October 24, 2006
You Are Here
From Stephen Poole's review of The View From the Centre of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams:
[O]ne of the book's most interesting and useful ideas [is] that of "scale confusion". The authors explain how in physics, for example, the strong atomic force is irrelevant outside the nucleus, and gravity is irrelevant at tiny distances (until the very smallest). Things in general are only important at certain scales...But as Mr Poole points out, the author's search for cosmic meaning involves scale confusion, and I would say the very notion that humans should find meaning in their lives by convincing themselves they are central to the universe is saturated with it. Human meaning exists at the human scale. The cosmos can look after itself.
Scale confusion reappears in the book's final section, which seeks to apply our new cosmic insights to life right here, right now. "Since civilisations cannot behave like individuals and vice versa," the authors argue, "to describe individual acts as civilisational may be a kind of scale chauvinism (the logical fallacy in which a favourite size-scale is considered more fundamental than the others)." Politicians are incontinent scale chauvinists, always muddling concepts of individuals, families, nations and civilisations to deleterious effect.
Myself, I see a lot of scale confusion in the anthropic principle, the ultimate expression of human cosmic centrality. Here the (supposed) slim probability of humanity's existence, when coupled with the importance of this fact to us, is meant to suggest that it cannot be mere chance that the Earth had developed to be capable of sustaining intelligent life on it. Of course, the chance that the Earth might have proved inhospitable is one calculated on the cosmic scale, while the fact that it did not is important only to us. Similarly, that the universe was one in which life might eventually come to be is a matter of great significance for living things, so if we were to accept that a universe such as ours coming into existence is a one-in-a-billion (or some other very large number) chance, that it did so might suggest some special feature of physics that fore-ordained life, or perhaps even the presence of conscious design behind it all, until one realises that all potential universes are equal in the eyes of the cosmos and ones that support life are only distinguishable from the welter by ourselves. To draw conclusions from the small probability of ending up with the life-friendly physics of our universe, or an Earth that had not been stripped of life by the slings and asteroids of outrageous fortune (yet), is rather like suggesting there must be something peculiarly portentous in my now typing the word "hedgehog", given how unlikely it is that eons of cosmic and planetary development, natural selection and human history would lead to the precise point where I would type that word rather than, say, type "squid" or "underfelt", or have gone to bed already and not bothered with this silly blog, or have been an intelligent semi-aquatic dolphinoid whistling a dissertation on kelp derivatives*. If there is nothing to choose between alternatives, then the fact that each is highly unlikely does not mean that one out of all the others happening is a matter of significance. The fact that a universe in which life can exist is (perhaps) only one possibility among many, many others is a matter only significant to us, and it is the height of egotism for us to apply that significance at higher scales. We got lucky; simple as that.
In its way, the anthropic principle is the mother of all apophenia, a gigantic case of false syncronicity. If after getting onto a plane while feeling a bit nervous, you fly through an airpocket and get a nasty jolt, you might imagine your anxiety was the result of some sort of precognition, forgetting that you'd felt nervous at the beginning of every other flight during which nothing frightening had happened. Similarly we can be sure nobody is remarking the particular kind of formless void their universe turned out to be seems very unlikely when they consider all the alternatives, perhaps significantly so; the expression of that fallacy is confined to universes and planets like our own, at least until the next asteroid arrives.
* Or, as the Russian scientist from Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud argues in mocking his colleague's assertion that the cloud might be intelligent because it is heading towards Earth, it would be like claiming intelligence guides the path of a tennis ball rolled along a lawn and stopping on one particular blade of grass. "Why that one? Why not one of million others? Oh, it must be directed! What a bloody argument!" You'll notice this is an analogy that manages to avoid degenerating into idle aquatic anthropomorphism.