Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The argument from beauty

Supplementary material

The argument from beauty actually exists. Personally I find it a bit illogical because of two main things: (a) beauty is mostly in the eye of the beholder, and I seriously doubt that there is any aesthetic experience (including the very popular sunset) that triggers a universally positive response; (b) Nature is far from perfect. Oh, sure, it functions, and it functions quite well indeed; but unlike a well-made watch (tip of the hat to William Paley) nature is clearly a hodgepodge of different systems that show little sign of having been made to work together, but that managed either not to interfere too much with each other or to exploit each other to gain some kind of advantage. But let's talk of perfection to kids with leukaemia, to people with Alzheimer's disease, to people whose genes made them handicapped, or blind, or deaf, or just plain clumsy; let's talk of perfection to mothers who lost five kids in a tsunami or a mudslide; let's talk of perfection to the lost fauna of the Permian or to the hapless caterpillars that are used by wasps as living incubators (and living pantries) to the wasp's larvae... If I had a watch that ill-made, I'd return it to the watchmaker and ask for a refund. Unless, as is the case with nature, there is no other option but to endure it, even with all its imperfections. I can forgive Mother Nature for sloppy work, because no one argues that she is an actual, omnipotent and wise creator. Not so for religious alternatives.

The anthropic principle is another argument that some use to claim that the universe was essentially "made for humans". After all, they argue, we are here to observe the universe and so this is the proof that it is fine-tuned for the possibility of our existence... because even if a few universal parameters were changed, the universe as we know it could not exist and we wouldn't be here to talk about it. Which strikes me as a bad case of mental masturbation: an activity providing momentary pleasure but that is ultimately sterile. It's very much like using Zeno's paradox to analyze real-life athletics. Doctor Pangloss would probably have subscribed to it, though: "It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best." (Voltaire, Candide).

Were we to change a few universal constants, our universe couldn't exist. Fine. If pi were to equal three (as in 1 Kings 7:23) instead of 3,1415926 and change, the ratio between a circle's diameter and its circumference would be different, something which would not be compatible with our universe's geometry. But so what? A universe with different constants would, by definition, be a very different universe. We would probably not be there, but who's to say that a different universe couldn't exist instead? One with different laws, different types of energy and matter, perhaps different types of intelligence? The anthropic principle makes sense only if we centre things around our little selves, as we are wont to do. Let's look at things in a more humble way, and we might find that the universe isn't as it is so we can be there to observe it, but rather that we are here to observe it because the universe is as it is. We are the accident.


  1. If the universe would be such as pi=3, then there probably would be a different kind of intelligent life form that would argue over their own anthropic principle...

  2. I have trouble with considering pi as a universal constant. It strikes me as something a little bit bigger than that. Perhaps something about gravity or the speed of light would be better examples of universal constants. To my (maybe flawed) understanding, these things seem much easier to change than mathematical constants like pi or e.

  3. Said differently, the value of pi seems to be beyond even God's control. He could maybe tweak the universal gravitation constant though.