XFiles Friday: The Ciporhtna PrincipleJanuary 11, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 4)
Yes, if you hadn’t figured it out, the Ciporhtna Principle is the Anthropic Principle, backwards. I thought it was a suitable intro to this week’s topic. Geisler and Turek make quite the fuss about the Anthropic Principle and how it allegedly proves that God exists. The trouble is, they’ve got it exactly backwards.
The term “Anthropic Principle” is one that has only been around since the early 1970’s, and has generated a fair amount of controversy and conflicting definition. But the true significance of the Anthropic Principle is this: the fact that we are here observing the cosmos means that we already know something about the characteristics of physical reality, namely, that the conditions which exist here are consistent with the fact that we exist and are able to observe the universe. That may seem like a “well, duh” kind of observation, but that’s really all there is to the Anthropic Principle. At any given point in the history of science, man may not know the correct value for any number of universal constants, but the fact that we’re here studying those constants is enough to tell us that when we do find them, we’re going to find that they’re consistent with our existence.
It all boils down to the core principle of all science: truth is consistent with itself. If we existed and discovered that the physical constants of the universe made our existence impossible, that would be a contradiction. We know that truth is self-consistent, and therefore we know that the constants of physical reality, and other conditions, are going to be the kind of constants and conditions that allow for us to exist. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. So we can expect that the constants of the universe will prove to fall within some range that is conducive to human evolution–it’s a known factor, because we’ve already observed that we do exist.
The thing is, these physical conditions cause us to exist. We are the result of physical processes operating under the constraints of physical laws. It’s like Douglas Adams’s mud puddle: the shape of the puddle is determined by the shape of the cavity in which it pools. Suppose the puddle could think, and said to itself, “My, isn’t it remarkable that this cavity is exactly the same shape as I am! Some intelligent designer must have known what shape I was going to be, and carved this cavity into exactly my shape, in order to produce such a perfect fit!” We’d laugh at the simple, ego-centric naïveté of such a superstitious conclusion, but that’s pretty much the argument Geisler and Turek are appealing to. Man is perfectly adapted to his environment, and such a perfect fit could only come about if an Intelligent Designer specifically crafted it to suit Man.
Anthropic Constant 1: Oxygen Level—On earth, oxygen comprises 21 percent of the atmosphere. That precise figure is an anthropic constant that makes life on earth possible. If oxygen were 25 percent, fires would erupt spontaneously; if it were 15 percent, human beings would suffocate.
Geisler and Turek have cause and effect mixed up. The reason humans are adapted to an atmosphere with 21 percent oxygen is because human life evolved under conditions where oxygen makes up about that percentage of the atmosphere. Geisler and Turek, however, think that oxygen concentration is determined by some kind of constraint that requires the atmosphere to conform to the needs of modern humans. “Isn’t it marvelous,” they say, “how perfectly our location has been carved out to fit exactly our shape.” Well, no, it’s exactly what you would expect from a mechanism like evolution that favors variations that are better adapted to their environment. We are best suited to an atmosphere with 21% oxygen because that’s the atmosphere that was there when we evolved, and we were adapted to it.
Geisler and Turek’s argument here is silly on a number of levels. Current research indicates that in prehistoric times, oxygen was actually quite a bit lower than 15% (in fact, probably 0.1% or less). The emergence of life was likely the dominant factor in changing the balance of oxygen in the atmosphere, so in a practical sense there’s not much chance the end result would turn out much different than it did. Oxygen levels are both the prerequisite for, and the by-product of, modern biological processes; after a couple billion years, the process has more or less stabilized and the figure we have now represents an equilibrium level. It’s not at all surprising that life, evolving under those conditions, would end up matching the available oxygen levels.
Secondly, suppose for some reason the oxygen level were 25%. Would everything really burst into spontaneous combustion? Remember, early life arose in the sea, where combustion is not really a problem, even if atmospheric oxygen were twice as high. So what would burn? As life emerged from the seas into the oxygen-rich atmosphere, it would need to adapt to those oxygen levels in order to survive. Spontaneous combustion is not a viable evolutionary strategy in most cases, so odds are that plants would evolve in ways that made them more resistant to catching fire. Anything that spontaneously combusted would quickly go extinct, leaving the less-flammable alternatives freer to compete for the remaining resources.
Lastly, by the way, the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere is not a constant. Did I forget to mention that? It’s a variable that currently has a fairly stable value, but it hasn’t always been what it is now, and there’s no guarantee it won’t change in the future.
Anthropic Constant 2: Atmospheric Transparency—…The degree of transparency of the atmosphere is an anthropic constant. If the atmosphere were less transparent, not enough solar radiation would reach the earth’s surface. If it were more transparent, we would be bombarded with far too much solar radiation down here.
