Purpose and the Anthropic Principle

I decided to upload some of my work from my Master’s of Divinity Studies from Bethel Seminary. This is from my Theology and Science class, a very challenging class since it stretched my comfort zone quite a bit. It’s a bit long for a blog, but I think you may find it helpful.

Created May 22, 2015

Purpose and the Anthropic Principle

We live in an incredible world. All around us we find astounding landscapes, filled with verdant expressions of life on a macro scale. From the largest of land animals currently living down to the miniscule bodies of the single cell variety, and everything in between, we see an abundant and varied biosphere. Teeming with life, this biosphere is placed on a planet that is in orbit around a star that provides light, warmth, protection and dynamic forces that keep the planet alive. This star is the centerpiece of a solar system that has eight planets and numerous other bodies all in a cosmic dance that pushes and pulls the system into a stability that is marvelous. This system finds itself in an arm of a spiral galaxy known locally as the Milky Way. The 100,000+ light years that span the width of the galaxy pale in comparison to the distances revealed in the fact that the nearest neighbor is millions of light years distant, this relation is itself part of a local collection of galaxies. And the scale only grows as we pull back even further to view our universe in its over 14 billion light year breadth. The scale is fantastic. In fact, it is really beyond our reckoning – nothing can prepare us for the size and awe of the expanse of the universe as we know it. And this, then, is the centrality of the question. Knowing the universe. Bringing the point back to this planet, and the key feature of humanity, we will take a look at the fine-tuning of the universe in light of the anthropic principle and find that there is a purpose for what we know as the universe beyond chance and randomness. This can lead to the foundation of a Creator who has purposefully crafted the universe and life within it.

First of all, we need to look at the central ideas that are to be discovered in this targeted look at the universe. There are two primary concepts that must be given adequate room for explanation so that the conclusions will be thoughtful and robust. Without the foundation of definitions and descriptions, we will be pulled away from our goal. These two ideas are the reality of fine-tuning observed in the universe and a theory that helps give direction for what we see, the Anthropic Principle. Fine-tuning is an undeniable feature of our universe. “The size of bodies such as stars and planets are neither random nor the result of any progressive selection process, but simply manifestations of the different strengths of the various forces of nature.” The various forces of nature mentioned by Alister McGrath are well known and are fundamental to the construction of everything we know as the universe. These forces, such as the strong nuclear force, ratios between the electromagnetic force and that of gravity, cosmic repulsion, and others, lead inevitably to an amazing conclusion. As discoveries were uncovered about the earliest moments of the beginning of our universe, what should have been completely random appeared to have some non-random occurrences. Speaking of this, Mooney asserts, “The most surprising thing was that, although the Big Bang ought statistically to have been a totally chaotic event, it was apparently the origin, against all probability, of an exquisitely fine-tuned set of cosmic laws.” If any of these set laws varied by even miniscule proportions, the universe as we know it would not exist.

To further grasp the importance of the fine-tuning of our universe, digging into some amazing numbers will prove effective. Steven Hawking, in talking about the initial expansion of the Big Bang in just the few moments after it began, said, “If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present state.” Paul Davies in The Goldilocks Dilemma describes at length the unique properties of the weak nuclear force that, if changed either by being just a tiny bit stronger or weaker, would have prevented the creation of helium in the early universe. This would have made the creation of other, heavier elements impossible and rendered the entire universe incapable of leading to life. Alister McGrath gives a laundry list of fine-tuning phenomenon in his book, A Fine-Tuned Universe. The strong nuclear force, fundamental for the function of stars at the atomic level, is exactly right for efficient burning of hydrogen and other light elements. “This force, which has a value of 0.007, ‘controls the power from the Sun and, more sensitively, how stars transmute hydrogen into all the atoms of the periodic table.’ Once more, the value of this constant turns out to be of critical importance. If it ‘were 0.006 or 0.008, we could not exist.’” Further, “If the gravitational fine-structure constant were slightly smaller, stars and planets would not have been able to form, on account of the gravitational constraints necessary for coalescence of their constituent material. If stronger, the stars thus formed would have burned out too quickly to allow for the evolution of life.” There are many more examples that could be shown, each leading to the unfortunate reality that, if tweaked even a little, would lead the ultimate destruction of the universe as we know it. There are at least 26 fine-tuned constants that we observe in our universe. Each one is vital for the establishment of life, the longevity of time to allow for the immense requirements to produce the right conditions for evolution to occur and, ultimately, lead to intelligent life.

