Dawkins’ Squawkins: the Anthropic Principle

Richard Dawkins is perhaps our generation’s most famous atheist (though many of us prefer the late Bertrand Russell on many counts). A behavioral biologist (ethologist) with roving popular interests, he has made his most recent splash with The God Delusion. As a scientist and a theist, I am sympathetic to both faithful and scientific approaches and do not believe, in general terms, that either has exclusive access to truth. Still, at the end of the day, I am a theist, so clearly I disagree with at least some of Dawkins’s arguments.One of which Dawkins appears particularly proud is his application of the so-called anthropic principle, a much-controverted attempt to get at the insight that human life is highly improbable, that the tiniest changes in a variety of physical constants would make life as we know it impossible.

Dawkins applies a fairly standard evolutionist’s version of the anthropic principle. “You are absurd for thinking that something with a one in a googol chance of happening could explain life,” says the theist to the secular scientist. The wise scientist responds, “We exist, so we are an existence of the googol possibilities that have likely occurred in the vastness of possible existence in which the question will be asked. It doesn’t matter that our existence is infinitely improbable, if we hadn’t come to be there would be no one to notice how improbable our existence is.” In simpler terms, if something has a less than a one-in-a-billion chance of happening, all it takes is billions of billions of attempts to get billions of such improbable events.

Dawkins seems to believe that his application of anthropism is heavy artillery in the fight against religion, apparently because many theists reject strictly naturalistic accounts of our origin on the grounds that it is highly improbable. While I will confess that formal philosophical argument pulls my eyelids toward my cheekbones, I would interrogate Dawkins’s anthropic principle some.

The anthropic principle is primarily a statistical short circuit for cosmology, a way to say that matters of incredible improbability need not be rejected on face because we as humans only encounter the one that succeeded sufficiently to lead to our creation. Unfortunately, the principle is not as well-behaved as the atheists would have us believe. Because it is a short circuit, the principle levels the playing field for improbable events. Atheistic cosmologies have an embarrassingly low probability of having occurred. So do theistic cosmologies, according to most standard definitions of probability. So, frankly, does a cosmology in which kryptonite-filled plastic chickens named Bezoar and Barney initiated the Big Bang by igniting giant bottle rockets. Losing the skepticism of probability may leave us strangely credulous.

The anthropic principle assumes that it is evaluating only a single hypothesis, but in fact, when theists invoke improbability, they generally mean that their explanation seems to them more probable than the atheistic one. The atheistic anthropic principle cannot be productively applied to decide between two hypotheses. To invoke the anthropic principle in evaluating relative improbabilities is methodologically dangerous and runs counter to almost all of current empirical science. Pons and Fleischman only needed this anthropic principle to save their Cold Fusion wonderland. “While it is highly improbable that the energy our system is generating represents cold fusion, we just happen to be the universe of all possible universes in which cold fusion is the best way to account for these findings.”

The atheist would likely respond that the probability of a God-based model can’t be compared to the probability of a naturalistic model. The former requires unquantifiable assumptions about attributes of the universe unknown to science, while the latter has the benefit of objectively measured probabilities. Because God does not arise from known physical constants and has never been measured, we cannot calculate the probability of his existence except to say that we do not see a way to him from current understandings of physics.

There are two problems with this response. First, why would we believe it astoundingly improbable that scientists have critical gaps in their understanding? We as scientists tend to accept as improbable associations in the range of one in a hundred or at most one in a thousand or ten thousand. If we’re that easy with our credulity, who’s to say there isn’t something we’ve missed so far? Every prior generation of scientists has had lacunae in their understanding, and though we’re all a little tired of postmodern history of science, we have undergone dramatic changes in our understanding of physical existence.

Second, this is a claim with false pretenses to accuracy. How do we quantify the probability of certain physical constants having certain values? There is no verifiable or reliable way. We can make estimates on the basis of genetic changes over time, but that’s just one small link in the vast chain from cosmogony to humanity. For many other crucial factors we have no idea what the probability of their assuming certain values is.

Dawkins will need much heavier artillery than his anthropic principle to get me onto his black leather couch, confessing my God Delusion. He might have better luck with Bezoar, who I understand is free these days.


  1. Brad Kramer says:

    I confess that I find Russell’s brand of dogmatic atheism much more compelling than Dawkins’. I generally like engaging the arguments of critics of religious faith because they usually help me to think about my own faith in different terms. I find the process invigorating, and in a strange way it has only strengthened (albeit constantly reconfigured) my belief that my own experiences of God were not and are not, in fact, delusions. I think maybe that kind of intellectual engagement animates a part of my brain that I need to really develop and strengthen my faith.

    Having said that, I found Dawkins’ arguments tepid, presumptuous, uninteresting, and wholly unpersuasive. Atheists worldwide are in real trouble if Dawkins is their poster child. Even Daniel Dennett is at least somewhat creative in his attacks on religion. And did I see recently that the latest character to point out the strawmen and circularity of logic upon which Dawkins’ arguments are dependent was no less that Terry Eagleton? As a proselyting atheist, you know you’re in trouble when you can’t even get good old fashioned Marxists to take you seriously.

  2. I’m persuaded by panspermia, rather than the anthropic principle. There are a couple of hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and perhaps 10 times as many planets. It only had to happen once, life did, if novae and supernovae disperse occasional bacteria into molecular gas clouds. Thereafter, any habitable planet would likely be seeded by at least one bacterium. The reason I think this is that life on Earth began almost as soon as it was possible (within a few tens of millions of years after the earth had cooled sufficiently). If life came into being spontaneously here on our planet (the hard part), then why did it take another billion years thereafter for there to be anything other than photosynthetic bacteria (presumably a much easier transformation than non-life -> life)? We’ve been told that there are other sheep. It would not surprise me if we find the whole galaxy teeming with life, though not necessarily human life.

    When God has worked miracles in my life, they are always things that a rational outside observer would dismiss as something in my own psychological makeup. There’s always a scientific explanation that makes sense, as well as a religious one. It seems to me that God does that on purpose, so as to leave us the choice of knowing about him or not, as we prefer. Why would he violate that in his original creation? I expect the origin of the universe has a scientific explanation as well.

    In fact, I expect there are countless other big bangs that we don’t know exist yet. The history of humanity has been one of discovering we are not at the center of the physical universe as we know it, and that everything we know about now (whatever that is at the moment) turns out to be just a tiny part of something far vaster. The Earth turned out to be just one planet in the solar system, then the sun turned out to be only one of many billions of stars in the galaxy, then there turned out to be billions of galaxies or “island universes” in our big bang pocket of space-time. I don’t see this trend ending just yet. =)

  3. cantinflas says:

    Thanks for the post. An atheist woman at my place of employment has a personal blog on which she is summarizing the Dawkins book and she is very proud of her great understanding of the principles outlined there, and the perfect logic she considers it to be.

    I figured it wouldn’t be long before the bloggernacle had a response.

  4. Most of the atheists I know roll their eyes at Dawkins.

  5. Excellent article in Wired about this a few months ago:

    The Church of the Non-Believers

  6. I find Dawkins’s cheering section more obtuse than he is. I keep meaning to do more research on his aggressive over-application of genetic insights to sociological problems, this “meme” of his, but it’s hard to work up interest for someone misapplying the theory du jour outside its sphere of applicability.
    I have a lot of respect for some atheists. Dawkins ain’t one of them.