Posted by: dacalu | 27 November 2010

The Anthropic Priniciple

My friend Ned asked me to comment on a line from my book, and I thought it deserved a thorough answer.  It’s one of my favorite topics and I hope you’ll find it interesting as well.  It has to do with how our biology affects our philosophy and our identity.

The passage is from the very last page of “Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone.”

“Finally, our biochemistry impacts our identity, science, and our beliefs. It may
not determine them, but it does have an impact. Our intelligence appears to
have novel properties unique to such a complex level of organization. We
must be ever vigilant to how our biology affects our morality.”

First, let me defend the the premise that our biochemistry impacts our philosophy.  From the time of Descartes, we have tended to think that mind and body are separate things, so it can be a bit challenging to think about our physical selves shaping our mental selves, but science has been quite convincing in this regard.

At the most basic level we know that our perceptions are physically conditioned.  We see things when light hits our eyes, but only the some light.  It has to come in the right wavelengths to change the conformation of a protein .  For humans this is  roughly 400-650 nm light, ranging from violet to red.  Visible light, it turns out, is not a property of the universe, it is rather that set of photons that interact well with human eyes.  It’s not really as human centered as that.  Photosynthesis, as bacteria and plants use light to make chemical energy, also runs between 580 and 1060 nm.  It turns out that that kind of light is good for doing chemical work.  Nonetheless, our ideas of light and color have been heavily influenced by our biochemistry.  Red is not a real thing.  Red is a concept we’ve invented to describe the kind of light that stimulates our long-wavelength (564nm) cone protein.  Different species, with different light receptors, would have different concepts of color.

We cannot help but perceive the world through our senses.  Each sense differentiates and observes the world on the basis of contingent categories (3 types of cones in our eyes to differentiate color, 5 taste receptors on our tongue to differentiate taste, and so on).  Science, being based on our senses, has this kind of graininess to it.  We begin to perceive things beyond our senses once we start looking for them – we now know of other wavelengths of light.  Still, it’s impossible to know what questions have not been asked yet.  So our biochemistry limits the kinds of categories we have to work with.

This graininess impacts how we look at ourselves and how we conceive of the universe.  In the book, I talk about how we define intelligence as “human-like in reasoning.” and life as roughly “human-like in reproduction.”  We’re working from known examples…and those known examples have been labeled by our biased senses.

I’m not saying it’s hopeless.  Far from it.  I am saying that science is beginning to show us just how deeply biased we are by our context.  As we learn more about the context, we can attempt to account for, measure, and transcend the it, knowing always that we may be unaware of the most important biases to transcend.  Astrobiology, in identifying our context, provides great philosophical returns as it shows us how we are constrained by environment and evolution.  This is one of the weaker versions of the Anthropic Principle – as humans we cannot be surprised to observe a universe in which humans exist, in fact it is a tautology.  We could not observe the universe if we did not exist.

On to the question of morality.  If our biochemistry shapes the categories by which we reason, it also shapes the categories by which we do moral reasoning.  It seems clear to me that most faiths privilege human beings.  Our greatest responsibilities are to humans.  After that, we have responsibilities to all sentient beings and to all living things.  These categories (terribly useful categories) have been shaped by our biochemistry.  The scientific category “Homo sapiens” is often used synonymously with humans and people.  I think this limits our theology in important ways – ways that the search for extra-terrestrial life illuminate.  Could we ever consider another species intelligent?  Or will we always redefine it so that it includes us alone?  Will we always consider humans to be our primary “neighbors” in Christianity?  Or could Christ have meant us to extend that further?

Some of the greatest moral failures have been failures of imagination.  Literalists in science and religion are increasingly calling for us to limit our thoughts to strict definitions (of human, God, moral).  They ask us to force our scientific understanding into a particular theological box – or force our theological understanding into a theological box – and yet science continually tells us just how dangerous those boxes can be, even when we find them most useful.

My point in the book and my point here is to challenge people to be more self conscious about the way they perceive the world – and the ideas they use.  Both have been shaped by their physical context.  (Perhaps their mental one as well, but that’s another blog.)  A well informed theologian, a well informed scientist, even a well informed general consumer of knowledge has the tools to be self-critical about how they think about the universe.  They are not separate from it, but deeply entrenched.


