Paul Davies enumerates all possible explanations of the fine tuning debate (Anthropic Principle)

Apparently the physical constants of our universe are precisely calibrated so as to make life possible: it’s spooky. The Anthropic Principle resolves that: it says that observers can only exist in universes that can create observers. From there, Paul Davies in The Goldilocks Enigma outlines 7 possible characterizations of our universe.

My comments:
#1 might be called The Absurdly Coincidental Universe.

Wiki mentions Lee Smolin’s model of cosmological natural selection, which seems like an offshoot of #3, the multiverse.

4a. The universe could have been created by a committee, an organization or a team.

5a. Consciousness is ubiquitous, what is rarer is consciousnesses that can effectively communicate with humans. For example consciousness may be part of rocks, trees, stars, furniture, digestive tracts, whatever. So most parameter sets are likely to create observers.

5b. Ok, ok, consciousness isn’t ubiquitous, but it is embedded in objects where we wouldn’t expect it. So it can be supported in many universes: we simply don’t understand it well enough at present. [1]

#6: I don’t understand that.

#7 shares some similarities with #4. We could live in the Creator’s fake universe: for example He may live in a meaningfully 23 dimensional one.

There is also #8: your premise is fundamentally confused.

This really isn’t my area. How coincidental are these fundamental constants, on their face? Is this a case of a single narrow range, or lots of narrow ranges? How small do the odds appear to be? I suspect somebody here can rule out #1 and #8.

A fake universe is a real possibility. Some argue that computer power will keep advancing until we can simulate fully immersible worlds in a computer. And if that’s the case, there will be many simulations and the odds of this reality being the original one becomes vanishingly small. We discussed this on the board a few years ago: it’s the Matrix scenario. The main critique is that our current universe has too high a resolution to be virtual. But if the master universe has many dimensions, then our 3+1 universe is pretty simple, as per #4, Creationism.

I can’t rule out #2, The Theory of Everything, but it has the feel of conjecture at present. Further research is necessary. Perhaps somebody can defend it here, as well as variants of #5 that do not imply easily generated consciousnesses. Others might explain #6. What remains are #3 and #4, my preferred choices.

Side question regarding the Anthropic Principle: can dogs observe the universe? I think the answer is no in this context, as the Anthropic Principle involves the capability of observing these fundamental physical constants and wondering about them.
[1] Though we can define it! “Consciousness are thought processes that we are aware of”, or more generally consciousness is self-aware thought processes, in the broad sense. h/t Der Trihs.

5c. There is an underlying principle that constrains the universe to evolve towards complex chemistry and mind. Eventually.

It is also potentially an offshoot of #5. One speculation is that there may be some highly advanced technology, a say power source or space drive that as a side effect causes an increase in the amount of baby universes that bud off from the parent universe. If that’s so (and it is pure speculation let me reiterate) then that would create evolutionary pressure for more and more universes that produce intelligent technological life.


I’ve always been fond of Doug Adams take on it, here quoted by Richard Dawkins eulogizing the great writer:

The we we are fits the hole of the universe we are in staggeringly well. Amazing that.

As far as consciousness goes, well that is a whole nutter butter. I am personally partial to the idea of Strange Loops in which consciousness emerges from multiply embedded sets of self-referential patterns of information. Consciousness so defined may be more complex or less complex than our own and in both cases be unrecognizable by us. Could such patterns exist in a universe made out of something other than matter (or antimatter) as we know it? I don’t see why not. Could such a pattern exist in the universe as a whole on some vast time scale? Sure … could. Doesn’t mean it does. And how would we test such an idea?

I quoted your definition of consciousness from memory, and added a generalized interpretation of it. (I see I also made a grammatical error, to wit, “Consciousness is thought processes that we are aware of.”) You may have said also something like, “Of course we know how to define consciousness…”, IIRC.

If we had a working model of consciousness, we might have a decent idea of its predeterminates. One reasonable hypothesis is that consciousness in practice has to be either created artificially or evolve organically (and over a long time scale). But until we have a working understanding of the phenomenon, we can’t even say that. So we can’t rule out consciousness in rocks, trees, stellar systems, lunch meat, social networks, etc.

  1. Is unprovable.
  2. doesn’t seem to explain anything – it just pushes the question one further out. Why does the universe have a Theory of Everything that results in the universe being the way it is - with life? Why not another theory of everything, one which doesn’t include the possibility of life?
  3. & 3) & 6) don’t explain why anything actually exists in the first place.
  4. Doesn’t explain where the creator came from.
  5. Is the same as 2). It doesn’t explain why the universe has an underlying principle that necessitate life, rather than an underlying principle that doesn’t result in life.
  6. Is not an explanation at all, because the universe – the universe needing explanation - would merely be the one where the simulation is being run, rather than the one where the simulation is being experienced.

