The Omicron Point:
Sociological Application of the Anthropic Theory


William Sims Bainbridge

Pages 91-101 in Chaos and Complexity in Sociology: Myths, Models and Theory edited by Raymond A. Eve, Sara Horsfall, and Mary E. Lee (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1997).

This paper was originally given at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, New York City, August 20, 1996. It was subsequently presented to participants at two meetings: "Shared Future: The Prospects of Revolution" (Asian Forum Japan, Tokyo, Japan, September 2-6, 1996) and "Nonlinear Dynamics in the Behavioral and Social Sciences" (National Research Council, Washington, D.C., November 15-16, 1996).

Homansian Sociology
The Anthropic Principle
The Pivotal Question
Scenario I: Catastrophe
Scenario II: Stasis
Scenario III: Navigation


The anthropic cosmological principle is an explanation for the characteristics of the universe that has achieved some currency in cosmology and philosophy over the past twenty years. It notes that many if not all of these characteristics are constrained by the fact that the universe contains observers. That is, when we ask why the world has the attributes it does, the answer may be that only in such a world could an intelligent, living creature capable of asking such a question come into existence. Every aspect of anthropic analysis is controversial, including a multifaceted debate over whether the idea is capable of being tested against empirical data. Yet it has proven so fruitful in discussions about the large-scale physical parameters of the universe, that it is worth considering whether it has any application to the social world as well. The aim of this essay is to show that it does and that one reasonable if unusual line of argument leads to surprising predictions about the limits of sociology.

Given that anthropic analysis was initially applied to questions about nature, the most logical way to link it to sociology is to approach it through a school of sociological analysis with especially close intellectual ties to the physical sciences, namely the behavioral sociology of George Homans (1950, 1967, 1974, 1984, 1987). Other connections can be drawn through a deductive theory of religion based in large part on the principles of theory-construction enunciated by Homans (Stark and Bainbridge 1987, cf. 1985). The first sociological applications of anthropic theory were in a pair of publications in the sociology of religion, the first of which was given as a paper at a conference in October 1983 (Bainbridge 1987, 1993).

Homansian Sociology

In his influential 1950 volume, The Human Group, Homans argued that small social groups originally came into existence as effective means for mediating between the individual and the natural environment. In many respects, cooperation in a group increases the individuals' capacity to extract rewards from the environment and to defend against external threats. Once rudimentary social life has evolved, then it may serve other purposes, and the form of social relations can become more elaborated than strictly demanded by the practical concerns of dealing with the surrounding natural environment. The human species is a product of the natural environment and has been shaped by biological evolution to possess a large, complex brain with the related capacities for language, abstract thought, and complex social behavior (cf. Homans 1987:139-141; Wilson 1975:551; Stark and Bainbridge 1987:29).

Homans stated five general propositions that he believed could explain the regularities in human behavior. The first, for example, states, "For all actions taken by persons, the more often a particular action of a person is rewarded, the more likely the person is to perform that action" (Homans 1974:16). The task of the social theorist, for Homans, was to develop logical systems that deduced from such axioms the specific propositions about behavior discovered by empirical sociologists in the course of their research. Much ink has been spilled on the issues of whether Homans actually succeeded in deducing any specific propositions from his five general ones, and he probably needed to add axioms about human cognition to his system (Turner 1986; Stark and Bainbridge 1987). Sociologists have often lost sight, however, of the fundamental purpose of the Homansian theoretical program and the working assumptions on which it is based. The aim was to understand the regularities of human behavior in terms of fundamental facts of human nature, not merely in terms of intellectual axioms postulated by theorists. The working assumptions were that distinct laws of nature actually exist, and that those immediately relevant to human behavior are few in number.

A small number of axioms does not imply that society is simple. Homans (1967:90-99) himself identified two complicating factors, historicity and divergence. Historicity is the infinitely complex set of prior events that serves as the background for even the most elementary human decision. Every human action is taken in the context of a particular, unique historical moment, and it may never be possible to learn enough about the antecedents of that moment, including the history of the individual human being, to understand or predict that action with confidence. Divergence is the principle that even a seemingly small decision could have immense consequences. Homans (1967:97) explains: "In divergence, a force weak in itself but just tipping the scales in a balance of stronger forces has big and spreading effects over time." Thus, Homans anticipated ideas of the recent intellectual movement that focuses on chaos, non-linearity, and complexity (Mandelbrot 1983; Hao 1984; Gleick 1987; Arthur 1990; Goerner 1994).

