Friday, June 03, 2005

Douglas Adams and the weak anthropic principle

Can we lay this one to bed, please?
It’s rather like a puddle waking up one morning— I know they don’t normally do this, but allow me, I’m a science fiction writer— A puddle wakes up one morning and thinks: “This is a very interesting world I find myself in. It fits me very neatly. In fact it fits me so neatly… I mean really precise isn’t it?… It must have been made to have me in it.” And the sun rises, and it’s continuing to narrate this story about how this hole must have been made to have him in it. And as the sun rises, and gradually the puddle is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking— and by the time the puddle ceases to exist, it’s still thinking— it’s still trapped in this idea that— that the hole was there for it. And if we think that the world is here for us we will continue to destroy it in the way that we have been destroying it, because we think that we can do no harm.
Quoted in The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams (I think)

This is a really nice metaphor - Douglas Adams was a fine communicator, and had an excellent imagination. But it says more about his philosophical presuppositions than it does about science - Adams had a prior commitment to a "closed system". Remember in considering this quote that although Adams loved technology, and hung out with scientists, he was not a scientist himself.

It is a particularly poor metaphor in the light of "Privileged Planet" - which is what it has often been quoted relating to. I hope that if Douglas Adams read the book (which was published after his death), he would not have used this metaphor in relation to it. In the case of "Privileged Planet", if you want to work with this metaphor, we have to imagine a puddle waking up one morning, and looking around to see that it is the only puddle on the sidewalk. Furthermore, there has been no rain, and the entire rest of the sidewalk is flat to less than the depth of a drop of water.

The more important point that Adams was making here was about the danger of us destroying ourselves whilst thinking that we are special. I would echo that. I am particularly concerned by people who think that it is their god-given right to drive SUV's, and use electric clothes dryers in Arizona.

But this metaphor isn't an argument against "The Privileged Planet". It was never meant to be. Go quote somebody else's work out of context.