Contingency, Necessity and the Anthropic Principle

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The universe seems to be a contingent structure, not a necessary one; that is, it might be other than it is. But contingent upon what ‑ chance, or a wise Creator? The Anthropic Principle, a fairly recent formulation in cosmology, makes it look increasingly as if the universe was intelligently planned.

We begin this chapter with a small scenario: three boys in a classroom, one rather brighter than the other two. It is a lesson in Euclidean geometry, and the master is anything but inspiring. As he drones on, one of the boys, to relieve the boredom, draws a triangle. Next he measures the angles. Then he adds them up. The exercise is aimless, mere doodling; but it ends with something rather fascinating. So far as he can make out the sum is exactly 180°! He informs his companion. "I don't believe you", says the other; but finding it is true, he changes his tune. "What a fluke!", he says or ‑ "You've done it on purpose"! The third boy had been listening. Now with a superior smile he interposes. "Sillies," he says, "all triangles have angles which add up to 180°." And with a few freehand strokes he draws a simple diagram toprove his assertion (Fig. 3):

                  File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Fig. 3 The angles of all triangles add up to 180°

This rather contrived scene illustrates several points. As far as we need to go into it we can put it like this. When a fact is brought to our notice we face two possibilities concerning its standing. Either it 'happens' to be such as it is, and it might have been otherwise; or it 'has to be' what it is from the rational nature of things, and couldn't have been otherwise. In the first case we call it contingent; in the second, necessary. The fact that the angles of a triangle add up to 180° is, we believe, a necessary fact; it follows inescapably from the nature of a plane triangle and from certain propositions (Euclid's 'axioms'), which we hold to be self‑evidently true 1. Its identification as a necessary fact follows from our ability to derive it by the principles of logic without any recourse to observation or measurement 2. A contingent fact, however, rests on a different footing. No axioms exist, we believe, from which it could be known through reason and logic alone. So far as these are concerned the actuality might have been quite otherwise. For instance, in the case of our cosmos it is conceivable that the velocity of light might have been smaller than it is, and the gravitation constant larger; biological reproduction might have involved three sexes, and the genetic code might have spelt‑out amino‑acids very differently. Clearly, knowledge of these things has come only through empirical channels, involving actual physical observation and measurement.

Now the demonstration of contingency 'at the start of the road' (and it is there that we are concerned with it) raises an interesting and important question: contingent upon what? What has selected this possibility to be the actuality and not that? How can we account for the fact that reality is what it is and not something else? One answer to this is that there is no accounting, it is just a 'fluke'; or (if we prefer to make our ignorance sound respectable), that it is due to 'chance'. A second answer is that it is designed, contingent on the will and wisdom of some intelligent Being; 'done on purpose' as the second schoolboy put it. Such a Being would naturally be thought of as personal; don't 'will' and 'wisdom' imply this? To be sure, this second answer too might be a cover for our ignorance. Yet there is an important distinction between the two. The first closes the issue; it becomes a dead end. The second invites further inquiry, and holds out the possibility of great reward. If it is the right answer, this Being, clearly of wisdom and power and unless He had handed the cosmos over to chance early on, probably deliberately purposed the creation of such creatures as we are. Now men and women have will, intelligence, the desire to know and understand, a sense of the importance of moral issues, longings (even passionate ones) for what is ultimately fulfilling to their existence; and to crown all, they have a tremendous and unique ability called 'language' to communicate their thoughts to one another. This last ability forms the basis of one of their principal and most pleasurable activities, the cementing of friendships; and it is probably the most enriching way of doing so. It would be this from the very first days of the human race; without it they could hardly be called human. My reason for saying all this is to make an important point: on those who entertain this second answer the great likelihood will probably thrust itself that the Being who planned and brought the human race into existence will have revealed Himself to them using language; and that in doing so He will have given them also a clear verbal record to be publicly shared from generation to generation. Of course such a revelation would be historically progressive; later generations would have had the advantage of providential preparation for more, and would have also the necessary technical skills to make it widely available. This is a common‑sense view of the matter which I suggest is very reasonable. In writing all this I am not trying to prove my case concerning the Bible. With biblical premises in mind I am trying rather to make plain on what sort of rational foundation belief in verbal, propositional revelation stands: whether it is a crackpot notion, or whether it can be justified in the eyes of thoughtful, open‑minded men and women. Apparently it is the former to some popular writers today; but then so are some of their own beliefs (such as that the difference between right and wrong is merely conventional). I hope I have shown however that sensible arguments can be advanced for believing it. So to the questions "Why do we exist? Are we here by fluke, or through Purpose?" we can with reason affirm "through Purpose".

