Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Unique, just like everyone else

There's this idea that the creationists just love, and it's called the Strong Anthropic Principle.  The idea of the Strong Anthropic Principle is that there are a lot of seemingly arbitrary parameters in the universe, all of which appear to be underivable from other basic principles, and which are uniquely set to generate a universe in which stable matter and life can exist.  The speed of light, the strength of the strong nuclear force, the fine structure constant, the strength of gravity, the strength of the electromagnetic force -- all of them are at values which, if you tweaked them a little bit in either direction, would result in an uninhabitable universe.

The problem is, the Strong Anthropic Principle seems to breeze right past two inherent flaws in reasoning.  The first is that the fundamental constants seem underivable from first principles -- emphasis on the word seem.  In other words, the conjecture that they are arbitrary, and that their value is an example of an intelligent deity's fine tuning, rests on our current state of ignorance about physics.

The second, of course, is that it's a completely untestable proposition.  Unless you're assuming your conclusion (that a creator exists) you can't tell anything from the fundamental physical constants except that they are what they are.  After all, we only have the one universe accessible to study.  It could equally well be that other universes are just as likely as this one, and have other physical constants (and thus are uninhabitable) -- and that we can ask the question only because if the constants in this universe were other than they are, we wouldn't be here to consider it.  (This latter framing of the problem is called the "Weak Anthropic Principle," and is usually the stance taken by non-theists.)

The general weakness of the Strong Anthropic Principle hasn't stopped it from being embraced wholeheartedly by people who are trying to bolster the creationist worldview, and it's the essence of the article that appeared on Answers in Genesis a while back called "Not Just Another Star."  The whole thing, really, can be summed up as "Aren't we special?"  Here's a sampling:
While the sun has many characteristics similar to stars, the Bible never refers to it as a star. This suggests that the sun may have some unique characteristics. Could that refer to its composition? The sun’s composition is a bit unusual—it has far less lithium than most stars do. Lithium isn’t very common in stars anyway, but the sun is among the most lithium-poor stars. Though this statistic is interesting, it isn’t clear whether it is significant... 
By God’s gracious design, the earth has a protective magnetic field that prevents the sun’s flares from disrupting life. The particles racing from the sun interact with the magnetic field, which deflects most of the particles. Yet we are periodically reminded about such imminent danger when the flares overload the ability of the earth’s magnetic field to protect us. Astronauts on the Space Station must enter protected sections of the station after a solar flare. 
Not all planets have strong enough magnetic fields to protect living organisms on their surfaces. Even on planets that do, the situation would be dire if the star’s magnetic activity were far higher than the sun’s. The much more frequent and far more powerful flares probably would compromise any reasonable magnetic field that a planet would have. Because this particle radiation would be harmful to living things, even secular astronomers recognize that variable stars probably can’t support living things... 
Our sun is just a tiny yellow star in a vast collection that could support life. You’ll hear this more and more. Don’t believe it. The minimum requirement of a life-supporting star is missing from all the other stars. Our God-given sun appears to be unique.
What makes this wryly amusing that the creationists are choosing this week to post the article all over the place (it was actually written a few months ago, but I've just seen it on evangelical websites in the last week or so) -- because two days ago, a study appeared over at that suggests that not only might the Earth not be unique, we might be one of (get this) 100 million inhabitable planets in the Milky Way alone.

That, friends, is a lot of places to look for alien life.  And a pretty strong blow to anyone's impression that the Earth is The Chosen Place.  Here's what one of the paper's authors, Alberto FariĆ©n of Cornell University, had to say:
This study does not indicate that complex life exists on that many planets. We're saying that there are planetary conditions that could support it. Origin of life questions are not addressed – only the conditions to support life.  Complex life doesn't mean intelligent life – though it doesn't rule it out or even animal life – but simply that organisms larger and more complex than microbes could exist in a number of different forms.  For example, organisms that form stable food webs like those found in ecosystems on Earth.
Add that to the fact that as nice as the Earth is, even here we have a great many places that are pretty hostile to human life -- Antarctica, large parts of the Great Rift Valley, Australia's Nullarbor Plain, most of the Sahara -- not to mention 71% of the surface area of the Earth (i.e. the oceans) -- and the Strong Anthropic Principle is looking weaker and weaker.

So, yeah.  Nice try, but not so much.

It's been a continuous move out of the center for us, hasn't it?  First Copernicus knocks down geocentrism; then Kepler says that the planets don't move in perfect circles.  Darwin punches a hole in the uniqueness of Homo sapiens with The Ascent of Man, and various geneticists in the 20th century show that all life, down to the simplest, pretty much encodes information the same way.  Now, we find out that there may be 100 million places kind of like the Earth out there in space.

Some people may find that depressing, but I don't.  I actually think it's awesome.  For one thing, it would mean we're almost certainly not alone in the universe.  For another, I think that a lot of humanity's missteps have come from a false sense of superiority -- over the environment, over other species, even over other human groups.  Maybe this kind of thing is good for us; there's nothing wrong with adopting a little humility as a species, not to mention perspective.


  1. Great topic, since I've been reading the wiki for the Fermi Paradox (and all it's related topics) for the past few days.

    The more we open ourselves to the Universe, the more convoluted, finite, and midieval that book becomes.

    The more irrelevant, the more desperate. The more desperate, the more destructive... Like how a star goes supernova when it dies, before leaving a small, dense neutron star. Let's just hope their path to irrelevancy doesn't cause too much collateral damage. Sometimes it seems that such a strong obsession with the Rapture will cause people to force the issue...

    Which takes us full circle back to the Fermi Paradox.

    We'll be considered "special" in this Universe if we can prevent our own extinction.

  2. Strong Anthropic Principle, another way of saying, "We're here because we're here."
    In a loopy way, this dovetails into the Fermi Paradox, why there's been so little, if any, indication of life, let alone intelligent life, on other planets, that the factors for its evolution (hee hee) are more fine tuned than we think. Had the writer replaced "God" with "the fact that", would there be much difference? Maybe there's more to the recipe than we thought.
    At the same time I do get the point, that we should not be so smug about ourselves, that we as a species and a planet shouldn't go around bragging we're "God's Best Little Sunbeam".
    I firmly believe that God made humans from the Apes in order that we not be proud.
    It's a big universe, there's room for more than one way of thought.