Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

If you listen to enough religious programming on your commute (and I do) you’ll come across the Anthropic Principle, a sort of proof of God’s existence based on the idea that the conditions necessary for the emergence of human life in the universe are so unlikely that the universe must have been designed just for us (and the designer’s name is God). For example:

The anthropic principle says that the universe appears “designed” for the sake of human life. More than a century of astronomy and physics research yields this unexpected observation: the emergence of humans and human civilization requires physical constants, laws, and properties that fall within certain narrow ranges—and this truth applies not only to the cosmos as a whole but also to the galaxy, planetary system, and planet humans occupy. To state the principle more dramatically, a preponderance of physical evidence points to humanity as the central theme of the cosmos.

There’s so, so, so very much wrong with this kind of thinking, but rather than get into the details, let me offer this counterpoint from physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson:

If you’re one of the hundred billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of the lower intestine, you might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark but idyllic anaerobic habitat of fecal matter.

Sometimes it’s all about perspective.

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9 comments to Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

  • 1
    JCF says:

    If you’re one of the hundred billion bacteria … you might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark but idyllic anaerobic habitat of fecal matter
    Actually, Rob, if you’re listening to that much Christianist radio, I would think that you might AGREE w/ the bacteria! ;-X

  • 2
    Andrew says:

    It seems to me you’re thinking of the “Fine-Tuned Universe”. The Anthropic Principle is the opposite: the universe must appear to have exactly the right, supremely improbable conditions for us to exist, because it would be impossible for us to observe a universe that didn’t appear so. Douglas Adams’ example: a puddle should not be surprised that the dip in the ground around it exactly fits its own shape.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle vs https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-tuned_Universe

  • 3
    Ryan says:

    Agreeing with Andrew; this is either abuse of the anthropic principle or something else masquerading under that name.
    Physicists occasionally make use of the anthropic principle to suggest ideas like “Maybe there are many universes with different fundamental parameters; so there is no real explanation for why our universe’s parameters are as they are, except that if they were different it couldn’t BE our universe, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” This isn’t a very satisfying theory, but if it happens to be true there isn’t much we can do about it.

  • 4
    robtish says:

    Actually, Andrew and Ryan, the term has been appropriated by religious conservative apologists who now use it as a “scientific” argument for the existence of God.

  • 5
    Ryan says:

    Yeah, that’s why I left open the idea that people are “abusing” the concept. Unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me to hear this.
    Your post still seems to wholly equate the anthropic principle with these abuses though, when in fact there’s more to it than that. If shoddy theologians are trying to appropriate the term, let’s not help them do so.

  • 6
    clayton says:

    Someone who can’t conceive of the universe as being designed for anything other than human life is illuminating the narrow boundaries of his or her thinking.  For one thing, the very idea is rather narcissistic (The universe is all about me!); for another, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, it shows a certain amount of arrogance for anyone to claim to know His purpose and plan.

  • 7
    clayton says:

    A postscript to my comment @6, above; am I alone in being reminded of the days when the Roman Catholic church branded Galileo as a heretic for suggesting that the universe was not geocentric?  The reason why a geocentric universe was theologically important was that it placed earth (and, by association, the human race) at the center of God’s creation; a heliocentric universe put us on a speck far away from the center.  When religious conservatives appropriate the term “anthropic” to claim that God designed the universe specifically for us, they are, in spirit, parroting the views of the 17th century Inquisition.

  • 8
    Shane says:

    Well, why couldn’t God have designed the human intestine for the bateria that inhabit it? Put another way, maybe the bacteria were designed instead to provide a vital function in the human body.

  • 9
    robtish says:

    Obviously, Shane — that’s the point: “where you stand depends on where you sit,” or, your beliefs rely heavily on your perspective.

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