Entropy and Anthropic Explanations

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has a great post on Ludwig Boltzmann, entropy, and anthropic explanations.

A recent post of Jen-Luc’s reminded me of Huw Price and his work on temporal asymmetry. The problem of the arrow of time — why is the past different from the future, or equivalently, why was the entropy in the early universe so much smaller than it could have been? — has attracted physicists’ attention (although not as much as it might have) ever since Boltzmann explained the statistical origin of entropy over a hundred years ago. It’s a deceptively easy problem to state, and correspondingly difficult to address, largely because the difference between the past and the future is so deeply ingrained in our understanding of the world that it’s too easy to beg the question by somehow assuming temporal asymmetry in one’s purported explanation thereof. Price, an Australian philosopher of science, has made a specialty of uncovering the hidden assumptions in the work of numerous cosmologists on the problem. Boltzmann himself managed to avoid such pitfalls, proposing an origin for the arrow of time that did not secretly assume any sort of temporal asymmetry. He did, however, invoke the anthropic principle — probably one of the earliest examples of the use of anthropic reasoning to help explain a purportedly-finely-tuned feature of our observable universe. But Boltzmann’s anthropic explanation for the arrow of time does not, as it turns out, actually work, and it provides an interesting cautionary tale for modern physicists who are tempted to travel down that same road.