What Is the Misanthropic Principle?

The “anthropic principle” is the idea that the universe is amazingly perfect for life. To make my point, I coined the poetic term “the misanthropic principle,” which states: In a universe that is amazingly perfect for life, the multiplicity of possible environments is so varied and unsuitable—or even hostile—to intelligent life, either always or at some time during the roughly 4 billion years it needs to form and thrive, that intelligent life is very, very rare.

I emphasize that unlike the dour connotations of misanthropy, the misanthropic principle is joyous: We are special, we are blessed, and we are capable. This is the spiritual part.

I use the new results of the exoplanet searches to make the case more quantitative for the first time. Within a volume of space extending to 1,200 light-years—a size such that we will not even know about all its putative inhabitants for 1,000 years (I took 100 human generations) due to finite light travel times—there are only about 30 million stars. The new statistics on them now suggest that the chances for intelligent species (other than ourselves) are slight.

The implications for religion are serious: We are blessed (or lucky, if you are an atheist). As I argued at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, from my Jewish perspective of the Bible, being blessed means that we therefore have responsibilities: to act with humility and charity toward each other and the whole Earth and its inhabitants. As a religious person, I think it is not completely sensible to imagine that our blessed condition is just the result of inevitable chemical reactions.

Howard Smith is a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the author of Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah, a New Conversation Between Science and Religion.

Category: Q&A


6 Responses

  1. MarkS says:

    “… intelligent life is very, very rare.”

    That’s only half the story. Because the universe is very, very large, intelligent life is likely very, very abundant… just spread out very, very widely.

    Wouldn’t that be the real spiritual attitude anyway? That’s God’s love is abundant?

  2. Daneel says:

    I think the whole Anthropic Principle and religion thing is ridiculous. If the universe is hospitable for life, god must have made it that way; if the universe is hostile to life, then how blessed are we by the will of god.

    Is just a big fat exercise in spin. A glass half full, half empty thing.

  3. phil_style says:

    Daneel makes a good point, and it goes in both directions when mixing cosmology with theology. If you’ll allow me to flip the phrase;

    If the universe is hospitable for life, that indicates human life (and our religious notions) is nothing special; if the universe is hostile to life, then how unlikely there is a benevolent God who would create with so much lifeless waste.

  4. Tomas Rees says:

    Religion has never been great shakes at the whole ‘testable predictions’ lark. Why people continue to put observations forward as ‘evidence’ for their religious beliefs is beyond me.

  5. Howard Smith says:

    These are all good comments, but permit me to add a clarification to my piece on the Misanthropic Principle. In God’s beautiful, simple, and law-based universe one ‘rule’ is what we kn ow of as Relativity and the finite speed of light. Although there could be billions of civilizations in the distant cosmos that we can see, remember that we see those regions now *as there were billions of years ago* depending of course on their distances (and distance is increasing daily).

    Intelligent life might indeed be very common in an ‘anthropic’ and perfect cosmos … it is just that we just are very very unlikely to know about them, and we will certainly never be able to communicate with most of them. For any farther away than about 10 billion light-years, the accelerating, expanding universe means even if we wait forever we will never ever hear back.

    My point is not that God made only us. My point is that we are (probably) alone in our neighborhood, and should not hope for salvation from an ET. We are both on our own, and also have been given the tools to succeed.

    If you send me a request at my website,
    hsmith@lettherebelightbook.com, I will send you a full copy of the AAAS presentation.

  6. beto says:

    @daneel…in my belief system, god and the universe are interchangeable…and to think were the lucky ones to be only intelligent species in this universe is absurd and ignorant…acknowledge the fact that our intelligence is our defense mechanism and nothing more..

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