IS THE UNIVERSE FINE -TUNED FOR CONSCIOUSNESS?


In an episode of Closer to Truth, Robert Kuhn with his guest the physicist Lawrence Krauss, discussed the Anthropic Principle-which suggests in various ways that the Universe was somehow made for us, for intelligent conscious life to be able to exist.

Kuhn notes that a lot of philosophers and physicists (not just theologians) are into the Anthropic Principle, in that the Universe’s constants described by modern physics, such as the charge on an electron, the weight of a proton, the strengths of the four forces of nature (the weak and strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity) are of the just the right values within a precise range to allow for stars and galaxies to form, stars producing heavier elements than hydrogen, helium, and lithium, which then form large molecules, including organic ones containing carbon, which then facilitated life on earth at least, and eventually led to human beings and our self-aware consciousness.

Somehow all this immense universe and billions of years of cosmic evolution was meant, designed, intended, to produce us and consciousness. The discussion almost leans to the Universe having us in mind from the gitgo. I start to cringe at the mere suggestion of that, but lets continue on first.

Krauss counters with the observation that this is an “argument from ignorance” in that we don’t know what other physical constants might allow for a different kind of life than our own and the eventual self-awareness of some living creature. To suppose that our universe is the only way to get to self-awareness is an unfounded idea that is “the last refuge of scoundrels” according to Krauss. It does seem premature and a bit smug to suppose all roads lead to us, especially when we have an n of 1.

Krauss further notes that so often in our still young civilization, we have assumed humans to be the center, the endpoint, the purpose of all creation, and that assumed privileged position has been proven wrong before. Examples include an earth-centered universe, every culture thinking they are God’s special, chosen people, that we humans are made in a Gods image, that we are the crown of creation, etc. So maybe assuming the Universe was designed with us in mind is just as parochial and nearsighted.


In addition, he explains that the Inflationary model of the early universe leads to the existence of the multiverse, and in many of those other universes the physical constants might all be different. Therefore, it is no surprise that at least one universe (ours) has the right parameter ranges that lead to biological life, and eventually to us and consciousness. In addition, String Theory, in proposing many more dimensions than just the 4 dimensions of space and time, suggests an infinite number of universes might exist, so its even more likely one might be just right for our existence to occur. The popular physicist and science educator Michio Kaku, among others, holds this position.

At times, the whole thing seems silly to me. If this is the only universe we could find ourselves in -evolved humans with our particular self-awareness and conceptual abilities- then by definition we couldn’t find ourselves in any other…fucking, duh.
It is sort of a chicken-egg dilemma: if the constants were any different, we wouldn’t be here to talk about them. So are we then the purpose of those constants being what they are, or are we just another consequence of those constants-no more special than black holes or quasars, the immense intergalactic voids, asteroids, planets, pond scum, bacteria, or cockroaches-or any of the other unique structures we have discovered in the universe so far? Is the supposed fine-tuning really purposely meant to produce us?

I guess my mom and dad (and yours and the parents of every other human ever born) were cosmically ordained to meet and produce me, because if they hadnt – I wouldn’t be here to think about it or them, so their sole purpose must have been to produce me…
Are we just looking thru the wrong end of the telescope with this whole proposal?
As Bill Nye might say: “Carry On”

From the WIKI -Anthropic Principle:
“According to Jürgen Schmidhuber, the Anthropic Principle essentially just says that the conditional probability of finding yourself in a universe compatible with your existence is always 1.”

Well put, duh.

Also from the WIKI: “There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers’.” …
“This can be seen as simply the classic design argument restated in the garb of contemporary cosmology. It implies that the purpose of the universe is to give rise to intelligent life, with the laws of nature and their fundamental physical constants set to ensure that life as we know it emerges and evolves.”

And further: “There is not one universe but a whole infinite ensemble of universes with all possible initial conditions”. If this is granted, the Anthropic principle provides a plausible explanation for the fine tuning of our universe: the “typical” universe is not fine-tuned, but given enough universes, a small fraction will be capable of supporting intelligent life. Ours must be one of these, and so the observed fine tuning should be no cause for wonder.”

A nice summary of all the various ways to consider the Anthropic Principle is provided by “Paul Davies’s book The Goldilocks Enigma (2006) (which) reviews the current state of the fine tuning debate in detail, and concludes by enumerating the following responses to that debate:
1. The absurd universe: Our universe just happens to be the way it is.
2. The unique universe: There is a deep underlying unity in physics that necessitates the Universe being the way it is. Some Theory of everything will explain why the various features of the Universe must have exactly the values that we see.
3. The multiverse: Multiple universes exist, having all possible combinations of characteristics, and we inevitably find ourselves within a universe that allows us to exist.
4. Intelligent design: A creator designed the Universe with the purpose of supporting complexity and the emergence of intelligence.
5. The life principle: There is an underlying principle that constrains the Universe to evolve towards life and mind.
6. The self-explaining universe: A closed explanatory or causal loop: “perhaps only universes with a capacity for consciousness can exist”. This is Wheeler’s Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP).
7. The fake universe: We live inside a virtual reality simulation.