Let me be succinct: we live in a multiverse. That is implied by #3 and #7. If #4 obtains, then God is running lots of simulations, because running one would be pointless. Or if God owns but a single aquarium, then surely there is another hobbyist down the street who owns a similar but not necessarily identical model. Or if God is alone, then it wouldn’t make sense to run a single simulation, unless this one was done by mistake. We rule out #1 and #8.

That leaves #2, #5 and #6.

Now I might buy that consciousness is ubiquitous. But the anthropic principle says more than that: not only do rocks, stars or whatever have to think, they have to be familiar with the fundamental physical constants of nature which implies a pretty high level of sophistication. Either that, or the puzzle becomes how humans could be so utterly moronic: their thought processes are so inefficient that it took us thousands of years to get this far and even now only about one in 10,000 can rigorously pose this question, if that. Dumber than a pile of rocks. So I’ll set aside #5.

#6 I still don’t understand, though DSeid has been helpful.

#2 does not merely imply an eventual Theory of Everything. That may be discovered. But #2 also implies that The Theory will explain why these fundamental constants are necessary. All of them. Is there reason to believe that this will happen?

So by process of elimination, we probably live in a multiverse.

This is contentious. Partly because no one knows for sure whether totally different forms of biology are possible. And partly because it depends whether you want to restrict your attention to just the fundamental constants, or take into account the vast possibilities of different quantum field theory lagrangians, or the 10^500 possible compactifications in string theory, etc… if you do not constrain yourself by sanctifying the Standard Model of particle physics oh philosophical grounds, it is clear that the fine-tuning of the universe is an extreme coincidence of utterly incomprehensible severity. On the other hand if you restrict yourself to fiddling only with the physical constants within the Standard Model, and work from the assumption that stars are necessary for life (a fair assumption IMO), put due weight on big-bang-nucleosynthesis, galaxy formation, the probability of life-destroying supernovae or too-numerous black-holes, the distribution and formation of various elements necessary to our biology, the stability of atoms and molecules, etc, you also find the coincidence to be rather extreme. It is not just the relative strengths of the electromagnetic, strong, and gravitational forces that must be fine-tuned, but, for example extreme fine-tuning is required in the initial conditions of the big bang in order to produce sufficient irregularity to produce cosmic structures, the formation of enough hydrogen/helium for star formation, etc.

For the sake of that speculation I am accepting Hofstadter’s working model of consciousness. Others have had similar thoughts. (Good stuff behind the wall … sorry.)

I recognize my multiverse argument is shot full of holes. I’ll plug one here. Suppose that the Creator’s purpose was to create humanity and that once that was done, His work was completed. Such a story would be plausible in a pre-Copernican world, in my view. But the universe is vast and the sun is a tiny part of it, never mind the earth. It seems then that the Creator has varied interests, indicating that He wouldn’t limit His attention to our particularly plot of land. Of course if there’s a heaven and a hell that would give us 3 universes right there. I rule out religious fundamentalism in this thread: that discussion belongs elsewhere.

Am I correct in saying that the probability of this particular assortment of physical constants is less than 10^-10? That seems statistically significant, as of course does 10^-500. Do cosmologists have a basis for believing that a different set of constants could apply at creation? Or are they just saying that they can’t see a reason why other values might not obtain? It’s hard for me to imagine a 3D universe with a different value of pi, but of course that’s a mathematical constant, not a physical one.


In practice, minds that comprehend the physical constants must probably master technology. And there is but one technological specie that we have observed. Even if rocks or stars think, they don’t appear to build obvious machines.

Furthermore, if there’s an underlying principle that causes the universe to produce technological civilizations, it’s a pretty quiet one. SETI might find another civilization one day. They don’t seem to be ubiquitous though.

Is the multiverse hypothesis pretty much accepted? If not, what are the counter-arguments?

Seid: I pulled the Science article and read this Philosophy Now article on Hofstadter, but still have only a woolly idea of consciousness, other than it is an emergent property, which says little.

It is popular among a large subset of physicists, but it is a divisive topic, due to the anthropic principle’s relevance to it. Regardless, it is undeniably a feature of String theory. See anthropic landscape, and the smolin-susskind debates.

I’ve never liked the puddle metaphor. Any hole will do for any puddle, but not any universe will do for complex life. While life may be possible in radically different forms from the ones in our universe, it is easy to imagine universes in which life can’t arise: a universe with a single particle, for one. We need a better idea of what universes can give rise to life before we glibly dismiss the fine tuning problem.

