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The Anthropic Principle: Too Clever by Half

22, 5, 4, 17, 8, 34, 26, 98, 33, 45, 65, 49. This is truly an astonishing string of numbers. Think about it. What are the odds that any other human being on the planet, when asked to name a dozen numbers between one and a hundred, would come up with the same numbers, and in the same order? Almost zero. Does that make the fact that I was able to come up with these dozen numbers somehow miraculous? Of course not. Anyone can come up with a list, or several lists, of twelve numbers. What would have been astonishing is if someone, when asked to predict my list, had been able to do so.

I believe that this simple observation lies at the heart of much of the misguided argument that comes to us in the name of the “anthropic principle.” This principle says that our existence in the universe depends on numerous cosmological constants and parameters whose numerical values must fall within a very narrow range of values. If even a single variable were off, it’s curtains for the human race. The likelihood of all these constants and parameters falling in our favor by mere chance is so unlikely as to be nearly zero. Therefore, we must posit a mastermind who engineered the system from the beginning.

It is true, of course, that life as we know it is only possible under the arrangement of physical laws and constants that we have. But to assume that this is miraculous is to make the mistake of thinking that my list of twelve numbers is miraculous because no one else would come up with the same list. Just as there are other lists, there are other possible arrangements of physical laws and constants. Perhaps infinitely many. And we have no reason for saying that life of some form would not be possible under at least some of those other arrangements. Maybe with other parameters, life would actually be better. The parameters that we got are not miraculous. After all, something had to happen after the Big Bang. What we got is what we got. As with my list of numbers, what would have been miraculous would have been someone’s ability to predict, at the time of the Big Bang, how all the parameters would turn out.

It is not the anthropic principle’s problems with physics and biology, however, that I wish to discuss. Others have already done a good job discussing that. For a good guide to such matters, you could do a lot worse than read Victor Stenger. It is the moral problem of the anthropic principle that I wish to discuss.

What I would like to do is propose a thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that the anthropic principle is true, and see where that takes us. I should note at the outset that this is not going to be much of a problem or concern for the deist. Such a person is content to believe that the mastermind started the ball rolling with the Big Bang, and then let nature run its course. The deist’s mastermind has no concern about how things turn out. The deist can’t prove his/her position, but since no one knows what existed before the Big Bang, no one can disprove the deist’s position either. So the deist can be happy.

The same cannot be said for the Christian who believes that the mastermind (hereafter “God”) has concern for the world he/she created, however. The very word “anthropic” means “relating to human beings or their existence.” In the United States, at least, the large majority of support for the anthropic principle comes from Christians who very much believe that God intervenes in human affairs. Yet if God engineered the universe to produce life on Earth, God does not seem to have had a very steady hand on the reins. Where was all of the consummate skill that the anthropic principle touts when it came to creating the parameters that would produce human beings as they are? Consider, for example, the parameters that have determined the human mind. The human mind is not capable of everything. Psychologists doubt, for example, that it can think of two thoughts simultaneously. Nor can the human mind have awareness of most of what lies in the brain; a very large portion of our emotional and intuitive knowledge is off limits to the conscious brain. Furthermore, few people can imagine four dimensions, and no one can imagine ten. Okay, fair enough. No one said we should be capable of everything. But if we were designed to have such limits, why not some others? Why, for example, could not the brain have evolved without the ability to imagine mass genocide? I’m sure that there are other examples that a tinkering God could have played with, but that would have been a good place to start. And it introduces the topic of suffering and evil.

We are told by those who would defend God that suffering is the result of free will (let’s grant for the sake of argument that human beings actually have free will). Without the ability to perform evil acts, human beings would not be free, their argument runs. That raises an interesting question. How about God? Can he/she perform evil acts? Most would say “no” (including Christian Scriptures: see Titus 1:2 and James 1:13), but then does God not have free will. That seems rather strange. And in that case, why is it so important for us to have it? If God doesn’t need free will, why do we? In any event, as discussed above, we already have limits on what we can will. We are now only dickering over what those limits should be. What is reasonable? Are Hitler, Stalin, and Mao really necessary? Would the inability to imagine mass genocide be a great loss to whatever free will we enjoy?

Of course, suffering began long before humans arrived on the scene. As Richard Dawkins painfully points out, some tinkering by God could have made all animals vegetarians, thereby eliminating much of their suffering. That might not keep some clumsy sheep from falling into a crevice, but at least it would keep it from falling into the mouth of a wolf. Of course, maybe God doesn’t care about the world outside of human beings. Heaven knows that there are enough religious people who think that they are the only jewels in God’s crown. Vegetarianism, however, would have been good for humans as well, or at least God could have dialed a notch or two on the parameters to have made it so.

Astronomers tell us that it is only a matter of time before a meteor large enough to do horrific damage will hit the Earth. What was God thinking? Did he/she fail to see that one coming? Why were no parameters set to avoid such a catastrophe? (It would not, of course, be the first of its kind, as the last dinosaurs could bear witness.) Is there some cosmic good we cannot understand that will come of that great suffering? That, of course, has always been one of the fallback positions of the true believers, and a second response to suffering.

I am reminded of Alyosha’s response to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan asks, “imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?’ ‘No, I would not agree,'” Alyosha said softly. And all Alyosha had to get his head around was the suffering of one creature.

The true believer will insist that we cannot know what God can know. We cannot see what God can see. We cannot plumb the depths of the unfathomable nature of God’s love. This may not be the best of all possible worlds, despite what Leibniz thought, but we are told that such a world lies in our future. That may well be, but if that is what we are relying on, then the game is up for the true believer.

Perhaps some people have an idea of a “loving” God who wipes out entire nations, children and all, just for the sake of his/her little band of Israelites. Perhaps this “loving” God would eternally torture a good person who simply never heard, or never felt compelled to believe, the notion that Jesus is the Son of God. This “love” is so far removed from anything we would think of as love, and any parallel “justice” is so far removed from the principle of the punishment fitting the crime (eternal punishment for a finite crime?), that a reasonable person would have no more to say to such people than, “Good luck to you, but there is nothing for us to talk about—any more than we could talk about colors if every time you saw the sun you said it was pink, or we could talk about objects if every time you saw a car you said it was a dog.” Conversation requires at least some agreed upon premises. If concepts such as love and justice as we understand them do not carry any weight with the God understood by those who carry the banner for the anthropic principle, then intelligent conversation about such a God is impossible. Their God’s morality does not even measure up to what we humans have managed to figure out over countless generations.

Ironically, the anthropic principle begins by asking us to see the miraculous in the past, while many of its proponents end by asking us to imagine a miraculous future precisely to make up for a past that wasn’t so wonderful. It is too much to ask. If their concept of God requires us to deny all that has evolved in the way of human morality, our understandings of love and justice, then I must say with Alyosha, “No, I would not agree.”