Until very recently, sociology has been somewhat less hospitable to chaos theory than was its sister social science, economics. Indeed, among sociologists chaos arose perhaps most often in the work of exchange theorists who belong to Homans's tradition and who employ mathematical and computer tools quite similar to those of economists (e.g. Markovsky 1992). In my own computer simulations of social interaction, chaotic behavior always appears. For example, I modeled the spread of religious movements, following standard theories of influence in social networks and discovered that success or failure was often surprisingly unpredictable (Bainbridge 1997:168-176). Neural network simulations of ethnic prejudice (Bainbridge 1995a) and religious doctrines (Bainbridge 1995b) produced chaotic subcultures that disagreed strenuously with each other about the nature of reality, even though the simulated human beings were living in the same environment.

Sociology long believed that its unifying principles, such as societal values or class interest, were the antidote to the blooming, buzzing confusion caused by the chaotic interaction of individual human behavior. That is, from the time of Emile Durkheim (1897), most sociologists have been convinced that distinctive "emergent" regularities exist on the level of large social groups - social facts, in Durkheim's terminology - but Homans disagreed, believing that the phenomena studied by sociology could be reduced to psychology, which in turn should be rooted firmly in biological evolution (Homans 1967:83; cf. Kontopoulos 1993). Indeed, Homans asserts, "The issue for the social sciences is not whether we should be reductionists, but rather, if we were reductionists, whether we could find any propositions to reduce" (Homans 1967:86).

Thus, the Homansian reductionist approach seeks to derive the regularities of social behavior from the complex interaction of individual behavior, rooted ultimately in the material world in which our species evolved through processes of random variation and natural selection. All the fundamental laws of this universe, including those ultimately governing social behavior, were defined at the very beginning, and (with proper obeisance to quantum uncertainties), everything that happened right up to the present moment is the logical spinning out of the principles on which the universe came into existence. This is the radical if logical conclusion of Homansian reductionism, and it carries sociology to the realm of cosmology.

The Anthropic Principle

The best starting point for a discussion of the anthropic principle is Homans' mentor, Lawrence Joseph Henderson, to whom Homans dedicated his small but pivotal book, The Nature of Social Science (1967). A professor of biological chemistry at Harvard, Henderson also forayed into sociology and was largely responsible for Homans' philosophy of science. In the second decade of the century, Henderson published The Fitness of the Environment (1913) and The Order of Nature (1917). Of these two books Homans (1984:90) says only that they "still have much to teach us," but he was unwilling to say exactly what we should learn from them. In fact, these books offer a detailed chemical analysis to support the view that the properties of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and other elements are so improbably well suited for the evolution of life that no mere "mechanism" can be responsible, and the universe shows the hand of "teleology" or God.

The most comprehensive treatment appears in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler (1986). If the characteristics of certain isotopes of beryllium, carbon and oxygen were quantitatively only slightly different than they are, the stars would not have produced sufficient carbon, upon which life depends (p. 253). If the gravitational constant were slightly different from its actual value, all stars would have been red dwarves incapable of warming planets sufficiently for life, or all stars would have been blue and too short-lasting for life to evolve (p. 336). Apparently, life depends upon an exceedingly improbable concatenation of coincidences in the magnitudes of various physical constants (Carr and Rees 1979; Gribbin and Rees 1989).

Improbabilities can be countered by large numbers of cases. Presumably, most planets in the universe are inhospitable to life, but we know that enough planets exist, varied sufficiently along the correct dimensions, that at least one harbors life. Physical constants appear to be uniform throughout the observed universe, but cosmologists have proposed a number of models in which the constants of nature would vary, although over larger scales than we can currently observe.

Inflationary models of the initial expansion of the universe offer one kind of solution. These postulate that the universe expanded especially fast in the first fractions of a second after the beginning, and that it is now vastly larger than we observe. In an early paper, Allan Guth (1981:23) proposed that the universe could contain fully 1083 "separate regions that are causally disconnected." Each region is a volume of space small enough that light could have crossed it since it came into existence, and thus a region shares a uniform set of physical constants or laws of nature. Two causally disconnected regions have always been sufficiently separated that light from one never had time to reach the other, and their physical constants are different. This large number of separate domains increases the chance that one of them will have physical constants conducive to the evolution of life.