An aside

We have mentioned above the idea of propositional revelation 3. Some may object that the Bible itself declares that divine revelation is given us not in propositions but in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is, we may agree, the ultimate truth; but the passing on to future generations (that is, the vast majority of mankind) of the details of his life and teaching still requires the use of propositional language, and this in a permanent written form. His deity for instance, his atoning death and his bodily resurrection are not revealed de novo directly to experience in every generation; they are to be believed first because we have them in the New Testament: "Jesus loves me, this I now, for the Bible tells me so". The subject is a deep one; but confirming the authority of the Scriptures was often part of the teaching of Jesus himself (Matt.5:17‑19).

The Contingency of the Universe

This discussion has proceeded on the tacit assumption that contingency of the natural world has been established. But has it? Might it not be the case that the universe is simply defined by logical necessity, and could not be other than it is? Several things can be said in reply to this. Of course the testimony of the Bible is wholly against it. God chose to create the world, it says; He needn't have done so 4. So is the testimony of our common understanding of ourselves, for at a stroke this idea would seem to make our consciousness of any personal freedom a deceitful illusion, and at the same time deprive us of any grounds for real moral responsibility.

Contingency is also one of the basic convictions of science 5. In ancient Greece when men began to speculate on the heavenly bodies it was reasoned that these bodies, being heavenly, must of necessity move in circles, since the circle is the perfect curve. This is the rationalistic, axiomatic approach of pure logic. The characteristic approach of science is different. It is first of all observational, i.e. empirical: if we want to know how the planets move we must look and see. Following this line it was discovered that in fact, they moved in ellipses, not in circles. Later, of course, the elliptical orbits were explained as a consequence of the inverse square law of gravitation. But we have to be careful how we interpret this 'explaining'. It is now accepted that scientific laws are better thought of as descriptive, not prescriptive; they don't make things happen, they describe how they do. So it would be truer to say that the inverse square law follows from the observed motions of the planets rather than that the motions follow from the inverse square law. Further, the empirical nature of science is confirmed by the realization that the inverse square law is not the final word; as a result of more accurate observations it had to give place to Relativity Theory (the sort of 'fate' that repeatedly overtakes scientific generalizations). To give this ultimate role to observation is to accept that the universe is contingent; its characteristics are not such as can be derived by logical effort from self‑evident truths ('axioms'). Confronted with this conviction we are effectively compelled to believe that our cosmos came‑to‑be either by the act of an intelligent Creator, or by what in our ignorance we call 'Chance'6. The Bible says the former, and it says it with great emphasis.

The Anthropic Principle

The Bible's teaching on this question (the origin of contingency) will doubtless seem to many a very reasonable one; however, few allow it radically to shape their lives. It will appear all the more convincing if we give due weight to a fact which many in our scientific culture overlook or underrate: that the eager, probing, wondering, evaluating mind of man, agitated often with guilt, fear, pain or perplexity, isitself part of the whole to be explained ‑ probably even the most important part. To the necessitarians man can hardly be more than an element in a complex logical edifice, while to those who assign to chance the position of ultimate arbiter he is strictly, just a meaningless cosmic accident, and seemingly a tragic one7. Neither of these solutions deals satisfyingly with the problem we have noted, that of man himself; yet this is surely the most agonisingly inescapable of all. But for the Bible, on the contrary, man lies at the very centre of its concern.

