Humankind’s Existentially Lucky Numbers


You asked me to comment on a recent New York Times article, Humankind’s Existentially Lucky Numbers , by George Johnson, an excellent science reporter and writer. It appeared on June 23, 2015.

Johnson’s article is about the Anthropic Principle, a principle of reasoning proposed by some researchers in physics and cosmology. The principle relates Nature and our existence, but it comes in several forms. I’ll assume that you and our readers read Johnson’s article before proceeding.

There is a second part to the relevant physics, which is the Fine Tuning Problem. Researchers who model the early universe, or who ask the deepest questions of nature, have found some properties of nature, say the strength of the electromagnetic field, seem to be precisely set in the sense that if even one of them were different by a tiny amount, the universe would be radically different. The universe would expand too fast or two slowly, stars would die too young or never ignite, galaxies might not form, and so on. These researchers wonder why these properties have the values they do, leading to us, and not some others.

I can give amusing examples if you wish. Researchers have different views as to which of these properties have precision effects, but the number runs from half a dozen to two dozen or more. To some the existence of these apparently precisely tuned properties points to a design and, indeed, a designer.

Thus there are several versions of the Anthropic Principle.

The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) asserts that your theory of physics or of the early Universe, or whatever, must allow for humanity to exist, or your theory is wrong. In this version the principle is not controversial.

The Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP) asserts that the laws of Nature, and the parameters of the early Universe were set so as to insure that human life would occur.

The Final Anthropic Principle (FAP) asserts that intelligent, information processing life must come into existence as some time in the Universe, and it will never die out.

Martin Gardner, the Scientific American mathematics writer referred to this last version as the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle. (As an exercise for the reader: Work out the acronym. You may use pencil or pen and paper, but no calculators.)

In my view, there is no controversy about the WAP. It is only noting that the fact of our existence is an observation for or against any particular theory.

The SAP and FAP, however, are not conclusions drawn from the data, in my opinion. Indeed, some physicists have examined the supposed fine tuning that so powerfully impresses some minds with the idea that nature’s properties have been carefully set, and they find that things are not so fine tuned.

Those religious thinkers who wish to believe that their lives have meaning given to them by some great supernatural power, who has created the universe for those purposes, find the idea that nature’s properties have been set, just for them, like Fine Tuning and the SAP. Indeed, I think that this forms the strongest evidence from nature of the existence of a creator.

The researchers who find that nature isn’t so finely tuned, and those who are finding possible mechanisms, now speculative, by which the universe might begin spontaneously, and un-caused as is the nature of quantum things, weaken the apparent strength of the modern versions of the ancient and classical Argument by Design.

To see Fine Tuning and the Anthropic Principle laid out, clearly and scientifically, there is a book by Barrow and Tipler. To see a skeptical look at fine tuning, read Victor Stenger’s book.

I have written an essay for Skeptic magazine that deals with the idea that those finely tuned parameters must have been set to bring us into existence. If I can figure out how to attach it to the blog, I’ll do it. It’s name is What Is the Ant-sir, by Bernard Like-Ant. I propose the Ant-thropic Principle. What is the Ant-sir


Filed under Physics

2 responses to “Humankind’s Existentially Lucky Numbers

  1. Dear Bernard,

    How do alpha and pi differ, fundamentally and philosophically? Why should pi be the value it is? We can easily see from simple geometry that pi has to lie between 2 and 4, but why exactly the value it is? And why should pi figure into Dirac’s constant? And how on earth (or anywhere else) could e raised to the power i*pi equal to -1? No one knows, but the mathematics all work out, and the things we build using these constants and their relationships reliably work in the real world. So, is alpha just another constant that will eventually be shown to relate mathematically to other better-known constants via some simple yet impossibly profound equation?

    It seems to me that, if we can truly see billions of years into the past by looking at just-arrived light from far away and long ago, then something has been constant, or essentially constant, for a very long time. And if enormous spaces and masses and energies have behaved or operated consistently for such long times, then some small number of constants (or perhaps an uncountably large number of constants) must exist at or near the heart of the matter, so to speak. Which, to me, says that there’s nothing comparatively special or mysterious or differentiating among alpha and pi and the other constants. They just are what they are, and what’s to discuss?

    The startlingly large ratio between the mass of a proton and the mass of an electron is I believe not so startling: the ratio of 1,835 or so is an extraordinarily tiny number all things considered. Maybe that it’s so SMALL should be the startling aspect!

    To how many digits do we know alpha so far? Do you expect that, like pi and e, it will turn out to be a transcendental?

    Does what I say and ask make any sense at all to you?



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