Having looked at the plainly evident necessity of fine-tuning for our universe, we can now turn to take a look at reasons for this fine-tuning. If it doesn’t lead somewhere, then does it really matter to talk about coincidences in the structure of the universe we live in? The big question to be addressed is this: Why is it important to ascribe reason for what we see around us? Why does fine-tuning need an explanation, or put another way, why is chance not fully satisfactory? Fred Hoyle, well known for his tremendous intellect and creative science, led him to make this conclusion: “’I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars. If this is so, then my apparently random quirks have become part of a deep-laid scheme. If not then we are back again at the monstrous series of accidents.” Hoyle felt the tension for explanation within his own conclusions. This reveals the need for some sort of explanation, and the Anthropic Principle in particular offers an intriguing opportunity.

There are several versions of the Anthropic Principle which have bearing on our discussion. Each one has insight that may help us come to a conclusion about reasons for the universe and the purpose for existence of life. There is the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP), Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP), and the Final Anthropic Principle (FAP). While the definitions may vary in specific details, the following can be used for the purposes of unraveling the strengths and, in some cases weaknesses, of the argument:

(1) Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) : “The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.”
(2) Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP) : “The Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history.”
(3) Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP): “Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.”
(4) Final Anthropic Principle (FAP): Intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out.”

In the following, we will take the central ideas of the Anthropic Principle and gain understanding from the general aspects of the theory rather than the specifics from each variant. As a general summarization of the Anthropic Principle, the basic conclusion is that the universe does not exist without life, intelligent life in particular, being produced. The variants differ in the insistence upon life, but the bottom line is that the foundation of each of the variations is that life is required in one way or another.

When the Anthropic Principle was first introduced in 1974 by Brandon Carter, it was met with academic skepticism. The idea that there was some sort of purpose in the accepted randomness of the theories that prevailed at that time led many to discount the principle as unnecessary or frivolous. In 1986, the seminal work by John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, set the stage for this idea to go more mainstream and it began to offer a viable explanation for the realities of observations in the scientific field. “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle set out the extraordinary, seemingly fortuitous coincidences that appear to have made life possible.” The intrusion of a trajectory of the universe leading to some known (or even unknown) end begins to put science at a disadvantage. “Science has explanatory power, enabling understanding of the impersonal forces that control the natural world and, to some extent, of living systems and even of the mind. It can give very precise predictions of the behavior of matter, in the case of simple physical systems.” The purpose of science is not to ascribe meaning. This is where the Anthropic Principle can lead to difficulties for science, but provide a framework for theology to enter into the picture.

Up until now, the idea of God has not been introduced. But as soon as we cross into the realm of purpose or meaning, science becomes inadequate. But theology can inform us, without denying the scientific nature of discovery and explanation. There is often an uncomfortable disconnect between these two disparate disciplines. One is seen as precise, the other can be seen as un-measurable. But in dealing with life, the lines begin to get blurred in powerfully applicable ways that can lead us to deeper understanding for both disciplines. Can we know anything about God from strictly scientific observations? Can we know anything about science from strictly theological considerations? The answer to both can be, and should be, yes. Alister McGrath, in concluding a lengthy discussion concerning the early theologian, Augustine of Hippo, arrives at this conclusion: “Even though the natural sciences and Christian theology do not speak the same language, they clearly possess overlapping domains of interest, leading to the potential for intellectual enrichment on the one hand and conflict on the other.” The Anthropic Principle gives us a framework to discuss the important issues such as meaning and purpose from a scientific perspective that can also include thoughts influenced by theology.

So, what are we to do? In light of the fact that we, intelligent life, exist, how are we to interpret this data? Theology, Christian Theology in this instance, leads us directly to purpose for our existence. Appealing to scripture to provide guidance is a starting point, just as other starting points are accepted as adequate. We find in Genesis an account of creation that, in summary, reveals a God who is Creator that masterfully sets up the stars, planets, satellites, movement of the heavens, order in the cosmos, firm ground for the establishment of plants, animals, and ultimately human life. Human life is unique to this creation due to the extra attention given by God in presenting his image and breath to humankind. From this account in Genesis we find intelligent life at the crux of creation. Turning the tables, and taking a look from the scientific vantage point, we find some striking similarities. There appears to be a beginning, followed by expansion of this chaotic conglomeration of forces, matter, anti-matter, and energy leading to successive generations of stars, explosions, ever increasing complexity in atomic structures, recapitulation of matter into the next generation of stars eventually forming planets, and in our case, Earth. On this Earth, life takes a foothold leading inexorably to intelligent, self-aware, beings that begins to discover things about the universe that otherwise would be unknown and unnecessary. Both stories lead to one conclusion. Intelligent life. One of these interpretations is able to answer the ‘why’ simply because it is designed to answer questions like this – theology. The other interpretation balks at purpose, but the apparent direction toward intelligent life leads to the Anthropic Principle – the universe will result in intelligent life.