That our universe was intelligently planned rather than that it has merely 'happened' is a view which most people, I believe, would agree has been encouraged by some remarkable findings in cosmology. Today probably the favourite theory of origin of the stellar universe is that known popularly as the Big Bang Theory, the discovery of the isotropic low‑temperature background radiation having given this theory a decisive advantage over the rival Steady State Theory of Bondi, Gold and Hoyle, now fallen into disfavour 8. The Big Bang Theory can be very briefly 'under‑described' as follows. The universe started as a mathematical point 'singularity' which in the minutest fraction (10-43) of a second became a 'fireball' of elementary particles and radiation at an inconceivably high temperature and density. The fireball was exploding, and understandably cooling as it expanded. At first the temperature was so high that nothing but the very ultimate constituents of matter could exist; molecules, atoms and even less‑than‑ultimate particles would have been instantly shaken to pieces by the enormous thermal energies. As the fireball expanded and cooled the more complex structures began to appear: first protons and neutrons, then helium nuclei; and after that, at much lower temperatures, hydrogen and other atoms. Finally combinations of atoms, or molecules, formed. Meanwhile of course, on a grosser scale, the matter of the universe had been associating into galaxies and stars, some of the latter giving rise to planetary systems. There for the moment we can leave the matter.

On what is this picture of things based? Firstly, on the well‑established observation that the universe is expanding, probably at a diminishing rate. It is not, however, expanding into space; it is space itself which is expanding. The picture is fairly clear, and with the demise of the Steady‑State Theory it leads naturally enough to the idea of an originally enormous density and temperature at the beginning.

Secondly, the organization of material systems is believed, from a vast amount of experimental work, to be subject to four basic forces. The first, gravity is well known. It results in our experience of 'weight' and is relatively very weak. Familiar too is the quite different electromagnetic force which holds atoms and molecules together and so gives strength to a piece of iron or wood. Then there are two other basic forces of which we have no everyday experience. They are called the weak and strong nuclear forces, and their sphere of operation is within the nucleus of the atom. Now of these four basic forces three have been satisfactorily related together, gravity alone remaining outside the unifying scheme. The knowledge of how these forces work and of the gross state of our universe at the present moment enables us to calculate ‑ not exactly but in a very approximate way ‑ what, it was like in the past as well as what it will be like in the future, much as we can calculate when there have been or will be eclipses of the sun (only the calculation is very much less precise). This calculation can be carried backwards in time to a point at which the universe was young, small, and inconceivably hot. However, at present there is a limit; we cannot go back beyong about 10‑43sec. from the 'beginning' because of our failure to link gravity in with the other forces of nature.

Let us suppose that these calculations can be accepted, and that we may start with the universe as an incredibly hot and dense fireball, expanding with enormous rapidity. What will govern the detailed course of its expansion so far as its large‑scale aspects and its physical and chemical features are concerned? Three obvious initial factors are its constitutional make‑up, its total material content, and its temperature.

Consider these briefly in turn. Matter exists in two forms called respectively 'matter' and 'anti‑matter' 9. They are each a sort of mirror image of the other. They can mutually annihilate each other with the production of radiation. Had these two forms been exactly equal at the outset then it is likely that our present universe would have consisted of nothing but radiation. In fact, their initial unbalance (perhaps to the extent of not more than 1 part in one thousand million) seems to have been of extreme significance 10. The next two factors are related in an even more astonishing way. The course of the expansion depended enormously on the great physical constants which govern the behaviour of matter: the gravitational constant, the speed of light, the electrical charge on the proton, the mass of the electron, and about ten others. Now the staggering thing about these is that they seem to be related together in such an amazingly precise way that our universe has followed the exceedingly narrow path of physical and chemical evolution along which alone conditions could obtain which would make life physically possible. Alter one of the fundamental constants of nature and at the moment when the temperature was right for life there would be remaining practically no hydrogen, an element of supreme importance. Change another minutely and hardly a trace of carbon or oxygen would be available anywhere. Given an initial ball of matter, the energy with which it was set exploding had to be fixed with extraordinary precision if the universe was ever to be inhabited. Listen to Prof. Paul Davies (on whose fascinating book 11 I shall be largely depending):

       "If the bang is too small, the cosmic material merely falls back again [gravitationally] after a brief dispersal and crunches itself to oblivion. On the other hand, if the bang is too big, the fragments get blasted completely apart at high speed, and soon become isolated, unable to clump together into galaxies. In reality, the bang that occurred was of such exquisitely defined strength that the outcome lies precisely on the boundary between these alternatives".                                                                                             (my italics and [   ])

       The striking thing is that this sort of conclusion crops up over and over again. Let me quote further from his fascinating book:

"The fact that the two sides of the inequality (3.9) are such enormous numbers. and yet lie so close to one another, is truly astonishing. If gravity were very slightly weaker, or electromagnetism very slightly. stronger . . all stars would be red dwarfs. A correspondingly tiny change the other way, and they would all be blue giants. . In either case . , the nature of the Universe would be radically different" 12.

