The Anthropomorphic Argument for a “higher power”

I met a guy last night who made this argument: it’s been calculated that if, for example, the strength of gravity were a teensy bit greater or smaller, our universe with stars and planets, and life, could not exist; and similarly for twenty-odd other parameters in physics; so, in sum, our existence defies astronomical odds against it. Therefore some “higher power” must have manipulated all these parameters, intentionally, to produce a life-friendly universe.

This has been called the “anthropomorphic argument.” It’s been around for a long time. It’s nonsense. Here’s why:

When I was conceived in 1947, the odds that, 62 years later, I would be sitting in this particular chair, writing these particular words, would have been practically infinity-to-one. Exceedingly improbable. Yet here I am — so calling this outcome “improbable” is meaningless. And for exactly the same reason, because the Universe is the way it is, to talk about its being in any sense improbable is meaningless too.

Further: let’s suppose it were possible for the Universe to have been born with a slightly different gravity strength, etc., in which case life could not occur. That possibility might make it seem plausible to talk about improbability in connection with our existence — IF our universe were the only one. But why assume that the birth of our universe was a unique, one-off occurrence? Nature never works that way. All natural phenomena recur. If a big bang happened once, it’s a reasonable bet that it happened other times — zillions of times, given the vastness (if not infinitude) of time and space.

This idea that ours is only one universe of many can’t be proven, of course, but because of its obvious logicality it has actually been the subject of a lot of scientific thought. (And in fact, it turns out to be remarkably consistent with what we do understand about the cosmos.)

This is another answer to the anthropomorphic argument. If lots of varying universes occur, then even if the odds against one particular variant are great, it should exist. Out of a million lottery tickets, it’s no surprise that one has the one-in-a-million number. And it’s likewise unsurprising that we could have drawn that lucky number — the one-in-a-million universe — because only in that universe could there be people thinking about this.

While the Universe’s big bang origin is well-founded, science cannot really explain the big bang’s origin — yet. But we’re on our way. Today’s understanding is vastly greater than a century ago. Certainly there is a naturalistic explanation capable of being understood. We used to explain a lot of things in mystical, supernatural terms, but in every case where the truth emerged, the supernatural idea proved wrong. No different outcome should be expected for any remaining questions.

The cosmos can do everything it does by the operation of natural laws, with no “higher power” needed. The reality that I experience is, indeed, completely consistent with the absence of any “higher power” and completely inconsistent with its presence. In the face of this, only through torturous casuistry can religion be sustained.

I admit that I can’t answer the ultimate question — why is there something and not nothing? But neither can any religion. “God did it” is an answer satisfactory only to those who can avoid asking where God came from. Are arguments like this — and the anthropomorphic argument — the best that “higher power” advocates can do?

9 Responses to “The Anthropomorphic Argument for a “higher power””

  1. Anonymous Says:

    She’s So Fine…

    Well, I am the guy to whom Frank Robinson spoke at the recent Atheists’ Meet-Up at Java’s. We did have an interesting discussion, but based on Frank’s description of it here, I fear I failed to make myself clear at times. I am thankful to know there was not, and never will be, any intentional misrepresentation of my thoughts amongst this open minded and rational group.

    What Frank’s piece calls the “Anthropomorphic Argument” is actually the “Anthropic Principle.” But more important than its name is its thrust: it is a line of reasoning often used by atheists, against my argument. My argument on this point is called the “Fine Tuning” argument.

    [FSR: These terms have been used interchangeably, I think]

    We will return to the anthropic principle presently – but first a glance at its antipode and progenitor, fine tuning.

    The fine tuning argument makes use of the fact that a number of physical constants upon which the development of our universe has depended are, and must be, each within so small a range that the odds of the evolution of the universe occurring by chance are beyond prohibitive. Thus, the argument goes, it is much more likely that some higher power (a God, if you like) set those parameters in such a way (i.e. within the very small allowable ranges) so as to allow our universe to evolve as it is evolving.

    {FSR: But there is no theory whatsoever to explain why such a thing might have occurred. Where did that “higher power” come from?}

    Let me note now that I do not share the view of creationists, who see a special plan for our species, and/or our location (spatial/temporal) in the universe.

