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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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The Agrostic Principle

In honour of the season.

As I drive to and from work in Vancouver, I notice that even in winter, the grass is green. In the spring, people are out fertilizing their lawns and in summer watering them (even when they are not allowed to)—mollycoddled grass! They are now even putting grass on the top of buildings. You would almost think that Vancouver exists for the benefit of grass. But it is not just Vancouver; we have wide areas of the world devoted to grass, from bamboo to grain. You would think the world was created for the benefit of grass. After all, the earth is just the right distance from the sun to allow grass to flourish. Farther from the sun, it would be cold and arid like Mars. Closer to the sun it would be hot and sterile like Venus.  Thus, we have what is known in the trade as the acrostic[1] principle: the philosophical argument that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the preferred status of grass.

As just mentioned, the earth is just at the right distance from the sun for grass to flourish. But it goes beyond that. Carbon is a major component of grass. However, the creation of carbon in stars depends critically on the existence of an excited state in carbon, known as the Hoyle state, with exactly the right energy. If that state were not there, there would be no carbon and hence no grass. The horror of it! Just think, no grass. And it all depends on having the nuclear state at just the right energy.

The Hoyle state is not the only coincidence necessary for the existence of grass. If the fundamental constants of nature, things like the fine structure constant or the gravitational constant (big G) were slightly different, the universe would not support the existence of grass. There are two solutions to this problem. One is to assume that there is an intelligent designer with an inordinate fondness for grass who fine-tuned the universe so grass could exist. Now, there is a minority opinion that it is not grass that he is fond of, but rather beetles (coleoptera) and that he only created grass as a source of feed for beetles. After all, there are the order of a million species of beetles.  But as I just said, the coleopteric principle is distinctly a minority position, but we should be open minded.

The other explanation of the fine tuning of the universe is based on the idea of the multiverse. This is the idea that many different universes exist with all possible values of the physical constants and that we are in the one in which grass is possible.  Again, note the preferred role of grass. The evidence for this scenario, at the present time, is no stronger than that for the existence of the coleopterophillic intelligent designer.

Now one might ask what role consciousness and intelligence have in all this. The answer to that is fairly self-evident. The main role of consciousness and intelligence is the development of civilization, and the main role of civilization is the development of agriculture. It should be obvious to even the most obtuse reader that the main purpose of agriculture is to permit grass to more effectively compete with trees. Just think of the extent to which farmers have replaced forests with grassland. The bringing of European “civilization” to North America had as its main effect, the replacement of forest with grassland.  It had some unfortunate side effects, like the creation of the United States of America, but what is more important—people or grass?

As further evidence of the agrostic principle, I note that it provides the only possible explanation for the existence of golf courses and cricket pitches. The very idea of grown men or women hitting a ball with a club to prove their virility is silly.  Now artificial turf may be considered as evidence against the agrostic principle, but artificial turf seems to be a passing fad. In just 13 years, between 1992 and 2005, the National Baseball League went from having half of its teams (6 of 12) using artificial turf to all of them – now up to 16 – playing on natural grass. As for football (soccer), artificial turf is widely banned. Enough said.

The agrostic principle also highlights flaws in ancient Greek philosophy.  Plato believed that the “good” was contemplating his ideals or ideas. That is incorrect; the greatest good is cultivating and contemplating grass. Like Euclid’s postulates, that should be self-evident. That the smoking of grass is the greatest good is a corruption of Epicurus’s teaching. Rather, he was the first of the new atheists. The Sophists, on the other hand, where the first post-modernists and believed that it was impossible to decide if contemplating or smoking grass was the greatest good. After smoking a few joints, the latter is probably true. Socrates believed that nothing could be learned from nature. Perhaps if he had spent more time cultivating and contemplating grass, he would not have been compelled to drink hemlock. However, Aristotle may have been onto something with his final cause or teleology. Evolution shows its bareness by failing to recognize that consciousness and intelligence arose due to the teleological purpose (final cause) of helping grass compete with trees. This is probably the best example of the need for Aristotle’s final cause that can be found in nature. Unfortunately, Aristotle starting worrying about essences rather than cultivating and contemplating grass. Thus, the Greek civilization decayed. And my wife wants me to replace the lawn with a garden. The end of western civilization is in sight.

The agrostic principle has some naysayers. Douglas Adams gives the example in his Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy of the puddle which observed how well it fitted the hole it was in and concluded that the hole and the universe where created expressly for its benefit. It was consequently quite surprised and distressed when it evaporated. Imagine; the gall of Adams using satire to attack the agrostic principle. Now, of course, the properties of the hole can be deduced from the properties of the puddle, but this should not be used to infer the universe was not created for the sole benefit of the puddle. Some people have followed the example of Adams’s puddle and claimed that since humans nicely fit a hole in the universe, the universe was created for their benefit (this is sometimes call the anthropic principle). These people will probably be surprised when humans go extinct. The superiority of the agrostic principle to the anthropic principle is shown by the observation that while homo spaiens have existed for about 200,000 years, grass tickled the feet of dinosaurs over sixty million years ago. And grass will probably still exist after humans have, through sheer stupidly, destroyed themselves and have been replaced by a group with less intelligence and more wisdom, perhaps the coleoptera.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] From the Greek word ἄγρωστις for grass.

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