Anthropic Questions

The anthropic principle states that our explanations of life, earth, and the universe are inevitably limited by the fact that humans are only around to ask questions thanks to the universe we have. It took a long sequence of sometimes very specific, very unlikely events for humans to emerge after billions of years, and now, in our trying to understand our own emergence, we can only analyze what we see. We can only work with the foundations we have.

The anthropic principle is somewhat self-evident: Of course it takes a universe with a star that has a planet full of carbon and oxygen for DNA to form, evolution to begin, and intelligent life to emerge. On the other hand, if we forget this obvious truth, our questions about the universe start going down a narrowing path – a path that might close our minds, lead us astray, and deliver us only to the dead end that is survivorship bias.

Our personal lives are less complex than the origins of the universe, but not so simple as to warrant taking most developments for granted. “Which mess will my boss make me clean up today?” That’s an anthropic question. It assumes bosses that hand their messes to others are the only bosses we have. I assure you they are not the only kind.

An anthropic marketer tasked with allocating Tesla’s marketing budget would have asked: “Do you want to spend it on billboards, guerrilla marketing, radio, podcasts, content marketing, or social media ads?” Tesla asked something else: “What is marketing?” Then, they answered from scratch. Existing universes not factored in. “Well, marketing is how people find out about our products. Why can’t they all find out from someone else? A personal recommendation? It seems that they can. So if we spend all our money on making the best car we can make, enough people should tell other people that they bought our car. Therefore, we need $0 for marketing – but we need more $ to develop our cars!” To this day, Tesla does not pay for marketing. They refused to ask anthropic questions.

The opposite of an anthropic question is an imaginative question. It entertains a reality not yet perceived, a future that doesn’t exist but could.

Don’t settle for anthropic. Don’t pick your options only from the world you already know. When you see a left-or-right fork in the road, imagine a path that keeps running straight. Ask not what can be in the life that you have, ask what could be in the life that you want.

Our universe has just one history, but our decisions only seem obvious when we forget what could have been.