“Whoopee fucking doo” to that last one- all the world is an illusion!, OK, Groovy! Now what? If existence is just an illusion (or a simulation) it certainly is a common and consistent one for all of us to observe and theorize over-so now what? There is no evidence for illusion or simulation – supposing so just has that spooky conspiracy-thinking appeal: that a dastardly someone behind the scenes is fucking with us once again, and it changes nothing.

“Hey, you do know this is all an illusion, yes”? “Uh-huh, what’s for dinner?”

Numbers 1,2 and 3 seem most reasonable, in that they eschew the egocentricity we often bring to the party, that is never supported by the data. Down the road we’ve so often found out – it wasn’t all about us.

My questions are:
How probable IS consciousness in this universe, and how amenable to conscious life in general is the cosmos, really? Is consciousness inevitable? Has it been thus far likely or easy to achieve anywhere in this universe?

From Berkeley -Understanding Evolution :
“Given that we now know that planets are common, that many of them are found within their stars’ habitable zones, and that organic materials are common in the Universe, there ought to be many places that are suitable for life. But even under the right circumstances, we don’t yet know how likely it is for life to originate. The Anthropic Principle states that we, as living, conscious observers, must necessarily find ourselves in a place with conditions suitable for life, or else we wouldn’t be here to observe those conditions. In other words, having already won the “life lottery”, it’s unsurprising to find ourselves in possession of a winning ticket. We don’t yet know, though, how many other winners there are, how many players didn’t win, and what the odds are in the game. Scientists are endeavoring to obtain better statistics to help us answer these questions.

Another interesting question is whether intelligent life is likely to evolve once life itself has originated. Although single-celled organisms arose quite quickly on Earth, it took another 2.5 billion years for their descendants to evolve into multicellular organisms and a further billion years for advanced intelligence and the development of communication technologies to arise. With only one example to study at the moment, we don’t know if this process is inevitable or if intelligent life is rare.”

Well my own musings on the subject tend to agree with the above statement from the good folks at Berkeley, so let’s explore these a bit, shall we?


Interstellar distances between the nearest stars to our own sun in our galaxy for example, are 2-4 light years-trillions of miles. But galaxies like our Milky Way are 100,000 light-years across! Not just a light year or two. It would take you 100,000 years, traveling at the speed of light, to cross the milky Way.
Intergalactic distances are 30-300 million (not thousand) light years across! That is 2-3 orders of magnitude larger than the size of the average galaxy. There are possibly up to two trillion galaxies in the observable universe – which itself is 93 billion light years across. Most of the Universe is comprised of those intergalactic voids 10-100’s of MILLIONS of light years across…an unimaginable volume of near-vacuum expanses almost impossible to comprehend, and wholly uninhabitable to any sort of life.

Look how tiny our 100,000 light year sized galaxy is, in the image above, compared to the vastness of the intergalactic voids. And those voids makes up the overwhelming majority of our 93 billion light year sized universe. Ain’t nobody living out there. No thinking critters contemplating how the Universe was made just for them, smugly musing on just how special they are.


Our sun and earth are but 4.5 billion years old in a Universe that itself is just under 14 billion years old. It took almost 10 billion years of monotonous galactic and intergalactic expansion to arrive at a “habitable” earth. Even then, altho simple life evolved within a few hundred million years, it was the evolution of plants after more than another billion years that produced the atmospheric oxygen that allowed for the later evolution and proliferation of animals. Even then, it took most of that last 3 billion years to get to the mammals and primates and apes (we are examples of all 3)-and it took another 6 million more years of our unique evolution as a bipedal primate, with grasping human hands and an enlarging brain to develop our self-aware, theorizing consciousness. The consciousness we experience today, full of concepts and theories of everything including the Universe itself, may be but a few hundred thousand years old – not even the tiniest of a blip in cosmic time.

If we are so special and the only intelligent conscious critter, the Universe sure took its sweet time to get to us – if we were supposedly so inevitable.

And again, not only did we show up a tad late in the scheme of things, the vast majority of this supposedly Anthropic Universe is utterly inimicable to anything like conscious human life.