    There are plenty of web sites discussing these ideas, but as a brief introduction, 4 of the fine tuned constants are the 4 fundamental forces of nature: gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force. What a coincidence that Ken Watson mentioned those 4 forces in his description of how he, with just a penny, outwitted the poor bible-thumper who recently interrupted his coffee, to which this responds! In any event, a very tiny increase in the strong nuclear force, for example, would result in all matter being reduced to the density of atomic nuclei, which would make for, among other things, very bad coffee.

    But back to Frank, who next draws an analogy between the truly infinitesimal odds of the universe having developed as it has, if only chance were at work, and those of him being in his chair writing down his thoughts. It is hard to understand the scale of odds against the existence of this universe by chance – for those familiar with scientific notation, consider the fact that estimates range to 10 to the 130th power, and beyond. Whatever the odds of Frank writing whatever he might write, they do not approach these numbers. Recall this truth: if a monkey banged away on a typewriter for long enough, all of Shakespeare’s works would be reproduced, exactly.

    [FSR: the odds are close to infinite in any of these cases — the Universe, my writing, the monkeys. “Long enough” for the monkey means infinite time. It is implicit in the definition of infinity that the works of Shakespeare would be produced.]

    But more importantly, and without intending any disrespect to Frank (I for one do intend to buy his new book), whatever the odds are that Frank might or might not write some particular thing, the existence of our universe does not depend on those odds.

    Acknowledging another of the ‘coincidences’ that has lead to our reality, the early rate of the expansion of the universe, pre-eminent theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics Stephen Hawking has said:

    “We know that there has to have been a very close balance between the competing effect of explosive expansion and gravitational contraction which, at the very earliest epoch about which we can even pretend to speak (called the Planck time, 10-43 sec. after the big bang), would have corresponded to the incredible degree of accuracy represented by a deviation in their ratio from unity by only one part in 10 to the sixtieth power.” (Emphasis added).

    Professor Hawking’s blazing intellect certainly does understand what those sorts of numbers mean. He also understands full well what another 70 ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE above and beyond that (which, as noted above, would be required if fine tuning were to have happened by chance), mean. It means that, for all intents and purposes, it can’t have happened.

    It is generally at this point that atheists who reach this level of analysis, such as Richard Dawkins, realize that if their leap of faith (atheism is a huge leap of faith) is to find any landing place at all, their arguments must change. So they trot out the Anthropic Principle, which can be illustrated thusly: “OK – we admit it is, for all intents and purposes, statistically impossible for the universe to have evolved as it has, unless…unless, of course, – there are lots and lots of universes. Say, for example, there were, let’s just say, I don’t know … 10 to the 140th universes. Then it wouldn’t be so unlikely that one of them has these special properties, would it? And we are here to see it because only in such a universe could intelligent life (hence the ‘anthropic’ term) have evolved.

    Professor Hawking on the anthropic principle:

    “Must we turn to the anthropic principle for an explanation? Was it all just a lucky chance? That would seem a counsel of despair, a negation of all our hopes of understanding the underlying order of the universe.”

    Above I indicated a point at which mine parts company from the creationists’ argument. It is here where I part company from Professor Hawking. It is not, you will be glad to know, on a substantive scientific point. Rather, it is on a point of view.

    I used to be an atheist, and was comfortable with that world view. Now, in light of the argument sketched here (and of others I will be happy to share), the evidence is leading me to the opposite conclusion. But this does not cause me to despair. If there is a Master Fine Tuner, (an Uberphysicist, a Higher Power or a God), so be it. If there exist an infinitude of universes, an explanation of that fact (along with many others) is so far beyond our capacity to even imagine, much less describe, that it lies within the province of the divine. I am OK with that, too.