I’m not entirely sure how Geisler and Turek think the atmosphere could become more transparent. Less cloudy, perhaps? Ever been sunburned on an overcast day? Regardless, this is another case of Geisler and Turek reversing cause and effect. We already knew that we were going to find that the earth’s surface was receiving enough solar radiation to support human life in a viable ecosystem. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. But again, Geisler and Turek’s argument is that our existence somehow caused the atmosphere to acquire the “correct” amount of transparency to support human life. God supposedly knew how much sun we were going to need, and tweaked the atmosphere until it had just the right amount of transparency to support us.
The only trouble is, if you look back at the earth’s geological and meteorological history, it’s difficult to see where God ever did anything to make things turn out any differently than they would have just via the ordinary operation of natural physical laws and processes. As with all superstitious attributions, Geisler and Turek want to give God the credit for “fine-tuning” the earth’s atmosphere to some predetermined value, but they can’t really show any actual connection between any action of God’s and the atmospheric transparency we see today. They can’t even describe what such a connection would consist of, beyond a magical “poof, air is now transparent.” Geisler and Turek’s “proof” of God is simply and literally the opposite of science.
Anthropic Constant 3: Moon-Earth Gravitational Interaction—…If the interaction were greater than it currently is, tidal effects on the oceans, atmosphere, and rotational period would be too severe. If it were less, orbital changes would cause climatic instabilities. In either event life on earth would be impossible.
Again, Geisler and Turek aren’t too clear about what, exactly, they’re talking about. Do they mean if the moon were a different distance from the earth? Do they mean if the acceleration of gravity were any stronger/weaker than it is now? They don’t really say, just a wave of the hand and the claim that “life would be impossible.” Then quick! a distracting re-telling of the Apollo 13 drama (a main feature of this chapter, btw—get the reader all emotional over the plight of the Apollo 13 crew, then toss in a claim or two before quickly returning to Apollo 13 before the reader has a chance to think).
Well, let’s summarize their remaining “constants”: the carbon dioxide level (another non-constant, biologically-influenced variable, just like oxygen), and the acceleration of gravity.
If the gravitational force were altered by 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000001 percent, our sun would not exist, and therefore neither were we.
Right, and the reason it’s called a gravitational constant is precisely because you can’t alter it by that much, nor by any smaller non-zero amount. It’s a constant. Things that can be altered are called variables. Gravity, one of those constants that has been around for all of time, was not caused, because there was no time prior to the existence of the physical universe in which anything could have happened to cause it. It’s silly, therefore, for Geisler and Turek to act like the gravitational constant was somehow deliberately tuned, as though there was some point in time when gravity either did not exist or did not have its present value.
But even if gravity could some how be “caused” (in the absence of any time in which to cause it), Geisler and Turek are still getting cause and effect backwards. It is the physical universe, and its constants and laws and conditions, which cause us to exist and observe the cosmos; it is not our existence which causes the universe to have the constants and laws and conditions we require.
When used as an Intelligent Design argument, the Anthropic Principle (or at least a distorted version of the Anthropic Principle) becomes superstitious nonsense: a nonsensical attempt to define a cause where no causes are possible, and an attempt to superstitiously ascribe modern conditions to those purported causes, in the complete absence of any way to show any real connection between the alleged “cause” and the observed effects.
Indeed, the hallmark of modern ID theory is not only the inability to describe what such a connection would look like, but the deliberate and stubborn refusal to even try to come up with such a description. Geisler and Turek’s anthropic argument is nothing less, and nothing more, than a bald-faced appeal to naive superstition. They cannot describe how the universe was allegedly “fine-tuned,” and they don’t even try to show how the cosmos would be different in the absence of divine intervention.
There’s no point in saying “IF things were different, we wouldn’t be here” unless you can show that things would have been different without God. That would be the meat of Geisler and Turek’s argument, if they could do it. But just like the atheists, they know it would be pointless to try. Hence the need for an Apollo 13 story to keep the reader amused, distracted, and above all spectating rather than thinking. The physical laws of the universe are what they are, and they’ve made us what we are, and there has never been any point in time when any outside factor could have changed their value to something different.
PS — It’s interesting that Geisler and Turek list (as point #4 on page 105) the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere as being a value critical to human survival.
If water vapor levels in the atmosphere were greater than they are now, a runaway greenhouse effect would cause the temperatures to rise too high for human life.
Global warming means higher temperatures; higher temperatures mean more evaporation; more evaporation means higher levels of water vapor in the atmosphere. You’d think conservative Christian apologists like Geisler and Turek would be a bit more concerned about global warming, under the circumstances, wouldn’t you? Alas, for them the water vapor level is an “anthropic constant,” so they’re not likely to believe it even can change. Apologetics is an area that does have the potential to have a (possibly lethal) impact on real life.