We cant live anywhere outside the paper thin coating of atmosphere wrapping our tiny earth like the moisture on an eyeball. We cant live in interstellar space, in any of the Universe’s incomprehensibly humongous intergalactic voids, cant exist for even the tiniest fraction of a second in a pulsar, quasar, black hole, or a run of the mill star – or on the vast majority of planets even. Almost all but a tiny, tiny, fraction of our Universe is utterly inhospitable to us. So whatever the purpose of 99.99999999…% of the Universe is, and for 99.999% of its existence, it sure wasn’t us.


And our own earth was devoid of anything like us for 99.996% of its existence as well!!!

AND even our “Spaceship”, our dear “Mother”earth is mostly out to kill us, when you really think about it. Step outside without your coat, your clothes, and wander around the woods with no fire or shelter or food, and see how long you make it. Even the best survivalist who can conjure up all they need to stay warm and fed, will toil endlessly day after day and have no protection from illness or disease-no antibiotics, no cancer treatments, no heart surgery, no vaccines, no ER’s. Mother Earth doesn’t provide any of this for us. We did that, and it took awhile.

Additionally, like 99.9% of all species that ever existed who are now all dead, we came very close to extinction ourselves, around 70,000 years ago when the genetic evidence tells us we were down to a few thousand individuals. We almost bit the big one too.

Consider also that the great, great majority of all living things ever, were not conscious in anyway like us. Our self-aware, contemplative, intelligence is a one-off. The model of the world, including the Universe and its precise physical constants, that we carry around in our heads is ours and ours alone. There is absolutely no evidence any other critter does this.
Inevitable, that the constants led to us?
We came in late, in the last 0.001% of the Universe’s existence, and almost died out long before we theorized about anything or discovered atoms, electrons, photons and the like and their properties supposedly designed with us in mind.

And human evolution itself was a long, complex series of contingent developments that each were not a slam-dunk to lead to our large contemplative and self-aware, theorizing brains. Consciousness in any critter, or the thousands of primate species that have ever lived was not at all inevitable. One ape stood up habitually and became bipedal 6 million years ago or so, but that didn’t guarantee a bigger brain and conscious intelligence. We developed nearly human hands by around 3 million years ago, but still had the brain of a chimpanzee. Procurement of marrow and meat with our uniquely evolved hands using stone tools led to brain expansion and our modern human body form, but we still had no conceptual-theorizing intelligence. After a few million years of tool-making, we began to exhibit a facility with simple spatial concepts like equality and symmetry, but we went 10’s of thousands of years more before Cave Art and hafted tools, or any sort of primitive symbolism. We were intelligent by then-doing beautiful, skilled art, and tracking animals and surviving in Ice Age conditions, but it took 10’s of thousands more years to develop modern science and the ability to contemplate an Anthropic Principle or any of the other theoretical models we use to describe our world, this universe.

None of these steps were inevitable, or preordained, or destined to produce modern man with a modern science capable of contemplating an Anthropic Principle.

We have grown in population to over 7.8 billion of us humans alive on the planet today, from that few thousand of us some millennia ago. Does that make us special? We have inhabited every corner of the globe, but so have bacteria, viruses, rats, fleas, and cockroaches.
7.8 billion is not bad for a small, fang-less, slow, not terribly strong creature, but how do we stack up vs. bacteria, or viruses, insects, or other creatures great and small?

Bacteria formed almost immediately here on earth, almost 4 billion years before us, and now inhabit regions on the planet we would immediately die in, in an instant: acidic pools, in the suffocating soil, deep in the earth, around hydrothermal vents deep in the crushing ocean, and in the guts of every living creature alive – and in one hell of a lot of dead ones!
We couldn’t survive without them, but not vice versa. They number in the 10 raised to the thirtieth power: 10 to the 30th. If we do reach around 10 billion people in the next few decades, that’s 10 x 10 to the 9th. Bacteria number 10 x 10 – 30th or a thousand billion, billion, billion, and despite their tiny size their biomass is 70 billion tons compared to our puny 60 million tons of human bodies.

It should be renamed the Bacterial Principle!

That which evolved first and grew to stupendous diversity and number is our bacterial cousins. And they can survive much more of what the Universe has to offer than we can. Viruses also can exist in just about every environment on the planet and number even more than the bacteria – 10 to 31st!

Similarly, insects evolved 300 million years before us, inhabit nearly every environment, have a biomass 100 times ours and may make up 90% of the species on earth. The cosmological parameters sure produced a lot of tiny, adaptive, and successful critters here on earth long before us and in prodigious numbers.
The purpose of the Universe’s parameters appears to be mostly vast empty voids and tiny critters.