Or again:

"It is hard to resist the impression of something – some influence capable of transcending spacetime and the confinements of relativistic causality possessing an overview of the entire cosmos at the instant of its creation, and manipulating all the causally disconnected parts to go bang with almost exactly the same vigour at the same time, and yet not so exactly coordinated as to preclude the small scale, slight irregularities that eventually formed the galaxies, and us"13.

And finally:

"All this prompts the question of why, from the infinite range of possible values that nature could have selected for the fundamental constants, and from the infinite variety of initial conditions that could have characterized the primeval universe, the actual values and conditions conspire to produce the particular range of very special features that we observe. For clearly the universe is a very special place: exceedingly uniform on a large scale, yet not so precisely uniform that galaxies could not form; extremely low entropy per proton and hence cool enough for chemistry to happen; almost zero cosmic repulsion and an expansion rate tuned to the energy content to unbelievable accuracy; values for the strengths of its forces that permit nuclei to exist, yet do not burn up all the cosmic hydrogen, and many more apparent accidents of fortune"14.

We can sum up this "catalogue of extraordinary physical coincidences" which have conspired to make the universe a place where life, as we know it, is at least physically possible by saying that it looks as if it has been painstakingly and specifically designed for man. Sir Fred Hoyle, whom no one would have accused of being a biblical apologist, wrote:

"A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature." 15

This may not be the language of reverence (or be biblically sound), but it speaks clearly enough. It expresses in a popular way what cosmologists refer to guardedly as the 'Strong Anthropic Principle'16 It amounts almost to a scientific proof that God made the world for mankind to inhabit; almost to such a proof, but not quite. For there are ways of avoiding this implication, legitimate to cold logic. I close this chapter with a perhaps rather contrived analogy to make clear the sort of thing I mean.

Two observers in virtual darkness happen to be looking momentarily towards a point in a thick high metallic wall .Through the wall runs a small precisely‑formed hole, accurately square and straight. In that brief moment a longish metal object, evidently fitting the hole with very fine tolerances, passes neatly through, with the gentlest of frictional contacts. "Phew!" says the first observer; "Someone must have made that specially and aimed it with phenomenal skill ‑ shape, trajectory, orientation dead right!" "I don't agree", says the second. "Didn't you notice that the wall was very slightly curved? I guess it forms part of a vast enclosure. That object has been bouncing around with an infinite assortment of others for an infinity of time. It's  only just got it right" (Reader: please consult reference17).

Such is the nature of the choice with which the Anthropic Principle confronts us. Cold logic cannot settle this issue for us either one way or the other. In the end which we each settle for will depend to a major degree on our ethical and spiritual outlook, whether we think so or not. For we, the ones making the choice, have a nature ethical and (in some sense at least) spiritual, and that nature cannot in the end be disregarded. It is for everyone the most inescapable part of that total reality which is our own personal thought-life; compared with it ultimate particles and Einstein's spacetime don't get a look‑in.

