Micah Redding — humanity, technology & the future

Miracles and the Anthropic Principle

The fine tuning in the universe

The universe appears to have been fine-tuned for life.

It's astonishing, really. The physical constants (like the strength of gravity or the number of spatial dimensions) seem to have really improbable values, and those values just happen to be precisely the ones which allow creatures like us to exist.

The Anthropic Principle states that this is to be expected - after all, if the universe weren't fine-tuned for life, then we wouldn't be here to observe it.

Of course, that's not an explanation, just a statement. It doesn't tell us how the universe came to be fine-tuned, just that we should expect it to be. Since we are here observing the past, we should expect to see the past "conspiring" to bring us to this point.

So let's take this idea a little farther. If the human race is fragile (as it seems to be), then we should expect to see many close calls in our history. But for all of those close calls, we should also expect to see improbably heroic escapes. After all, if we didn't heroically escape, we wouldn't be here. 1

This idea has some consequences.

For one, we should expect to see greater numbers of these improbable events clustered around turning points in history. The more significant (dangerous) the turning point is, the more we should expect to see improbable events cluster around it.

In fact, we might even be able to use improbable events as a way of pinpointing otherwise unnoticed "close calls" for humanity. Similarly, we could use extremely unlikely physical constants to identify previously unknown requirements for life.

Further, as human life becomes more robust and resistant to danger, we should expect to see the occurrence of these improbable events drop dramatically. Not only would improbable events decrease over time, but looking back, we should see a "heroic age" in which many improbable things happened.

Let's make this concrete.

Let's suppose that Moses crossed the Red Sea just like Exodus describes. According to the text, Moses and the Israelites were fleeing from the Egyptians, and then found themselves trapped between the armies of Egypt and the sea. There was no way out.

That's when a strong wind began to blow. It blew all night, beating back the water, opening up a pathway for them to cross on dry ground. They crossed the sea, escaped the Egyptians, and survived.

Many people have proposed theories about how this could have happened naturally, and in fact, there is nothing in this account that violates the laws of physics. But for it to have happened at precisely that crucial moment in Israelite history is staggeringly improbable.

Unless it had to. If the survival of the Israelite people was crucial to human survival and existence today, then no matter how improbable that event was, it is exactly the kind of thing we should expect to see.

Later on, when the Israelite people became more established, we would expect to see fewer such events. And at whatever point their national existence stopped being crucial to human survival, those events would stop.

Please note that I'm not saying this is the case. I don't have any way to establish this kind of connection between human survival and ancient Israel. And I'm not a textual expert - I can't speak to whether this account records a historic event or not.

But if we were pretty certain that something like this happened, then it would be good evidence that this moment in history was crucial to the survival of humanity as a whole. And conversely, if we were pretty sure that the Israelites were instrumental in the survival of humanity as a whole, then we would have good reason to suspect that these sorts of accounts were more than mythology.

We can apply this to any culture or miraculous claim. Just as with the Anthropic Principle, we have no answer as to how these things might happen. All we have is a suggestion of where to look, and of how to interpret what we find. 2



  1. Of course, an alternative is that we never experience close calls at all. I'm not sure how to measure the probability of never experiencing a close call, so I'll leave that thought experiment up to you. 

  2. In the end, miracle stories could hold a truly practical value. By highlighting close calls in our history, they could alert us to dangers we might otherwise never have noticed, and looming threats that we may still have to face. 

Lincoln Cannon:

Interesting thoughts. No matter how improbable, historic events (like cosmological events) must add up to precisely the world we now observe. Sherlock Holmes also had something to say about this. I hadn't connected him with a generalized application of the anthropic principle until now.

Jonathan:

I think the next question is, can we learn from this or make predictions from this? I know some Latter-day Saints use this type of reasoning to predict that the USA, once crucially important to the foundation and survival of the LDS Church, will cease to be protected by God when it no longer supports the LDS Church--which we imagine is necessary for the passage of humanity to post-humanity. I'm trying to think of testable predictions or moral implications for our behavior of this kind of thinking. Thought provoking post. Thanks.

micah:

Strictly speaking, the Anthropic Principle doesn't tell us much about the future. If our entire history was a series of close calls, we should expect that probabilistically, we are about to be wiped out. However, if we combine this with the Many Worlds Interpretation, as I did in the discussion about [quantum immortality](http://micahredding.com/blog/2011/09/01/how-believe-immortality), then we could postulate some interesting future effects. We would have to establish that a particular group or event was somehow necessary for the survival of humanity, and then look for improbabilities surrounding it. I should point out that I expect the occurrence of these types of effects would decrease dramatically over time, or perhaps only emerge at crisis points in human history.

Lincoln Cannon:

... reminds me of the idea that we'd expect the LHC to malfunction repeatedly if both many-worlds and black-hole-risk are true.

Jonathan:

What is the LHC?

micah:

The [Large Hadron Collider](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider). Interestingly, these types of scenarios should be easiest to spot. In the present, we would expect to only see "miraculous escapes" from massive and immediate threats to human existence. Looking at the past, we would expect to see a large number of "miraculous escapes" of various sorts, including escapes from more long-term risks.

micah:

A consequence of this discussion is that religions might best be understood as hypotheses about what is truly important to human survival. The Jewish religion could be understood as the hypothesis that morality (as promoted via monotheism) is of fundamental importance to human survival. Christianity might be understood as the hypothesis that belief in resurrection is crucial to escaping the cycle of violence (and the destruction of the human race). This actually fits nicely with the normal religious understanding of miracles as "signs", pointing to deeper facts about reality than people normally see.

Lincoln Cannon:

I like that, Micah, perhaps refocused slightly to hypotheses for human flourishing or empowerment -- posthumanity. We will more than survival.

Jonathan:

This makes a lot of sense.