Methinks we should re-name it the Myopic Principle…

And consider that most astro-biologists suspect, given the ubiquity of organic compounds in the cosmos, and now the staggering amount of exoplanets in our galaxy alone, that life could be quite common in this universe. Given the history of life on earth dominated by bacteria and viruses in the greatest numbers and for most of life’s slow and haphazard evolution-that if other life does exist anywhere in the cosmos, it may be just simple organisms. The evolution of animals was dependent on oxygenating our atmosphere which required plants – and prior to that, on the symbiosis of simple organisms to get to eukaryotic cells. To finally get to consciousness required that whole string of contingent developments in human evolution. Exactly how we got to our unique self-aware conceptual and theorizing cognition is a whole other story I hope to try to tell someday soon.
It may be that life is common, but our type of conscious intelligence is rare.

I think what Kuhn (and the philosophers and theologians and some scientists) are really doing are indulging in ingrained cultural perspectives and old explanations that seem to answer WHY questions for us – that there must be some underlying reason, an Anthropic Principle, or a designer, maybe a Supreme Intelligence kind of being, a God out there who planned it all, a purpose at least, or some dastardly cosmic puppet master just toying with us – that explains why we are here. That we are still somehow special from all the rest of Creation and there’s a human-like intent behind it all. A reason that appeals to us. There must be a reason, right? Yet time and time again as our scientific knowledge proceeds we discover the the Universe doesn’t give a hang about our self-centered inclinations.


Darwin and Evolutionary Theory shoved us off any pedestal we were on as being something separate from all other life, specially created, in the image of some god, endowed with a soul that the other animals lacked. We are just another evolved creature, using the same DNA, proteins, cells, etc., etc. as any other living thing on this earth. We were no longer the purpose of life, the crown of creation, we arrived late in the game and are just one of millions of life forms.

The Universe’s physical constants: the size of the 4 forces mainly, that allow molecules, gas clouds, stars, planets, and galaxies to form and with bazillions of planets, with at least one in a Goldilocks zone for liquid water, complex organics, cellular life, multicellular critters and on up to our self-aware theoretical consciousness, just don’t appear as focused on just us as some of us may like. We are a tiny one-off, arriving late in the game, yet often so sure we are where its at. How pretentious.

I swear so much of this is just an exercise in our predisposition to agency: that the cause of things must be a person-like entity with an intent, a reason why. We have such intentions so we easily ascribe intentionality to some unseen unknown uber-powerful agent to explain the workings of the cosmos or the cosmos itself. The versions of the Anthropic Principle listed above that suggest the universe, our world, is pre-ordained with purpose to culminate in us, or is just an illusion – or since the Matrix movies – a simulation, all spin on the same premise – that someone is behind all this, a hidden person-like intelligence is REALLY in control and we are unawares that we are just pawns in a universal game. A purpose to it all, or somebody, with a purpose just has to be behind it all, eh?

The history of science is replete with examples of humans at each stage, in learning about the world, finding out the world doesn’t work they way we do, such as no intention necessary nor found. Aristotle’s physics explained that the elements moved up or down because they wanted to, they yearned for their natural place. We found out subsequently that rocks and rivers don’t care where they go. An utterly indifferent to the human scale or condition curvature of spacetime explains gravity and the movement of things. They don’t want to go anywhere.

Its hard for us to let go of being the reason for things, or that the universe should operate on human principles.
Religion and theology of course exist solely to support such ideas, and the idea that somebody, some-thing like us is behind it all.
It may not be the case. The Universe itself, with or without a God behind it, may have no purpose. Us or any other.

What if option 1. the “absurd” universe is the correct one -it is the way it is for no particular reason, no intent behind it. Energy and matter as we find them in this Universe have no purpose, no intent. Only the human critter, with our particular evolved psychology, which we do know is a one-off on this planet at least, is able to contemplate its own existence and runs on purpose. We need reasons to do things beyond mere survival. We evolved intentionality rather late in the game, and exist in one tiny corner of the Universe, occupying the tiniest of branches on the tree of life. And calling that existence absurd, seems like just another unfounded human perspective as well.

Maybe bacteria and mosquitoes weren’t ordained to arrive on the scene either, and have no ultimate purpose-any more than the whispy gaseous filaments that weave thru the vast intergalactic voids that are said to be responsible for the dispersed distribution of the trillions of galaxies-which are just as “predestined” as we are.

We tend to think WE are the reason that everything is the way it is. Maybe what we see is true: that the Universe would be what it is with or without us having made it to our uniquely evolved cognition and motivations.
And the vast, vast majority of the Universe has nothing to do with us.
Get over it.

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