The anthropic (or, literally, human-centered) principle entails several propositions, all focusing on the relationship, if any, between the natural physical universe and the existence of human beings in this universe. It grew out of discussions in astronomy and cosmology, where some argued that the existence of life in the universe automatically set constraints on how the universe could possibly exist and how it got to be this way since the Big Bang.
There are several versions of the argument. All are tied together, however, by the fact that the laws of physics and the physical constants as they stand now all allow for complex life to occur, or perhaps for a universe to even exist at all. For example (assuming all other forces remained the same), if the gravitational constant G—the strength of the pull of gravity of one object on another—were just a little more than it is, stars would burn out more quickly, fighting against the force of attraction trying to make them collapse. They might burn out even before there was enough time for intelligent life to evolve and notice them. Also, atoms could not form if electrons weighed a little more or protons a little less, and without atoms, nothing in the universe, alive or not, would be as we know it. The famous quantum physicist Paul Dirac was also puzzled by the apparent large number of coincidences that occur between the different dimensionless constants. Martin Rees, Britain’s royal astronomer, argues that only a half-dozen numbers make the universe the way it is, and a difference in any one of them would not have allowed it to even come into existence.
These are all versions of the “weak anthropic principle,” which claims that all the laws of the universe are not equally probable, but the fact that we are here to observe them implies that the laws that are in effect exist because we are here to observe them. What some have asserted as the “Goldilocks principle”—that is, the universal porridge is “just right” for us—asserts that the universe must have only those properties that allow life to develop, that is, the properties we see in the universe today. This is also called the “strong anthropic principle” by physical scientists. The strong anthropic principle allows for teleogical reasoning: The coincidences that allow life to exist must reflect evidence of an intelligent designer of some kind at work.
In anthropology, there have not been many attempts to address the anthropic principle directly, and those that have tried to do so have not been especially enlightening. Discussions of the anthropic principle come up in debates on evolution versus creationism or intelligent design, but once again, the anthropological contributions have been minimal. Perhaps linguistic anthropology might offer some future insights. There might be a language effect taking place in these discussions. Even if a strong Sapir-Whorf effect can never be demonstrated, it is impossible to address the universe in ways that are not already guided by our preconceptions of it—outlooks largely determined by the ways we talk and think about it. Thus, the whole issue of the anthropic principle might ultimately be an artifact of our perceptions—perceptions guided largely by language.
- Barrow, J. (1990). The world within the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Barrow, J., & Tipler, F. (1986). The anthropic cosmological principle. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Bostrom, N. (2002). Anthropic bias: Observation selection effects in science and philosophy. London: Routledge.
- Rees, M. (2000). Just six numbers: The deep forces that shape the universe. New York: Basic Books.
- Santangelo, A. (2001). The anthropic grounds to culture (plus Addendum, 2002). Milan, Italy: Editrice Sabaini.