Today I want to explain why the anthropic principle is a good, scientific principle.
I want to talk about this, because the anthropic principle seems to be surrounded by a lot
of misunderstanding, especially for what its relation to the multiverse is concerned.
Let me start with clarifying what we are talking about. I often hear people refer to the anthropic
principle to say that a certainty property of our universe is how it is because otherwise
we would not be here to talk about it. That’s roughly correct, but there are two ways of
interpreting this statement, which gives you a strong version of the anthropic principle,
and a weak version.
The strong version has it that our existence causes the universe to be how it is. This
is not necessarily an unscientific idea, but so-far no one has actually found a way to
make it scientifically useful. You could for example imagine that if you managed to define
well enough what a “human being” is, then you could show that the universe must contain
certain forces with certain properties and thereby explain why the laws of nature are
how they are.
However, I sincerely doubt that we will ever have a useful theory based on the strong anthropic
principle. The reason is that for such a theory to be scientific, it would need to be a better
explanation for our observations than the theories we presently have, which just assume
some fundamental forces and particles, and build up everything else from that. I find
it hard to see how a theory that starts from something as complicated as a human being
could possibly ever be more explanatory than these simple, reductionist theories we currently
use in the foundations of physics.
Let us then come to the weak version of the anthropic principle. It says that the universe
must have certain properties because otherwise our own existence would not be possible. Please
note the difference to the strong version. In the weak version of the anthropic principle,
human existence is neither necessary nor unavoidable. It is simply an observed fact that humans
exist in this universe. And this observed fact leads to constraints on the laws of nature.
These constraints can be surprisingly insightful. The best-known historical example for the
use of the weak anthropic principle is Fred Hoyle’s prediction that a certain isotope
of the chemical element carbon must have a resonance because, without that, life as we
know it would not be possible. That prediction was correct. As you can see, there is nothing
unscientific going on here. An observation gives rise to a hypothesis which makes a prediction
that is confirmed by another observation.
Another example that you often find quoted is that you can use the fact of our own existence
to tell that the cosmological constant has to be within certain bounds. If the cosmological
constant was large and negative, the universe would have collapsed long ago. If the cosmological
constant was large and positive, the universe would expand too fast for stars to form. Again,
there is nothing mysterious going on here.
You could use a similar argument to deduce that the air in my studio contains oxygen.
Because if it didn’t I wouldn’t be talking. Now, that this room contains oxygen is not
an insight you can publish in a scientific journal because it’s pretty useless. But
as the example with Fred Hoyle’s carbon resonance illustrates, anthropic arguments
can be useful.
To be fair, I should add that to the extent that anthropic arguments are being used in
physics, they do not usually draw on the existence of human life specifically. They more generally
use the existence of certain physical preconditions that are believed to be necessary for life,
such as a sufficiently complex chemistry or sufficiently large structures.
So, the anthropic principle is neither unscientific, nor is it in general useless. But then why
is the anthropic principle so controversial? It is controversial because it is often brought
up by physicists who believe that we live in a multiverse, in which our universe is
only one of infinitely many. In each of these universes, the laws of nature can be slightly
different. Some may allow for life to exist, some may not.
If you want to know more about the different versions of the multiverse, please watch my
earlier video. If you believe in the multiverse, then the anthropic principle can be reformulated
to say that the probability we find ourselves in a universe that is not hospitable to life
is zero. In the multiverse, the anthropic principle then becomes a statement about the
probability distribution over an ensemble of universes. And for multiverse people, that’s
an important quantity to calculate. So the anthropic principle smells controversial because
of this close connection to the multiverse.
However, the anthropic principle is correct regardless of whether or not you believe in
a multiverse. In fact, the anthropic principle is a rather unsurprising and pretty obvious
constraint on the properties that the laws of nature must have. The laws of nature must
be so that they allow our existence. That’s what the anthropic principle says, no more
and no less. Thanks for watching. See you next week.