MfM, the concept, which was actually also at the heart of his Godel Escher and Bach, is that it is all about how information is processed with consciousness a consequence of an information processing sequence that includes itself as one of the sets being referenced … which sets up a Red Queen’s race. The more nested these self-referential sets, the more the system has to constantly reupdate a model that includes its constantly changing by the reupdating self, the more conscious is the processing system. Another place that a similar concept has been articulated is in Stephen Grossberg’s Adaptive Resonance Theory with its positing that resonant information processing states are the substrate for conscious experience. (A pdf of the article makes for some fascinating reading.) The details though are not so important for the point of this thread. The idea is enough to accept as speculation merely that consciousness is emergent of the specific nature of how information is processed, that the magnitude of how much any particular system meets that specific nature of information processing is, at least theoretically, quantifiable, and that consciousness so defined may be similar or dissimilar, less complex or more complex, than our own.

LB, your objection is of course exactly the point of the metaphor. Any hole will not do for puddle of a particular shape. That particular shaped puddle will only fit that particular hole. Sure, some holes will not hold puddles of any shape, it is easy to imagine them … so what?

Our universe and our consciousness developed within a particular shaped hole. It would not fit in a very differently shaped hole. For us to believe that only a hole shaped to fit us would support a universe capable of producing consciousness (and I’d say consciousness is more pertinent than life) is very much akin to a puddle thinking that only holes shaped like them could hold a puddle.

If there are many multiverses out there, then maybe some are holes with sandy bottoms in which the puddle does not hold, maybe some are so hot that no puddles are possible, but for us to presume that the only puddles that can exist look just like our puddle is … provincial … at least.

Does anybody argue that, no, we live in a monoverse or even that the case for a multiverse is insufficient?

Ok, but I’ll note again that the Anthropic principle requires a level of complexity greater than or equal to our own, unless there’s some direct survival value in understanding the fundamental physical constants.

I wonder whether a variant of Reverend Berkeley’s framework might permit a monoverse. Consciousness would be a given, and the fundamental constants would have to wrap themselves around that underlying reality, since consciousness implies the possibility of observing those constants. No I can’t give a good defense of this POV and I don’t know what neo-Berklians believe.

It requires a level of complexity that gives rise to something that can ask the question “where did this come from.” You can prove that it needs to be at least complex as humans for that to happen?

This really isn’t my area; I’m making claims and asking questions to fight my own ignorance.

Here’s my understanding of the argument. The fine tuning problem notes that the parameters necessary for star formation are surprisingly narrow. As I understand it, the Anthropic Principle’s domain is narrower than having a capacity to ask questions: it involves asking questions about these fundamental constants, which necessitates some non-trivial science.

Still I didn’t really have, “Asking questions” in mind. I was speculating about forms of consciousness that preceded language. It’s possible that such forms could exist in objects that we consider inanimate, provided we set aside the models alluded to by DSeid. That in turn leads us to consider the possibility of consciousnesses in universes without star formation. All this is admittedly unlikely, but until I see some well substantiated models of consciousness, I have to consider the possibility. However, if we accept DSeid’s models (which apparently have some evidence for them) then we can skip this fork of the argument entirely.
Anyway, let’s say that stars and rocks are slow thinking but profound philosophers who understand the fundamental constants. Then such a level of consciousness might be nothing special: it might be something that could exist in any universe. So the fine tuning problem goes away. After all, statistically improbable events occur all the time: the temperature today might be 43.34535734654356 degrees F at 6:12PM: such an event (when stated at that degree of precision) only occurs once every gazillion years, at least on November 25th. So if we observed one particular parameter set or another it shouldn’t shock us. My point was to say that the rocks et al would have to that smart: mere awareness isn’t sufficient.

The anthropic principle has nothing to do with having advanced science. Here’s what it is:

Person A: Wow, life is complicated, how lucky are we?
Person B: Well, if things were different you wouldn’t be able to wonder about how lucky we are, so it’s not really that big of a deal.

I guess the original question is more forceful when you have an idea of what the parameters need to be to support life (as we know it), but anything that can ask “why do I exist” can be explained with the anthropic principle.

There are a number of theories, neither proven nor dis-proven, that allow for the existence of multiple universes. Plenty of theorists advocate some theories over others, but no credible physicist would deny the possibility of multiple universes (unless you ask him to put his philosopher hat on). The problem is that in most theories the existence of other universes cannot be detected, so that aspect of those theories is unfalsifiable. Most scientists find unfalsifiable theories ‘distasteful’, and avoid them if possible; technically such theories are ‘unscientific’ because they cannot be put to experimental test. Nonetheless, just because a theory is unfalsifiable does not make it wrong… just very annoying and to be avoided if possible. Nature, however, might in fact be annoying. That might be how she is. So you’ve got two camps: 1) those who are seduced by the beauty and utility and explanatory power of the anthropic principle as applied to unfalsifiable theories; and 2) those who find it lazy and unscientific and a slippery slope.

So to answer your question: no matter what side of the debate you are on, you cannot on physics grounds deny the possibility of the multiverse.