A more elaborate version of this idea is the "self-reproducing inflationary universe" (Linde 1994). In this variant, as the domains expand, new "Big Bangs" occur within them, spawning daughter universes. Initially, the laws of nature in one of these daughter universes are unsettled, but the probability distribution of such laws is conditioned by the physical constants in the universe from which it sprang. In this model, the cosmos is akin to a fractal (Mandelbrot 1983), where branches proliferate within branches, perhaps having no definite number of dimensions, rather than the ordinary three-dimensional space people have always imagined. Naturally, the familiar world of human experience is contained within this exotic cosmos, but we cannot understand the cosmos by simply extrapolating from our every-day experiences of space, time and objects.

A related line of cosmological thought concerns the ultimate origins of everything. We have come to expect that mass and energy are always conserved, and something cannot pop into being without sufficient antecedents. However, this may be a rule that applies only within a settled domain of a mature universe, rather than being a universal law. And even within an orderly domain, there may be conditions under which a daughter universe could come into existence without a cause. One such possibility is if the gravitational energy of the matter in the daughter universe (considered to be negative) exactly equals the mass of that matter. In such a case, the net total of the universe is zero, so no work is required to bring it into existence. Within that universe, the law of conservation of mass and energy may hold. Naturally, the actual speculations of physicists along these lines are somewhat more subtle and mathematical than this simple idea (Tryon 1973; Gott 1982; cf. Wheeler 1980).

The cosmos, thus, is conceived of as a chaotic ensemble of universes, varying without limit along all relevant dimensions (Leslie 1982). The fact that our universe possesses the improbable qualities required for life, therefore, is simply a selection effect. Only where those favorable conditions exist will intelligent creatures evolve and ask why the environment is so good. This is the anthropic principle.

The Pivotal Question

The anthropic principle is an answer to a question: "Why is the world capable of producing intelligent life?" Asking a question is a human, social act. Thus, the anthropic approach is grossly incomplete unless it includes an analysis of the social process by which that question comes to be asked. If all the laws of the universe lead up to the asking of the question, then we should focus on the conditions of the moment in which the question is asked for the first time. Let us call that moment in time the omicron point.

The term was chosen with deliberate symbolism in mind. Omicron, of course, is a letter of the Greek alphabet, representing short o (o-micron = little o) distinguished from omega or long o (o-mega = big o). Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, may signify an ultimate goal, and for theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1964) the "omega point" represented the point of convergence of God and man, possibly at a specific time in the future. In the biblical Revelation the phrase "alpha and omega" refers to God, the beginning and ending of all existence. So, omega can refer to the final moment of time, toward which all history drives. But time may be open-ended, and modern cosmology can identify only one defining instant, when the expansion of the universe began from a dimensionless point. Because the "Big Bang" came at the beginning, it is the alpha point. Then the moment when the pivotal question is first asked, in the anthropic theory, would lie somewhere between alpha and omega. That is where we find omicron in the Greek alphabet. It is the moment when the universe acquires a fully aware consciousness.

One could argue that the pivotal question was first asked very early in the history of Homo sapiens when religion was born. Certainly, one of the standard philosophical supposed proofs of the existence of God is the argument from design, otherwise known as the teleological argument: "The order pervading the inorganic, organic, and human realm is indicative of an intended plan in an intelligent and good Purposer" (Bertocci 1945:763). However, religion is not in the first instance a philosophical system designed to answer ontological questions.

According to the sociological theory that informs this essay, religion arises as a particular kind of explanation, but a practical one not a speculative one. Because people cannot obtain some highly desired rewards in this life, they begin to postulate supernatural sources of these rewards (Stark and Bainbridge 1987:35-39). Thus, the rise of religion in human prehistory does not automatically generate the argument from design and with it the pivotal question. To be sure, Christianity believed in the sort of god suitable for the argument from design. But, as Knudson (1945:301) points out, "The existence of such a Deity was assumed in primitive Christianity. There was no need of proving it. But in the Graeco-Roman world the situation was different. There skepticism was common, and the church soon found it necessary to provide an apologetic for its faith."

In the Greek context, the argument from design predates Christianity, and it features prominently in the tenth book of The Laws by Plato. How do we know the Gods exist? "Why, to begin with, think of the earth, and sun, and planets, and everything! And the wonderful and beautiful order of the seasons with its distinctions of years and months!" (Plato 1934:275). The omicron point, therefore, could well have come in classical Greece, perhaps considerably earlier than Plato's own generation. Thales of Miletus, who may have predicted the solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC, is widely regarded as the first great Greek scientist-philosopher-mathematician, so it is conceivable that he or others of the Ionian School first privately asked the pivotal question (Botsford and Robinson 1956:97-99).

