that could form
given different values of constants. It could be life (Jim)
but nothing like we know it. More technically, we can’t reliably
find the shape of the function P({c}) which gives the probability
of intelligent life given a set {c} of constants. However we do
know that P({c}) = 0 for some sets {c}. For example if the
Universe was only large enough to hold a few hundred atoms, or
only contained massless particles.

It’s a pretty solid scientific inference that carbon-based life
_does_ require highly fine-tuned values of constants, so you
can’t dismiss this as “cobblers”. The idea that this implies
“the Universe was waiting for, e.g., Orange County to emerge”
is indeed cobblers, but is _not_ equivalent to any formulation
of the anthropic principle. If this is your summary of what the
principle amounts to, it’s either a bad misunderstanding (which
may be the fault of the popular science writing you read) or a
cheap hit.


Todd 08.21.03 at 6:49 pm

I wonder what would become of the religions if E.T. affirmed the existence of God? CS Lewis’ space trilogy comes to mind…


Thomas Dent 08.21.03 at 8:33 pm

If you go to “Primer” on the site,
you’ll find a good explanation explaining where some of the
cobblers come(s) from.

I quote: “Brandon Carter, a … cosmologist … coined the
term ?anthropic principle? in 1974, clearly intending it to
convey some useful guidance about how to reason under
observation selection effects. (…) While Carter himself
evidently knew how to apply his principle to get interesting
results, he unfortunately did not manage to explain it well
enough to enable all his followers to do the same.”

“When John Barrow and Frank Tipler introduced anthropic
reasoning to a wider audience in 1986 with the publication of
The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, they compounded the
terminological disorder by minting several new ?anthropic
principles?, some of which have little if any connection to
observation selection effects.”

A relevant quote from Francis Bacon:

“It was a good answer that was made by one who when they
showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had
paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have
him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the
gods, – ‘Aye,’ asked he again, ‘but where are they painted
that were drowned after their vows?'”


Patrick 08.22.03 at 2:27 pm

Very good point from Thomas. The anthropic principle isn’t as cray as it seems (although there are trivial, weak, and strong versions). The strong version is usually the one invoked by the crazies.

Since Thomas already mentioned the weak form, I’ll lay off of it. The trivial form is that we can use certain observations stemming from the existence of human life to constrain certain parameters in cosmological equations- i.e., the existence of the earth means that the universe must be X years old at the very least, because the earth is X years old. Not really in use now, as there are better supported methods of constraining these, but in the early days of extragalactic cosmology, this was important.

The strong version is a bit odd. It’s essentially the weak version, but most formulations of the weak version invoke the many worlds hypothesis (infinite number of universes, thus infinite variations in physical constants, laws, even number of dimensions). The downside is that it explains the whole “why everything is right for life” with other universes that we can’t observe.

Strong does away with the many universes theory, and assumes that our universe was set up the way it is initially, by whatever you like. You don’t need the unobservable universes, but you do need some all powerful creator setting up the constants at the beginning of time.


Thomas Dent 08.22.03 at 5:51 pm

I’m not sure the weak principle requires ‘many worlds’ in the
sense of the interpretation of quantum mechanics. If your view
of probability is frequentist then you may have to imagine many
different regions of the Universe (they need not be completely
disconnected) with different values of constants. However if
you are a Bayesian then you might be happy talking about the
statistics of a single Universe with the same laws all the way
through. In either case you have to believe that a Universe
with different laws would be at least logically consistent.

But I’ve never understood what the strong principle actually
stated, or at least it has always seemed to be nonsensical.

The only principle that I understand is that when answering
the question “how likely is X” one should discard all the cases
which result in there being no observers around capable of
asking such a question, and make one’s estimate of likelihood
based on the remaining cases.

You get to another tricky point when you try to define what
“such a question” covers. If there were intelligent beings
formed of black charged dust clouds (a la Fred Hoyle), how
could one tell if they were asking such a question?


Robert Schwartz 08.22.03 at 6:23 pm

I am less inclined to believe in ET’s than I am in God, but I have no theological issue if they exist. OTOH, I am a Jew and I do not claim any real knowledge of Christian theology. From what I do know of Christian theology, it holds that a historical event is of cosmic significance. This would seem to render it somewhat vulnerable to disruption if ET shows up.

Wouldn’t it be a hoot if ET did show up and he turned out to be a goat-slaughtering polytheist?


Con Tendem 08.24.03 at 10:46 pm

All of the large monotheistic religions hold that G-d created the Universe and all in it. There is no particular reason why some Christian groups would not embrace a a race of polytheist ants from Orion as a great evangelical opporunity while others simply ignore them as not part of the “mankind”. Seeing how all these religions are essentially unprovable and have a required element of faith, a simple arrival of an intellegent life-form from outer space should not change too much in their theology.
Now, if E.T. and his 600billion co-religionists were actually on some sort of quasi-crusade or meta-jihad with a somewhat different version of the Bible/Koran/Torah that was similar enough to be clearly of the same derivation but different enough to be incompatible (or treating Earthlings like Amalek) with our texts… *That* could be a major disruption.


adam conover 08.25.03 at 4:59 am

I’d like to point out that putting a carriage return at the end of every line you type produces ugly results after the comment itself has been posted. I’m enjoying the debate, but for readability’s sake, please only use hard breaks to distinguish between paragraphs.


Thomas Dent 08.25.03 at 11:52 am

I use Netscape in which the comment boxes don’t automatically break lines. So either I can write everything on a single line and not see more than a few words at once, or make my own linebreaks to see what I’ve written.

I hereby apologise for offending the sensitivities of the majority-browsered with my ugly linebreaks.


Adam Conover 08.26.03 at 6:30 am

I had no intention of being offensive — I was just trying to point out what I assumed what an honest mistake, one which a lot of people make.


Chris Young 08.26.03 at 11:13 am

This said it all 17 years ago.


Tom Scudder 08.26.03 at 2:21 pm

I’m fond of Terry Pratchett’s formulation of the Very Strong Anthropic Principle: The entire universe and its whole history happened in order that I, personally, could come into being. (Which practically no one holds to officially, but everyone secretly believes).

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