I wouldn’t start from here Gina: Historical contingency and the anthropic principle

In science we seek to explain and predict natural phenomena, and part of this process is the identification or construction of cyphers – representative examples or ideas through which we can encapsulate and illustrate our arguments. These fill a significant role in making otherwise irreducibly complex systems tractable, helping us get our heads around – and explain to others – multi-dimensional and abstract concepts. At the risk of getting a bit too George Lucas early in the essay though, in this rhetorical power there is also a dark side – apply a cypher the wrong way and it changes from being an illustrative device to a philosophical delusion that can make ridiculous conclusions seem reasonable, so we sometimes need to take a step back and check the fundamental concepts underlying our thinking.

Alongside her vigorous public advocacy for government deregulation and the lowering of taxes for the wealthy, Gina Rinehart (richest person in Australia and an excellent candidate for poster-child should the Federal government decide to move on from giving the tobacco industry a thorough and long overdue kicking and run a ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ campaign as a contribution to the nation’s health) showed her magnanimous side in August of 2012 by offering some free advice to the less fortunate working citizens of Australia struggling to make ends meet in the face of spiraling living costs:

“If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself – spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.”

Now, whatever you take from that personally (and I’ve got to think there aren’t many people having that particular mantra tattooed across their chests in gothic script as a life changing rule to live by) the interesting thing to realize is that Rinehart’s suggestion probably made absolute sense to her. I say only ‘probably’ as it’s not impossible she’s perfectly aware how offensive her comments were to a large number of people and was just doing it to wind up Wayne Swan, the current Federal Treasurer. In fact, perhaps she and fellow mining tsar Clive Palmer have agreed a billionaire’s wager, much like brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke in the 1983 movie ‘Trading Places’ and are taking it in turns in a colossal game of ‘top that’ to see who can make Swan rupture an aneurysm first. It would certainly explain a significant number of recent media statements. But I digress – Rinehart’s modern take on ‘let them eat cake’ probably made absolute sense to her because of the perspective she brings to the issue. Mrs Rinehart has, after all, worked hard and made many sacrifices to reach the stratospheric levels of wealth that she today enjoys, and presumably sees that path as the wellspring of her success. The same might not have been achieved, however – the same journey indeed, might have not even been possible – without the support, inspiration, and mentoring (not to mention mining leases) of her visionary and highly successful father, the prospector and – ultimately – iron ore magnate, Lang Hancock.

Rinehart might want to tell herself “I could have done it all on my own without the privilege and wealth I was born into” – and who knows, that might even be right. But the fact of the matter is that, outside of a whacky Disney movie (picture it – the ghost of Steve Jobs (played by Ashton Kutcher, obviously) visits Bill Gates (Kermit the Frog playing against type to prove his great comeback playing opposite Jason Segel in last year’s Muppet franchise reboot wasn’t just a lucky break) and offers to create an iGod app to cure all childhood disease in the third world if Bill is prepared to go back in time to live his life again as the son of a struggling but decent single mother (Sandra Bullock). To win the bet Bill has to prove that he can still drop out of college and found the world’s most successful software company without the benefits of an elite private school education and the support and connections of a close-knit and loving family with a lineage of bank directors and successful lawyers stretching pretty much as far back as the Mayflower. I’d pay to see that), that reset will not – can not – happen. Rinehart will never see whether success is possible without the benefits of her upbringing and circumstances, any more than Rick Blaine will ever know if Ilsa and he might actually have lived happily ever after if she’d turned back at the boarding gate and ditched Victor Laszlo and the Czech resistance to stay with him at the end of Cassablanca.

That’s the way historical contingency works. It’s not relevant to ask the question ‘how likely is that’, or ‘what else could have happened’, because as soon as something does happen, infinite possibility collapses down to a single reality.

How likely is it that you could pick the Lotto numbers for Tuesday’s draw? It’s a trivial calculation – a 6 in 40 chance that one of your numbers is first out of the barrel, then a 5 in 39 chance of the second number as well, and so on – for an overall probability of about 1 in 26 million. Too easy? Okay – how about something more challenging – what’s the likelihood of picking the lotto numbers every week for the next year? One in about the order of 10381. That’s a number so vanishingly small as to have no meaningful way to even conceptualise it – about as close to a definition of ‘statistically impossible’ as you could hope for. To put it into some sort of context, there are calculated to be only about 1080 atoms in the visible universe. And yet – if you look back at the historical record, there it is – 6 numbers have come up every week, and you can see that record there in black and white – for a year and more – as far back as you’d like to the first live drawing in Australia back in 1972. The impossible has become the certain. And that’s the point – it’s irrelevant to ask the question “how likely is it that this particular sequence could have happened?” – because the simple fact of record is that it did. Probability has no relevance to history.

Now, by another seemingly astonishing coincidence (yes, it’s a narrative leap of epic proportions, but stick with me on this one), all aspects of the structure of the Universe and the laws of physics by which it operates are within a narrow range of values consistent with the existence and operation of life as we know it. The Universe is old enough to have created enough ‘heavy’ elements (everything other than the hydrogen and helium created in the Big Bang) through solar processes for we carbon-based life forms to exist on a nice rocky planet – but not so old that stars like our Sun have turned into dim white dwarfs incapable of bathing us in sustaining warmth. The cosmological constant is large enough to have stopped the Universe collapsing back in on itself, but not so large that rampant inflation stopped matter from coalescing to form stars…the list goes on.

Some people take this as a cornerstone of a theistic viewpoint (the universe could only be so perfectly attuned to the needs of life if it was designed by a creator). In a philosophical position known as the Strong Anthropic Principle, others – in what to me has always sounded rather uncomfortably close to a re-hash of the religious approach without the fancy clothes and awe-inspiring architecture – advocate, that the Universe is ‘compelled’ in some sense for conscious life to eventually emerge.

The obvious fallacy in these ideas though is that, like the ‘impossible’ prediction of an entire year’s lotto numbers, it implies that there is an alternative to the historical record. How likely is it that the universe we live in could be so perfectly suited to the evolution and function of biological life without some guiding hand and/or Universal compulsion directing it? The thing is, of course, that’s not even a valid philosophical construct – because the very fact you’re here to ask that question establishes pretty effectively that the Universe is, indeed, finely suited to your existence. To ask how it could have evolved differently is like the old joke about asking for directions in Ireland/the Countryside/Tasmania/insert-name-of-region-you-wish-to-denigrate-here – the punchline being “Well first of all, I wouldn’t start from here…”

What this drives us towards then is an acceptance of the less extreme Weak Anthropic Principle – which runs along the lines of ‘because intelligent life could only exist under the time and conditions we see around us in the Universe, it shouldn’t really surprise us that, as (nominally) intelligent life forms, those are the conditions we see’. It may be nothing more than a simple logical construction that doesn’t help us to explain or make useful predictions about anything else (and thus cannot be called a theory in any meaningful sense), but at least it has the advantage from my perspective that it doesn’t require us to start from an egocentric belief in the miraculous or predestination.

So thanks, Mrs Rinehart, for helping me to embrace my inner doubts and see that historical contingency means we don’t need to believe in our own specialness. The moral of the story I suppose, should one be desired, is that maybe instead of worrying about our position in the Universe and what it means, we should all be glad – and grateful – for what we’ve inherited.


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