Clearly, the Greeks came close to omicron, but we can doubt whether they fully reached it (Longo 1993). If the teleological answer that God made the universe is already firmly fixed in mind, then the argument from design may touch upon the orderliness of existence merely as a rhetorical point, and not fully comprehend the pivotal question. It is possible to assert that the pivotal question cannot be well and fully asked except by someone who understands its complete import, and that requires knowledge of the anthropic answer. Apparently some classical Greek philosophers - such as Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Democritus - possessed ideas that potentially could lead to the anthropic insight. Their concepts of atoms, biological evolution by competition, mechanistic causation of physical processes, and a universe governed by the conjunction of "nature and chance" presage modern thought but do not quite achieve it (Plato 1934:277; Botsford and Robinson 1956:256-257; cf. Marx 1841; Gomperz 1901; DeWitt 1954).

Barrow and Tipler (1986) suggest that the idea of the anthropic principle arose from several lines of cosmological inquiry throughout the twentieth century, whereas Gale (1981:157B) dates it precisely to work done in 1961 by Princeton physicist Robert H. Dicke. The extensive literature on the anthropic principle demonstrates that we understand it about as fully as one could short of comprehending the precise processes that gave rise to the diversity of universes from which our fortuitous selection was made. This places the omicron point within our own century.

To begin to understand the implications for sociology, we can distinguish three scenarios that differ in terms of how precarious human society may be after the omicron point. For sake of concision, I call them catastrophe, stasis, and navigation.

Scenario I: Catastrophe

Once the pivotal question has been well and truly asked for the first time, all the laws of existence have performed their function and can cease to operate. This scenario is based on a view of the anthropic principle that stresses the raw perversity of chance processes. Beyond that random sequence of events that leads to the omicron point, the cosmos is a blooming, buzzing confusion.

Existence is like the proverbial chimpanzees banging randomly on typewriters, mentioned frequently now in essays on chaos and complexity (Casti 1995; Gell-Mann 1995; cf. Maloney 1940). If the chimps type long enough, eventually they will write all the works of human literature without having any sense what they are doing. The chimpanzee model imagines a universe in which every tiny event is independently random, and thus that order is at a tremendous disadvantage against disorder. This is not, however, the way contemporary cosmologists conceptualize things. On the contrary, they postulate that a very few laws describe the behavior of objects, and that a short list of numerical parameters defines the universe we live in. The great complexity of the spatial and temporal distribution of various kinds of matter and energy might have evolved chaotically from very small and simple quantum inhomogeneities at the beginning of the inflation of the universe.

Scenario II: Stasis

Let us assume that the universe is indeed defined by a particular set of relations among a very small number of parameters. No natural laws exist beyond those required to reach the omicron point. Thus no major functional social forms that had not already existed prior to the omicron point can exist after it. If the omicron point was in fact reached by Thales of Miletus, then all of industrial civilization is an unstable accretion on top of classical Greek forms. It is fundamentally pathological and susceptible to collapse at any moment. This deduction seems to explain the fall of the great ancient empires, a topic that once fascinated social theorists (Sorokin 1937). It is as if one of Mandelbrot's (1983) chaotic fractals produced by chance the picture of a human face in one tiny region of its graph. Any slight movement away from that region scrambles the image unrecognizably. The best that can be expected, therefore, is to conserve human society in the form existing at the omicron point.

To be sure, no complex deductive system can be shown to be complete and consistent (van Heijenoort 1967; Quine 1982), and this may apply to the natural universe itself, as well as to mathematical systems designed to describe it. This means that the conditions required to reach the omicron point may have secondary and unexpected consequences for later points in time, just as any set of axioms may lead to many theorems quite beyond those that one especially wants to derive. But the very logic of the anthropic principle suggests that these post-omicron derivations are unlikely to be favorable. They may take us away from the capacity to ask the pivotal question again, and there is no reason to expect them to be especially conducive to human life or happiness.

Ancient Greek society has been described as a contest system, in which individuals vied furiously with each other for honor and intellectual supremacy, and this quality would be especially conducive to asking the pivotal question (Huizinga 1950; Gouldner 1971). Greece was a multicultural society, the result of all the invasions of the country and extensive trade by sea, and it was politically unstable. The same might be said of the civilization of western Europe and the United States in which twentieth-century cosmology developed. The lack of a monolithic culture dominated by an ideology that precluded questioning was required to achieve omicron. The more varied the collection of subcultures within a near-omicron society, the greater the opportunity for one of them to possess the qualities required to ask the pivotal question. Thus whether omicron occurred twenty-five centuries ago, or in this century, the sociological description of an omicron society is that it is anomic and disorganized.