    [FSR: I see no problem in the idea that the number of universes is infinite. To the contrary, if the big bang was a natural phenomenon — which is a very reasonable assumption — then, as I stated, it is reasonable to assume other big bangs happened, creating other universes. And if you accept that, there would no reason to assume some limit on the number of universes; no reason to assume a limit on the space or time available for their banging. And if there is an infinite number of universes, there would be one exactly identical to ours except that my middle name would be Bloobie. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t know what infinity means. But, actually, we don’t need to have an infinite number of universes to get one exactly like our own. Our universe has a finite number of particles; and multiple-universe theorizers have calculated a finite — though VERY large — number representing the distance one should have to go before encountering another universe that exactly replicates the arrangement of particles in our own. In short: our universe is unlikely but not, of course impossible; and it’s again no surprise whatsoever that creatures like us would emerge in the rare universe capable of having them. If our universe had been one of the vastly more common type that could not engender life, we would not be having this discussion.
    I would far rather believe the foregoing, which is thoroughly naturalistic and consistent with scientific understanding, than posit some need for a “higher power” with intentionality, which is a concept totally outside rationality and science. It simply is unnecessary. In the last analysis (my view) one can believe that only because one really really wants to believe it. ]

  2. Hank Fox Says:

    I couldn’t get through that whole thing. I really lost interest (and started just skimming) in the fourth paragraph, when the writer said “… the odds of the evolution of the universe occurring by chance …”

    Argh. Yet another blithe use of the word “evolution.” Godders and the people confused by their rhetoric frequently seem to think that evolution addresses the origin of the universe, when in fact the technical meaning of the word applies only in biology. Any other use is colloquial, and is impossible to take seriously as the basis of a sound argument.

    For me, the fine-tuning argument fails early on, when the person advancing the thing can’t figure out that if things were different, we wouldn’t be here talking about it. There’s a subjective element to it so large that it overshadows all other arguments: We’re here talking about it BECAUSE things are as they are. To then argue that things are as they are for whatever reason-of-the-day, based on our supposedly improbable existence, is fruitlessly circular.

    “Recall this truth: if a monkey banged away on a typewriter for long enough, all of Shakespeare’s works would be reproduced, exactly.”

    Actually, that is a strictly rhetorical toy of an idea, and is probably no more worth using to make a serious point than Zeno’s Paradox.

    Finally, combine “atheism is a huge leap of faith” with “I used to be an atheist” and the guy sounds like just another brainless asshole who thinks that just because he’s smart enough to write something down, it must be true. Or more charitably, he grew up in a godder society that kept him from thinking about things in any sort of independent way. He may think he’s free from religion, but it has in fact made him incapable of thinking very deeply outside its paradigm (like those people who can’t imagine why atheists don’t rape and kill people every day, as they themselves presumable would if they didn’t have the Holy Stalker constantly spying on them).

    Frank, I agree with your infinite universes idea, although I’ve always shied away from anything more complex than just assuming that, in an infinite TIME, the particles and laws of each succeeding universe would have an opportunity to combine in all the necessary ways to eventually make life possible.

  3. Kevin Smith Says:

    I was enjoying reading this exchange until I got to the sentence where H. Fox states that Anonymous “… sounds like just another brainless asshole…”.
    Please Sir, leave the vicious personal attacks to the right wing zealots and bigots, as it adds nothing to your argument and substantially detracts from it.

  4. Hittman Says:

    People have a very poor understanding of odds and probabilities, and this is a fine example.

    The odds of your father and mother conceiving you, instead of someone else, are about forty million to one, and that’s not even calculating the odds of them meeting each other or having sex on that particular night. But the odds against either of them being born are also forty million to one. Do the math back for a few generations and the odds of you ever existing are higher than the fundamental particles in the universe.

    And yet, here you are.

  5. bruce Says:

    Random chance means that the possibility exists… for either side. It only takes one chance for a god or a universe. To my small brain, even this supposition is incomplete.

    But where do we see the existence of a highly complex thing such as a god? You can pray until you are blue in the face, get together in large groups and pray until you are all blue in the face, even invoke the assistence of a computer to pray until it gets locked up from malfunction. Yet, your odds of getting what you prayed for are still the same as random chance. Where is the complex object changing the odds?

    I know, you got a busy signal from god. But he knows your call is important to you, so if you will just stay on hold long enough, he will get back to you and believe in the worth of your request.