  1. “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker,
    those who are nothing but potsherds
    among the potsherds on the ground.
    Does the clay say to the potter,
    ‘What are you making?’
    Does your work say,
    ‘The potter has no hands’?” – the prophet Isaiah

    Obviously Lucas and Isaiah speak from rather different contexts here, but I believe the quotation brings into stark relief some of our suppositions. To my way of thinking, one of the greatest strengths of your book is the way you repeatedly, from several angles, expose the woeful inadequacy of simple observation and reasoning in approaching any meaningful understanding of humanity and humanness, and then you delve beyond our more conventional earth-bound observations and reasonings to encourage us to explore a new perspective. A more contemporary song lyric than Isaiah’s comes to mind – a little ditty by David Wilcox:

    But it’s like lookin’ at the sunshine from the earth.
    The light does come and go.
    But when you’re lookin’ at the earth shine from the sun,
    It’s quite a different show.

    It is a wonderful mind expanding exercise, but I think what Isaiah points out is that it too is an exercise with limits. Only God creates something from nothing. We may think we can imagine things never experienced before, but at best we come up with rearrangements of existing things that are beyond our previous experience. The only reason the word “light” has any meaning for us at all is because at some point God said, “Let there be light.” and there it was! We humans just cannot do that kind of thing.

    So in trying to claw our way out of the box of the Anthropomorphic Principle in order to cast a wider moral net over the space time continuum I fear we may be at best kidding ourselves, and perhaps at worst, attempting to finally get the better of Doctor Frankenstein. So as I cast wide my moral net, it seems good to me that I constantly ask myself: Am I striving to touch the heart of God – to see myself, my fellow creatures, and all creation with something like God’s truer perspective? Or am I attempting to play the usurper and gain the upper hand on the wisdom that was before creation?

    The question also brings to mind the last paragraph or so of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, but it is getting late so I will let you look that up for yourself. In any case, I suspect I both oversimplify and step beyond the scope of your book here.

  2. Hey Lucas,

    Great post. I found it after following your link to the most recent post on the “new” life form found at Mono Lake.

    I am curious what your thoughts are about consciousness. You talked a lot about the physical properties of life, but not much about the mental/phenomenal properties.

    You said, “Red is not a real thing. Red is a concept we’ve invented to describe the kind of light that stimulates our long-wavelength (564nm) cone protein. Different species, with different light receptors, would have different concepts of color.”

    Isn’t “red” an experience? Do experiences qualify as “things” (this is an honest question)?

    What are your thoughts on the Knowledge Argument It seems to me that the arguments from dualists are not as terrible as they appear to be at first (even though I’m ambivalent about the physicalist/dualist debate).
    Also, it seems to me that a lot of our morality is based on the concept of sentience. Consider the line from Nirvana’s Something in the Way, “It’s okay to eat fish, ’cause they don’t have any feelings” (a common argument from pescatarians). Or, from Ephesians in the King James, “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Isn’t the concept of Spirit/Mind/Consciousness a bit of an outlier when it comes to thinking about morality? I remember having a discussion during a philosophy cadre about the limits of immorality, and whether an action needed to affect at least one sentient being (or in a weaker form, any life) in order to qualify as immoral. We puzzled over whether it would be immoral to blow up an uninhabited planet in a far away galaxy “for the fun of it”. Ha!

  3. Dear Kelly,
    The question of whether “red” is a thing depends on your ontology. By and large, I think that materialists want perceptions to be in some way unmediated experience of external reality, but I would question whether there is an external reality of red. Phenomenalists (I think that’s what their called) think that the experience is the most important thing, independent of external reality. I’m wondering just how radical I want my ontology to be, so I’m not sharing just yet.
    As to Mary, I find the synesthesia argument the most compelling. There is no way to know (empirically or rationally) that other humans sense things in the same way we do. We don’t even know that other sentients exist. We simply extrapolate from personal experience. It may be a necessary proposition, but I think it must be listed as a fundamental axiom, rather than derived, unless we invoke religious/philosophical authority or revelation.
    Every action has a moral effect because it impinges on the actor. grin. You might read “Ender’s Game,” which is a lovely meditation on the subject. Blessed Advent.


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