Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Cracks in the “Crack”: the Limits of Humanity

CT's picture

We begin with the postulate of the “crack”1 in thinking about science. Each individual brings a different interpretation to a range of observations. In the world of cracks, each new perspective is valuable because it provides an alternative to the current theories, and allows for the growth of being “less wrong.” Individual subjectivity is necessary in this process, unlike traditional science where objectivity is lauded. Despite conventions of avoiding first person pronouns and attempting to remove the individual element, subjectivity is becoming more accepted in the scientific community. For example, the use of personal pronouns2 is being accepted as useful in helping people understand science not as the discipline of textbooks, but an organic body of knowledge. This enables us to expand the range of understanding which we have over our environment.
The crack is an important point in the discussion of fact and truth in science. While the goal of science may be to get closer to a truth, the reality is that we will get it progressively less wrong. We continue infinitum, like Zeno’s paradox, never reaching our goal. However, we do get things less wrong and have the ability to improve our predictions. The crack is, according to Paul Grobstein, a feature rather than a bug in the system.
Despite the uplifting possibilities of the “crack,” humanity is constrained by the ability to observe the environment around us. We begin science by posing the question “why are things the way they are.” The solution is one which is not conducive to deep debate. Simply put, the solution is that if things differed, then we would not be able to pose that question. This reasoning is a feature of the anthropic principle, a principle common in cosmology. It does not negate the quest for understanding our environment, but it does put a limit to the usefulness of questioning why the world is what it is.
The anthropic principle stems from “Dicke's coincidence.” Robert Dicke posed that it was a convenient coincidence that “that certain parameters or conditions of the universe hold only at the present epoch in the universe's history, so we appear, coincidentally, to be living at a very special time. Together with Brandon Carter, Dicke noted the fact that this epoch coincided with the lifetime of what are called main sequence stars, such as our sun.” 3 This can also be put as “the number of particles in the observable extent of the Universe...’were no random but conditioned by biological factors’”4 Of course, if these certain parameters were not true, we would not exist to question them. For example – if we never had eyes, we would not be able to conceive of color. This does not mean that colour does not exist. The anthropic principle leaves us at a point where we can only expand as imagination let us. While the crack may be a feature, it is only a feature within a larger bug. We are limited, and can in a sense reach a limit of being “less wrong” because we are human.

The anthropic principle contains nuances of definition. Dicke’s coincidence laid the basis for the weak anthropic principle5. The weak anthropic principle is defined as: “The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.”6 What we see in the universe is “self selected”7 since we see only what our understanding of biological changes allow. Therefore an individual may have greater difficulty understanding the existence of human evolution, because it is not necessarily apparent in our limited view of the world. We cannot see human evolution the way we can see the evolution of single celled organisms. We can imagine and use analogies, but humans can never be free of the existence of humanity.
In many ways, the anthropic principle is a recognition Descartes infamous “cognito ergo sum” in his Discourse on Method8. We can only be sure of our individual consciousness and its existence: everything else may be an illusion. This is a bug which has not succeeded to be resolved. Naturally, it makes sense to act as if we do exist on a level in which our actions have repercussions in the world around us. However, we may still be “brains in a vat”9 or in a collective hallucination. We have no ability to know beyond our own existence of consciousness. Still we can theories as to how the world exists and works. It will simply be done with the limit of human imagination.
Any theory must be created around human thought and our capabilities to internalize information. No theory may disprove the existence of the individual who reads it. There, a primary acknowledgement of scientific inquiry is to account for human existence. Astronomy is incomplete without understanding the Earth, and psychology is flawed if it does not tackle the drive for survival. Science as a whole is “more wrong” if it ignores the centrality of man in thought.

A feature of the anthropic principle is the prediction of extra terrestrial life. Since “evolution is intrinsically likely to take far longer than it has taken on our planet... extraterrestrial civilizations are quite rare.”10 Due to the relative unlikelihood of life evolving, a greater amount of time has to be allowed for the evolution of life in other places. We cannot, therefore claim uniqueness as a virtue bestowed only to Earth. Instead, we must allow for the concept that life could arise elsewhere, but the probability of comparable life arising at the same time as ours in extremely low. We, as the aberration in the grand order, must allow for probabilities and for the possibility that life outside of Earth may not be comparable.

