Anthropic Reasoning, Multiverses, and Eternal Inflation (Part One of Two)

You and I are very very lucky. Human life is very delicate, and the conditions under which it can thrive are not in the majority. Going by random chance, neither of us should exist.

I am referring, of course, to the fact that the Earth’s surface is about 70 percent ocean. Just think how lucky you are not to have been born there: you would have drowned! Let alone if you were born beneath the Earth’s crust!

If you understand why the above is ridiculous, congratulations: you’ve just discovered anthropic reasoning.

There are some situations we find ourselves in because they are common. Most (all) of the Earth is in orbit around the Sun, so if you find yourself in orbit around the Sun you should hardly be surprised. Some situations, on the other hand, keep happening not because they are common in the universe in general, but because they are the part of the universe in which we can exist. Recognizing those situations is anthropic reasoning.

It’s not weird that you were born on land, even though land is rarer than water, because land, and not water, is where people live. As long as there was any land on the earth at all, you would expect people to be born on it (or on ships, I suppose) rather than on the ocean.

The same sort of reasoning explains why we evolved on Earth to begin with. There are eight planets in the solar system (yes, Pluto is not a planet, get over it), and only one of them is in the right place for life like us. We aren’t “lucky” that we ended up on Earth rather than another planet, nor is it something “unlikely” that needs to be explained: we’re on Earth because the universe is big enough that there happens to be a planet that has the right conditions for life, and Earth is that planet.

What anthropic reasoning has a harder time explaining (but what some people are working very hard to make it explain) is the question of why our whole universe is the way it is. Our universe is a pretty good place for life to evolve. Granted, that’s probably just a side effect of it being a good place for stars to evolve, but let’s put that aside for a second. Suppose the universe really is a particularly nice place for life, even improbably nice. Can anthropic reasoning explain that?

Probably. But it takes some work.

See, the difficulty is that in order for anthropic reasoning to work, you need to be certain that some place hospitable to life actually is likely to exist. Earthlike planets may be rare, but there are enough planets in the universe that some of them are bound to be like Earth. If universes like ours are rare, though, then how can there be enough universes to guarantee one like ours? How can there be more than one universe at all?

That’s why you need a multiverse.

A multiverse, in simple terms, is a collection of universes. If you object that a universe is, by definition, all that exists, and thus there can’t possibly be more than one, then you can use an alternate definition: a multiverse is a vast universe in which there are many smaller universe-like regions. These sub-universes don’t have much (or any) contact with eachother, and (in order for anthropic reasoning to work) must have different properties.

Does a multiverse exist, though? How would one work?

There are several possibilities, of varying degrees of plausibility. Some people have argued that quantum mechanics leads to many parallel universes, while others posit that each universe could be like a membrane in some higher dimensional space. The multiple universes could be separated in ordinary space, or even in time.

In the next post, I will discuss one of the more plausible (if still controversial) possibilities, called eternal inflation, in which new universes are continually birthed in a vast sea of exponentially expanding space. If you have no idea what the heck I meant by that, great! Tune in next time to find out!

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