In a society that has passed the omicron point, it is impossible to solve any major social problem without burdening the functioning of that society with extraordinary costs. This is true because a clean solution of a problem that had not already been solved before omicron would require a new principle, and after omicron there are no new principles of human society. We have passed the omicron point without finding a solution to the population problem, for example. Therefore, there is no solution aside from allowing the traditional population-limiters of disease, warfare and poverty to increase mortality and suppress fertility. Universal use of birth control technologies may produce a population collapse as dangerous in its own way as the present population explosion, and modern liberal democracies are incapable of developing rigorous population policies (Keyfitz 1986).

A challenge more closely connected with the anthropic principle is the question of whether human society can evolve into an interplanetary or even interstellar civilization (Bainbridge 1991). Colonization of Mars and several moons in the solar system is technically possible. The problem is cost, and particularly the fact that the individual people who would have to pay the bills would never receive benefits from the investment. If the Homansian paradigm is correct, then individual pursuit of rewards will never produce interplanetary colonization (Bainbridge 1984, cf. 1985).

Scenario III: Navigation

If the first scenario was extremely pessimistic, and the second one moderately so, the third scenario seeks to be optimistic. It notes that the universe is filled with an abundance of unused resources, and it suspects that the laws of nature that brought us to the omicron point have many as-yet inapplicable corollaries that wise humans of the future may selectively invoke. The human species is distinguished not only by its relatively large brains and capacity for language, but also by its ability to make and use tools, and by the tremendously effective technology that results from the combination of language and tool-making.

The problem is that after the omicron point, humanity is sailing into an uncharted sea, indeed into a possibly ever more chaotic and stormy ocean where the rules of seafaring change and darkness prevents us from distinguishing innocent foam from clashing rocks. Social science is a difficult endeavor. We are very far from having a conclusive system of analysis that will predict with certainty what the ultimate consequences of a major social innovation would be. The anthropic principle suggests a response to this quandary. In a sense it is a principle of natural selection. Given a very large number of environments, one will be suitable for intelligent beings who can ask the pivotal question. We could increase the chances for long-term human survival and for the attainment of higher forms of society by vastly increasing the number of independent human societies, each of which would constitute a different experiment in new social forms. The progressive unification of terrestrial culture means the only way to accomplish this is to colonize thousands of new worlds. Thus, the anthropic principle suggests that sociology should devote itself to research on how to navigate the right social, political and economic course to an interstellar civilization.


The analysis in Homansian social theory suggests that no general laws of nature exist, except those required to bring us to the omicron point. But we should recognize that Homansian theory was only an intellectual scaffolding to convey us from conventional sociology to anthropic thinking, and the same fact would be true for any brand of sociology that derived phenomena from fundamental principles. Theories that postulate future stages in history based on new principles of organization are incompatible with the anthropic principle.

Anthropic thinking potentially contradicts Homans, however, in that it suggests sociology has a role to play in understanding the nature of the physical universe. He wanted to reduce sociology to psychology, and psychology to biology. Eventually everything reduces through Henderson's logic to the physical parameters with which the universe began. However, the anthropic principle gives a crucial role to the social situation in which human beings ask the pivotal question. It would be too much to say that at the omicron point physics reduces to sociology, completing a circle of reduction through which the universe chaotically bootstraps itself into existence. But the human-centered omicron point is comparable in significance to alpha, the spark of the Big Bang that excites cosmologists so greatly.

Coupled with principles from chaos theory, the anthropic principle offers a fresh approach to epistemology and ontology. The universe exists (ontology) only to the extent that someone is capable of seeking knowledge about it (epistemology). The answer depends upon the questioner. As a closed reflexive system, the universe has neither meaning nor reality with respect to any objective frame of reference. An entity exists only in relation to some other entity. Our physical universe is real only in the sense that we perceive it and that our actions are constrained by it. This does not mean that physics should be subservient to sociology, or that humans can suspend the laws of nature by wishing them away. But it does mean that the sociology is as fundamental an intellectual discipline as physics.

This essay harmonizes with the intellectual mood of the last years of the twentieth century, in which great social and technical accomplishments have paradoxically resulted in a widespread feeling of confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future. The civil rights legislation and the moon landing of the 1960s were great advances. But neither in our social relations nor our spaceflight does any momentum seem to exist for further accomplishments. Throughout the advanced industrial nations of the world, high levels of democracy and prosperity have been achieved, but there is a pervasive sense that insoluble social, political, economic and cultural problems have brought progress to a standstill. Perhaps the answer simply is that we have passed the omicron point, and the laws of nature will no longer sustain progress.



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