Acknowledging the anthropic principle is primarily done in astronomy, where is suppresses the instinct to question the bizarre furnishings which have coincided to give rise to human life. But in a more local sense, acknowledging the anthropic principle is a problem since the question plaguing the evolution debate in America remains: could a creator with intent have made the universe? It is a massive coincidence that human life has been able to successfully arise. Yet coincidence does not necessitate intention or causation.
We must be careful in drawing conclusions from our observations. Those observations are limited by what we as humans can perceive and conceive. Simply because we have not observed something directly, does not mean that its existence is negated.11 Embracing the crack helps us in expanding our understanding of the universe, but we are still debilitated by the fact that we can only think within the range of human comprehension. Where does this leave us? We still have the ability to improve what we know, to get things less wrong. But we must still recognize the flaw in the hopeful message. We can never be right because we are human. Recognition of our flaws only helps us make more thoughtful decisions.

1 “The Story of Evolution: Day 2.” Serendip. 25 January 2007. </sci_cult/evolit/s07/day2.html>.
2 Myers, Gregory A. Textbooks and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. English for Specific Purposes, Vol. 11, pp. 3-17, 1992.
3 “Robert H Dicke.” Wikipedia. <>.
4"Anthropic Definitions" Genesis of Eden. 26 May 2004. <>. 13 February 2007.
5 Berger, Daniel. "The Impertinent Anthropic Principle." 30 May 2005. Dan Berger. 14 February 2007 <>.
6 "Anthropic Definitions" Genesis of Eden. 26 May 2004. <>. 13 February 2007.
7 "Anthropic Definitions" Genesis of Eden. 26 May 2004. <>. 13 February 2007.
8 Clarke, Desmond and René Descartes. Discourse on Method, and Related Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
9 Antti Revonsuo’s Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon
10 Wilson, Patrick. "Carter on Anthropic Principle
predictions." British Journal of Philosophical Science 45 (1994) 241-253.
11 "Observation selection theory: a primer." 16 July 2002. 13 February 2007. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

cracking it

Well, Caroline,

you have succeeded in engaging me. You take as your ground Paul’s claim that “the crack is a feature, not a bug,” and then you think through that feature to its logical end (and limitation!): that we cannot get beyond our limits as human perceivers. The range of perceivers/practitioners/scientists can be expanded, our range of observations and science as a practice will be strengthened. But that only goes so far; the anthropic principle suggests (claims?) that we’re never going to (or: at least have not yet been able to) get beyond being human.

(Actually, whether this is a suggestion or a claim is not clear to me. You discuss the “weak” anthropic principle, but you don’t explicitly contrast it with a “strong” one. Are there other variations, other nuances, in this position that you might elaborate?)

The big question, of course, is where this leaves us. In nihilism?

Another big question I have has to do w/ your use of the word “imagination.” How is that different from “perception,” and what role does it play exactly in adumbration of the anthropic principle? Linked here is your claim that “colour does exist.” Not so sure about that; see some of the stuff that Sharon Burgmayer has done around this question on Serendip.

You’ll find other, related questions throughout my responses: who is “we” in the opening line? Why “natural,” not “pragmatic”? I’m also interested in who Robert Dicke and Brandom Carter are; what sort of work were they doing that led them to describe these coincidences? And what of the link to Descartes? Is that something they saw? Something other philosophers have pointed to, or a connection you made on your own? (I think it’s an interesting one, and could fruitfully be elaborated on….)

Finally, we might talk about prose style. Sometimes (“the uplifting possibilities of the ‘crack’) I think you are hilarious. Oft times I think you are loose-and-baggy (experiment w/ shorter sentences; try turning “its existence is negated” into “it doesn’t exist”). Don’t rely so much on others’ language; translate their ideas into sentences of your own.

And keep on thinking. This is good stuff.