  6. right wing zealot Says:

    I know the odds of anyone with any God fearing sense, or anyone at all for that matter, of reading this are so small, it’s almost not worth my time.

    So some have been juggling the notion of multiple universes – many for more brilliant than I. Now, what make a universe? Eh????? UNIVERSE! I think that covers it. How many can you have of everything? Let’s see? Hmm? Oh, I got it. Everything is EVERYTHING! No more, no less. Get it?

    OK, so some have a brilliant intellect, education, or intuition which leads them to a belief (not to be confused with faith) that they can actually scientifically figure out our existence all by themselves. So, aren’t these folks in the religious sense setting themselves up as prophets? Too smart to pray, I’d venture, is beyond my capacity to intellectualize, consider, or understand.

    But, what about those astronomical odds these folks are talking about? How about on the biological atomic chemical level? Let’s see, what are the odds of the formation of life sustaining amino acid chains, creating viable self replicating proteins? Oh yeah, that’s simple too, and all those God fearing Christian mathematicians, chemists, and biologists are just a bunch of boobs..

    Well I think that maybe I should stick to praying for these lost souls, I know it’s pointless, but I have nothing to fear if I’m wrong.

  7. Lucien Khan Says:

    Your argument only uses logic where it serves your purpose.

    Let’s say you are right. And logically there are infinite recurrences of the big bang. On an infinite scale with fixed forces (physical laws) then our exact universe must eventually repeat. And on an infinite scale not only must it repeat once, but it must repeat infinitely. That means our universe is not lucky or random chance but it is inevitable.

    Take a deck of cards, fixed number 52, throw this deck up into the air. When the cards land their pattern can be considered random. This is the basis of your argument. We cannot say that that pattern was destiny. It seems random.

    If you sat there throwing the cards up for a million years you might never get the same pattern. Right? But, if you sat there for all eternity then eventually the exact same pattern but recur. That’s because the forces are fixed. Like I say, on an infinite or eternal scale, not only must that pattern repeat, but it must repeat for all eternity.

    This is in fact the case with our universe. We have a fixed amount of energy. This energy can take seemingly infinite paths, creating multi-verses. But eventually our universe must recur for all eternity. we have ETERNAL life.

    As for your hypothesis about sitting at your desk saying these exact words 62 years later. Time is only an illusion. You were always sitting at your desk at that time and you will be for all eternity. You are part of the ETERNAL universe. And some time in the distant future (I hope for your sake) you are already dead. And yet here you are. Still alive in your space and time for all ETERNITY.

    Where did God come from? God is the energy that created the universe. E=MC2. So we are a reflection of God or image of God because we are made from the energy that is God. All mass (the entire universe is God).

    E=MC2. The universe is this equation or balance. Energy creates mass at the uniform speed of light. The mass is equal to the energy. Balance. Energy = mass. Spirit = flesh. Higgs Boson confirms that energy can create mass.

    Why did God create the universe? Firstly there is no start. The universe is ETERNAL. God creates us, but we are God. I think religion says man was made to have a relationship with God. This is that relationship. God cannot exist without us. We cannot exist without God. Energy and mass are the same thing and exist in a cycle (equation) for all eternity.

  8. Evan Says:

    My concept of God goes far beyond anything that is written by us lowly beings. I think of God in terms where this entire universe is just a part of God. There are some little clues emerging that give this support. I am a scientist and have been since I was very young. The writings in our holy books are largely apocrypha because that is the best we can do. Some of the things that we are finding now are what in my mind support the concept of a God. One is the entanglement property in quantum mechanics. It allows for connected actions to occur across this entire universe with zero time limitation. A connection across time with no time limit. That is extremely God like. I think in terms of the actual universe itself as a sentient entity. Actually, just a small part of a sentient entity, perhaps more at the level of this universe being a thought in God’s mind. We are just too limited in how we are usually able to conceive of a truly higher power. It is infinitely higher in power and scope. The natural properties of this universe are themselves an actual part of God and the properties that we are now finally just barely understanding in areas such as quantum mechanics are a hint that the entity exists.

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks for your comment but … you know this how?

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