April 9, 2020

The Universe: Fine-Tuned, or Just Fine Without Us?

Probing the universe… or is it the other way around?

It’s a chicken and egg question that comes around every so often in cosmology.

Were we created to live in the Universe, or was the cosmos fine-tuned for us? That is, was everything we see arranged just so we had to arise?

We’re currently reading Beyond Biocentrism, a book posing this very idea, repackaged in a slightly new way. This is known as the anthropic principle, an idea that rears its ugly head every so often.

There are two flavors basic flavors of the idea: The strong anthropic principle (the universe is arranged in such a way that life must arise) and the weak anthropic principle (we exist in a universe built for us by default, or via selection bias). Either comes around to the idea that the universe and the physical perimeters that rule it are arranged in such a way that life must arise.

There are, of course, some enticing pros to the idea:

-Physical constants seem tuned so that atoms form bonds, and elements such as carbon make life possible.

-One alternative out there is the multiverse idea, though this must be tested to be viable.

Got it? OK, now here are some of the better known cons:

Looking out across the Universe, we don’t exactly see worlds teeming with life. In fact, we see a radiation-riddled void, 0.99999999999999999999…..% hospitable for life. One might better phrase the idea as the Universe is barely able to support life.

The late scifi author Douglas Adams likened this hypothesis to a mud-puddle marveling at how it seems to fit snugly with its own miniature shores.

It is true that we all occupy the few square centimeters of our very own brain pan, and it is from this perch that we make sense of the external world. You can never be quite sure how brain perception varies from one mind to the next. What color do YOU see, looking at a blue sky? There’s no guarantee, for example, that we both see the same color blue., Sure, we can both come to an agreement, saying ‘that object is blue,’ but if I were to plug into your consciousness, would I exclaim, ‘no, that’s red?’

And the kicker is, there’s no real way to disprove this (I’ll get to that in a moment). The Greeks kicked the same idea around, that the universe begins in the mind. They championed this to the extent of believing the eye somehow generated light, kind of like a particle shooting gun. (you wonder, then, how they explained why we couldn’t see very well at night).

Quantum physics and the idea of observation changing outcome has given new life to the concept, but here’s why I still don’t buy it: it isn’t falsifiable. Like many creationist tautologies, if merely fills in gaps in our current understanding with a sort of divine intervention. In any scientific field you can play the game of asking “what comes before that?” until you finally reach the limits of our current knowledge. But science is working on those answers and pushing back those boundaries, and unlike dogma, will never reach a point where we say, ‘this is the end, we now know everything.’

We arose from simpler forms, a puzzle we’ve yet to solve. And yes, for the idea of multiple universes — either parallel or running in succession like an endless double feature movie — to be valid, it also needs to be testable and falsifiable. But it sure does explain some of the weird goings on in the current iteration of reality, such as the Trump bid for the presidency….

A truly weird perception of world might exist, in the skull of the person next to you… but we all have to come to grips with the same reality.



  1. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    Where to start?

    - Selection bias is testable, since the probability distribution would cluster around a narrow range. And that was what Weinberg found already 1987. [ http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.59.2607 ] The rest is controversy.

    - “We” are brain-body systems, a lot of processing happens in the eyes et cetera on the way in and out of our brain.

    - Colors are uniquely defined by selection, as shown when dichromatic rats got genes to express functional opsins for a 3d color. They adapted as trichromatic.

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