It remains an unsatisfactory fact that the secular neo‑Darwinist, like the second observer, professes to base his understanding of things not upon what he knows with immediacy (his own conscious life), but on what is at far more than arms length away, as far distant in fact from his everyday existence as he can get. Here he misguidedly thinks he has really got to the bottom of things, the ultimate foundation of everything existent ‑ elementary particles and the Principle of Uncertainty! Here, as a convenient technical shorthand, he embodies his ignorance in the notion of chance ('statistical fluctuations in absolute nothingness' perhaps). Nearer home he sees the Principle of Natural Selection (Monod's "Pure chance, absolutely free but blind" 18). In his thinking, Chance (now with a capital 'C') inevitably forgets her humble origins and begins to play God. She becomes creative, and after much statistical labour and with natural selection as midwife, she gives birth ‑ to the neo‑Darwinist himself! How else could he have arrived on the scene? Of the things we have been discussing (his personal and moral nature, which he knows best of all) he is not quite so sure. He fumbles over it, and seems a bit tongue‑tied. But at least he is sure of his ultimate particles, and sure too that individually, they behave quite unpredictably. Life, it must seem to him, is bounded at both extremes by invincible ignorance. At the lower end there is Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle; at the upper, the Theatre of the Absurd (like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot). His creed is hardly a satisfying or reassuring one; all it can advise him to do is to join in the dance and try to enjoy it 19. But to many in our modern society the secularist outlook is making that increasingly difficult and problematical. The biblical Christian may be forgiven for thinking that only the most determined 'wishful unthinking' can sustain belief in it when the Bible offers a worthier one, which he (at least) finds so much more compelling ‑ and so much more satisfying.

I shall be returning briefly to this theme again in my last chapter.


1     The lesson was in Euclidean geometry. Since Einstein's work it is believed that real space is non‑Euclidean, but the difference on the scale of a drawing board is infinitesimal. For our purpose in illustrating what is meant by 'necessary' Euclid's axioms can be taken as self‑evident, and needing no proof.

2    An arithmetic example of such is the pair of propositions: 3 + 2 = 2 + 3 = 5

3     A proposition asserts something; propositional revelation makes known truths which could not be known certainly through man's natural faculties. Gen.1.1ff, Isa.1.2ff, John 1.1ff and Rom.1.17ff are typical. Matt.11.25ff and 1Cor.1.21ff put the matter in a nutshell.

4    Rev.4.11

5     Scientists believe that events are predictable on the basis of observed precedent, but not on the basis of a priori rational principles or 'axioms'. Quantum physics goes even further; atomic events are quite unpredictable, except in terms of probabilities.

6     Jacques Monod, CHANCE AND NECESSITY, 1972, p.110; Peter Atkins, THE CREATION, 1981, p.í19; CREATION REVISITED, 1992, p.149

7     This seems a fair statement of Bertrand Russell's view; see op.cit.; chap. 2. Much modern existentialist literature sees human life as basically absurd. See WAITING FOR GODOT, or ENDGAME, by Samuel Beckett.

8    See, for instance, Sir Bernard Lovell, IN THE CENTRE OF IMMENSITIES (Granada, 1980)

9    The electron and positron are the two most familiar examples of this.

10  There are other possible interpretations of the present matter/radiation ratio, but they are equally mysterious.

11  P.C.W. Davies, THE ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE (CUP, Cambridge, 1982), p.91. Davies at the time he wrote this held the chair of Theoretical Physics at Newcastle‑upon‑Tyne. He did not write then (nor does he now as far as I know) as a believer in the biblical sense.

12  Ibid., p. 73 (his italics).

13  Ibid., p.95.

14  Ibid., p.111.

15  Quoted by Davies, ibid., p.118.

16  Greek anthropos, man

17   IMPORTANT: Other suggestions, such as that based on the 'Many Worlds' interpretation of the Quantum Theory, will tax the credulity of the generality no less. For these and other matters reference may be made to Paul Davies and John Gribbin, THE MATTER MYTH (1991); Steven Weinberg, DREAMS OF A FINAL THEORY (1993); Leon Lederman, THE GOD PARTICLE (1993); John Barrow, THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995); and Paul Davies, ABOUT TIME (1995). There is in fact a plethora of books on these subjects at the present time; the suggestions being entertained often provoke the sigh, "What price common sense?" If any reader takes exception to my confessedly inadequate analogy here I would urge him to consult the fine treatment in Denis Alexander's REBUILDING THE MATRIX chap.12. (Lion, Oxford, 2001). Dr Alexander is master of his subject; "this should be compulsory reading" for scientists and humanists, belief or no belief, specialists or generalists (Prof Brian Heap, Vice‑President, Royal Society).

18  CHANCE AND NECESSITY Jacques Monod p.110

19  Gary Zukav, THE DANCING WU‑LI MASTERS: an overview of the New Physics

      (Fontana/Collins, 1979)