An aside must be made to address a couple of issues that have been brought up concerning the Anthropic Principle. First of all, there is a theory that addresses the apparent uniqueness of our fine-tuned universe, and thus, discounts the Anthropic Principle. This is the many-worlds theory, otherwise know as the Multiverse. “Constants of nature that shape the character of our world take different values in other island universes. Most of these universes are drastically different from ours, and only a tiny fraction of them are hospitable to life.” The multiverse remains untestable despite the attempt to ascribe certainty to its existence. It is easy to see why the multiverse is appealing to discount purpose in the universe – if there are infinite numbers of universes where the constants are different, eventually one of them will have the correct ratios and inevitably lead to life. Therefore, our universe is extremely mediocre, it was bound to happen and there is nothing special about us. Secondly, there are objections to the Anthropic Principle that attempt to relegate it to an observational selection effect. That is, we are here, so of course we will be observant of that fact. It is almost a tautology. But this disinterest cannot dismiss the underlying question asked by the Anthropic Principle – we are here and, because of the intense, observed, fine-tuning, why is this the case? I feel that attempts to discount the Anthropic Principle are primarily concerned with the discomfort brought about by the insertion of purpose and meaning into the equation of the scientific observations of our universe. Joining theology hand in hand with scientific observation does away with the discomfort and creates a solid foundation for understanding.

In conclusion, allow me to present an imperfect analogy that may help. Language can actually help us in describing some ideas dealing with fine-tuning and the idea of purpose and meaning. In language, meaning can found in the structure of sounds, represented by symbols, and arranged purposefully to convey the thoughts and intents of the author. Letters that represent various sounds, by themselves, unstructured, are meaningless. It is only when they are arranged purposefully that information can be expressed and communication make sense. A random structure of letters ends up without any discernable purpose. But when an author wants to produce sentences, paragraphs, novels, dissertations, he or she gathers the letters and arranges them to lead the reader (or listener) to a distinct conclusion – the intent of the author. To me, there are structures that are foundational to our universe that, if completely random, produce no meaning. The conclusion of this randomness is an empty and unassailable nothingness. This is the universe where the constants, the letters, are not fine-tuned. But our universe is absolutely fine-tuned. There is meaning to be found in the structures because they speak to us, beckon us for discovery, for experiment, for meaning. The Anthropic Principle begins to reveal the intent and purpose of the various constants of the universe, intelligent life. And theology would inform us of the deeper purpose, that of a God that is moving creation forward, speaking through the structures, and constants, producing life with humanity as the crowning achievement. The Anthropic Principle can inform us of the language of creation through a lens of science that is compatible with a theological purpose. “[T]he Christian mind does not passively receive impressions of nature, but actively interprets it.” This conclusion rests on the assurance of faith in a Creator who has ordered our universe with the ultimate purpose of revealing himself through time and human discovery.


Davies, Paul. Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe just Right for Life? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.

Harris, Errol E. Cosmos and Anthropos: A Philosophical Interpretation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. London: Humanities Pr Intl, 1991.

McGrath, Alister E., 1953. A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology; The 2009 Gifford Lectures. Vol. 2009. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Mooney, Christopher F. “The Anthropic Principle in Cosmology and Theology.” Horizons 21, no. 1 (03/01, 1994): 105-129.

Russell, Robert J., Nancey C. Murphy, and C. J. Isham. Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action. Vol. 1. Vatican City State; Berkeley, Calif: Vatican Observatory, 1996.

Sharpe, Kevin J. and Jonathan Walgate. “The Anthropic Principle: Life in the Universe.” Zygon 37, no. 4 (12/01, 2002): 925-939.

Vilenkin, A. Many Worlds in One : The Search for Other Universes. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.


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