The Anthropomorphic Argument for a “higher power”

I met a guy last night who made this argument: it’s been calculated that if, for example, the strength of gravity were a teensy bit greater or smaller, our universe with stars and planets, and life, could not exist; and similarly for twenty-odd other parameters in physics; so, in sum, our existence defies astronomical odds against it. Therefore some “higher power” must have manipulated all these parameters, intentionally, to produce a life-friendly universe.

This has been called the “anthropomorphic argument.” It’s been around for a long time. It’s nonsense. Here’s why:

When I was conceived in 1947, the odds that, 62 years later, I would be sitting in this particular chair, writing these particular words, would have been practically infinity-to-one. Exceedingly improbable. Yet here I am — so calling this outcome “improbable” is meaningless. And for exactly the same reason, because the Universe is the way it is, to talk about its being in any sense improbable is meaningless too.

Further: let’s suppose it were possible for the Universe to have been born with a slightly different gravity strength, etc., in which case life could not occur. That possibility might make it seem plausible to talk about improbability in connection with our existence — IF our universe were the only one. But why assume that the birth of our universe was a unique, one-off occurrence? Nature never works that way. All natural phenomena recur. If a big bang happened once, it’s a reasonable bet that it happened other times — zillions of times, given the vastness (if not infinitude) of time and space.

This idea that ours is only one universe of many can’t be proven, of course, but because of its obvious logicality it has actually been the subject of a lot of scientific thought. (And in fact, it turns out to be remarkably consistent with what we do understand about the cosmos.)

This is another answer to the anthropomorphic argument. If lots of varying universes occur, then even if the odds against one particular variant are great, it should exist. Out of a million lottery tickets, it’s no surprise that one has the one-in-a-million number. And it’s likewise unsurprising that we could have drawn that lucky number — the one-in-a-million universe — because only in that universe could there be people thinking about this.

While the Universe’s big bang origin is well-founded, science cannot really explain the big bang’s origin — yet. But we’re on our way. Today’s understanding is vastly greater than a century ago. Certainly there is a naturalistic explanation capable of being understood. We used to explain a lot of things in mystical, supernatural terms, but in every case where the truth emerged, the supernatural idea proved wrong. No different outcome should be expected for any remaining questions.

The cosmos can do everything it does by the operation of natural laws, with no “higher power” needed. The reality that I experience is, indeed, completely consistent with the absence of any “higher power” and completely inconsistent with its presence. In the face of this, only through torturous casuistry can religion be sustained.

I admit that I can’t answer the ultimate question — why is there something and not nothing? But neither can any religion. “God did it” is an answer satisfactory only to those who can avoid asking where God came from. Are arguments like this — and the anthropomorphic argument — the best that “higher power” advocates can do?

[ Originally published at The Rational Optimist ]

About Frank Robinson

I am a graduate of NYU Law School, a retired New York State administrative law judge, and author of four books, most recently Life, Liberty, and Happiness (Prometheus Books, 2006, winner of the Spooner Award for “advancing the literature of liberty”). I consider myself a rational optimist, a humanist, and more or less libertarian. My political philosophy is closest to the classical nineteenth century liberalism exemplified by John Stuart Mill (not to be confused with modern American “liberalism”). I am married to the poet Therese Broderick, with a daughter, Elizabeth. I’m in the business of buying and selling world and ancient coins.

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