Anthropic nonsense

Norm the philosopher appears not to appreciate the appeal of the many worlds hypothesis, and the so-called anthropic cosmological principle. I know how he feels*…

“There has to be a way of explaining this that saves it from its prima facie air of total unreasonableness. If such-and-such, no one would be around to notice does not normally establish that such-and-such can’t be the case. For example: if a tree falls in a forest on an unpopulated island then no one would be around to notice. This doesn’t prove the non-existence of unpopulated islands. For another example: if you read your book while hiding in a cupboard, then no one will see you reading. It doesn’t show that you couldn’t read while hiding in a cupboard. Provided, of course, you had a light of some kind. So come on, someone, explain it in terms that don’t appear plainly absurd.”

There is nothing at all meaningful, let alone profound, in the anthropic cosmological principle, and it is indeed plainly absurd.

Pop philosophical nonsense aside, the violations of Occam’s razor that we see proliferating in modern cosmology could be pointing to a defect in the current formulation of quantum mechanics. This, like all science, should be seen as a work in progress, subject to continual refinement and the odd paradigmatic overhaul.

Why the shoddy thinking that is the anthropic cosmological principle persists among otherwise intelligent men and women is beyond me. Yet persist it does, in one form or another, whether it be hard or soft. One problem is that physicists have a tendency to sound off on matters philosophical, yet they rarely take the trouble to familiarise themselves with pre-existing philosophical discourse. The thinking is that one can, armed with a PhD in physics and a brain the size of a planet, work everything out from first principles, and there is thus no need to study the work of proper philosophers. After all, in the limit everything reduces to physics. Or so the story goes.

When it comes to quantum mechanics, one of the biggest challenges is to translate an abstract mathematical reality based on probabilities – a reality which it should be noted conforms very closely to the measured real world – into a standard narrative form.

When faced with seemingly intractable problems, surely the best thing for physicists to do is sleep on them, continue doing the physics, and hope that an improved conceptual understanding will in time emerge. I thought it was only godbotherers and other dogmatists who insist on having all the answers now. As it is, cosmologists are chasing their tails with their ‘many worlds’ thinking.

This erstwhile physicist cannot help Norm by explaining the anthropic cosmological principle in terms that don’t appear absurd. Well, not for the moment at least.

*Elder Snoopy is also unimpressed with what is in effect an (il)logical consequence of positivist thinking.